“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 24 September 2017

Gallipoli Rewind 5: after the Suvla Bay evacuation, Sam experiences the joy of reunion with brother Ted, gets letters from home, Christmas beer and cheer and pud… but then on Boxing Day, the 2/1st’s worst nightmare: return to Gallipoli!

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Dear all

A hundred years ago this week… The Allies continued their run of success almost everywhere World War 1 had set up shop (especially with no major events on the Eastern Front, where the grand Russian endeavour was collapsing by stages).
    Under the general heading of the Third Battle Ypres (July 31-November 10), the Battle Of The Menin Road Bridge reached a solid conclusion (September 20-26) within the terms of General Plumer’s “achieve limited objectives then move on” doctrine – all ground taken around the Gheluvelt Plateau was then defended against German counterattacks (casualties 20,255 British, 25,000 German). And Plumer’s next attack followed immediately, the Battle Of Polygon Wood (26-October 3) – fought between the Wood and the Menin Road and stretching north to St Julien. Again, the initial advance worked well, securing the whole of the Wood and on to Zonnebeke (heading towards Passchendaele). Then, the following day, the British and Anzacs beat off seven German counterattacks, and held their gains on the 30th against another German counter featuring heavy use of flamethrowers (casualties 15,375 British, 7,188 Anzacs, 13,500 German).
    Meanwhile, the French repulsed a German onslaught in the Verdun area (September 24); the Italian Army followed up the latest Isonzo bloodbath by bombing Austrian submarine bases at Pola and Olivi Rock (27; now in Croatia) and advancing on Monte St Gabriele (28) and the Bainsizza Plateau (29); the Russians, surprisingly, defeated the Turks near Ortobo (25; Bitlis province, eastern Turkey); in Mesopotamia, the British won the Second Battle of Ramadi via careful preparation which went beyond tactics to ensuring the troops had enough water via 350 Ford vans carrying 14,000 gallons a day (28-29; 62 miles west of Baghdad); and in German East Africa the colonial occupants neared the exits, relentlessly pushed back by British, South African, Belgian and Portuguese forces (Sept 24-30; now Rwanda, Burundi and most of Tanzania).
    The only setback seemed to further prove Britain’s vulnerability to German air attack by planes and, occasionally, Zeppelins – in four separate raids bombers killed 58 civilians and injured 218 (September 24-29; London, the southeast coast, Yorkshire and Lincolnshire).

[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, around his 19th birthday on July 6, a few summer weeks stomping around Yorkshire on a route march… which in due course led him to hospital again, to recover from some lurking effects of trench warfare and prepare him for more. However, I’ve had 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, through to November, before he returns to France and the Front from December onwards, I’m revisiting his previous accounts of historic battles as seen by an ordinary front-line Tommy – the Somme and, first, Sam’s Gallipoli, his initiation into the realities of war. He was a 17-year-old Lance Corporal Signaller by the time his Battalion approached Suvla Bay, Gallipoli, on the night of September 25, 1915.]

In the four previous episodes from this Gallipoli rewind – whereof this is the fifth and last – my father, Lance Corporal Signaller Sam Sutcliffe survived every young soldier’s terrifying firsts – the first battlefield, the first shot and shell coming his way, the first deaths of comrades – and the grind-you-down factors of lousy food, lousy sanitation, and lousy, well, lice, plus the 24/7 discomforts of his own job, occupying a hilltop Signallers’ hole (“post” would overdignify it) with one assistant on non-stop rota for weeks on end.
    In his final weeks at Suvla Bay came the notorious blizzard that froze so many before the thaw drowned some more. But then, in mid-December at last… evacuation. Sailing away on a small ship on the night of December 18-19, he felt high hopes that things could only get better – especially with Christmas coming right up:

‘We reached Lemnos, the harbour from which we’d sailed, it seemed a very long time ago. Without delay we were put ashore and, as we lined up, I was shocked to see clearly how few of us remained. No Colonel in the distance on his white horse. Actually, no Colonel. Perhaps a couple of hundred men in all, a few Company Officers and Sergeants, one or two Corporals and a smattering of puny Lance Corporals, myself included. In charge of this small contingent now was young Major Booth*, who had received rapid promotion from the rank of Lieutenant. While all the senior men had vanished from the scene of action for whatever reason they may have had, this young man proved himself capable of withstanding all hardships and caring for his men as well as circumstances permitted…
     At Suvla Bay, “Keep your head up, Sergeant Major!”, an outspoken reproof he’d issued to one of our top non-commissioned officers – the ex-Marine I mentioned, whose behaviour on active service had lost him all the popularity he had previously gained – had become a favourite quotation for all of us. Its ironic use inspired many a hearty laugh. The new Major had become our man of strength, the leader greatly needed by men who felt they had participated in a failure. Under his guidance we all felt the future would give us opportunities to shine just a little bit brighter in the military firmament than we had done in the past.’
** First noticed by the Tommies as a Lieutenant in Malta when he averted a food riot cum mutiny by prompt and considerate action, Harry Nathan (1889-1963; aliased “Booth” by my father who changed nearly all names to avoid pain to survivors or relatives) became Battalion commander in mid-November 1915, moving so rapidly because other officers had fallen ill. As I periodically mention, he became an MP, then a peer, and after WWII he joined Attlee’s Labour Government, playing a modest part in the great reform period that gave the nation the NHS and free education.

