“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, 20 December 2015
It’s Christmas!!!! And for the lads who’ve just evacuated Suvla Bay, it’s all go: Sam sails away to fetch the mail, and has a great time with brother Ted on the 25th, but then encounters the horror of the poor Arabs in “the hole”…
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A hundred years ago this week… while the weather, rather than the festivities, slowed the war on Western and Eastern Fronts deadly action proceeded – at Hartmanswillerkopf where the French Army attacked and took 1300 German prisoners, then got beaten back again (December 21-2, Vosges), at De Panne where German planes bombed the King and Queen of Belgium’s home from home (20, Flanders), on the River Strypa where the Russian and German Armies fought fiercely (24, Ukraine) and in Bukovina where the Russians assailed the Austrian Army (27, then Moldavia, now Ukraine/Romania).
On Greece’s northern border where French and British forces intended to hold a line after the German/Austrian/Bulgarian conquest of Serbia, 120,000 Bulgarian soldiers gathered (22) – while the Italians who had taken Durazzo on the Albanian coast provided a diversion for the Allies.
Much further south, the extraordinarily widespread Russian Army continued gnawing at western Persia, occupying Kum (20) and Kangavar (25), while in neighbouring Mesopotamia Ottoman forces attacked the besieged British garrison at Kut on the Tigris (23 and Christmas Day), and down on Lake Tanganyika two British Navy motor boats, the cutely named Mimi and Toutou, captured German gunboat Kingani (December 26 – and maybe just a little something to do with The African Queen, which will again get a couple of outings on British TV this Christmas week).
Meanwhile, in Gallipoli the Allied troops in the Cape Helles sector remained in place. But, further east, after three months getting nowhere 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), had at last evacuated – on the night of December 18-19 – and encamped on the Greek Island of Lemnos, hub for the British Mediterranean forces. After all that, it was Christmas…
Last week, Sam and the 200 remaining from the 1000-man Battalion which sailed from Egypt in September, experienced the joy and relief of escape from that terrible campaign, then the wretched dejection of defeat. But Sam’s spirits were lifted by a surprise reunion with his older brother and fellow Fusilier Ted (19 by then) whom he’d last seen on the docks at Alexandria being led off their troopship because the medics said he couldn’t serve in Gallipoli without his front teeth – which had been knocked out in a fight with another soldier.
And now, it seemed, though the boys were far from home, they could prepare for at least a peaceful Christmas. Picking up from their arrival at the huge encampment on Lemnos, Sam writes:
‘Next morning, Drake, a fellow Signals Lance Jack, and I were told to go searching for missing communications, so to speak. In fact, we were to board a steam pinnace – lent by the commander of a battleship – go round to the east side of the island and search for mail dumped there; it had been allowed to accumulate while we were on active service because transport to deliver it had not been available. In charge of the trim, little vessel was a midshipman, a lad of about my age, quite pretty with his pink cheeks, his immaculate uniform, but a fine young officer. He had a rating for crew.
Off we puffed round the coast after leaving the big harbour. East Mudros* had a useful jetty and, going ashore, Drake and I found piles of full, canvas mailbags — a quantity commensurate to the full Battalion of a few months back. We began carrying them back to the pinnace and stacking them on the deck. By the time we’d loaded up there was little to be seen of the boat but her funnel. Not a word of complaint came from the young officer, though. The cherubic smile, the acceptance of things as they were, inspired me, given that almost all my companions of late had been depressed by the pervading feeling of material poverty and defeat.
Happy in the knowledge that we were accomplishing a really useful mission, to avoid rolling overboard Drake and I crawled over the sacks, seeking places with handholds. I spotted a sort of handle near the top of the funnel, clambered up and held on there. Drake jammed himself close to the small superstructure which housed the steering wheel, the rating, and the midshipman. I had my doubts that they could see where they were going, but of course they managed fine.
Just as we cast off, someone came running towards the landing stage, waving. It was Jackson, the man whose spectacles had been damaged one dark night on machine-gun hill**. Before we passed out of hearing, he yelled that he had temporary glasses he could just about see with, and he was awaiting shipment to Egypt. His rosy face was all smiles and his wife and children could surely hope to see Daddy before long.
Back in Mudros, Drake and I did no unloading, for an eager party of helpers awaited delivery of the first mail many of them had seen for some months. We two got down to eating a meal thoughtfully saved for the two heroes of the moment.
By candlelight, we all read late into the night, each concerned with his own news and feelings. Ted and I had a couple of parcels each from our parents, letters too. He also had some small packages from girlfriends. Among many nice things, our parents had sent photographs of our family taken in the back garden. Our baby sister*** was standing there, now able to do so without help. Our young brother looked bonny, the older sister all smiles, the ever solemn dad still solemn, while mother wore her usual rather stern expression.
It was good to have this reassuring picture, visible proof that life at home had not greatly changed. Father’s letters, written in his impeccable hand, gave us a clear picture of the national scene as he understood it, and Ma’s gave us news of family and local happenings. All was well there, and that was great.
I also received several long, interesting letters from my school friend Charlie****, the draper’s son, telling me about his life in the newly formed Royal Naval Air service, first at Howden in Yorkshire, and later at Cardington in Berkshire.
