our first engagement – Sunday 25 April

Posted: April 28, 2015 by saraherhodes in 1915

On Board S.S. “Seang Choon”.
Bound for Alexandria,
28th April, 1915.

Well we have had what we have been looking for nine months, and the result is I am now bound for Alexandria with my left wing in a sling. We had our first engagement on Sunday and had a very hot time, but I came off very luckily with a clean bullet wound through the fleshy part of the fore arm just below the elbow – but I am going too fast – I will start at the beginning and work back.

Since I posted the last big letter to you about the 21st I have been continuing writing in a smaller book, but unfortunately it is lying somewhere in my pack on the Gallipoli Peninsula. It doesn’t matter much though as nothing of any consequence occurred until Saturday the 24th April. About mid-day Saturday two destroyers, the “Scourge” and the “Foxhound” came alongside and took off B and C Companies and took them over to the H.M.S. Prince of Wales. I might say that it had all been planned that the Allies were to commence landing operations on the Dardanelles on Sunday morning 25th inst. The 3rd Brigade had been chosen to act as landing party for the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, and B and C Companies were the preliminary force of the 10th Battalion, so they went on the Prince of Wales. By 2p.m. the whole of the Fleet of Warships and Transports steamed out of Lemnos Harbor. It was a fine sight to see all the big war boats steaming in line. On either side of us was a destroyer on the lookout for Submarines etc.

Soon after dark we arrived at Embros Island and lay off there several hours. Up to now everyone had been bustling about getting things ready, but now things quietened down and we tried to get a little sleep, but I couldn’t sleep. I wasn’t feeling exactly nervous, but I had the same sort of feeling one gets before a big rowing race. All day we were being fed the stew, bread and jam and tea etc. When a little fighting was wanted the tucker came to light all right. The last meal came on at 10p.m. and that was the last we had for 24 hours. Not a light was showing, and as we could not sleep, Tom Whyte and I had a game of dominoes. We knew we were up against some thing pretty solid. It was a case of no surrender. It meant either victory or the 3rd Brigade being completely wiped out, because once ashore there would be no getting back. Saturday night we had four days rations with us and a quart of water to last – Heaven knows how long.

About 11.30 the “Scourge” and the “Foxhound” came alongside again and we, that is A and D Companies went aboard. A Company went on the “Foxhound” and at midnight we said “Goodbye” to the “Ionian”. We had been told that we had to take the ground and hold it, even if we were wiped out completely. There was a fairly bright moon showing, but it would be down by the time we wanted to land. We steamed up the  Gulf of Saros without a light showing, in company with three or four Cruisers and seven destroyers, carrying the rest of the 3rd Brigade. We were going to land about half way up the Western side of the Gallipoli peninsula, just opposite the narrows. The French and English were landing in other places. About 2a.m. we were served with a pint of  cocoa. This was the last drink I had till 5 p.m. Sunday.

The “Foxhound” had life boats tied up alongside, 3 aside, which were to land in. Jonah, Crowie, Moyse and myself were told off to row one of them ashore, and at 3.30a.m. we were told to stand by and get into the boat. Then the fun started. The Commander took us inshore at about 20 knots, and before we knew where we were our boat was half swamped and very nearly capsized – we only got out in time, (we had our full equipment too). One poor fellow, a sailor, went overboard from the life boat ahead of us about 3 miles from shore; but they didn’t stop to pick him up. They had to slacken down after that, but in another little rush one of the boats on the port side capsized with eight of our men in it, and four sailors as well.  One of our sergeants (Sgt. Searcy) was just pulled out in the nick of time, but I think all the others were lost.

Unfortunately the Turks saw us coming and let fly just as we shoved off. We had to row about a quarter of a mile under a regular hail of lead. The Turks were on the Beach waiting for us. As soon as the boat touched land we jumped overboard into the water. It was up to my waist where I got out, somehow I managed to miss the bullets. I fell once, wetting my rifle, but eventually managed to get on the beach and ran up about 20 yards to a small cliff under which we all lay huddled up, free from fire to a certain extent, and regained our wind. A couple of men in our boat were hit getting ashore. B and C Companies had just got ashore as we came up and they drove the Turks off the beach for us. The beach is abut 20 yards wide and then the cliff rears up almost straight 100 feet high. There is a small plateau there, where there was a trench or two, then down and up another heavy climb onto the top of the country. The whole country was one mass of low scrub, prickles, trees, bushes, and rocks of every description. In this valley there were four tents covered with leaves and branches of trees to hide them from aeroplanes.

