April 25th was a day to remember
Name: John Whitham
Unit: C Company, 12th Battalion AIF
Laurie Whitham had reason to remember 25 April 1915. He was there at Gallipoli and was 'lucky' enough to get a wound that was serious enough to take him out of the firing line without being life threatening.
Writing to his parents from Deaconesses' Hospital in Alexandria, he was in good spirits but mindful of the events that had recently taken place.
"Though our casualties were heavy, it could not be expected otherwise," he wrote. "And what is most important, our task was done. Twas a close go, but if the few items we have seen so far in the papers - the cables here are not extensive - about the congratulatory messages from London to Australia are correct - the results must have been satisfactory and April 25th is a day to be remembered - also the 26th and several other days."
As the commanding officer of C Company, 12th Battalion, he was in the thick of things during the landing and the subsequent fighting throughout the first two days. Although in charge of a company when they landed, within a short time everyone was mixed up with other units.
"During one burst of shell fire I got a bump in the left arm - just sufficiently hard enough to make you think some practical joker had hit you with a poker or a ruler on the biceps!" he wrote. "That's what the feeling was like: only a wee bit of blood came out of the hole in the jacket sleeve, so that was alright.
"I didn't have to make tracks for the base at the beach as I would have had the bit of lead come about three inches to the right. The shoulder strap of my web equipment (officers all wear the same equipment as men) was punctured first and probably diverted the bullet into the arm.
"I was lying down using my glasses when hit - good job it didn't hit the glasses or I'd have had to get a new pair, and perhaps a new face also!"
Laurie Whitham kept fighting, rounding up his stray troops and digging in for the night. "About 6pm I found a corporal and about six men of my company and we joined in digging in a line; found Rafferty also about this time and he and Corporal Austin and myself passed the night in one hole together.
"It was a wee hole at first but by daybreak it formed part of a long line of trenches. Am afraid I didn't do much of the digging though.
"Here I've gone rambling on - almost started to tell you about the sights and sounds but they are not for letters home, and such things can be better described by newspaper correspondents - or told when the war is over when people want to hear something gruesome.
"But one must just say one word about the way those lads took their punishment. Badly wounded, horribly wounded, men would stick it all with hardly a murmur. And there was not much in the way of attention for them for the first 24 hours. The stretcher bearers and ambulance men were just splendid, but their work was heavy and they had many casualties themselves."
Laurie Whitham was sent down to the beach to have his dressing treated but was told he would have to go out to one of the hospital ships to have the bullet taken out. He eventually ended up in hospital at Alexandria.
"Here I am back in Egypt just two months after leaving it - sounds like Rudyard Kipling in Mandalay doesn't it? But it wasn't a fondness for Egypt which brought me back to it, altho' I'm having an or'fly good time here all the same," he wrote.
"I've found that if a fellow is looking for a nice easy job with nice people, he can't do better than get a slight wound (a sprained ankle will do as well as any other) but say, for preference, a puncture of the arm - left arm, of course. It will ensure him a pleasant sea voyage, a transference from ship to a nice hospital in a nice springy motor car ambulance, a comfy bed in a nice bright room which opens on to a fine roomy balcony two stories above the ground."
Being careful not to upset the censors, Laurie Whitham then described events leading up to the landing and his eventual wounding.
"I told you in previous letters from our late resting place that a Big Ball was expected to take place soon and that we, our Brigade, had secured "early door tickets". We were the covering party for the Division, or rather for our Army Corps, because units of both divisions landed during that day and the next.
"Just before dawn the first boats reached the beach. These contained two companies from each of the 9th, 10th and 11th Battalions; the remaining 6 Coys and the 4 Coys of the 12th following in quick succession.
"The first men ashore rushed the first steep hill in front, under fire, and cleared the first ridge with the bayonet. The fire increased every minute, rifles, machine guns and shrapnel, plenty of poor fellows never reached the shore. Col Hawley, [2nd in command of 12th Battalion] I believe, got hit badly before he left the deck of the torpedo boat.
"There was no time for anything but hurried rallies of each company as they landed - then a dash and scramble forward up hills and down gullies - such hills and gullies they were too; very steep, and mainly covered with a low scrub, which, although it afforded excellent cover from view for the defenders, was not much use in that way for us.
"Our lines gradually spread out in a semi-circle. The flanks towards the coast and the centre pushed forward. Other brigades of our division soon reinforced us, and we kept pushing forward, units, companies and battalions getting mixed up, despite all efforts to keep them complete and separate. 'Twas quite unavoidable and by nightfall it was quite common to see men of different brigades lying alongside of each other, and lines of rapidly constructed trenches occupied by very much mixed up units, each little group taking orders from the nearest officer of NCO.
"From daylight to nightfall we enjoyed the attentions of our friends the enemy, and as they were all so well concealed and knew the ranges so exactly, it was not surprising that they were able to give us such a hot time. And it was a hot time.
"The behaviour of the lads was just splendid, even when their leaders were gone they kept well to the front, and despite their losses, never lost heart. There were times when portions of the line had to fall back, having gone, perhaps, too far forward, or having met with close range fire from concealed rifles and machine guns, but they were always ready to rally."
Laurie Whitham described the tremendous noise from the guns fired from ships in the bay and then from howitzers as they were manhandled ashore and hauled up the ridges from the beach.
"There would be a rushing, hustling railway noise in the air, then a terrific cloud of smoke, followed often by several other similar rushing, hustling noises and more clouds of smoke," he wrote. "Then came the bang-bang; first the bang-bang-bang from the sea - then the bung whooff-bung whoo-off-bung from the shore. Lordy, I didn't envy the gentlemen in those redoubts and field works, well dug in though they may have been.
"Our own little Battalion (and it is a little one now, how strong actually I can't say) got its share of casualties. Out of 28 officers who landed on the 25th, only 8 were available for duty on Monday afternoon. There may have been further casualties since - 5 were killed outright and 15 wounded - more or less severely - most of us, however, will soon be fit for the front again.
"All we can be thankful for as father would say 'That it was no wuss' - for there's no reason whatever that each wounded man was not a dead man - only the little Cherub that looks after soldiers and sailors can say why there were not more fatal lists. I know I'm quite satisfied with my own little lot. I'm a very lucky pusson, for shore! And I just guess as how my good luck will stick to me."
Laurie Whitham's luck did hold. He survived Gallipoli, where he was awarded the CMG, and France, where he was awarded the DSO for action at Villers-Brettonneux, and Belgium. He returned to Australia and stayed in the army where he was promoted regularly and eventually reached the rank of Lieutenant-General. He retired in 1941 but was recalled as Officer in Charge of the Volunteer Defence League.
The material for this article was supplied by Mrs Marie Kays of Tasmania, niece of Lawrence Whitham.
8/01/2002 10:24:45 AM