“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 September 2017

Gallipoli rewind 2: Sam and pals land at Suvla Bay: their first time under fire, their first deaths. And then there’s the bloody food, the bloody latrines, the bloody Generals – and the bloody Turks!

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Dear all

A hundred years ago this week… The home front in England felt the war more keenly than usual: a six-bomber moonlight raid on Sheerness docks, Kent, killed 132 and injured another 98, mostly Naval personnel (September 30); the following night the biggest raid on London to date killed 19, with 71 injured, while on the Yorkshire coast a German submarine surfaced and shelled Scarborough, killing three and injuring six. Presumably such attacks, with their small numerical impact compared to any of the battle Fronts, actually targetted civilian morale and “public support” for the war…
    On the Western Front, the Third Battle of Ypres/Passchendaele passed through a fairly static phase with reports only of small British advances at St Julien (September 3) and Villeret (6), and a small withdrawal near Frezenberg (6). Further south, the French attacked on the Meuse, taking Fosses and Chaume Woods. But a sinister German tactic appeared to emerge with a succession of attacks on Allied hospitals – at Verdun and Vadelaincourt (5) and an American hospital near the Channel coast (7; I can’t find a specific location, but probably the Base Hospital at Boulogne).
    The Battle Of Riga and/or Jugla shut down (September 3) with the German Army occupying the Latvian capital and Russian troops effecting a “successful retreat” – live to fight another day really, despite massive casualties (25,000 compared to 5,000 German). The Russians pulled back 30 miles towards Petrograd, the national capital, which promptly hit the news for reasons which only re-emphasised the evolving collapse of the country’s war effort. In an utterly confused and confusing episode, Army C-in-C General Kornilov purportedly misunderstood Provisional Government leader Kerensky, whom he intended to support(?), and led a would-be attack on the Petrograd Soviet, the Communist council which ran the city. But Kerenski armed the worker/soldier alliance and, apparently without a fight, arrested and jailed Kornilov (of whom more later!).
    On the southern extreme of the Eastern Front, the Battle Of Marasesti drew to a close (September 3), a stalemate in itself, but of more import than may have been understood at the time. It turned out that the revived Romanian Army’s holding the line had brought a permanent halt to the Central Powers’ ambition to take the country.
    Meanwhile, the 11th Battle Of The Isonzo  (August 18-September 12) proceeded bloodily with a decisive Italian victory looking likely, as it often had during the 11th’s many predecessors. They attacked the Austrian Army near Gorizia and on the southern Carso plain (4-6), then at Monte S Gabriele, and recovered positions lost in the Brestovica valley (7) – the Austrians struck back by bombing Venice.

[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 the 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.]

My father, Sam Sutcliffe, was 17 by the time his 2/1st Battalion Royal Fusiliers approached Suvla Bay, Gallipoli, on the night of September 25, 1915. They’d trained for 12 months in London, Tonbridge, Malta, and briefly in Egypt since they volunteered in September 1914 – Sam becoming a Lance Corporal Signaller en route. Last week, we saw him deal with the wrench of separation from his older brother Ted – detained by the authorities on the dock at Alexandria because of a dental problem of all things – and then, as the small steamer bearing his H Company and one other got closer to the coast, absorbing the sounds of shells and bullets “being fired with intent to kill”… not practice, but deadly warfare.
    Before they can land they have to change vessels again, which meant crossing on to the deck of a lighter. No easy matter in even a gentle swell, given that, as a Signaller, he carried yet more equipment than a plain infantryman – he reckoned it weighed 90 pounds all together. Here’s the tricky transfer:

‘One foot on the lighter deck, then it rose 12 inches or so, and in the moment while it sank again I forced myself across the slight gap and the weight of my body and all my equipment carried me forward. It was difficult to avoid crashing into men ahead of me, but this I managed somehow and then braced myself to steady the next oncoming bloke. By lucky chance, I hadn’t pushed anyone overboard and I certainly didn’t intend to be shoved off the lighter by anyone else.
     Its deck, I found, was metal – as were the tips and heels of our Army boots, so retaining a good foothold presented difficulties. The chaps around me did afford some support, but they were not to be leant against or grabbed, as their remarks quickly made clear. Certainly, the men on the seaward edge must have had a very dicey trip towards the shore.’

