Monday Musings From The Writer’s Desk

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When I sat down to write my next instalment of William Lyons’ story, I discovered that I needed to set myself some time to research.  On my plotting map, my next post was take a leap in time to Christmas 1916 as I had little information of the months in between.  I made the assumption that he had spent three months in the London General Hospital prior to being sent back to Egypt.  However, as I have discovered during my genealogical journey, that one must never make assumptions.  It took only one word to prompt me to do a google search and well, to my surprise, it came up with a treasure trove of information.

On Will’s war records, it states that he reported to “Weymouth” in November 1915.  I assumed that Weymouth was the site of a military base.  When I searched, I discovered that it was so much more.  Three camps were established at Weymouth, on the Dorset coast, for the recuperation of wounded or sick men once they were discharged from hospital.  These camps were designed to take the overflow from hospitals that could not cope with sheer numbers that were streaming in from Gallipoli, and later from the Western Front.

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Weymouth, a popular seaside resort town at the outbreak of war, was chosen for the establishment of three such camps for Australian and New Zealand troops.  During the years 1915 to 1919, over 120,000 men passed through the town, and in the warmer months, the esplanade was usually crowded with Anzac soldiers in wheelchairs being assisted by their able-bodied comrades.  According to marriage records, more than 50 soldiers met and married local girls.  Meanwhile, eighty-six who died from their injuries were buried in the local graveyards.  Even a number of roads close to the camps were named after Australian cities and states.

The first camp established in the area was Monte Video, situated at the village of Chickerell, some two miles from Weymouth.  Then in November 1915, a second camp of “Westham” was established on the outskirts of Weymouth.  This is most likely where Will recuperated prior to returning to Egypt in January 1916. The reason I think that he was at “Westham”, is simply a matter of maths and timing.  The amount of men returning to the front was far outnumbered by the number still residing at the camp.  “Westham” was established to accommodate the growing influx of new “residents”.

Amazingly, my search has uncovered a treasure of information contained in letters written by veterans and local residents of Weymouth.  I found myself immersed in the daily lives of those diggers who spent time in the camps.  Aside from the daily duties of camp life, I discovered that these men had access to a small onsite Picture Palace; a barber shop; refreshments provided by the YMCA and the Salvation Army; and a good motor service to transport them to town.  Week-end leave was also granted upon application and many took advantage of this to visit London.

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Taken in Weymouth.

 

By searching that one word, I have managed to uncover so much about how my Great Grandfather spent the months of November and December 1915.  From the words of others, I can imagine what he did and saw with his eyes.  He loved to dance and watch movies, so there is every chance that he participated in those activities, health permitting.  He too, would have walked along the boardwalk of Weymouth, savouring the chilly sea air, comforted by the knowledge that there were no snipers watching him from the surrounding hills.

I am so grateful that I thought to google that one little word.  The results, although still relying on a great deal of imagination to bring events to life, will be more accurate than my previous assumptions.

 

 

 

Monday Musings From the Writer’s Desk

 

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This morning I would like to share with you this Christmas card issued in 1915 to the Anzacs who served at Gallipoli.

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The messages conveyed to the Anzacs by General Birdwood and General Hamilton could not be more different.  I can imagine the lofty words of General Hamilton would have been met by grimace from some veterans, as he seems so removed from reality.

“MAY I, out of a full heart be permitted to say how gloriously the Australian and New Zealand Contingents have upheld the fine traditions of our race.”

However, upon some research I have discovered something of the man who commanded the Anzac forces in the Dardanelles.  General William Birdwood, or “Birdie” to his friends, was the father of the Anzacs, in that he approved of the title of “Anzacs” in reference to the Australian and New Zealand forces.  Despite his rank, he liked to appear to be one of the boys.

Unlike General Hamilton who resided at Lemnos, well away from the dangers of the conflict, General Birdwood’s headquarters was located in the hills behind Anzac Cove and was open to Turkish Shelling.  According to Charles Bean, “many a man lost his life within a stone’s throw of the place”.  The imminent dangers, however, did not deter the General as he was often seen walking around the Anzac’s position and along trenches on the ridges.  He also frequented the beach for a swim most days, placing himself in harm’s way alongside his men.

