Chapter 29


It was exactly a year since Great Britain had gone to war on 4 August 1914 and the 1st Coldstream Guards had been fighting from the start. They had fought their way back in the long retreat from Mons in a series of brilliant rearguard actions. They had fought in the battles of the Marne and the Aisne and raced north in October to meet the Germans at Ypres in the great battle that brought the German army to a standstill and saved the Channel ports. At the end of the autumn fighting the Battalion had been reduced to a hundred and fifty officers and men. But the drafts of reinforcements from the Reserve Battalion which had brought them almost up to strength were also Regular soldiers and Guardsmen, long-schooled in the discipline and traditions that had forged the reputation of the Guards as the best of all the soldiers in an army that was generally acknowledged to be the best army in the world.

Fighting in the trenches was a sad comedown from the cut and thrust of mobile warfare and the particular length of trench-line the Coldstream were now inhabiting was not one that would have been easily envisaged by a guardsman drilling on the immaculate parade ground at Caterham or mounting the King’s Guard at Buckingham Palace in the piping days of peace. It was in a particularly nasty sector of the line at Cambrin near the la Bassée Canal where the tunnellers of both sides had been busy and the frequent explosions had reduced the trenches to a meandering shambles of loops and saps. The British and German lines were barely thirty yards apart and in the sector occupied by the Coldstream Guards the distance was even narrower. Two large mine craters nicknamed Vesuvius and Etna lay between them and the German front line and each side held one lip – a good deal too close for comfort. The Guards had constructed a new front line a little further back with a long listening-sap running forward to ‘their’ side of the crater. Every sound and every movement could be heard clearly by the troops across the way and although silence was rigidly observed and orders were given as far as possible by hand signals, it was difficult even for the disciplined Guards to make no sound at all in the ordinary way and, no matter how stealthily they went about changing places with an incoming battalion, almost impossible during a relief. A few nights earlier the Coldstream had suffered badly when the Scots Guards moved in to relieve them. The Germans were alerted by the shuffling of movement and the occasional inadvertent clink of equipment and sent over a shower of mortar bombs, giant Minenwerfers fired from close range, which had caused havoc in 2 Company’s trench. There were several casualties, including two of the senior sergeants, and the Company Commander, Captain the Honourable Thomas Agar Robartes was furious.

Lt. G. Barry, MC, 1st Bn., Coldstream Guards.

Tommy Robartes was a remarkable man. He was a Member of Parliament, and one of the very few men I’ve ever come across who appeared to be entirely devoid of any form of fear. Nobody ever saw him duck for a shell or take cover when bullets were flying around. His company would have followed him anywhere. He was infuriated at the loss of his two sergeants and swore he would get his own back on the Germans.

Now it so happened that while he was on leave in England Tommy had bought a number of musical instruments, including a drum, which he’d had sent over to France with the intention of forming a company band. It numbered about ten men under a corporal and when we were out of the line or in billets they used to practise and they soon became so good that they were even allowed to play on route-marches. So when Tommy’s fertile imagination got to work on how to avenge the death of his two sergeants he immediately thought of the band. A large number of Germans would be lured to a certain spot by the music of the band, whereupon they would be well and truly shelled!

Before we went back to the trenches Tommy explained his plan to the Commanding Officer, Lieutenant-Colonel John Ponsonby, and the Colonel was tickled to death at the idea and gave him his blessing. At three minutes to midnight on the following night the band would start a musical entertainment as close to the German line as possible – in the saphead under the lip of Etna. Then the gunners behind would lay down a heavy barrage on the German trenches immediately behind and on both sides of their lip of the crater. The barrage would start exactly at midnight. Colonel Ponsonby made only one stipulation – that the front line on both sides of Etna should be evacuated for a short distance before the show started, and the troops moved back to the support line. He was under no delusions as to what the outcome would be!

In order to make a really first-class kill, Tommy decided that, like all good shows, this one would have to be previously advertised. A large notice was prepared and stuck into the ground that night above the parapet of our front line so that the Germans could read it through their periscopes the next morning. It was written in German and read: ‘Our Band Will Play Tonight at Midnight’.

