Ceylon an eye-opender for Australian soldiers

Name: Thomas Martin
Date: 1916
Unit: 21st Battalion AIF
Location: Ceylon

Lt Thomas Henry Martin of Harrietville, Victoria, sailed for Europe on the RMS Orontis with the 21st Battalion AIF at the end of March 1916, passing through Ceylon and on to Egypt, heading for France. Five months later he was dead.

Like many other Australians he kept a diary in which he recorded the daily happenings.

But he also wrote long and detailed letters to his mother in which he described the scenery of places like Colombo. On arrival in Paris, he posted 12 letters and two registered packages back to Australia.

By the end of July 1916 he was in the firing line at Pozières, describing life as "hell". He wrote about being under fire in Sausage Valley and marching from Albert to Worley and then on to La Vicogne. "Too sore and weary," he wrote.

On 18 August he and his men marched out of their billets at Bertincourt for the firing line at La Vicogne. The following day they continued their march through heavy rain to La Vicogne and the next day to Rubemprè.

And there his diary ended. He was killed at Mouquet Farm on 26 August.

By then, his mother had received his letter from Colombo, probably not knowing he was dead when she read it.

Saturday 18 April 1916, 9am

Land to starboard - a faint blue grey outline showing north-west, afterwards proving to be the nests of the mountains of Southern Ceylon. As we approach still nearer and the mountains assume a more definite shape, their steep sides clothed with a deep green coloured vegetation, and summits hidden in the clouds, the surf beaten shore comes into our range of vision. In places a sloping beach, again a rocky headland, against which the restless waves dash themselves to pieces only to be absorbed again a moment later with the preceding tide. A low palm clad ridge rising from the waters edge encloses the mountains inland, which nowhere approach to within 10 miles of the shore.

These mountains attract attention because of their abrupt and ragged formation. Some standing to a lonely sentinels guarding the lower country from which they rise most precipitously, no range of hills being near, Point De Gaile with a white lighthouse now becomes a point of interest, this ancient town once being the principal port of Ceylon but for many years has had to give way to Colombo, now by far the most important town on the island.

Abreast of Port De Gaile our boat runs amongst a fleet of fishing smacks or sampans they call them in these parts.

These peculiar little vessels with which the eastern ports are familiar, are manned by one or two riggers, the boat proper having a float some 15 or 20 feet to our side, connected with bamboo runners and lattice work. The sail and rigging are very crude, but nevertheless they prove very seaworthy and survive in quite a rough sea, too rough to be out in a small boat for my liking. So much for my first glimpse of Ceylon.

Now we follow the coastline in a N.W. direction keeping about ten miles off the coast on account of shallows and reefs here and there. For a few hours we amuse ourselves picking up points of interest with the glasses but the distance is too great for any small object to be plainly seen, so we get busy writing home on account of the mail closing immediately we reach port. This afterwards proving misleading as the Australian mail boat is one day late, but not knowing this we write all we know and prepare a record bag for the ships.

About 4pm, smoke on the horizon ahead indicates something unusual in that direction. Presently the volume of smoke increases and masts and a few stray buildings appear along the shore. For a distance of a couple of miles red roofed spacious bungalows nestle amongst palms and other forage, smooth green lawns being a feature that makes these homes specially attractive to the eye. These places are the outskirts of European quarter of Colombo. Next a massive red building some four or five stories high engages our attention and speculation is rife as to what it is; subsequently we are enlightened by the chief that it is the famous Golle Face Hotel, the best Ceylon knows and rendezvous of all tourists passing eastwards.

