“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, 13 March 2016

Sam and mates discover the gentle art of “going missing” to escape the RSM’s tyranny – and realise the new CO’s regime has its good points. Such as getting paid…

For details of how to buy Sams full Memoir in paperback or e-book & excerpted Gallipoli & Somme episode mini-e-books & reader reviews see right-hand column
All proceeds to British Red Cross

For AUDIO excerpts click Here  Join Foot Soldier Sam on Facebook Here

Dear all

A hundred years ago this week… the Battle Of Verdun, which of course nobody yet knew would come to be seen as the greatest and longest in all history, “progressed” via a week of German attacks at Bethincourt (March 14), Vaux (16) and Poivre Hill (19) – all repulsed, except that the first saw the capture of Côte (Hill) 265. In the standard historic timelines nothing else on the Western Front rates a mention bar a French advance at Saint-Souplet in Champagne (15) and an Allied bombing raid on Zeebrugge, Belgium (18). But deadly attrition continued…
    The Verdun effect had begun to spread to other areas though. On the Eastern Front, following a steady run of winter successes, the Russian Army launched the Lake Narach Offensive, in modern-day Belarus (March 18-30), hoping to distract German attention from Verdun – a typical WW1 battle of artillery and machine-guns saw the Russians gain 10 kilometres then lose them (conflicting casualty figures show up to 110,000 Russian, 40,000 German).
    Down on the Italy/Austro-Hungarian border, again urged on by the French, the Italian Army instigated the Fifth Battle Of The Isonzo (out of 12!) near Gorizia (March 9-15). It petered out because of bad weather with almost 2,000 casualties on each side.
    Much further south, and unrelated to Verdun, in East Africa, now Kenya, South African and British forces defeated the Germans at the Battle Of Kahe and pushed them west beyond Mount Kilimanjaro (March 18; 686 German casualties, 21 British/South African).
    Meanwhile, the 200-odd 2/1st City Of London Battalion Royal Fusiliers comrades who’d come through Gallipoli – plus maybe 50 reinforcements – proceeded with a rather strange period of R&R in a tented town at Beni Salama, on the banks of the Nile and the edge of the Sahara 30 miles north-west of Cairo. After that terrible campaign, it wasn’t such a bad life for my father, Lance Corporal Signaller Sam Sutcliffe from Edmonton, north London (still under-age at 17), his older brother Ted (19, lately converted from foot-slogging to horse wrangling), and their mates. Except that the Army dumped a new CO on them, replacing the Major they loved, and then…


Last week, the Signallers got their comeuppance for the detested straight-from-London new CO calling them the “cream” of the Battalion. The puffed-up RSM who’d made a fool of himself in Gallipoli* got his revenge on them, and Sam in particular, by making them his dogsbodies, lumbered with every petty task he could think of. And Sam tried to do all the jobs himself to avoid the embarrassment and ill-will caused by passing them on to others:

‘Not even by detailing myself to telephone duty in [the RSM’s] Headquarters tent could I get him off my back. He would hand me the order or, if I’d written down the message myself from a verbal instruction over the phone, he would still have me supply the required men from my small group of Signallers. Well, if available…
     Something had to be done to end this victimisation, so when a gap appeared in the brailing** of our tent at the back, we enlarged it. The fabric was old and tender and the hole we’d improved on sometimes let in a draught, but we deemed occasional discomfort preferable to satisfying the unending demands of the unjust RSM.
     Thereafter, when we decided we’d done our share of the odd jobs for the day, we simply went missing. Before the man had completed his shouting the lads would be through that hole, racing through the lines of tents and on the far side of a ridge at the back of camp, where they would continue their siestas or meditations in peace and quiet. This would force the RSM to call on another junior Lance Jack for the required labour; although, on parade, the RSM was great at yelling orders, stamping about noisily, and saluting ostentatiously, he appeared to be almost afraid to give orders to older men.’

With this partial solution to the RSM problem in place, my father’s attention could turn again to the more engaging aspects of life by the Nile – eccentric characters, training in archaic Signals skills, and even a recognition that the usurper CO’s organisational ability did bring certain benefits to the men:

‘Our Signals Sergeant at that time lived strangely. What enabled him to arrange his personal comings and goings without reference to us and our work remained a mystery. Believe it or not, he had taken up oil painting, scenic and portraits.
     His pictures looked good to me. I’d never been able to achieve any kind of understanding with him, perhaps because he considered me too young. So I had the pleasure of his company only on rare occasions, moments when he perhaps felt that the war should sometimes be permitted to interfere with his hobby. All this sounds daft, so shall we assume that this quite brainy Sergeant performed duties about which nothing was known by his associates?
     Meanwhile, our new, young officer in charge of Signals, Lieutenant Wickinson, began to organise training schedules which soon occupied most of our waking hours and would eventually bring us up to a level of efficiency justifying, to some extent, the Colonel’s inclusion of the word “cream” in a sentence which also contained reference to ourselves.
     As opportunity offered, I had washed my uniform and underwear piece by piece. In the warm weather everything dried quickly so, although one spare pair of socks was my only item of clothing beyond what I wore, I never had to go about partly undressed for long. Whatever my appearance, at least I was clean.
     And soon, new kit and uniforms did finally arrive, thanks, we understood, to the Colonel’s influence in high places. With weekly pay parades restored – the basic enhanced by the refunding of “credit accumulated” – we now had money, almost wealth it seemed for a moment, and, with Lieutenant Wickinson keeping us fully occupied, our Signallers group no longer loitered at the RSM’s beck and call.
     The further we penetrated into the desert in the course of our exercises, the more hilly it became – ideal for visual signalling practice. Some days we would set up a chain of hilltop stations using heliographs, well-made instruments mounted on tripods. The simple, yet exact process of using them involved flashing Morse messages to a distant station by observing and controlling the positions relative to one another of two mirrors – often while you noted incoming messages at the same time. By means of a graded sight, your sending mirror had to be kept in a position yielding clear signals to the man at the receiving end. This work kept two men quite busy.
     I did find it difficult to assess the heliograph’s place in modern warfare, except perhaps in dealing with dissident tribes in desert areas. Flags might also have a role in those circumstances, and, at night, possibly the electric lamps. But, in the recent campaign, the only communications media we used were field telegraphs and phones – except that, sea to shore during the landings, flags and signal lamps still proved very quick (though even then, ship-to-ship wireless Morse signalling had come into its own).
     These activities once again restored interest to our lives after a period of heavy, manual labour, or equally exhausting efforts to avoid same. The Colonel with the hefty leather-clad calves did effect substantial changes in the lives of all ranks so, although our loyalty and sympathies remained firmly with the Major, we nonetheless found ourselves feeling and looking somewhat the better for the new regime.’
* See last week’s Blog 87, March 6, for a footnote detailing how the RSM’s various misdeeds led to notoriety and widespread scorn among the troops.
** Brailings: rope loops along the bottom of the tent canvas through which pegs were hammered to hold the sides of the tent to the ground.

All the best – FSS

Next week: Sam gets treats from home and makes his getaway from Beni Salama – though only on legitimate leave – accompanied by some lively entertainment from a magician and a pigeon…

No comments:

Post a Comment