There was millions and millions and millions of flies. The whole of the side of the trench used to be one black swarming mass. All around your mouth and on any cuts or sores that you’d got, which all turned septic through it…
At dawn on 25 April 1915, Allied troops landed at Gallipoli in modern Turkey. Their aim was first to capture the Dardanelles and then the Turkish capital. The soldiers went ashore on a series of beaches across the peninsula. Cecil Tomkinson of the Royal Army Medical Corps described the conditions at one of these – X Beach.
I mean we were in these boats, they were pelting you with shrapnel and there weren’t – we didn’t have any rifles fired at us, but shrapnel was fired over us. You know, we were a whole barge load of men; sort of… we didn’t want to be – none of us wanted to go to heaven yet! So we, anyhow we got ashore. All scrambling onto the beach – not a very wide beach. It was very congested, and so far as I can remember it looked chaotic. But we scrambled to the top to see what we could do. And those soldiers who were holding the ridge at the top of the whatsername told us to wait a bit, you know, don’t put your head up.
The Australian and New Zealand Army Corps landed further north at what became Anzac Cove. NCO Fred Haig recalled the chaos and destruction there.
It was absolute schmozzle it was really a nightmare – fellows being killed all round, wounded all round; not enough ambulance people and not enough ambulance transport to get the fellows from shore. It was an absolute nightmare. I know that night I was drinking from a little creek and I thought to myself, ‘This water tastes funny.’ Then I went up a few yards and here was two dead bodies and the blood was coming down the creek, with the water in the creek.
The Turkish defenders were well prepared and fought back fiercely. The result was carnage. Allied troops were cut down and in places struggled even to get ashore. British private Richard Yorston tried to help casualties on his beach.
Some of the infantry had gone ahead and they’d gone up the cliff. So I volunteered to go up and find wounded. And the first man that I walked to he said, ‘Mind me arm, mate!’ I looked down, he had no arm. And it was no blood or anything. I said, ‘Well just stay where you are, we’ll send stretcher bearers for you.’ I went up on the top and I heard a voice, ‘Get down! Get down!’ And he had a brassard on, so I got down, it was a captain with his batman. I said, ‘Shall I send stretcher bearers for you?’ He said, ‘No,’ he said, ‘I’m alright but,’ he said, ‘for heaven’s sake don’t stick your head up, or you won’t have one left!’
Determined Turkish resistance contained all the landings, and trench lines developed that remained much the same for the rest of the campaign. Hedley Howe described how the Anzacs failed to advance inland.
As we topped the rise we came under pretty heavy fire. One of my platoon was killed beside me; a couple of yards further on Captain Aneer from another company was killed. And as we crossed the plateau quite a number of others went down – you could see them falling in the just getting full light. The advance went straight on across the plateau down into the valley on the other side, where we reformed under Major Brockman. He then led us along a valley for about a mile and a half until we were about halfway up the slopes of Battleship Hill. We were driven back all day and we never regained that territory afterwards.
The landings were a complete failure, with the Allies suffering heavy casualties, even on the beaches. At W Beach, British stoker James Leary helped to clear away the corpses.
We had then the job of getting bodies out of the water that had been killed in the boats and that before they could get ashore. And there was people with parts of their head blown off and battered up, laying about 25 yards off the beach. Well we had a steam cutter going along there, and we had a long rope with a hook on it. And they used to take the hook and get a big boat hook and pull these bodies up towards the surface that was down at the bottom. Because these men had been killed with all their kit on, you know the big thing on their back as they had all their clothes in and all like that, and they’d just sunk to the bottom when they got wet.
Trench warfare quickly took hold of the peninsula and as the months passed, the conditions became worse and worse. One thing in particular that Gallipoli veterans remembered was the terrible food. British officer Malcolm Hancock recalled the limited ingredients his cook had to work with.
He and his assistant cooks prepared the meal – the food – and I must say he did marvellously with what he had, which was almost exclusively bully beef – the main thing. Personally I’d no objection to it except we had absolutely nothing else and got sick to death of it. The only jam we ever had was apricot – ever. I’d never seen any other kind of jam there at all. We had these biscuits, these hard biscuits, which were not unlike a dog biscuit, really, that kind of thing. And there was very little variation. It was boring.
Alexander Burnett of the Royal Scots Fusiliers found a way to supplement his rations.
And then there was a tin of jam – Keiller’s jam, Keiller’s marmalade – that was amongst about eight people for a tin of jam, no butter. We used to go across to the French and they liked confiture, you know, they liked jam. Well anyhow we used to rub the label off Keiller’s marmalade and say, ‘Confiture?’ And we used to get a tin of their meat. And we used to go quick before they opened it, because they didn’t like marmalade. We used to take quite long steps to get away from there!
