“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 War: The Somme, Part Five of this memoir)
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 Sam’s 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
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 wasn’t 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.