Voices from Gallipoli

British troops unable to break out of a tight spot at Anzac Cove, Gallipoli, 1915.
British troops unable to break out of a tight spot at Anzac Cove, Gallipoli, 1915.

Written by Dr Jack Binns

Of all the many letters, memoirs and memories that have survived from combatants in the Great War none are so gruesome and graphic than those written or spoken by veterans of Gallipoli.

Countless number of flies fed on the dead and pestered the living

Conditions on the peninsula in the summer of 1915 were as brutal and disgusting as any encountered in any other theatre of that war. In temperatures up to 40 degrees celsius, the stench of rotting corpses, human and animal, must have been unbearable. Countless numbers of flies fed on the dead and pestered the living. Out in the open men died of thirst. At some time nearly every soldier suffered from dysentery and diarrhoea.

Since the Turks everywhere commanded the high ground, trench lines were very close to each other and the British occupied little more beyond beachheads, so that they were under shell and sniper fire night and day. Private Percy Lawty’s account (see later article) of how he and his fellow Yorkshiremen were hit by a single Turkish shell while they were all standing in a queue waiting for their dinners shows that there were no safe places even well out of the firing lines.

You need a strong stomach even to listen to some of the voices of Gallipoli veterans as they recall their experiences:

One of the biggest curses was flies. Millions and millions of flies. The whole of the side of the trench used to be one black swarming mass. If you were lucky enough to have a tin of jam and opened it, swarms of flies went straight into it. They were all round your mouth and on any cuts or sores...which then turned septic.

(Private Harold Boughton, First Battalion, London regiment)

If you’d looked in the latrines you’d have been sickened, You’d think people had parted with their stomachs or their insides, it was awful.

(Fusilier Harold Pilling, Sixth Lancashire Fusiliers)

Dysentery was a truly awful disease that could rob a man of the last vestiges of human dignity before it killed him. A couple of weeks before getting it my old pal was as smart and upright as a guardsman. Yet after about ten days it was dreadful to see him crawling about...he couldn’t even walk.

[Eventually this unnamed marine was drowned in his own excrement when he fell into a trench latrine]

(Ordinary Seaman Joe Murray, Hood Battalion, Royal Naval Division)

Though quick burial of the dead was imperative in such heat, it was not always possible to dispose of corpses even in shallow graves. Private Henry Barnes of the Fourth Australian Brigade described how he had bayoneted a very big Turk as he came over the front trench parapet. However, because the dead man was so heavy and the trench was so deep and narrow he and his comrades could not lift him up and out, so for two days they ate their bully beef and biscuits sitting on him!

If the searing heat, swarms of flies and stink of the summer were scarcely endurable, the autumn and winter that followed were hardly more tolerable. There was incessant rain and the nights were freezing cold.

There was continuous rain which filled up the trenches, so we had to sleep on the parapets. The Turks did the same. We had an unspoken truce and didn’t shoot at sleeping men, but it was so cold and we were always wet. On Christmas Day we were in the firing line and were served one slice of pudding and seven dates. Two days later we went down into our dug-out to change our clothes only to find our packs with our clean washing under three feet of water. Then, for another treat, they put us in the firing line for New Year’s Day.

(Marine Joe Clement, Royal Marine Light Infantry)

Joe was one of the last to leave the peninsula. He described the final evacuation from Cape Helles.

The first we knew of the evacuation was when the French moved out on the 1st of January [1916]. We spread out into their trenches to extend the line. We didn’t know that Anzac and Suvla beaches had already been evacuated. On 8 January we began to destroy food and rifles that were not needed. We then tied empty sandbags around our feet, secured our water bottles so that they wouldn’t clank around, and at midnight we moved off. I carried my machine-gun for over five miles in the dark until we reached the beach...The Turks didn’t know we were going.

Most were only too glad to be leaving in one piece. Some were sad to be leaving behind their comrades who had died for nothing.

I thought to myself, I don’t like sneaking away like this after all this bloody trouble. I was really distressed in my own mind. I thought to myself, We’re stealing away. We stole away from Blandford, stole away from Egypt and now we’re stealing away from Gallipoli. I remember when I came towards Backhouse Post, I thought to myself, Oh dear me! Poor old Yates and Parsons, all killed and buried here. When we first went to Backhouse Post I remember how happy and anxious we were to get stuck into the Turks. And now here we were, only a handful of us left.

(Ordinary Seaman, Joe Murray, Hood Battalion, Royal Naval Division)