From Gallipoli to Coopers Creek
Lieutenant Bruce Campbell was leaning against the port rail of the SS Madras as it neared the coast of Western Australia. He was contemplating what returning to his homeland really meant and wondering how he was going to cope with it. His thoughts were interrupted by uneven footsteps behind him and he turned to see a corporal limping towards him with the aid of a stick. It was the corporal who spoke first.
‘They said we was gunna get a geek at good old Aussie t’day.’
‘Yes, I heard that too.’
‘Funny ain’t it, I been bloody lookin’ forward to goin’ ‘ome for nearly five year, and now it’s ‘appened, I dunno ‘ow I’m goin’ to cope wi’ it. You don’t look too ‘appy ‘bout it neither.’
‘No. When we went over there we thought we were saving the British Empire, but now I wonder what we did achieve.’
‘Search me. Brass said we shouldn’t talk too much about the war ... prob’ly a good thing too. If we told the truth, people’d reckon we were bloody lyin’.’
Both men seemed to take that advice for a while. Bruce had seen this man around, but did not know his name because he was not on his deck. Officers were not supposed to fraternise with non-commissioned men, but should that rule apply now that the war was over? Even if it did, it could not impede the bond that existed between all men who had served together. Although their shared recollections of the same events may have differed, there was always a commonality. They all shared the results of mismanagement, miscalculation, poor leadership and the victimisation of Australians regarding battle honours, especially in the East. They had seen mates and strangers fall down dead before their eyes; they had heard the agonised cries of men in ‘no-man’s-land’ that they could not rescue; they had lived with the stench of dead human and equine bodies; they had experienced the horror of being ordered into battles from which they knew they probably would not return.
Even the first landing of the Anzacs at Gallipoli on 25th April 1915 was not at the right place, but this mistake did have a positive result. If they had landed where they were supposed to, they probably would have been wiped out completely by the masses of Turkish troops that were awaiting them, concealed in the mountains behind Gaba Tepe. Obviously, someone had buggered up this landing. As it was, the token enemy force that was deployed around what became known as Anzac Cove was not strong enough to mount an attack on the landing army. Concealed as they were in the scrub, the Turks just moved higher up the mountains to await the arrival of re-enforcements. They remained concealed, but within shooting range of the invading Anzacs and were able to kill hundreds of them without launching an attack. The re-enforcements arrived soon enough to stop the Anzacs reaching their goal.
‘What rig was ya in?'
‘Sixth Light Horse.’
‘Gawd! Were y’at Amman? That must’a been bloody ‘orrible.’
‘I was there for the beginning of the first battle, but I got wounded and had to be carried off.’
‘Gees, ya look orright now, ‘ow bad was it?’
‘It was bad. I remember the padre’s prayers when I was put on a cacolet and loaded onto the camel. They were prayers for the dying.’ Bruce thought he would probably never forget the agony of that journey. Most of the time he was unconscious, but when the camel slipped on the steep muddy slopes, he was jarred back into consciousness. There were many times when he wished for death to take away the suffering, but he did not want to go into that just now.
‘What were you in?’
‘I were in the Infantry, 13th Battalion, sloggin’ it out in the bloody trenches. Got ‘it in me leg. Bloody lucky I was too, not ta lose me leg.’
‘Cripes! You must have seen some heavy fighting, the 13th was at the first landing.’
‘Yes. That was bloody awful. We ‘rrived late in the day on the 25th an’ there was dead bodies everywhere ya looked. The poor buggers never ‘ad a chance. They was just sittin’ ducks for the enemy on th’ill. Ta make matters worse, they was just left lyin’ there f’r nearly a month b’fore they was buried.’
‘Yes, I was there for that armistice, it was my first contact with the enemy.’ Just mentioning this armistice brought back the smell of the hundreds of bodies lying around. A temporary dividing line was drawn with the Allies on one side, Turks, and Germans if there were any, on the other. On their side of the line, the Allies generally bur- ied their own where they lay, but Turkish bodies had to be returned to their compatriots. Something that had really surprised Bruce was that the Turks showed no animosity towards them. After all, they were the enemy that the Allies were trying to wipe out, so the Aus- tralians expected to be hated by the Turks. They certainly did not expect the gratitude that was openly expressed as they received the bodies of their comrades. At the end of the day, Bruce wondered if there was greater empathy between the Australians and the Turks than there was between the Australians and the English.
‘Gawd that was ‘orrible. The stink o’ them bodies an’ the way they was covered with flies an’ full o’ maggots. Sometimes when ya tried to move ‘em, they just fell apart. That was bad, but it was even worse when we got to the front. The bodies in the gullies in no-man’s-land was still where they ‘ad fallen, one on top o’th’other.’
‘Yes, God only knows how many were there.’
