Of all the varied parts of the world where British and Commonwealth forces were deployed during the First World War, Gallipoli was remembered by its veterans as one of the worst places to serve.
It was the scene of some of the fiercest fighting of the war. Allied troops landed there in April 1915 and spent months on the small peninsula of land guarding the Dardanelles Straits in modern-day Turkey. The military aims of the campaign were not achieved and it was eventually called to a halt; the final Allied troops were evacuated in January 1916.
There were heavy casualties, not only from the fighting, but from the extremely unsanitary conditions. Of the estimated 213,000 British casualties, 145,000 were from illness. Surviving combatants also recalled the terrible problems with intense heat, swarms of flies, body lice, severe lack of water and insufficient supplies.
Here, some of the thousands of men who served at Gallipoli recall what conditions there were like in their own words.
1. Fly Swarms
The hot climate, putrefying bodies and unsanitary conditions led to huge swarms of flies at Gallipoli, which made life almost unbearable for the men there. The flies plagued them all the time, covering any food they opened and making it impossible to eat anything without swallowing some of the insects with it.
As Gallipoli veteran Stanley Parker Bird said: ‘There were colossal swarms of these pests which had bred in the dead bodies not buried in no man’s land, where it was impossible to recover them without incurring fresh casualties.’
'There were flies feeding on them'
“And what’s more, of course, the weather conditions were bad, the weather was, in the summer was shocking. We had millions of flies all over and the corpses laying all over the place and these, these damn flies feeding on them and coming and then onto our cups of coffee or tea what we was having. We were trying to have a drink of tea, we'd be doing that, and that’s how it was. These massive flies millions and millions of them, there was no way of stopping them, of course.”
The food supplied to the men at Gallipoli was a source of much complaint. Hard biscuits, unappetising jam and tinned bully beef was the staple diet and many became fed up with its limited range. The rations they received were smaller than they'd have liked, too.
Henry Barnes of the 4th Australian Brigade remembered several of the men he served with asking General Birdwood – the commander of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps at Gallipoli – for ‘better rations’.
He went on to explain that, ‘a little while after that, we had potatoes but as we had no means of cooking and there was nothing organised, they couldn’t be cooked.’
'I've not touched jam since'
“We were on iron rations, you see. I've, I’ve, I've not touched jam since. Coming off of jam, we got that after we've been there a bit. Wanting a bully, a quarter pound tin of corned beef between four of you and the Colonel said to the cook but we had a beautiful meal that day, he said to the cook, “I'm not going to ask you where you got that meat from, but he says marvellous, wasn't it?” The cook said, “Oh, yes, yes, we managed her.” She was on the horse, it had been killed, but as soon as it was killed the cook butchered it and cooked it for the lot of us, you see.”
3. No Water
Fresh water was scarce on the dusty, dry Gallipoli peninsula – particularly at Anzac Cove – and was strictly rationed out. Getting water supplies to the troops was an arduous process.
It was brought from abroad by sea and kept in tanks on the coast, then taken up to the trenches by troops or animal transport. The water shortage soon took its toll on men who were already weakened by the harsh climate and living conditions.
'The heat of the can used to dry the water up'
“We were issued with a pint a day and, of course, the heat there was over a hundred in the shade and the heat that the can used to dry that up nearly. And of course, that was for shaving, washing and everything else. So of course, we never washed, we never shaved. Oh, we just didn’t wash. You see, we just went on getting dirtier and dirtier every day. But the trouble was you see there was, there was no water there, no water to drink, and most of the wells you see well, you didn't know whether they were poisoned by the Turks. Some of them were. And you took a risk if you took any water out of those wells. But you were so thirsty that you just risk it, you see. I mean, some chaps were glad to go on to get out of it. It was so bad, you know, that they really wanted to die some of them.”
4. Extreme Weather
Gallipoli had extremes of weather. During the summer months, it was blisteringly hot, which helped the spread of disease and flies and made the men’s tiny water rations feel even more inadequate.
But the temperature could also plummet, and in the autumn and winter of 1915, the troops were shivering in their light uniforms; large numbers suffered from trench foot and frostbite.
Torrential rain hit the peninsula in November which flooded the trenches, broke down the parapets and soaked the men.
'We didn't have thin uniforms'
“It was very cold at nights, but it was nice, it was hot during the day we, we didn't have too thin, khaki, cotton, kind of tunics. We had our ordinary khaki what we used in England and our overcoats weren’t like the ordinary soldiers’ overcoat, ours were cavalry overcoats, which spread out when you were mounted on the horse. The back of the coat would cover right over the horses’ flanks and well, when we first went there, some of the chaps cut off the bottom part, so they looked like officers with overcoats (chuckles), but they were sorry they did so because at night it was very cold and they wished they'd kept them long.”
