“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, 31 December 2017
Seasonal Rewind 2 – Sam’s Gallipoli Christmas and New Year… landing at V Beach through the bowels of the River Clyde, getting acquainted with the lovely Asiatic Annie and German planes dropping darts and bombs… but a New Year/evacuation feast offers much consolation – Happy New Year from Cape Helles!
For details of how to buy Sam’s full Memoir(1) 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 war in Europe did no more than smoulder, whether it was the Western Front around Ypres and Verdun, or the Eastern Front where peace negotiations seemed to have gone chaotic with the Russians demanding a move to Stockholm from Brest-Litovsk (Belarussia) and General Kaledin’s “volunteer army” perhaps causing the Bolsheviks more concern than anticipated. Down in Italy the Austrians, ultimately held back after their long attempt to sweep south, took some revenge by bombing Treviso, Vicenza, Castelfranco, Bassano, and Padua (December 31 and January 3-4).
The more striking events were German successes at sea against British troopships and even hospital ships. The Osmanieh succumbed to a mine off Alexandria (December 31; 198 casualties), and the Rewa, with a 279 wounded/sick officers on board, sailing from Malta to Britain, was torpedoed and sank in the Bristol Channel (January 4; all crew and patients saved bar four engineers killed by the explosion).
[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. An interesting year ensued – four months of blizzards, a meningitis scare, special training in various northern locations, and then a few summer weeks stomping around Yorkshire on a route march… which in due course led him to hospital again, to recover from lurking effects of trench warfare’s privations – and prepare for more of the same (he was 19 on July 6, 1917, while in hospital). During that period, his Company Officer told him he’d been offered the chance to train as a commissioned officer, but Sam detested ordering men around – especially when death might be the outcome – so he refused; one immediate-post-war pension form suggests this defiance brought about his “reversion” to Private, but it’s not clear. He spent several autumn weeks refreshing his signalling skills at an Army training camp outside Crowborough, Sussex, and, come November/December, enjoyed what turned out to be the final home leave of his military career. Come December/January 1917/8, he’s returned to France with the Western Front coming up once more… However, pro tem the main narrative is subject to a two-week seasonal interruption…]
Last week, with no Christmas/New Year story to tell from 1917/18 – because Sam filed it as “forgettable” in the Memoir via the simple device of forgetting it, we returned to his festive season of 1915/16 in and around Gallipoli, a period of a few weeks which really did demand writing about.
So that story so far, in summary, is the 2/1st Royal Fusiliers evacuated Suvla Bay on the night of December 18-19 and enjoyed a high old time on Lemnos – Sam more than most, because of a surprise reunion there with his older brother Ted – the main event being a massive feast (in nalnourished-men terms) on Christmas Day with normal rations richly reinforced by bonus beer from the Army and parcels from home, the 200-odd Suvla survivors being advised they could devour their absent comrades’ Christmas goodies too.
However, this proved much too good to last. At 5am Boxing Day their Sergeant roared out that they must all get up and prepare to sail away again. As usual, no one told them where to, much less why, though the sound of gunfire and the black looming of cliffs against the night sky soon put them in the picture…
‘Now we could make out the black shape of a big ship, berthed in the shallows head-on to the shore(3). Moving closer, we saw a large, square opening in her side and, the tide being just right, our shallower ship could tie up to her and we could step across into her innards and eventually emerge on to a sort of landing stage. We hurried along it before gathering, briefly, on the beach beneath towering cliffs… But no enemy fire came our way.
Excitement and interest now replaced resentment, as we filed some way up a gully and waited. I saw someone approach our Major, who then led us further upwards into this rising gully. A great flash some miles distant seawards gave short illumination to the scene; we saw we were passing a strange, wooden tower… and at that moment, almost unbelievably, from the top of it a hunting horn sounded.
“Lie down!” yelled an unidentified voice and, being no strangers to this life-saving precaution, we were probably flat on the ground before he was. We heard the usual tearing scream, the crash, and below us – about the spot where we had first paused – we saw a brilliant flash and a large cloud of smoke, followed by the whinings of many flying pieces of shrapnel, the phuts as some of them landed nearby.
