“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, 22 February 2015

No-longer-seasick Sam enjoys a couple of days as a WW1 tourist – until the Fusiliers finally sets foot on foreign soil

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Dear all

A hundred years ago… today, the 22nd of February, the Russian Army stemmed the German advance at the 2nd Battle Of The Masurian Lakes (despite a defeat enumerated by 200,000 casualties against 16,000), and South African forces made further advances into German South-West Africa (now Namibia); on the 23rd British Marines moved on to Lemnos (an Aegean island annexed from the Ottoman Empire by Greece in 1912 – and scene of the remnants of Sam Sutcliffe Battalion’s 1915 Christmas dinner!), and a couple of days later began operations against Turkish Dardanelles forts to prepare the way for the Gallipoli invasion; and, of course, the attritional grind of the Western Front trenches continued.
      Meanwhile, the thousand-strong 2/1st City Of London Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, including my father, Sam Sutcliffe, still 16, and his brother, Ted, 18, both under-age volunteers, and their pals Harold Mellow and Len Minns from Edmonton, north London, sailed on… still some months from their own Gallipoli landing...

FOOTSOLDIERSAM SPEAKS
After last week’s brief stopover in Gibraltar harbour and, for the Londoners, the exotic experience of haggling for bargains with the bumboatmen, the Galena, the ungainly tub serving as their troopship, pottered on into the Mediterranean – destination still unknown to the Fusiliers. At least, with the Biscay storms behind them, a clean-up and recovery period could begin, as Sam wrote in his Memoir (NB, new readers, up to this point he still wrote in the third person, calling himself “Tommy”):

‘Their NCOs outlined a vigorous programme: cleansing of quarters, polishing of boots and buttons, and daily exercise in small groups. This was received with enthusiasm. There followed three days during which all on board improved both appearance and spirits…
     Tommy enjoyed the role of traveller, particularly leaning over the rail at the ship’s stern, watching the churned-up water, its apparent phosphorescence and the always widening wake – he felt a sense of urgency, a scurrying away of water humiliated, thrashed by the propellers…
     The present, happier way of life put him in a state of optimism and appreciation of the moment’s blessings – able, for instance, to largely ignore the unappetising, badly cooked and underdone food still served to them, regardless of calmer seas. Strong tea, often taken with hunks of bread and watery jam, usually passed for breakfast. That jam wouldn’t have fetched tuppence a pound in a grocer’s shop; issued in tins and made by a firm seldom heard of before or since that war, it needed no spoon, it ran like water.
     Even the boy could guess at the sort of profits the villains made and, in idle moments, soldiers discussed what they would like to do to the manufacturer and the people in authority who placed the orders and, no doubt, shared his gains and guilt.
     For some reason, the same low standards did not apply to Army biscuits, as they were called. Tommy believed that just one firm supplied the square, white, easily chewed biscuits – very different to the brick-hard squares referred to earlier. Proud of its product, the company baked its name, Jacob’s, into each biscuit – and men rejoiced when they were given them. For the rest, as far as Tommy could see, anonymity concealed the shame of their victuallers. If soldiers’ hopes have been realised they all live in a hell where the diet consists solely of their own provender.’

Note that “Tommy enjoyed the role of traveller”; from time to time, in more tranquil moments, my father would escape the hardships, terrors and horrors of war by becoming a boy entranced, imagination flying, as he saw the world outside England for the first time (and, like most of his working-class generation, he never did go abroad again after World War 1). This flight of fancy first occurred on the voyage from Gibraltar, leading him into romantic phantasms about his own thus far poor and mundane life:

At the end of a day of calm and deep blue sea, the sun hovered for a while, apparently, at about 30 degrees above the horizon before finally dropping towards the water. Tommy watched it descend; the whole sphere rested on the sea’s surface for a moment, then it quickly sank to three-quarters, a half, a quarter, then nothing remained save a bright glow, and that only briefly. Darkness came and, with a small amount of lighting permitted at that time, Tommy had flickering reflections to watch and accompany romantic, boyish thoughts.
     Leaning on the rail, he was joined by Jimmy Green, a nice fellow with whom he had chatted occasionally – probably four years older than Tommy, he belonged to G Company, Ted’s lot.
     Several months in the Army had not hardened or toughened Jimmy. His blond hair and pale face had that fresh, cared-for look Tommy already associated with the upper middle classes. One wondered how these types achieved it. Ordinary blokes well washed and scrubbed looked fine, but still ordinary. The Jimmy Greens of that period had quit their usually pleasant occupations and homes, generally on patriotic impulses. Their parents must have been terribly shocked but, in many instances, ensured their sons would at least have the King’s commission to cushion them against the worst buffetings of war… well, to some degree. Jimmy’s gentleness and trustfulness, his gay, white-toothed smiles, induced in Tommy a feeling of untaught inferiority which, he hoped to goodness, didn’t show.
     Some sort of counterbalance seemed to be required, so he said, almost casually, “Ah, there it is, straight ahead”. “What is?” said Jimmy, peering through the night. “Algiers, brightly lit up. You can actually trace the layout of the streets by the lines of the lights. That wide one in the middle comes straight from the back of the town down to the harbour. Now, taking the ones which branch right from the main street, can you see the second one up from the sea? That’s where we used to live.”
     Green responded with immense interest to this lie and begged for more details. Tommy promised to return to the subject later, but pleaded the urgency of a visit to the Ohang, as the bog had become known. Leaving Jimmy, he actually entered the place convulsed with laughter, but also feeling somewhat uneasy about the silly untruth. Anybody but Jimmy would have jeered jovially and perhaps called him something chummy like “You lying little sod!” and the boy might have had to duck a sideswipe, but no harm would have been done.
     Now, for the moment, he relegated the matter to his mental storeroom as he looked along the spotless seating with its circular holes evenly spaced – how many could it accommodate at a sitting? How many had suffered frozen bums while attending to natural requirements in that novel latrine? Indeed how many had almost drowned when the raging sea thrust upward through the holes, rushed along the deck and away through the scuppers? He could grin now as he thought about this formerly filthy, wet, and slippery contraption and recalled the hymn, For Those In Peril On The Sea.’

Soon enough – on February 11, eleven days after leaving Southampton – Sam/”Tommy”, the happy traveller, had to resume soldiering, albeit not too close to the battle lines for some while yet:

On the third day after Gibraltar, a blur on the horizon rapidly took shape as an island and the ship approached it at what appeared to be almost indecent speed for the old tub. Tommy was so enjoying his first Mediterranean cruise that the sight of land ahead failed to excite him.
     For an hour or two, the ship lay off the island, just outside a bay with rocky headlands at each extremity, a lookout tower on each. Beyond the shore, the land rose gradually in levels defined by walls, with some houses visible of a type which pleased Tommy’s eye. In England most houses had roofs of blue-grey slates sloping from a ridge – frequently seen against a grey sky, often in chilly, wet weather… the lad’s mind associated them with feelings of depressing discomfort. But here the houses – some in groups, others isolated – all had flat roofs, their walls white or cream or pastel shades of yellow or green. At that distance, under a blue sky, the bay appeared to be the home of wealthy, fortunate people, living in abodes of luxury and romance.
     Tommy concluded that the possibility of being put ashore in this heavenly place must be remote, but he enjoyed the experience of gazing at its beauty. Regret, he felt, when the ship moved off… then renewed excitement when she sailed into a large and wonderful harbour, busy with several freighters and other troopships – naval vessels anchored on the far side in front of a cluster of dockland cranes. As at Gibraltar, many small boats quickly surrounded the Galena, each with a man standing in its stern skilfully manoeuvring among the swarm by wiggling an oar from side to side. Looking back to the harbour entrance, Tommy saw stone buildings everywhere, not a brick in sight. Occasional horse-drawn carriages passed along a road on the side nearest the Galena.
     Soon NCOs moved around advising any who hadn’t heard that the island was Malta and telling their men to pack kitbags and prepare to gather in Companies. H Company grouped around the forecastle area…’