Stepping ashore, Sam lost his buoyancy, his 90lbs of infantryman’s pack plus all the Signaller’s gear weighing him down, body and soul. Until the happiest of coincidences occurred:

‘… when we approached the camp, we saw several men coming towards us – and, among them, one who looked remarkably like my brother Ted. Impossible, I thought, for he’d been taken off that ship at Alexandria*** and I could think of no reason why he should be on this Greek island. But it was Ted, and a very happy reunion we had.
     While we talked he quietly relieved me of everything I was carrying. He slipped into the straps to which were attached my pack and haversack and took my signalling equipment and my rifle — which, as a Signaller, I had still not fired in action — and left me feeling almost naked. He had a word with one or two men nearby, then set off for the camp which, he said, he and others had been cleaning up in readiness for our arrival.’
*** A strange twist of fate where Ted missed Gallipoli because the Army dentist demanded that he disembark from the troopship about to convey the Battalion to the peninsula – because he’d had his front teeth knocked out in a fight.

Sam’s mood shifted immediately from depressed to exultant, his older brother meant so much to him. Even the first meal offered to the battle-weary newcomers – more tea and hard biscuits, would you believe? – couldn’t get him down again:

‘As night fell, Ted vanished and later I heard his voice calling me outside. He expressed regret that he had been able to procure only a few slices of beef. “Only”, said I. Only some beef, indeed. As good or better than slices of gold, I told him.
     Then he took me to the outskirts of a big camp, to a place where the embers of several large fires glowed, great heat still rising, and we laid our meat on the hot ashes. Sticks were our cooking implements. We sat there, warm, safe and very soon – after quite easily scraping ash off the meat – happily eating.’

Ted explained that, after being left behind in Egypt, he’d taken a chance to become a happy horse wrangler at a place called Qantara. Then the following day brought a small, cheery adventure for Sam:

‘Next morning, Drake, a fellow Signals Lance Jack, and I were told to go searching for missing communications, so to speak. In fact, we were to board a steam pinnace – lent by the commander of a battleship – go round to the east side of the island and search for mail dumped there; it had been allowed to accumulate while we were on active service because transport to deliver it had not been available. In charge of the trim, little vessel was a midshipman, a lad of about my age, quite pretty with his pink cheeks, his immaculate uniform, but a fine young officer. He had a rating for crew.
     Off we puffed round the coast after leaving the big harbour. East Mudros had a useful jetty and, going ashore, Drake and I found piles of full, canvas mailbags – a quantity commensurate to the full Battalion of a few months back. We began carrying them back to the pinnace and stacking them on the deck. By the time we’d loaded up there was little to be seen of the boat but her funnel. Not a word of complaint came from the young officer, though. The cherubic smile, the acceptance of things as they were, inspired me, given that almost all my companions of late had been depressed by the pervading feeling of material poverty and defeat.
     Happy in the knowledge that we were accomplishing a really useful mission, to avoid rolling overboard Drake and I crawled over the sacks, seeking places with handholds. I spotted a sort of handle near the top of the funnel, clambered up and held on there. Drake jammed himself close to the small superstructure which housed the steering wheel, the rating, and the midshipman. I had my doubts that they could see where they were going, but of course they managed fine.
     Just as we cast off, someone came running towards the landing stage, waving. It was Jackson, the man whose spectacles had been damaged one dark night on machine-gun hill****. Before we passed out of hearing, he yelled that he had temporary glasses he could just about see with, and he was awaiting shipment to Egypt. His rosy face was all smiles and his wife and children could surely hope to see Daddy before long.’
**** For the full story of Sam’s role in the saving of myopic Private Jackson see Blog 166, September 10, 2017.

The pinnace made it back to Mudros and the Battalion remnants settled down to renew acquaintance with the homeland – by means of cakes and hand-written letters. Sam and Ted shared the pleasure:

‘Among many nice things, our parents had sent photographs of our family taken in the back garden. Our baby sister was standing there, now able to do so without help. Our young brother looked bonny, the older sister all smiles*****, the ever solemn dad still solemn, while mother wore her usual rather stern expression.
     It was good to have this reassuring picture, visible proof that life at home had not greatly changed. Father’s letters, written in his impeccable hand, gave us a clear picture of the national scene as he understood it, and Ma’s gave us news of family and local happenings. All was well there, and that was great.’
***** Baby sister Edie born 1912, brother Alf 1903, older sister Ciss 1894.

Major “Booth” arranged for the fun to continue with a proper Christmas Day – given the circumstances anyway. He sorted out…

‘… a supply of beer, lots of it, to be collected from the Forces’ Canteen. Volunteers, genuine on this occasion, set off, carrying the large dixies in which the cooks normally prepared stews or tea. When they returned, noticeably more talkative and cheerful than before, they carried far more beer than it appeared likely we could cope with.’

