Today thousands of Australians rose before sunrise to gather at war memorials around the country for our traditional Anzac Day dawn service. Initially commemorating the dawn landing at Gallipoli and the thousands of Australian and New Zealand servicemen and women who served during WWI, the commemoration now honours servicemen in all conflicts.
“Lest we forget” will be solemnly uttered around the country this morning. Yet 100 years since these original Anzacs returned home to Australian soil, how many of us can “remember” in the true sense of the word.
Remembering our Anzacs
My maternal grandfather, Warrant Officer IC Frederick Cash was one such Anzac, serving four years on Gallipoli and the Western Front. Yet he died 15 years before I was born, so I have no genuine memories of him. Just the second hand family anecdotes and photos.
For current and future generations, we should be educating ourselves on the hardships, deprivations and horrors of war that these servicemen endured to ensure the freedoms we enjoy today. Yet history is a subjective beast. It has certainly been known to be re-written over the years. Which is where my paternal great-uncle comes in.
A first hand account
Gordon Tunstall Birkbeck was a young 20 year old printer from Sydney when he embarked on the Star of Victoria in September 1915 bound for adventure. He served as a trooper of the 1st Australian Machine Gun Squadron, Anzac Mounted Division.
Gordon spent much of his time as an ambulance officer, tending casualties. He fought in the Gallipoli campaign, upper Egypt Senussi Campaign, Sinai peninsular and the Palestine campaign until 31 Jan. 1919, returning home on “Port Sydney” in August 1919.
They are now the property of the Mitchell Library at the State Library of NSW and all excerpts from these diaries are courtesy of the Mitchell Library.
The daily life of an Anzac
Embarking for Suez
“All beds full of seasick men…… Mumps cases isolated & had to boil all utensils in consequence. 2,700 troops on board…….
6: Eighty mumps cases to date & only two MOs & twenty “AMC” on board. Since leaving port, no less than 27 cases of venereal disease reported. Having a busy time with patients.”
By the time they reached Suez, many sick were unloaded straight to army hospitals. For many of the unsuspecting young men, their initial service in the middle east must have been like some magnificent paid holiday. In November, 1915, Gordon details the attractions of the city of Cairo for his mother, Ruby and Elsie.
“Leave granted to Cairo, a wonderful city, but people & houses very dirty….. Went to museum, wonderful things on exhibition; mummies galore, including ancient Kings & Pharaohs, also some beautiful pieces of jewellery & pottery .Lunch at C ontinental, a fine hotel inhabited by officers only, other ranks not admitted unless in company of an officer”
“Witnessed the arrival of Sultan at Cairo. Bands & thousands of native troops, who presented a fine sight. Society maintain all colours of the rainbow – present to pay homage to their chief. Went to the Pyramids & Citadel & saw some wonderful works of art.”
Sport was a constant theme throughout Gordon’s diary. A keen sportsman, rugby and cricket matches occurred in some of the most incredible places. They served to boost morale and perhaps give the troops a distraction from the daily horrors they faced.
However by November they were in the Peninsular, dealing with the thousands of Gallipoli casualties being evacuated to military hospitals. On November 15 1915 his diary excerpt details the rescue of a torpedoed ship in the peninsular.
” Rather exciting day. All hands on upper boat deck at 2 p.m. took off our boots & and ordered to stand by for orders. Four ships’ boats sighted, containing 34 of crew of Orange Prince which had been torpedoed at noon. Three lives lost through explosion. Picked up survivors & cast their boats adrift. Wireless sent at 3 p.m. for escort.”
By August 1916 he was back in Palenstine. His entries had become more clinical and hardened. Gordon was no longer an adventurous young lad, but a battle-hardened soldier. He tells of the deprivations of poor rations, of having to sleep outside with one blanket on freezing nights due to insufficient accommodation. I cannot begin to imagine the task of trawling through the corpses on battlefields to recover the wounded. Gordon’s entries suggested he would have preferred front line service to this gruesome task.
“Enemy attacked at 4 a.m. en masse 2nd & 3rd regts holding them at bay on a 3 mile front till 5 a.m. when 1st regt. & 2nd Bde came up in support. Abdul put up some fine charges, supported by scores of guns, but our boys hung on & the 1st M.G.S. played havoc amongst the advancing force. Taubes over & bombing & caused many casualties. Our infantry were digging in whilst we held the line, then when our guns came on the scene, we retired, gradually falling to rear of the entrenched infantry, thus causing the enemy to advance & fall into the trap already laid for them.”
“Bringing in wounded was no easy task, as we were often between ours & the enemy’s line during the retirement. Robertson was wounded with a bullet & four other bearers hit with shrapnel, leaving only nine men to carry for the Bde. My pony hit in neck & fetlock during our gallop to El Mala at noon”
By January 1917, little seemed to have changed. Even as an ambulance officer, imminent death was all part of a normal working day. Yet his accounts seem to show little recognition of this. He was an Anzac, so he just got in and did the job.