While still aboard, a Captain Boden – unseen on their voyage until that point – introduced himself as H Company’s new officer. This was the first they’d heard about the replacement of Lieutenant Swickenham, who Sam described as “kindly, but rather ineffectual” (see blog 28 “Sam and the lads get a lantern lecture on VD – and Malta?”). The men prepared to disembark:

Tommy procured his rations and chewed busily while trying to take in the great harbour scene: the naval ships, sailing craft, one of those fishing boats with a funnel and a sail at the stern, and lots of small boats being rowed or paddled busily between shore and ships.
     On the Galena’s foredeck, three horses, presumably officers’ mounts, were being released from the small containers in which they had spent the entire voyage, poor devils. Tommy could see these containers had sides and tops of padded leather, but the horses’ legs and bodies bore awful lacerations and discolourations. Tommy wondered if they could ever be restored to a decent condition. What a hell they had endured, confined thus and, for the first week, thrown about day and night.
     Tommy met up with Ted and Harold briefly and enjoyed pleasant speculation about the island, where they would live, and for how long they would remain there. One thing they knew for certain already – the temperature was higher than they had ever experienced, except on the very hottest days at home. They shared a particular happiness because they and the Galena would shortly part company. That ship was a bad’un and they’d had enough of her.
     Even while the men gathered in Companies, the ship eased towards a quay where the crew made it fast and placed two gangways in position. Captain Boden announced that six men would be needed from each Company to offload stores. CSM West asked H Company for volunteers… who would later travel on the transport wagons, he shrewdly added, whereas everyone else would march to their destination carrying their kitbags. Since the whole Company suddenly became volunteers, the CSM selected the biggest and beefiest.
     The Captain led his men ashore past an enterprising member of the ship’s crew who positioned himself at the head of the gangway and sold pictures of the Galena to those who wanted to treasure a memory of that floating palace. Tommy bought one, and never regretted the financial outlay of 2d – shown to friends, it provided many a laugh in later years.*
     On reaching the road, Captain Boden turned left and, followed by his men in no particular formation, continued walking for some distance. Then he stopped and, loudly, requested the CSM to carry on. After ten days of confinement in the old ship, the smartness in drill which had become customary in England could not be regained immediately. All had recovered from their sickness, but lack of exercise and indifferent food had taken their toll. However, the novelty of being in a strange country – first steps on foreign soil for nearly all of them – and the certainty of release from their hammocks in the cargo holds made them anxious for a fresh start under their new officer.
     The Company soon lined up in correct sections and platoons with their Corporals and Sergeants; the roll was called and the CSM reported, “All present and correct, sir!”’
* Unfortunately, we’ve long since lost my father’s postcard of the Galeka (Galena being one of the many slight aliases he used in his memoir, for reasons I never wholly understood), but you can see what may well be the same image at http://www.simplonpc.co.uk/UnionCastle1.html - anchor5228

All the best – FSS

Next week: The Fusiliers settle into their new “home” in Malta…


Sunday, 15 February 2015

Young Fusilier Sam’s mystery cruise continues – he grows a moustache and meets the bumboatmen of Gibraltar

For Details Of How To Buy Sams Memoir In Paperback Or E-Book See Right-Hand Column – All Proceeds To The British Red Cross
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Dear all