Said the voice who had given us the warning, “That shell was from Asiatic Annie(2), a real big gun across the sea there in Asia Minor. When the lookout up above sees her fire, he blows his horn and we have about 30 seconds to take cover. The shells don’t always land here, of course, but we assume they will.” The informative bloke added that we had landed at V Beach and that the ship we had come through was the River Clyde beached there in the first Gallipoli landings months earlier.
So at last we knew that a complete evacuation of Gallipoli had not taken place, that we were once more stuck on that ill-starred Turkish peninsula. I recall wondering what brother Ted would think of my second disappearance; he would be mad about not travelling with us, that was certain. Still, although he really belonged to us, he was attached to the Field Hospital for duty; what a surprise he must have had when he found our tents empty.
We moved steadily upwards along a track which eventually brought us to flat ground at the top of the cliff. Now, away in the distance, we recognised all the audible and visible indications that over there was a battlefront; personally, I felt once more the growing nervous tension, the alertness generated by the desire for self-preservation.
Even so, through a few days good living and the contact with normal people provided by the letters from home and those lovely parcels, I felt changed and strengthened; I knew this tautness was not, at present, allied to fear, as it sometimes had been when lack of food and sleep had caused debility. I’d had proof the normal world still carried on, albeit with certain difficulties, and that we had not been forgotten or given up for lost.
We few remaining Signallers stood together talking quietly. Short, sturdy Nieter recalled our days and nights together on that hill(4); I hope I told him how much his faith in the cause and his cheery optimism had helped me when the physical after-effects of the blizzard got me down.’
(2) SS River Clyde: a collier launched in March, 1905, adapted as a landing ship in 1915; that April, she sailed from Mudros to Cape Helles V Beach; bombarded from the cliffs, she was beached to serve as a bridge for landings and then for returning wounded; six of the River Clyde’s crew were awarded VCs; the apparent hulk was later repaired and sold to Spanish owners who used her as a Mediterranean tramp steamer until finally scrapping her in 1966; on April 15, V Beach, only 300 yards long, became one of five main Allied landing places on Cape Helles; it was overlooked by cliffs, a fort and an ancient castle, Sedd el Bahr Kale (Anglo spelling varies), occupied and defended by the Turkish Army, though captured on April 26, during the initial attacks.
(3) According to an invisionzone page which no longer seems to be available three years on from my original search, Asiatic Annie fired from a place called Tepe, aiming at V Beach (where my father’s Battalion had landed) and W Beach on Cape Helles; https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/history/conflicts/gallipoli-and-anzacs/locations/explore-asian-shore-sites/kumkale says the gun was set up in a 17th-century fort called Kumkalle, five kilometres from the site of ancient Troy.
(4) Old friends from training in Malta for six months earlier that year, they’d lately spent several winter weeks, including the fearsome blizzard after math running a two-man Signals outpost (better described as a hole) on top of a hill overlooking the Turkish lines on 24-hour rotation day after day without relief.
At first it seemed a straightforward Signalling job was required. Sam Peter and two others settled in an eyrie on the cliffside high above the River Clyde - interest added to the experience because the seaward side had no barrier so you could easily roll out and down in your sleep. Fortunately, before any harm befell them, they had to move.
‘Soon, an order came through for us Signallers to disconnect everything, take all the equipment down to a store on the beach, then rejoin our Battalion. A guide took us to where they were living in a series of square holes not far from the beach all connected by a long trench. At last, we learned the reason for our return to Gallipoli; we were to work every night at dismantling and loading stores on to lighters and small ships. Night work only, in order to conceal evacuation preparations. We could take some rest during the day — but, should enemy planes appear, like the occasional small groups of Taubes we’d seen high above Suvla, we must expose ourselves, move around as though busy upon routine matters, and generally try to convince the observers that our numbers were as great as at any previous time.
Shortly after dawn that first morning back with our crowd, a lone plane did fly back and forth over our area, so we put on our busy act for the pilot’s amusement and information. Quite rightly, acting on instructions, some of our men fired their rifles upwards — imagine our surprise, though, when the pilot dropped a bomb(5). It exploded much too close for our liking and caused a brief interruption to our “busy bee” programme.
