“I feel one can say with some conviction that no man should willingly leave his home to fight, wound, maim or kill other men about whom he knows little and whom he certainly does not hate. When all men refuse to commit such follies the foundations of a true civilisation will have only just started to be laid.”
- Sam Sutcliffe, circa 1974 (extracted from his Memoir)
Sunday, 15 November 2015
The terrible Gallipoli blizzard – Sam goes begging for food from Battalion HQ; Fusiliers shelter like penguins in the Antarctic; the “Bishop of Croydon” lifts his spirits; Sam's Signaller mate Harry goes delirious with frostbite…
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A hundred years ago this week… the focus of fighting was actually Serbia, where the invasion from different compass points by Bulgarian and German/Austro-Hungarian forces numbering 400,000 in all proceeded steadily. The Serbs lost at Ovche Pole (November 15), Babuna Pass and Prilep (16), Novi Pazar (20) and Krivolak (21) – but the French defeated the Bulgarians by the Cherna river in the south of the country (16) to continue heading off any move on Greece.
While the Russian Army complained of lacking guns and uniforms on the Eastern Front, in Persia their advance neared its objective, Teheran.
Elsewhere, the Canadian Army raided the Germans at Messines, Belgium (November 18), the bloody 4th Battle Of The Isonzo between Italy and Austria-Hungary continued, a mine sank British hospital ship SS Anglia off Folkestone (17, losses diversely recorded as 85 and 175, wounded soldiers and crew), and the Allies occupied Tibati in German Cameroons (21).
Meanwhile, in Gallipoli Lord Kitchener visit on November 10 was to result in the British Cabinet agreeing an evacuation to start in December. But the troops knew nothing of it. At Suvla Bay, the 2/1st City Of London Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, including my father, Lance Corporal Signaller Sam Sutcliffe from Edmonton, north London (still under-age at 17) continued their by then attritional struggle with the Turks… their original 1,000 much reduced by the effects of poor food, water shortage, disease, fatigue, and the emotional wear and tear of fear and the constant effort to keep it in check…
Last week, my father took a brief break from his 24-hour, seven-days-a-week hilltop Signals station – and his dispiriting comrade Harry Green – and wandered down to the Battalion’s main trenches in Essex Ravine, en route dodging snipers, strange new black-smoking shells, the first warplanes he ever saw (a pair of Taubes) – and being deeply moved by a passing encounter with the indefatigable professionalism of a standing-Army Royal Scots Company.
But now came one of the campaign’s most desperate trials for both sides (the spread of material my father wrote means I have to begin the story of the great blizzard one blog earlier than the attempted “100-years-ago-this-week” schedule would dictate):
‘Late in November, a sudden change of weather made our Army’s already depressing situation almost unbearable. The heat, and consequent plague of filthy flies carrying germs of disease, began to abate, and then came freezing winds with sleet and ice-cold rain.
After several days, some trenches were deep in water. Still heavier rain fell non-stop throughout one day and night, snow followed on, then the whole wretched lot froze solid*. Our Essex Regiment friends had no food to spare for us and, having no protection from the terrible cold, Green and I looked like dying quite soon** – even though, fortunately, our trench on the hilltop remained dry. I decided to attempt the journey down to Battalion Headquarters to beg for food and tea – no shortage of water now, surrounded as we were by ice and snow. Do you remember the woollen tube with sewn-up ends, described as a “cap comforter” in Army equipment lists? If you stuffed one half of it into the other half, you had a sort of pixie hat. Being unable to face the blast unprotected, I made small openings for eyes and mouth and pulled the thing down over my face, so heaven only knows what I looked like to the few men who saw me.
Descending the hill, I had to risk being sniped and proceed on top, for most of the trench system lay deep in ice and snow. I assumed the enemy would be similarly afflicted and uninterested in slaughtering infidels, but at one point a couple of bullets came very close and I dropped into a trench and tried slithering on the ice, but soon had to climb out again.
