“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, 17 January 2016

While the Battalion counts the cost of Gallipoli and regroups near Alexandria, Sam the ex-Boy Scout does his innocent abroad routine in another Red Light district…

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Dear all

A hundred years ago this week… the body count rose steadily on Western and Eastern Fronts without major actions (bar, perhaps, a German offensive near Neufville-St Vaast, January 23, and a Russian advance in East Poland, 21).
    But in the Caucasus, the relentless Russian advance against the Ottoman Army begun on January 10 continued with, thus far, no effective Turkish reinforcements arriving from Gallipoli – thousands of casualties accrued from combat and frostbite.
    In fact, Russian forces continued to be the focus of new developments. One rather odd report whereon I can find no elaboration says that, January 17-22, Russian torpedo boats sank 185 “sailing ships” in the Black Sea. And the Romanian Government opened negotiations with them re military assistance (22)… as the Russian Army captured Keupri-Keui, Armenia (17; they’d lost it to Turkey in December, 1914; now in Bulgaria it seems)… and Sultanabad as their next step into west Persia (20).
    Balkan action re-erupted as a brief armistice between Austria and Montenegro ended and the Austrians resumed invasion by occupying Antivari (January 22), Podgoritza and, over the Albanian border, Scutari (23).
    Down in Mesopotamia (now Iraq), the British/Indian Army suffered another grim setback (January 21) in its attempt to relieve the besieged 10,000-strong garrison at Kut, south-west of Baghdad, when the relief force, also 10,000 men, followed the costly Battle Of The Wadi (13) by running into 30,000 Ottoman troops at Hanna. The British/Indians charged across open, flooded land beside the Tigris into machine-gun fire and suffered 2,741 casualties to the Ottomans’ 503.
    The world-ness of WW1 asserted itself further as the skirmishing naval Battle Of Lake Tanganyika concluded its first month and the German Army evacuated Cameroon, yielding to the British and French.
    Meanwhile, those who remained 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), found themselves knocking about in Egypt, unsure what came next, but perfectly clear that their current conditions comprised a big improvement on getting frozen by blizzards, starved by the ineptitude of the British Army, and shelled and shot at by the Turks in Gallipoli.


Last week, my father described the delights of de-lousing at a place called Sidi Bishr, near Alexandria, where an ingenious device pumped steam through their clothes and killed both the bugs and their eggs – while the men endured the blow-torch sensation of having their privates painted with creosote to kill off unwanted residents. Still skinny from chronic under-feeding in Gallipoli and equipped with little more than the clothes they stood up in, a week or so later, my father wrote, the Battalion remnants found themselves “in camp somewhere near Alexandria”:

‘… the rag-and-tag fag end of what had been a Battalion of volunteer soldiers, close on a thousand, less than a year ago*. Over the next 14 weeks, a few men rejoined us, fellows who had recovered from wounds or sickness. They brought our strength up to around 250.
    Many had died, of course. But, when talking of such matters, we who had soldiered on to the end of the Gallipoli campaign preferred to hope that some of those absent still lurked in pleasant places, enjoying a good living and soft jobs in the land of the Pharaohs. “Good luck to‘em,” was our wish, if indeed they did still exist. We had no means of finding out what had happened to them. We merely hoped they had been transferred to other units for various reasons, or were still receiving medical treatment.
    During our first weeks free of the battlefield’s constant threat and danger, some of us could not shake off the habit of being constantly alert, ready to run, fall, take a dive, or make any swift move to ensure continuity of our so-valuable-to-us lives. Natural-born survivors, we few, I suppose, and, whatever people like Sergeant Majors and such may have thought of our several contributions to the whole war effort, we fortified our consciences by recalling the creditable or, sometimes, comical actions and situations in which we had participated, while conveniently concealing, by silence, events we suspected might not qualify us for honourable mention.
    We took stock of our belongings and discovered we lacked many items which, in more orderly circumstances, we used to lay out for kit inspection. When preparing for active service, we had been told to pack certain necessaries into our packs and haversacks. The remainder we left in our kitbags stacked in some out-of-the-way place and, to my knowledge, never saw again. Ordinarily, we would have had to bear the considerable cost of their replacement but, the loss being no fault of ours, we were promised free replacements.
    I had no clothing but what I was wearing and that in poor condition, so I put in for a complete new kit. We secured nothing at that time, but had established our need of new gear without charge.
    Military paupers indeed, and we looked and felt the part. We’d had no pay for months and still got none, so, when a pal called Miller suggested a visit to Alexandria, we two got there by walking and cadging the occasional lift in an Army vehicle – horse-drawn, they were.
    From our previous visit to Egypt, I still had a few coins left totalling two and a half piastres, worth about sixpence at that time. As we wandered, this hoard of cash procured for me three small eggs and two sweet cakes in a market and a glass of beer in a bar.
    In this latter place, we two sat among Arabs of various types, some prosperous and well-dressed in robes and fezzes. Several of them hired hookahs, with their glass water containers standing on the floor. The long, flexible tube leading up to the mouthpiece gripped between their teeth, each smoker, with much solemn care, conducted the elaborate routine of igniting the tobacco leaf in its hollow, surrounded by a small quantity of glowing charcoal. An air of content and much wisdom settled on their faces as soon as their miniature smoke factories became operative.
    Other customers talked loudly and animatedly, while a few once more intrigued me by counting circular strings of beads the while they muttered prayers – before Gallipoli, I had seen men do this in Cairo. Perhaps they had converted to the Roman Catholic faith? Or do followers of the Prophet Mohammed also practice this ritual**, known as “telling the beads” among Catholic youngsters I knew in childhood.’