“We had a busy time on the field with wounded, having to gallop within 200 yds. of the firing line with the wagons for the wounded. My mate, Robinson hit in the abdomen whilst carrying & died two hours later. Davis hit on the back whilst dressing wounded on the field”
Sports and sightseeing
Yet even amidst the horrors of what must have been a seemingly endless conflict, the Anzacs still managed to have some fun and take the opportunity to explore this foreign, hostile land. Even enemy bombing didn’t stop a good game of rugby, until someone was injured.
” Rugby & officers of 156 Scottish Bde., ambulance won 13-3. Fine fellows & we had an enjoyable game. During the match taubes were over & owing to shell cases falling we had to cease playing; one Scotty having a leg broken by a nose cap.”
Time off is a chance to do some sightseeing. The surrounding bombing had become normal. I suppose living in a battleground for two years now, you make every day and every opportunity count. Value today, because tomorrow is not a given.
” Went to the village, which is fairly clean, but inhabitants very cheeky to our men. Saw ruins of chapel built by Richard Coeur de Lion in 1165; fine Gothic archway & specimens of masonry on outside walls. Taubes bombed Rafa 5 a.m., killing 7 & wounding 28. Anti guns have now been brought up & manage to annoy enemy planes.”
By November 1917, the troops were hungry. Rations were scarce, days were long and the battle was endless. The lack of proper food is perhaps one aspect we aren’t aware of when we think of our Anzac’s experiences. It seems incomprehensible that troops would go nearly a week without a proper meal. Yet they seem to have made the best of whatever they had, in true Aussie spirit.
“Nov 5: Stand to 3 a.m., still in the wadi; mail delivered with our rations: none from home. Rations & fodder very scarce & we were told that to-days issue would have to last an indefinite period & to get food when & where we can, so hope to capture some enemy dumps very soon.”
Nov 11: After an uneventful night, we received orders to remain on the post until noon, when we returned to Ezdud & drew our first ration issue since the 8th & we soon made the scanty supply look sick; this being our first meal since tea on 8th.
The villagers the troops were protecting seemed to have more concern for their welfare. A few day’s later Gordon tells of visiting a village where the locals treated them to some local hospitality, even in the face of enemy shelling.
Nov 14: People gave us a royal welcome, many speaking perfect English. Inhabitants mostly Jews & a treat to see people dressed in European fashion. The orange groves were thrown open to the units in reserve & we managed to get a good supply before moving on again. Brown bread & grape jam in abundance, so we had a good feed during the halt. Whilst mounting our guns in the orchard the enemy deliberately shelled the town, wounding 3
The villagers weren’t as hospitable to the Turks, it would seem. Our troops were enduring rain, mud and impossible conditions to hold the town safe.
Nov 20: Enemy outposts sighted 3 miles distant. People came in from for our protection, as officers (Turks) had been in demanding food & wine & creating a disturbance in the peoples houses. ……Still pouring & mud up to our horses knees, black soil & sticks like glue.
Christmas at the front
By Christmas, it was still raining, muddy and uncomfortable But there was nothing like a parcel from home to bring a little Christmas cheer to the boys on the front. I actually still make the same fruit cake today that my Great Grandmother and Grandmother would make to post to Gordon.
25: Xmas Day!! Rain pouring through the bivvies, but we had heaps of good things, thanks to the parcels & feel as happy as schoolkids. Had tongues, plum pudding, cakes & sweets for lunch, finishing off with a cigar. Enjoyed it thoroughly despite being wet through & not a dry blanket in the camp. Went to bed at 7 p.m., getting up to do my shift on horse piquet from 10 to 12.30 p.m. Boys had a good issue of wine & had a fine time, being wet inside & outside.
Holiday in Cairo
The opportunity to attend Machine Gun training in Cairo not only gave a welcome respite from the front. It was also another opportunity to make every moment count and do a little sightseeing. Reading Gordon’s excerpt from January 1918, you would think he was on an exotic holiday. After nearly three years of warfare, I suppose you would welcome every chance to enjoy life. Training was obviously not the main thing on his mind.
5: Reached Cairo at 6 p.m. stayed at National hotel, Kursaal at night “Girl in the Taxi” – poor show.
6: Left National as it was placed out of bounds to N.C.O.s & men at 9a.m. Went to school camp to report at 2 p.m.
7: Classes commenced at 9 a.m., after lectures on saluting etc., camp in charge of Imperial officers & failure to salute then means being sent back to the unit. Leave granted 3 days per week; 4 .p.m. to midnight, but we go out every night without a pass.