‘An’ then there was bloody Lone Pine. They said we was successful there, but I don’t call leavin’ twelve ‘undred dead bein’ successful! An’ then the bloody brass refused to cooperate with the Turks and ‘ave another armistice to bury the dead, so we ‘ad to spend our time dodging round all them bodies and put up with the stink. An’ we were often on duty for twenty-four-hour shifts without any time to rest.’
‘Yes. I can remember doing three consecutive stints of twenty-four hours with very little time to rest in between. And even when you were given a break from fighting, you still had to do water fatigues. The worst stint I ever did was a hundred and forty-eight hours in the firing line without a break.’
‘Gawd! You was even worse off than me. ‘Ow’d ya manage ta keep on ya feet?’
‘I think after about forty-eight hours straight, I just lost all sense of time. I felt it was someone else who was firing the gun and there were times when I think I actually dozed off, but somehow I managed to remain standing. I was just a puppet on a string. It all turned out to be a waste of time anyway; it was supposed to be a diversion to allow our troops to land at Suvla Bay and move across to take the Narrows and Constantinople. We might have won at Lone Pine, but that was the end of it and the Turks were well placed to take Sari Bair.’
‘Y’ know, y’ll prob’ly tell me I’m stupid, but I really found it ‘ard to shoot those poor bloody Turks. There they was, the poor buggers, standin’ in th’ freezin’ cold with their clothes in tatters an’ no boots, ‘ow they still managed to fire their guns, I just dunno. Our mob felt that sorry for ‘em that we used ta lob tins o’ bully beef into their lines, an, d’ya know what they did? they lobbed back fresh fruit an’ vegetables. Some real strange things ‘appened in that battle.’
‘Yes, I know. And did you know that the prisoners we took reported that the Germans were only giving them one meal a day. I just hope that one day, when this is all over, we may get the opportunity to tell them how much we appreciated the fresh fruit and vegetables and their great generosity when they didn’t have enough to eat themselves.’
‘Yeah. Makes ya wonder if they sometimes surrendered ta get fed. Just wished those bloody Germans would ‘a’ shown their faces in the front line more, I think I would ‘a’ enjoyed shootin’ them.’ Bruce gave a little chuckle and nodded. His friend was in full flow now and Bruce was starting to feel more relaxed. ‘An’ d’ya remember Old Ernie?’
‘Well, I never actually saw him, but I know who you are talking about.’ Old Ernie was the name the Anzacs gave to a particular older Turkish soldier who used to gather wood for their fires every morning. There was a tacit agreement amongst the Anzacs that he would be left to do his chores. But then some new recruits arrived and one of them shot Old Ernie and killed him. The Anzacs mourned his death.
‘I felt a bit sorry for the poor bugger that shot ‘im, ‘e thought ‘e was doin’ the right thing.’
‘Yes ... as you say, strange things happen in war.’
‘The evacuation was bloody awful too. Just sneakin’ out an’ leavin’ all our mates in their graves there. That was real ‘ard. I reckon most of us crept out quietly ‘cause we didn’t want ‘em to ‘ear us. Brass never needed to lectcha ‘s ‘bout bein’ quiet.’
‘Yes, I reckon you could be right.’ Just mentioning this brought pictures flashing through Bruce’s mind. A long silence ensued. Some of their experiences were just too horrible to talk about, but they could share their feelings even in silence. They knew they would have to put all this behind them, but they didn’t know how to do it. During the day it was a blur of pain and fear—like a movie that played in their heads, but they didn’t know how to stop it—and at night, there were the nightmares. He remembered the terrible cold. During the evacuation there were times when he thought he could easily freeze to death. Then there was that other night when they had a very heavy storm that blew the covers off the dugouts and the icy downpour saturated them all, and a few days later he woke to see the ground covered with snow. In spite of the cold, he had tidied up the grave of his cousin, Matthew Gibson, and all his mates’ graves, before they left Gallipoli, but there was one he couldn’t find. It was an old school mate.
It wasn’t only the mates that they left behind that bugged him about this evacuation, there were other things that just didn’t sit right. The instructions were that it had to be done in silence so as not to arouse the suspicion of the Turks, but it seemed that the Turks actually hoped the Allies would evacuate.
A note wrapped round a stone had been lobbed into their lines. It said something about both sides being in a stalemate and asked what they were going to do about it. Bruce didn’t know what they thought they could do about it. Perhaps they thought that, in a democracy, ordinary soldiers could question orders, or perhaps they hoped an officer would read it. They also wanted to know if they could spare some milk—at least they could do that.
They were told that they were to leave in small parties and those remaining would be occupied doing things to make the Turks believe that everything was going along as usual. Those leaving would be rowed out to waiting hospital ships in the dead of night and it would probably take two nights to get everyone off Anzac Cove; but troops had to be moved from Suvla and Helles as well. Bruce was one of the early evacuees and during his second day on board the anchored Abbassia he saw an enemy plane fly over the camp. He thought it was flying low enough for the pilot to be able to see everything in the camp clearly. Then three shots were fired in quick succession from Beachy Bill, the enemy’s big gun in a nearby cove. Everyone on board was sure that this was the end! Three shots fired like that had to be a signal, probably for their planes to take off and bomb the camp and the waiting ships. They also knew that the Germans had lots of U-boats in the area and right now they were probably heading for the ships anchored off shore to sink them.
