“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, 27 August 2017

Gallipoli rewind 1: after 12 months “playing” at soldiers, Sam and pals approach Suvla Bay: “Guns were being fired with intent to kill…”

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Dear all

A hundred years ago this week… A temporary petering-out stage prevailed on most fronts. The Third Battle Of Ypres (or Passchendaele) remained bogged down by the weather, but still the opposing Armies exchanged deadly raids: the British halted their own attack on the Gheluvelt Plateau because of the mud (August 27), advanced 200 yards across the St Julien to Poelcapelle road (27) then lost the ground again (31), but repulsed German counterattacks southeast of Lens (30) and at Havrincourt southwest of Cambrai (September 1-2).
    On the Eastern Front, one major new eruption began, the Battle Of Riga or Jugla in Latvia (September 1-3). The German Army bombarding Russian and Latvian forces across the River Daugava (or Dvina) and advanced via pontoon bridges. However, an orderly retreat was contrived – although it involved surrendering Riga – via the courage of the Latvian Rifleman Brigade holding the line for 26 hours while the rest of their troops retreated to Sigulda and Celsis. The casualties told the story: 5,000 German, 25,000 Russian/Latvian.
    In Romania, while the Battle Of Marasesti had wound down by September 3 (casualties Romanian 27,410, Russian 25,640, German 60-65,000, Austro-Hungarian unknown), at the same time the revived Romanian Army continued its effective resistance in the Vainitza region and the Ocna Valley (not helped by a Russian Division laying down their arms rather than supporting them – this betrayal caused by political upheaval back home and resultant lack of food and money on the Russians’ various and scattered front lines).
    The 11th Battle Of The Isonzo saw the Italians in the ascendency still, if not making further great strides, as they beat off Austro-Hungarian counterattacks on the Bainsizza Plateau and at Monte San Gabriele.
    And a report to London averred that down in German East Africa British and Belgian forces (often abetted by South Africa and Portugal) were still driving the Germans out of the massive territory which later became Tanzania, Burundi and Rwanda.

[Memoir background: my father, Lance Corporal Signaller Sam Sutcliffe from Edmonton, north London, under-age 2/1st Royal Fusiliers volunteer and Gallipoli veteran (Blogs September 20, 2015, to January 3, 2016), had fought on the Somme Front with his second outfit the Kensingtons (Blogs May 15 to September 25, 2016)… until officialdom spotted his real age – 18 on July 6, 1916, legally too young for the battlefield. So they told him he could take a break from the fighting until he turned 19. He took up the offer, though with an enduring sense of guilt. By December, 1916, he ended up posted to Harrogate, Yorkshire, and re-allocated again, this time to the Essex Regiment 2/7th Battalion, along with a bunch of other under-age Tommies until such time as they severally became eligible for the trenches again… An interesting year ensued – four months of blizzards, a meningitis scare, special training in various northern locations, and then, just after his 19th birthday on July 6, a few summer weeks stomping around Yorkshire on a route march… which in due course leads him to hospital again, to recover from some lurking effects of trench warfare and prepare him for more. However, now I have to break off from the this-week-100-years-ago excerpts from his Memoir because my father didn’t write enough about his year “out” to provide 52 blog excerpts. So, for the next 10 weeks, before he returns to the France and the Front from December onwards, I’m revisiting his previous battlefield experiences, the Somme and, first, Gallipoli.]

