Tuesday 28 April 2015

Sapper Smith's Gallipoli diary, by Clare Mulley

Last weekend marked 100 years since the start of the First World War’s tragic Gallipoli land offensive, aimed at securing the strategic peninsula in the Dardanelles - the vital sea route to what was then the Russian Empire. It was the first combined naval-army operation in history, but both offensives were effectively repelled by Turkish forces. After eight gruelling months, Allied forces had to be withdrawn to Egypt. This was a serious defeat with significant political and military repercussions, and an estimated over 60,000 men from Britain, France, Australia and New Zealand killed and possibly 87,000 from Turkey, as well as huge numbers dying from disease.

My grandfather, Alfred Smith, a naturally quiet and peaceful young man, was among those who served at Gallipoli. Having worked in the local post office in Malton, Yorkshire, before the war, Alf had chosen to enlist with the Signals Division of the Royal Engineers, serving his country by laying the insulated telephone cables that would enable rapid military communications, and as a signaller himself.

My grandfather, Alfred Smith's 1915 war diary

Alf's war-time diaries start on 14 April 1915 when he left Biggleswade to join the ship that would transport him across the Bay of Biscay; ‘sick’ he scribbled in pencil. He then continued to the African coast, ‘Boxing contest aboard ship’; and past Malta to Alexandria in Egypt. From there he was sent to Imbros, now Gökçeada, the largest Turkish island in the Aegean, just across from Gallipoli, where he watched the ‘checking of Dardenelles by warships’. His diaries are never effusive, at most four short lines a day, with more space given to notes on signal flags and so on, but they provide a fascinating glimpse into his months at Gallipoli.

Because of its strategic location, Imbros had been retained by the Ottoman Empire in 1913 when the other Aegean islands were ceded to Greece. However the island remained under Greek administration. The first Allied attack on the Dardanelles had been launched in February 1915, followed by more sustained action a month later. During the battle, according to an account by the Ottoman General Staff, ‘all telephone wires were cut, all communications with the forts were interrupted’, but the enemy forces rallied and the British fleet was forced back, giving a huge morale boost to the Ottomans. Over the following month Allied ground forces assembled in Greece and Egypt, tasked with eliminating the Ottoman artillery so that Allied minesweepers could clear the way for the larger vessels to return. The Royal Engineers were also sent in to lay communication lines. However, a month’s delay allowed the enemy to prepare effective defences. The land campaign was launched in late April, with appallingly heavy casualties on both sides from the start.

Alfred's diary, April-May 1915

It was now that Alf’s ship arrived in the area. Although his was not an active combat role, he would soon find himself serving under fire. In early May, still onboard ship, he noted the ‘heavy bombardments’, and reported watching ‘severe fighting all morning’ on shore. Nevertheless, whenever there was a lull in the fighting and he was not sending cables, Alf managed to swim from the ship or listen to piano on deck. They docked on 19 May, and for the first few weeks Alf’s diary is filled with the heavy work of laying cables, as well as cleaning rifles, blue skies, desert winds, and ‘rumours of pay’.

The battles continued through the spring, and by mid-June Alf was noting ‘heavy bombardments’ again, and on 1 July, ‘shells falling all day… near our dug out. One, just behind, killed two men and eight horses’. Later that week he witnessed a troopship torpedoed and sunk in five minutes, and after that there is little let up in the bombing. ‘Turks using incendiary shells’ he wrote on 22 July, ‘which fired gorse on left flank’. Alf chose not to dwell on the horrors he must have witnessed, although he recorded when one friend was killed while bathing, and others were killed or wounded during the shelling of the signals camp. A few lines later he noted that ‘fresh fruit is obtainable’. Small pleasures had become remarkable.

In August Alf was sent to Suvla Bay on the mainland peninsular, five miles north of the Anzac sector, as part of the final British attempt to break the deadlock of the Battle of Gallipoli. Fortunately, he was in the second landing. Had he been in the first, his chances of survival would have been slim as wave after wave of men were shot down as they disembarked. The land there even today is full of bones and spent bullets among the broken seashells. With no picture of the wider battle strategy, Alf's diary comments only on the action nearby, the courage of the Australians, casualties among his signals staff colleagues as they worked to repair and extend communications, and the consolation provided by their meagre pay, mostly spent on cigarettes.

Alf's Royal Engineers cigarette case

The failure of the August Offensive finally showed the Allied leadership that the Gallipoli campaign could not be saved, but the knowledge was slow to effect change on the ground. Alf was still there when autumn brought relief from the heat, but gales presented new problems. He was now tormented by ‘dust and wind’ and often ‘terribly cold’ at night, even after second blankets had been issued. The dugouts flooded when the rains arrived, and a friend died from hyperthermia during one freezing period.

From late September through to December Alf was busy filling in old dugouts and digging in new foundations, helping to mend roads, make mortar and lay bricks as they shifted camp, as well as spending long days laying new cables. He must have been extremely fit. Perhaps it was a relief to work hard physically, although he was saddened to have to destroy ‘an old Turkish house, rather fine old place which has had very fine gardens’. His humanity shows in such details. He used his rare days off to inspect a downed aeroplane, explore the local town, help some fishermen to haul in their nets, and bring back sour oranges picked from roadside trees. 

