Thursday, 23 April 2015

In memory of those who died on the rocky Mediterranean peninsula

GALLIPOLI 1915 ...

‘Things were awful, dead and wounded men for our companions at all times. I saw so much suffering and death that it appeared to me to be the only thing to look forward to and expect at any minute.'
My word, our chaps are savage when they are fighting. I think the Gurkhas are ladies compared with Australians in a charge with their blood up.’

‘We live in dugouts cut in the side of the hill just like rabbits.'

'We are giving the Turks all the fight they want. They are very frightened of the bayonet. They squeal like blue hell when they get a touch.’

This weekend marks the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings and above are extracts from letters written by men who fought there, taken from my book Letters from the Trenches. Much will be written about the barbaric fighting on that rocky peninsula, the merciless Turkish enemy, and the huge toll levied by heat and disease during the campaign. So below are two letters from my book that reflect upon aspects of Gallipoli that are perhaps less talked about. One defends the Turks as honest, clean fighters - an opinion voiced by other soldiers too. The second reveals that the Mediterranean winter weather was every bit as severe as the scorching summer.

Private Ernest Hough
Australian Private Ernest Hough was a tram driver from New South Wales who enlisted at the beginning of the war when he was 30 and served as a stretcher-bearer at Gallipoli. In a letter home, he poured scorn on reports in Australian newspapers that the Turkish enemy was committing atrocities, and suggested such reports came from men who had experienced little of the fighting: 'Most of them were written by chaps that were on the shore from six to 24 hours before being wounded,' wrote Hough, adding sarcastically 'and they saw more than we, that have been now four months continually fighting.' He continued:

'We often read, for instance, of how our wounded have been mutilated by the Turks, and that is all rot, I can tell you in all sincerity, and I am sure the men of the battalion to which I belong will tell you the same, that is, the members that have been right through [the fighting]. The Turks have fought a good clean fight and are still fighting that way. I know of several instances wherein our wounded have been treated kindly by the Turks, and in no case to my knowledge has one case been proved where they have done anything offside. I think in justice to our enemies, that this should be said of them. Of course, I know what the Turk is capable of, but I do not think he is game to start, for he realises as well as we do that he will  receive just as much as he sends with compound interest added.'

The second letter was written in December 1915 by Private Sydney Town, a British soldier of the West Yorkshire Regiment. He describes to his brother the atrocious winter weather that troops endured at Gallipoli at the end of 1915, shortly before the peninsula was evacuated. A heavy rainstorm struck on 26 November and lasted three days, flooding trenches, drowning soldiers, and washing unburied corpses into the lines. It was followed by a blizzard at Suvla in early December, during which more men died from exposure. Like so many Great War soldiers, Town put a brave face on things:

4 December 1915

'Dear Brother, a line or two just to say your parcel arrived here the last day of Nov ... The apples had gone soft but not bad and had a spirity taste. The other cakes were hard but toasted all right. I am glad to say that I am keeping well. We had a bad storm here last weekend. The rain came down in torrents and the trenches were running with water 7 or 8 inches deep. Next day we had frost and snow and for three nights the weather was very severe.'

Private Town talked of men suffering from frost-bitten feet and rheumatism, and continued:

'They say this is only a taste of what we are going to get but at all events it won't be as sudden. We were enjoying almost summer weather during the week, cold only being noticed after sunset. The fly ointment arrived with the death of about the last fly on the peninsula. I hope you are all in good health at Wakefield and that you like you new house. With love and kisses to the children and with my best wishes to you.'

Although Town survived the horrors of Gallipoli, he was killed in France in September 1916 during Battle of the Somme. Private Ernest Hough survived the war and returned home to Australia. This post is written in memory of all those who fought and died at Gallipoli during the First World War.

Copyright © 2015 Jacqueline  Wadsworth / Sharon Fewings / Valerie Gilbert

Monday, 13 April 2015

Let's not forget the poignant pleas of desperate mothers

Exhausted Anzac troops take a rest at Gallipoli
The First World War Centenary, which made such an impact last summer, is beginning to stir again in readiness for the 100th anniversary of the Battle for Gallipoli. This ill-fated Allied campaign was launched in the Mediterranean on 25 April 1915, but ended in humiliating defeat just nine months later.

It is still commemorated with reverence, however, and nowhere more so than in Australia and New Zealand where the anniversary is known as Anzac Day (after the abbreviation given to the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps). In 1915 both countries were cutting their teeth as new nations and, according to one historian, 'Gallipoli was the crucible from which the Anzac legend was forged'.

The fighting on the rocky peninsula of Gallipoli was ferocious and the Turkish enemy proved tough and dogged. Disease also thrived in the stultifying heat and claimed huge numbers of lives. Descriptions of the horror of battle are plentiful, with many gruesome accounts sent home to families, like this one written by Australian Private Henry Wright:

'We saw a poor chap staggering towards us ... A machine gun had made a horrible sight of him. The bullets entering his mouth, cutting away the bottom teeth then passing through his neck breaking the collarbone and making a nasty gash in his shoulder. He could not speak but wrote down on a piece of paper that he was not downhearted and that he was satisfied when he saw our boys had taken the position.'

Susan Butters and son Les
How unimaginably awful it must have been for the recipients of such letters, especially for families who lived on the other side of the world. While researching my book Letters from the Trenches, many Australians got in touch with me to share correspondence that reflected just how helpless those in the Southern Hemisphere felt during the Great War - particularly mothers. Many were not well educated, but they wrote polite and poignant letters to army officials in Melbourne begging to know what had become of their sons.

