Deadly chaos at landfall

Last updated 11:47 23/04/2014
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GRUB'S UP: Men of the 4th Battalion at the top of Shrapnel Gully having breakfast from their dixies. On the left is 963 Private Charles Robert Duke and in front is Pte William Donald McInnes. The soldier on the right was not identified.

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The following is the first of three articles written by the late Charles Robert Duke, of Nelson, about his personal experiences at Gallipoli. The architect and valuer founded the firm Duke & Cooke, which is still in business in Nelson.

The articles were published in the Nelson Evening Mail in April 1965 for the 50th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings, when Duke returned on a pilgrimage of remembrance. Duke was a New Zealander who was working in Australia when World War I broke out. He joined the AIF and served at Gallipoli and in France for three-and-a-half years.

 

Many of the incidents of that day, April 25, 1915, are very clear in my mind. I was a private in the 4th Battalion of the 1st Brigade, Australian Imperial Forces [AIF]. Although a New Zealander, I was in Australia when war began in 1914.

On April 24, 1915, the Battalion of 1050 officers and men were aboard the troopship Lake Michigan in the beautiful harbour of Lemnos [Greece].

For two weeks the harbour had gradually filled with troopships and warships while we practiced disembarking into ships boats, and landing on the beaches.

On the afternoon of Saturday, April 24, this great fleet headed for the Gallipoli peninsula led by Britain's latest battleship, HMS Queen Elizabeth, with her 15 inch guns.

From Lemnos to Gallipoli is about 60 miles. The sea was calm, the night very dark. Each ship had only one stern light.

Every man was fully equipped with ammunition, one blanket, an "iron" ration of very hard biscuits, Bully Beef, tea and sugar, a short Lee Enfield rifle, and bayonet, heavy webbing, a large back pack, a haversack at the right-hand side, and a small entrenching tool. We wore heavy khaki uniforms with puttees and a peaked cap. The Australian slouch hats had been scrapped as too distinctive for action.

No-one went to bed. For the most part we played card games with the result that I landed next morning "stone motherless broke". We had our last hot meal of stew about 3.30.

How primitive it all was in those days. Each man had a knife, spoon, fork and a tin plate. One 4lb loaf of bread was the ration for the 10 men of each section and little did we realise it was the last bread we would see for months and the last ever for some of us.

The meal over, we waited quietly. Some even slept. Others realising they were taking part in a dramatic adventure, just talked quietly or wrote to their parents.

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At daylight we were lying a mile from the coast under the crackle of heavy rifle fire. The warships were firing shorewards.

The covering force, the 3rd Australian Infantry Brigade had landed before dawn and had done its job well. The beach was clear for us and we climbed down rope ladders to the ship's boats at about 7.30am to be taken in tow by a naval pinnace.

Turks were firing from the hills which rose steeply in front and some boats had heavy casualties. We were ordered out some distance from the beach.

I looked over the side to judge the depth, and there lying on the bottom was the body of an Australian in four feet of water. Avoiding him, and with rifle held high, I jumped. The water was up to my chest. I waded up the narrow beach 30 to 40 feet wide, which varies little because of the small tides.

The first dead man I saw in the water seemed unreal. The real shock was to see an Australian and a Naval blue-jacket lying dead side by side on the beach, a waterproof sheet over them.

Later we saw many dead but it is always a shock to see the first.

As we landed, the wounded were arriving back at the beach. All day they came in a never-ending stream. Small craft landed stores and ammunition, and ferried the wounded to hospital ships on their return.

We were ordered to stack our packs on the beach. That was the last we saw of them so we lost our treasured razors, toilet gadgets, towels and greatcoats. These were later replaced from the packs of dead and wounded.

All morning we lay in reserve on the lower slopes with the sound of fighting above us. This waiting to go into action places a severe strain on the morale of the most seasoned troops. With the word to go you feel the relief that at last you can DO something.

In the afternoon, we moved up through really rough going.

We were subjected to little rifle fire - most of it went over us into the sea - until we reached the ridges. Then we caught it.

As we approached the top, at times on all fours, pulling with hands and kicking for a foothold, I fell and my left foot twisted under me. I knew instinctively my ankle had gone and, taking my boot off, saw my ankle swollen to almost double normal size.

