Dispatches from the Dardanelles - 1915

Penny W-T By Penny W-T, 5th May 2013 | Follow this author | RSS Feed | Short URL http://nut.bz/10o_uwh5/
Posted in Wikinut>Writing>Personal Experiences

A batch of letters was discovered in my family, in 1999 that date back to 1914-17, the majority covering the period of the Gallipoli campaign during 1915. The letters were sent home by my grandfather, a young man not yet 20 years of age, to his parents and siblings. They provide an interestng insight into the social history of the time for the young men who had left England, for what many described as "the trip of a lifetime", many of whom never came home.

Stepping back into the Past

When my great-aunt died at the age of 90 she was the last of my grand-father’s siblings. But unknown, possibly even to herself, she had left behind a box of treasure – over 100 letters and as many picture postcards from 1915-1918 written by my grandfather and two of his brothers who had fought in the Great War. They are a fascinating insight into the lives of young infantrymen fighting in horrific battles at this time. Beautifully written, my grandfather sent copious letters to his mother and father, and to his brothers, who were at different battle fronts. There is an air of formality to all the letters. He always addresses them to ‘Dear Father and Mother and all’ and ends with ‘will conclude with Best Love and Wishes to you all. From your Everloving Son.’ There are always kisses, especially for his baby sister, who would have been about 3 years old at that time. Having read the letters and cards, I decided then, that I had to write a book, or at least edit a book of these letters as part of the written history of that period – written by a young infantryman whose words have recorded the day to day history of one of the most brutal campaigns in the history of the Great War.
During my research into the historical events of the Gallipoli Campaign, that has been prompted by the discovery of these letters, many of which he had written home from Malta following injury during the Dardanelles battles, I decided to write to the Australian media because he made constant reference to the ‘Australian chums’ that he had made whilst on Malta. I have, as a result of those communications, received a wealth of information from families in Australia whose relatives were also placed in this war zone at that time. Extracts from copies of the letters some of these men sent home to their families, have revealed similar evidence to consolidate the picture of the horrors of the first days of this campaign from the viewpoint of these young men who experienced it.

Combined military forces from Britain, Australia and New Zealand landed on different beach heads on the Dardanelles in the early hours of Sunday 25th April 1915. The Australian and New Zealand forces have commemorated that date ever since as ANZAC Day. This year is the 99th anniversary of these events.
My grandfather’s letters to his parents living in the West Midlands (as it is now) and one to his brother recalled the initial few days of the battle:
“. . . . . . I might tell you that we landed with the first lot on the Sunday . . . we got a warm reception on the Sunday but we paid them back alright after. You ought to have been there just to have seen the Navy. We could hear nothing for our Navy guns. On the Monday we made our name. Our Regt, we made a bayonet charge and took a Fort. The General said it was the Best bit of work as ever he had seen, and then on the Tuesday we made an advance of about 5 miles and then on Wednesday we started again, I went on till the Wednesday before I got mine, but I copped this bit of a wound more is the pity and then I got sent back to the hospital on Malta where I remain now . . . . . and I couldn’t say how they are doing now. But I hope they will soon be at Constantinopol, and I think they will. . . . . .”
My grandfather made reference to the many Australian chums he made whilst convalescing in Malta, which prompted my research to Australia, and I have been surprised by the very similarity of the descriptions sent home by young Australians at the time to their families.

