Letters from Gallipoli

100 years ago 140,000 soldiers died in the Gallipoli campaign, among them 3,000 Irishmen. Letters that one Royal Munster Fusilier, Lieut Guy Nightingale, sent from the battlefield describe the carnage, bravery and madness he experienced in one of the worst military disasters of the first World War


At dawn on April 25th, 1915, near the ancient city of Troy, a maritime Trojan Horse in the form of a rusting coal ship gently grounded off a sandy beach at the southern tip of the Gallipoli peninsula, in what is now Turkey. In the River Clyde’s hold were 1,000 Royal Munster Fusiliers, 500 soldiers of the Royal Hampshire Regiment and 250 Royal Dublin Fusiliers.

The success of the Trojan Horse of Greek mythology arose largely from the element of surprise, an advantage this group did not have. Within a few minutes of the grounding the first of a number of rowing boats containing 750 Dublin Fusiliers also reached the beach. As the boats nudged the sand, sally ports in the ship’s sides clanged open, and the soldiers burst from the ship on to gangways that led to barges, to connect with the beach. Few would reach ground unscathed.

V Beach, as the crescent-shaped beach confronting the attackers was known, was about 300 metres wide. The beach was strongly defended by a fort on high ground to the left, by barbed-wire-protected trenches in the centre, and by the partially demolished castle and fortified village of Sedd el Bahr to the right.

The beach therefore resembled an amphitheatre, on which stage tragedy would unfold. Good ground for the Turkish defenders of the Ottoman Empire. Hellish ground for the British attackers.

Among the soldiers in the ship was Lieut Guy Nightingale of the 1st Battalion Royal Munster Fusiliers, whose members were mainly from southwestern Ireland. Nightingale himself was born in Darjeeling, India, in 1890, and educated at Rugby School and Sandhurst military academy, in England.

Letters that Nightingale wrote to his mother and sister spared little in describing the carnage that followed.

May 1st, 1915

Dear Mother

this is the first opportunity I have had of writing to you since we left the boat. You will have seen in the papers by now that we have forced a landing, but ourselves and the Dublins got most awfully mauled in doing so. We left Lemnos for Tenedos one day, and from there we got into a collier called the River Clyde, which had been fitted for the purpose of landing. We anchored at midnight, about two miles from the mouth of the Dardanelles, and at dawn the whole fleet began a bombardment of the end of the peninsula, where we were going to land.

At 7.30am the Dublins set off in open boats; their landing place was the same as ours. As each boat got near the shore snipers shot down the oarsmen. The boats then began to drift, and machine-gun fire was turned on to them. You could see the men dropping everywhere, and of the first boatload of 40 men only three reached the shore, all wounded. At the same time we ran our old collier on to the shore, but the water was shallower than thought, and she stuck about 80 yards out.

Some lighters were put to connect with the shore, and we began running along them to get down to the beach. I can’t tell you how many were killed or drowned, but the place was a regular death trap. I ran down to the lighters but was sent back by Jarrett, as there was no room on them.

Then the wounded began crawling back, the Turks sniping at them the whole time. The men who had managed to reach the shore were all crouching under a bank about 10 feet high, among them Jarrett.

At 2pm the colonel told me to go down on to the barge, collect as many men as I could and join the force on the shore. We jumped into the sea and got ashore somehow with a rain of bullets around us. I found Jarrett and a lot of men but very few not hit. We waited till dusk and then crept up into a sort of position a few yards up. We took up an outpost line, and I had just put out my sentry groups, and Jarrett came up to take a look, when he was shot through the throat by my side. We had an awful night, soaked to the skin, bitterly cold and wet and sniped at . . .

May 4th, 1915

Dear Meta

. . . this left me the only officer. We dug ourselves in, the Turks sniping at us from every corner, and I’ve never spent such a rotten night. It was pouring with rain too. During the night all the rest of the regiment landed, and by the morning we had what remained of us: one company of the Dublins and one company of the Hants under Major Beckworth.

We were told to take an old ruined castle, full of Turks, then a village and finally a hill with a redoubt on top. The castle we rushed at the point of a bayonet and lost only a few. The village was an awful snag.