Alfred Smith, front right, and friends from
the Royal Engineers Signal Corps,
Imbros, November 1915.

A black and white photo shows Alf and five sun-tanned pals in front of their heavy canvas tents back on Imbros in late November, all in shirt-sleeves and army trousers, one wearing a Fez, and each with a pipe or cigarette clamped into their mouths. The British Cabinet confirmed the military decision to evacuate in early December. Alf was finally shipped out to Egypt, heading for the ‘Cleopatra Camp’, two days after Christmas. ‘Not a bad ship,’ he wrote, if ‘somewhat crowded’. He would spend the rest of the war laying cables and sending signals from Egypt and Palestine.

Alf had a hard war, losing many friends and, while in Egypt, contracting the malaria that would plague him for the rest of his life. However he was fortunate to have been accepted into the Royal Engineers and, unlike so many, to survive both the Gallipoli campaign and the rest of the conflict. His greatest achievement, he said, was to have done his duty without having had to kill anyone. In 1919 he returned to work for the Post Office, moved to London, married his sweetheart, and in 1930 became father to my mother. Like many, he rarely spoke about his experiences or elaborated on his diaries – but he did not destroy them either.

Alfred Smith's war medals: The 1915-18 Star,
The British War Medal 1914-1918, and the Victory Medal.

Along with a few possessions, photos and some letters, I have Alf’s service medals. Still kept in the small cardboard box in which they were posted to him are his British War Medal 1914-1918, and his 1914-15 Star, stamped on the reverse to ‘Spr; A, Smith.’ – a more modest name you could hardly imagine. He also received the beautiful golden Victory Medal with a great winged angel on the front, and on the reverse the inscription ‘The Great War for Civilisation 1914-1919’. This was never threaded onto its fine rainbow-striped ribbon, and it is clear that Alf did not choose to wear it. Indeed I wonder how much any of his medals saw the light of day; my mother says she never saw them during his lifetime. Perhaps as these were fairly standard medals he did not seem himself as a hero, or perhaps he could not share his nation's official sanction of the conflict, having witnessed slaughter on such a scale to so little end at Gallipoli.

Back of Alf's Imbros, 1915 framed photograph

Alf's 1915 photograph, however, of himself and his mates from the Royal Engineers, who all courageously served during the Gallipoli campaign, was carefully dated, annotated with their names and home towns on the back, and framed with a hook to be hung on a wall. The photo is yellowed from exposure to the light, and was clearly highly prized. Alf died when I was a child and I never spoke to him about his war-time experiences, however I think this says much about how my gentle, very decent grandfather chose to remember his war. 

I would be very interested to know if any readers have inherited similar papers, photographs or possessions?

c. Clare Mulley


Carol Drinkwater said...

Clare, this post is so moving. Wen I was travelling for The Olive Route, I visited all this territory. It is quiet farming land now, hard to be believe so much blood was shed there. The diary is exceptional. I do hope you will write a book inspired by some of this.

Clare Mulley said...

Thank you Carol. My mum has visited too, some years ago, and brought back a seashell and a spent bullet case. There are definitely many stories there too, waiting to be collected and retold.

Sue Purkiss said...

Lovely that you have his diary, and so interesting to read about Gallipoli through one man's experiences. My grandfather fought in the trenches, but I never thought to ask him about it before he died, and nothing was left - or if it was, my rather fearsome grandmother chucked it out!

Celia Rees said...

Wonderful post. I love the way you weave one mans story into the wider history. My uncle was killed on the Western Front. I don't have anything like a diary, just a few letters and cards he sent. In some there are remnants of pressed flowers he sent home to his mother. Sometimes you don't need a lot...

Julia Ergane said...

Some of my opinions of the Turks are unprintable even though they were remarkable allies during the active part of the Korean War (as you are no doubt aware, that war is by no means over -- I speant 1 year over there in the mid-1970's when I was USAF active duty). I am absolutely horrified that these people did NOT sweep these beaches clean of allied bones and place them in ossuaries. The continuing degradation of their remains is a crime; but, what can you expect from a country that refuses to acknowledge the fact that it attempted genocide against the Armenians?

Clare Mulley said...

Perhaps we should have done that work. When my mother visited Gallipoli she was given a cartridge case by a Turkish man whose grandfather had died at Suvla Bay. They shared a moment of empathy. I wish there were altogether more of those.

Clare Mulley said...

Thank you all for your comments on this blog.
Sue, my husband's German grandfather fought with the Wehrmacht and we have nothing at all from that, sadly.
Celia, there is some pressed heather in Alf's 1915 diary - I guess from his Yorkshire home, but I am not sure so I didn't mention it, but that touched me too. How poignant that these men carried flowers.

Leslie Wilson said...

My darling aunt Molly's husband, Edgar, survived Gallipoli, and suffered nightmares all his life. I think I've said this before, but though I never knew him, except through Molly's mentions of him, it does give me an idea of what it might have been like for her much-loved husband, and I'm glad of that. I think Molly said he never spoke about it.
My father had a medal from the second world war. I have it now. He didn't set much store by it either, but he kept it. Maybe because he was in the Medical Corps, so also not involved in active fighting.

Leslie Wilson said...

I meant, your blog gives me an idea..