“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, 27 September 2015
Sam’s first day of battle… and the Battalion’s first deaths, young Nibs, old Ewart Walker – as the panicky RSM threatens to shoot his own men!
For details of how to buy Sam’s full Memoir in paperback or e-book & new excerpted Gallipoli episode mini-e-book & reader reviews see right-hand column
All proceeds to British Red Cross
A hundred years ago… from September 26-28 the Battle Of Loos reached a terrible crescendo wherein 12 British Army Battalions – 10,000 men – suffered 8,000 casualties while, in sum, making little headway. In the same sequence of Allied attacks, on October 3 the German Army recaptured their key stronghold, the Hohenzollern Redoubt near Auchy-des-Mines, and the French commander-in-chief Joseph Joffre abandoned an attempted breakthrough in Champagne (total casualties, for September 25-November 4 as I understand it, French 145,000, German 72,500).
On the Eastern Front, through the week, battles continued around Eckau, Dvinsk (both now in Latvia), Lutsk (Ukraine) and the Pripet region (Ukraine/Belarus) with the Russian Army now holding its ground against the Germans for a while, after a long period of steady retreat.
And in Mesopotamia (now Iraq), the Indian Expeditionary Force attacked the Ottoman Army at Es Sinn on the Tigris, near Kut-al-Amarah, and drove them eastwards (September 28, Indian casualties 1,233, Ottoman 5,300 including prisoners taken).
Meanwhile... 12 months on from joining up, the thousand men of the 2/1st City Of London Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, including my father, Lance Corporal Signaller Sam Sutcliffe (still underage at 17, and without his older brother Ted who’d been ordered to stay behind in Egypt because of a dental problem), and their pals from Edmonton, north London, had landed at Suvla Bay on September 25. In the middle of the night, they experienced their first seconds, minutes and hours on a real battlefield, guns being fired at them “with intent to kill”, and the “urgent call, ‘Stretcher-bearers!”…
Last week’s excerpt left Sam (“in a full tizzy of excitement”) and his comrades sheltering behind a ridge of sand or packed earth. My father had just shown unusual boldness by complaining loudly that, the Battalion having been left almost 24 hours without a meal – “someone had blundered,” he reckoned – he was starving. Other voices chorused agreement and so, within an hour of their four-month participation in the campaign beginning, they consumed their emergency “iron rations”, cooked in their mess tins on the methylated stoves they carried in their packs.
Feeling “twice the man”, as Sam writes in his Memoir, he awaited orders – and, it turned out, news of the Battalion’s first deaths:
‘Soon we arose, advanced over the ridge, and moved on across fairly level country, rather barren, though supporting the occasional clump of trees. We stopped several times, lying prone on the ground, as ordered, while quiet discussions just ahead of me took place. Too dark to see much, but a fair number of bullets whizzed our way. Sometimes they struck the earth nearby with a ffft; once one hit the trunk of a tree near me with a surprisingly loud crack.
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.
Heads down now, shoulders bent, we advanced as though we thought this posture offered some protection. I wondered how soon we would reach the position from which our attack would be launched and felt horribly shocked when an order was given to spread out and, in pairs, start digging holes to give us cover from enemy fire. We had to do this before dawn came with only our small trenching tools to help us.
I paired with Bacon, who’d very recently joined the Signallers Section… A few blows with our light tools revealed little ordinary soil – instead, it was hard and broke away in flakes and piece… “This is marvellous,” I grumbled. “I suppose we must try, but we shan’t make much of a hole in the time we’ve got.”
We slogged away at it, took turns trying to make a hole just long enough for we two to crouch in. As we penetrated a few inches we could hear the sides shedding bits and pieces… By dawn our hard, non-stop work had excavated a shallow trench about four feet long, two feet wide and two deep, providing very little cover for two now exhausted, shaky, and rather scared youngsters.
We rested in the half-light, tired and hungry… 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.
