“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, 6 November 2016

Remembrance week: Sam at Gallipoli – some verbal snapshots from his Memoir

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Dear all

A hundred years ago this week… On the Western Front the Allies drew the Battle Of Ancre Heights (October 1-November 11) to a close via advances, interrupted by bad weather, concluding with a gas bombardment of Beaumont Hamel (November 11), followed up that night by British and Canadian infantry.
    But the Somme didn’t really cease for the winter until a week later – the French advanced north of St Pierre Vaast Wood (November 6), captured Ablaincourt and Pressoir (7), and reoccupied most of Sallisel (11), while British forces raided around Hébuterne and east of Butte De Warlencourt (7).
    Food strikes in Russia showed their economy had begun to collapse – leading to Revolution only a year later – their military effort continued to defy its cost in men and money. On the Eastern Front, they won a battle against the German Army at Dorna Vatra (November 7, Bukovina) and further south their support for Romania in the Battle Of Transylvania (August 27-November 26) saw them at least detain German/Austro-Hungarian forces by defending the Roter Turm and Vulkan passes and occupying the towns of Hirshova, Dunarea (9) and Topalu (11). The trend, though, was retreat – particularly in the Aluta and Jiu valleys (12).
    The exiled Serbian Army continued to lead the counterattack on the Bulgarians who ousted them; the remarkably multinational Monastir Offensive in Macedonia forged on, taking the Chuke Heights (10) and Polog (11), and combining with the French to capture Iven (12) which left them only 15 miles from their objective (Monastir is now called Bitola).
    Outside Europe, the “world” part of the Great War’s now commonly applied title continued to prove the point bloodily enough as 1) an Anglo-Egyptian force defeated an Army led by Ali Dinar, a former Sultan of Darfur, at Gyuba (November 6) – Sudan then taking over Darfur (a matter still unresolved, of course) 2) British troops occupied Shiraz in South Persia (12), the campaign conducted in co-operation with the Russians, and 3) in vast German East Africa, Portugal took Lulindi (8-12, now in Tanzania).

Meanwhile, my father, under-age volunteer Corporal Sam Sutcliffe from Edmonton, north London, 18 on July 6, 1916, had fought with the Kensingtons Battalion from mid-May to September, at Hébuterne/Gommecourt on the north end of the Somme Front, then around Leuze Wood and Morval to the south (FootSoldierSam’s Blogs dated May 15 to September 25, 2016). About September 30 he was told his age had been officially noticed, he was still legally too young for the battlefield and he could take a break until his 19th birthday if he wished. He wished all right – though not without a sense of guilt. He left the Front for the British base camp at Harfleur and a surprise, temporary move into catering…
     But for the two Remembrance week blogs, today, the 6th, and on the 13th, we’ll leave my father enjoying his respite from the battlefield and turn to some excerpts from the two major campaigns he’d already fought in. First, Gallipoli. At 16 in 1914, he joined up with the 2/1st Royal Fusiliers and did a lot of training in London, Tonbridge and Malta – where he became a Lance Corporal Signaller. Then, in September, 1915, they sailed for Suvla Bay…

In Remembrance of my father, his brother Ted (who died in 1922 from the aftereffects of poison gas), all their pals and comrades and all the millions who suffered…
    Here are some brief quotes from my father’s personal memories of and insights into the Gallipoli campaign – all seen through the eyes of a front-line Tommy. A long blog, but worth it, I hope.
    I’ll start with a couple of “firsts”, the right-between-the-eyes experience of a teenage boy confronting the realities of war.
     Here his Battalion is sailing towards Suvla, at night:

‘Our small ship carried G and H Companies, and each assembled without fuss on its appointed side of the boat. Where the dark cliff had towered above us, I now saw the lighter colour of the sky. Across a wider stretch of water than earlier, on land rifles fired continuously and artillery lit up the blackness, each flash followed by a bang, a shriek or a strange whine which often increased in volume then ended up in a big explosion. Guns were being fired with intent to kill and here was my first experience of warfare.’