Teetering thus, they pressed on towards the beach and their first steps on to a battlefield – Sam now emitting what he would forever after think of as the literal “smell of 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.
     The lighter moved in closer and our Sergeant Major’s voice came clear above all other sounds, “Take your turn! Go quickly down the ramp, then form two ranks and follow your leader!” As we faced the shore it seemed that rifle fire came mainly from half-left and a fair distance away. But from a wider range of positions came artillery fire.
     With some relief I formed the opinion that the troops who made the first landing had done a good job in clearing the Turks from the beach, but I soon discovered that the occasional sniper had stayed behind to harass and scare by the uncertainty he created. As I took my turn down the ramp, I heard a quiet chat going on between our Company officer and someone ashore. Without pause, in pairs, we followed our leader on to the beach – the while he continued his conversation with the stranger.
     We moved uphill for a while, veered right just before reaching the top of a ridge, and shuffled along on this fairly steep slope, left leg bent, t’other extended, an awkward progress, overloaded as I was. When our leader stopped and squatted, we all did likewise along the line. “Stay well below the ridge top and await orders,” was the next instruction passed along.
     I was in a full tizzy of excitement having been primed by a confiding officer on the ship to expect immediate and violent action. However, when we stayed there for some while, pangs of hunger became pressing – we had not eaten since early morning. In a fairly loud voice, which I hoped would reach our officer’s ears, I said I was starving. “Quiet!” came a reproof, but muttering spread along the line, confirming that others also felt empty. A word of mouth message passed from man to man brought a junior officer over and he explained that no rations had been issued since we left the island harbour. Rightly or wrongly, he agreed that we should start on our iron rations**.
     Fortunate the ridge concealed us, for we were soon lighting our little methylated stoves to heat water in our mess tins. Into this we dropped beef cubes and some of the small, hard biscuits. With this below our belts we felt stronger. I set about chewing dry biscuits as well. A swig from my water bottle, and I felt twice the man.’
** Iron rations, detailed last week as “comprising a bag of small, hard biscuits, single packets of beef cubes, tea and sugar, and a can of Maconochie’s stewed beef”. The troops had been advised that they were “for extreme emergencies only” – but an Army marches on its stomach etc…

Soon, as they advance in fits and starts, some of a fairly random volley of shots come their way – as does their first fatality:

‘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.
     Our first casualty, I thought, young Nibs, the cheerful Cockney; a victim of random firing, not an aimed shot… Later, though, I learned that Nibs was not, after all, the first member of the Battalion killed; old Ewart Walker, the erudite ex-journalist, had died within moments of reaching the beach – a time-fused shell exploded above his head, relieving him of any requirement to further tax his ageing body, and depriving us of a very good comrade.’

After a night of digging shallow holes – rather than trenches – in flakey, unstable ground with unsuitable trenching tools, when dawn starts to lighten the scene, Sam experiences the first of many waves of helpless gloom at the purpose of their fighting in this arid, dangerous place:

‘Surveying the scene around me, I had doubts about our fitness, at that moment, to advance and capture the heights which loomed above. Facing the hills which, apparently, would be our objective, I saw that someone appeared to have selected a base for our Battalion’s attack which was completely exposed to enemy observation and fire. The terrain to our left and half-left rose gradually at first, thereafter steeply. Before us, ridges and several lowish hills. Beyond those, steadily rising country ascending at some distance from us to a considerable height — black hills of daunting aspect, enough to make me despair of reaching their peaks, even without an enemy’s presence.’