It was 4 August and the Coldstream felt that on this auspicious date the Germans might think that the ‘concert’ was intended to mark the completion of a year of war.

The instruments were brought up from the transport line, not without difficulty, and at a quarter to twelve they were passed along the front line to the band waiting at the sap-entrance ready to move up to the listening post under the lip of the crater. Robartes had made a point of warning them that it might be a dangerous job, but no one had backed out.

Lt. G. Barry MC.

It was a lovely calm summer evening. Hardly a gun was firing along the front. Quite a number of spectators couldn’t resist coming to watch the show, especially myself, since the party was to take place practically in my platoon sector. So, after that part of the front line was evacuated in accordance with the Colonel’s orders, I went along to Etna. The band was already there and waiting. It was also clear that the Germans had read our notice for they had begun to collect opposite us, and we could hear movements along their trenches and even see the spiked tops of their pickelhaube helmets against the skyline. From that distance – only about ten to twelve yards – we could hear them talking quite distinctly.

Then Tommy appeared, smoking a cigar as usual, and the men got their instruments into position. It had been decided that the overture to the grand symphony should be The Watch on the Rhine’ – we hoped that the Germans would appreciate the compliment! I know that I, for one, waited in a state of intense excitement for the curtain to rise, and then, at exactly three minutes to twelve, Tommy nodded to the band and the music began.

It would be difficult to picture a more bizarre scene on that warm summer night – the strains of music from deep down in the ground, the orchestra on our side of a deadly dividing line and the audience, our enemy, occupying underground stalls on the other! The Watch on the Rhine’ was played through to the end and the band stopped. Immediately from across the mine crater came cheers, and shouts and clapping. Some of them shouted, ‘Hoch, hoch’ and one voice called, ‘Long live the Kaiser.’ Tommy looked at his watch and saw that there was still more than a minute to go to midnight and on no account must the audience be allowed to disperse, so he motioned the band to start an encore.

The men struck up again and had got about half-way through when Tommy gave the signal to stop. By this time there were only about fifteen seconds left to get clear of the saphead before the barrage was due to come down. There was some difficulty, I remember, getting the band out of the narrow trench quickly without a lot of noise – especially the man with the drum! The rest of us followed behind and we hadn’t even got out of the sap into the front line when there was a swish and a roar and the first shells screamed over our heads and plunged into the ground just behind. A good old scramble then took place to get along the communication trench to the support line! A constant stream of our shells was pouring into the German trenches, and their flashes were lighting up the darkness around. But it wasn’t long before we heard a dull report from behind the enemy lines and, looking up into the sky, we saw the lighted tail of a Minenwerfer bomb turning over and over, as it began to fall. It made a noise like the rush of an express train but fortunately it fell behind us and we only got a rain of stones and earth thrown from the crater. More followed in quick succession but by this time the band was out of the danger area and we all reached the support line without mishap.

I can’t remember how long our own guns went on firing, probably not more than ten minutes, for no one but a fool would have remained in such a death-trap any longer, but the Germans continued to pound our front line round Etna with Minnies and 5.9 shells for well over two hours. Not once did they think of putting some shells into our support line, and even then they would have got us a second time when we eventually re-occupied the front line, for it should not have been very difficult for them to guess that we would repair it during the first lull and all they had to do was to give us half an hour and then put down their barrage in the same place as before. As it was, we didn’t have one single casualty.

Tommy now felt that he had had his revenge and decided he would treat the Germans to a real genuine show. So, before dawn, another notice was put up:

Our Band Will Play Again Tonight
This Time No Danger

That evening the band assembled again but in a different place where the two lines were a little farther apart. They gave a first-class concert, and even sang some songs, but the only response from the Germans was a few bullets overhead! The following morning at stand-to I saw through my periscope that the Germans had put up a notice on their front line. It read:

We Have Taken Warsaw and Captured 100,000 Russian Prisoners

The implication was clearly: ‘So sucks to you!’ But the Coldstream were satisfied that they had won on points.

The Germans, never slow to trumpet their victories, flashed news of the fall of Warsaw round the world and a very few hours after they had obliged the Coldstream with this information in their trench-line in France, a similar placard was hoisted above a Turkish trench at Lone Pine on far-off Gallipoli. The Australians of the 5th Battalion AIF read it incredulously and instantly dismissed it as a ‘furphy’.

