Letters from the front line - an ANZAC writing legacy
My grandfather's letter from Gallipoli
On the 17th August we were transhipped into a small steamer and packed down below...we steamed across and arrived at Anzac Cove about midnight. We could see the rough outline of the cliffs—and hear the constant reports of isolated rifle fire, with machine gun joining in the chorus, while a deep bass note was sounded in the distance by a warship supporting the British—she would first sweep her search lights over the Turk’s position, fix it awhile on a certain spot then drop a shell on the same place as nicely as you please ...We were taken in tow by a tiny launch and crept slowly towards the beach—once a star-shell exposed us nicely but I suppose the enemy thought we were only stores or something less valuable because no shell came.
Once landed, we were marched up a formed road along the cliffs which had been taken on the day of the landing – it was hard work doing it without opposition, it must have been hell for the others.
On this special day in Australia, Anzac Day, I thought I’d write about the importance of writing bloodlines.
I’m proud to say both my grandfathers were veterans of the Gallipoli campaign, although I never met either of them. They died years before I was born.
My mother’s father, John Cameron, was a farmer and not long arrived from Scotland when war broke out. He served as an Anzac in the 6th Light Horse at Gallipoli and later in the North African desert, where he developed malaria and was at one stage given up for dead. He recovered only to contract tuberculosis; the disease eventually killed him when my mother, now in her eighties, was only two years old. He looks very gallant in his Light Horse uniform but sadly no letters remain to tell us of his experiences during the war.
My father’s father, Myles (Mick) O’Reilly, served in 8th Battalion. The words above are his, describing his arrival at Anzac Cove in August 1915. Only a few days later the 18th Battalion made an assault on Hill 60, part of the last major battle of the Gallipoli campaign. Here’s a snippet of what happened to him that day:
...This went on until 10am when my rifle jammed. I was reaching for another when a bomb landed fair on my back; fortunately it was to the left of my spine but even though I suffered a few minutes agony.
Fortunately I had put my haversack on my back and it absorbed most of the force of the explosion. (The army biscuits which it contained were too hard for the bomb to do its work properly). When I managed to get my breath I threw away my equipment, leaving the ammo itself for those in the trenches and then crawled along the parapet until a comrade helped me to the back of the Indian’s trench; he returned to be shot dead through the mouth (I was afterwards told). I found myself among about six wounded and as the hours dragged on we suffered from thirst... I tried to crawl away but could not manage and on looking around I could see 3 of the group had died and 3 had crawled away and I was alone. I was picked up by the New Zealand Red Cross man who dressed my wound and helped me to where our stretcher bearers were...the bearers had to double across one or two places that were under fire, but made no complaint.
I have transcribed his letter word for word. The description of his arrival at Anzac Cove would do many novelists proud. The spelling and grammar are also immaculate—he even knows how to use semicolon correctly (which means he has one over my husband.) There’s also a touch of humour; according to Mick the Turkish bomb that hit him was no match for the hard-baked Australian army biscuits in his haversack!
Yet Mick was an uneducated man, a carpenter who left school in primary school.
Was the school system superior to the one we have today? I suspect not. Mick’s dad died when he was only a child and it was circumstance that forced him to leave school early. He was a first cousin and close friend of Australian novelist Australian Eleanor Dark and I suspect shared with her a mutual love of words.
Mick O’Reilly was shipped to England to recover from his injuries before volunteering to rejoin his mates in France. In 1917 he was wounded again and almost died of tetanus. He lived until in 1951, but the authorities agreed his life was shortened by the war.
It’s interesting that all three of Mick’s children became writers, and now a granddaughter he never got to meet. The older I get the more I feel the loss of my absent grandfathers, but Mick’s war letters (there is another from his time in France) are a pretty special legacy.
Do you think writers are born, not made? Who are your writing influences, past and present?