Memoirs & Diaries - A Boy at Gallipoli
When the Territorials in 1914 were asked to volunteer for active service, I went with the others. I left England in September 1914, when I was seventeen years old. We embarked at Southampton in the S.S. Corsican, and reached Alexandria seventeen days later.
In Alexandria and Cairo eight months went by and my experiences were varied. War seemed very distant, the Egyptians themselves appeared to be quite unmoved by our presence or the reason of our coming. I am afraid we didn't get their true opinions.
It seemed to me in those days that the main idea in the Army was to get you as fed-up as possible, so that you welcomed any change. They caught us in this mood when orders came to embark for Gallipoli; so lustily we sang all the way from Cairo to Alexandria, sitting in cattle trucks, regulating the beat of the song to the clip of the wheels.
At Alexandria, after hours of delay, we embarked on a captured German liner, the Derflinger. Iron plates above, iron plates below, and riveted iron plates each side, bordered our bedroom. Closed and covered portholes kept out light and air, the darkness being partially relieved by a few electric globes in cages.
In this half-light confusion attended the hanging of our hammocks as we tripped and fell over bits of unfamiliar ship's tackle. All this appeared more ridiculous when we slept on deck owing to the heat down below. We slept as we were. Nobody thought of undressing.
For three days and three nights four men lived where one would have been cramped in that iron-cased floating stink-hole, eating badly-cooked food and drinking warm water. By the night of the third day, as we neared Gallipoli, we were in the mood for anything. We'd fight anybody for anything; we didn't care what.
Looking towards the land, we could see flashes here and there and hear intermittent firing, punctuated occasionally by the boom of heavy guns. Rumours were numerous, but the only one that proved true was that we disembarked that night.
With all lights out, we crept slowly in towards the land, alongside the River Clyde, and were taken ashore in flat-bottomed barges. Everything was quiet, as though the guns were silenced to give us welcome. It was raining. Raining as it can only in the East.
The barges grounded and we got no wetter by wading ashore. Everything was in a wonderful state of chaos. Nobody met us. Friend or foe could have done what we did. It was May 1915, and the Gallipoli campaign was new.
Soaked kits are heavier than dry ones, and we were glad to lie down on the top of a cliff, in the pouring rain and mud, and sleep.
The sun shone in the morning and we looked round. We were all eager for information, and this was given to us readily by a few wounded Lancashire Fusiliers from the front line.
Cape Helles, where we had landed, was the general stepping-off place, and a mile of land had been taken. The loss of life had been out of all proportion to this gain, due to the prepared positions of the Turks right down to the water edge, which enabled them to mow down our men with ridiculous ease.
Very bitter were our informants as they related the hurried preparations for battle, the taking of practically impregnable positions, and the terrific hardships endured under constant bombardment.
That morning we were treated to a new sight: a Turkish prisoner, bandaged about the head, lying on the ground, his face, hands, and arms painted green, and wearing a green uniform. He had been shot down from a gun-nest in a tree, and, before he had been located, his accurate sniping had accounted for a considerable number of officers.
Now he was slowly dying. His eyes searched our faces, and no doubt read pity there - the pity that goes out to a dog with a broken leg. We had not yet acquired the callousness of war veterans.
Enemy aircraft kept us on the move all that morning. They seemed to have command of the skies. No airmen of ours challenged their activities. A few anti-aircraft guns tried to bring them down, but did no apparent damage.
More troops arrived during the day and it was interesting to watch them land under heavy shell-fire that sank a few barges and scattered us on land as they fell short of the water. The daily bathing parade in the sea continued, however, and the shelling did not seem to upset the troops swimming about near the beach.
That afternoon we paraded ready for a move up towards the front line. A shell blew away a few of our men in the rear company, then, regardless of procedure, we turned right and "Follow me!" was sufficient for the moment. The leading officer was an old hand. He knew the way or we might have marched straight into the enemy.
A series of gullies, about 50 feet deep, one joining with another, ran in all directions, and up and down these we twisted and turned for about three hours, stopping occasionally for rest. At dusk we were told to stand easy until further orders were received. We were then on a lip on one side of a gully about 500 yards from the front line.
As night advanced the flies left us. Then the shelling became more intense and rifles and machine guns helped to swell the noise. After an hour this subsided and the gully became full of other sounds. The small stream that ran in the bed, full of slime and blood-coloured in patches, was full of frogs. Hundreds of them, all croaking together. Very weird and uncanny this was in the darkness and unnatural silence. We trod on them as we moved off, but the croaking continued.
We now heard officially that we were to relieve the New Zealanders in the front-line trench, and, led by the same officer, we pushed off in a long single file.
The communication trenches from the front line went back about 10 yards, then a dash over open country before one reached the shelter of a gully. Leaving the gully we had now to cross this open space before we could drop into the communication trenches. Only about 200 yards. Not far, we thought, but a long way when under fire.
Here we got our first small taste of war. The enemy guessed a relief was taking place, for their machine guns found us, and as the whine of bullets became more marked, we were ordered to lie down. I lost my first friend at that moment, and it was hard to realize he would never again share with me the things we both enjoyed. As I flopped down, my equipment falling on top of me, I felt the handle of a spade on the ground.