Every house and corner was full of snipers, and you only had to show yourself in the street to have a bullet through your head. We spent from 9am till 2.30pm before we finally cleared them out.

We lost a lot of men and officers in it. It was rotten fighting, nothing to be seen of the enemy but fellows being knocked over everywhere. I got one swine of a Turk with my revolver when searching a house for snipers, but he nearly had me first. By three in the afternoon we held a line at the far end of the village, and the hill we had to take was immediately above us.

The “Queen Elizabeth” and four other men-of-war shelled the hill, and at 4.30pm we were ordered to fix bayonets and take the hill. My company led the attack with the Dublins, and we had a great time. We saw the enemy, which was the chief thing, and the men all shouted and enjoyed it tremendously. It was a relief after all the appalling sniping.

We rushed straight to the top and turned 2,000 Turks off the redoubt and poured lead into them at about ten yards’ range. Nearly all the officers had been killed or wounded by now.

A Colonel Doughty-Wylie led the attack and was killed at my side. I wrote in about him to the staff, and he was awarded the VC. I buried him that evening and got our padre to read the service over him. It was 6pm by the time we finished firing on the Turks, and we dug ourselves in in an outpost position.

The Turks retired two miles and never attempted to counterattack, but of course we got no sleep that night. The next day the French relieved us, and we had the day off except for shelling, and made our returns for casualties. We lost 14 officers and 400 men in 24 hours.

Nightingale’s battalion again lost heavily in repulsing the Turkish counterattack during the night of May 1st. In the same letter he tells his sister of the aftermath.

All the streams were simply running blood, and the heaps of dead were a grand sight. We lost four officers and 200 men. We now total four officers and 430 men out of our original 1,000. Out of my own company of 230 men and four officers there are only 31 men and myself . . . Just got the chocolate, films and mail, many thanks.

Major Mahmut, a Turkish officer whose battalion defended V Beach, wrote of the landing: “The fire changed the colour of the sea with the blood from the bodies of the enemy – a sea whose colour had remained the same for years. Shells and machine-gun bullets fell ceaselessly at the points where [our] rifle fire was observed; in spite of this, heavy fire was opened from all our trenches.

“In a vain attempt to save their lives, the enemy threw themselves from the boats into the sea. The shore became full of enemy corpses, like a shoal of fish. Landings took place on other beaches that day involving British, Australian, New Zealand and French forces, however, the landing on V Beach was the bloodiest.”

In early June, Nightingale and his battalion were resting in reserve at V Beach when he wrote:

June 4th, 1915

Dear Mother

here we are back at old V Beach. We are resting after three days in the trenches. It is most awfully nice here. I’m in a dug-out with Williams. We look straight down 100 feet on to V Beach, with the River Clyde at our feet and opposite, facing us, the old castle where Doughty-Wiley’s grave is, and Sedd el Bahr village, while behind are the plains of Troy, Mount Ida and Kum Kale Fort, with glimpses of the Dardanelles separating us from the Asiatic side.

Our camp is the fort here. The French are using V Beach as a landing place and depot. It is so different now. Not a blade of grass left, only rows and rows of tents and horses, with a great round patch of cornfields and poppies in the middle, surrounded by barbed wire – the grave of 430 Dublins and Munsters and 14 officers of these two regiments who were killed in the landing at V Beach . . .

The sun is just setting, and all of V Beach is purple, while the turrets and battlements of the castle just catch the last rays, and the Dardanelles are deep blue under Mount Ida. The sunsets here are glorious – like during the rains in Rangoon. The only thing that spoils it is the incessant bombardment of heavy guns . . .

Capture of Constantinople

The main objective of the Gallipoli campaign was to give Britain and its allies access to the Black Sea.

This would require the capture of Constantinople– now Istanbul – which would take Turkey out of the war, or at least reduce its army’s effectiveness.

Making the Russian Black Sea ports accessible from the Mediterranean would allow Britain to supply its ally Russia in its war against Germany while also allowing Russia to ship wheat to its allies.