So, I’m leaving Sam on freeze-frame in mid-August, 1917, his weekly story to be resumed in November and then solidly onwards through his very eventful 1918…
    Meanwhile, I felt it might be of interest even to longer-term readers to rerun some excerpts from his Memoir sections (and the Gallipoli and Somme e-bookette episodes) on the historic battles he observed from the front lines and, as he always insisted, through the eyes of one soldier – not a historian, “just” a Tommy participant. Here, then the first sequence of key moments from Sam’s Gallipoli, his initiation into the realities of war.
    Having grown up poor in Edmonton, north London, he’d enlisted in September, 1914, telling the recruiters he was 19 when he was really 16 (his brother Ted, with whom he joined up, lied a little less, being 18); his 2/1st Battalion Royal Fusiliers then trained for 12 months in London, Tonbridge, Malta and briefly in Egypt – Sam becoming a Lance Corporal Signaller en route. Now here he is on September 17, 1915, about to sail from Alexandria to a destination as yet unannounced, though fearfully guessed by many. On the troopship, while they wait to weigh anchor, he’s spending time with Ted, as he has done for most of that year since enlisting…

‘And there I was, high up on the deck of a ship, chatting happily with brother Ted and looking downwards at men still climbing up the steep gangway, loaded with full equipment. Ted sat on the deck, his back against a cabin wall, obviously somewhat uneasy. This actually pleased me, I recall, because if my strong, assertive older brother could feel like that, I could be excused for worrying a bit.
     At long last, only five or six of our men remained on the Quayside and now I felt quite confident about the future, doubtless encouraged by Ted’s presence with me on a ship about to take us — where?
     He remained seated, taking no interest in what was happening around us. I observed that a Company Quartermaster had lined up the few men still on the quay to “call the roll”. He looked around and spoke to the men, then commenced climbing the gangway, calling loudly. It was someone’s name he shouted, other voices on the ship repeated it and a shock, a wave of grief, shook me: “Private Norcliffe**, G Company!”
     Those near us urged my brother to show himself and get the thing finished. “It’s my missing teeth,” he told me. “The doctor refused to pass me till I have some replacements, false ones. They told me I couldn’t go with the boys, but I thought I might swing it by keeping out of sight.”
     With barely time to shake hands, he was hustled off and down the gangway. I kept him in sight. We waved goodbye during all the time we could still see each other.
     Gone was the happiness which had returned to me when we so fortunately got together on that ship. Now I felt only the grim prospect of a very difficult and doubtful existence for an unknown length of time in some strange land. I felt very sad until a chap who had witnessed Ted’s departure revealed a good side of the affair. “He’ll be all right whatever happens to you, the lucky devil,” he said. And I thought, that was how I felt about it, and I hoped Ted would remain in Egypt for the duration of the war.
     We slipped out of Alex very quietly. Back over the stern of the ship lay the town, already too distant for buildings to be identifiable. To the left — the east — I could see a sandy area from which, I guessed, lucky soldiers would be able to swim; to the right, buildings gradually became fewer in number — an oil storage depot, a lighthouse, a long sandbank, nothing beyond that but desert… At Sidi Bishr we had all enjoyed an excellent bath in square tanks, each accommodating several men. I was to recall that bath on many occasions during the coming months’
** An alias – for reasons known only to him, on the rare occasions when my father uses his family name “Sutcliffe” is thinly disguised as “Norcliffe”. By the way Ted’s front teeth got punched out in a fist fight – he always was something of a scrapper.

The prospect of action gets Sam and pals thinking long term – about food (partly as an internal diversionary tactic, given their increasing trepidation about the unknown). Here two paragraphs, from separate occasions during the build-up, when Sam reflects on provisions supplied and how he might augment them:

‘… in addition to all the standard infantry and specialist Signaller impedimenta I listed when we left Malta, alongside the water bottle on the right hip we now bore a haversack with its very important contents: a can containing a block of solidified methylated spirit which could be made into a burner, and “iron rations” comprising a bag of small, hard biscuits, single packets of beef cubes, tea and sugar, and a can of Maconochie’s stewed beef*** – this last, one of that war’s great successes. To broach these rations without the permission of an officer was a serious crime; they were to be used in grave extremity only.’