The word ‘furphy’ had been coined many months before in the training camps at Melbourne, where the rubbish and the contents of latrines were removed every day by carts prominently blazoned with the name of the contractor, which happened to be Furphy. The word ‘furphy’, meaning (in its politest form) ‘rubbish’, had rapidly gained currency and on Gallipoli, where rumours abounded, it was particularly useful. Every carrying party returning to the trenches from the beach had a tale to tell: Greece had declared war on Turkey and was going to land a hundred thousand men on the peninsula. Or, Rumania had declared war and was marching through Bulgaria to Constantinople. Or, two hundred thousand French were landing at Helles with the intention of taking over the whole peninsula. All were furphies, but the news of the fall of Warsaw happened to be true. It was serious news, for it meant that the Germans were winning on the eastern front and that the Russians were in retreat. The report reached Gallipoli on the eve of the ‘big show’ planned for 6 August when the Anzacs were to storm the high ridges in conjunction with a new British landing at Suvla Bay. In the minds of the men who conducted the war it was now more important than ever that the big show should succeed. In a few days, with a modicum of luck, the peninsula might be secured and the Royal Navy might be steaming up the Dardanelles on the way to Constantinople.

The War Cabinet in London was desperate for first-hand information and Asquith had arranged for the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Maurice Hankey, to travel to the Dardanelles to report direct to him on the situation as he saw it, and so that Hankey would not be embarrassed by having to pass his reports through open channels, he also arranged for a King’s Messenger to bring them back. Hankey’s views would be confidential and he was to pull no punches.

Sir Maurice visited every corner of the peninsula. He spent time at Cape Helles (‘I shall have to paint a picture of great discomfort and hardship… our men are in good heart’). He rode close to the front line for a view of Achi Baba (‘The only difficulty for the Turkish gunner on Achi Baba is the bewildering variety of targets – crowded beaches, horse lines, rest camps, flotillas of trawlers…’). He scrambled up Gully Ravine (‘Proper sanitation is impossible in places as the Turkish dead lie in heaps, the smell being bad, while the thought of masses of flies in such conditions makes the flesh creep…’). He visited every beach (‘Really rather horrible. A dust storm rages for a great part of most days, the sun is intensely hot, of shade there is none, the soil is soft sand, very fatiguing to move about in, the flies are execrable, and, worst of all, the Turks shell at frequent intervals…’). He went to Anzac (‘Several very deep, steep and bare ravines, the sides everywhere scarred by hundreds of “dug-outs” where the men off duty live like anchorites and hermits. The hills, some four hundred feet above the sea, are crowned with the most amazingly complete labyrinth of trenches…’).

Sir Maurice spent a good deal of time in the Australian trenches at Anzac for his cousin was Second-in-Command of an Australian battalion and escorted him up to the front line for a close-up view. Hankey was deeply impressed. He wrote to the Prime Minister:

I do hope that we shall hear no more of the ‘indiscipline’ of this extraordinary Corps, for I don’t believe that for military qualities of every kind their equal exists. Their physique is wonderful and their intelligence of a high order. Harassed by continuous shelling, living in intense heat, tormented by flies, compelled to carry their water and most of their supplies and ammunition by hand 400 feet up the hills and deprived of any recreation except occasionally bathing, they are nevertheless in the highest spirits and spoiling for a fight.

Since it seemed the only way to get out of their present situation the Australians were certainly ‘spoiling for a fight’, but their spirits were not so high as the visitor assumed. The Anzacs made no bones about the fact that they were fed up. Perspiring in the baking heat, with frequent, unwelcome visitations of dysentery, with a monotonous thirst-provoking diet of bully beef and biscuits enlivened occasionally by tough unsavoury stew, and with no rest to look forward to but the weary toil of fatigues, it was hardly astonishing that they were sick of the peninsula and sick to death of the war. It was not what they had bargained for.

Pte. W. Carrol, 21st Bn., AIF.