They had Christmas puds and all sorts of fancies – including, as sanctioned by the officers, goodies from the parcels of the dear departed (whose mail would be sent on to the sick and wounded or returned to the families of the dead and missing). After the feast, gorged and tipsy Sam and Ted took a stroll:

‘The day was dull, the sky grey, the wind very chilly, but divil a bit cared we… until we came to the hole.
     Yes, yet another hole after all those others I’d lived in recently. This, however, was a big one, circular and possibly 15 feet deep. When, why or by whom it had been excavated we had no idea, but now it provided shelter from the winter for a number of Arabs. Dressed in the usual poor man’s gowns and hood-like headgear, they crouched in circles well below the rim. They looked ill and miserable. Dotted all around, above and below them was their excreta, all noticeably coloured by the blood which escapes from dysentery sufferers.
     Of course, I stated my belief that it was wrong to bring these people from a very poor sort of life in Egypt to an even worse one in this cheerless island, but Ted informed me they had competed for the opportunity to come and earn some cash, a chance seldom available to them at home. Things had not been all that good for me in recent months, but I still had pity to spare for these poor devils. Even more so when Ted told me how they, and others, had travelled from Egypt; he knew because he had been ordered to escort some of them on to a ship, to send them below and close the hatches. During the voyage, the labourers had to be kept down there at all times, their guards armed with trenching tool handles to quell any revolt that might occur.
     It all seemed wrong to me. We walked away discussing the wisdom of the officials concerned in deciding that these poor, debilitated souls should be sent across the sea to finish up shivering in a hole in the ground surrounded by shit…’

Still, nothing Ted and Sam could do. They returned to their camp, more treats – and a hell of a shock:

‘Late that night, Ted left me to return to his tent and we, the very happy brothers, promised ourselves another lovely day tomorrow.
     I had slept for possibly five hours when the unwelcome roar of a Sergeant roused us all. We had to pack up as quickly as possible, he bellowed, and be ready to move.
     Into every available space in pack, haversack and mess tin, I crammed as much food as possible. Cooks handed out fresh-baked loaves – enough to last a few days – and fried bacon in quantity. They had opened a long, wooden case containing two large sides of bacon packed in salt, so we ate our fill, stored the remaining rashers in our tubular cap comforters, and tied these to our belts. Hanging all the usual pieces of equipment about our persons we picked up our rifles, slogged down to the landing stage and boarded a small ship, similar to the Robin Redbreast, which had evacuated us from Suvla Bay.
     Whither away we knew not, nor cared overmuch, for disappointment at the interruption of our Christmas celebrations was deep and our mood doleful. To hell with everything and everybody; wasn’t that war over? So what were They up to?‘

Sending them back to Gallipoli, that’s what They were up to – in Sam’s case, with no chance to say goodbye and offer an explanation to his brother. The battered Battalion remnants were about to acquaint themselves with another of the peninsula’s hostile locations, V Beach on Cape Helles and its iconic WW1 monument, the beached hulk of the SS River Clyde:

‘Many hours later we heard the unwelcome sounds of occasional gunfire and now, in darkness, when we could just make out land ahead, a shell screamed overhead and burst somewhere ashore. Our ship crept slowly forward, far too slowly for my liking, because, added to the likelihood of injury, was the unpleasant one of drowning as well; and we should by rights have been feasting and lounging on that Greek island******.
     Now we could make out the black shape of a big ship, berthed in the shallows head-on to the shore. Moving closer, we saw a large, square opening in her side and, the tide being just right, our shallower ship could tie up to her and we could step across into her innards and eventually emerge on to a sort of landing stage. We hurried along it before gathering, briefly, on the beach beneath towering cliffs… But no enemy fire came our way.
     Excitement and interest now replaced resentment, as we filed some way up a gully and waited. I saw someone approach our Major, who then led us further upwards into this rising gully. A great flash some miles distant seawards gave short illumination to the scene; we saw we were passing a strange, wooden tower… and at that moment, almost unbelievably, from the top of it a hunting horn sounded.
     “Lie down!” yelled an unidentified voice and, being no strangers to this life-saving precaution, we were probably flat on the ground before he was. We heard the usual tearing scream, the crash, and below us – about the spot where we had first paused – we saw a brilliant flash and a large cloud of smoke, followed by the whinings of many flying pieces of shrapnel, the phuts as some of them landed nearby.
     Said the voice who had given us the warning, “That shell was from Asiatic Annie*******, a real big gun across the sea there in Asia Minor. When the lookout up above sees her fire, he blows his horn and we have about 30 seconds to take cover. The shells don’t always land here, of course, but we assume they will.” The informative bloke added that we had landed at V Beach and that the ship we had come through was the River Clyde******** beached there in the first Gallipoli landings months earlier.’
****** H Montgomery Hyde’s Nathan biography, Strong For Service, says that, while he was eating his Christmas dinner, Major Nathan/“Booth” received the order that the Battalion remnants must return to Gallipoli. They duly shipped out on Boxing Day.
******* Asiatic Annie shelled V Beach and W Beach on Cape Helles from a 17th-century fort, Kumkalle, at Tepe, five kilometres from the site of ancient Troy.
******** SS River Clyde: a collier launched in March, 1905, adapted as a landing ship in 1915; that April, she sailed from Mudros to Cape Helles V Beach; bombarded from the cliffs, she was beached to serve as a bridge for landings and then for returning wounded; six of the River Clyde’s crew were awarded VCs; the apparent hulk was later repaired and sold to Spanish owners who used her as a Mediterranean tramp steamer until finally scrapping her in 1966; on April 15, V Beach, only 300 yards long, became one of five main Allied landing places on Cape Helles; it was overlooked by cliffs, a fort and an ancient castle, Sedd el Bahr Kale, initially occupied and defended by the Turkish Army, then captured by the Allies on April 26, 1915.