‘…the taut, nervous condition, brought on by anticipation of what I feared, had me scheming about any steps I could take to improve my survival prospects. What bread I, and others around me, couldn’t eat, I stored in any space in haversack or pack. Stew couldn’t be so readily saved; surplus remained in the big dixies for return to the cooks and probable dumping overboard. But I picked out leftover pieces of meat, dried them off, wrapped them up tightly in an oilskin cap cover, and crammed this little package into my haversack.’
*** My father wrote from experience, of course, and apparently without sarcasm here, but various sites reveal a critical consensus either abusing the Aberdeen-based victualler’s stew – “An inferior grade of garbage,” says one – or noting noxious side effects: “The Maconochie stew ration gave the troops flatulence of a particularly offensive nature” (from David R. Woodward’s Hell In The Holy Land, published by the University Press Of Kentucky, 2006, quoted with permission from Dr Woodward).

Within a couple of days they reach their first, rather reassuring, port of call:

‘Our ship entered a perfect natural harbour**** with several large ships at anchor – among them liners and smaller passenger vessels, no doubt acting as troopships, and a big hospital ship, cream with green lines along her sides and large red crosses prominently displayed. Many small craft moved around them, including a lot of lighters similar to those I had seen on the Thames – metal vessels with steel decks, all cargo carried below.’
**** Mudros: sometimes spelt Moudros, on Lemnos; the island had become Greek, and a Greek Navy base, in 1912, as a result of the First Balkan War (the Ottoman Empire versus Serbia, Greece, Montenegro and Bulgaria); Allied Navies used it from 1915 until the end of World War I.

Less calming, there follows the issue of official post cards for the months to come, the impersonal kind permitting no individual message, just redaction from a bald list of often painful possibilities (the sole, cold comfort being that, logically, they couldn’t offer an “I am dead” option):

‘Then we got our first sight of “on active service” postcards and green envelopes. The cards had messages printed on them and all we were allowed to do was strike out the lines which were not applicable: “I am well/I have been wounded” etc. I filled one in immediately, addressed it to my family, and handed it in.’

The next steps towards the notionally still unknown inevitable soon follow:

‘Told to prepare to leave the ship, we strapped on all our gear again. This set the tension mechanism really racing – although I flattered myself no one knew about that. If a boy like me tried to assume the cool, steady demeanour of a man in full control of his emotions, then an older chap might behave with gaiety, perhaps sing a few lines of a bawdy song, or take the micky out of a mate who was the usual butt of his jokes. The thing not to do was stay silent and look gloomy – that way you would be labelled “windy” and lose all your pals. You had to consider that others might be feeling worse than you, but they didn’t let it show. So it may be that battles fought inwardly to preserve the good opinion of one’s fellows made possible some of the bigger victories on the battlefield…’

Consideration of his own, hidden “windiness” often led Sam to think about his officers. Basically, he had no time at all for Generals and such who conducted the slaughter from way behind the lines, but a lot of empathy for the front-line officers – from Second Lieutenants up to, in some settings, Colonels – who fought alongside their men and suffered every horror with them. Here are two separate but related reflections on the subject from that period before Sam’s own Gallipoli landing:

‘… our officers mainly confined themselves to the upper deck, probably resting in the cabins most of the time. Well, their privilege, for when the action – whatever it was – started, they would be responsible for giving instructions to their men and must show themselves to be steady and capable of carrying out whatever part of the general plan we had been allotted. Even a humble Patrol Leader in the Boy Scouts had felt the weight of responsibility which bears down on one who must make decisions affecting others. Praise for good leadership, criticism for bad, could enhance or diminish personal pride during peacetime but, on active service, men’s futures were at stake and a junior officer might blunder and wreck major strategy at the cost of many lives. Our men always felt happiest when commanded by men from that class which traditionally produced fine officers. But, obviously, there were not many of that calibre around – fewer and fewer in a war which consumed men daily by the thousand. Still, the Army tried to come up with and train new top-notchers. Good substitutes. There had to be.’