Still, they breakfast handsomely on fried bread and bacon – not to be confused with Sam’s “hole-mate” Bacon – fetched from the beach by their Quartermaster’s men and cooked on their portable stoves. But then more evidence of poor organisation – and/or the recklessness of some of these inexperienced Tommies… plus Sam observes their first crack-up:

‘Some men either had no heaters or found them unsatisfactory so, regardless of their own safety or ours, they lit small fires in the open beside their holes. Our luck gave out at that point. The Turks had either not been looking our way or else observing us with disbelief that we could be so foolhardy, but the smoke offered a perfect target for their range-finders.
     Shrapnel shells shrieked our way, burst at a height of 20 to 30 feet and sprayed the area. Howls of pain, calls for help, and the disappearance into their holes of the thoughtless fools who had brought the rain of hurtling metal down on us, all occupied but a few seconds. We had wounded and possibly dead men to care for, but we required a few minutes at least to allow the shock of this unexpected attack to subside.
     And then, almost as unwelcome as the shellfire, came the behaviour of one man, our RSM, who – with his batman – happened to occupy the next hole to the one Bacon and I shared. He briefly showed himself, brandishing a pistol, and shouted: “Keep down! Stay under cover! I’ll shoot the first man who shows himself above ground without permission!”
     I had not seen much of this gentleman previously, but for a while, in Malta, he had enjoyed immense popularity with the rank and file…  At the time, we all felt he was the man to make real soldiers out of us amateurs, God’s gift to a mob of willing, but unskilled volunteers. So we sweated our guts out in high Mediterranean temperatures, unbelievably anxious to merit the approval of this military Messiah… Now, in addition to this artillery attack, we faced the threat of bullets from our own RSM’s pistol… Realisation of the awful position in which someone’s error had placed us, had a bad effect on morale. And the RSM’s queer behaviour deepened the gloom…
     Apparently, when the order to dig in was issued, he and his batman secured pick and shovel and spent the hours of darkness getting his hidey-hole down to a really useful depth. Indeed, over the following days, their excavations became so elaborate that, by design I think, though to what end I could not deduce, they tunnelled through to our hole. It introduced an unwelcome intimacy. My feelings must have shown for this RSM never loved me.’

My father greatly appreciated the soldiers who worked on battlefield sanitation, yet here the “toilets” turn out to be inconvenient, to say the least:

‘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.’

At least his Signalling job leaves him little time for boredom as he and his comrades work to establish Battalion communications:

‘I had to move around constantly; as a Signaller I had no choice. When our comrades built and occupied new trenchworks, we had to run out lines and man the instruments to maintain communications from Battalion HQ to Company and from Company to Company.’

But still, like many another Tommy no doubt, his mind regularly turns to the matter of food:

‘We settled in. No more advances. And no more bacon. 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…
     At first, the weather stayed hot, very hot. Some troops, not compelled to English standards of hygiene on account of their easy-going colonial habits***, unwittingly fed and caused to multiply millions of dirty, fat flies and any foodstuff, or even hot tea, exposed, however briefly, to their attention instantly turned black with swarms of these filth carriers.
     Dysentery plagued the Army and many men existed in a weakened, dazed condition with only moderate chances of survival because they had no opportunity to replace the large loss of body fluid caused by the disease. When they finally collapsed, they had to be carried off to the beach, there to await transport to the Greek island hospital or to Egypt. This scourge spread alarmingly and one missed comrades only to learn that they had succumbed to it.’
*** Given the 2/1st’s location location, this is probably a dig at the Anzacs, already established for several weeks just a little further along the coast from Suvla.

On the disease front though, Sam was lucky. In an early delivery of packages from home his thoughtful parents provided him with two bottles of water-purifying tablets. So, in Gallipoli anyway, he steers clear of serious intestinal illness.
    Now here’s a deadly quirk of Turkish soldiery I haven’t seen written about elsewhere:

‘All of us had to beware of a constant danger from some Turk marksmen’s practice of making careful observations to find places where British troops frequently passed, and setting their rifles on small tripods with their aim fixed on those spots. During hours of darkness, one man could move around, fire each rifle and replace the used bullet. This caused many casualties. Even when sighted on a sandbag wall, each gun’s repeated shots had the sand draining away unnoticed in the dark until the next bullet cut through freely and, perhaps, fatally.’

