Gallery: First World War - Why we must remember Suffolk’s cycling battalions who fought in a ‘forgotten’ conflict
- Credit: Archant
Octogenarian Mary Trumpess’s dearest wish is to remind us that war wasn’t just about the Somme. Young soldiers like her father were risking their lives in Afghanistan – a wracked land that, 100 years on, is still synonymous with conflict. Steven Russell discovers what drives her
It must have started off as a great big adventure for Suffolk lad Robert Sustins, keen to keep away from a father he loathed and maybe to enjoy a change from the ships’ chandlery where he was “the boy” – on the lowest rung of the ladder.
Fibbing about his age, the 16-year-old had signed up for The 6th (Cyclist) Battalion, The Suffolk Regiment – a territorial force whose job was to defend the coast from possible enemy invasion. Later, they’d be transformed into an infantry unit and sent far from the Suffolk seaside.
For Robert, that meant Afghanistan.
The photographs he carried around with him in his pack nearly 100 years ago are a bit bleached and curled by the sun and heat, but they give us a flavour of what life must have been like there: dry, dusty, sometimes beautiful, often hazardous.
What they don’t tell us is about a 2,000-mile train journey, midday temperatures of more than 100C, fanatical fighters, blisters, fever and deadly snipers waiting for one false move.
His only child, 87-year-old Mary Trumpess, knew precious little of this until after her father died and she determined to find out more – determined, too, to tell more people about a chapter of the 1900s few know about.
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Robert Sustins, who entered the world in 1898, was Lowestoft born and bred. “He was all set to go on to a higher level of education – what little they had here then – and his father came home and said he’d got him a job,” explains Mary, who lives in the town.
Robert found himself “the boy” at the Suffolk Road premises of RJ Pryce, a chandlery/hardware store. “He fell in the harbour once, with his week’s wages on him; lost it in the water,” she laughs.
Mary thinks her dad was about 16 and a half when he was economical with the truth and volunteered to pull on a uniform.
Robert was with the 6th (Cyclist) Battalion, The Suffolk Regiment.
Such troops, Mary understands from her research, had initially been charged with defending the coastline from possible attack. The 25th (County of London) Cyclist Battalion was apparently considered the cream of the crop and so was sent to defend the most likely point of invasion: East Anglia. It shared this duty with the 6th Suffolks and there was a base at Wrentham.
With war declared and under way, says Mary, the soldiers were ordered to Wiltshire to convert to an infantry battalion “for service in various theatres of war which could be Mesopotamia, Palestine, Archangel and France. The battalion had been very popular in the area, so a farewell concert was arranged at the Palace theatre in Lowestoft”.
In many essentially-Victorian households, Father ruled; and what Father said, went. Robert and his dad didn’t see eye to eye. Distance helped.
Mary understands the Suffolks became part of the 25th London. Men had been destined for German East Africa but, because of instability, Afghanistan became the priority. “The original orders were withdrawn; the new destination was to be Bombay, India.”
Afghanistan had long been a problem for Britain, which had fought two expensive wars there in the 1800s. To protect its interests in India, it had secured an agreement: Afghanistan would remain neutral in exchange for its independence being protected.
There was tension when Turkey aligned itself with Germany and then, in 1915, concern when a German-Turkish diplomatic mission went to Kabul… and encouraged dissident support among tribal leaders. More British troops had to be sent from England, including many Suffolk boys whose experiences were mainly as farmworkers, shop assistants and clerks. They included Robert. At some point he’d been given a letter from “old Mr Pryce”, guaranteeing his job back when he returned from action.
“After a three-week seasick voyage, followed by a rail journey the length of India to the Khyber Pass, these lads found themselves in a theatre of war now largely forgotten and unacknowledged, where they would fight and die in a culture and climate that could not have been more different from their balmy Suffolk,” writes Mary in an article she put together nearly a decade ago.
Her research showed that several thousand soldiers left England on February 3, 1916, on the hired military troopship SS Ceramic, a cruise liner. It arrived in Bombay on the 25th.
“Most of the men had suffered terrible seasickness, sleeping in hammocks slung in the crammed holds below; not allowed to smoke on deck because of the possibility of being spotted by submarines.
“Our young Suffolks – many having given their wrong age to join up… some were only 16; unworldly, never having been away from home before; regarded dismissively as amateurs by many of the regulars, homesick and weak from seasickness – had to quickly adapt to a wide range of cultures including Gurkhas, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Pathans.
“On disembarking, it was decided to take the men on a route march ‘to stretch their legs’ and in preparation for the 36 hours that they then spent on a troop train travelling to Bangalore.
“Here they spent several months in day and night field training, training in mountain warfare, and becoming acclimatised.”
December, she says, brought a train journey of 2,222 miles that took six days and six nights before reaching Attock, near Rawalpindi, where they camped under canvas in a ploughed field.
“Here they had to adjust to temperatures of between 100C and 110C degrees at midday and engaged with their first enemy” – hawks “that swooped on their meat if they were not quick enough getting under cover from the cook tent with their meal. Here they waited for orders, knowing only that they were going to somewhere called Waziristan” – a mountainous region – “to fight a campaign against hardened fanatical fighters and warlords who were fighting on the side of the Kaiser and were called Mahsuds, who knew the terrain, and were used to the climate.