The war broke out when I was up in Queensland and we were shearing and there were no telephones or wireless in those days and the shearer said, ‘Oh, there’s war. They’re going to have war.’ They all said it wouldn’t last a week. They wanted men to keep Arabs and Turks away from the Suez Canal because it linked England and Australia and New Zealand and China and India and so it was very important to have that channel free with all the food and ammunition and soldiers going backwards and forwards. They wanted Australia to send men – and I was one of the mugs. We all came down from the station, and they said anyone who would like to go to join the Army and go to Egypt to defend the canal was to report to barracks, and there was such a crowd and I didn’t expect to get through. We said it wouldn’t last a week, or two at the most. What fun it would be. That’s what we thought, actually. We were proved to be a lot of suckers.

First of all, I was in the 13th, the Light Horse. Everyone wanted to ride a horse. With sixty pounds on your back, you didn’t get much encouragement to join the infantry! But then they must have had ideas that a horse was no good at digging trenches – you must have infantry, so they had to transfer a lot of us. We were all wishing to go. We thought, ‘The war will be over before we get there.’

When we got on the boat my sister and father came down to see me off and as I went up the gangway an old aunt pushed a little bag into my hand and there were ten gold sovereigns in it. Just think of that today! The first thing we knew was in the morning we’d slipped anchor and the two big ships, the Euripides and the Ulysses, both Blue Funnel ships that had been converted to troop carriers, were steaming out on their trip to the Suez Canal. We didn’t touch any other Australian port. We went by the Luin, a headland in Western Australia, and that was our last view of Australia. All the troops were on deck and you should have heard all the noise and yelling that went on. We all hung over the rail. It was fairly rough and the lights on shore were getting dimmer and dimmer. I think everyone was fond of their country. They were watching – I suppose they were thinking of their wives and sweethearts. I hadn’t a sweetheart, I hadn’t a mother, so it was a fairly easy trip for me, but as the lights got dimmer and dimmer they all went down below, and that night I never heard the men go to bed so quietly. The Captain said, ‘Have your last look at Australia.’ He couldn’t have spoken a truer word because 50 per cent of the infantry on board never came back.

If the Aussies had hesitated to treat Sir Maurice Hankey to a recital of their woes they were only too willing to express their views to any other passerby, regardless of his rank.

Cpl. G. Gilbert, A Sqn., 13th Light Horse.

We had no horses at Anzac. We were serving as infantry and we were all crawling with lice, thirsty, hungry and completely browned off. One of our Generals came up to inspect us in our trenches in front of Lone Pine, and he was a fatherly sort, always used to ask the blokes about their family and stuff like that. He spoke to all the troops and he said to one soldier on the firing step, ‘Don’t forget to write home. How is your father?’ The bloke answered, ‘He’s dead.’ A bit later the General coming back along the trench asked the same question to same soldier, ‘And how is your father?’ And the bloke said, ‘He’s still dead, the lucky bugger.’ We all laughed. I don’t know what the General thought! But the tale went the rounds.

Col. G. Beith, 24th Bn., AIF.

I went down to one of my boys, I said, ‘How are you getting on, son?’ He said, ‘I’m not too bad, I’ll tell you what, if I could get out of this bloody place I’d volunteer to scrub out the Melbourne exhibition building with a tooth brush!’

Cpl. G. Gilbert.

My best mate and I used to go on the firing step together in Lone Pine. One morning moving into Lone Pine trenches one soldier just ahead of me turned to my mate and said, ‘Come on, Dick, you and I will go on together this time.’ One used the

periscope to see what Johnny Turk was doing, the other was ready for any quick sniping at anything that moved (the trenches of the Turks were only thirty or forty yards away and in some places closer). The rest of us waited in an old dug-out, to take our turn. The next minute, bang, Dick got a bullet right through his head, and he fell at our feet. He made no sound at all! He was still alive when the stretcher-bearers took him down to the beach to be put on a hospital ship for Malta. But he died there. We think an enemy sniper must have been just out in front using slight ground cover waiting for our relief guard to come in. I made sure I got that sniper later on.

In these high lands where the Anzacs were perched among rough outcrops separated by sheer drops and steep ravines there was no continuous trench-line, only rudimentary support-lines, and few conventional communication trenches. But the outcrops had been ringed and fortified with short lengths of trench, sometimes tunnelled underground and pierced with loopholes to command the Turkish lines. They called them ‘posts’, and the Anzacs clung to them like limpets.

