“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, 10 January 2016
Sam bids his final farewell to Gallipoli – via a terrifying voyage to Alexandria… then some serious de-lousing introduces him to the thrill of having your willie painted with creosote!
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All proceeds to British Red Cross
A hundred years ago this week… attritional “low-key” (still deadly) winter activity continued on or near the Western Front at Lille (January 11 and 16) and Givenchy (14) while British monitors shelled the occupied Belgian port of Westeinde (15).
The multi-faceted involvements of the Russian Army proceeded as they made headway on the Eastern Front throughout the week, and launched a fresh attack against the Ottoman Army in the Caucasus (January 10-February 16; mountains between the Black and Caspian Seas) – they began a long advance towards Erzurum, eastern Turkey, amid snow that caused thousands of frostbite casualties in order to catch the Ottomans short of manpower because their “Armenian Massacre” had reduced numbers of troops and the traders to supply them (they also hoped to win before Turkish reinforcements could move north after their defensive triumph at Gallipoli).
Further, in their steady invasion of west Persia the Russians entered Kangavar (January 15) only to be ousted the next day – I can’t find a reference to who did the ousting, but it may have been the Turkish Army who’d just occupied Kirmanshah (13) in the same region.
During the week the Austro-Hungarian invasion of Montenegro drew close to a conclusion when they reached the capital, Cetinje (January 13), and the Serbian Army they’d played a part in crushing shipped across from Albania to Corfu (15) – lately occupied by the French Army (11), contrary to protests from the Greek government.
Down in Mesopotamia (Iraq), the British Army trying to relieve 10,000 comrades besieged by Turkish forces at Kut, 100 miles south-east of Baghdad, followed last week’s costly defeat at Sheikh Sa’ad with a costly victory in the Battle of Wadi (January 13; 1,600 British/Indian casualties, 500 Turkish).
Meanwhile, the last Allied troops had evacuated Gallipoli on January 9, a Sunday 100 years ago. In the immediate aftermath, 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), paused and gathered their thoughts on a troopship in Mudros harbour, Lemnos. Nobody offered them a clue as to what might come next…
Last week, the roughly 200 remaining members of my father’s 1,000-man Battalion – who’d volunteered 16 months earlier – sailed away from V Beach overnight January 6-7… having sailed away from their long stint at Suvla Bay less than three weeks previously.
Finally, the Battalion had transferred to the SS Minneapolis without setting foot ashore on the Greek island that sheltered them. There they waited:
‘We actually remained on-board the Minneapolis* for three days while more and more men boarded her as well as other waiting ships. Brother Ted did not appear, so I guessed he had already gone to Egypt.
We few remaining Signallers did two-hour spells on the bridge each night, in pairs, and I became familiar with the names of several ships in the vicinity including, I remember, the Nestor and the Minnewaska** (the latter belonging to the same line as our ship). The ships’ officers probably did their business during daylight for most of the messages we handled came before midnight and concerned inter-ship visiting.
Because the ship’s third officer proved extremely kind and friendly, I didn’t always bother to go below and wake up the next pair for duty when my stint ended. A steward supplied him with large helpings of coffee and sandwiches which, he pointed out, had been warmed “to take the chill out of them”– and he shared everything with us. Talking of his home, wife, children, friends, gave him and us great pleasure; he lived in a well-known Surrey town and spoke in pleasant English country accents.
Such a lovable bloke; I learnt later that after we left the ship at Alex, she put to sea again, but half an hour out of port she was torpedoed***. The odds were that the happy family he’d talked about lost their very fine daddy. A warm heart had shared those warm sandwiches with two scruffy Tommies.
Shortly before we left Lemnos our ship’s Captain, complete with gold braid on a smashing uniform, was rowed out to join us. The last man aboard, he stood on the platform at the bottom of the gangway for a moment, chatting with the two men in the boat. And, while I watched, something puzzling happened: a fairly big flag escaped from under his jacket, landed at his feet and opened up as he retrieved it – revealing the Stars And Stripes! As you can imagine, seeing this early in 1916 my mind got busy searching for the significance of the incident. The States were not at war at that time****…
Finally, we set sail***** and the Minneapolis gave us a comfortable run at first. But then that violent weather which starts suddenly in the Med brought rough seas and torrential rain. There being no signalling work at sea, I’d copped a guard duty – down below, fortunately, so I kept warm and dry. While not too clear what I was supposed to be guarding, I had to patrol a long corridor. The ship reared and rolled, but no one came my way, so perhaps they all slept deeply.
We maintained a southerly course and the rough weather came from the west for we frequently rolled sideways – further over each time. I gripped a large, door handle to help keep my footing, but at one moment I was horribly scared because the great ship lay over on her side and stayed there. “Next she’ll capsize,” I thought – nothing I could do except hang on with my feet just about able to touch the facing wall which had now become my floor, if you understand me. A few more degrees over and we would all drown, no doubt about that.