This first letter, written by William Britt, and kindly supplied to my by his Great-niece Betty Hammond, of Western Australia, gives the most detailed outline of the first day of battle :
“The 3rd brigade was picked for the covering party – that is to land first and clear the enemy from the shore. The 11th Battalion was the first to land. We left the island (Lemnos) at 2pm on the Saturday afternoon and steamed up towards the Straits. At 12 midnight we anchored and climbed silently over the side, down rope ladders onto a destroyer – about 500 of us. When all was ready the destroyer crept silently away in the darkness. We laid on the deck and had a short sleep. At 3.30 we could see land in the dim light and we crept closer and closer, the big battle ships looming up on either side of us. It was fast getting light and when we were 600 yds from the shore the destroyer stopped and we prepared to get into the boats. Our first warning was a sharp crack and a flash from the hills in front of us, and the ping of a bullet overhead, followed by another and then a score. One of our comrades was hit and died, after wishing us good luck. We scrambled into the boats – about 50 in each boat – and started to pull for the shore. By this time the bullets were splashing all round the boat and a great many of our fellows were hit, some fatally. We had to row 600 yds in the face of murderous fire – machine gun and rifle – and not a man flinched. We could see the flashes from the hills in front but not a Turk could we see. The boat grounded 30 yds from the beach and I jumped in the water, icy cold and up to my waist. I was carrying 250 rounds ammunition, pack with clothes and kit weighing 30lbs, haversack with 4 tins dog biscuits and a water bag, and 3 cement bags rolled up to be used as sand bags. Well, I waded to the shore (by this time they had got our range and men were dropping all around me). They had measured the range previously of course. I got a bullet through the cap as I stepped out of the water. I threw off my pack and took cover behind a heap of pebbles. There was no cover from the bullets as the Turks were entrenched at the top of a cliff, which ran round in a half circle and rose straight up at a distance of 500 yds from the water.
Well I was loading my rifle by this time and trying to make out the trenches in the half light, but could see nothing but the rifle flashes. We were getting it hot by this time. They were using dum dums and explosive bullets which crack over your head like a cracker. Two of my chums fell here, both killed instantly. Then one of my lacrosse chums Corporal Danes was shot and a lot more. Then some one spotted the trenches and we put a hot fire into them and drove them out. The first Turk I saw was crawling up the slope. I underestimated the range first shot but got him the second. We took the hill and advanced about half a mile and the Turks counter attacked, and then the fight started properly. The machine gun and rifle fire was deafening and the shrapnel burst all over us. My rifle got so hot once I had to stop firing. The Turks were estimated at 50 to 1. The fight lasted all day.
I told you before I was a sniper and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. Once I crawled out on my own to snipe a machine gun. I was having a grand time till my gun jammed – sand on the bolt. Took me five minutes to fix it. They spotted me at last and peppered the bush I was lying behind. I had to keep my head down I can tell you. All they did was to shoot a hole through my pocket and smashed the stem of my pipe which I would have sold for a £1. I had carved it with the name of all the places we had been to. Anyhow they sent out a sniper to get me. I pretended not to see him and didn’t fire. I let him crawl about 150 yards. I could see the stump he was making for and trained my rifle on it. The beggar thought he was safe and I watched him push his rifle out to take aim and then he died mighty quick. After that I crawled back. I was mighty hungry but no time to eat. Things were too hot. By 5 o’clock (pm) things were getting dashed lively – our guns and theirs playing a duel. We got shrapnel at the rate of 10 shells per half minute. Every time a shell would burst over my head the shock of the explosion blew my cap off. I expected to get my head blown off too but didn’t. The rifle bullets were like bees. I got hit on the wrist, just a scratch, and several went through my clothes without touching me. You soon get used to rifle bullets but shrapnel is rotten.
I was firing away when all of a sudden there was a deafening shock alongside me. I felt a severe blow in the hip, rifle blown out of my hands and I was lifted about two feet in the air. I was unconscious for a while and when I came round I saw what had happened. A shell had burst on my right, killing a lot of fellows who were lying near me, and wounding me in the right hip. My trousers were soaked with blood, and I was in a bad way. I couldn’t use my leg so I got my gun, gave the few cartridges I had to one of the chaps and crawled back about 40 yds. I was settled then and had to have a spell. Then I crawled on about a quarter of a mile, and some more wounded chaps gave me a hand. Then we struck some Red Cross chaps who tied up my wound and stopped the bleeding. Then they carried me back to the beach and I was laid on a stretcher with hundreds of others wounded too. Wound was getting very painful by this time. Then I discovered some cigarettes that hadn’t got wet, borrowed a match and life saved.
The enemy shelled us unmercifully as we lay on the beach, killing several. It was 7 o’clock by this time. Presently we were put on a barge and towed out to a ship that was lying out from the shore, shells bursting round us all the time. We were taken aboard the ship. There was no accommodation for us, and we laid on the floor wrapped in a blanket. We got to Alexandria on the following Friday, so you can see we had a good (long) time on the boat. . . . . .”
These events were similarly confirmed by extracts from another letter, kindly supplied by Molly Johnson, also of Western Australia, that had been sent home by her father, Charles Smith, to his future wife to whom he explained :
“Our brigade had the honour of being the first of the Australians to land. It was early one morning that we landed in small boats. The Turks were stuck up on the top of a cliff potting at us all the time. Some of our fellows were shot before they reached the shore. But in our particular boat we were pretty lucky.
We just jumped, scrambled or slid out the best and quickest way we could. Our next job was to clear the Turks off the top of the cliff. This we managed and ‘some’ excitement it was too! We lost a few men, but it was later in the day we had most of our casualties.
After clearing the top of the cliff, we began to entrench ourselves, but before we could do much the Turks came back in bigger numbers, and we were ordered out to meet them. We met them all right but by jingo! They poured some lead into us, as they were in good positions in their own trenches and we were stuck out in the open.
About eleven o’clock my hat was punctured by a bullet and, incidently, took away a bit of my head. I bled a lot, and looked a bit of a sight, but I wasn’t much damaged. A fellow alongside stuck a bandage on for me, and then I was fit for action again, so went forward another two or three hundred yards.
The Turks were firing away for all they were worth – rifles and big guns all the time – so thick and hot that a fellow could not expect to be missed. One bullet struck me on the hip but the shot was so fine that it cut a hole in my pants without touching my skin. A bit later I got one in the leg, and that prevented my doing much more damage, as a bone in my leg was broken. That was about midday. I lay there till eight o’clock at night, but there was a fairish amount of excitement. It didn’t seem very long – there were still the bullets to dodge, and when the Turks shrapnel came shrieking overhead I amused myself by speculating where they would burst. Some came pretty close, but I got nothing worse than a few bits in the wrist.
As it got dark the Turks began to advance again, and our fellows got orders to work their way gradually back to a better position for the night.
After crawling 300 yards I came across one of our fellows with his leg badly smashed. He couldn’t crawl back with me, so I decided to stay with him . . . . .”
A further letter, written on a piece of toilet paper was sent home by George Hanson Bell, and a photocopy has been kindly supplied by his niece Mrs Elsie Teede, again of Western Australia, where he explained
“The weather here is getting a bit warm now but was very cold at night when we landed. Mail days are one of the best days here, everyone’s looking forward to receiving a letter from home. The Australians have made a name for themselves which will never die and it was one of the greatest landings that has ever taken place in history . . . . . . .”
However, I feel that my grandfather summed up the events of the first day of battle very succinctly with his comment in a letter sent home on the 14th June 1915
“. . . . . . . and there will never be another day like that as long as the World stands”

Tags

Family History, Gallipoli, Great War

Meet the author

author avatar Penny W-T
Published articles on education themes, travel, history and writing techniques. Written a book on WW1 - Gallipoli, and travel books. Run a marketing network for small businesses.

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