Despite sharing the widespread indignation at what the Army had done to them – a sort of betrayal, this sudden and unexpected return to Gallipoli – and the resulting swift reacquaintance with the terrors of the battlefield, Sam found to his surprise that he did still feel the benefit of that brief respite on Lemnos:

‘Even so, through a few days good living and the contact with normal people provided by the letters from home and those lovely parcels, I felt changed and strengthened; I knew this tautness was not, at present, allied to fear, as it sometimes had been when lack of food and sleep had caused debility. I’d had proof the normal world still carried on, albeit with certain difficulties, and that we had not been forgotten or given up for lost.’

At first they parked him, his old Signaller mate Peter Nieter and two others in an open-sided clifftop Signals post where they had to be careful not roll over the edge while sleeping. But soon they moved near the beach into a series of the familiar Gallipoli holes in that flakey ground which made building proper trenches very tricky. The strategy was to “look busy” to prevent the enemy thinking anyone had for a single moment pondered the possibility of evacuation – though, in truth, the Turks had probably worked it all out some weeks or months earlier. So when German/Turkish planes flew over, the Battalion bustled about as if they still had serious military intent – and got a nasty surprise:

‘Shortly after dawn that first morning back with our crowd [at the beach], a lone plane did fly back and forth over our area, so we put on our busy act for the pilot’s amusement and information. Quite rightly, acting on instructions, some of our men fired their rifles upwards — imagine our surprise, though, when the pilot dropped a bomb. It exploded much too close for our liking and caused a brief interruption to our “busy bee” programme.
     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…
     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.’

They dropped large darts too, airborne weaponry being at a rather primitive stage of development then. But, aside from these distractions, for the 2/1st remnants and their new comrades on V Beach the chance to resume Christmas-style feasting soon arose, along with the ready military justification that no Allied food should be left for the enemy:

‘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.
     A very fair way had been devised to consign them to the troops in equal quantities. Those up at the Front got the first deliveries, naturally. The officer in charge at the dump had records of all the units in benefit. 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 stuffed ourselves to capacity during the night and, in daytime, only wanted to sleep. But we did work with a will on the job — and so shortened its duration, unfortunately.’

En route, they still had some drink left for a modest celebration of New Year. And, rather less convivially, their officers still had time for a rather exaggerated display of hostile intent which put Sam and some pals in mortal danger – in a party sent out to dig advance trenches ahead of their front line… just as if they were about to launch an attack:

‘We reached what I assumed was the support-line trench where all the men, except lookouts, were dozing. Forward again and the front line was our next stop. There, we were each handed a pick or a shovel and our guide led the way up over the firing step and parapet into No Man’s Land, the space between us and the enemy. He spaced us out in groups of four and told us to start digging holes. The picks made more than enough noise on that hard, peculiar ground and we were sitting ducks for any Turk who cared to take a pot shot. I wished I was still way back helping with the charitable work at the officers’ food dump…
     When several Turk light field guns let fly, their nearness surprised me; a strange feature was the thin, red line visible as each shell left its gun, making me wonder if they used rather antique pieces. Their trajectory was high, its zenith roughly above us, yet the shells — not trench mortar bombs, their whine confirmed — burst only a couple of hundred yards behind us.
     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.’

And finally… evacuation. On the night of Thursday, January 6, “at ten minutes notice” according to Hyde’s Nathan biography – and “in the middle of tea”! The second for Sam’s Battalion, of course:

‘Once again the quiet line-up in the darkness, the very quiet roll-call, but then the strong, firm voice of our idolised Major saying “Forward!” Little artillery activity as, in two lines, we followed him…
     After we had walked for some time, I saw the dark shape of a large building on our left-hand side. We stopped 30 yards away and I could see that light escaped from several slits in doors or windows. Apart from slight indications of habitation behind enemy lines up Krithea way, this was the first real building I’d seen near V Beach, so I was interested when the voice of one of our best officers informed us that there stood the fort of Sedd el Bahr, possibly dating from Crusade times*********…
     … we had successfully crawled away from one battlefront and now we were at it again. Would the Turks let us do it twice?
     Only a few hundred yards to go and our ears told us that the enemy guns were dropping more shells around the beaches than they had done for many a day. Why?
     … As we reached the cutting at the landward end of the beach area Asiatic Annie flashed and one of her huge shells crashed down a couple of hundred yards away, but we walked steadily forward, hoping to be spared. A sad thing it would be if she wiped most of us out when we’d got this far…
********* My father was historically misinformed on this one: the Turks built Sedd El Bahr in 1659.