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Lieutenant General Sir William Birdwood swimming at Anzac Cove, May 1915. [AWM G00401

Charles Bean summed him up as:

“Above all, he possessed the quality which went straight to the heart of Australians, of extreme personal courage.”¹

The General’s words on the front of the card are very telling of his character:

“Good cheer boys, from all old comrades in the firing line.  Return soon and we’ll see this through together.”

He identified with the common man.  He was there in the thick of it with his men.  He knew of their struggles first hand.  He earned their respect by walking in their bloody shoes and put his life on the line with them.

 

References:

  1. “The Story of Anzac, Vol.1”, by Charles Bean.  P. 121

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leaving that Hell Called Gallipoli

 

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Photo:  Courtesy of Anzac_22nd_battalion.com

 

Will Lyons watched the shoreline fade into the distance as he enjoyed the breezy albeit crowded open deck of the hospital ship “Scotian” as it cruised toward Malta. For the first time in four months he was able to relax, although it would take some practice.  After-all, he had spent the duration of his service at Gallipoli with very little sleep and his nerves alert, awaiting the unexpected, or for death to come crashing through the door.  How can one just turn it off like a tap? 

He was one of the lucky ones, or was he?  Given the choices were to be wounded, to be ill or death, what would be the preferred fate?  Although the finality of death would be a deterrent in normal circumstances, death at Gallipoli was surely a relief to some.  As the weeks grew into months, morale decreased as victory appeared unattainable.  It was a conflict that would have tested the most religious of men.  William’s faith would have been tested on an hourly basis.  How could one believe in a God who allows the daily mass destruction of human beings?  For the men on the peninsula, their existence seemed futile.

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Evacuation of wounded from Anzac Cove. http://cas.awm.gov.au/item/C02679

 

 

Whatever test was set for mankind in 1915, failure rippled like dominoes across the entire hierarchy of military organizers. The Generals in charge anticipated a swift victory in the Dardanelles.  Apparently confidence was so strong that the initial soldiers sent to Gallipoli were issued local currency to use when they reached Constantinople.  However, no such victory was achieved and due to bad organization, victory at Gallipoli was purely based on wishful thinking and myth.

The possibility of a capable opponent was greatly underestimated, along with local knowledge of the landscape.  Being totally unprepared for the sheer number of those wounded in the first few days of the conflict, resulted in a shortage of boats to transport the wounded out to hospital ships.  Many wounds were left without adequate treatment for days which in turn resulted in infections.  Once again, in August similar problems occurred following the high number of casualties from the fighting at Lone Pine, The Nek and Hill 971.

Burying the dead also created a problem because of the layout of the land.  Our men were burrowed into the cliff face, facing the enemy above and the sea behind.  The constant angry clashes between the opposing sides provided little opportunity to bury the dead.  Rotting corpses in the trenches, above the parapet and in the space between the two trench lines added to the misery of living conditions.  Summer’s heat exacerbated the stench with in turn brought plagues of flies and disease. Apparently, the months of May and August were the only two months when numbers evacuated due to wounds was greater than from illness.

Will’s home for four months was a breeding ground for disease.  Adding to the inhuman conditions, the food issued to soldiers was grossly inadequate for men whose mental and physical endurance were tested day and night for months.  The rations of hard biscuits, tinned bully beef, jam and cheese were only meant to be consumed for short periods, not seven months.  With the lack of fresh food, a shortage of water, lack of bathing facilities and primitive sanitation, it was no surprise that thousands succumbed to disease.

In the end, disease may not have been Will’s choice, but it certainly was his saviour; it was his ticket to leave that hell called Gallipoli. Following a week in Malta, he departed on 17th September 1915 aboard the HS Cransbrook for England.  His home for the next three months was the London General Hospital.  He would never return to the Dardanelles again.

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Monday Musings From The Writer’s Desk

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21st May 1915 – 10th September 1915

The dash between the above dates represents the time that my Great Grandfather William Lyons spent at Gallipoli  It was less than four months, so why was it such a significant period in his long life of eighty-two years?   Why did I react the way I did when I discovered the words “Anzac Cove” on his war records?

