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Writing at Gallipoli

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‘It is a glorious night, calm and peaceful.’

A purser on a troopship, an infantry soldier, a medical attendant and a lieutenant-colonel all played their part in the landing at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915. They recorded in their diaries what they witnessed on that first Anzac day.

After four and a half months in Egypt, Australian troops began departing, first for the island of Lemnos, then on to Gallipoli to join a contingent of Allied troops from New Zealand, Britain, France and India. The landing was intended to assist the British naval operation which aimed to push through the Dardanelles and ultimately capture the Turkish capital, Constantinople.

They had been practising landing for about a week in the waters off the Greek island of Lemnos. Wearing their full army kit, men were timed as they climbed down the narrow ladders from the ships into the smaller boats. Each day they were getting faster. As the purser on the transport ship A45, which had arrived in the area on 8 April, Herbert Farrell was responsible for the supplies on board.

He recorded daily updates on the build-up of Allied forces, writing on 15 April:

'We put all their Gear into the barges, including Guns and Mules and some days they land on the Island and on others just get all the gear and themselves into the boats and then straight aboard again. It is splendid and necessary practice however. The first day it started it took our men seven to nine minutes to get down a Jacobs ladder and fill a boat holding 36 men, now they can do it in 2 mins 40 secs, so the practice is valuable, especially as they will have to disembark under rifle fire.'

By 24 April, Farrell’s ship and 12 other transports had anchored at the north-west end of Lemnos Island. Farrell and a senior officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Rosenthal, updated their diaries late into the evening. ‘Heaved up anchor and with all lights out proceeded on our way to the Gallipoli Peninsula,’ Farrell wrote. ‘It is a glorious night, calm and peaceful.’ He continued to describe the scene:

Presently we are joined by other Troopships and Men O’ War all gliding quietly, slowly, through the night. Now we open out into a clear stretch of ocean and immediately is revealed … ship upon ship of living freight and what a magnificent sight it is.

Rosenthal addressed his troops before dinner and attended a church service on board his ship. ‘The air tonight seems electrical,’ he wrote:

'Everybody is in splendid spirit and ready for tomorrow’s momentous happenings … We shall all endeavour to get a good night’s rest. Goodness knows when we will get our next, perhaps it may be a very long night for some of us. We can only do our best, and I am sure everybody will do that.'

 

The diary writers woke early. Harry Gissing, a medical attendant, was awoken by the officers’ call at 3 am on 25 April:

'Breakfast at 4 A.M. then commenced the landing by means of torpedo boats. The sound of firing came to our ears and a feeling of pleasure and excitement caused me to feel sorry for those not here. But twas soon to be changed. The enemy had prepared defences and our boys met with heavy fire before they put foot ashore …'

‘Arrived off the Peninsula and proceeded to our allotted berth,’ Farrell reported at 4.30 am. ‘It is just breaking dawn and shrapnel is bursting all along the beach where our boys are landing’.

At 5.30 am the sun was rising behind Gaba Tepe and:

...with shrapnel and warship shells bursting all along the ridges of the hills the sight is weirdly beautiful, yet hellish.

At 8.40 am the Indian Mountain Battery disembarked from Farrell’s ship:

'It was a great sight to see the Indian Mountain Battery that we landed, rush the hill in front of them. The barges with the guns and mules had no sooner touched the beach, than they were hooked ashore, the mules made fast to the guns and with one fiendish yell they raced for the top, the Indians keeping yelling all the way up.'

At around 9 am infantry soldier Alan Langley Pryce of the 1st Battalion landed at the beach:

'The hills are low but very steep and broken. A gun boat close in to us has fired a good deal of metal at a fort or Battery which has succeeded in getting two or 3 shells close to us. They have a nasty vicious hiss. I have seen several wounded chaps they seem pretty jolly on the strength of it.'

Charles Rosenthal disembarked at about 1 pm, instructing his men to seek shelter under the cliffs. He had been instructed to leave his artillery on board:

'I was very much upset over this decision for I was hoping to get our guns into position today. Col White then … instructed me to collect all Infantry stragglers, (many of whom were coming back to the beach from the firing line assisting wounded comrades) form them up and get them to the Right Flank.

'I gathered together all the Infantry I could find who were unwounded, and used them to unload ammunition ... The Indian mountain guns just above me on the hills were pounding away in great style, but I hear have suffered many casualties.'

Harry Gissing arrived on the Clan McGillivray, a transport ship used as a temporary hospital. He had been a chemist in civilian life and was responsible for dressing wounds and administering painkillers. ‘The boats returning brought back some wounded,’ he wrote:

'The Hospital was filled. The mess tables were ripped up from below, blankets spread down and the men were laid here as closely as possible. Before long every available space was covered and we began to refuse men and sent them to the Hospital ship...

... Seeing the sufferings of the wounded awoke in me a great rage and as I carried them about on stretchers I swore as I had not done before … I will never forget Sunday 25th of April …'

Later in the afternoon Rosenthal reconnoitred the heights above the beach to identify possible positions for his artillery. Along the way he found many abandoned packs, shovels and military kit lying among the hills and ravines. 

‘How our fellows ever fought their way over these ravines and cliffs will ever remain a mystery to me,’ he wrote.

'Their tracks too were sadly marked by dead and wounded casualties. The Stretcher bearers did marvellous and glorious work.’

The following day, Alan Pryce was still in the midst of battle:

'We had a splendid day yesterday with as much shrapnel as we could wish, for it’s beastly stuff and knocked a lot of our chaps over. Our own guns were not landed save one mountain Battery which did not last long, things may be different today … I myself have seen no one to fire at, we are handicapped with heavy scrub, it makes splendid cover for snipers ...'

Pryce’s account ends on the 27 April when his battalion was ‘pretty comfortably dug in’. Their guns, as far as they could tell, had been ‘giving the Turk particular hell’. His words are brought to a sudden conclusion. Pryce was killed by a sniper on 29 April and was buried at Beach cemetery.

Three days after the landing, on 28 April, Herbert Farrell could see from his ship that the men had dug into the cliffs, creating some cover from the enemy. Gunfire could be heard constantly and shells were landing near his ship. Among the exploding shells, Farrell saw men swimming:

'I had a look ashore through a Telescope and can plainly see our men on the mountain (thousands of them). They have big trenches dug with bomb and shrapnel proof covers over them ...

...But the most remarkable of all is the fact that a lot of Australians are in swimming. I suppose they are the night-shift for the trenches, but it’s pretty coolheaded when shells are bursting on all sides of them and the Men o’ War are firing over their heads into the valleys.'

Allied troops remained on the Gallipoli peninsula until the evacuation on 19 and 20 December. The landing of troops on that morning in April continues to be an enduring and powerful milestone in Australia’s history. The myths and realities of the landing site, the nature of the landing, and how far inland the troops got on that first day are still being debated by historians 100 years on.

The Gallipoli campaign cost Australia 26,111 casualties, including 8141 deaths.

​Elise Edmonds is the Library’s First World War curator.

For further information and research there is a wealth of materials available on the First World War website.

This article first appeared in SL magazine Winter 2015