Late that night, a message circulated that after careful thought and discussion it had been decided that all parcels intended for men no longer with us — in one sense or another — should be opened and the contents fairly divided among us. The absent men’s letters would be cared for pending final disposal.’
With this sweet connection with home still in their minds and hearts, Sam and Ted felt eager for Christmas Day… which turned out to be probably the strangest and most contradictory they would ever experience:
‘Christmas nearly upon us and, next morning, our generous Major***** had our crowd assemble and announced that arrangements had been made for a supply of beer, lots of it, to be collected from the Forces’ Canteen. Volunteers, genuine on this occasion, set off, carrying the large dixies in which the cooks normally prepared stews or tea. When they returned, noticeably more talkative and cheerful than before, they carried far more beer than it appeared likely we could cope with. The distribution of cakes, biscuits, Christmas puddings and sweets from the parcels of absent comrades followed — such a plenitude of good eatables compared with the scarcity during recent months.
Ted spent as much time with me that day as his odd-job duties at the nearby Field Hospital allowed. To work off the heaviness from over-eating and drinking, we two took a walk – nostalgia and the effects of strong beer rendering us untypically sentimental about the dear dead days beyond recall as we strolled, perhaps a little unsteadily, in no particular direction. The day was dull, the sky grey, the wind very chilly, but divil a bit cared we… until we came to the hole.
Yes, yet another hole after all those others I’d lived in recently. This, however, was a big one, circular and possibly 15 feet deep. When, why or by whom it had been excavated we had no idea, but now it provided shelter from the winter for a number of Arabs. Dressed in the usual poor man’s gowns and hood-like headgear, they crouched in circles well below the rim. They looked ill and miserable. Dotted all around, above and below them was their excreta, all noticeably coloured by the blood which escapes from dysentery sufferers.
Of course, I stated my belief that it was wrong to bring these people from a very poor sort of life in Egypt to an even worse one in this cheerless island, but Ted informed me they had competed for the opportunity to come and earn some cash, a chance seldom available to them at home. Things had not been all that good for me in recent months, but I still had pity to spare for these poor devils. Even more so when Ted told me how they, and others, had travelled from Egypt; he knew because he had been ordered to escort some of them on to a ship, to send them below and close the hatches. During the voyage, the labourers had to be kept down there at all times, their guards armed with trenching tool handles to quell any revolt that might occur.
It all seemed wrong to me. We walked away discussing the wisdom of the officials concerned in deciding that these poor, debilitated souls should be sent across the sea to finish up shivering in a hole in the ground surrounded by shit…
We came upon a village with several small shops and a number of our fellow soldiers, British and ANZAC, wandering about. We had no money, but out of curiosity we entered one shop and were surprised to see the Greek man and woman who ran it, and all their stock, sat behind iron bars. We had seen something similar in post offices and banks back home, but usually those bars were made of brass, whereas this black, iron enclosure had the aspect of a prison.
However, justification for the bars appeared almost instantly when an altercation between a Scot and an Australian flared up. The Scot wanted a loaf of bread similar to one he’d purchased previously at about eightpence. The shopkeeper told him today’s price was two shillings. The colonies were paying this without demur, while the Scot knew that, at home, a bigger loaf than this could be bought for threepence or less. So the eightpence he offered appeared more than generous to him out of about seven shillings weekly Army pay. He upbraided the Aussies for spoiling the market just because their Government treated them far more generously than ours did British soldiers.
We left them still pursuing their argument and returned to our camp where Christmas parcel goodies, lashings of beer or tea, Christmas puddings, and all things nice, were there for the picking-up and guzzling. What a reversal of fortune – we looked forward to some days of ease and over-indulgence. Late that night, Ted left me to return to his tent and we, the very happy brothers, promised ourselves another lovely day tomorrow.’
* I’m somewhat confused about this little trip on the pinnace. My father writes that they sailed around to the east side of Lemnos, which would mean leaving Mudros bay/harbour. But “East Mudros” seems to be a small place on the east side of Mudros bay. So his wondrous memory was probably wrong on one detail or another here. My guess, given his detailed recollection of their voyage, is that they did sail out and round to the east side of Lemnos and that he misremembered the place name - but I can’t be sure! If anyone knows where that mail dump was, please tell me and put me right for a corrected footnote in the next “edition”.
** See Blog 69 Nov 11, 2015, for the story of how my father “accidentally” ended family man Bill’s Suvla campaign by kneeling on his glasses in the middle of the night – in the Signals post/hole they shared on what Sam names “machine-gun hill” after their neighbours, a veteran Essex Regiment unit who became his friends and, to a degree, protectors.
*** The “baby sister”, not mentioned before (a little more background in the Afterword when you get there): Edith “Edie” Minnie Sutcliffe, born May 22, 1912, at 26, Lowden Road (see endnote 7).
**** For more on Charlie Bolton and the childhood background in Edmonton this refers to see Facebook childhood episode 16, posted March 3, 2015, on https://www.facebook.com/Nobody-Of-Any-Importance-A-Foot-Soldiers-Memoir-of-WW1-300782296758247/
***** Harry Nathan, the Battalion’s never forgotten leader/hero.
All the best – FSS
Next week: The “lovely day tomorrow” ends in the small hours with a Sergeant’s roar and Boxing Day sees the remnants of the Battalion sailing back to Gallipoli!