5. Lice Infestation
The unsanitary conditions at Gallipoli soon led to a widespread infestation of body lice amongst the men. Men scratching at their louse-ridden skin and inspecting the seams of their uniforms for the parasites became a familiar sight.
Unable to keep either themselves or their clothes clean, the men became lousy – and it was very difficult to get rid of the lice once they had them.
'You couldn't get the lice away'
“No, you couldn't get the lice away. You could go and bathe in the sea and you could take your clothes with you and your shirt and things, but you couldn't get rid of them. And of course, it was the General what called the parade in the morning, and everybody had their shirts off and nipping these lice between the thumbnails and things like that. This was a regular occurrence; you couldn’t get rid of them because, of course, the blankets got infested and when you moved, the blankets weren't given to the same chap every time, they had to be collected and put in bundles, then they were dished out again and gradually these blankets got infested with them, everybody did.”
6. Rotting Corpses
Another unpleasant feature of life at Gallipoli was the stench of decaying bodies left out in no man's land. The high casualty rates of the campaign – coupled with the risk of being shot at by snipers if any attempt was made to bring in the dead from out in the open – meant that putrefying corpses were common.
These only added to the unhealthy conditions, providing ideal places for flies and disease to thrive.
'We were proud of seeing the bodies'
“And when they were fairly distancing, they were patrols. I remember one coming, Turkish patrol, and we were very proud to have shot two or three of them. And we were proud to seeing these people's bodies lying in front of…the smell was so awful, it was too awful. We wish we'd take them in straight away and we used to hope by shooting into these bodies that the smell would go but they kept swelling and swelling and getting worse and worse, making awful smells and very strange thing that however many bullets you pumped into them it didn't seem to make any difference, which I thought, the sort of gases would have escaped and gone, but it didn't appear to not for a long time.”
7. Dysentery Epidemic
A particularly debilitating aspect of service at Gallipoli was the widespread presence of illness and disease, especially dysentery. Brought on – and exacerbated by – the unhygienic living conditions, rotting corpses and huge numbers of flies, there was hardly anyone who had not been affected by it by the end of the campaign.
It sapped men of their strength, made them and their clothing filthy and resulted in thousands who suffered from it being evacuated off the peninsula.
'You had no go in you at all'
“You also, you had no going there at all, and if I may say and not in a very pleasant thing to say, but that there was a trench and there was a pole, you see. And we used to have to sit on the pole and some of them, if you don’t mind me saying so, fell in it. Oh, it was dreadful. That was, I think that was worse than, worse than the fighting really, yeah, oh. When I was at went on the peninsula, I was 11 stone, when I came off I was 6 stone 6.”
8. Basic Latrines
The toilet facilities at Gallipoli were far from luxurious. Latrines in a war zone are never of a particularly high standard, but the cramped nature of the peninsula, the difficulty of keeping clean, and the widespread dysentery meant those at Gallipoli were in an especially poor state.
British NCO William Davies also remembered that the latrines were a target for shells, as the Turks knew that the troops would have to visit them.
'It consisted of a trench'
“Well, fortunately there were, we were able to cite those away on the lower ground behind our trenches, and these it consisted of a trench dug out by the pioneer section of our battalion, and in the crudest possible way, a pole was slung across, and you just got on with it. It was reasonably safe there, but it, it, you never felt very safe in that kind of situation as you see what I mean (chuckles).”
9. Inhospitable Terrain
The small Gallipoli peninsula was unsuited for the lengthy campaign that took place there in 1915. The terrain was inhospitable, characterised by rocky ground with little vegetation and hilly land with steep ravines.
After initial assaults on Gallipoli in April 1915, the Allied invasion lost its momentum in the face of strong Turkish resistance. Complex trench systems developed as the situation descended into an uneasy siege-like state. In some places, the Turkish and Allied lines were just a few dozen metres apart.
'It really was rather a shock to me'
“We found ourselves coming down onto the shore of the mainland, close to the sea, and we were told to dust down there for the night and I must say, looking back on it, it's that really was rather a shock to me, and I imagine much more to senior officers and so on. Because almost for the first time in one's existence, we were there and just outside gallery Ravine as it was called on this hard rocky soil about, I don’t know how many yards from there from this, from the four to the cliffs above 100 yards, possibly at the most, and I thought, well, I haven't got my pyjamas, where's my bathroom and what's going to happen to me, however, of being young and I, I dust down, I suppose, and that was literally one’s first introduction over my life to hard life in the trenches.”