Wednesday 31 January 2018

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.

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1. Fly Swarms

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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.’ 

Audio - Joe Guthrie interview © IWM (IWM SR 13038)

Officers of a Field Ambulance at their mess, Gully Beach
© IWM (Q 13309)

'There were flies feeding on them'

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2.Unappetising Food

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2.Unappetising Food

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.’

Audio - Richard Yorston interview © IWM (IWM SR 24554)

A soldier preparing a meal in a rest camp, possibly at Cape Helles
© IWM (Q 13312)

'I've not touched jam since'

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3. No Water

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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.

Audio - Frederick Caokes interview © IWM (IWM SR 8287)

Men of the 9th Battalion, Sherwood Foresters (Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire Regiment) filling their bottles and mess tins at a well sunk by the Royal Engineers, Gallipoli, August 1915.
© IWM (Q 13298)

'The heat of the can used to dry the water up'

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4. Extreme Weather

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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.

Audio - Edwin Pope interview © IWM (IWM SR 8272)

British troops drying blankets at Suvla Bay after the storm at the end of November 1915
© IWM (Q 13678)

'We didn't have thin uniforms'

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5. Lice Infestation

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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.

Audio - George Horridge interview © IWM (IWM SR 7498)

A bathing parade at Gallipoli.
© IWM (Q 13386)

'You couldn't get the lice away'

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6. Rotting Corpses

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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.

Audio - Eric Wolton interview © IWM (IWM SR 9090)

A British soldier looking at a dead comrade in a gully at Gallipoli, 29 June 1915
© IWM (Q 13335)

'We were proud of seeing the bodies'

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7. Dysentery Epidemic

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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.

Audio - Cecil Meager interview © IWM (IWM SR 8326)

Carrying wounded men on stretchers, to be taken away from Gallipoli on a hospital ship
© IWM (Q 13449)

'You had no go in you at all'

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8. Basic Latrines

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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. 

Audio - Malcolm Hancock interview © IWM (IWM SR 7396)

British camp at W Beach (Lancashire Landing), Cape Helles.
© IWM (Q 13488)

'It consisted of a trench'

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9. Inhospitable Terrain

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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.

Audio - Joseph Napier interview © IWM (IWM SR 7499)

Horses picketed on the beach road made between Cape Helles and Gully Ravine.
© IWM (Q 13309)

'It really was rather a shock to me'

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