They transfer to a lighter for the landing itself – and Sam discovers mortal fear:

‘A howl became a shriek, then a shattering explosion — and a short silence was followed by numerous thuds as what had gone up came down on the nearby beach. While still at sea I heard for the first time that sad, though urgent call, “Stretcher-bearers!” A tightening of the gut and clamping together of the jaws accompanied an inner alarm which then and many times afterwards seemed to produce an acid-like smell on hands and other parts of the body.’

Soon after they scramble on to the beach and advance a few hundred yards their first comrade dies:

‘We hugged the ground, of course, to let the bullets pass harmlessly above us, but one of those wretched things broke that rule. When one move forward started, young Nibs, more of a boy even than I was, didn’t get up. The Captain was told, all paused again, and the shocking news came along that he was dead, shot through the head. Had he been standing up, that bullet would presumably have damaged a foot or ankle. Stretcher-bearers carried him to the beach.’

But within a few days, even in the strange hell that every battlefield must be, routines – sort of comforting or not – begin to assert themselves, such as well-tended latrines and terrible food:

‘Others routinely in danger because of the nature of their work were our Pioneers; back in Egypt, the Regiment had formed this section composed of men prepared to take care of sanitation. In places without water-flushed WCs, even on the front line, these men erected shelters, emptied and cleansed the waste buckets and seats housed in them, and sprinkled chloride of lime about the place. Now, in the battlefield, their work was of great importance. Canvas screens surrounded the bucket areas. With bullets and shells wreaking their havoc, these men exercised great self-discipline in servicing the latrines. Men needing to use them sat in real peril, their excretory movements probably accelerated by bursting shells and whining bullets. Holes appearing in the canvas screens added urgency to these operations.’

‘Most days there were only two items of “solid” food available, namely, hard biscuits and apricot jam. How come? It appeared that, for some weeks, a ship stuffed with these two eatables plus tea, sugar, and canned milk, served as our sole source of supplies. We of the PBI (Poor Bloody Infantry) accepted these rations without question, believing what we were told without doubt or quibble… With the best will in the world, our officers could not attain efficient feeding and welfare of their men under active-service conditions. They had not received the necessary training and it was easy to let things slide…’

The Battalion Medical Officer turned out to be a bad joke too:

‘I developed a very painful toothache and, when I eventually traced him to the hole in the ground wherein he lurked, his advice to me came in the following words – do believe me, this is true – “I have no instruments with which to extract teeth. Take this Number 9 pill for your bowels. Perhaps the artillery can help you by attaching a string from your bad tooth to a shell. When the gun is fired, your tooth will be pulled out!”’

Still, the most dispiriting part of “getting used to it” was probably the sense of futility that assailed the 2/1st Tommies within days of their landing and only got worse thereafter:

‘All hope of quick action and outcome gave way to pessimism engendered by the prospect of enduring a long period of this wretched life with an Army which had no effective leadership. We all felt it and cursed it. News filtered through that the General in charge of the whole operation, Hamilton, lived in a battleship some miles out to sea and sent home wordy reports of our progress – progress of which we, in the front line, were quite unaware. Poetry was his speciality, they said, and he wrote as if for the school history books in flowery language, the sort of bilge which had persuaded children that mass murderers like Napoleon were somehow brave and wonderful men.’

The most consoling aspect of the whole wearing experience for Sam was simply sharing good comradeship while trying to survive together – in this case, when he got sent to a hilltop overlooking the Turkish lines to set up a signalling post:

‘My first Signaller mate there was a pleasant chap, quite a philosopher in his way, probably my senior by four or five years. He showed me photographs of his parents and a sister, and I warmed myself in the glow of love emanating from him as he talked about them and their life together before the war. A good worker too, meticulous in his time-keeping, he woke quickly during the night when the luminous dial on my watch told me four hours had passed and I nudged him to take over… we catnapped day and night and just made the best of a terrible existence. The resulting fatigue, along with poor diet, was reducing us to shadows of ourselves.’

