Daily life at Anzac from May to August 1915
For most Australians at Anzac, the daily threat of snipers during this relatively quiet period was compounded by the day-to-day struggle to survive. The Anzac area was small and inhospitable, supplies were not plentiful, and the reinforcements were poorly trained.
Stalemate of trench warfare
As the period between the landing of 25 April and the truce of 24 May showed, the Anzacs had been unable to force their way inland across the peninsula. Likewise, the attempts of the Ottoman Army to drive them away had failed.
The war at Anzac soon settled into precisely what the Gallipoli planners had never envisaged - the stalemate of trench warfare. In one of his dispatches to Australia, official historian Charles Bean wrote:
... are the incidents in long, weary months, whose chief occupation is the digging of mile upon mile of endless sap [trench], of sunken road, through which troops and mules can pass safely … The carrying of biscuit boxes and building timbers for hours daily, the waiting in weary queues, at thirty half-dry wells, for the privilege of carrying water cans for half a mile uphill … the sweeping and disinfecting of trenches in the never ending fight against flies.
For Australians on Gallipoli from late May 1915 to the start of the August Offensive, their main problems revolved around:
- daily duties
- keeping clean
- on-the-job training
- staying healthy
- surviving on poor food and water rations
- writing to family and friends at home
Each problem had its own challenges. Together, they contributed to the more significant issue of maintaining the morale of the men during a relatively quiet period of operations when compared to the early battles and those to come in August.
The period between the final battles of May and the start of the August Offensive could be described as relatively quiet. But operations continued on the peninsula.
For example, the Third Battle of Krithia was fought at Helles by British and French forces on 4 June 1915.
At Anzac on 29 May 1915, the Ottomans launched an attack against Australian positions at Quinn's Post by exploding a mine at 3:30am. While the attack was halted, operations in and around Quinn's Post and other sections of the Anzac line were persistent during June and July.
Artillery duels, mining, sniping and the use of trench mortars became a daily feature of life for Anzacs at Gallipoli.
For example, the constant threat of snipers created much tension amongst soldiers. Private Frederick Muir of 1st Battalion AIF recalled the experience of Turkish sniper fire:
Ever since we have been here we have been greatly troubled by snipers. During the first few days there were many inside our lines, hidden among the scrub […] In some cases they dressed in Australian or New Zealand uniform, taken from our dead […] In addition to these snipers […] other Turkish marksmen took up positions in their trenches commanding the valley through which our road led and took daily toll on the passers-by.
Snipers took their toll.
In May 1915, Major-General Sir William Bridges, the commander of the 1st Australian Division died of wounds received at the hands of a sniper. His body was returned to Australia, and he was buried in Canberra in September 1915.
Until the reburial of the unknown soldier at the Australian War Memorial in 1993, Bridges was the only Australian service man who died overseas during World War I to be returned to Australia.
After the battles of late April and May 1915, Australian units faced a challenge to train the reinforcements sent to replace lost men.
Given the narrow Anzac positions, there was little room for training behind the line. Many replacements were trained on the front. Added to this was the problem that the commander of the 7th Battalion AIF, Lieutenant Colonel Harold 'Pompey' Elliot, noted in a letter to his wife in June 1915: 'new troops arrived on Gallipoli with little training'.
Replacement troops needed time to adjust as they joined the units at Anzac.
Water was scarce and had to be carried up to the front.
To shave or wash, a man had to try to save enough from his small daily ration.
Clothes were soon riddled with lice, causing constant itching, and the creatures were difficult to get rid of.
An advantage of a cleansing swim at the beach was the opportunity to thoroughly soak a uniform. The salt water drowned unwanted insects. Colonel Joseph Beeston of 4th Australian Field Ambulance reported that this didn't always work:
I saw one man fish his pants out; after examining the seams, he said to his pal: 'They're not dead yet.' His pal replied: 'Never mind, you gave them a ... of a fright'
Swimming was a dangerous activity. At Anzac, the soldiers were never safe from hostile fire. Turkish artillery regularly shelled Anzac Cove, the main supply base for the whole Anzac position until after August.
While bathing at the cove on 23 June, eight men were hit by a shell. One of them came out of the water holding his severed arm.
At times, men simply disappeared - they were killed in the water.
Rest and recreation
Swimming helped with personal hygiene on the peninsula and became an essential form of recreation for those serving at Anzac.
As troops were rotated in and out of the front line, they looked for opportunities to relax from the pressures of war.
Private Thomas 'Rusty' Richards of 1st Australian Field Ambulance played rugby for Australia and the British Lions before the war. In his diary, he wrote on 31 May 1915 that:
There has been nothing but surfing and sun-bathing going on down here to-day. I have been sitting in my private dug-out reading and writing, also had two swims.
Richards also enjoyed photography when the opportunity arose.
Other activities included playing music and attending religious services. Music often accompanied church parades.
While serving on Gallipoli with the Royal Naval Division, Australian composer, Frederick Septimus Kelly wrote music for a string orchestra.