A dreadful sight confronted me when I reached low-lying Essex Ravine. Rising water had forced our men to quit their trenches and, already very chilled and wet, stand exposed to the biting cold wind and sleet with nowhere to rest. Their resourceful officer told them to form circles and bend forwards with arms around each other’s shoulders. He and others then covered each circular group with their rubberised groundsheets tucked in here and there to prevent them being blown away. Thus they stood all night, pressed close for warmth, and most of them were still in that situation when I arrived.
I eventually met a Sergeant who had assumed responsibility for acting as Quartermaster to our much diminished Battalion – not many more than 200 of us remained on active duty by then, the rest sick, wounded or dead from illness or enemy action. I told him of our predicament, our lack of food. At first he disowned us, saying the machine gunners whose communications we maintained ought to feed us. But, relenting, he gave me a handful of tea and two hard square biscuits, this to feed two men for an indefinite period.’
With no better offer forthcoming, Sam set off back to his hilltop Signals post and poor Harry Green:
‘On my journey back, the going was tough, especially when I slid down into a trench with ice at the bottom. Each step forward broke the ice and I was continually delayed by struggles to free my boots.
Exhausted and in despair I had a great piece of luck, for I discovered an entrance to another of those short, covered trenches. This was on higher ground, so not flooded. I went in. I was greeted by a tall man, who treated me with Christian kindness; he let me warm myself by some sort of stove, and gave me a large mug of hot cocoa and a chunk of buttered bread. I suppose I was too overcome by this luxurious fare and lovely treatment to ask questions, but thanked him sincerely. I could see he was a chaplain, but to whom I did not know.
One chap I questioned later reckoned my benefactor was the Bishop Of Croydon, but I’d never heard of such a Bishop***. I guess I never will know, but the memory of the good man who revived my strength and enabled me to continue remains always.
I found Green, my mate on the hilltop, in no condition to be interested in the biscuit I offered him for, in my absence, the thoughtless man had removed his boots because his feet were so painful. Now, swollen considerably, they could not be forced back into the boots, so he was in a right mess. Cold, wet, without footwear, and exposed to weather which, I suspect, was coming to us direct from Siberia.
To make tea, I had to find clean ice, put it in my mess tin, and melt it over the small methylated spirit heater. This Harry could drink and, meanwhile, I phoned Brigade HQ for a man to replace him. Throughout that night he moaned and groaned and sobbed, being in awful pain. I wore the headphones continuously, cat-napping at intervals.
Next day, I spotted a disused trench more than half-full of ice and snow on the hillside facing the Turks. So I risked becoming a sniper’s target, got out into the open, dashed across, filled my can and hurried back. Using tea repeatedly and carefully, I was able to supply Green and myself with warm fluid.
Moving around, I maintained some bodily warmth too. Harry was now delirious and, I hoped, past feeling much pain, but one more day passed before men from HQ were able to reach us, lay Harry in a blanket, and carry him, groaning and shouting, away to the beach.’
* The Gallipoli blizzard began on November 27, 1915; in Strong For Service, his biography of Lord Nathan (at this point Major Harry Nathan, commanding officer of the 2/1st Royal Fusiliers, aliased by my father as “Booth”) H. Montgomery Hyde notes 12,000 cases of frostbite and exposure arising; he reports that, in a letter home, Nathan wrote of “15 degrees of frost” (meaning a temperature of 17° Fahrenheit).
** This suggests that, in reality, the arrangement, mentioned in Blog 70 8/11/15, that the two Signallers on the hill should come under the Essex Regiment Quartermaster didn’t work, although my father doesn’t specifically mention any such problem.
*** The Bishop of Croydon did exist and his name at that time was Henry Pereira, but he would have been aged 70 in late 1915, so my father probably presumed correctly that his benefactor was some other cleric. Any further information on the Bishop welcome!
All the best – FSS
Next week: A thaw reveals the blizzard’s outcome in full – and Sam’s sniper-dodging tricks lead to tragedy when an even younger boy tries to copy him…