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Our Boys at Anzac Cove

It was the practice of the Moorabbin News and other papers printed by the company at Cheltenham to publish letters or parts of letters from ‘our boys’ serving overseas during World War One. Many young men had volunteered for service when war was declared against Germany by Great Britain on August 5, 1914. Initially, in Australia, General Bridges was given the task of mobilising a force for overseas service. Twelve battalions of infantry, three regiments of Light Horse, as well as artillery and ancillary units left for France in a naval convoy from Albany in Western Australia on November 1, 1914. During the voyage General Bridges was signalled that Turkey had entered the war and that his contingent was to disembark and train in Egypt. There the Australians joined the New Zealand troops to form the Australia – New Zealand Corps under the command of General Bridges.

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Followers of the Cheltenham Football Club Training in Egypt, 1915. Note the pyramids in background were a backdrop and not the real thing. Courtesy Len Allnutt.

On April 1, 1915 all leave was cancelled and shortly after the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps joined British troops and left via several Mediterranean islands to undertake an ambitious seaborne invasion on the Dardanelles. The Anzacs had been allocated a beach that became known as Anzac Cove about a mile north of Gaba Tepe promontory.

The landing took place on April 25, 1915.under heavy fire. Joe Warburton of Cheltenham wrote of his experiences on that day. “We were called to breakfast at 2 a.m., and at daybreak sneaked to the shore. The Turks were concealed and had hidden batteries. Before we landed they opened fire. The shells and bullets came at us in thousands. The spray of the water went fifty feet in the air. Just in front of us was a rugged mountain. Before the boats reached shore, we did not wait for orders, but jumped out and waded in. The Turks simply poured lead into us but we stuck at it and drove them back about two miles with fixed bayonets.” [1] Warburton was wounded in one of these bayonet charges and evacuated to Egypt where he was operated on several times to remove bullets before being invalided to England. [2]

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Troops at Anzac Cove.

Charles Mewett wrote of a joint French, British and Anzac operation at Cape Hellas about 15 miles from Anzac Cove. The attack commenced at 4 a.m. with an artillery barrage to cover the advance. The Turks responded fiercely. Mewett commented, “We lost hundreds but we kept going … the Turks were running like rabbits before us but poor fellows were dying all round me. It was an awful sight.” It was there that Mewett was hit. “I got up to alter my position as it was not too safe where I was lying and they must have put a machine gun on to me, as my trousers had not less then four bullet holes in them and one had gone through the sleeve of my coat without hitting me.” He was also wounded in the foot but considered himself lucky to have survived. He was carried back about two miles to a dressing station and kept there for some time until he was able to be put on a mule cart to be taken to the boat. He was evacuated to Alexandra where he received good attention. [3]

Seventeen weeks after the original landing Jack Fisher of Cheltenham wrote home saying he was as thin as a greyhound. “ It’s been pretty rough,” he said, “we know what it is to go without a bath for a month at a time. I did not have my boots or socks off for the first five days when we landed. We had a warm reception, but we got our own back later on when they attacked and were going to drive us into the sea.” He thought the troops in France were better off than he and his mates at Anzac Cove because on the Western Front they were behind the firing line where there were farms and houses so goods could be bought and clothes washed. He acknowledged that the army rations kept him alive but he hungered for a feed of roast beef and plum pudding. [4]

Reg Foreman, also of Cheltenham, when writing home said there was a canteen on the beach where condensed milk could be bought for one shilling per tin and eggs for one shilling and six pence a dozen while chocolate was nine pence a cake. [5]

Conditions were poor, as Reg Foreman pointed out. Much time was spent with a pick and shovel digging into the side of a hill for protection. There were no tents. Jack Fisher said they were living like rabbits in holes and trenches in the ground. These holes were a bit damp at first but dried out later. When a wind was blowing he likened it to a bad day on Brighton Road during a strong north wind. By October the cold weather made life more difficult and the expected snow was likely to make it worse. Rain made the going hard as they carried shells up the hills to the gun pits, the hardest work of all. [6]

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Resting between attacks at Gallipoli.

After bitter fighting and huge loss of life for both the Allies and Turks, the British High Command lost interest in the campaign in the Dardanelles. This was particularly so when the commanding officer, General Hamilton, indicated he needed reinforcements of 100,000 men if the Allies were to be successful against the defending Turks. On December 8, 1915 the British Government decided to withdraw all troops and contingency plans to achieve this goal were activated. At first the size of the garrison was to be reduced and later the number of troops was to be barely sufficient to enable the situation to be held for a week against attack. By the morning of December 19 the number of troops remaining was to be no more than 20,000. December 18 and 19 were planned as the final days of the evacuation.

The Anzac forces were in a difficult situation because the Turks held the higher ground so there was no hope of moving out unseen and without tempting a disastrous assault. Lieutenant Colonel Brudenell White, an Australian and key planner decided to deceive the Turks. He argued they had to be kept ignorant to the very end. This meant the front line had to be held to the last with sufficient men to prevent the enemy discovering the secret. White ordered periods of inactivity, despite contrary views of other commanders, to ensure that the enemy did not become alarmed. [7] Other ploys were also used including having men loitering around smoking to suggest the area was still crowded with troops. Fires were lit, trench-digging parties continued their work, and ingenious devises were attached to rifles to cause them to fire after the troops had left to suggest a continuing presence.

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Waiting for an offensive against the Turks.

