Morris Owen - Letter from Gallipoli
From Corporal MORRIS OWEN (late of Llanfair).
Tuesday, 20th July, 1915.
Dear Mr. Jones,
Last mail brought me your letter of June 16th. It was most welcome, recalling as it did the happy days I spent at the old School with Mrs Jones, yourself and the old boys. The troublesome times which we are now passing through make the peaceful days at Barmouth seem a long way off, and to go back to those days, in thought, while sitting in this battle-scared valley of Turkey—just behind the firing line,—would make one feel sad and regretful were one not charged with the patriotic enthusiasm which brought us here.
Eleven thousand miles from home I, with hundreds of others, heard the call in the recesses of the Australian Bush, and August 17th last saw us assembled at the Blackboy Hill Camp, near Perth, to commence our training for the new, grim, business of war. As you are aware this was spring-time in the Southern land, and towards the end of our eleven weeks camp life, the weather began to "warm up" so that we were not sorry—for that reason—to bid adieu to the land in which I had been living for nearly four years.
At the beginning of November last, two Transports left Fremantle with Western Australia's share of the First Australian Division, attended by battleships as escort. After two days slow sailing we joined up with the whole Division. It is no uncommon sight to see ships of war assembled in mass as at naval reviews, but I think this fleet of assembled liners was, until then, an unique sight. Picture to yourself nearly fifty large ocean liners drawn out in three long lines about half a mile apart, and stretching as far as the eye could reach, attended by six or seven warships, and you have the view which met my gaze when the whole division was under way. Our progress was slow owing, it was rumoured, to the presence, somewhere in the vicinity, of the elusive "Emden." Unusual movements among our escort one morning told us that afternoon when the news was read out that H.M.A.S. "Sydney" had encountered the German “Will o'the wisp" ship and put her out of action, having driven her ashore on " Direction Island," one of the Keeling Cocas Group. Our passage was now uneventful until one Sunday morning Colombo was sighted. We anchored here for forty-eight hours, but too far from the shore to see much except the green hills, lighthouse, wharves and extensive docks of this Ceylon port. A few more days steaming and we entered the Gulf of Aden, passed the huge promontory rock gateposts into the Red Sea with its Biblical memories and heat. Until then we thought we were going to England for further training before proceeding to France, but now we received orders to proceed to Egypt for garrison duty and training. This being the case the Port side of the ship was favourite, and our view of the land to which we were going was not an inviting one. Red sandstone hills and rolling plains comprised the whole of the landscape, and not a particle of vegetation could be seen. We had rather a long wait at Suez, for passage through the Canal must be slow, and one ship cannot follow another too closely, owing to the sandy nature of the canal banks which are liable to washaways. The military element—British and Indian— prevailed along this waterway, and formed a striking contrast to the Arab in his flowing white robes and his ever-present sleeping Donkey. Port Said was reached in due course, and for 24 hours we were anchored in the stream right in front of the town, and although we were not allowed to land there, yet we could see plainly what was going on there. The next afternoon we left our anchorage and, passing the de Lesseps' Statue on the fine breakwater, we pushed out into the Mediterranean, where we again anchored for four days. A short run now brought us to the crowded port of Alexandria, rich in ancient memories. We obtained a place after a time at the dock side, and the following evening we left Transport and entrained for Cairo, a journey occupying from 6.30 p.m. to about 2.30 a.m. We could not see much on this journey, but even in the dark we could make out the innumerable waterways with which the delta of the Nile is intersected. The early morning air was quite fresh as we left the siding near Cairo and entered the electric cars in which we made a rather cold journey of seven or eight miles to Mena. We could not see much at this hour, but after unloading the baggage and reloading it on donkey carts we took a short walk through the loose sand and lay down near a cook's fire to wait for dawn. Day light revealed the fact that we were in a large canvas city at the very foot of the Great Pyramid. This was a Sunday morning in December, and as soon as I was free to do so, I took a long walk around the pyramids and the Sphinx, The words of the Hymn hath it "Could I but stand where Moses stood," and although this has special reference to Mount Horeb, yet I can say that I have walked over the same ground that must have been trodden by the Israelities during the Egyptian sojourn.
Our training here in the loose sand was a strenuous one, and after eleven weeks of it we were not sorry to receive our marching orders. These came on the last day of February, and in forty-eight hours we were again on Transport at Alexandria. Our course was northerly, and after a slow passage we anchored in the beautiful, almost land-locked harbour in the Isle of Lemnos in the Aegean Sea. For seven weeks we led a rather monotonous life at anchor relieved by occasional trips ashore in the ship's boats for Route Marches, Tactical Schemes, etc During this time a huge Fleet had assembled waiting for the opportunity to throw our might against Turkey. On Saturday, the 24th April, two picked companies, including my own, and consisting of about five hundred men, left the troop-ship in two destroyers and went aboard H.M.S.---.
This cruiser, accompanied by other War ships, slowly steamed out of the harbour, and we knew that at last we were going to do our first bit of actual work. By three o'clock on Sunday morning we were off the coast of Gallipoli, and we took to the boats to try to effect a landing. According to the scheme this was to be done secretly, but the watchful Turk saw us coming and opened a terrible fire while we were sitting helplessly in the boats unable to return it. When the water was sufficiently shallow we made a jump for it and scrambled ashore and into the loose scrub for cover. Throwing off our heavy packs, and getting into some sort of line we charged the first ridge along which the Turkish Riflemen and Machine Guns were carrying on their deadly work. The sight of our bayonets was too much for the enemy who fled, taking up a position on the next ridge. Three ridges were taken as this first one was, and then we dug in, for the Turkish force was too strong for us to go farther. Reinforcements came up, and for five days we were subjected to heavy bombardments by shrapnel and by strong counter attacks from the enemy. Nothing could shift us though, backed up as we were by the excellent gunnery of the Navy including the "Queen Elizabeth." At the end of five days we were relieved by the Marines, and we went back to the shore where we sorted ourselves out, — we were so mixed up. I shall never forget that first "Roll Call," we had done a great deed, earned the "Well Done" of our King and General, but at great cost. Our casualties affected all ranks from a Brigadier-General to the Private. For twelve weeks we have held this position, and the Turks have been satisfied to let us alone after having had a terrible lesson each time they have endeavoured to shift us. We are now waiting for the British Army to arrive from the South, and then I am confident we shall have Turkey for Christmas.
I have not come across any of the old boys you mention— we stick to our part of the line,—the right flank—and see little else. Of course I shall look up anyone I know if I get the opportunity. I am looking forward to receiving the "School Arena" which I presume will arrive by the next Mail. The Australian Army did not land at the entrance to the Dardanelles, so I am unable to tell whether it bears any resemblance to the Barmouth Estuary. We landed at Gaba Tepe. I am afraid this will not be suitable for your School Magazine, but of course you are welcome to use it or any part of it.
With best wishes to your good wife and self, and to the old School, both past and present.
Yours very truly,