‘One man who simply had to win the personal inward struggle was the commissioned officer in charge of men in the front line. This subject I’d heard debated many a time; I don’t recall discussions about the deeper feelings of fellow rankers, but officers being a class apart, loved or hated, we expected them to act as the leaders they had set themselves up to be. If they had their men’s good will, they carried all our hopes that, in action, we would acquit ourselves well together.‘

The 2/1st transfers to smaller ships, two Companies per vessel, at Mudros and as they leave the harbour Sam skims a second active service card on to the deck of the Aragon, a liner converted to floating Post Office for the Gallipoli campaign – it’s addressed to the Fluters, the couple who billeted him in Tonbridge, so fondly does he remember their kindness. On edge, yet overwhelmed by tiredness, he falls asleep on the deck until a wave washing over the side wakes him. Then he gets talking to an officer whose identity remains mysterious because the night is so dark – however, he makes a lasting impression on Sam with his persuasive account of troubles ahead:

‘This man did tell me – and thus whipped up inner tension to its highest level so far: “We are going ashore at a place where landings commenced some time ago. Unfortunately, that lot haven’t done as well as hoped for. There are big hills quite a short distance from the beach and our chaps should by now be on the far side of them, but they’re not. We go ashore tonight, advance through their lines and try to get to what was their objective. I don’t like it, but we can only do our best.”*****’
***** My father’s Battalion landed at Suvla Bay, Gallipoli, on September 25, 1915, joining the 88th Brigade of the 29th Division. In Strong For Service,  H Montgomery Hyde’s biography of Lord Nathan (the 2/1st’s most popular officer and in the later months of Gallipoli their CO, after brisk promotion from Lieutenant to Major – he later served as a Minister in Attlee’s post WW2 Labour Government), the author refers to a “late afternoon” landing, which is not my father’s recollection, as you see – but different Companies (two per ship, eight in the Battalion) landed at different times, and Hyde writes that “Nathan was the first person in the Battalion to set foot on Turkish soil”, whereas my father in H (the eighth) Company may well have been one of the last. The Allies’ Gallipoli landings had begun on April 25, 1915, and the Suvla Bay phase on August 6.

Forewarned, Sam gathers his equipment, his inner resources – and his self-esteem – but still finds his stomach demanding attention:

‘Word passed around for all to be ready to disembark and I donned my load, message case, field transmitter, rifle and all – in one hand I gripped a bunch of four signal flags. Whether excitement or fear brought it on I don’t know, but I suddenly felt terribly hungry. Then I recalled that I had not eaten since early morning. Nor, as far as I know, had any of our men. Someone had blundered. Or was it usual to land troops on a battlefield with empty bellies?
     The sound of the ship’s engines changed. We four H Company Signallers stood shoulder to shoulder with the others awaiting the next move.
     As Lance Corporal in charge of our small group, I knew that our job would be to supply communication between our Company commander and Battalion headquarters, and perhaps between us and Companies on our right and left. Runners would carry messages between platoons and Company HQ. So I located our Captain and resolved to keep close to him and to have my mates close to me. Ever since our Signals Section had been formed back there in Malta, I had not had much to do with H Company, and the good Captain had not been really aware of my existence. He had his intimates – usually two junior officers and his batman; he called on his Company Sergeant Major in respect of drills and training and procedure when on parade, but as to Signallers he knew nothing, nor did he seem to wish to.
     “I can send messages by word of mouth,” he told me when jammed together, as we all were on that small ship. We four appeared to be crowding him in that darkness. Proximity to the scent of power boosted my confidence sufficiently for me to disregard any intended rebuff. I’d had my training, I felt that I knew my job, and perhaps felt sorry that the Captain did not appreciate our role. By signals of whatever sort, vital information could be transmitted immediately, even in darkness, whereas messengers might be delayed, get lost, wounded or killed, even over a short distance.’

And suddenly the proximity of battle announces itself:

‘The next part of the military operation was simple. 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.’

All the best – FSS

Next week: Sam and pals land at Suvla Bay, under fire for the first time in their lives – and suffers their first deaths.

* 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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