Afterwards the breakwater and shipping unfold themselves to us and the town of Colombo itself that is what can be seen of it from the sea. Arriving opposite the entrance to the anchorage about 5.30pm. with the tropical day drawing to a close was a spectacle I shall ever remember. The eastern sky overhanging the town overcast with heavy storm clouds, avid lightning descending every few seconds but with no answering thunder. A dense dust cloud enveloping portion of the town, heavy rain falling close on the track of the storm. The shipping lighthouses and pilot station with the taller buildings standing out in bold relief lit up by the last rays of the sun setting in a clear cloudless sky. The whole scene changing colour from pale purple to red followed by yellow and lastly a clear blue green, before darkness blots out all with the exception of harbour and city lights, not mentioning the indescribable mealy of sounds made by the natives as they swarm around in canoe, rowing boat and barge. There must have been hundreds vying with each other as to who could make himself heard above the din and confusion. Even the ships winches are being driven by the dusty coloured rascals while others clamber practically all over the vessel wanting to sell anything from a wooden elephant to ladies pants and kimonos.

I even loath touching the railings after they have run their bodies over them. Their clothing mostly consists of a bit of cotton stuff, any colour, and just about enough to make a good sized handkerchief. Some have a slight addition to this but generally very scanty. Just one word as regards the smell, the quantity and quality of which ought to be sufficient to satisfy the most fastidious. As I said might have no effect on this eastern concert - coal barges continue to arrive and the riggers still keep jabbering. The ships winches rattle and squeal all night, what with all port holes closed, coal dust settling all round and no movement of the ships to create a draught and replace the shifting air in our cabins below deck, this our only night in Colombo does not prove very enjoyable to anybody and all are relieved when the sun reappears at 6.45 next morning, somehow we prefer day to night in this place. After a hurried breakfast all hands muster on deck ready to embark into barges awaiting alongside, this being done a short tow brings us to the breakwater where we land and prepare for a route march. The invincibles leading as we always take pride of place, well that march is another thing the company will not forget. Leaving the breakwater the route takes us practically outside Colombo along the shore past the Galle Face into the barracks where we rest for half an hour, refreshments on hand for all who can pay. The men were not too loud in their praise of Indian beer, in fact they assert that they have not tasted anything on the voyage to compare favourably with Carlton XXX. The fall in sounding, all are marched back to the ship, getting aboard about 11.30am. I never lost so much gravy in 3 hours as during that march of about 5 miles. It was hopeless trying to mop it off my face, so gave it up with the result it ran off my chin in a stream, soaking the front of my light tunic. As for boots, puttees breaches they were just as though I had walked up to my waist in water. My tunic not quite as bad, a few dry spots about the size of half a crown still being visible. I was a beauty to lead the Victorians, what aggravated me was about 500,000 beggar children running along side asking for pennies, saluting and saying hot sahib, others suddenly dodging under a culvert over a drain and emerging with a bunch of bananas which they would persist in poking under our noses.

Getting back to my subject again, - after lunch on board all officers take the afternoon off for a tour around Colombo, and after we are well out of the way, the men consider that what is good for the leaders should also apply to them, consequently native boatman do a roaring trade for an hour or so. Well it is not wise to knock about Colombo with Australian notes on hand, so immediately we land proceed to the authorised money exchange, passing 6 in the pound. Gold is worth 21/- to the sovereign but we would not part even at this price. Given plenty of gilt one could [benefit] very easily at the expense of the Ceylon Administration Council. With pockets well lined with silver we now take our first rickshaw to anywhere just to see life and the conditions in these parts. Sitting back in our ricks inhaling the odour of perspiring nigger we do the main thoroughfares, which while not being very imposing or extensive are on the whole fairly clean. Streets not very wide, buildings - some modern and up to date others very old and in need of renovation. Hotels - we noted three which appear to receive the patronage of whites, the Galle Face, G.O.H. and the Bristol. The native hotels plainly show without any advertising what can be expected within. Trees line some of the streets while others are destitute of anything in the way of shelter. An electric train competes with the rickshaw boy for the means of locomotion of the population.

The whites travelling per rickshaw or motor, and the darkies mostly by tram, whether they have any aversion to the easy rubber tyre rickshaw or not I don't know, but I found them most comfortable. The only horses I saw were of a splendid type.

