“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, 3 April 2016
Sam suffers torture by Welsh male voice choir, trains like hell to save the Battalion from the menace of Army admin. – and enjoys a Saharan day at the races...
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A hundred years ago this week… despite German Chief Of Staff Erich Von Falkenhayn talking of ending the Verdun onslaught to cut his losses (81,607 German casualties by the end of March), the bloody to and fro continued. The French Army reoccupied part of Vaux village (April 3), made progress north of Bois De Caillete (4), and beat back an attack southeast of Haucourt (7); the Germans occupied Haucourt (5), advanced between Bethincourt and Hill 265 (6) and drove the French out of Bethincourt (8).
Much the same story at the less notorious Battle Of The St Eloi Craters, near Ypres, the Canadian 2nd Division’s first major engagement (March 27-April 16). It began when the British exploded six massive mines. Then they alternately gained and lost the resultant craters until the two sides settled back into their original positions (I couldn’t find casualty figures).
The Russian and German Armies proceeded with their Eastern Front exchanges, notably at Uxküll bridgehead on the Dvina (April 3) and Lake Naroch, south of Dvinsk (7), both in Latvia. But further south, the Russian Caucasus Army neared palpable victory in their Trebizond Campaign when they began their attack (6) on the Black Sea city they’d been aiming for in a series of fights with the Ottoman Army in Armenia which began on February 5.
Down in Mesopotamia (now Iraq), another long-running clash drew towards a conclusion with the British and Indian Armies’ final attempt to relieve the Ottoman siege of Kut Al Amara (a little southeast of Baghdad; the 13,000 British troops surrounded since December had barely a fortnight’s rations left). With 30,000 men arrayed on each side, the Allies made headway at first, taking Um-el-Hanna and Falahiya (April 5). But then the entrenched Ottoman troops inflicted heavy losses and beat them back in two assaults at Sanna-i-Yat (6 and 8).
In German East Africa (now Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi), the Allies’ advance – South African and British – proceeded briskly with an easy victory at Lol Kissale.
Meanwhile, in Egypt, the 200-odd 2/1st City Of London Battalion Royal Fusiliers comrades who’d come through Gallipoli remained encamped on the banks of the Nile and the edge of the Sahara at Beni Salama, 30 miles north-west of Cairo. But 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, which proves highly relevant to this week’s excerpt), and their mates were about to see their fond hope that this desert respite might last until Armistice dashed by an announcement from their unpopular upstart Colonel.
Last week, Sam’s Egyptian sojourn continued with a misadventure that happily turned to farce when his Company’s callow Lieutenant led the Signallers out on an exercise in a stretch of the Sahara that turned out to be a British Army artillery range – fortunately, the practice barrage which alerted them to the danger passed well overhead and the only casualty was the poor young officer threatened with disciplinary action by a bristling Major General…
Now, to the alarm of the depleted Gallipoli-veteran Battalion, its future comes under a worse threat – from British Army admin. Sam, the while, enjoys a spot of horse racing and endures a musical menace:
‘… the camp kept on growing. A large contingent of Welsh troops settled close by us. If memory serves, they were the 53rd Welsh Division* and, of course, the thing most of us feared did prove true. They had a large choir. So they had to build a stage, didn’t they?
The men stood up there on various levels and their Major Choirmaster waved his arms and implored with his hands as, time after time, they sang that stirring anthem Comrades In Arms** till I knew every note of it and hated it like hell. Nonetheless, as soon as they had perfected a few male-voice-choir favourites, we had to attend their concert – by order, although we had done nothing to merit such punishment.
Apart from that, time passed fairly pleasantly and we were inclined to assume we should spend the rest of the war in the Middle East, perhaps seeing action again in lands east of the Suez Canal.
But that modest imagining vanished when the Colonel made one of his impressive pronouncements, mounted on the beautiful Black Bess***. Only a faint hope remained, he said, of our staying together as a Battalion. The powers-that-be were in favour of scattering us among other units. Even so, if we could perform exceptionally well, we might yet be treated as a cadre into which reinforcements could be introduced until we eventually constituted a modern Battalion of four Companies – eight hundred men in all.
We immediately put all we’d got into training to reach that high standard. I never again had the experience of working with such dedicated men and the results must surely have impressed the men at the top. Even leisure we devoted to games aimed at improving fitness, and the Quartermaster’s department seemed to enter into the spirit of the thing, providing even better food and more of it.
However, one successful innovation in no way concerned with enhancing our military skills does deserve mention. Horse racing it was, the riders being officers who had mounts.
Several painted posters placed in prominent positions advertised what some bright spark had dubbed the Desert Derby. These named and described the horses and the events in which they would run. The riders would be listed on the day, they said – and, since neither my brother nor I could imagine the hefty Colonel participating, we hoped the ride on Black Bess would be given to him, since he was so used to handling the misnomered stallion.
Much grooming and trial racing went on until the great day arrived. We were amazed to see men streaming in their hundreds towards the course our Battalion had marked out. Using a natural ridge and lines of sandbags to mark the boundary, we had made an oval track about one and a half miles in length for the longer races, with short sprints to measure the length of the ridge.
A festive air prevailed. Last-minute acceptances of entries from outsiders were arranged and an enterprising clerk assembled the final list and ran off copies on one of those gelatine slabs, and sold them at a piastre a time. I saw a Yeomanry Sergeant, brandishing one of these “programmes”, shouting the odds and taking bets, writing slips for betting cards while his assistant made up the book.
The excitement of the occasion must have gone to the Colonel’s head, for he insisted on riding the black and denying me the pleasure of seeing Ted win a race which I was certain he would and the Colonel wouldn’t – and, indeed, he didn’t. But the meeting’s terrific success made us all feel, for the moment, that we were human beings once more and not just anonymous pieces in a game of kill or be killed.’
* My father’s memory may well have been as accurate as usual on this. The 53rd Welsh Division, like the Royal Fusiliers, fought at Suvla Bay, Gallipoli, and evacuated to Egypt (but then remained in the Middle East for the rest of the war).
** Comrades In Arms: words by Frederic T. Cardoze, music Reginald DeKoven, possibly written in 1901. Hear the Barry Male Voice Choir’s rendering at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gTx5UKZAawc – I don’t remember the origin of my father’s loathing for male voice choirs, especially Welsh ones, but he sustained it loyally until his dying day.
*** Oddly enough, a stallion – see Blog 86 February 28 for non-explanation of the name, but also a reference to Sam’s brother Ted being his groom.
All the best – FSS
Next week: After three months recovering from Gallipoli, Sam and the 2/1st are about to sail for France where they’ll discover their fate as a Battalion – for most, including Sam, it’ll mean the Somme. Before that, this blog is a brief retrospective on what’s happened to Sam so far in WW1... bearing in mind he’s still only 17.