Instinctively I covered my head with the spade end and burying my ear in the mud, felt very well protected. I saw the man in front of me lying still with head well down, and waited with him for the next move. It came in the shape of a sergeant, who, crawling up to both of us, wanted to know why the hell we didn't follow the others - we were keeping back all the men behind.
I realized then my mistake in waiting for the man in front, and, crawling over him, I caught up with the others, who had waited after the break had been noticed. One by one we dropped into the communication trench with a splash. Last night's rain still lingered, finding no outlet. No comfort or safety was to be found in the trenches in those early days. Sand-bags had not arrived.
Dug-up dirt thrown out served as a shield from bullets, a shield that fell in when rain came, and a roughly cut step in the side of the trench served for a seat. We slept on the floor of the trench or propped up along the side.
In the blackness of the night we stumbled and splashed along the trench. All we could do was to obey orders and if we received none, we thought we were doing right. We didn't know where we were or what might happen next.
There was an awful din and the order for absolute silence had to be shouted from man to man. A stream of men going in the opposite direction ploughed their way through the mud past us - the New Zealanders going out. It was a tight squeeze and many a curse followed us as we tripped over one another or bumped them into the sides of the trench.
The guns were silent again now, and upon arriving at our appointed stations word came down the line to fire "fifteen rounds rapid" at the enemy trench. With fingers cold, wet, and fumbling we loaded, fired as quickly as we could and got a volley in reply. This was our first shooting at the enemy even if we could see nothing, and proved so exciting that our discomfort was forgotten.
The New Zealanders had now gone and we Territorials held the line, or rather our part of it, for the first time. A great honour, and we meant, if possible, to do all we could to uphold that honour.
By dawn, having "stood to" all the night, we were tired and hungry, and thought nothing much of the honour thrust upon us, but as the day became brighter we found interest enough in having a peep over the thrown-up dirt at the part of the landscape occupied by the Turk, and at the chaotic condition of No Man's Land.
Barbed wire there certainly was, but it hung in shreds from wooden posts, and nearer to us a small trickle of water flowed alongside the trench, coming through the trench side a little lower down. In this, opposite to where I stood, lay a couple of dead Turks. There was no need to tell us not to drink this water, but we had to later, after it had been boiled.
That day our time was taken up chiefly with making more comfortable the trench that served as a home, and in the days that followed there was no great excitement. Only a few big shells and sniping.
Then a fifteen-hour bombardment by our guns commenced. The noise we now heard was terrific. A continual roar; thousands of big shells hurtling through the air at the same time. If more noise had been added it would have passed unnoticed, so great was the din, but the Turks did reply, as our casualties that night were very heavy.
I was losing most of my friends. We were in the support trench at the time and received an order to carry ammunition for the gunners from the dumps. Dozens of us carried heavy shells through mud that was impassable for mules. Instead of the fifteen hours, the bombardment lasted only seven hours.
Ammunition had run out. There was only sufficient left for desultory shelling by our guns for one more day. The ammunition boats had not arrived according to schedule, and the bombardment took place, as we afterwards learned, to impress upon the enemy how well supplied we were with shells. A peculiar thing is war. The Turks could, this night, have driven us into the sea.
A week later we advanced about 50 yards, half way into No Man's Land, under a full moon. Our hectic digging with entrenching tools into rock-like earth as we lay flat on the ground was a sporting chance given to the Turk to try a little sniping.
Our barrage did not cover us well enough and a large proportion of our men were killed. By dawn we were out of sight if we knelt down and we did a lot of kneeling that day.
We had no time that day to complete communication trenches back to the old line, so when the counter-attack came, no way of retreat was possible except over the intervening open high ground. Our guns got the range soon after the Turks attacked, but that didn't stop them, and, after a short hand-to-hand struggle, we had to give way.
It was a sorry retreat and our casualties, if not heavy, were ugly. I was surprised at what man is capable of enduring in a semi-conscious state; how he can stagger to safety, leaving parts of himself behind. When we got back our machine guns opened fire and we laughed like maniacs as the Turkish advance crumpled and fell. That attack had failed.
So it went on, day after day, week after week; a bit forward here, a bit back there; very little ground gained and very little lost, but death always. Disease helped to swell the death roll, but still the senseless game went on.
New blood came from England but was soon spilt, and old blood faced days with hope of quick release. We became infected with the spirit of hopelessness. Such was the state of things when I was forced to crawl 100 yards to the nearest dressing station to have a shrapnel wound plugged. Two days later I found myself on a hospital ship. I saw no more fighting.
Private Fred T. Wilson enlisted 16th Battalion Manchester Regt. (Territorial Force), January 26th, 1914. Demobilized, March 31st, 1920. Active service, 4.5 years. Foreign service, Egypt and Gallipoli.
First published in Everyman at War (1930), edited by C. B. Purdom.
Photographs courtesy of Photos of the Great War website.
French tanks were used for the first time in battle on 17 April 1917, when the 'Char Schneider' (as they were known) was used during the Second Battle of the Aisne.
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