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?

Comments (4)

  • 25 April 2012 at 21:35 |

    Wow. Gripping stuff- how lucky you are to have those letters! My own grandfather also served in WWI, though far less romantically as a pay clerk stationed in Cairo. That said, at least he came back alive and relatively well- though he died of skin cancer when I was 9, and chances are it began during his years in the desert. That this history is so close to us is astonishing. Thank you for sharing it. xxx

    (PS. My great grandparents were also Camerons who emigrated from Scotland (Fort William) to Victoria- our own Cameron is named after them. I'm sure that makes us cousins ;) )

    • Benison
      25 April 2012 at 21:47 |

      You know, I only just read an Alexander McCall Smith novel (one of his millions - how does he do it?) which has some scenes in Fort William. I went there years ago and it all came back! My Cameron clan come from Dingwall, near Inverness, but I'm sure we're distantly related! My brother is named for the same family reasons. It's a great name for boys and girls and I'm very proud of my Scottish blood. xx

      The letters from Mick are indeed very special. I've been digging through the family records on both sides and there's some really fascinating stuff,including shipwrecks! Maybe I should start writing historical novels? Or maybe it's just a sign of old age? xxx

  • Lou Marcroft
    01 May 2012 at 23:42 |

    Yes, wow, I loved reading this Ben- how strange, sad and yet powerful that the ANZAC stories still resonate with us nearly 100 years later.
    I didn't have a relative in WW1 but my father and 3 uncles fought in WW2. They are all gone now and I only have patchy memories of what they said.
    Their experiences certainly affected their wives and children - a lot of pain, post traumatic shock and unresolved - probably unresolveable - grief which impacted on us in so many ways.
    The last one to die, my uncle Len - my son Anthony has Leonard as his second name - became very precious to me, a living legend. He was a Rat of Tobruk and as a medical orderly, he was right there on the front line. Only at his funeral in 2008, did we find out that he used to carry - or drag - not one injured man, but TWO injured men back to safety. This was often in the dead of night when he crawled out into no-man's land to rescue fallen mates....
    He later went to Borneo and helped the few survivors from the death camp Sandakan - he saw things no-one should ever see.
    But his memory lives on, as does that of my father and other uncles, all decorated several times over, all scared and hurt in their deepest selves, yet all cheerful and resolute.... Sadly, I have no letters of theirs, and only a few photos and stories.
    ANZAC Day helps me remember them, not war, but these ordinary people in my family. I too miss them more as I get older.
    I just hope I could live up to their memory if ever called upon to make such sacrifices.

    • Benison
      02 May 2012 at 08:09 |

      Thanks for your lovely comment, Lou. Like you, I've become more interested in my family history as I get older. My grandfather certainly also carried a few demons from his time in Gallipoli and France, according to family stories. How could it not affect you? Love how you've honoured your family through your gorgeous boy (one of a triumvirate of gorgeous boys!).

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