Beyond the chances of getting shot, shelled or laid low by dysentery, the notorious November 27 blizzard proved perhaps the greatest physical threat and privation of all. A day or so later, with no provisions reaching his hilltop, my father slid his way down to Battalion HQ to beg some food, but this is what he found:

A dreadful sight confronted me when I reached low-lying Essex Ravine. Rising water had forced our men to quit their trenches and, already very chilled and wet, stand exposed to the biting cold wind and sleet with nowhere to rest. Their resourceful officer told them to form circles and bend forwards with arms around each other’s shoulders. He and others then covered each circular group with their rubberised groundsheets tucked in here and there to prevent them being blown away. Thus they stood all night, pressed close for warmth, and most of them were still in that situation when I arrived.’

Rather unusually, my father evacuated from Gallipoli twice because, after leaving Suvla in mid-December, the 2/1st got sent back from Lemnos on Boxing Day to help with the departure from V Beach, Cape Helles. But this scene comes from their eventually jolly Suvla exit aboard the good little ship Robin Redbreast – when they thought they were done with the much-loathed peninsula for good:

‘Soon, out of sight of the explosions, some singing started up, our first for many a day. And then we really gave vent to the joy and relief we felt. A youngster who had obliged at concerts back in Malta climbed to a position by the bridge and sang a quickly improvised parody of that popular song, Moonlight Bay: “We were sailing away from Suvla Bay/We can hear the Turks a-singing/‘Please don’t go away/You are breaking our hearts/So please do stay’/‘Not bloody likely, boys/Goodbye to Suvla Bay’”. All joined in, inventing their own versions as we sang along time after time.’

But at least the return trip offered Sam and pals a whole new combat experience – getting bombed by aeroplanes:

‘That was the first time I’d thought about the possibility of planes carrying bombs. Probably the pilot hurled it out of his cockpit. Although it could only have been a small one, it made quite an impressive bang. Still, no harm done, so nobody worried too much about air-bomb possibilities.
     However, soon after that incident, one of our chaps approached our position, a message in his hand, when another low-flying plane appeared. Our friend more or less disintegrated before our eyes. Sheer bad luck placed him in the spot where bomb Number 2 exploded, poor fellow. So, very early in that distant war, did I see death from the air strike a man down.’

And yet evacuation could provide its compensations:

Our Signals group landed a lovely job which consisted of going to a large dump near the beach and gradually dispersing its contents: canned and bottled food and drink intended as extras for officers — anything that would keep well in cans, boxes, cartons, with smoked items in cotton wraps, also biscuits, some cakes and sweets, wines, beers, but not much in the way of spirits. We loaded these good things on to small mule carts.
     We could only work at night, but during breaks for rest, or while awaiting transports, we were allowed to eat and drink. Chicken, asparagus, Irish bitter from round brass-coloured tins, Schweppes lemon squash or Seltzer water, thin lunch biscuits and other luxuries… for a brief period our small, but fortunate group guzzled these lush items…  we did work with a will on the job — and so shortened its duration, unfortunately.’

And, finally, here’s my father’s last sally into the firing line at Gallipoli: a middle-of-the-night expedition into No Man’s Land – all part of the cunning shadow boxing and fakery that preceded the early January, 1916, evacuation:

‘No one told us why, at this stage of the campaign, we poor mugs were digging holes in front of the Turk trenches at great risk to ourselves and our underpants, but even we of the lower orders could guess that we played a part in the great game of bluff. Our top brass hoped John Turk would reason, “They can’t be leaving yet or they wouldn’t be digging works in advanced positions”. I wonder if they were right – if the enemy even cared what we were up to? Perhaps he too had seen enough of the farce. We suffered no casualties.’

My father noted that, of the thousand 2/1st Royal Fusiliers who sailed for Gallipoli in September, 200 emerged to take their rest in Egypt for three months before their transfer to the Western Front. The rest casualties, living or dead, of shot, shell and disease.
    For more of Sam’s story see the Blogs dated September 13, 2015, to January 3, 2016, or his full Memoir or the extracted e-book episodes on Gallipoli and the Somme.

All the best – FSS

Next week: Remembrance: Sam on the Somme revisited.

* In his 70s, Sam Sutcliffe wrote Nobody Of Any Importance, a Memoir of his life from childhood through Gallipoli, the Somme, Arras 1918 and eight months as a POW to the 1919 Peace parade.

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