“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, 6 December 2015

A General visits Sam’s Suvla “hole”! And bellows at him for standing to attention! But great news: evacuation’s coming – in time for Christmas...

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Dear all

A hundred years ago this week… all desultory on the Western Front (not to say there were no casualties) as German troops evacuated their trenches near the Yser because of flooding (December 7), the Allies launched a small attack in Champagne (9), and the Germans delivered a largely ineffective artillery barrage in the Ypres salient (10). Similar (relatively) low-key actions occurred as the Russian and German Armies exchanged artillery and gas attacks around Riga, Latvia (9), and Austria continued its conflict with Italy by bombing Durazzo (Albania, 6) and shelling Ancona (on the opposite side of the Adriatic, 10) from the sea.
    The main, if slightly more peripheral, fights went against the Allies. Taking over from the French in the defence of southern Serbia (which had failed, then developed into the defence of northern Greece), at the Battle Of Kosturino (in present Macedonia, December 6-12) British troops found themselves outnumbered four to one and retreated into Greece – the Bulgarians refrained from chasing them because the German government still had hopes of alliance with the Greeks who maintained a semi-neutral posture.
    Further, down in Mesopotamia (now Iraq) the British/Indian Army’s 100-mile retreat along the Tigris from Cstesiphon reached Kut in early December and became a long siege (Dec 7, 1915-April, 1916) because the Ottomans pursued them all the way and the British strategists wanted to stop them reaching Basra.
    Meanwhile, in Gallipoli, at Suvla Bay, the remnants of 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), learned that after three months of bullets, shells, bombs, woundings, deaths and dysentery, they could be about to wave Gallipoli goodbye…

Last week, in the aftermath of the great Gallipoli blizzard, Sam and his Swiss-Cockney Signaller mate Peter Nieter in their hilltop post attempted to sing the Turks into submission, but it didn’t work. Then my father got lucky and spent a few days working at 88th Brigade HQ – gorging on steak and onions a satisfactory compensation for having to dodge a sniper for some reason dedicated to his bit of trench. Nieter missed out on the luxury, but at least Sam brought him back a credible rumour that evacuation was at hand.
    My father continues from his closing not-at-all-regretful remark last week that, as the campaign withered through attrition, futility and winter weather, “the earlier war-like spirit had departed”…

‘So, I assumed, had our seaborne Army Commander because one day, as I squatted in a trench and chatted with one of the Essex men, a sort of apparition appeared; it was a large man, somewhat florid of countenance, wearing much red braid on collar, epaulettes and around his cap.
     As he approached we stood up – not wishing to be trodden on – and our action unexpectedly put the cat among the pigeons. “Why the devil are these men standing to attention?” he roared. “If this happens again I’ll have everybody put on fatigue duty out on top collecting cans and rubbish in broad daylight!” He squeezed past us, quite a beefy gentleman, followed by a retinue, the first few of whom also carried much red tape on their uniforms. Several ordinary officers followed, looking almost shabby compared with the top brass.
     An Essex Sergeant brought up the rear and, in answer to my questioning look, he said, “General De Lisle*, General Officer Commanding this Army”.
     I considered the incident and the strange logic it suggested. The General bellowed at us for standing to attention – although that was what we were supposed to do when an officer approached – because it might expose our heads to enemy snipers. His loud voice was calculated to scare all within earshot, including, I guessed, his escorting officers. Yet he must have known that his own head, with its red-braided cap, would regularly bob up above the lip of the trench as he proceeded with his inspection. And apparently that didn’t matter. A fine bravado perhaps. Except that he was the General Officer Commanding wilfully risking death…
     Thereafter, I assumed that General Ian Hamilton had at last packed it in**. When I told witty Nieter of my assumption, he pointed out that this change at the top would not necessarily mean rapid promotion for me.’