Even when the troops got hold of food, eating it was made practically impossible by vast swarms of flies – as British private Harold Boughton described.
One of the biggest curses was the flies. There was millions and millions and millions of flies. The whole of the side of the trench used to be one black swarming mass. Anything you opened, if you opened a tin of bully or went to eat a biscuit, next minute it would be swarming with flies. They were all around your mouth and on any cuts or sores that you’d got, which all turned septic through it. It was a curse, really, it really was.
The flies fed on the bloated and putrefying corpses that had to be left, unburied, in no man’s land. Joseph Napier of the South Wales Borderers remembered this awful sight.
They really were a menace the flies were. I suppose it was due to the fact that, lying between the trenches, you’ve never seen such an array of corpses and bodies and all stages of death and so on and colour and blowing up. And the flies were having a harvest of a time among these. Then of course they came into the trenches where food was being eaten and served. It was quite a job to get the food into your mouth before a fly got on to it.
British NCO Arthur Hemsley had a solution to the pest problem.
If you wanted to eat, the black flies there were in their millions. Life was nothing but flies all around you. And we were given fly nets to put over our head – bags, fly bags to put over our heads – your face. Into that you would put your biscuit and your jam, if you could get it in there quickly, and then close it up underneath. And then with a buzzing all round you, so that you couldn’t even see through it for the flies outside, you could then have a meal of biscuit and jam.
The flies, corpses and general unsanitary conditions led to extensive outbreaks of dysentery amongst the troops. Will Cowley, of the Army Service Corps, was one of the many who suffered its effects.
Everybody felt so weak with dysentery; weak with dysentery and all the rest of it – diarrhoea – that you’d got no strength, you know, you were so weak as a kitten. You could hardly walk about at times. Well the doctor asked me one night how many times I went out to the back, I said ‘Sixteen times, doctor.’ Sixteen times. You rush out there and when you get there you couldn’t do anything. Terrible.
The situation was not helped by the very basic and hazardous way that latrines were dug. Harold Pilling of the Lancashire Fusiliers related how crude they were.
On the beach there were two diagonal poles, if you like, sloping out towards sea. And two cross pieces; one, the top one you sat on, and the bottom one you had your feet on. And that were all at sea you know. And besides that, there were a narrow trench dug, that’s all there were, out in the open. If you’d looked in there you’d have been sickened. You’d think they’d parted with their stomachs or their insides. It was awful. You had to cover it and dig another. It hadn’t to be so high or else you could have fallen down. There were no supports or anything it was just an open trench.
Another curse was lice, which soon affected the majority of the men. British stretcher bearer James Tolley was just one of those afflicted.
You could see people were stripping off and the seams of the trousers, they used to be burning them. See, you had a lighter you’d go down the seam of these and burn them. Oh, I had lice. Lousy as a cuckoo. Terrible itch with them, you know what I mean to say. But where we benefitted, we could go down the sea and have a wash, you see, so any that you had you got rid of them when you got in the water.
Wealthy officer George Horridge evolved an elaborate way of avoiding the lice.
It may sound strange but I used to get a parcel every week from home, consisting of: a shirt; a pair of drawers; and a vest, clean; a piece of paper and some string; a packet of tobacco. And I used to change my underclothes, send them back to be washed at home. And I avoided the vermin that everybody else was getting – because everybody was getting body lice – but I never got body lice, because of this method of transport with home.
Living in the open, the troops were exposed to the extremes of weather. British private Arthur Wagstaff remembered the changeable climate.
Of the six months we were there I suppose the first two months it was just a heat wave, and it was almost unbearable. And the second period of months, it was raining continually for two months – it rained continually for two months. And then the third period of two months, it was snow and ice and blistering winds straight across the Sea of Marmara from Russia. So it was a very bitter experience then.
The intense heat of the summer months was made worse by a shortage of drinking water. Thomas Edmed saw the impact of the meagre water rations.
Yes that was the greatest hardship, one of the greatest hardships, was lack of water. But some men suffered, they really did suffer. You see they’d have a quart of water, they’d feel thirsty, they wouldn’t conserve it and by the end of the day I’ve seen them with their tongues hanging out – it was dreadful. And you’d got to watch your water because people would even pinch it they were so thirsty, you know?
The terrain also meant there was a constant danger from Turkish snipers. For Richard Millard of the Border Regiment, the threat never seemed to go away.
