“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, 24 January 2016

Sam and comrades enjoy a blazing hot rail journey in open trucks with Egyptian farmers flashing them – perhaps not complimentarily – to build a new camp on the banks of the Nile… and the edge of the Sahara!

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Dear all

A hundred years ago this week… in the UK, the big news was less the fighting than the implications of the Military Service Act, passed on January 27. It introduced conscription into the Army for men aged 18 to 41 unless married, widowered with children, already serving in the RN (remember the air force then still came under the Army), a minster of religion, a worker in a reserved occupation… or, a whole new legal concept, a genuine conscientious objector.
    Elsewhere, pell-mell mutual destruction continued, though not in battles retaining grand historical resonance: the Allies repulsed restive German Western Front offensives at Nieuport (January 24), Arras (25), Neuville and Loos (27), Carnoy (28) and Dompierre (29/30) though they did make small advances at Frise and Givenchy (28); the Russians fought their way ever closer to taking Erzurum in the Causcasus (24) while losing ground to the Austrian Army in Bukovina (29; around the current Ukraine/Romania border); the Austrians also concluded their conquest of Montenegro (25) and took more Albanian territory (28) while toing and froing against the Italian Army near Gorizia (24) and on the Upper Isonzo (27; both in northern Italy).
    Further south, the Allies occupied Kara Burun, Salonika (28), against protests from the Greek Government, still apparently striving for some kind of neutrality. Down in Mesopotamia the Ottoman siege of the British/Indian garrison at Kut proceeded, as did the rather small scale, though months-long Battle For Lake Tanganyika, where British and German motor boats and gunboats slugged it out (through to February or July according to diverse accounts).
    Meanwhile, the 200-odd 2/1st City Of London Battalion Royal Fusiliers comrades who remained after three months fighting at Suvla Bay, Gallipoli, and a further couple of weeks at V Beach began to enjoy R&R of a sort in Egypt. Among them, my father, Lance Corporal Signaller Sam Sutcliffe from Edmonton, north London (still under-age at 17), like many others, tried to get over “the habit off the habit of being constantly alert, ready to run, fall or take a dive” and move back into something like the tourist attitude he’d developed when exploring the environs of Cairo a few months earlier – before he’d ever been shot at, shelled or had bombs and darts lobbed at him from those new-fangled aeroplanes…


Last week, briefly encamped outside Alexandria, Sam and a friend – both in many ways still innocents abroad despite their terrible experience of battle – explored the city and ended up both embarrassed and horrified as they realised an apparently friendly encounter with some Russian children in their early teens was actually about a boy pimping his two sisters.
    In a few days, though, the Battalion has to move on once again, out into a desolate area where temptation, along with much else, is at a premium:

‘Still without money or new clothing, one day we filthy few marched to a railhead where we loaded on to trucks a great many heavy, canvas bags containing tents, along with several marquees, quantities of shovels and picks, and provisions including packages of tinned bully beef, large tins of “julien” (a shredded potato and vegetable preparation), and boxes of hard biscuits – far from appetising fare, but precluders of starvation. We were ordered to fill our water bottles in readiness for a long, dry rail journey. Some lucky devils travelled in roofed wagons, most of us in open trucks*, while a coach with proper seating housed the officers and senior NCOs.
     At times the sun irked those of us in trucks, but our troubles eased when we took a long break in the vicinity of Cairo. With biscuits, bully beef and unlimited drinking water available there, we had little cause for complaint.
     Offering us frequent views of the Nile, at times the railway passed through large plantations. The workers in these places usually paused in their labours to look at us and, if they were males, generally honoured us by raising their gowns and displaying their genitals. Although the exact significance of these gestures remained obscure to us, as soldiers we doubted that they intended respectful salutes, and suspected the Egyptians were not exactly swooning with love at the sight of us.
     After some hours, we detrained at a railway halt with several small buildings and a short wooden platform. Immediately, the work of unloading commenced – much easier than heaving the stuff on-board and a couple more hours saw the end of that chore. Then, hard biscuits and individual tins of corned beef were handed out, large dixies full of strong tea appeared and we took stock of our surroundings.
     There was the river, reeds and greenery along its banks, and on its far side a cultivated area – irrigated by a piece of machinery which could well have been hundreds of years old. An ox turned a large, wooden wheel by walking in interminable circles; wooden cogs on the wheel’s underside rotated a shaft (a smoothed tree trunk) which dragged a chain of leather buckets into and out of the river; these buckets spilled their contents into a large, earthenware container whose overflow poured into a wooden duct and supplied the irrigation system of channels throughout the plantation.
     Nearby, we could see a village called Beni Salama*– or at least that was the name of the railway halt. It mainly comprised small mud huts, the homes of poor folk who worked the plantations. The flat roofs of these hovels bore piles of ox dung, the round cakes used as fuel to heat the workers’ cook pots, we guessed.
     On our side of the river lay the desert – sand and more sand, on and on forever, it appeared.’
* A repeated motif of the Battalion’s travels in Egypt - “cattle-class” as the PBI called it.
** Beni Salama: in the state of Al Jizah, 30 miles northwest of Cairo; later, when excavated, provided evidence of the earliest known settlement in the Nile Valley.

All the best – FSS

Next week: Roasting on the edge of the desert the battered Battalion are issued with lime juice “to cool the blood and subdue men’s natural lusts”... and Sam’s brother Ted, left behind on Lemnos, emerges from the desert like David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia…

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