The small buffalo about the size of a donkey being used to haul all class of vehicle. - After a run through the gardens, which contain all tropical vegetation, darkie turns about and after a series of what to me seemed hairsbreadth escapes, through dodging around corners, and in front of motors and trams, we arrive at the native quarter where we confer as to the advisibility of proceeding or otherwise. The opposition outed we proceed to study the Ceylonese at home, or what he calls home. The streets not formed, unclean, irregular, houses or hovels in all stages of decay. Nigger odour being the prevailing feature combined with gesticulating native.

Darkies of both sexes - children of all ages, sleeping anywhere and everywhere, not being particular how hard.

With regard to clothing they hardly conform to the demands of civilisation. Sight seeing in this portion not being to our liking we direct the rickety boy to the town proper back to respectability. Dismissing the rickshaw whose motive power demands about three times the proper fare without success we partake of afternoon tea at a place where a few Europeans congregate. Even the tea is not a success, so we decide to return to the ship as she is due to sail at 6pm. and it is now 5pm so we make for the jetty. At the landing after interviewing the exchange merchant, we seat ourselves in a boat propelled by three native oarsmen to pull us to the ship a distance of about half a mile. Off we go in good spirits not dreaming of what is ahead of us. After going 100 yards or so fresh breeze springs up on our starboard; with only one third of the distance covered things become more serious the breeze having changed to what they call in these parts a monsoonal squall, and although we are inside the anchorage a heavy sea is already running, drenching us with salt water. Then, as if things are not wet enough, the clouds open and the rain falls in sheets. The fun now begins in earnest. Three laden barges lashed together break from their moorings and drift rapidly towards us, and as at the same time we are passing a similar number on the other side at anchor, we expect our boat to be crushed like an eggshell between the hulks as they really are. After a great deal of excitement and bad language intermixed with threats on the part of passengers and crew, we manage to back out not a second too soon, in fact the last few yards were pushed off with the oars against the barges. Thankful for this deliverance we now face the elements again but are at the mercy of wind and wave, resulting in our shell being blown under the stern of an Indian trader, and getting mixed up with her rudder, hawser and anchor buoy. While in this unenviable position a steamer breaks her moorings and drifts broadside onto the bow of the steamer from under whose stern we are endeavouring to extricate ourselves. This adds a new fear to the riggers, as it looks that the steamer must crash broadside on to the sharp bow of the other. Getting loose we scud 50 or 60 yards with the wind to get out of the danger zone, when we recognise the steamer on the way to destruction to be the Orantes.

With our ship loose in the harbour and our cockle shell being blown against the breakwater things did not look too healthy.

By good luck wind and waves drove us against a couple of barges firmly anchored against the breakwater, and I was never more thankful to feel something solid under my feet. The barges docking alarmingly by we waited our chance and got onto the breakwater. The storm only lasted about 3/4 of an hour and subsided most suddenly, after which we looked for a steam pilot boat and made for the ship, which had escaped injury, thanks to both anchors, winches and a couple of tugs; by the time we got on board all was well with her and she was back into her proper place. We were as wet as though we had to swim, which I thought we would have had to several times.

After a hot bath and dinner we weighed anchor at 7pm. saying goodbye and leaving Colombo in the gathering gloom with its motley assortment of humanity, its smell, its jabbering and cadging natives, which I suppose I will welcome if ever I return via that route.

Memoria in etenia

In fact, Lt Martin did not return via that route for he was killed in France during the Battle of the Somme on or about 26 August, just a few short weeks after he wrote the above letter.

And like many other casualties his name is recorded at the Villers-Bretonneux Memorial for Australian soldiers whose graves are unknown.

The material for this article was supplied by Chris Rule of Victoria

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DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) ( ), Ceylon an eye-opender for Australian soldiers, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 15 June 2024, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/stories/australians-wartime/ceylon-eye-opender-australian-soldiers
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