Three or four weeks in and my father recalls feeling more and more desperate about the mess the strategists had got them into. He comes to despise the remotely located General leading the operation – a constant theme later too, when he fights on the Western Front. He had some understanding, even empathy, for most of the officers in the front lines living in the same conditions as the Tommies, while bearing heavy extra responsibilities. The all-but-invisible HQ types, though…

‘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.
     From towering hills the Turks looked down on us continually; we lived in their sights from dawn to dusk, and the fact that we sustained some sort of existence in that situation proves how difficult it is to destroy an Army except by physically and individually killing every soldier. But attrition continued every day.
     Rough seas meant poor rations, slack organisation of supplies back at the bases resulted in monotonous repetition of the same food items, as with the already mentioned apricot jam and hard biscuits – the oft-abused corned beef became, at times, a welcome luxury. If some bully beef came our way we felt stronger, the nourishment taking effect rapidly in our debilitated bodies. If a piece of bread and a chunk of cheese filtered down through the hands of all those who organised supplies to the ranker, the lowest level of Army life, then there was much slow, careful chewing and such pleasure evinced as would warm the heart of whoever had consigned the delicious grub to such humble men. Unfortunately, long gaps lingered between such treats.
     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, to let the willing workers overtax themselves while slackers lurked in places they believed safe spots. A good officer would see that every man had his share of what’s available; not many of ours took so much trouble, probably because they themselves were overcome by discomforts and lack of rest and sleep.
     Anxious though I was to prove myself a man who could stick it out, I became aware of a slowing down of my movements. But I need not have worried that this might make some suspect I was still too young to be wearing a uniform; everybody knew that disease was just as likely as enemy action to put paid to a man.
     So, for reasons obscure to themselves, British troops continued to man outposts and trenches while always aware that a mere three or four miles lay between their front line and the sea.’
**** General Sir Ian Standish Monteith Hamilton, 1853-1947; World War I Prime Minister Herbert Asquith described him as “having too much feather in his brain”; but he’d served in Burma, India and South Africa – in the Boer War, he was twice recommended for the Victoria Cross, but rejected first for being “too junior” and second for being “too senior” (more to that story, no doubt); he did write a volume of poetry and his reports from Gallipoli appeared in the London Gazette (various items at www.1914-1918.net/) and were collected as early as 1915, titled Sir Ian Hamilton’s Despatches From The Dardanelles and then in 1920 as Gallipoli Diary, 1920 (just two of his 163 published works). In March, 1915, Kitchener appointed Hamilton to command the Allied Mediterranean Expeditionary Force (from Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand – the ANZACs – India and Newfoundland) specifically for the Gallipoli campaign, withholding him from the Western Front because of his unorthodox tendencies, such as deeming cavalry obsolete. The notorious April 25, 1915, Allied landings at six beaches on Cape Helles resulted in heavy casualties and little progress because of a) forewarning – the British Navy had bombarded on February 19 and March 18 b) lack of troop numbers (78,000, when some recommended up to 200,000) c) lack of appropriate training d) a shortage of landing craft. The Suvla Bay landings followed from August 6 and pulled up short largely because of the Turkish Army’s dominant position on the Anafarta Heights; that proved the last significant Allied attempt to gain ground in Gallipoli; by October, evacuation was already being proposed, and Hamilton’s opposition to it directly led to his replacement, on October 16, by Lieutenant General Sir Charles Monro; Hamilton later distinguished himself as a pre-World War II enthusiast for the peaceful intentions of Adolf Hitler.

All the best – FSS

Next week: Sam has a bizarre encounter with “Number 9”, the Battalion sawbones, and nearly dies of a centipede bite. Then he’s sent to a hole on a hilltop for the duration, which leads him to the “accidental” saving of Signaller Jackson…

* 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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