Pte. N. Scott, 6th (Victoria) Bn., 2nd Brig., 1st Australian Div.

I’ll try to describe a fortnight my battalion spent in a place in the firing line known as Steel’s Post. To draw it mildly, I might state that at Steel’s Post we were in a hell on earth, with all the most fiendish appliances of man thrown in just to spur things on a bit. I had charge of a post of ten men in a position some forty yards in front of the firing line. This position was a maze of underground passages and the fire-trench was also in the form of a tunnel, with ten loopholes looking down the side of a gradual slope towards the Turks. This post was the extreme left of the Australian position and the New Zealanders were on my left. Well the NZs sapped forward and placed a 12-pound mountain gun right alongside our post. This gun fired only ten shots when Mr Turk spotted its position. Then things began to move! For a solid hour the Turks shelled it with every kind of gun they had but not one of those shells even touched the gun. My post got the blooming lot! Sixty-four shells dropped into my twelve yards of trench in one hour. They knocked all the tunnel work in, smashed our firing line to atoms and still were not satisfied. I received orders to move out all my men except one.

Well, the two of us dodged shells for another hour. One shell burst within four feet of where we were standing and how the Dickens the splinters missed us, I can’t make out. It was a nice big 8-inch shell and it buried us where we stood, right up to our necks. The sensation of being buried by a big shell is terrible. (I know that all the faces of my friends and relations seemed to crowd before me, and I remembered every bad deed of my life in a flash. That’s the time you wish you had been a saint all your life!) Well they got me out and told me I was lucky! Lucky mind you!

Before the end of the fortnight I’d managed to get buried three times. One shell didn’t bury me, but it simply bashed me up against the side of the trench as though I was a blooming sandbag. I just sagged forward, crumpled up and forgot everything. To give you some idea of what an ordinary 6-inch Howitzer shell can do, I saw a machine-gun smashed to atoms by one, and the crew of a corporal and five men wiped clean off the face of the earth. They were picked up in pieces and carried out in their blankets. That was on just an ordinary ‘quiet’ day at Steel’s Post. We heard later that before we went in Steel’s Post had been comparatively quiet, and the Turks must have just opened up all of a sudden. At the end of that fortnight of bashing, tearing, relentless shelling, we were all nerves, every one of us. The stuffing was knocked clean out of us. Steel’s went back to its normal state when we left. It was just like the luck of the poor old 6th. We seemed to walk straight into all the music.

Pte. W. Carrol.

We were right against the Turks. You could touch a Turk on the head the trenches were that close at Courtney’s Post. That was the first place I was put on, Courtney’s Post. The Turks were good soldiers, you couldn’t deny that. He’s always been a good soldier, right from the Crusaders and Saracens. But the Turks were quite good types. Oh, you don’t tell me! He’s no harm. Sometimes we’d be talking to each other and we’d say, ‘Got any weed?’ Sometimes we ran out of tobacco and when you were a smoker and had the feeling to smoke it drove you mad. The Turks said, ‘Oh, we’ve tons of tobacco. Have you got any meat?’ They’d got no meat. You could hear the fowls crowing at the back of their trenches. There were no chickens on our side but we had a barter with bags of Turkish tobacco for our bully beef. That’s how the war goes on. But it wouldn’t do to be getting too friendly with those men, because you might give them the idea that they could do what they liked and break through. You want to let them know they’re not welcome in our lines. We put barbed wire all the way along at night time along our trenches, and when we woke up in the morning they’d trained grappling hooks and they’d pulled all our barbed wire over in front of their trenches. All the trouble we went to put all our barbed wire all along and then the Turks grabbed it over in front of theirs and they thought that was a good joke! They were laughing and waving their shovels.