9: Madame Bey’s to dinner, had an enjoyable evening.
12: Heliopolis races, winding up at the Kursall, seeing the Million Dollar Girl, which some people would have handed the bird.
13: Zoological gardens in afternoon, then dinner at Zietoun.
16: Boys had a dinner at St. James; Kirsall, ‘Girl in the Train’ fair show.
18: Zietoun – musical evening, had a fine time.
19: Gezirich races – Picadilly vaudeville at night, fair show.
20: Trip to Barrage, Zietoun at night.
22: First exam this morning. Sent parcels & shell casings away.
23: Mena Pyramids – Zietoun for diner.
25: End of school, received a first-class pass, average – 89.
26: Left Zietoun camp at 9 a.m. on five day’s school leave. Stayed at Rossmore House. Heliopolis races.
27: Motor to Helouan in afternoon. Zietoun for diner.
28: Trips up the Nile on a felouka, tea on the river & Kursaal at 9 p.m.
29: Presentation of colours to Sultan’s cavalry in Abdin Square.- Zietoun.
30: Spent afternoon with friends at Heliopolis – Diner at Zietoun. Had a fine time, my last night in town.
31: After a fine holiday, left Cairo at 11 a.m., transferring to trucks east of Canal at Kantara 6 p.m., spent a miserable night travelling – Bed very hard after Cairo hotels.
By April, Gordon was back at the front. Dirty, unwashed, with lack of clean uniforms. Yet still they made the best of what they had
., had a swim in the Jordan when off post. Have not seen soap since leaving Bethlehem. Our clothing in fearful condition many men without shirts & britches in ribbons, yet we are forbidden to wear shorts.
Even their pay, rations and beer was at the mercy of enemy raiders as they battled in the searing desert temperatures, as Gordon relates in July 1918
” It was a fearful day, 117 in shade & we were in the open all day, wearing steel helmets, this being an order. Shelled all day & was glad when it was over, so we could dig a gunpit under cover of darkness. The Huns got all the 2 regt’s. gift stuff & issue beer when they took the Bluff, but our boys got it all back from them after the action taking it from the Huns, who had filled their haversacks with the good things. Over £1000 were at hdqrs. in the line, as we were to be paid this morning, but the orderly men were sent to our led horses camp with money, as soon as the action commenced. Our horses were heavily shelled during the day, having to take cover in the wadi & could not get near water troughs. N.Z. troops patrolled the Aujur at 9 p.m., causing the enemy to move to his original line, 270 prisoners being brought in by N.Z. When the Huns were being taken to hdqrs., the Turks turned their artillery on them, unfortunately only wounding two of them & three of our boys who were escorting them.”
By August 1918, illness was once again prevalent. Troops were falling daily from Malaria. It is little wonder, given the conditions of deprivation in which the soldiers lived. You would think that Gordon’s admission to hospital would have improved his living conditions. Yet even the conditions in the military hospitals seemed to leave much to be desired.
” This place was filthy, the sheets & linen in a disgusting condition & took all linen off my bed, using only my blankets…. sending me to the base an hour later & glad to get away from the filthy place. …going to 3rd Gen. Hosp. … & had a clean comfortable bed.”
“Food is disgusting, bread & dripping for breakfast, tea & supper, meat for lunch minus bread or tea. Have my food brought from Cairo by boys from convalescent camp……Sisters do all they can for us, but the food & bacon dripping is the same as ever. The Sisters say they get the same as we & have to purchase their own bread, the issue is native brown bread with a good supply of sand in it….since my admission, have spent about £163;5 to keep myself alive, the food is just as bad as ever.”
Then on November 11, 2018 it was finally over. Armistice was announced and the hostilities ceased. Yet it would take another five months before our Anzacs finally returned home.
“11: News through of an armistice with Huns. Flares & Verry lights of various colours illuminated the camp for miles & presented a very pretty sight. Boys had a good issue of Richon wine & made merry when the news came through. Batteries opened up, making one think war had commenced instead of ending.”
A sad final note was the fate of the faithful horses who had carried their masters through the horrors of war.
16: Veterinary officers culling out horses over 12 years of age. So that they will not fall into unkind hands after faithfully doing their bit, orders were received to shoot them. 847 were shot this morning near the sea, all from Second Bde. & N.Z. Bde. It is better for them to be shot than sold to the Jews who work animals to the death ploughing etc. in Palestine.
Imagine the jubilation when these servicemen were finally reunited with their families after nearly four years. They were the lucky ones. During WWI 62,000 young men were killed and a further 156,000 wounded.
Yes, today we say “Lest we Forget” the sacrifices these Anzacs and subsequent service men and women have made. But in order to remember, we also need to ensure we acquaint ourselves with just what those sacrifices were.
Excerpts published courtesy Mitchell Library, State Library NSW.