It was impossible to replace the boot. I was ordered back to the beach, but found difficulty getting there.

It was almost dark and one never knew whether nearby rifle fire was from Turks or our fellows.

By this time things on shore were complete chaos, but somehow we hung on during that terrible night.

Things were so bad General Birdwood sent a signal to Sir Ian Hamilton aboard his headquarters ship, suggesting evacuation, but in reply was told to hang on and dig in. We knew nothing of this.

Fortunately for me down the hill came two cheerful blokes, a bluejacket and an Aussie slightly wounded in his upper arm. They took charge of me, and with slipping, hopping on my right foot and hanging on to them, we reached the crowded beach.

I spotted Dr Neville Howse evacuating wounded to barges lying offshore. Howse was from Orange, where I had enlisted and I had spent the previous Christmas Day at his home.

He was a lieutenant colonel in the Australian Medical Corps and eventually became Major General Sir Neville Howse, VC, in charge of Australian Medical Services.

He greeted me with, "well Duke and where have they got you"? I was not proud having to tell him I only had an injury, and suggested that I might rest on the beach. He flatly refused and I found myself on a barge with about 200 others, some desperately wounded, others already dead. I did what I could to help.

We were being dragged round by a naval pinnace, with no medical attention whatsoever, looking for a troopship to take us aboard. The hospital ships were long since full to overflowing and the troopships had no organised medical services. To add to our misery, it began to rain. Eventually, after being turned down by at least four ships, we were accepted by the Itonus and struggled aboard at daybreak. Itonus had been a cattle ship and, like many 4000 ton tramps, had been hurriedly turned into a troopship. She had no hospital facilities. The wounded were laid on mess tables or just on the deck.

Two Australian doctors, a few orderlies and later six nurses formed the meagre medical staff who had to deal with a constant flow of wounded coming aboard.

At least mobile, I attached myself to one of the doctors giving antiseptic injections. Only the badly wounded cases got a mattress or a couple of blankets to lie on.

During the morning I saw the second in command of my battalion, Major

MacNaughton, coming aboard. He had two wounds, a chip off his chin and a bullet in his side. As he sat on a bunk, he pulled up his sleeve and said, "this is really what is worrying me most, Duke". A large cattle tick was buried up to the hilt in his flesh. I knew it was no use trying to pull it out. The best remedy was to smother it with kerosene or lamp oil. I quickly got some and by probing with my pocket knife to get the oil working I was able to extract the horrid bug.

MacNaughton told me the brigadier and three of the four battalion commanders of the 1st Brigade, had been killed. The surviving battalion commander was left in charge of the Brigade - a good example of the old army saying "the heavier the casualties the quicker the promotion". Fortunately for the 4th Battalion, MacNaughton recovered to return as its commander and lead it through the terrible August fighting at Lone Pine where he and myself were among the wounded - but that is another story.

Three days after the landing, the Itonus had 600 wounded aboard and sailed for Alexandria. Each morning there was a row of dead neatly sewn in army blankets for burial. We would stand at attention while the padre read the service for Burial at Sea. On a signal we would tilt the hatch and send those good lads to their last resting place in the Aegean.

The reasons many of the recent generation wonder what it was all about, why we were thrown on a hostile and inhospitable shore at a place only fit for goats to clamber up:

The object was to gain control of the Gallipoli peninsula which would have given Britain entree through the Dardanelles to the sea of Marmora and Constantinople, giving access to the Black Sea, and to Russia, which was reeling back from the onslaught of the well-equipped German Army. They badly needed war equipment and food which would have been supplied by this route had it been ours.

By the mischance and failure at Gallipoli it is estimated that World War I was lengthened by two years. What added to the tragedy of the Anzac landing was an unknown current running along the shore which took us a mile from what would have been a comparatively easy landing with easy country behind.

Instead that fatal current took us to the foot of the most precipitous country along the whole foreshore. The land we took that night was no more than 200 acres. Until the Suvla Bay Landing in August, the total amount of land held never exceeded 400 acres and at times there were 60,000 men crowded upon it.

Tomorrow: Wounded in Action.

- Nelson

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