They crossed the beach safely, scrambled through the River Clyde’s innards, and out the other side of the hull to board a metal lighter. When the 2/1st landed at Suvla in September, they’d travelled teetering on deck, which felt dodgy enough. But this time they crowded in below – far more alarming, Sam found:

‘Dim light from a candle lantern, the air already foetid, and the horrible feeling of being imprisoned in a dark, stuffy hold frightened me more than anything ashore had done.
     With all aboard, we stood too closely packed for anyone’s peace of mind. We heard the engine start, felt the motion, up, down, and somewhat sideways. We stood silent, prey to individual fears and hopes. Time passed. A distant gun, the shriek of a shell overhead followed by the familiar explosion heightened the claustrophobic threat of our situation.
     I forced myself then, as I have done many times since, to take stock painstakingly of every factor relevant to our position.
     On the credit side of the account one could enter: the excellent protection provided by the stout metal hull and deck of our lighter – nothing but a direct hit could hurt us; the proven steadiness and, in many cases, the courage of my companions – they had fulfilled their contract, signed when they had enlisted, to be loyal at all times to their king and country, good chaps to live and toil with when difficulties and dangers had to be dealt with; we had shelter from the weather – it wasn’t at all bad outside, but it could change and showers of rain, shot or shavings couldn’t touch you down there.
     But, debit: it was getting hot and stuffy, we were jammed very close, the tiny light might blow out… supposing one was taken short, what could you do about that? No room to get across to the steps and the cover over the opening would be closed and your pants would be holding an unwelcome load before you could do anything about it.’

Nonetheless, they sailed away again, soon transferring to the relative comfort of a small ship called the Partridge:

Partridge, probably related to the Robin Redbreast that lifted us from Suvla, chugged off into the night, taking us away from all the nasty bangs and flashes and wounds and deaths which make life on active service so unpleasant for us who would much prefer life in an equable clime with a full belly under a tree with a glass of wine and thou and that sort of thing.’

At Lemnos again, the remnants of the Battalion boarded a troopship/liner called Minneapolis and soon sailed for Egypt, and almost four months of rest encamped between the Nile and the Sahara as some decent food and a little light training built them up for their next task… the Somme.

All the best – FSS

Next week: Somme Rewind 1 of 5 – France, a stolen kiss, a bitter ending for the 2/1st, and settling into “the business of war” on the Western Front…

* 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.

Sunday 17 September 2017

Gallipoli Rewind 4: The great Gallipoli snowstorm; Sam risks snipers to beg HQ for food. But then an interlude of plenty… and the best gift of all, the evacuation of Suvla Bay for Christmas!

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 the British Red Cross

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Dear all

A hundred years ago this week… the British launched their third substantial attack of the Ypres campaign, now deploying new strategies conceived by General Herbert Plumer – he concentrated on achieving limited objectives with a first wave of attackers, and moving on to the next one with a second wave after that, which seems to have become colloquially known as “leapfrogging”, though it sounds like common sense too.
    He applied this to The Battle Of The Menin Road Bridge (September 20-25), taking the Gheluvelt Plateau by stages and largely succeeding though most of the gains occurred on the first day: Inverness Copse, Glencorse Wood, Veldhoek and part of Polygon Wood.
    While Russia still held a line east of Riga in Latvia, the German Army did attack much further east, potentially outflanking the Russians at Lemburg (September 19), and Jacobstadt (21-22; held by the Russians for 18 months previously).
    But the Allies progressed steadily in southern Europe with the Italians successfully attacking the Austro-Hungarians at Carzano, near Trentino (September 18), the German attack in the Susitza Valley, Moldavia repulsed by the Romanian Army (20), and combined French and Albanian forces pushing the Austrian invaders back in the Skumbi Valley (20).

[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 until November, before he returns to France and the Front from December onwards, I’m revisiting his previous accounts of historic battles as seen by an ordinary front-line Tommy – the Somme and, first, Sam’s Gallipoli, his initiation into the realities of war. He was a 17-year-old Lance Corporal Signaller by the time his Battalion approached Suvla Bay, Gallipoli, on the night of September 25, 1915.]

In the first three weeks of these episodes from Gallipoli, my father, Lance Corporal Signaller Sam Sutcliffe went through all the novice soldier’s fundamental “firsts” – coming under fire, losing comrades to shot and shell, poor food, frustration at lack of any apparent purpose, anger at Generals lurking well away from danger (out at sea in this case). But he also encountered some Suvla1915 specials like crapping under fire, an excess of apricot jam and dearth of every other nourishing comestible, near-death from a centipede bite and, to more people’s astonishment than his own, having bombs dropped on him from a plane! None of them had ever heard of such a thing…
    But we left him in the hilltop hole where, as a Signaller, he spent much of his “tour”, on 24/7 rotation with an assistant/hole-mate, their neighbours in adjacent trenches being a group of older, resourceful and very comradely machine gunners, members of the Essex Regiment (to which, coincidentally, Sam was transferred a year later).
    Two months in, his current and least favourite companion was “a sad little man called Harry Green”. But Harry’s tenure was about to be concluded by the meteorological freak which assailed both sides as winter approached…