Corporal W M Whitehead wrote a letter home in which he described his last days on Gallipoli. “A couple of weeks before leaving Steel’s we had what we called a spell of silence. All our artillery stopped firing, and we were ordered not to fire a shot unless one of the enemy came up very close to our parapet…. When we left Steel’s for Brown’s Dip (of course these positions that we left were always taken up by some other battalion) we marched with full pack up and everything that we had collected on our three months’ stay in the trenches. The last quarter of a mile we were under fire from the enemy’s artillery. The 75’s did come whizzing in – no warning from them. Tip, bang, was all that is heard of them, and then the broomsticks started coming over. I don’t think I described these things to you before, but they are old cartridge cases off the big shells filled with high explosive and shrapnel, and they carry a long pole on the end, which bumps the detonator down when the bomb drops. They are fired from a small howitzer, and when they explode they kick up a terrible row. A chap doesn’t want to be standing too close to them when they land, as they can be seen coming, and you have a chance of dodging into a dug out. No one got hit this day, but there were some pretty narrow escapes. We had to leave Brown’s Dip after being there only a few hours. However, we humped our packs into Martin’s Land, and when we got there we found that the dugouts allotted to us were full of other men’s baggage. We were all tired out, and the swearing was thick from one end of the company to the other. The Lane was really a sap leading from Lone Pine down to the beach. It was about 2 ˝ ft wide, 8 ft deep and half a mile long, and each side was riddled with dugouts. You may be able to form some idea what it was like to live here, when I tell you that there was a never ending stream of men going up and down with full packs up and a struggle to pass every time. You would be sitting on the edge of your dugout and trying to get something to eat. Your tea would be on the ground at your feet, and generally it would get kicked down the line. Sleeping in our equipment, with our rifles by our side in dugouts that were made for men about 5ft high, and bear in mind that in our equipment was 150 rounds of ammunition – a nice little weight to have on one’s chest when trying to get some sleep. It was like being in prison – the only thing to see was the wall in front of the dug out and the sky overhead.

“From Martin’s Lane we shifted into Lone Pine. This place is a second hell. The enemy were about 20 yards from us, and we were not allowed to speak above a whisper. There was not accommodation for sleeping, no dug outs to sleep in. We just lay down in the sap and got walked over all night and I think if we had stayed another day the lice would have walked away with us. Our platoon had to take charge of four posts, which occupied about 15 yards of the firing line. … We had loopholes with little shutters, which were opened for a second and then closed. Our men were bombing all night, and every time a bomb went over Abdul’s machine guns would sweep our parapets. The bullets that hit the bags exploded with a crash, and when they are coming a few hundred a minute, and one’s head is just on the other side of the bag, it’s just ear splitting and then the lead that doesn’t strike the bags goes whistling over head and pretty close at that too. Our lot just missed a big bombardment by the Turks. They put in some 8 inch shells, and made things pretty willing for a while. After our 48 hours at Lone Pine we were about full up with it. By this time we were all pretty certain that our position in Anzac was to be given up. Most of us would rather have gone over the parapet and given Abdul some hurry up, but it was not to be. From Lonesome Pine we moved back to Martin’s lane, and from there we hoped to go on to the boats without entering the firing line again, that night we got orders to move at twelve o’clock and we all thought we were to embark, but again disappointment was our share. In the morning the rear guard was picked out, and we all had to hump our pack up to the trenches at the head of Wire Gully. The rear guard had to be picked. It was no good calling for volunteers, as everyone wanted to stay. By this time all details were embarked, and there were only the men in the firing line to get away. That last day we spent in cutting up spare blankets, clothing and anything that would be of any use to the enemy. Thousands of pounds worth of war material, clothing and ammunition were destroyed. That night everything was calm, a shot or two now and again, and as there were only a few men left in the firing line by this time a pretty good watch had to be kept up. If the Turks had taken it into heads to charge I suppose we should have been wiped out, but I bet we would have given them a warm time first. I got orders to take my men off my post at eight o’clock and we left the trenches at nine. No smoking or talking was allowed, and if any one of us disobeyed the slightest order, he was to be shot dead there and then. With us everything went well, we marched straight from the firing line on to the big lighters, and then transhipped. I was sorry to leave the old place especially when passing the cemetery where Jimmy Burns is buried. We would all have liked to have got a bit of our own back on to them. After we had left the trenches they were to be blown up, not only our own but they’re also. We had tons of high explosives in the sap under the enemy; when the button was pressed it must have shook the whole Peninsula.

The last men to leave told us that the Turks were putting out barb wire in front of their trenches so you can tell how little they knew of what was going on. We got away safely to the last man. This feat must go down in history as one of the greatest achievement of this war.”[8]

Author

Graham J Whitehead

Footnotes

  1. Moorabbin News, June 26, 1915.
  2. Seaside News, April 8, 1916 – Private Joseph Warburton of the 5th Battalion enlisted on August 17, 1914 and returned to Australia on January 19, 1916.
  3. Moorabbin News, June 26, 1915.
  4. Seaside News, November 6, 1915.
  5. Seaside News, September 18, 1915 Gunner Reginald Clyde Foreman enlisted on December 1, 1914 and returned to Australia on January 18, 1919.
  6. Seaside News, December 18, 1915.
  7. Bean , C. E. W., Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-18, Volume II, The Story of Anzac, p857.
  8. Seaside News, May 27, 1916 William Middleton Whitehead was later commissioned and as a Second Lieutenant was killed in action in France May 3, 1917.

Article Cat. At War
Article Ref. 281

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