Diary from the frontline

Last updated 05:00 25/04/2009
BARRY HARCOURT/139945

DEAR FATHER: Postcards sent home by Allan Findlay.

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Southerners at War

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In April 1915, thousands of young men stormed the beaches on the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey. For nine months New Zealanders, Australians and allies from France and Britain battled Turkish forces desperately fighting to protect their homeland. JARED MORGAN looks at the diary of a former Southlander written on the frontline.

THE diaries Allan Findlay are remarkable.Not only for the fact they survived the heat of battle at Gallipoli and, 94 years later, are still intact, but more so for their size.

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Each diary is little more than a business card and details his 17 weeks at one of the bloodiest in terms of Kiwi lives lost and most disastrous campaigns of World War I.

Allan James Findlay was born in Invercargill in 1890 and moved with his family to Westport soon after.

He became a chemist and before the outbreak of World War I moved to Nelson, where he became a dispenser. Findlay signed on for military service on August 10, 1914 in Nelson, six days after New Zealand entered the war.

He saw his first action against the Turks in the Suez Canal in February 1915.

On February 3, he wrote: "First experience under fire soon used to it."

On April 23, two days before the landings at Gallipoli, he celebrated his 25th birthday.

Three days later Findlay, a stretcher bearer, wrote about the landings.

April 26: "Heavy casualties on the first day. Rescued three wounded men (Australians) today from near beach under fire. We were covered by schrapnel from warships and rifle fire ... The snipers opened fire as we got ready to return had over a quarter mile to go. Mentioned in headquarters to General OC."

Findlay's diary starts in matter of fact terms, bearing little testament to the horror he must have seen every day.

On May 8, New Zealand troops were involved in the massacre known as the Daisy Patch. Battalions sent to the Helles sector for the offensive attacked across the Daisy Patch and sustained so many casualties that this action is often compared to what happened to the Australians on the Nek.

May 8: "Moved forward early and were treated to schrapnel all the way, many bursting very close to us. Our battalions were in firing line about 9am. Canterbury well up in the thick of it. The Div was terrific. Bearers not allowed out until dusk and continued through the night. No sleep at all."

Fatique and his Invercargill-based cousin Ivan, also a stretcher bearer, are recurring themes.

May 9: "Worked right through the night collecting wounded. Ivan and I together along with others. Many wounded and dead about. Boys well entrenched and cheerful ..."

May 24: "Armistice granted ... About 2000 Turks buried. Not a shot fired all day."

Now and then he questions authority.

June 4: "Was not awarded any distinction as recommended. The other stretcher bearer was awarded DCM (Distinguished Conduct Medal)."

The next day, some emotion. June 5: "Heavy counter attack took place early this morning and our boys lost the trench gained last night. Our casualties were heavy bombs right into our trenches. It was hellish the bursting bombs and shells were deafening. Made ears ring and head sore."

Then some recognition for his work.

July 20: "Had tea with Ivan. Saw some Westport boys. Word through that I have been awarded DCM."

Not long after, illness hit Findlay.

August 7: "Not feeling at all well, temp 102. Went to bring in two Turks wounded but were fired at so left them there."

August 9: "Out on duty all night, collected dozen or so men and again slept on hillside as too dangerous to ship patients down feeling very crook sore chest, temp 102."

August 10: "Reported sick, but could not get away temp 102.4 feeling very crook."

Finally, his service appears to be over.

August 20: "Saw Ivan. Got put on sick list for hospital feeling very miserable. Had long walk to Walkers and am done up, had to pass through three stations, dodging snipers on track down several shots very close. Left Walkers Ridge and boarded trawler at sea about 2pm. Sailed Inbros to emergency hospital ship."

Findlay was invalided off the Gallipoli Peninsula after 17 weeks. He went to hospital in England and later spent time in Scotland with relatives, where he made a good recovery.

By the time the campaign ended, about 125,000 men had died: more than 80,000 Turkish soldiers and 44,000 French and British soldiers, including more than 8500 Australians. Among the dead were 2721 young New Zealanders, about a quarter of those who had landed on the peninsula.

Findlay returned to survive on the Western Front in France in January 1916 and was again mentioned in dispatches.

He was discharged from the army on May 9, 1917, being no longer fit for active service.

He returned to live in Nelson working as a dispenser.

Findlay's grandson and namesake Allan returned to Southland to farm. He owns his grandfather's diaries and other memorabilia.wIn a footnote, the diary of another stretcher bearer, Alex Thompson, who is mentioned in Findlay's diaries and worked closely with him, sold for $2750 last month on Trade Me.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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