What all the sleepy devils did during those awful minutes I never found out; probably rolled to one side of their bunks and continued snoring… But to lonely me the danger of flooding and capsize felt very real and frightening.’
At least this proved the last time Sam had reason to fear for his life… until he reached the Western Front and the Somme four months later. His immediate future offered only minor inconveniences by comparison with the Gallipoli experience:
‘It was good to see the chanting dockworkers haul two gangways into position on the quay at Alexandria and to join the queue of men slowly making their way ashore. Our contingent grouped alongside a railway track. Then we were directed into goods wagons and travelled a comparatively short distance to that dreary place called Sidi Bishr****** where we had spent a short time just before sailing for Gallipoli.
There we had to remove all our apparel, wrap our overcoats round the lot, secure the bundles with several big safety pins, and print our names on cotton labels to identify them. Orderlies of some sort packed these bundles into goods vans connected by flexible pipes to each other and, finally – ingeniously – to the railway engine. Hot steam was thereby forced into the vans and so into the clothing. One visualised blood-gorged fat lice bursting under the pressure and derived quiet satisfaction from that hopeful justice.
Meanwhile, we naked, skinny specimens entered a large shed with a concrete floor; facing us, several men sat on boxes, each of them with a paintbrush in hand. We formed up in single lines and, as each of us reached the painter, he dipped his brush into a bucket of dark liquid and slapped it under our armpits and around our dickies. “Creosote!” yelled somebody, and how right he was. We needed no urging to jump into the tanks of water which lay ahead of us, the first consideration being to get rid of that blasted burning fluid. After that, the coarse, yellow soap provided helped us to get clean again. We dried ourselves on linen towels and our bundles of de-loused clothes awaited us outside.
“Shake each garment thoroughly!” yelled a Sergeant and his promise that all dampness would vanish if we did this proved correct. Not exactly mother’s washday routine, but we felt good. The ravenous lice were dead and this we really did appreciate.
At about this point the New Year is just getting under way, so I’ll pause here as 1916 begins to offer a new set of experiences. I must decide if there is justification for recording some of them.’
* SS Minneapolis: in case you didn’t see last week’s blog… launched 1900, as part of the Atlantic Transport Line she regularly sailed between London and New York – in 1907 she conveyed Mark Twain on his last trip to Europe; requisitioned as a troopship at the start of World War I.
** SS Nestor: a Blue Funnel Line ship, launched, 1913, for the Australia run and a claimant to the “tallest ship’s funnel ever” at 80 feet; operated as a troopship by the Australian Expeditionary Force. SS Minnewaska, launched 1908/9, like Minneapolis owned by the Atlantic Transport Line running London-New York until requisitioned in 1915; damaged by a mine at Suda Bay, Crete, on November 29, 1916, beached and wrecked, but all 1,600 troops and 200 crew on board survived.
*** My father heard an inaccurate account of the Minneapolis’s demise – over-pessimistic too; a torpedo struck her on March 23, 1916, en route from Marseilles to Alexandria but, because her cargo then comprised 60 tonnes of horse fodder, rather than hundreds of troops, and she took two days to sink, “only” 12 died out of 179 men on board, so the third officer may well have survived.
**** The USA did not “enter the conflict” until April, 1917.
***** H. Montgomery Hyde’s Strong For Service, the biography of the Battalion’s then commanding officer, Major Harry Nathan (later an MP, then a Lord and Cabinet member in Attlee’s post-WW2 Labour Government), quotes one of his letters home saying the Minneapolis sailed from Mudros on January 12, 1916, and docked at Alexandria on the 14th.
****** Sidi Bishr: see Blog 62 September 13, 2015, for the original reference to this barren location.
My father really meant that last paragraph about deciding whether he should continue with his Memoir. He was in his mid-70s, afflicted for 20 years already by incurable post-operative pain from a rectal cancer operation. It left him dependent on morphine or synthetic equivalents for analgesia, so in pressing on with his writing he had to deal with pain caused by sitting (because the surgery removed his coccyx, the spine’s “tailbone”) and then with sleepiness brought on by his tablets. Given his own lack of education as a school-leaver at 14 and limited experience as a lifelong market trader/small shopkeeper, he also wondered whether the book would be worthwhile to potential readers (general or academic as the case might be) – or the recollections too painful for himself.
Fortunately, after his pause for thought, he did continue, sometimes typing, handwriting more and more of it, always supported and encouraged by my mother, Mona… for what turned out to be another two years and 300 pages.
All the best – FSS
Next week: While the Battalion counts the cost and regroups, Alexandria offers Sam some colourful tourism – including yet another chance of the ex-Boy Scout to prove and maintain his innocence in a Red Light district…