Below is one written by Mrs Susan Butters, of Lismore, Victoria, whose two sons, Les and Jack, both fought in the war. Les had been taken ill in Egypt, and would eventually died of dysentery in 1918, just after the Armistice had been signed. Jack Butters had been captured in France and was being held prisoner in Germany. Desperate to find out what had happened to them, Susan wrote this letter to the Melbourne Records Office in October 1917:

Dear Sir, I wish to trouble you once again to answer me a question: can Australian Prisoners of War in Germany still receive letters from their relations in Australia and their letters be forwarded from them to Australia. I noticed a paragraph in the ‘Age’ [an Australian newspaper] about a week ago where all mail through Switzerland to Germany was to be stopped ... Could you also inform me if there has been any further word come through concerning my other son who was reported ill in Egypt ... we are very anxious about him. If any other bad news should have the misfortune to have come through concerning either of my boy’s [sic] ...would you be kind enough to forward it c/o The Church of England Clergy or to Dr Paton Lismore, Victoria, as I have had a few shocks already, and urgent wires and telegrams are handed here to me as ordinary letters. Sorry for troubling you so much. 

Jack Butters (third left) pictured in German prison camp
This year, when we remember those who lost their lives at Gallipoli, let's also spare a thought for the mothers (and fathers) who had no choice but to wait at home, dreading the arrival of bad news with no idea what had become of their sons. You can read more of their moving correspondence in Letters from the Trenches.

Copyright © 2015 Jacqueline Wadsworth, Ken Wright & Helen Lang

Thursday, 2 April 2015

'We're tired of being crumped in the trenches day and night'

In some ways the spring of 1915 was not dissimilar to ours today - at least in Britain. The Meteorological Office's report for April told the same old story: 'During the first ten days of the month the weather was unsettled and the wind blew with considerable force at times.' Easter Sunday fell fairly early that year too, on 4th April. And then, as now, newspapers were always on the lookout for fresh ways to present long-running stories. With this in mind, the Sunday Post (right) had lined up some new ideas for its coverage of the Great War, which were revealed to readers on Easter Day 1915:

'For next week's issue you will be interested to know further new features are in store, arrangements having been made with more popular writers of the day to contribute to its columns. In addition to all the very latest news from the seats of war, our military and naval correspondents will again present their illuminating comments on the progress of the war. Then, you will get a splendid up-to-date Map of the Near East. This Map gives a clear outline of the scenes of war-like operations in that part of the world including the Dardanelles, Bosphorous, Smyrna, and the Aegean Sea. It will enable you to follow with thorough understanding the movements of the Allied Fleets in the great enterprise in which they are at present engaged.

'There will be another deeply interesting article on the subject of 'Germany from Within'. These articles supply that information which is now eagerly sought by the British public. Cartoons will again be a feature. A selection is made from all the best caricatures of the war published throughout the world. A Special Article of absorbing interest will be contributed by Constance Elizabeth Maud. It is entitled 'Our French Friends' and illustrates a phase of the war upon which, in the past, little light has been thrown.'

Newspapers like The Post endeavoured to entertain as well as inform, with interesting and colourful items that readers could follow while tucking into toast and marmalade at the breakfast table. But everything would change when the post thumped down on the front door mat, for letters from the Front told a rather less glossy tale. Soldiers like Private Philip Luxton, of Abertillery in South Wales, were tired of living cooped up in trench dugouts. He wrote about boredom, exhaustion, fear, discomfort; he yearned for tasty food, and to be able to take off his boots that were stiff with mud. And he longed to know for sure that he would see his wife and two young daughters again...

2 April 1915 (Good Friday)

'You said on your last letter for me to look out for a parcel of cakes. I can promise you I will do that for it will be a rare treat to have some cakes, for even bread and butter is a luxury here among we soldiers.
Dear Wife, this is my eighth day for me not to have my boots and socks off my feet and I cannot tell you when I will have them off and I tell you we are all beginning to feel the effects of tiredness for it is very tiring being crumped [sic] in the trenches day and night. Now I must close having no more to say at present.'

A scene from the Western Front: 'We are all beginning to
feel the effects of tiredness,' wrote Private Luxton
5 April 1915 (Easter Monday)

'Just a line in answer to your parcel of cakes and ham I received on Easter Monday morning so I had cakes for breakfast and I am going to have ham for tea and I know I will enjoy it. Dear Wife, I had the pleasure to take off my boots last night for we have come out of the trenches at last after eleven days and nights and I can tell you we were very thankful to get anywhere for a rest but they have not took us very far, but they intend to take [us] further away in two days time. Dear Wife, I should like it if you could see me now for you would never forget we are like rabbits buried in holes in the ground. Me and Fry is in one by ourselves for they will only hold 2 or 3 men and we must not come out from there in day light for fear of being shelled ... Dear Wife we had a very busy time on Easter Saturday morning at 4 o'clock and I am glad to tell you I came out of that scrummage [a reference to his pre-war days as a rugby coach ] safe and sound thank God, but cheer [up] and I am sure we will meet again for my spirits are very well considering the time we are having. Now I must close for I feel like having a rest, from your loving Husband Phil.'

Private Luxton, who served with the Welsh Regiment, was killed in action in October 1915.

Copyright ©1915 Jacqueline Wadsworth / Anne Holland