Well, to get back to my tale. We found it pretty trying work sitting in the boats with bullets dropping all round us. I felt quite calm and collected and nearly everyone was the same. As soon as we touched, those two fellows were hit, one in our section too, instantly four fellows ran out and carried them under cover.  This was the first act of bravery I saw, but not the last. I saw dozens of actions worthy of distinction during the day. As soon as all our men had collected, we took off our packs, fixed bayonets and charged up the cliff. The Turks didn’t wait for the steel though, but retreated. On the top of the hill we found a trench, there was a badly hit Turk there. I got a couple of bullets of theirs as mementos. They are about the same size as ours, only pointed instead of rounded like ours. By this time all the Companies and battalions were most horribly mixed. Crowie and I managed to stick together right through the day though, I am glad to say. We advanced from there on to the next rise. The fire was not so heavy now, although there was a ring of snipers pinging at us all the time. We could see our fellows landing, with shrapnel bursting all round them, with an occasional reply from the war ships.

It was now about 10 a.m., and we were meeting fellows we knew and exchanging news. A number of our poor fellows had been hit. A howitzer at some distance, on a high hill was bombarding our fleet and they were starting to reply on it, and a fort further south. It was wonderful to see the shells bursting, but nasty to hear the screech of them over your head. You never saw a braver, cheerier, or more courageous crowd before, our fellows were just dying to get at the beggars. We advanced on to the next rise, and dug a small fire trench. This rise was our objective and all we had to do was hold it at all costs. Crowie and I were still together, but I hadn’t heard or seen anything of Jonah, Coffey, or DuRieu. Jonah got out of the boat just ahead of me and that was the last I saw of him. Poor old Tom Whyte never got ashore. He was hit with shrapnel in the boat and was buried on the shore later on in the day. Of course this news is only hearsay.

Soon after this the Turks attacked our position and the firing was very heavy; we were ordered up to reinforce the line and took up a position about fig. 6 in the enclosed sketch. Here the firing was very hot, shrapnel was bursting over us and the machine guns were popping a treat. We had to stay here a long while. The shrapnel shells are horrible things, they come with a roar and a bang, a flash of fire, and then bullets everywhere. It contains about 300 balls of lead. If they burst in the air they spread over a patch about 50 yards wide and about 200 yards deep. If they hit the ground it alters the scenery a little. We were getting them three at a time. We didn’t have any artillery at all, and the seaplanes couldn’t pick out their batteries, because of the machine guns they had turned on them. They were thus prevented from helping the war boats to find them out. Just about here poor old Crowie stopped a shrapnel ball. It hit him in the side and entered the stomach I think. He was in a pretty bad way I fancy. I managed to put on his field dressing for him and soon after we received the order to advance, and after a hand clasp had to go and leave him. Haven’t heard anything of him since, but have an idea it was the finish.

We were getting a very lively time, men were being hit very frequently; their shrapnel was sweeping the ground like fun. We were at fig. 7 now, and I was where the cross is; here it was awful. Machine guns, rifles and shrapnel, the bullets just whistled over us. The machine gun is like a pencil tapping on a board as fast as you can tap, and the bullets are one continuous ssssisses. The shrapnel is terrifying – it just paralyses one. I was out in front with four other fellows. One after another these chaps got picked off and I was left alone and I can tell you I had a rough half hour. Shrapnel was bursting just over me with a roar. We were enfiladed too. We couldn’t raise our heads just had to lie flat and bury our noses in the dirt.  They were just blowing us off the earth. There were small bushes about 18 inches high, and this was all the cover we had. The bullets just whistled over us. I felt very frightened and lonely for a bit.

From where I was I could see our fellows advancing along the ridge (no. 8 on sketch). Time after time they advanced along the ridge and each time were blown back with shrapnel. They captured the trenches at (9) several times. I crawled back to a party of men a few yards behind me. A mountain battery manned by Indians worked up on to a ridge to the left (11) and opened fire for a time, but they were blown clearly off the earth. Our fellows did their best to hold that ridge too. We had been hanging on to Fig. 7 for a couple of hours. We couldn’t advance or retire, fire, or get reinforcements.

I can tell you it was HELL.

We received orders from the Brigadier to “hang on”. About this time Jim Davidson was hit in the wrist, right through the right one. Then one chap after another was hit and had to get back as best he could. I was with Sgt. Henwood of our Company, and a man from the 11th. When we saw some Turks at (Fig. 9) it was about 800 yards, and we enjoyed ourselves for some time potting at them. It was lovely getting a decent shot at them – one has to fire so often at what is apparently nothing. Wonderful how blood thirsty a man gets. Some machine guns had got up at the head of our line, north of me, and were enfilading us properly. What with machine guns, maxims, shrapnel and rifle fire we were having a gay time. Our Navy silenced their batteries several times, but they would move them. Commander Sampson did good work with his seaplane in giving the naval men the ranges. There was a captive dirigible too observing all the time. Of course troops were being landed all this time, and were working forward, but were just about hopeless.

