For a split second, William allowed the yellow flashes that confused night with day to remind him of the world in “the Jungle”, as he referred to his cane farm “Fontenoy”. June sees the beginning of harvesting and the first burn for the year. Cane fires are such glorious displays of light and shadow as they perform their stormy dance against the night sky. These mesmerising acts of rage ravish every stalk, leaf and animal in their wake, before raining black ash over the ground, forming a thick black and grey carpet.
The storm that had gripped Gallipoli was not so different, William thought. With all its beauty, there is a dark side to the moon. With each flash of light and thunderous boom and crackle of bursting shells and gunfire, the world was blackened by a torrential force of death. Tonight was no different to the one before it and the one before that.
As he scrambled along, making a zig zag path, the rough foliage of scrubby trees scratched his bare arms. He daren’t look down. The weight of his rifle slung over his shoulder, reminded him to keep focused. Finger on the trigger, he strained to see in the dark. His foot stumbled in a hole, jarring his torso forward. His spare hand steadied his balance on the branches of another prickly bush. He dare not speak as he led his party of men across the 1500 yards of wasteland between the two trench lines. The slightest sound could cost their lives. Then…a deafening roar hits his ears. Without thinking, he sprawled his body flat on the ground and looked around to see that his men have followed suit. Then it came, the force of a tornado, the soaring storm of shrapnel whizzing around above them, pushing bushes over as if hit by a hail storm. There’s a lull. Dust settled on their faces, in his eyes. No time to brush it off. Must move on.
Boots clod left, right, smashing the earth, rattling shrapnel and spent shells that litter the ground between the silent distorted forms in uniforms that cling to the stench of death. The men crouched down beside each lost soldier, in search of a familiar face, if there was a face left at all. Their friend Jack Hanly was out there somewhere. But where? Another staring face, void of life, name unknown. Carrying the weight of disappointment, the group moved on, following that zig zag path into the night.
Then crack, crack…crack, crack, crack of rifle fire was near. Bullets hit a tree with a loud bang. The ping of metal on rock rang out of the darkness. Several hit the ground around them sending gravel flying, hitting William in the face, causing it to sting, reeling him backwards from the force.
“Down!” William ordered his group. Once more, they sprawled flat on the ground, waiting for the firing to cease; for the air to clear of deadly debris. Then, they dragged themselves along the ground to a clump of bushes for cover.
“Let’s go back,” William whispered to his men, wiping the dirt from his eyes. “It is too risky. We don’t want any more deaths.”
“Righto Sir,” One young trooper whispers in reply.
Back in a dugout, William leaned against the earth wall looking up at the roof, roughly constructed of tree branches and iron, reinforced by sandbags and the bodies of the dead. The night was buzzing from passing bullets that soared back and forth ceaselessly, and filled with the smoky stench of an unburied graveyard. In places, the iron had been damaged, the sandbags have been obliterated and the remains of the dead oozed greasy liquid into the space. He closed his eyes in an attempt to sleep, but the noise and thudding of bombs exploding around him made that impossible. Each time his eyelids involuntarily dropped, they were forced open again as the dugout shook from an explosion. Instead, he tried to while away his momentary period of rest with memories of his friend Jack Hanly.
“I’ll never return,” ¹ He had said as he climbed up over the parapet, leading his group of 13 men towards the enemy trenches. He knew that his mission was doomed.
The “Twin Trenches” had been discovered empty earlier in the day by the 9th Battalion patrol. It was assumed that they were deserted. Jack was ordered to take a look and “If they are empty, keep going until you find some Turks.” ²
Nearing the trench, Jack ordered his men to charge. The Turks were waiting for them. Poor Jack was shot twice through the chest. Being under intense fire, his men, realizing that their commanding officer was dead, left his body and ran to safety.
“What a blunder,” William thought to himself. “Fourteen men against a trench full of Turks. It is a wonder anyone survived. It was murder.”³
William’s eyes finally succumbed to the weight of grief and fatigue. Once more, he was in the “jungle” watching the last labouring breath of a dying cane fire. Small animals fled from the charred paddock of blackened sticks of cane and lifeless thrash seeking survival. Their startled eyes wore the shock of leaving behind their dead family and friends who were caught in the fire.
1,2 & 3 – War Diary by J. Graham