Reports by war correspondents at the landing

More excerpts from Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett's diary

Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett

SATURDAY APRIL 24th

Enlarge Front cover of Ashmead-Bartlett's programme for his New Zealand tour, 1916.
In April 1916 Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett came to Australia and New Zealand for a lecture tour about Gallipoli. Shown here is the front cover of the programme for his New Zealand tour. (State Library of New South Wales)

At 7 o'clock dinner was served in the Wardroom, and the officers of the "London" did the Australian officers extremely well. Whatever happened to them on the following day, at least their last night was made as comfortable and as lively as possible, and many a man, who had not tasted any drink for a long time past, was invigorated by cocktails, champagne, and whiskies and sodas. We all gave up our cabins to the officers in order that they might obtain as much rest as possible, and personally when I turned in at about half past ten, I snatched a few hours of sleep on the floor. At sunset of course all lights on board had been extinguished, and we steamed slowly through the night to our unknown destination, and to an unknown fate.

SUNDAY APRIL 25th

At 1 a.m. the Fleet stopped, and all on board were roused. I hastily got into my clothes, and went around the mess deck, where I found the Australian troops having a final hot meal before falling in. Likewise one was served to the officers in the Wardroom. At 2 o'clock the men fell in by companies on the number squares of which I have already spoken. Our boats had meanwhile been lowered, and the steam pinnaces which were to tow them in shore. Each battleship towed three of these pinnaces behind her from Mudros. There was only a faint light from the moon, and the scene on the decks was dramatic in the extreme. The magnificent contingent from Australia stood there in absolute silence, the men receiving their last instructions from their officers. Around them stood the beach parties from the ship, who were to put them ashore. Lieutenants in khaki, midshipmen not yet out of their teens, in old white duck suits dyed khaki, and carrying revolvers and water bottles almost as big as themselves. It was a stirring and inspiring moment when at 2 a.m. the pinnaces towed the boats alongside and the men immediately embarked in them. Thanks to the constant rehearsals, there was no confusion, and no overcrowding, and everyone was embarked without a mishap. The tows then went astern, each battleship towing four behind her. At 3 a.m. steam was again raised and we moved slowly in towards the shore until a little after four, the dim outlines of the coast became visible for the first time. At 4.30 a.m. the four battleships were in line, at about 3000 yards from the shore. The signal was given for the tows to be cast off, and to make their own way to the beaches. It was still very dark, and the pinnaces each towing three or four boats looked like great snakes as they slowly made their way inland. As soon as they had departed I went forward to the bridge to join the Captain, and his Staff. I think it was the most exciting moment I have ever known watching the boats which hardly seem to move, make their way towards the land. (For full account of the landing and events during the day, see elsewhere).

Throughout the afternoon the fighting continued, and we continually received orders to fire on various positions, where the Turks were vigorously pressing the Australians back, to the first line of hills they had seized on landing. It was obvious they were extremely hard pressed. The wounded never ceased to come off the shore in an endless stream, and the accommodation on the hospital ship speedily gave out.

Enlarge Mitchell Library Memorandum 1917 concerning the purchase of the Ashmead-Bartlett papers for the Library
Memorandum of 3 July 1917 from the Principal Librarian, concerning the purchase of the Ashmead-Bartlett papers for the State Library. (State Library of New South Wales)
Enlarge Page from Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett's New Zealand lectureprogramme, April 1916.
Page from Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett's New Zealand lecture programme, April 1916 (State Library of New South Wales)