Kelly wrote this piece while wounded. It commemorates his friend, the poet Rupert Brooke who died on his way to Gallipoli. Kelly survived Gallipoli but died on the Western Front during the Battle of the Somme in 1916.
As for people back home, religion was important in the lives of many Australian soldiers.
Each AIF brigade had four chaplains:
- two Anglicans
- one Roman Catholic
- one Methodist or Presbyterian
Chaplains ran the weekly Sunday church parade, among other duties.
Some soldiers found comfort in religious services. As Rusty Richards recorded in his diary on 16 June 1915:
On the strength of Brother Andrews' sermon on Sunday last…I have been looking up "Paul's Epistle to the Corinthians" which I found very interesting. I wandered on through the Bible until coming to "Proverbs" where I was quite astonished at the variety and high- class wit, and even humour, yet wisdom reigned throughout…I will have to read this book further.
Diaries and writing home
Soldiers regularly kept daily diaries and wrote letters home.
Maintaining a steady flow of mail to and from the front was very good for morale. This is why the AIF encouraged the men to write letters. But often the mail took a long time to arrive.
Corporal Hector McLarty of the 3rd Australian Field Artillery Brigade wrote in a letter on 10 July 1915 that:
The mail service is rotten, the least they could do, I think would be to see that our mails were delivered quickly and promptly, but no, the cold footed gentlemen who run the Post Office Corps and bask all day in the smiles of the ladies of Cairo, have no time to think of the poor devils who are doing the fighting.
Censorship was a real issue when writing home, as was the availability of paper. Some soldiers would post messages home on hardtack or record their thoughts on toilet paper.
Rusty Richards wrote on 23 June 1915 that he had:
finished a roll of toilet paper which makes good writing material
Despite these issues, soldiers regularly recorded their delight at receiving mail from home. As Bombardier Albert Orchard of the 3rd Australian Field Artillery Brigade wrote in his diary on 25 June 1915:
Mail to hand, biggest I've received since leaving home. 19 letters & some papers from Mrs. Biggs (thanks).
Orchard recalled writing letters the next day to be posted back home.
Local newspapers reproduced many of the soldiers' letters to help boost morale at home.
Muir's recollection of sniper fire formed part of a series of letters published in the South Coast Times and Wollongong Argus during 1915.
Without the modern convenience of refrigeration, supply ships coming from Greece or Egypt couldn't bring nutritious fresh meat, vegetables or fruit.
The monotonous Anzac diet was mainly:
- tinned bully beef for protein
- hard dry biscuits[link to Anzac biscuits page], and sometimes bread and rice for carbohydrates
- tinned jam
- tea or cocoa and sugar for hot drinks
The biscuits were so hard that they often had to be soaked in water and then grated into a mush to make them edible. Many men broke a tooth on hardtack. In the early days, there were no army dentists.
Flies multiplied in the hot weather. Fed by half-buried and decomposing corpses, food scraps and other human material in the unhygienic trenches, they got into everything.
Trooper Ion Idriess of the 5th Light Horse (Queensland) recalled how the flies swarmed into a jam tin he had opened. Despite his best efforts to keep them away, they also swarmed all over his jam covered biscuit and got into his mouth. Eventually, Idriess gave up the struggle:
... I threw the tin over the parapet. I nearly howled with rage ... Of all the bastards of places this is the greatest bastard in the world.
The heat of summer, bad diet and poor hygiene soon had its effect on general health at Gallipoli.
By August, doctors were reporting that most of the Anzacs were suffering from some form of dysentery or diarrhoea. Hundreds of men were being evacuated sick. Many more men were evacuated from Gallipoli sick than were killed or wounded.
In late August 1915, a newly arrived medical officer of the 15th Battalion summed up the effects of battle and daily life at Gallipoli on his unit:
The condition of the men of the battalion was awful. Thin, haggard, as weak as kittens and covered with suppurating sores. The total strength of the battalion was two officers and 170 men. If we had been in France, every man would have been sent to hospital.
Added to the gradual wearing down of the men, the Gallipoli Campaign had failed to achieve its objectives to:
- quickly seize the Turkish coastal artillery on the Dardanelles
- allow the Royal Navy safe passage to Constantinople
As June and July wore on, a plan was devised to break out from the Anzac position. A plan that hopefully would see a successful end to the campaign. The ensuing battle to put this plan into operation began on 6 August 1915 — the start of the August Offensive.
'Life in Shrapnel Valley' on a cigarette card
The scene presented on this cigarette card is an artist's impression of the hazards at Shrapnel Valley. In this scene, a man lies in a shallow trench holding his wounded thigh while his mates fire off volleys of shots with rifles and machine gun. On the back of the cigarette card, a description of the scene under the heading 'WAR INCIDENTS: 2ND SERIES OF 50 SUBJECTS' reads:
LIFE IN SHRAPNEL VALLEY
After lying flat on the ground, with the cover of earth, a brave Australian officer lifted his head to see how matters were going, and fell back shot by a Turkish sniper. For two days and a night he lay there, close to a Turkish gun section, but was eventually rescued and carried to safety.