Some of the men had made holes much deeper than ours – having, I gathered, secured picks and shovels from a dump they had discovered. Older and wiser men than I, they had not just blindly obeyed orders to commence digging with puny trenching tools, but had put brains, eyes and instincts to work and benefited accordingly. In the early days of my military life, I felt inadequate in matters of that sort. The fly men could always secure the extra bit of bread or bully beef, cadge, beg, borrow or steal things to improve their condition or perhaps increase their chance of surviving. Beginning their war with deeper holes than most wasn’t bad for a start.’
But spending most of the day in that hole, pretty soon young Sam started thinking about his stomach again – and appreciating all the more a man who, in due course, established himself as one of his few lifelong heroes:
‘That first morning we had cause to bless Lieutenant Booth**, the enthusiastic young officer who had replaced Quartermaster wax whiskers***. He did his job of feeding and clothing us with complete dedication and, during the hours of darkness, had applied his energy to bringing forward from the beach some of the stores unloaded from the lighters. A certain sense of security, because enemy artillery had not yet fired on our “advanced” position, encouraged volunteers to distribute food. They gave each of us four rashers of bacon and half a loaf of bread, small paper bags of tea and sugar, and a tin of condensed milk.
One volunteer from each group of four holes was allowed to hang the occupants’ eight water bottles over his shoulders and make his way back to a clump of trees and bushes behind which sheltered a mule-drawn water cart. I began to appreciate the varied uses to which those all-metal lighters could be put; men on the deck, food, water and other requirements of war inside them…
Still we huddled there unmolested. We could hardly believe our luck. The mess-tin lid with its fold-over handle made an efficient frying pan and most of us still had the methylated-spirit heaters. I fried the rashers, soaked up the fat with bread and ate that up, then boiled about half a pint of water and dropped some tea, sugar and milk into it…
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. He was a Sergeant of Marines, lent to our Battalion to raise the standard of our training, particularly with regard to physical fitness. An exponent of a new style of physical training and drill involving non-stop movement, he would issue rapid, staccato commands which had the trainees bending, stretching, turning this way and that, marching, running, flinging their arms about, doing knees-ups (as in Mother Brown), and obeying his exhortations to raise them ever higher.
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. Even the fact that, during training, he dressed so differently to anyone else, enhanced his attractiveness. He wore Navy-blue slacks and a white sweater at the start of a session; as he warmed up, off came the sweater, revealing a smart, white singlet to match his white, canvas shoes — whereas we wore grey shirts and khaki trousers and heavy boots.
Shortly before we left Malta he surprised us all by appearing in a uniform remarkably like that worn by commissioned officers – an arrow on each arm just above the cuff – and there he was, our new RSM, no less. Why was it we felt there was something wrong with his appointment?
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… he failed us on our first night in the front line.
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.’
* See Blog 18, 9/11/14for more about the old journalist, Ewart Walker.
** See Blog 51, 28/6/15: “Booth” is my father’s alias for Harry Nathan (1889-1963), promoted to Battalion commander later in the campaign – and much later, as Lord Nathan, a Minister in Attlee’s post-WW2 Government.
*** A hated figure since the day Sam and his pals enlisted in Bloomsbury, London, September, 1914.
All the best – FSS
Next week: Digging in – and, within days, Sam has a sense that the Battalion’s presence is a “sad, military waste”. Meanwhile, Lieutenant Chalk takes a hip bath on the battlefield… and Sam sings the praises of some unlikely heroes: the front-line sanitary men.
Sunday, 20 September 2015
Sam’s first battlefield, Gallipoli – “guns being fired with intent to kill”, shrieking shells, the urgent call for “Stretcher-bearers!”… and he wants his breakfast!