As usual, the medical arrangements were awful, and terribly mismanaged. There seemed to be no one in charge, in supreme authority, to direct the stream of wounded for whom no accommodation could be found, to any particular ship. Numbers were taken on board the warships, and there tended by the ship's surgeon, but of course the accommodation here again was limited. Finally orders came that they were to be sent on board empty transports which had discharged their men, and that doctors it was said, would be sent on board to look after them until they reached Egypt. But of course many unfortunate wounded perished, who would have otherwise been saved. Our pinnaces were kept so busy that I could not get a boat to take me to the shore until after dinner. Any boats that did come off reported that things were going badly, and that we had enormous casualties, that the beaches were piled up with wounded who could not be moved, and that the fire on the beaches from the enemy's shells and snipers was extremely heavy. Finally about half past nine p.m. one of our pinnaces came back for fuel and water, and I was able to return on her to the beach. We steamed in close to the shore under a perfect hailstorm of bullets, coming from the hills, which seemed to come from all directions. Fortunately most of this fire was high, and you were safer when you got in under the shelter of the hills on the narrow beach at their foot, about 30 yards wide. I climbed ashore over some barges and found myself in the semi-darkness amidst a scene of indescribable confusion. The beach was piled up with ammunition, stores, among which lay dead and wounded, and men so absolutely exhausted that they had fallen asleep in spite of the noise and excitement around them. Other parties were wandering about in the darkness and being directed up the hills by their officers. In fact there seemed to be a continuous stream of men going and returning. On the hills above there was a perfect inferno of rifle fire, and shells bursting. In fact the air was buzzing with bullets, like a drone in a bee on a hot summer's day. Once I had got ashore I did not know where to go or what to do, but I saw a little group of men standing apart, which from their caps I could make out to be giving directions to the others, and on going up close to them, I recognised him as General Birdwood, from his photograph, although I had not yet met him. Now I was wearing a khaki suit, but had unfortunately come ashore in my old green hat, and on approaching close to this group, a big man, whom I discovered afterwards was a very jumpy and nervous Australian Colonel attached to the Staff, on seeing me, shouted out "Who are you. What are you doing here?" and before I could answer he said "Seize that man, he's a spy" Of course allowance must be made for the terrible day, they had all been through, and for the fatigue and dangers they had faced, and were still facing, but it struck me as being rather queer that a spy should be dressed differently to everybody else instead of being in exactly the same uniform. Before I had time to explain, the soldiers rushed up, and I found myself a prisoner, and I then went up to the Staff, and said "I am Ashmead-Bartlett, the official War Correspondent attached to the Expedition." The trouble was this, that having no official connection with the Army at this period, I had been presented with no pass, but fortunately, realising before I left the ship that something of this sort might happen, I got Captain Armstrong to give me a pass permitting me to go ashore and state in it who I was. But even this did not seem to satisfy the nervous Colonel, who was convinced that I was a spy, and he shouted out "How do I know you are what you say you are. Does anyone here know this man?". Then from somewhere out of the darkness a gruff voice replied "Yes I do". I had no idea who my benefactor was and did not in fact discover until six months later, when on taking a trip on a stray pinnace, the boatswain referred to the incident, and said that he was the man who had saved me from what he described as being "executed on the spot". He said I had made a trip with him to the "Queen Elizabeth" at Mudros and he had recognised me by my hat. In any case I was immediately released, and the chief of Birdwood's staff, Street, came up and spoke to me and asked how I had came ashore and I replied "In a pinnace". They then said "You must keep here for the time being. There is an urgent dispatch to be sent off, and we have no other boat ashore." Of course I consented, and remained with the staff while General Birdwood sat down and wrote a letter. There was a very excitable beach officer commander --, who came up to me and said "Do not send your boat away, whatever you do. We have got to go around all the transports and get them to send in their boats, as it is impossible for the Australians to hold on during the night. They are being too hard pressed."

Enlarge Anzac Beach 6am 25 April 1915
Anzac Beach 6 am 25 April 1915 (detail). (National Archives of Australia)