Peter Nieter proved correct with regard to my father’s promotion prospects and the two remained in their hilltop hole, conducting their round-the-clock signalling duties as necessary as the none-too-festive season approached:

‘Christmas Day coming up… All we were missing was the Christmas tree, the holly, the oranges, Christmas puddings, iced cakes and booze. We did have ample bully beef, hard biscuits, tea, tinned milk, sugar and, because of our Army’s reduced numbers, two or three pints of water each day.
     But one could feel how appropriate it was that, as the season of good will to all men drew near, the tension which had been spoiling one’s life, waking or sleeping, had vanished. With luck we’d be up and away from this depressing place before John Turk had time to miss us.
     No one talked about the fuses and detonators so carefully installed by the engineers all along the front trench, but we hoped they would bang off at regular intervals and kid the Turks that our positions were still manned for a long while after the last soldier had put to sea on a lighter. That was one of our really fervent hopes – another, that perhaps the Turks knew we were lighting out and would be up on their hill laughing fit to bust.
     At the same time, we did know that, when the time came for us to slip away and leave John Turk once again in possession of his strip of territory, halfway through the operation hordes of screaming enemy soldiery might suddenly descend from the high hills which formed a sort of semi-circle around the area held by the British, Australian and New Zealand armies.
     Nieter and I discussed more than once what extremely hard luck it would be if one of our few remaining chaps was killed before we got away — and, of course, it happened.
     Impatient and excited, under a partial moon, I waited one night for a code word over the headphones. When it came I passed the word “Now” along the line and machine guns were dismantled, our signal lines disconnected, container satchels hung over our shoulders, and rifles and all equipment taken with us, as we all very quietly moved beachwards in a single line. By then, all troops in forward positions had already departed***.
     Sufficient light glimmered down from the slice of moon, and perhaps from the Milky Way, always brighter there on clear nights than it appeared to be in England. As we approached the point where I’d watched those big, black Ramadan shells burst at an earlier date, Nieter and I took whispered farewells of our kindly Essex pals, left the file, and joined the remnant of our own Battalion assembled there, awaiting the order to move beachwards.
     This was when we heard about an unfortunate young man who had just been killed, a member of H Company from when we first enlisted — I mentioned him quite early on in this narrative because, when he heard me singing along with the others while marching, he remarked, “You’ve got a voice like a man’s — I hadn’t expected to hear that noise coming out of you”. **** Or words to that effect.
     Most unexpectedly on this quiet night, a bullet had struck him in the upper arm. The man with him applied the first field dressing, which every soldier carried in a special pocket. But, in the dark, nobody saw the blood welling from a severed artery, or perhaps something better could have been done to control the bleeding. By the time they were able to get him into skilled hands he had bled to death.’
* General Beauvoir De Lisle (1864-1955), commissioned 1883, fought in the Second Boer War, then on the Western Front in 1914, until his transfer to Gallipoli where he became GOC 29th Division; returned to the Western Front, including the Somme, 1916-18; one source suggests De Lisle wasn’t popular among the troops – and did not seek to be so – and that his commander in Gallipoli, Sir William Birdwood, referred to him as “a brute“; but he did at least go ashore, in the noisily eccentric manner my father encountered, to see “every corner of Suvla” for himself.
** Hamilton actually departed some while earlier, on October 16, his replacement as C-in-C of the British Mediterranean Expeditionary Force not De Lisle but General Sir Charles Munro; clearly, though, nobody told the poor bloody infantry who commanded them at any given moment.
*** Strong For Service, H Montgomery Hyde’s biography of Major (later Lord) Nathan, by December commanding officer of my father’s 2/1st Royal Fusiliers, notes the Battalion’s evacuation taking place on December 18-19, Saturday to Sunday overnight (the high command had taken the decision regarding Suvla Bay and Anzac Cove on December 8).
**** In case you’re wondering, I’ve checked and I don’t think my father did mention this young man and his comment earlier.

All the best – FSS

Next week: All together now! “We were sailing away from Suvla Bay…” The joy of evacuation, the wretchedness of defeat – but Sam’s heart’s uplifted by a reunion with his brother Ted.

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