It was a perpetual battle going on all the time. It was rifles, they were mostly snipers, it wasn’t a set battle like all the guns and all the airplanes and the bombs and this and that going off like, say, the Battle of the Somme. It was quite a different thing altogether. And the Turks were well placed on Achi Baba and they were in a commanding position. Here we were. And they sniped us all night, you never knew quite where they were getting, they crept round and that was the sort of thing.
One Turkish attack had lingering consequences for Australian private Henry Barnes.
The Turks were throwing bombs as well as rifle fire and it was very difficult to avoid the occasional man that came over. There was one fell right in front of me – he came over bawling out something and he practically – he was shot by me and the fellow next to me, two or three of us shot at the same time, we were rather bunched around the entry to the trench. He came through practically on top of my bayonet and – he was a very big man – and came down right on top of me and none of us could lift him out. He was too heavy to lift three feet while you kept down out of the range of fire, and literally, I sat on that Turk for two days – we ate our lunch sitting on him. We were eating bully beef and biscuits.
As well as regular sniping and trench warfare, the Allies suffered casualties from a series of larger attacks. British NCO John Stanway took part in one of these – the Third Battle of Krithia.
The 4 June was a terrible day. We went over the top at six o’clock in the morning with a mighty shout and they were waiting for us. They simply flipping mowed us down; they were going down round me like skittles. And it was a trap alright. I could have been shot that day, but there wasn’t one with my name on. But all my comrades were going down like skittles. It was a terrible day, as you can well imagine, can’t you?
In August, fresh Allied troops were landed at Suvla Bay to support a renewed assault beyond the old positions at Anzac Cove. Frederick Caokes went ashore at Suvla.
And then of course we all got into lighters, smaller boats, and got ashore as quiet as we could. But of course, the Turks were waiting for us. But us that eventually got ashore, we dug in and then we advanced when we could during that night. I think we advanced about three miles during that night, and that was furthest that they got all the time they were there. They never went any further than three miles. We thought we were going straight through to Turkey, you see.
The August attacks achieved very little, resulting only in more casualties on both sides. Ernest Haire of the Cheshire Regiment was wounded at Scimitar Hill.
We were met by withering machine gun fire. And I was hit and fell. They had to retire again and I was there between – in the blazing sun, I was hit at midday. Fortunately I put my field dressing on, but I knew it hadn’t hit the artery or otherwise I would have died – otherwise blood would have been pumping out – and it missed the bone. And my knee was exposed and it went black with the sun. And what I was afraid of was that the Turks had a habit of bayoneting the wounded and that’s what I was very much afraid of. Scared stiff.
After the August offensive failed, stalemate quickly returned. In December, the decision was taken to evacuate the Allied forces from the peninsula. In preparation, supplies were destroyed so that they wouldn’t fall into enemy hands, as William Kirk recalled.
I was to take a party, half a dozen men, to this advanced dump. I don’t know where it was but it was somewhere up the line. And we had to destroy everything, make everything uneatable. We made a pyre. Bags of sugar, tipped them up; 90 pound cases of tea whatever was on this dump, tipped it all over and mixed it all up with paraffin, and lime, anything we’d got on the dump it went on to make it – even bacon and that was chucked out the boxes and chucked among it. Make it unusable. And we pricked the cans of bully beef so as they went bad. Of course, when it came to destroying the rum, well we didn’t like the job and we saved a drop.
Half the men were evacuated in December 1915; the remainder the following January. Incredibly, only two men were wounded as a result of the evacuation. Joseph Murray was among the very last troops to leave the Peninsula.
We were so packed we couldn’t move our hands up at all. And I remember the chap in front of me was as sick as a dog. We were packed up like sardines in this blinking lighter. And then all of a sudden the damned thing started to rock and it did rock. There must have been a shell – I couldn’t hear it but there must have been a shell dropped pretty close. And then every now and then it was rocking, and I remember that all of a sudden it hit the pier and shoved us all back again. And those that were asleep were half awake, and those that were sick were still being sick. And oh dear me, it was stifling hot, stifling hot. And all of a sudden another one came along. I thought to myself, ‘Why the hell don’t we get out of it?’ It may have only been a little while but to me it seemed hours before we pulled from shore. Then, all of a sudden, we felt the gradual rock and I thought to myself, ‘Well here we are, ah, we’re at sea now anyhow,’ you know. We left there like a lot of cattle being dumped into a lighter and just pushed to sea. And nobody cared a tinker’s cuss whether we lived or died…
Voices of the First World War is a podcast series that reveals the impact the war had on everyone who lived through it through the stories of the men and women who were there.