It was a dramatic scene in the semi darkness, while General Birdwood was writing his dispatch to the Commander in Chief. He was surrounded by his small group of Staff Officers and by heaps of dead and wounded, and stores and ammunition. In the distance small groups of men could be dimly discerned climbing the hills to the fighting line, or else coming away from them, whilst overhead thousands of bullets kept up their incessant droning. The dispatch finished, it was handed to the naval commander, who immediately rushed down to where I had left the pinnace, and jumped on board her, followed by me, shouting out "Go the battleship "Queen". We picked up the "Queen" in the darkness, after a short run, the Commander went on board to see the Admiral. He remained some little time, and then came on to the pinnace. The "Queen" immediately weighed anchor and stood off towards Cape Helles. I then said to the Commander "What are we going to do now" and he replied "We've got to go to every transport in turn, and order them to send their boats in immediately, to bring off the Australian troops. I pointed out to him that such an operation was utterly impossible in the darkness and confusion then prevailing, and that the only chance of saving the force was to hold on until daybreak. He agreed with me, but correctly replied that he was obliged to obey his instructions. We went to the nearest transport and the Commander shouted out through a megaphone that she was to hold her boats in readiness to send them ashore at a moment's notice. We went to each one in turn, and gave a similar message. In many of these transports the discipline amongst the civilian crews was disgraceful, for instead of being ready to meet any emergency that might occur, in many of them there was not a soul even on watch, and it took us ages to get someone in a responsible authority to take our message. It was obvious to me that if an effort was really made to take the Australians off that night it could only lead to an appalling disaster and that it would be much better to risk the destruction of leaving the force ashore. It took us at least two hours to go around to all the transports, and then we returned once more to the beach. There was still a good deal of firing going on, but it had lost a great deal of its intensity, and it seemed to me the conditions had materially improved, especially as the Turkish shell fire had ceased for the time being. On stepping ashore we went at once to the staff, and informed them what we had done, and I was again immediately arrested as a spy, by the very same Colonel, whose nerves seemed to have completely deserted him. However on this occasion I had no difficulty in obtaining my release. I had now to return to the "London" as the steam pinnace would stay no longer, and I felt pretty confident that the troops would be able to hold their own during the night. Just as I was leaving I ran across the P.M.O of the "London", McMillan, who had been working incessantly amongst the wounded all though the afternoon, and night. I offered to take him off to the ship but he declined to leave, saying there was plenty more work for him to do. I got back to the "London" about 3 o'clock in the morning. It was not until later that I heard what had happened about General Birdwood's letter from the lips of Sir Ian Hamilton himself. He said that just when he was overwhelmed with anxiety over the attack on the various beaches at Cape Helles, and the failure of the troops to get ashore from the "River Clyde", that at midnight he received Birdwood's letter stating the position, and leaving it to him to decide whether they should endeavour to hold on, or attempt to withdraw the troops. Sir Ian rightly gauged the situation and saw it would be utterly impossible to get them off, and he therefore signaled that they must hold on at all cost. At the same time, the news was received of the successful venture of the Australian submarine which had gone up the Dardanelles and sunk I believe, two transports in the Marmara. Sir Ian ordered this news to be circulated amongst the troops on shore to encourage them to fresh exertion. I don't suppose it ever reached the firing line, and what really saved the situation was the sudden cessation of the Turkish attacks at midnight, which gave the Australians the chance of temporarily entrenching themselves and to prepare against the attacks which they knew must come in the morning.

Enlarge Anzac Beach 28 April 1915
Anzac Beach 28 April 1915 - three days after the landing (detail). (National Archives of Australia)

FRIDAY JULY 23rd

This part of the line causes some anxiety as it is felt that if the Turks attacked in force they might cut it off. However it is self contained for about a week and has the best water supply on Anzac position. It is held by one battalion of New Zealand infantry and three hundred Maoris. These are fine fellows to look at but they have not yet been tested in action. They strongly resemble some of the Colonials. We stayed out at No 3 post all the morning and found it very interesting. On returning I lunched with some of the officers of the Staff and spent the remainder of the day taking cinematograph pictures of the beach and piers. Aubrey Herbert having returned to Imbros I was able to utilise his dug out during the night but no attack came. At General Godley's Mess I heard some very free expressions of opinion on the conduct of the campaign and Sir Ian Hamilton's dispatch which has just been published came in for some very severe criticism. Never have I known a large army which had quite such a poor opinion of its chiefs. Sedition is rife. If such it can be called.

SATURDAY JULY 24th

Enlarge Anzac Beach.
Anzac Beach at a later stage. (National Archives of Australia)