Just as I was getting interested in the Turk potting, I was potted in the arm, which put a stop to my recreation. It was like a blow from an iron bar, it didn’t hurt much, a bullet entered the fleshy part of my left arm just below the elbow and came out about an inch lower down. I couldn’t use my arm, so I beat a hasty retreat. There was a trench just behind me with about 50 men in it, and in a lull I ran back. There was only about one man of the lot who hadn’t been hit, there was shrapnel by the ton. In another lull I reached the creek and put on my field dressing, and then found my way to the sea down the track of this creek. The Turks had the range of it beautifully too, and shrapnel was flying from end to end. The bed of the creek was just one mass of mud about a foot deep and we all paddled through it. There were some shocking sights there. Men crawling about cut up horribly. The bullets were falling all round the beach even. Hundreds of wounded were limping their way to the beach and snipers were busy picking off both wounded and A.M.C. men. The beggars were using dum-dum bullets too.

A hospital had been rigged up at (Fig. 11) where I had another dressing put on my arm and then was taken off on a barge to this boat. There were 600 put on board. There was blood everywhere, fellows groaning with lumps blown clear out of them. We were fed very well. The 13 Battalion (2nd Contingent from Victoria) were aboard. They went off early on Monday morning. It was about 4.30 when I was hit, just completing my twelve hours fighting. When the Machine guns were firing the tops of the bushes over our heads were just swaying backwards and forwards with the bullets. The beggars got all our Officers just about. I know of Major Oldham, Capt. Green, Lieuts. Hemming, Sexton, Somerville, Loutit, Hosking, Smith and Capt. Redburg. The beggars got all our officers just about.

In the end Col. Weir was in the trench firing a rifle like the rest of them. There were many acts of bravery performed. Major Hurcombe kept one of the machine guns supplied with ammunition all the afternoon himself, whilst under heavy fire. I am sure Australia has no need to feel ashamed of her Boys; I never saw a braver, cooler and more determined, and withal cheerier lot of men. They got their position and stuck there under a very heavy fire until they were nearly all wiped out. The poor old 3rd Brigade is practically ‘non est’: they have been horribly cut up. I believe a muster parade was held Sunday night and an average of 63 per Battalion turned up – that is 63% left. Of course there must be more men mixed up with other Brigades. The 2nd Brigade suffered heavily too, although not as much as the 3rd.

When I reached this ship with a couple of hundred others we were looked after properly. The Hospital ship was full up. It is a fine big ship, clean and plenty of tucker. All I have now is what I stand up in. I bought a tooth brush and that is the extent of my personal property. Have lost my overcoat, woollen wraps, 3 pairs of woollen knitted sox, tobacco, handkerchiefs, underclothing, writing materials and shaving kit. I haven’t had a shave since Friday. There are 43 – 10th Battalion on board, 17 of which are “A” Company. We have quite a little N.C.O’s mess on our deck. Cpl. Cowan, Lce. Cpl. Mayman, Sgt. Kinnish and self are all together. I met Art Kinnish going aboard; he is struck in the foot. I am the legs of the establishment, and the others are the arms. The bullet that hit me struck me just where my shirt was rolled up, and tore about  six holes in it from the cuff up to the elbow, another bullet went through my haversack, and another through my mess tin strapped to my back.  It tore a big ragged hole in the top and side; cut a handkerchief to ribbons that I had in it. During the night the Transports were shelled and we had to move out.

Monday I put in the time watching the shells blowing up the hills, and helping in the Hospital. There were only three doctors on board and very few A.M.C. Orderlies. Tuesday afternoon we set sail for Alexandria. I was acting Mess Orderly. There were some marvellous escapes. Chaps hit on the pouches which exploded their cartridges without injuring them, several times I was hit on the back with spent bullets, which didn’t do any harm. Art Kinnish had a hole cut through the peak of his cap, and Cowan was bruised on the shoulder by shrapnel, but it didn’t wound. There are some horrible sights here.  Fellows with their arms, legs, faces and eyes blown away. I am satisfied that I am one of the luckiest on board.

All day Monday I was helping in the Hospital clearing out blood stained bandages etc. There are only three doctors and 15 A.M.C men to dress 600 men. It was awful for a day or two. We had a splendid trip back.  20 poor chaps died on board from wounds. It is wonderful the way the men stand their hurts.  There is never any grumbling; they are all as cheerful as if they were on the field. On our way down the coast we passed troopships and warships galore. They had quite a decent place to land on. Ours was very rough ground – awful stuff to fight over.

Sketch-1_____________________________________________________

Notes: A.M.C is Army Medical Corps

More on Tom Whyte: http://thegreatwar.theaustralian.com.au/dawn_of_disaster/

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