Because it’s Anzac Day, I’ve spent much of my time looking over the various diaries/letters of my greatuncles who took part in the Great War. (Various cousins-once-removed and second-cousins have transcribed them over the years and sent out copies to us all).
Two of four AIF brothers were at the landing at Anzac Cove on 25 April 1915. This excerpt is from a letter sent home by Bert while convalescing in a British military hospital after being wounded at Gallipoli: his letter was later published in the local paper as THE DARDANELLES – A SOLDIER’S LETTER. It’s very evocative, and the little he writes of the blood and death and horror is so obviously tightly held in and understated that it’s all the more powerful:
Half a mile from shore the troops were under shrapnel fire and many a poor chap never got off the destroyers and many more were killed in the boats by rifle, machine gun and shrapnel fire. One boat was struck on the waterline by a concussion shrapnel and of course sank and some of the men were drowned. One chap swam ashore with the whole of his kit and rifle, though how the dickens he did it I don’t know. A couple of pontoons loaded with troops broke loose from the tow and the Turks got the machine guns on to them and killed every man in them.
Once our boys got ashore they soon rooted out all the Turks; they charged them with the bayonet. I heard that one officer, only a mere boy bagged five with a revolver. They got the Turks on the run and after a while the Turks, seeing how eager they were to charge, led them on two or three times and then raked them with machine guns and shrapnel. Consequently the Third Brigade, though they did not, comparatively speaking, lose very many in the actual landing were pretty severely cut up before reinforcements were able to reach them. We landed in a bad place and it’s just as well. The Turks were expecting us at another place and had we gone there we would never have made it ashore. They had guns and machine guns, splendid trenches, obstacles and even barbed wire entanglements and mines in the water to welcome us with. Where we actually did land was not very well guarded and we sort of surprised them and we got ashore and established ourselves before they could bring sufficient troops to prevent us. Once we got ashore it was just a matter of holding on. The 3rd Brigade’s turn came about 8 a.m. and A Co, went first. I was OK until I saw the bodies of four poor beggars on the destroyer covered with a tarpaulin. The blood was running out from under it and it quite upset me. Didn’t get my nerve back until we got into the rowing boat and then I was OK.
The shrapnel was bursting all around us at intervals but our boat escaped and landed without any casualties. When the boats got fairly close in we hopped out. I picked out a nice shallow part up to my knees but didn’t get three feet before it was almost to my waist. One of our boys stood on a stone and it rolled and he went right under. We had no opposition in landing, except for the shrapnel as the 3rd Brigade had cleared out all the beggars out from the beach. After a short rest in a ravine we pushed on. Talk about a hill! We had to simply pull ourselves up by the undergrowth in places. None of them were very high but they were all very steep and we had to stop for a spell every little while. It was during one of these short spells that we had our first casualty. A bullet got Sergeant Cavill in the neck and killed him.
The bullets from the fighting in front were flying around pretty thick. You could hear in every direction the sharp crack as they passed. Finally we got on the top of the hill with a pretty good trench in it. The fact that it was a Turkish trench didn’t worry our consciences in the least. We just took possession of it and inwardly thanked the Turks for saving us the trouble of digging one. Unfortunately it had no field of fire, so we got up on to the crest of the hill and tried to pick out some of the Turks who were now potting at us both with rifles and machine guns. But we could not see a sign of them as the whole country is covered with scrub about 3ft high – ideal country for snipers and machine guns – and of course they were effectively concealed. We dug ourselves in, so that we were safe from rifle fire. It’s lovely work lying so close to the ground as a snake and trying to dig yourself a trench at the same time.
Bert, as I wrote in the previous post, was later killed in the trench warfare in France. Before he went to France he had been safely stationed as an expert semaphore instructor with a Training Battalion in England. He requested a transfer to the front lines in France because his three younger brothers were fighting there. He was only on the front for a few weeks before his death in the 2nd Battle of Bullecourt on 3rd May, 1917. A few days later, his younger brother, who did not yet know that Bert had been killed, signed off on a letter home as follows:
“How are all at home and how are the siblings generally. I am in the best to health and am no more miserable than I have ever been at home. In fact I’m getting so callous now that very little is able to affect me. Didn’t think I could become so cold blooded. Still its necessary here or one would go mad. Goodnight and good luck to you all.”
Anzac Day makes one remember the horror of war, not only the maimings and deaths but the transformation of ordinary people into killing automatons suppressing their normal reaction to the pain and suffering of others. Imagine the concern any parent would feel receiving such a letter from their son on the other side of the world. No wonder people who experience these things are never the same again. Lest we Forget.