‘Late in November, a sudden change of weather made our Army’s already depressing situation almost unbearable. The heat, and consequent plague of filthy flies carrying germs of disease, began to abate, and then came freezing winds with sleet and ice-cold rain.
     After several days, some trenches were deep in water. Still heavier rain fell non-stop throughout one day and night, snow followed on, then the whole wretched lot froze solid**. Our Essex Regiment friends had no food to spare for us and, having no protection from the terrible cold, Green and I looked like dying quite soon*** – even though, fortunately, our trench on the hilltop remained dry. I decided to attempt the journey down to Battalion Headquarters to beg for food and tea – no shortage of water now, surrounded as we were by ice and snow. Do you remember the woollen tube with sewn-up ends, described as a “cap comforter” in Army equipment lists? If you stuffed one half of it into the other half, you had a sort of pixie hat. Being unable to face the blast unprotected, I made small openings for eyes and mouth and pulled the thing down over my face, so heaven only knows what I looked like to the few men who saw me.
     Descending the hill, I had to risk being sniped and proceed on top, for most of the trench system lay deep in ice and snow. I assumed the enemy would be similarly afflicted and uninterested in slaughtering infidels, but at one point a couple of bullets came very close and I dropped into a trench and tried slithering on the ice, but soon had to climb out again.
     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.
     I eventually met a Sergeant who had assumed responsibility for acting as Quartermaster to our much diminished Battalion – not many more than 200 of us remained on active duty by then, the rest sick, wounded or dead from illness or enemy action. I told him of our predicament, our lack of food. At first he disowned us, saying the machine gunners whose communications we maintained ought to feed us. But, relenting, he gave me a handful of tea and two hard square biscuits, this to feed two men for an indefinite period.’
** The Gallipoli blizzard began on November 27, 1915; H Montgomery Hyde’s Strong For Service, the biography of Major Harry Nathan, by then 2/1st CO, notes 12,000 cases of frostbite and exposure arising on the British and Commonwealth side in Gallipoli – in a letter home, Nathan wrote of “15 degrees of frost” (meaning a temperature of 17° Fahrenheit); he also reports 280 men “drowned” in the mud produced by thawing snow and/or rain.
*** This suggests that, in reality, the arrangement, mentioned last week, that the two Signallers on the hill should come under the Essex Regiment Quartermaster didn’t work, although my father doesn’t specifically mention any such problem.

Sam struggled back towards his hill, hauling his feet out of the ice holes that constantly grabbed at him, seriously worried that this climb could finish him. But then he had a lucky, somewhat mysterious encounter when he peered into a short, covered side trench and followed his nose:

‘This was on higher ground, so not flooded. I went in, I was greeted by a tall man, who treated me with Christian kindness; he let me warm myself by some sort of stove, and gave me a large mug of hot cocoa and a chunk of buttered bread. I suppose I was too overcome by this luxurious fare and lovely treatment to ask questions, but thanked him sincerely. I could see he was a chaplain, but to whom I did not know.
     One chap I questioned later reckoned my benefactor was the Bishop Of Croydon, but I’d never heard of such a Bishop****. I guess I never will know, but the memory of the good man who revived my strength and enabled me to continue remains always.’
**** The Bishop of Croydon did exist and his name at that time was Henry Pereira, but he would have been aged 70 in late 1915, so my father probably presumed correctly that his benefactor was some other cleric.

Finally he got back to his glum assistant, Harry, only to find he’d done something really daft:

‘[He was] in no condition to be interested in the biscuit I offered him for, in my absence, the thoughtless man had removed his boots because his feet were so painful. Now, swollen considerably, they could not be forced back into the boots, so he was in a right mess. Cold, wet, without footwear, and exposed to weather which, I suspect, was coming to us direct from Siberia.
     To make tea, I had to find clean ice, put it in my mess tin, and melt it over the small methylated spirit heater. This Harry could drink and, meanwhile, I phoned Brigade HQ for a man to replace him. Throughout that night he moaned and groaned and sobbed, being in awful pain. I wore the headphones continuously, cat-napping at intervals.
     Next day, I spotted a disused trench more than half-full of ice and snow on the hillside facing the Turks. So I risked becoming a sniper’s target, got out into the open, dashed across, filled my can and hurried back. Using tea repeatedly and carefully, I was able to supply Green and myself with warm fluid.
     Moving around, I maintained some bodily warmth too. Harry was now delirious and, I hoped, past feeling much pain, but one more day passed before men from HQ were able to reach us, lay Harry in a blanket, and carry him, groaning and shouting, away to the beach.’

