ANZAC – Letters from a hero

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On ANZAC Day we gather to remember all those who have served and died in wars, conflicts – past and present, plus peacekeeping operations.Here are excerpts from a letter written by Sergeant Harold Seale about his experience during his service at Gallipoli. Sergeant Seale was a member of the 12th Light Horse Regiment. After Gallipoli, he fought throughout the Jerusalem campaign … The letter has been typed for easy reading.

On the night of the 26th August 1915, we embarked on the troopship ‘Marquette’ (B13) and sailed out of Alexandria on our way to Gallipoli, of course with all light extinguished on account of the submarine danger.

Everybody knew the danger to be faced on the seas at that time and consequently the men’s nerves were strained to concert pitch.

Three of my mates and myself slept in a lifeboat already swung outboard for immediate lowering in the event of the dreaded torpedo striking our ship. During the day, submarine guards or lookouts were posted in different parts of the ship with rifle and machine guns ready for use.

Fortunately for us we did not strike any submarines on our journey to Lemnos Island in the Aegean Sea which was one of our main bases for the troops engaged in the Gallipoli campaign …

Small tenders came alongside and the troops embarked onto these at about 6pm where we remained until about 8pm and then sped silently on our way to the fighting ground where we were all so anxious to be.

At about 1am on the morning of the 29th August we hove to about a mile from the shores of Gallipoli and could hear intermittent firing all along the line from rifles and machine guns which sounded like the cracking of so many stock whips, and at intervals the deeper sounds of bursting bombs, barges towed by naval pinnaces came alongside to take us ashore.

By this time, spent bullets were falling on the deck of the transport, but nobody seemed to mind as excitement was running high, when without any warning a destroyer dashed close inshore flashing her searchlights for a certain Turkish position afterwards known to us as the bad trenches.

A flash shot from her six inch gun on the forecastle and we could hear the missile screeching through the air on its deadly errand.

From our ship, we could see the shell burst on our trenches, about six in all were fired and then the destroyer slipped away in the darkness as quickly and as silently as it came.

About 2am we landed on Gallipoli and set out in the darkness for rest gully where we found numerous dugouts. Throwing our equipment off and laying our blanket out I soon fell to sleep and slept soundly not withstanding the incessant crackle of rifle and machine gun fire.

I did not wake til well after sunrise and then packed my blankets up, had a wash and breakfasted on bully beef and biscuits.

I then watched a duel between one of our field guns and a Turkish gun, the Turkish shells were bursting all around our gun and eventually silenced it.

Well, the regiment remained in the gully until midday when Colonel Abbott our commanding officer addressed us and told us that the three squadrons were to be separated.

The guide mistaking his way took us up over shrapnel gulley in full view of the enemy who wonderful to say never fired a shot although they frequently shelled the spot. Well we eventually arrived at headquarters on shell green and were allotted to Lone Pine, one of the most gruesome and evil smelling positions (sic) in Gallipoli.

The trenches here were only 25 to 30 yards apart, and many decomposed bodies were lying in no mans land.

My first night on duty in the trenches is one I shall never forget.

When we were filing into the trenches to go on duty for the first time, a blockage occurred ahead and we had to remain still for a while.

While waiting there, a huge shell (11.2 inch) from the Turkish fort at the entrance to the Dardanelles burst on one of our dressing stations in a communication trench about thirty yards near (sic) where I was standing.

The concussion was terrible and about two tons of earth was knocked down.

The two stretcher bearers in the station were killed instantly and sixteen others in the vicinity were buried but were all rescued uninjured save for a few scratches and severe shaking and shock.

Shortly afterwards we entered the frontline and were allotted our posts, three men having to eat and sleep in excavations not bigger than six by four feet, so our discomfort could be imagined. That night I was sent off with a party to shift the earth that had been displaced by the exploding shell referred to previously.

We had not long started when the Turks started a demonstration of rifle and machine gun fire of great intensity which lasted for about an hour during which time you could hardly hear yourself speak.

It was a great relief to us when the firing ceased.

Between sunset and sunrise is the time that attacks (sic) are looked for. Consequently all troops are in the line between those times, or in the support trenches ready for action.

At four in the morning we had to stand to arms until sunrise, when the stand down signal was given, those not on duty in the front line for the day would have to go on fatigue work at the back of the lines.

To all on Gallipoli, the front line was the safest place during the day as the enemy would not shell our front line on account of it being too close to their own, so they paid particular attention to the commissoriar depots at different points. Behind the lines, many casualties were caused to working parties by a Turkish gun known as ‘Beachy Bill’.