That was the first time I’d thought about the possibility of planes carrying bombs. Probably the pilot hurled it out of his cockpit. Although it could only have been a small one, it made quite an impressive bang. Still, no harm done, so nobody worried too much about air-bomb possibilities.’
(5) Of course, planes dropping bombs had become common in Europe, but down in Gallipoli, in this rather less organised campaign, low priorities and tight budgets presumably restricted innovative approaches.
But soon one of these crudest of aerial bombs “disintegrates” a comrade on the beach in front of Sam‘s eyes – plus they get heavy darts dropped on them, pilots unloading them by the boxfull.
With their professional specialism – Signalling – redundant, the Signallers now find an unrelated expertise in boozing and noshing called to the colours once more. You wouldn’t want to leave anything for the enemy, would you?
’Our Signals group landed a lovely job which consisted of going to a large dump near the beach and gradually dispersing its contents: canned and bottled food and drink intended as extras for officers – anything that would keep well in cans, boxes, cartons, with smoked items in cotton wraps, also biscuits, some cakes and sweets, wines, beers, but not much in the way of spirits. We loaded these good things on to small mule carts.
A very fair way had been devised to consign them to the troops in equal quantities. Those up at the Front got the first deliveries, naturally. The officer in charge at the dump had records of all the units in benefit. We could only work at night, but during breaks for rest, or while awaiting transports, we were allowed to eat and drink. Chicken, asparagus, Irish bitter from round brass-coloured tins, Schweppes lemon squash or Seltzer water, thin lunch biscuits and other luxuries… for a brief period our small, but fortunate group guzzled these lush items.
Quite fairly, we were not allowed to take anything away from the dump for our own use; but we would be entitled to a share of what was delivered to our Battalion. In fact, we Signallers hadn’t the gall to accept our share when it was offered since we stuffed ourselves to capacity during the night and, in daytime, only wanted to sleep. But we did work with a will on the job — and so shortened its duration, unfortunately.’
The festive season hadn’t been much on their minds since the disruption of their Xmas festivities at 5am, Boxing Day, but suddenly they got a reminder:
‘A few days after our disembarkation at V Beach, around midnight someone called out “It’s New Year’s Eve!” and a special search produced several bottles of what may have been cider, although some called it champagne. We didn’t know which, but heartily toasted each other and anyone else we fancied, before renewing our onslaught on that marvellous giveaway job.’
(6) In fact, six days after they arrived at V Beach.
The evacuation date remained secret, of course. The next order to include the Signallers and other 2/1st comrades really made them wonder what was going on – and put the wind up them, as Sam would say.
‘… a few nights later [so January 3 or 4?], our little group was detailed to join other men and trail off behind a guide in the general direction of the front line. In faint light from a clear sky we could see the nature of the terrain: sometimes fairly level, sometimes hillocks, ridges, low areas. Halting at the entrance to a gully, the leader said, “We now enter Krithea Nullah, which leads to our front line. It gives good cover against rifle and machine-gun fire, but the odd shell can be dangerous; the Turks have got it taped as a route we use regularly, so flop if you hear one coming.”
We reached what I assumed was the support-line trench where all the men, except lookouts, were dozing. Forward again and the front line was our next stop. There, we were each handed a pick or a shovel and our guide led the way up over the firing step and parapet into No Man’s Land, the space between us and the enemy. He spaced us out in groups of four and told us to start digging holes. The picks made more than enough noise on that hard, peculiar ground and we were sitting ducks for any Turk who cared to take a pot shot. I wished I was still way back helping with the charitable work at the officers’ food dump…
When several Turk light field guns let fly, their nearness surprised me; a strange feature was the thin, red line visible as each shell left its gun, making me wonder if they used rather antique pieces. Their trajectory was high, its zenith roughly above us, yet the shells – not trench mortar bombs, their whine confirmed – burst only a couple of hundred yards behind us.
