When I began this project I had no intentions of getting bogged down by the details of the First World War. When I read the words ‘Anzac Cove’ on Great Grandfather’s war records, I believed that was the extent of his ‘serious’ war experiences. All Australians know the Gallipoli story. It is splashed across the TV for a week each April. It was horrific and affected almost every family in every town across Australia. Wasn’t that a big enough story in itself?
Even when I discovered a copy of “History of the Fifth Lighthorse Regiment”, by Colonel Wilson, I only read as far as the evacuation from Gallipoli in December 1915. I engrossed myself in every gross detail: snipers, makeshift bombs, the appalling living conditions, food shortages and disease. For some unknown reason, I didn’t read on.
The story was to be a narrative, beginning with my earliest memories of visiting Grandma’s house and perhaps ending with Great Grandfather’s death. However, once I began to learn the art of creative writing, I discovered that my structure was a recipe for a boring story. How many times have we bought an historical non-fiction book and put it down after a couple of chapters? Somehow I had to find ways to bring the man to life, put meat on his bones, so to speak. Thus, his war experience became the focus of the story. And, the more I researched, the more details of his experience came to light.
The story is currently in the year 1917. He was promoted to Captain and became Commander of ‘C Squadron’ of the 2nd Light Horse Training Regiment. According to my research, it was a cushy position that entailed administrative duties as well as delivering Instruction to new recruits. I have read and reread his diary entries for that year and if taken at face value one could be forgiven for missing the significance of his words. That was the case when he mentioned the visit to the regiment in August that year.
The only entry during that visit that extended to more than a line was written on August 3rd, 1917. He wrote:
Brigade went out on a stunt – 5th to scupper Bedouin outpost within 5 miles of Beersheba. Mafeesh bedouins. Fired on by Turkish outpost.
Then on 4th August, he continued:
Returned to camp without casualties.
Over time, I have learnt to read between the lines – with the help of Ion Idriess and, in this instant, the official 5th Light Horse War Diaries. The following account was recorded about that exercise:
On the 3rd August, 1917, the Brigade (Ryrie) undertook an operation to Sufi, a place at which there was a well about two miles in front of the Turkish position at Beersheba. It had been reported by natives that there was a Bedouin battalion some 300 strong encamped at this place. It was intended that the Brigade should proceed to Sufi, capture or destroy this battalion, and get back out of range of the Turkish guns at Beersheba before dawn.
This last was imperative, as the Turks had a large number of guns mounted within 3,000 yards of Sufi. The Brigade accordingly left the east side of the Wadi Ghuzze at 7.30 p.m. on the 3rd August, ‘C’ Squadron forming the advance-guard. The Brigade arrived at Taweil-el-Haberi at midnight, where it halted. This Regiment then moved on eastward until we arrived at a small wadi on the main Beersheba Road, half a mile west of the road running north and south from Sufi to Yahia. The last part of the Brigade march and the rest of the Regimental march was done by compass. The maps showed various roads and tracks, but these were the ones which were in existence prior to the war, and owing to the numerous military operations in this neighbourhood, fresh sets of tracks and roads had been made across the country.
On approaching Sufi, ‘C’ Squadron and two troops of machine guns moved northward up the wadi on Sufi, while ‘A’ Squadron and one troop of machine guns moved half a mile on the right flank of ‘C’ Squadron to protect it from any attack which might come from Beersheba defences. The remainder of the Regiment moved 400 yards in rear of and in support of ‘C’ Squadron. ‘C’S Squadron arrived at Sufi Well at I a.m., but found no trace of the enemy although it was noticed that a large number of stock had watered there the previous day. When the Regiment left Brigade Headquarters, we dropped a telephone line, so that we were in touch with the Brigade. On reporting that we received instructions to send out patrols towards the railway and reconnoitre the enemy. Lieutenant Boyd and two troops of ‘C’ Squadron accordingly moved north-east towards the railway. After proceeding 1 * miles, they were fired on by Turkish outposts without suffering any casualties. The patrol returned to the Regiment. The Regiment rejoined the Brigade at 3.55 a.m. and the whole Brigade moved back to bivouac, where we arrived at 7.40 a.m. (1)
Great Grandfather’s lack of details gives the impression that the exercise was small and quite insignificant. However, you will agree after reading the official account, the opposite was the case. This is good example of why my writing has slowed down. My research keeps uncovering important truths about Great Grandfather’s war, despite him playing down the events. Perhaps that says a lot about his personality. It reinforces what I have already learnt: he was a modest man who was not known to boast his achievements.