A hundred years ago this week… the German and Austrian Armies chalked up minor successes on Western and Eastern Fronts, with the usual extravagant cost in casualties, the French occupied Oyem in Cameroons (February 16), and U-boats began the “unrestricted” blockade of Great Britain (that is, torpedo attacks without warning; the German Government described their first such strike, on the 19th, against Norwegian merchantman SS Belridge as an error – and the vessel reached port).
      Meanwhile, a fresh campaign began which, a full seven months later, determined the fate of many in the thousand-strong 2/1st City Of London Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, including my father Sam Sutcliffe, still 16, and his brother, Ted, 18, both under-age volunteers from Edmonton, north London… on February 19, 1915, an Anglo-French Naval task force started a long-range bombardment of Ottoman artillery along the Dardanelles Coast. Bad weather interrupted them and rather spoiled their aim because spotter planes couldn’t be launched from the aircraft carrier Ark Royal. Gallipoli had begun in the lumbering manner to which British, Australian and New Zealand servicemen were to become accustomed…

FOOTSOLDIERSAM SPEAKS
Last week, Sam’s troopship from Southampton to a destination unknown to the rankers emerged from a terrifying and gut-churning Bay of Biscay storm and, in the distance, they could make out the coast of… somewhere or other. As my father picks up the story “on the morning of the seventh day at sea”, new readers please note that up to this point he was still conducting his Memoir in the third person, referring to himself as “Tommy”:

The land mass now assumed a recognisable shape, presenting a picture which had faced Tommy every time he walked out of the classroom into the corridor during his last years at school. “That’s the rock of Gibraltar,” he yelled to all within hearing.
     Soon the regular throbbing of the engines changed to a slower beat and the shape of the rock altered as the Galena’s course changed, barely moving now, just veering slightly to the left. Excited soldiers packed the formerly unused, lonely decks.

     “There goes the Marook*,” shouted someone as a massive chain roared across the foredeck and vanished through an aperture. The chain stopped moving and slackened. A noisy week of raging winds and crashing waves and vibrating engines ended with a calm… in which men could converse without shouting and once more regard one another with interest, to see what degree of suffering had been endured by their comrades.

     An elderly H Company man looked at Tommy almost with amazement. He had obviously never been deceived about the boy’s age for he said: “I can’t believe it — a kid like you and you’ve grown a moustache”.
     Tommy borrowed a pocket mirror and saw that the beginnings, fine and fair, had indeed emerged since he last saw his face over a week ago. Elated, and knowing that repeated shaving resulted in stiff whiskers, he scraped it off as soon as possible — but without the desired effect as, next day, no further sign of a moustache appeared, nor did this herald of approaching manhood darken his upper lip for many a day to come. Had it grown, it would have helped; so far he believed he had performed everything asked as well as any of his comrades, yet for peace of mind he needed to feel accepted as an equal.’

For the rest of that day, the Fusiliers, most of them away from England for the first time in their lives, experienced as much of the colourful life of a Mediterranean port as possible without actually stepping ashore. Sam recalled:

Numerous craft of various shapes and sizes moved about in the sheltered harbour and the bustle of activity lifted the weight of boredom from those — and they were the majority — who had wilted under it for a week. Bumboatmen rowed and bumped and jockeyed to secure positions near the ship’s sides, displaying their wares, holding up articles and deploying limited English to declaim their merits: “Very good, very nice, very cheap!” The soldiers called “How much?”, a question asked and understood in most parts of the world.
     Haggling about prices, with much use of fingers as counters, sometimes brought agreement. Then the seller would sling up a thin, coiled rope which the soldier endeavoured to catch. Eventually succeeding, the soldier coiled a couple of turns around his hand and let fall the rest of it, so that the seller could secure it to the handle of a basket.
     In most cases, this was the moment for fresh argument to commence. Naturally the boatman wished the buyer to haul up the basket, place in it the purchase money and lower it back down, whereas the buyer thought the goods should be sent up first – and used more gestures than words to make this point. Somebody had to give way, but the great reluctance down below to trust the doubtless honest man above suggested that some unscrupulous cads in uniform had passed that way before. Could there be a man so wicked as to empty a basket of its contents and then vanish among the men swarming over the decks without paying? Apparently so. Nonetheless, some small deals did reach completion.
     Tommy ventured a sixpenny purchase comprising four packets of ten cigarettes. He tried to smoke one, but it tasted awful. Blaming the strong sea air, he put them away for later use.
     After some hours at Gibraltar, the Galena moved quietly onwards. With changed weather, all began to feel cheerful, even energetic. On the calm, warm Mediterranean a renewed feeling of purpose and comradeship prevailed. Smiles replaced the bleak, hopeless, solemn expressions seen on most faces during the week of low, grey skies, heaving seas and roaring winds which had reduced many averagely good men to neglecting all the usual habits of self-care.’