Over the next few days the weather eased. Stories passed around about men drowning in flooded trenches or freezing to death. Sam felt cheerier when an old friend from the Battalion’s early days, Peter Nieter, arrived in his hilltop hole to serve as his assistant. However, he was about to become the unwitting cause of a tragedy he regretted to the marrow:

‘Attached once more to the regular Essex boys for rations, we fared well. And I had my disused trench for water – it remained several feet deep for some time. However, fetching it became risky because a sniper had spotted my movements as I darted hither and thither to fox his aim.
     I carried a can to which I had tied a length of string to lower it into the trench. I would climb out of our trench and dash several yards, freeze there for a moment while I pictured John Turk taking aim at me, then make another short dash while the bullet smacked somewhere behind me. One more pause, then run to the trench, lower and raise the can, and return via another pause or two before a final, fearful charge back to and into our trench, having retained as much water in the can as possible. The bullets always seemed to arrive at the spot near where I had last paused. But I was careful to operate in poor light, morning and evening, because I had rightly assumed that the sniper was a good shot…
     So you can imagine my sorrow when two Essex men laid a boy on a firing step just opposite my hole, pointed to a wound in his chest, and told me the lad had attempted to copy my water-getting dash in broad daylight. Probably he didn’t bother about foxing the sniper either. He belonged to the Hampshire Regiment, but an Essex man had watched his progress, seen him wounded, and with a pal had risked death to drag him in.
     I phoned Brigade HQ for stretcher-bearers, but doubted if the lad would live – the bullet had pierced a lung. We fixed his field dressing over the entry wound, but I dared not move him to search for the exit, which may well have been a gaping hole. As I tried to keep him warm and give him support such as I could in response to those frightened eyes, I felt quite old in spite of my mere 17 years. He – the first wounded man I’d had to deal with – was even younger than I.
     The stretcher-bearers were gentle with him; I knew only too well they would have to climb out of trenches in several places where a stretcher could not be accommodated; in full view of the Turk, they would have to rely on his clemency.
     Thereafter, I stayed away from the watery trench and made do with such water as the machine gunners could spare for me.’

As ever, he knuckled down to the gruelling work of getting through the next day and the next… until a surprise move offered him a taste of Brigade HQ luxury – luxury Gallipoli-style anyway; it still involved getting shot at quite a lot.

‘I had been feeling that the small number of people of my Battalion who still remained after the blizzard must have forgotten my existence, but a week or so after Nieter’s arrival I had pleasant proof that this was not so. A replacement for me suddenly appeared at our hole on the hilltop and I received instructions to join the Signals Section at 88th Brigade Headquarters until further orders.
     Sorry to leave Nieter, but flattered and excited, I made my way to the ravine which sheltered HQ. There, they had built small but comfortable offices for administration and communication. Low, wooden buildings with earth-covered roofs on which the local weeds and grasses grew. Hopes that I would live in one of them quickly died the death when I was conducted to a nearby hole covered by a groundsheet roof, and told I could set up house there.
     Thankfully, it was dry, but it was sited beside the junction of two footpaths, and I quickly discovered that the position had been honoured by an enemy sniper. He had one of those tripod-rifles****** fixed on the point where the paths met; at intervals, a bullet smacked into the ground about a foot from one end of my hole. As the new boy, the privilege of avoiding sudden death by a sniper’s bullet automatically became mine. But the pleasure of working in a warm, covered structure, properly seated, with cooked food and big helpings of hot tea, more than compensated for the sniper targeting my sleeping quarters.
     Some days we had steak and onions for dinner; it seemed incredible after the hard tack and occasional bully beef which had usually been my lot. Bacon for breakfast was not unknown, cheese and bread in the evening common. If the pecking order worked that way, the lucky devils at Divisional HQ probably got breakfast, a meat lunch, afternoon tea, and dinner in the evening. It all passed through too many hands before the ranker’s turn came, God help him.
     Meanwhile, I felt the benefit of this luxury, my spirits rose again, I smiled, even laughed occasionally. Fully occupied on duty, when not working I hung about in one or other of the small HQ buildings as long as possible. Then, in my hole, I could sometimes remove my tunic, shirt and vest and destroy all the body lice I could find, replace these garments then take off my trousers. With candle ends scrounged from the office, I could burn off the filthy things infesting the inside seams of my trousers, crush the devils in my long pants and have a couple of days free of the continual biting.’
****** See blog September 3, Gallipoli Rewind 2 – Turkish snipers would set up a series of rifles on tripods in different locations, aim fixed at one spot, and fire them in sequence.

While at HQ, he got a further perspective on the suffering of comrades in his Battalion and others:

‘A sight I’d missed in my rather isolated position on the machine-gun hill was large numbers of men in various stages of illness, many with layers of socks and rags over their frostbitten feet, heading hopefully for the beach. How could such a suffering multitude be dealt with properly?
     The beach people must also have been rained on, then snowed on, then frozen and tortured by that Siberian blast if they dared to venture into the open. Then the sorry throng, with their frostbitten feet and hands, some already gangrenous, all of them short of food, descended on them and they just had to cope. What a commandeering of lighters and small steamboats there must have been. I, with my two biscuits and a handful of tea, had seen almost nothing of these larger events.’

