"What a Pity"

27 April 2015 Alan Attwood

"What a Pity"

Courtesy of State Library of Victoria

Late in 1914, Private Henry Lanser of the First Australian Infantry Battalion recorded a greeting to his family on a hand-pressed shellac disc in Cairo. The 24-year-old soldier, who had enlisted in Sydney, was training in Egypt prior to the Gallipoli campaign.

In the recording he greets his parents and family members, and acknowledges: “This is rather a novelty to come to Australia this way.” After pausing once, to check with an unseen attendant how much time is left, he ends his message “goodbye and good luck”.

The Australian War Memorial made a copy from the original recording; the ABC recently made it accessible online. It is strangely moving – not least because it is known that, having survived Gallipoli (after being wounded twice), Private Lanser was killed in France in November 1916.

His is the voice of a young man with less than two years to live; a soldier yet to experience combat. It is the only known recorded letter made by an Australian soldier in World War I. But this conflict has been made real and raw because of the voices also preserved in diaries and letters. On all sides, people grabbed moments of relative calm to write – to make sense of what was unfolding, and also hoping their words would outlive them.

Now, on the centenary of the Gallipoli landings in April 1915, it is possible to compile a brief first-person account of the ill-conceived, tragic and futile nine-month campaign. These are Australian, British and Turkish voices:


Ellis Silas, Perth artist attached to 16th Battalion, early in 1915

“We have been told of the impossible task before us, of probable annihilation; yet we are eager to get to it; we joke with each other about getting cold feet, but deep down in our hearts we know when we get to it we will not be found wanting… As I look down the ranks of my comrades I wonder which of us are marked for the land beyond.”

Arthur Coke, Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, 19 April

“I cannot think of anything more exciting… I believe we start the landing this week. I think it will be short and sharp to take Gallipoli.”

Lance Corporal George Mitchell, 10th Battalion, 25 April

[On coming ashore, when bullets shattered an eerie silence] “‘Klock-klock-klock. Wee-wee-wee’ came the little messengers of death. Then it opened out into a terrific chorus… The key was being turned in the lock of the lid of hell.”

Petty Officer David Fyffe, No 3 Armoured Car Squadron, 25 April

“Sleep was impossible, such was the crowded state of the ship, not to mention the intense excitement of our mission. It was a glorious night. The big silver moon made fretted silver of the glassy, ink-black waters… Now we were fairly embarked on our perilous enterprise.”

Lieutenant Faik, 9th Ottoman Division

“I went to a new observation point and kept watching. This time I saw them as a great mass, which, I decided, seemed to be moving straight towards us… I went to the phone to inform Divisional Headquarters. That was about 2.30am. I got through to the second-in-command… He came back a little later and said, ‘How many of these ships are warships and how many transports?’ I replied ‘It is impossible to distinguish them in the dark but the quantity of ships is very large.’ With that the conversation closed. A little while later the moon sank below the horizon and the ships became invisible in the dark.”

Midshipman Eric Bush, Royal Navy

“Oars, muffled to prevent any noise, are being lowered carefully, without making a splash. The men are starting to row. Some of the soldiers are helping with the oars, others are adjusting their equipment… I take all this in at a glance, but what stirs my imagination is the look on the men’s faces.”

Lance Corporal George Mitchell

[Now ashore] “Up and down the line comes the smacking of bullets striking flesh, shouts of stricken men. Strings of machine-gun bullets sweep round and over us. The man beside me dies horribly. I try to press into the very soil.”

Lieutenant Colonel Mehmet Sefik, 9th Ottoman Division

“We guessed that the enemy was advancing slowly and cautiously in order to capture the ridge where we were, which dominated all sides… We set about our task of throwing the enemy back and we felt a moral force in ourselves for performing this task.”

Major Harold Shaw, 1st Lancashire Fusiliers

[Letter to brother] “I took a rifle from one of the men with me…but could only fire slowly, as I had to get the bolt open with my foot as it was clogged with sand. About this time Maunsell was shot dead next to me… I hate even thinking about that scene of carnage but, to oblige you, I will unburden myself for the last time while I have the chance.” [Shaw was killed six weeks later.]

Lieutenant Colonel Fahrettin Altay, 3rd Ottoman Army

“We suffered great losses, but those of the enemy were even greater, and he had not achieved his purpose. That he has a few troops on land is of no importance. He can land troops wherever he likes, but his main purpose is to seize the Straits and for that great self-sacrifice is required…”

Captain Clement Milward, Indian Army, GSO3 29th Division

“After dinner I accompanied General Hunter-Weston to visit Sir Ian Hamilton on HMS Queen Elizabeth… We had a glass of wine with Admiral de Robeck, Sir Ian and General Braithwaite. All were much elated by the wonderful feat of arms by which the 29th Division had gained immortality – the landing safely accomplished. But at what cost?”

Midshipman Eric Bush

“I cannot sleep for the moment. My mind is too full of thoughts. Visions come back to me of Anzacs cheering and charging up the beach. I see wounded coming out of the water and crawling to safety. I hear the noise of rifle and machine-gun fire and the occasional crump of a heavier shell.” [Bush became the youngest ever recipient of the Distinguished Service Cross; aged 15.]

Lieutenant Aubrey Herbert, New Zealand Infantry Brigade

[On a truce in May to bury the dead] “At 7.30am we met the Turks, Mirakli Izzedin, a pleasant, rather sharp, little man; Arif, the son of Achmet Pasha, who gave me a card, ‘Sculpteur et Peintre’ [Sculptor and Painter] and ‘Etudiant de Poesie’ [Student of Poetry]… We walked from the sea and passed immediately up the hill, through a field of tall corn filled with poppies, then another cornfield; then the fearful smell of death began as we came upon scattered bodies. We mounted over a plateau and down through gullies filled with thyme, where there lay about 4000 Turkish dead. It was indescribable.”

Private Charles Watkins, 1/6th Lancashire Fusiliers, 42nd Division

“When we stumbled along the gully one night on our way to the beach on being relieved by fresh troops, we were exhausted. On our way we passed the troops relieving us – New Zealanders, just landed that day – full of starch, self-confident, brash, bronzed and healthy – not like us, wan and forlorn. One of our chaps called out as we passed, ‘Give ’em hell, lads, show ’em what you can do.’ They called back, cocksure and confident… We relieved these New Zealanders in turn some 10 days later. Chastened and quiet, they passed us glumly without a word.”

Lieutenant Ibrahim Naci, 1st Ottoman Division

“I opened my notebook with the grief of an idea that came to me yesterday. I am recording my painful memories. However, I do not know if my family will read these lines. Would my diary reach them?

11am: We went into battle. Millions of cannons and guns exploded… My first corporal has been wounded. Farewell.”

[Naci was killed hours later, aged 21.]

Lieutenant Ismail Sunata, 12th Ottoman Division

“I had the dead ones searched. I found some maps. Four maps. A diary. A photograph. I was very saddened by the photograph. A picture of a young man and a young British girl. What a pity.”


compiled by Alan Attwood

» Principal sources: The Broken Years by Bill Gammage (1974); Gallipoli by Richard van Emden and Stephen Chambers (2015).

This article first appeared in Ed#482.