But the Turks were ferocious soldiers and they were prepared to give no quarter, for they were not only fighting in defence of their homeland, they were fighting a jihad – a holy war against the infidel – and they were filled with holy zeal. ‘Allah, Allah, Allah? they shouted as they plunged forward to attack. During their training the Anzacs, like the British, had also been urged to yell to encourage offensive spirit as they bayoneted the swinging sandbags which then represented the enemy. Now, when they were charging flesh and blood Turks, the New Zealanders dashed into a fight with a war cry shouting the words they had picked up from Egyptian vendors of hard-boiled eggs who shouted their wares round the training camp. ‘Eggs is cooked!’ they bellowed. The imprecations that spurred the Aussies on to victory varied, but their favourite expression occurred so frequently that, according to interpreters who interrogated the prisoners, the Turks who invoked Allah as they charged genuinely believed that ‘Bloody bastard!’ was an invocation to the God of the Australians. Or so ran the tale, and although it might well have been a furphy, it amused the Aussies no end.

Oh my, I don’t want to die,’ sang the British soldiers in France, ‘I want to go home.’ The Turkish soldiers’ philosophy was much the same. Sometimes, in quiet periods, they could be heard singing in their lines:

In Çanakkale there is a market with looking-glasses,

Mama, I am going

to meet the enemy,

And I’m so young.

In Çanakkale there is a cypress tree.

Some of us are married,

Some of us betrothed,

And I am so young.

In Çanakkale there is a pitcher full of water.

Mothers and fathers have lost

All they hoped for,

And I am so young.

In Çanakkale they have shot me.

They put me in a grave

While I was still alive,

And I am so young.

Çanakkale was the name the Turks gave to the peninsula the British knew as Gallipoli. Within a few hours, when they had captured the rugged ridges beyond and scaled the heights of Chunuk Bair the Anzacs confidently expected that the Turks would be in full flight and that shortly afterwards the peninsula itself would fall.

On the eve of the attack Divine Service was held for the men of the 1st Australian Brigade who wished to attend. The padre had some difficulty in finding a suitable spot close to the trenches and he hit eventually on a small hollow in Wire Gully near the lines in front of Lone Pine. It was lined with ammunition boxes for it had also been picked out as a suitable place in which to make a reserve dump of rifle ammunition, but there was room among them for the fifty or so men who filtered down from the line to take part. Returning with a carrying party from a laborious trek up from the beach, Sergeant Drummond of the 5th Battalion was astonished to find a service in full swing. ‘Hide me, Oh my Saviour, hide,’ they were singing, ‘‘til the storms of life are past…’ The sergeant did not mean to disrupt the service, but he had a job to do and it was impossible to do it quietly so the rest of the hymn and the prayers that followed were accompanied by the slither and thud of ammunition boxes sliding down a plank into the hollow. The padre, who was about to embark on his sermon, was not pleased and he shouted up to Drummond, ‘Are you aware that you are desecrating the first church in Gallipoli?’ ‘I’m sorry, sir,’ Drummond called back, ‘but the ammo’s just as necessary for tomorrow as your sermon, isn’t it?’ The padre was a reasonable man. He smiled a little sadly. ‘Unfortunately, I suppose it is,’ he admitted.

The ammunition was far from plentiful, but it had been garnered with care and now a good supply of shells was piled around gun positions, and rifle ammunition stacked behind the trenches in readiness for the battle. On the offshore islands the British troops were already embarking on the lighters that would carry them to Suvla Bay. At GHQ on Lemnos Sir Ian Hamilton, having made his dispositions, could only wait and hope, and possibly pray, for success in the morning. The King’s Messenger was on the point of departure and by the light of a hurricane lamp Sir Maurice Hankey hastily penned a postscript to the latest report he would carry to the Prime Minister. In the event of success rapid political decisions must be taken and Hankey had given this matter deep thought. Since formal peace negotiations with Turkey would take some weeks, a provisional armistice would have to be arranged in the immediate aftermath of a Turkish defeat, which, he suggested, should provide for ‘Disarmament of all the Turkish forces… The handing over of arms to the Allies… An Allied Garrison in Constantinople… Disarmament of the forts in the Dardanelles and Bosphorus.’ He offered to stay on to supervise the Armistice arrangements but, being a realistic man, he added, ‘Inthe alternative event of complete failure or partial success involving a further period of trench warfare, I shall come home as soon as I can. The position then will be rather grave.’

But no one anticipated failure.

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