But then, “well into December”, his replacement on the hilltop got a fever and Sam was the only suitable replacement, so he rejoined Nieter – bringing with him the persistent rumour at least that, finally, evacuation was on the cards. Nothing official though. In fact, Sam and Nieter soon encountered a General on the front line for the first, and probably only time, in their humble military careers:

‘… one day, as I squatted in a trench and chatted with one of the Essex men, a sort of apparition appeared; it was a large man, somewhat florid of countenance, wearing much red braid on collar, epaulettes and around his cap.
     As he approached we stood up – not wishing to be trodden on – and our action unexpectedly put the cat among the pigeons. “Why the devil are these men standing to attention?” he roared. “If this happens again I’ll have everybody put on fatigue duty out on top collecting cans and rubbish in broad daylight!” He squeezed past us, quite a beefy gentleman, followed by a retinue, the first few of whom also carried much red tape on their uniforms. Several ordinary officers followed, looking almost shabby compared with the top brass.
     An Essex Sergeant brought up the rear and, in answer to my questioning look, he said, “General De Lisle******, General Officer Commanding this Army”.
     I considered the incident and the strange logic it suggested. The General bellowed at us for standing to attention – although that was what we were supposed to do when an officer approached – because it might expose our heads to enemy snipers. His loud voice was calculated to scare all within earshot, including, I guessed, his escorting officers. Yet he must have known that his own head, with its red-braided cap, would regularly bob up above the lip of the trench as he proceeded with his inspection. And apparently that didn’t matter. A fine bravado perhaps. Except that he was the General Officer Commanding wilfully risking death…
     Thereafter, I assumed that General Ian Hamilton had at last packed it in*******. When I told witty Nieter of my assumption, he pointed out that this change at the top would not necessarily mean rapid promotion for me.’
****** General Sir Henry Beauvoir De Lisle (1864-1955), commissioned 1883, fought in the Second Boer War, then on the Western Front in 1914, until his transfer to Gallipoli; returned to the Western Front, including the Somme, 1916-18; www.firstworldwar.com/bio/delisle.htm suggests De Lisle wasnt popular among the troops – and did not seek to be so – and that his commander in Gallipoli, Sir William Birdwood, referred to him as “a brute“; but he did at least go ashore, in the noisily eccentric manner my father encountered, to see “every corner of Suvla” for himself.
******* General Sir Ian Hamilton had actually departed some while earlier, on October 16 (replaced by Lieutenant General Sir Charles Monro); but, clearly, nobody told the Poor Bloody Infantry who commanded them at any given moment.

In due course, frightfully hush-hush preparations for evacuation became apparent:

Christmas Day coming up… All we were missing was the Christmas tree, the holly, the oranges, Christmas puddings, iced cakes and booze. We did have ample bully beef, hard biscuits, tea, tinned milk, sugar and, because of our Army’s reduced numbers, two or three pints of water each day…
     No one talked about the fuses and detonators so carefully installed by the engineers all along the front trench, but we hoped they would bang off at regular intervals and kid the Turks that our positions were still manned for a long while after the last soldier had put to sea on a lighter. That was one of our really fervent hopes – another, that perhaps the Turks knew we were lighting out and would be up on their hill laughing fit to bust.
     At the same time, we did know that, when the time came for us to slip away and leave John Turk once again in possession of his strip of territory, halfway through the operation hordes of screaming enemy soldiery might suddenly descend from the high hills which formed a sort of semi-circle around the area held by the British, Australian and New Zealand armies…
     Impatient and excited, under a partial moon, I waited one night for a code word over the headphones. When it came I passed the word “Now” along the line and machine guns were dismantled, our signal lines disconnected, container satchels hung over our shoulders, and rifles and all equipment taken with us, as we all very quietly moved beachwards in a single line. By then, all troops in forward positions had already departed********.
     I took whispered farewells of our kindly Essex pals, left the file, and joined the remnant of our own Battalion assembled there, awaiting the order to move beachwards.
     This was when we heard about an unfortunate young man who had just been killed, a member of H Company from when we first enlisted…  Most unexpectedly on this quiet night, a bullet had struck him in the upper arm. The man with him applied the first field dressing, which every soldier carried in a special pocket. But, in the dark, nobody saw the blood welling from a severed artery, or perhaps something better could have been done to control the bleeding. By the time they were able to get him into skilled hands he had bled to death…
     With no undue hurry, we got aboard those all-metal lighters once more and chug-chugged away. On a calm sea we transferred without any real accident to a smallish steamboat — it accommodated all who were left of our big Battalion; many had died, but more had gone away sick, some wounded*********…
     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.’
******** Hyde’s Nathan biography notes the Battalion’s evacuation taking place on December 18-19, Saturday to Sunday overnight.
********* I think I remember my father saying that 147 came out “unscathed”, although in the text a little earlier he refers to around 200 being still active immediately after the late-November blizzard and, soon, he mentions that figure again; I couldn’t find any official figures.

The relief from danger, the reunion with what was left of his Battalion, the singing… for some hours and days to come, Sam basked in hopes for the future…

‘… soiled and unbathed, skinny almost to the point of emaciation, I was yet full of hope and joy because life once more offered prospects, changes of scene, sound and smell, and the luxury of sleeping with a roof of some sort over one’s head – a happy spell of rest and re-adjustment.
     So optimism and smiles all round were the order of the day. It would take time to build us up to general fitness and the Battalion to its full numerical strength, time in which we hoped to live a better sort of life than had been our lot recently.’

All the best – FSS

Next week: Gallipoli Rewind 5 (the last): Sam experiences more mixed emotions: the wretchedness of the collective sense of failure mitigated by the joy of a reunion with his brother Ted whom he’d last seen in Egypt, letters from home, free beer and Christmas cheer… but then on Boxing Day, their worst nightmare, they’re ordered to return to Gallipoli!

* 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.