When they move on, these lads, innocents abroad despite what they’ve been through – Sam still only 17 and very much the ex-Boy Scout – find themselves in an exotic social situation that baffles them. WARNING: bad language approaching, when the truth dawns on them…

‘Thereafter, penniless, we two swells wandered around the town, which we rated less interesting than Cairo. As we strolled aimlessly, a boy joined us. Probably nine or ten years old, he wore a dark-grey Norfolk jacket – popular casual wear for males of all ages at that time – shorts and, below the knees, hose with turned-down coloured tops and short-sided boots; a white shirt with a knitted, striped tie completed his neat outfit. He spoke good English, though with a strange accent – soon explained when he said he was Russian. At that tender age, he was already tri-lingual, French being his favourite, he explained.
    When he invited us to visit his home, we felt pleased and excited. The prospect of spending an hour or two in civilian surroundings fulfilled a longing – a desire to return, however briefly, to the old life at home – about which we seldom spoke for fear of being dubbed soft. Absence had illuminated our memories of life in peacetime, attractive glowing pink edges coloured our mental visions of people and places we used to know in that far-distant past.
    The boy led us to a flat on the first floor of a fairly large block. He introduced us to his three sisters, small girls, probably aged between 12 and 15. Their fairly large room was furnished with one or two chairs and three small beds. Uncertain, but not embarrassed, I sat down. Miller did likewise and we attempted polite conversation, but were completely defeated because the girls spoke only French.
    In England the old teapot would by now have been brought into service to ease developments, but I knew French folk favoured coffee. None was offered, though, and the girls sat around, smiling and sharing remarks and giggles between themselves. I had felt real pleasure on entering this plainly furnished yet clean flat, but now the boy had vanished and, without him as interpreter, we were sunk, no valid reason to remain. Standing up and looking at each girl preparatory to leaving, I decided they were plain as to looks and, though tiny, may perhaps have been a little older than I had at first supposed.
    Out on the gallery, from which a staircase led downwards, I glanced at the wall behind me and noticed a brass plate beside another front door. Doctor So-and-So, it said. Seeing one of the girls still standing outside the flat we’d just quit, I called out “Pourquoi ‘Doctor’?” Her reply supplied the answer to several questions I’d been asking myself. The baby voice shouted “Doctor Cunt!” So then I realised that these children were prostitutes, the Russian boy their tout, and some fat, filthy swine using them to enable him or her to live comfortably during a war which brought death and disease to millions of people.
    We commenced our return journey, passing a street famous for its brothels, Miller had heard. Its nameplate proclaimed it to be Rue Des Soeurs* – I often heard it mentioned afterwards as “Sisters Street”.’
* They’d sailed from Southampton for training in Malta, pre-Gallipoli, on February 1, 1915 – see Blog 30 February 1, 2015.
** I gather that “telling the beads” is indeed an Islamic ritual too, with strings of 33 or 99 beads called Misbaha or Tasbih.
*** Rue Des Soeurs (Sharia Saba Banat), Alexandria: for a lurid story of the area see www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20110529/life-features/A-Maltese-murder-and-the-British-occupation-of-Egypt.367869

All the best – FSS

Next week: Sam and comrades on the move again – via a rail journey in open trucks (though the officers got seats and roofs) to build a new camp on the banks of the Nile… and the edge of the Sahara!

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