* I transcribed this from a hand-written section of my father’s Memoir and “Marook” is how it seemed to be spelt. Can’t find the work anywhere! But it must surely mean “anchor”. One guess is Sam heard a distorted pronunciation of “mudhook”, the slang word back then (maybe still?), especially in the gambling game Crown & Anchor. Other suggestions welcome…

All the best — FSS

Next week: Finally, the Fusiliers step on to dry land – in Malta.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

FootSoldierSam’s (rough) life on the ocean waves…

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Dear all

A hundred years ago… tomorrow (February 9) the first Canadian troops to join the battle sailed from England to France and… yesterday (the 7th), in a snowstorm, the German 8th Army launched a surprise attack on the Russians in East Prussia (now Polish territory) – the Battle Of The Masurian Lakes. They advanced 70 miles in a week, a near-massacre with 200,000 Russian casualties to 16,200 German. (A remote connection to Sam Sutcliffe, my father, is that German commander General Otto Von Below later switched Fronts and oversaw the March 28, 1918, Arras wing of the Spring Offensive, one of the micro-outcomes of which was Sam being taken POW.)
      Meanwhile, Sam, still 16, his brother, Ted, 18, both under-age volunteers, their pals Len Minns and Harold Mellow from Edmonton, north London, and a thousand other comrades in the 2/1st City Of London Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, sailed through a terrible storm for a destination unknown…

FOOTSOLDIERSAM SPEAKS
Hardly any of the rankers had left England before. Their introduction to the traveller’s life proved less than comfortable. Last week, Sam climbed out of H Company’s stinking chamber below to take his first look at rough seas and use the, shall we say, open-plan latrines – perched over the side. Now he tried to settle in (here, for new readers, still writing in the third-person and calling himself “Tommy”):

‘…he found that a blanket had been issued to each man. Removing his boots, he folded his greatcoat to form a pillow and arranged the blanket with a quarter of it hanging over the side to tuck around himself as he made himself comfortable. After several ungainly attempts, he succeeded in mounting the hammock and lay suspended perhaps 24 inches from the ceiling.
     One advantage to sleeping in a swinging net soon became obvious. When the ship did a sideways roll the hammock did not, it just hung there. However, when the ship’s nose dipped into a trough one could feel that all right. Head up, feet down… then vice versa, of course. A strange night, that first night at sea; half-awake for the most part, fully awake several times when the forepart of the ship seemed to receive a terrific blow. No alarm call followed… she hadn’t struck a rock… so one dozed off for a while.
     Large, two-handled urine tubs had been placed in an area where no hammocks hung and, as the night wore on and the ship’s wallowing increased, the homely sound of men pissing gradually gave way to the horrible noises of men vomiting into it.’