It was given this name as it was used to shell the beach where most of our stores were, and at times would cause great havoc amongst stores and troops. On one occasion I was the only one left standing out of a party of six on our way for stores.

The morale of the troops on this campaign was splendid and all seemed to be cheerful at all times not withstanding the terrible hardships that had to be endured. Our food consisted mainly of bully beef, biscuits and jam for many months. Occasionally a little bread was obtained and desiccated vegetables. This plain food, together with the plague of flies was accountable for the great number of sick.

Dysentery raged rampart and I am sure that more were sent to hospital through sickness than wounds.

After doing duty for a month or two in Lone Pine, my squadron was given a section adjoining Lone Pine to look after, known as Holly Spur.

These trenches were new ones and consequently a little healthier, for after the charge at Lone Pine there were so many dead that it was impossible to bury them all at the back of the lines in ground set apart for that purpose, so the bodies were simply packed up the wall of the trenches with sandbags built up to keep them in place so it is easily imagined what life was like in such a place and naturally we were very pleased to be shifted.

We were sent to the back of the lines to what is called a rest, but there was far more work to be done there than in the frontline, and strange to say the danger of getting killed or wounded was far greater, everybody welcomes the news for duty in the frontline.

On the 12th of September I was sent to hospital at Alexandria in Egypt with dysentery and after a fortnight treatment was discharged and returned to Gallipoli in October feeling quite well.

A short time after joining my squadron orders were given for a three days and nights silent stunt.

Not a gun or rifle was fired during this period and the troops were not allowed to speak above a whisper.

On the third night the Turks sent out a strong patrol to investigate, when they were noticed by our men on duty the order was given to open fire. The weather at the time was bitterly cold and the machine guns after firing one shot jammed as the oil was frozen on their bearings, so we had to repulse them with rifle fire and bombs.

This was successful as the Turks finding that we’re still there in strength retreated hastily leaving many dead and wounded in no mans land in front of my sector. 19 dead Turks were counted.

That night it commenced to snow and kept on for two days, the country all around presented a wonderful sight as the rugged mountain sides were covered in white mound of snow.

The morning after the snow started to fall many men were sent away with frostbite. Our quarters were very uncomfortable in this kind of weather as winter quarters had only started to be erected, we had to be content with an excavation in the ground with only a blanket for a roof.

On the second day after it started to snow I was sent to Anzac Cove for trench booths and capes for my squadron when walking along the beach a shrapnel shell burst overhead and four men just in front of me and one only yards behind me were struck down with pellets from the shell. I was the only one left sanding and unhurt.

I quickly got under cover and not too soon as shells were commencing to burst very frequently. After getting my share of boots and capes I made back to my squadron through the communication trenches and not via the beach.

Well about the beginning of December there was a rumour running through the lines that the battlefield was to be evacuated but there was nothing official at all.

Something of the kind seemed very imminent by the way rations were being served out, where sometime before four men were allotted to a 1 pound tin of jam, it was now given to two men and cheese was freely given to us.

This continued for three weeks, up until the 20th December.

I was in the second last batch to leave, leaving on the night of the 19th December.

We had to wrap our feet in pieces of blanket and sandbags so as to muffle the sound of marching, as in that class of country sounds travel a great distance during night time. When we got to the beach we were drafted off in batches like so many sheep, and had to run along a small pier covered with layers of matting so as to deaden the sounds. We were embarked on small naval barges and towed to the transports which had come close inshore under cover of darkness, and felt very relieved to get our packs and the padding around our boots off.

On the morning of the 20th before dawn the last batch left, blowing certain positions up before getting on the boats.

To make it look as if everything was the same as usual, rifles with magazines removed and the end of the barrel cut off were fixed in positions along the line.

An empty tin was tied to each trigger and above that a tin containing a certain amount of water with a small plug in the bottom and when the last man left the trench he loaded and cocked the rifle, pulled the plug out of the tin containing the water and let the contents drip into the empty tin tied to the trigger and when sufficient weight and pressure was brought to bear on the trigger, it would fire the cartridges.

These were timed to go off from half an hour to two hours after the last man had left the trenches, thus causing intermittent fire all along the line, making it look as if we were all there, carrying on as usual.

The evacuation will go down as an amazing ‘feat of arms’ as not a single man was lost from the thousands that were taken off.

After arriving at Lemmos we were put on board the P&O Liner ‘Beltana’ and taken to Alexandria where we trained for Maadi about seven miles beyond Cairo to rest and prepare for the Palestine campaign.

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