But nothing happened! Eventually the rest of the men boarded the waiting ships, leaving behind booby-trapped guns that would continue to go off at intervals. They heard later that the Turks were very offended by these booby traps. That seemed to be further evidence that the Turks were just letting them go. After all, they had been killing each other for months, why should a few booby-trapped guns offend them?
All told, nearly 134,000 men were successfully evacuated without a single injury! But why didn’t the Turks retaliate? Surely that low-flying plane must have seen what was happening. It just didn’t make sense! Of course, the Anzacs were not out of danger yet. The Turks might have been happy to let them go, but Bruce doubted that the Germans would have. Those German U-boats could creep up unseen and sink them at any time. They had to have their lifebelts with them at all times, and on two occasions they had to stand-to by the lifeboats all day!
They were terribly crowded on board; not all of them even had a hammock in this former hospital ship. Bruce recalled deciding to sleep on top of the washhouse because he felt that, at least, gave him some privacy. He later came to regret this decision when he got totally drenched in a storm. Being the middle of winter, it was terribly cold anyway, but after becoming completely saturated, he again thought he was in danger of freezing to death. The irony of this did not escape him. To have endured what he had when thousands had been killed, and then to freeze to death!
After two days they landed at Mudros and Bruce and the rest of ‘A’ party boarded the Beltana to complete their voyage. This took longer than it should have because they zigzagged in all directions in an attempt to confuse any U-boats that may have been there. They eventually arrived safely at Alexandria early on Christmas morning. He had not been to Alexandria since he landed in early 1915, and memories came rushing back. He had been so excited and proud of himself then—they all were. They thought they were embarking on a noble cause to save Britain, and at the time, for them, that was tantamount to saving the world. They all knew that Gallipoli turned out to be a hopeless cause, and it soon put all thoughts of a noble war out of their minds. Withdrawal had never been part of their musings about the war they thought they were going to fight.
These war-weary men were relieved to be away from the inces- sant battle. They were totally exhausted, but none of them felt like celebrating anything, not even Christmas. Christmas was supposed to be a family day, and a large portion of their army family would never leave the Gallipoli Peninsula. Their shame and remorse at de- serting these gallant men who had sacrificed their lives for the cause weighed heavily on them all. On top of that, they were half a world away from their real family. This, too, was wrought with anguish for Bruce because he was not at all sure what the situation was at home. He had expected to be returning to wedding bells, but had been get- ting fewer and fewer letters from his fiancée, Dottie, and those he did get were becoming very formal with no mention of their future together. While he was at Gallipoli, he did not have time to really think about this, but now he had little else to think about.
It was the worst Christmas day he had ever spent. It felt more like an endurance test. He wondered if he would ever feel like celebrat- ing Christmas again. He thought back to the many sermons he had heard in the Presbyterian church about the love of God, the power of God, the omniscience and omnipotence of God, but where was God now? He knew that throughout the war prayers had been said every Sunday in churches for the ‘boys at the front’, but his cousin Matthew and thousands of other Australians were dead, as were thousands more Turks. Was this the will of God? Was this how a god of love worked? Sermons had told him that the Crucifixion was all about Christ giving his life that all men might be free, but what was this freedom that Christ had given? He felt imprisoned in someone who was not himself, but he could not go on thinking like this; he knew there were no answers. That other bloke was possibly having similar problems, but he did not feel like broaching a discus- sion with him. It would be much better to move back to the present.
‘The 13th took part in some pretty awful battles after that too—Somme, Pozieres, Ypres.’
‘Yeah, and a whole lot more. If I ‘adn’t been ‘it in me leg I would ‘a gone back t’Aussie last November wi’ me mates, but I got left be’ind ‘cause they was still tryin’ ta save me leg. Wat’cha gonna do when ya git ‘ome?’
‘Not sure. I was in the bank before, but I was born and bred on the land and I’d like to get back to that. I hope I can get a soldier settlers’ block. I’ll just have to wait and see. What about you?’
‘Dunno. I were a fettler on the railways afore. I’ll ‘ave a disabled pension o’ course, but that won’t be enough ta feed a family. Anyway, I don’t fancy spendin’ the rest o’ me life doin’ nothin’. Just ‘ave ta wait and see, too.’ There was another pause. ‘Well, I’ll ‘ave ta go and rest this leg. She gits a bit sore if I stand on ‘er for too long. Good luck mate.’
‘Same to you.’ They did not continue to break army rules and shake hands.
The corporal and the lieutenant parted, going to different parts of the ship. Neither of them noticed that land had come into view.