For details of how to buy Sam’s full Memoir in paperback or e-book & new excerpted Gallipoli episode mini-e-book & reader reviews see right-hand column
All proceeds to British Red Cross
A hundred years ago… this week, the Battle Of Loos (September 25-October 14) in northern France began with a British onslaught following four days of artillery bombardment. It was co-ordinated with French attacks in Champagne-Ardenne which had rather more success, though the whole effort failed to “restore a war of movement”, as preferred by some of the generals. Notably, at Loos the British Army used poison gas (chlorine) for the first time. In these early days of what became known overall as the Third Battle Of Artois, casualties began their rise towards eventual official totals of 48,230 French, 61,713 British and 51,100 German.
Elsewhere, Russia had an unusual week of success driving the Germans back around Pinsk and Lutsk (now Belarus) and the Austrians in Rovno (now Ukraine). And in the region around Gallipoli, Bulgaria struck a somewhat ambiguous “armed neutrality” agreement with Turkey (September 25) and Greece began mobilising on the Allied side (23) as the Turkish Army in Syria made preparations to attack Egypt.
Meanwhile... 12 months on from joining up, the thousand men of the 2/1st City Of London Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, including my father, Lance Corporal Signaller Sam Sutcliffe, his brother Ted (still secretly underage at 17 and 18), and their pals from Edmonton, north London, set sail for Gallipoli, their first battle…
Last week, Sam encountered anticipatory fear for the first time, admitting he was “scared windy”. But he got a grip on it, settling into what he thought of as “the perpetual awareness of danger, which wild creatures display at all times”. Thus, he believed, he might present a “normal” appearance to his comrades no matter what.
So, when administrative officers removed his brother from the troopship on the docks at Alexandria (September 17, by one account, but possibly a few days later), at first he felt bereft… then glad that Ted might be spared and “remain in Egypt for the duration of the war”.
When they’d left the harbour he checked his massive load of equipment – it weighed around 90 pounds, he reckoned, with all the signalling gear – noting, with his poor boy’s attention to eating possibilities, “a can containing a block of solidified methylated spirit which could be made into a burner, and “iron rations” comprising a bag of small, hard biscuits, single packets of beef cubes, tea and sugar, and a can of Maconochie’s stewed beef – this last, one of that war’s great successes. To broach these rations without the permission of an officer was a serious crime; they were to be used in grave extremity only”. In the same prudent spirit, he writes that when meals aboard concluded, “What bread I, and others around me, couldn’t eat, I stored in any space in haversack or pack. Stew couldn’t be so readily saved… But I picked out leftover pieces of meat, dried them off, wrapped them up tightly in an oilskin cap cover… – scheming about any steps I could take to improve my survival prospects”.
Exploring the ship, a former cattle boat without sleeping accommodation, they found it “armed” with a fake gun, actually a telegraph pole, “a contraption which might mislead and scare an enemy lookout man, provided he had faulty eyesight or a dirty telescope. A thousand men at risk because some daft idiot at the Admiralty didn’t prepare for a war which all but he knew was coming…”
After a couple of days, they entered “a perfect natural harbour”, Mudros, on the Greek island Lemnos, the Allies’ Navy base for the Gallipoli campaign. There my father and another Signaller, following orders, spent this hiatus at anchor offering rather unwelcome “help” to the ship’s officer of the watch.