The key to unlock the Black Sea was the narrow Dardanelles Straits, overlooked by the Gallipoli peninsula on the west side. Access to the Straits from the Mediterranean was blocked by Turkish minefields and artillery on the peninsula and on the Turkish mainland to the east.

Before the land invasion of the Gallipoli peninsula there had been unsuccessful attempts, in early 1915, to force the Dardanelles by naval power alone. Hence the need for a combined military and naval initiative.

One of the reasons why Turkey, neutral at the beginning of the war, became an ally of Germany was Britain’s inept handling of its relationship with Turkey.

This relationship reached a low point when, on August 1st, 1914, Winston Churchill, then first lord of the admiralty, ordered the commandeering, for the British navy, of two Turkish battleships under construction in Britain. The battleships had been paid for by public subscription in Turkey.

Germany obligingly gifted two of its battleships to Turkey, which ran the British blockade and were waiting to repel the British fleet should it succeed in forcing the Dardanelles.

About 100 naval vessels, primarily from the British fleet, were occupied at different times in the eastern Mediterranean during the Gallipoli campaign. Nineteen vessels were sunk or damaged, an overwhelmingly negative return from the seizure of the two Turkish battleships.

The Gallipoli campaign, which Churchill strongly promoted, was certainly not his finest hour. He was replaced as first lord of the admiralty by Arthur Balfour on May 25th, 1915, and left the cabinet in November.

The campaign was doomed from the start, primarily by underestimating the effectiveness of the Turkish army and its willingness to hold the peninsula at any cost. This tenacity was aided by arid terrain serrated by narrow gullies between steep and easily defended ridges – excellent ground for the defender but horrible for the attacker.

For much of the year many of these gullies were dry, necessitating the transportation of water from Egypt, 1200km away. When the rain came it was often torrential. Gullies could quickly become torrents, filling trenches and drowning soldiers. Dysentery and typhoid would prove as deadly as Turkish bullets.

Also contributing to the defeat was a lack of proper equipment, ranging from ineffective wire cutters to insufficient numbers of howitzers, which the steeply rising and falling terrain required.

The only Victoria Cross awarded to the Munster Fusiliers for the landing was to Cpl William Cosgrove, who, under heavy fire and unable to cut the Turkish wire with the cutters provided, resorted to pulling up the stakes holding the wire. In Cosgrave’s words, “I threw the pliers from me. Pull them up, I roared, put your arms around them and pull them out of the ground. I dashed at the first one, heaved and strained, and then it came into my arms the same as you’d lift a child.”

Enormous losses

Despite its success in Gallipoli, Turkey was eventually defeated, and the Ottoman Empire ceased to exist. Mustafa Kemal Bey, later called Atatürk, a divisional commander of the Ottoman forces in Gallipoli, became the first president of Turkey. His reforms ushered that country into the modern age.

Churchill, after serving on the Western Front as a battalion commander of the Royal Scots Fusiliers, returned to the cabinet in July 1917, and he would go on to provide outstanding leadership to Britain during the the second World War.

Because of the valour and sacrifice of their soldiers, Gallipoli became a defining moment, a nation-building event, in the histories of Australia and New Zealand. The national day of remembrance in both countries is held on April 25th, known as Anzac Day, in memory of the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps (Anzacs) who served in Gallipoli.

On April 18th, 1935, in the peaceful English village of Wedmore, in Somerset, at the quaint address of Thatch Cottage, Guy Nightingale died within a week of the 20th anniversary of his landing on V Beach. Three causes of death were listed on his death certificate: cardiac syncope, delirium tremens and chronic alcoholism.

Some said Nightingale died by his own hand; a doctor now might simply attribute the ending of his life to post-traumatic stress disorder.

Today at Anzac Cove, a century after the landing, pilgrims will read these words attributed to Atatürk, written in stone, speaking to us from the past and offering hope for the future: “Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives . . . You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours. You, the mothers who sent their sons from far away countries, wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.”

Robert Yeoman is a family historian whose father fought in the Royal Munster Fusiliers during the first World War

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