“With their battle companions, the Gurkhas and the Sikhs, they set out along the Khyber Pass. Not having the benefits of modern medicines and equipment, there were cases of sandfly fever, heatstroke and malaria.
“At the end of May to the beginning of June the temperature reached 130C to 133C degrees in the shade, making sleep impossible because of ‘prickly heat’.
“One march – which took 30 hours, during which time they had no food or sleep – had to be made over a partially dried-up and boulder-strewn riverbed. The water was undrinkable; touching the hot boulders for balance resulted in blisters three inches across, which later would go septic.
“The puttees” – which covered the lower leg – “got wet and then shrank in the hot sun, creating terrible circulation problems. Soaking boots on scorching rocks made sodden soles curl up, and all the time exposed to the snipers on the hillsides on either side.”
Nevertheless, says Mary, the soldiers began to establish some control, “relieving besieged villages… The sick and wounded were evacuated by donkey and camel, in baskets slung on either side of the animals, to the nearest railhead; then by train to hospital”.
Dates on the photographs Robert collected suggest he was still in the country by the time the Third Anglo-Afghan War began in the May of 1919. It ended with a fragile peace early in August. “The first men to come home to ‘Blighty’ sailed on the SS Lancashire. She docked at Devonport exactly one year and a day after the signing of the (Great War) armistice.”
Mary reflects: “The 6th (Cyclist) The Suffolk Regiment, originally trained as a coastal defence force, had been transformed into a crack infantry unit, in which capacity they served gallantly for over four years in many theatres of war. Although this ‘war’ was being fought at the same time as the Battle of the Somme, it is never commemorated or even referred to.”
And that’s always nagged at the retired civil servant, who worked as a tax officer in Lowestoft and in the unemployment office.
She often thought about family history. “My father always told me not to forget my great-great-uncle. He was from Southwold and mate on a schooner, sailing from the West Indies to England with sugar and coffee etc.”
This was in 1819. It was hailed by a vessel purportedly in distress. It turned out to be a ruse by pirates. Refusing to join their band, her great-great-uncle was shot above the right eye and thrown overboard.
Mary researched and wrote-up that story “and it whetted my appetite”. It led to her trying to find out more about her late father’s life and times.
She had a friend whose dad was one of Robert’s companions in battle, and the family gave her a copy of Col Gilbertson Smith’s 1932 book The London Cyclist Battalion, which told her much and added to the snippets her father had given during his life.
Did he actually talk much about his experiences?
“No. None of them ever did. I used to pester him. ‘Did you ever kill anybody, Dad?’ He came out with one or two things. He said they sailed down to Mumbai and got on a train there.”
Mary did come across one or two elderly men in Lowestoft who remembered the cyclist force, which helped confirm the things she was learning. “There was a stage when I’d wondered whether my father made it all up!” she laughs.
Then she got to know a historian involved with an exhibition in a local church and the jigsaw pieces started to come together even more.
Having learned about this involvement in Afghanistan, Mary has been on something of a mission to remind us of this episode in our military history.
“It wasn’t ‘romantic’, with the trenches and bodies being dragged over barbed wire. It didn’t have the same pull,” she suggests.
Her father never made a fuss about his wartime service, or railed about not receiving greater recognition for it. “That was the Victorian way. You just gritted your teeth and got on with it,” says his daughter, who admits to being aghast about the way many people now post their trivialities on social media. “I feel like saying ‘Get a life!’ or ‘Get something to cope with!’”
Robert returned to Lowestoft upon his return – happily, having avoided injury during his time abroad – though there was tragedy in store. “He adored his mother. She wrote to him when he was abroad, and he carried her letters with him all over Afghanistan. We didn’t find them until after he died.”
Sadly, she died in the flu epidemic. “He was coming home on the boat and she died before he got home. I thought that was terribly poignant. People were dying like flies.”
Robert went back to RJ Pryce, where he’d spend more than 50 years, all told. He married Ellen – known as Nellie – whose grandfather had come to the town to set up a boot-mending business with a friend. When Robert died, it was cancer that claimed him.
So what was Mary’s dad like?
“He was a good father. One of his favourite things was to sit me in the palm of his hand and hold me up. I used to scream blue murder!
“He was strict. I used to go dancing up the Palais, but I couldn’t tell him where I was going. He wouldn’t have liked it – or I’d have faced a lot of questioning when I got home.”
Robert was a small man, “always with a cigarette in his mouth. He often used to burn his mouth!”
Before I leave, I take a quick snap of a kukri, the traditional weapon of the Gurkha, hanging on the living-room wall. It was given to Robert by a Gurkha sergeant as a symbol of friendship.
“You mustn’t draw it (from its sheath),” warns Mary. “If you do, you have to draw blood! That is the Gurkha rule!”
She’s thrilled her father’s story is going to reach a fresh audience.
“I’ll have achieved what I promised my dad I’d do – well, he wasn’t here to promise! – to move heaven and earth to get it publicised, so that those guys get recognised for their service; for their blisters and their sandfly fever.”