If you are interested in living in the shoes of a 5th Light Horse veteran, I must mention an incredible book called “The Desert Column” by Ian Idriess.
Ion Idriess was a trooper in the Fifth Light Horse Regiment with William Lyons. This book is a condensed version of the many diaries he wrote during World War One, during his time in Gallipoli, Sinai and Palestine. According to the author:
“The Desert Column is more than my diary, it is myself. I began the diary as we crowded the decks off Gallipoli and watched the first shells crash into Turkish soil. Gradually it grew to be a mania. I would whip out the little book and note, immediately, anything exciting that was happening. As the years dragged on, my haversack became full of little notebooks.”
In the four years that Ion Idriess spent abroad, he had accumulated so many notebooks that he had to throw away his iron rations, in order to make room on his haversack. In his own words, “What would the heads have said, had they found out! Goodness only knows.”
Indeed! Soldiers were advised not to write diaries, but if young Trooper Idriess had not put pen to paper, then the world would be deprived of one of the most detailed accounts of everyday life endured by soldiers sent to Gallipoli, Sinai and Palestine during the first world war.
Thus far, I have only read of his experiences in the trenches of Gallipoli and it is a very riveting read.
“We stumbled in the darkness instinctively ducking our heads only to thud into the wall of the tunnel where it twisted and turned. The floor was uneven with puddle holes of putrid water. Of course, no one dare strike a light; we were going to the most dangerous spot of the whole Gallipoli line. The route smelt like a cavern dug in a graveyard, where the people are not even in their coffins. We are right in Lone Pine now and the stench is just awful; the dead men, Turks and Australians, are lying buried and half-buried in the trench bottom, in the sides of the trench, and built up into the parapet. They have made the sandbags greasy. The flies hum in a bee-like cloud. I understand now why men can only live in this portion of the trenches for forty-eight hours at a stretch…”
It is a miracle that he could even manage to fill so many pages with his descriptive writing with what was happening around him.
“We are being shelled with shrapnel again; the damn things are screaming overhead and bursting with frightful crashes. Hardly a man in the 5th that has not experienced some miraculous escapes. Steaming hot fragments of shell have plunged into our dugouts by day and by night, bullets have pierced men’s hats and equipment, some have nicked the puttees of men as they slept. And yet we have only had a few men hit.”
As my eyes hungrily devour the words on the yellowing pages of my copy of “The Desert Column”, the booming of guns, the burr of machine gunfire and the constant whizzing of bullets flying through the air, brings history to life. Knowing that my Great Grandfather was in the trenches, experiencing the same stresses and horrors as the writer, is very sobering. Ion Idriess hailed from North Queensland, so it is even reasonable to assume that they knew each other, although they were in different squadrons and the regiment was 500 men in total.
The book is most probably no longer in print and I do remember finding a copy on ebay a few years ago and the owners were asking a hefty price. The first edition went to print in 1932. The copy I have on loan was printed in 1932 It is not in very good condition and the spine is split. Each time I hold the volume in my hands, I’m afraid it will fall apart. But I must say that it is indeed difficult to put down.