But soon they were on their way, preparing to transfer to another vessel, given “on active service” postcards to tell their families they were alive if little else – nobody had told them where they were going anyway, though of course they knew. Sam wrote vividly about what went on, inside out. This is a long passage, although I’ve edited it down heftily from the Memoir – but I think the intensity of these hours, which my father recalled in such detail 50 years later have to be given their due:
‘This set the tension mechanism really racing – although I flattered myself no one knew about that. If a boy like me tried to assume the cool, steady demeanour of a man in full control of his emotions, then an older chap might behave with gaiety, perhaps sing a few lines of a bawdy song, or take the micky out of a mate who was the usual butt of his jokes. The thing not to do was stay silent and look gloomy – that way you would be labelled “windy” and lose all your pals. You had to consider that others might be feeling worse than you, but they didn’t let it show. So it may be that battles fought inwardly to preserve the good opinion of one’s fellows made possible some of the bigger victories on the battlefield…
One man who simply had to win the personal inward struggle was the commissioned officer in charge of men in the front line. This subject I’d heard debated many a time; I don’t recall discussions about the deeper feelings of fellow rankers, but officers being a class apart, loved or hated, we expected them to act as the leaders they had set themselves up to be. If they had their men’s good will, they carried all our hopes that, in action, we would acquit ourselves well together…
One of those smaller ships came alongside…
Much too soon for my liking, we were ploughing through a choppy sea. One minute it seemed safe and quiet in harbour, the next out here in a small ship on a grey, cheerless day, bound for God knows what. Tired out, I slipped out of my heavy equipment and, with pack for a pillow, soon stretched out on the deck and forgot fears and fancies in deep sleep. [Then when] a wave lapped over the side, splashed around me and made me jump… I found a more sheltered place near the stern where I joined a chap leaning on the rail there. It was too dark for me to identify him. General chat became more detailed after a while, when I remarked that I’d be happier, perhaps, if somebody had told me what we were up to.
This man did tell me – and thus whipped up inner tension to its highest level so far: “We are going ashore at a place where landings commenced some time ago. Unfortunately, that lot haven’t done as well as hoped for. There are big hills quite a short distance from the beach and our chaps should by now be on the far side of them, but they’re not. We go ashore tonight, advance through their lines and try to get to what was their objective. I don’t like it, but we can only do our best.”*
By then, I realised he was an officer, and I remember surmising to myself that he must have felt deep anxiety and, perhaps, loneliness to have been moved to confide in a young ranker… Still leaning on the rail, I tried to envisage the probable course of events during the hours of darkness now commencing…
That this small ship’s course ran surprisingly close to the shore was revealed only too clearly when a burst of rifle fire had me scurrying to the sea side of the ship. I believed I could see, darker than the general darkness, the top of a cliff mass. Yes, and the sounds of desultory rifle fire came from up there. No bullets zinged past, though, so we were not the target.
Word passed around for all to be ready to disembark and I donned my load, message case, field transmitter, rifle and all… Whether excitement or fear brought it on I don’t know, but I suddenly felt terribly hungry. Then I recalled that I had not eaten since early morning. Nor, as far as I know, had any of our men. Someone had blundered. Or was it usual to land troops on a battlefield with empty bellies?
The sound of the ship’s engines changed. We four H Company Signallers stood shoulder to shoulder with the others awaiting the next move.
As Lance Corporal in charge of our small group… I located our Captain and resolved to keep close to him and to have my mates close to me… but as to Signallers he knew nothing, nor did he seem to wish to. “I can send messages by word of mouth,” he told me when jammed together, as we all were on that small ship. We four appeared to be crowding him in that darkness. Proximity to the scent of power boosted my confidence sufficiently for me to disregard any intended rebuff. I’d had my training, I felt that I knew my job, and perhaps felt sorry that the Captain did not appreciate our role…
Our small ship carried G and H Companies, and each assembled without fuss on its appointed side of the boat. Where the dark cliff had towered above us, I now saw the lighter colour of the sky. Across a wider stretch of water than earlier, on land rifles fired continuously and artillery lit up the blackness, each flash followed by a bang, a shriek or a strange whine which often increased in volume then ended up in a big explosion. Guns were being fired with intent to kill and here was my first experience of warfare.
I heard the engine of another vessel chugging nearby for several minutes until it bumped against our ship’s side, a lighter of some sort… a voice from the lighter quietly instructed us to “Move across carefully when your turn comes. Watch the rise and fall, then step across.” I soon found myself at the edge trying earnestly to estimate the right moment… 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.
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…
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 my 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.’
* According to the biography of their (soon to be) commanding officer Harry Nathan, my father’s Battalion landed at Suvla Bay, Gallipoli, on September 25, 1915 – a Saturday that week – joining the 88th Brigade of the 29th Division.
All the best – FSS