The voyage - not to France and the Western Front they soon realised with some relief – took ten days. So, in hopes readers aren’t feeling too queasy, we necessarily continue the alimentary theme. The soldiers could think of little else. Sam/”Tommy” found his own way through, spending as much time as possible away from that foul hold, the Company’s living quarters:

He clung to a rail, amazed to see and feel the forepart of the ship rise high, then plunge… at which his side of the ship would sink down, then rise up, up, while the far side almost vanished beneath the waves. These plunge-and-wallow movements increased in depth and height as the weather grew worse. And so the thing he had been fighting for several hours took possession of him and his loss was the fishes’ gain… he felt so ill that fear vanished…
     When the ship wallowed in a trough, various sideways rolls occurred, but fore and aft movements were only slight. Then, when the peak of the next huge wave rushed at the ship and looked to be about to fall on and bury her… at the last moment her bow rose about 50 degrees until, as she started to level out on top of the wave, a big bang for’ard preceded a horrible vibration shaking the whole ship as the propeller, now out of the water, raced madly before… the slide down the other side of the water mountain began and a foot or two of water scurried across the deck. Seeing this coming, Tommy raced towards the stairway leading to a higher level and just beat this on-board wave. Happily, there he found that only an occasional fine spray wafted his way…
     The weather only worsened… Tommy thought even experienced sailors must have worried that the ship would, at some time, either fail to come out of a sideways roll and capsize or continue one of those mad slides down the distal side of a huge wave and maintain that stern-up 50-degree plunge straight down to the ocean’s bottom.’

A crew member later told him the Galena* was “noted for her wallow”! Always nauseated, Sam nonetheless resolved to keep eating whenever he could – “he chewed and swallowed with determination for seasickness seemed harder to endure if the stomach was empty”. He ate dry bread and hard biscuits – no butter because what the Battalion Lieutenant Quartermaster provided proved rancid (for Sam, this man remained a hate figure all the way through to the beaches of Gallipoli). Some cheese. Stew from the communal dixie.
      And then he found a sanctuary. Wandering the upper decks – not an officer in sight for days – and then down again when he reached the stern, he entered a passageway, opened a door and stepped into… a throne room in more senses than the obvious, a place of “heavenly calm”:

‘… [it contained] a washbasin and a lavatory with hinged seat and flush tank above. Faint light came through a small fixed porthole. He bolted the door and dealt with a wave of sickness which assailed him. The weakness caused by this regular vomiting made him appreciate the warmth and privacy of this little room. He sat and dozed at first, while endeavouring to keep wakeful in case someone really entitled to use the place should come along. However, no one disturbed him and, in due course, deep sleep for an hour or two did him a lot of good.
     There was a homely touch about this little room and he had no wish to leave it. Hoping to come back, he slipped out, closing the door carefully.’

Eventually, after three days, given the respite afforded by that small sanctum – an unused crew toilet, he deduced – his stomach settled. He got talking to a couple of the sailors, a gleeful experience, Sam observes, “to make friends with civilians, already regarded as a separate race… That gap grew wider as the war grew older and bridging it demanded ever greater effort.” Officers emerged from their cabins to order a clean-up and Sam volunteered to fetch the unappetising rations for his mates, now he felt capable. He wandered some more – and ran into his brother (and hero, more or less) Ted, previously immured in G Company’s hold:

A reunion more demonstrative than ever before ensued. Normally, they greeted one another with the studiedly casualness befitting men of the world. But pleasure and relief at each discovering the other safe and well compelled them in that unguarded moment to throw their arms around each other and behave as humans should. Typically, Ted appeared to have remained well throughout.’

They met and wandered and talked for hours every day after that. But one more scare awaited:

‘At dusk, though, someone shouted orders for all to get below and H Company’s Sergeant West told them no lights must be shown, no matches struck. A submarine which, in darkness, could only locate them precisely if lights were exposed, was following them. So, down below with hatches covered, portholes shielded. Terrible, just terrible. And the fear that, if a torpedo struck the ship, the imprisoned crowds of men would not stand a chance of surviving. Only the really sick showed no sign of concern.’

No torpedoes came their way, though, and, finally, the old ship turned east. In the distance, land loomed.

* Actual name SS  Galeka     – another of my father’s mysteriously discreet, thin disguises of actual names, in the spirit of calling Tonbridge Bunbridge!

All the best — FSS

Next week: Gibraltar at last!