Stayed at Anzac this morning spending the whole time on the beach trying to get cinematograph pictures of bursting shells amongst the bathers. It was exciting work. Over twenty were killed or wounded, fifteen by one shrapnel. They started firing again just as Nevinson and I were leaving but fortunately we just managed to get out in an interval safely. Returned to Imbros and found Aubrey Herbert again. After dinner I went round with him to Colonel Hawkers and met Colonel Wilson who commands the Hawk Battalion of the Naval Division and who was my unhappy predecessor in contesting Poplar. Leslie Wilson's denunciations of the Generals beat anything I have ever heard. In fact I think they wish to get rid of him but are afraid to try because he is an M.P. with influential friends in the Conservative Party. The tale of muddle, mismanagement and useless slaughter is an appalling one. He particularly remarked on the hardships inflicted on the older men the Marines Reserves many of whom are over fifty and who have been dragged out under false pretences to be slaughtered in front of Achi Baba. He told me what had happened in regard to a small trench of absolutely no importance which lay in front of the ground occupied by his battalion. He was ordered to take it and protested vigorously on the ground that he could not hold it after he had taken it. Time and time again he protested but finally received a definite order which had to be obeyed. He took it without much trouble and then got bombed out, exactly as he had predicted, losing three good officers and eighty men. Finally he retired with only six survivors. A Marine battalion then took his place and were ordered to take it again suffering the same fate. He declared that none of Hunter Weston's orders were ever intelligible and always had to be changed or modified, or ignored. He could never give a definite objective for an attack but would end up every order with 'Go as far as you can and then entrench'. He described the battle of June 4th as a cold blooded massacre. The Naval Division for instance were ordered to attack a line a thousand yards wide with about the same number of men in the firing line after a totally inadequate artillery preparation. They advanced and were massacred with machine guns. The Collingwood battalion being wiped out. They had never previously been in action and were hurried up into the firing line without experience of trench warfare or any local knowledge of the ground. He criticised with equal severity the fate of the wounded many hundreds of whom he declares have perished simply from inadequate treatment. His opinions of the Headquarters Staff were really priceless. It is now definitely confirmed that Hunter Weston has fled the Peninsula. His departure is variously ascribed to enteric dysentery or sunstroke but it is certain he will never return having proved himself from the very start to be a perfectly incompetent commander. I realised that after my first conversations with him. He seemed to me not to have the smallest knowledge of war and to throw away many lives in the most wicked and reckless manner without having any clear idea in his mind of any objective. He was detested by his troops. I never in fact heard anyone say a good word for him. He was known as the Giggling Butcher. He had the habit of going round and seeing the survivors of his abortive assaults on Achi Baba and congratulating them on their achievements in the same words every time. The men who had gone through Hell naturally got sick of this realising how they had been mishandled. Wilson vouched for this story. Hunter Weston went to the end of the Pier at Lancashire Landing to see someone off. Whilst he was there a shell was fired from Asis, an hourly occurrence of which no one takes much notice after 4 months of this sort of thing. But the General Commanding the Helles Army Corps did not wait for a second one neither did he retire with dignity but dashed off the Pier and made for a dug out at full speed amidst the hardly concealed jeers of the onlookers. Well he has gone Thank God after helping to slaughter the equivalent of three as good Divisions as ever wore the British uniform. Nothing can bring back the dead and I do not think anyone will attempt to bring back Hunter Weston. On all sides you hear nothing but criticism of the Headquarters Staff and the incompetency of the other Generals. Sir I is criticised because he never visits the front lines. In fact I do not suppose he is known even by sight to the majority of his troops. He is especially unpopular with the Colonials chiefly on account of his throwing away two of their brigades in the reckless attack on Achi Baba on May 8th. The Staff on the other hand dislike General Birdwood and are jealous of him and always carefully suppress any reference to his doings. On the jealousies of the Generals. They surpass anything ever known before. I used to think politics a dirty game but the Army is four times as bad in this respect. The dispatches sent home to the unfortunate public contain the most ghastly lies. For instance in his last dispatch Sir Ian puts the Turkish killed at 5150 and estimates the wounded at 15000. As if he has any possible means of knowing. Probably their total losses in these abortive attacks amounted to some eight thousand killed and wounded. I think Aubrey Herbert's charge against him is the most serious of all namely the wickedness of always leaving thousands of our wounded to perish in front of the lines after these attacks have failed instead of arranging for an armistice for their burial. The Turks have always proved themselves perfectly willing to have armistices and have actually asked for one at Helles which was refused by our General Staff.

Enlarge North Beach taken four days before final evacuation 19-20 Dec 1915
North Beach (with the Sphinx in the background). This was taken approximately four days before the final evacuation of 19-20 December 1915. (National Archives of Australia)

Surely every other consideration should be sacrificed to trying to save the unfortunate wounded who must otherwise perish miserably between the lines. But the Generals are never there to see these things. They live comfortably at Imbros and have their dinners and their baths and apparently it never interferes with their night's rest the knowledge that hundreds of their fellow men are lying mutilated and unattended only a few yards away from our front lines crying for water suffering the agonies of the damned and knowing that their fate is a long low lingering death from suppurating wounds or from thirst and starvation. Their fate is awful to contemplate. Men are butchered to make a G.C.B. or a K.C.M.G. These cursed letters after their names are apparently all our leaders think about. It is appalling that the destinies of Empires should be entrusted to such small and petty and inhuman minds.

SUNDAY 25th July.

This day I remained at Imbros and visited G.H.Q. where I saw Colonel Ward who explained the reasons for the late arrival of my last cables in London. As usual it was due to a muddle on the part of the Military Authorities at Malta and in London. I am getting more and more sick of the whole business. But it is hopeless trying to arrange anything with such people. They have not got the smallest business acumen. Colonel Wilson dined with me and again he held for hours on the muddles and mistakes which have been committed. More troops continue to arrive here. An entire Army Corps is to be concentrated on the island. They are a weedy looking lot and some of them hardly look as if they could carry their kits. Poor Devils.

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