No one told us why, at this stage of the campaign, we poor mugs were digging holes in front of the Turk trenches at great risk to ourselves and our underpants, but even we of the lower orders could guess that we played a part in the great game of bluff. Our top brass hoped John Turk would reason, “They can’t be leaving yet or they wouldn’t be digging works in advanced positions”. I wonder if they were right – if the enemy even cared what we were up to? Perhaps he too had seen enough of the farce. We suffered no casualties.’
The laundry hazards concluded, the Battalion finally got their second set of evacuation instructions – which arrived in Battalion CO Major Nathan’s words, as researched by H Montgomery Ward for his biography Strong For Service, “on the night of Thursday 6th at ten minutes notice [and] in the middle of tea”.
“Once again the quiet line-up in the darkness, the very quiet roll-call, but then the strong, firm voice of our idolised Major saying “Forward!” Little artillery activity as, in two lines, we followed him…
After we had walked for some time, I saw the dark shape of a large building on our left-hand side. We stopped 30 yards away and I could see that light escaped from several slits in doors or windows. Apart from slight indications of habitation behind enemy lines up Krithea way, this was the first real building I’d seen near V Beach, so I was interested when the voice of one of our best officers informed us that there stood the fort of Sedd el Bahr, possibly dating from Crusade times.
Cautious no longer, the Major’s voice boomed out, “Corporal Bebb! Corporal Bebb!” It appeared that this popular chap, friend of my brother’s, well known to and admired by me, had taken a small party on an assignment to the front line with orders to return to us in time for our move off, but they were still missing.
I felt an atmosphere of mystery just then… standing near the ancient fort, Bebb and his little party missing, our contingent now so small that some months before had been nigh a thousand strong, all our senior officers missing, apart from Major Booth; we had successfully crawled away from one battlefront and now we were at it again. Would the Turks let us do it twice?
Only a few hundred yards to go and our ears told us that the enemy guns were dropping more shells around the beaches than they had done for many a day. Why?
Hope of Bebb’s party abandoned because we had to follow a precise timetable, our Major said we must now move. As we reached the cutting at the landward end of the beach area Asiatic Annie flashed and one of her huge shells crashed down a couple of hundred yards away, but we walked steadily forward, hoping to be spared. A sad thing it would be if she wiped most of us out when we’d got this far…’
But it proved another brilliant evacuation. Hardly any casualties – much though many of the troops shared the sourness about “doing what we do best - running away”. The 2/1st remnants passed through the River Clyde to board a lighter and then a small steamer…
‘Partridge, probably related to the Robin Redbreast that lifted us from Suvla, chugged off into the night, taking us away from all the nasty bangs and flashes and wounds and deaths which make life on active service so unpleasant for us who would much prefer life in an equable clime with a full belly under a tree with a glass of wine and thou and that sort of thing.
Enjoying myself, I recall, leaning on the ship’s rail, looking at the dark sea with its occasional streaks and flurries of white foam, I heard a conversation in which one speaker was a nice chap and very good worker named Harry Greengrass, a member of our Pioneer section. Harry and his mates did most of the unpopular jobs. He said to someone unknown to me, “The Padre insisted on doing a short burial service over Lewis’s body. You remember, don’t you? The man who copped that bomb from the plane. We collected as many pieces as we could find and sewed them up in a sack, but as we went to lower it slowly into the grave his legs fell out. That scared me because I was sure I had stitched up the bag properly.”
I moved away. Poor Lewis. A year earlier, who would have imagined it — in pieces in a sack in a bleak strip of Turkey.’
And so they sailed on to Mudros harbour again. They didn’t go ashore, just waited awhile before moving back to Egypt on a large troopship, the Minneapolis. They were to spend four months there on training and r&r before their turn came around to head for the Western Front and the Somme…
All the best – FSS
Next week: Back to Arras, January, 1918, Sam still a free agent exploring his lodgings in the old Prison, freelancing around as a Signaller while he awaits re-attachment to his 2/7th Essex Battalion - and taking inspiration from the sight of a Guards outfit sprucing themselves up, top to toe, despite it all …
(1) 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.