I have spent a considerably longer period of time researching my Great Grandfather’s experiences encapsulated by that tiny stroke of a pen or impression of a typewriter key.  For the last 14 years I have been questioning his various grandchildren and reading between the lines of the various pieces of memorabilia that might light up that window of his life. One might even question my Great Grandfather’s wish to keep seemingly insignificant memorabilia from events that occurred decades prior to his death.  I realize now how significant those items are, although they never paint the entire picture.

One thing is for certain.  Gallipoli will never fade away in our history books whilst the landing at Anzac Cove is memorialized on 25th April each year.  Those who lived and struggled there, have all gone, but their dash will never disappear.  It remains indelibly written on their records, immortalizing events that affected thousands of men.  It stands for endurance, mateship, pain, cruelty, futility, illness and the list goes on.  It also represents hope in the face of hopelessness. Many survived against the odds.

For some, the dash was shorter than for others.  For many young soldiers who climbed into the waters off Anzac Cove on the wings of adventure, their dash was awaiting them in a hale storm of flying bullets.  William Lyons, however, was destined to carry the burden of his dash for another forty years.

He carried that burden silently, without fuss.  He attended Anzac Day Ceremonies each year, but rarely spoke of his experiences, other than harmless conversation about ‘maggots in the food’.  Until I began to research my Great Grandfather’s life,  that short dash that represents his Gallipoli experience had long become overshadowed by the dash that stretched over his eighty-two years of life.  Perhaps it was a time capsule he preferred to keep buried along with the painful memories it contained.

In writing about my Great Grandfather’s dash, I try to treat him with the respect that he deserved. I can only go on what I read and none of the diaries and books that are available paint a pretty picture.  In placing him in certain scenes, I am writing a universal story that might fit any man who existed in that “bastard of a place”.  I try to imagine the moral questions that consumed their thoughts.  The questions of “grieving for dead mates”, “guilt at surviving when one’s mates have not”, or “leaving one’s mates behind to continue the fight”, surely would have been at the forefront of a soldier’s thoughts. Yes, the dash between the dates on a soldier’s records represents so much more than a period in time.

Lest We Forget.

 

 

 

Will Leaves Gallipoli

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The extra layer of his overcoat made little difference to Will as the September morning clung to the remnants of a cold night.  Laying on the sandy shore of Anzac Cove awaiting his evacuation, his teeth chattered and his body shuddered with spasmodic surges of pain. Through his feverish haze, he noted the bodies crowding every inch of beach space around him; either ill or wounded, they awaited the arrival of a launch to ferry them out to an awaiting Hospital Ship.  As his eyelids fell involuntarily, he listened to the droning voices and groans that muffled the echoes of rifle shots ringing out of the hills above.  Although, nothing could completely drown out that ceaseless deadly chatter between the two warring sides.

Each morning in the trenches of Chatham’s Post, he has listened to the roll calls and the weary responses.  Each pause brought a growing sense of anticipation, a thin thread of hope that a voice from somewhere might break the silence.  Wide eyes stared out of blackened faces, yearning for a gasp, a whisper, any sort of claim to a name.  When none came, the officer continued down his list until he tripped over another name of a poor sod whose life has been snapped away prematurely.   Each day the list was shorter.  When only 40 out of 500 names were accounted for, a heavy cloud of depression engulfed those left to continue the daily fight.  Death had entwined its insidious arms so tightly around their existence that when a comrade’s life was lost no-one had time to mourn or reflect.  That was a luxury not afforded to men who knew only too well that they might be next.

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Will reopened his eyes and glanced out beyond the sea of khaki to the community of boats and ships that bobbed up and down on the pristine aqua waves of the Mediterranean. 

“Who will ever believe,” He wondered aloud, mesmerized by the scene before his eyes.

Another man sitting on the sand next to him answered, “No-one will, will they?  That is the greatest tragedy of all.”

The Crack, crack, crack of rifle fire echoed across the clear blue sky, announcing the possible loss of more lives in the hills that have been his home for five months.  As much as he was glad to be leaving, Will grieved for those who would stay behind.  A niggling stab of guilt cut into his thoughts knowing the possibilities of the days and the months ahead.  More of the same old drudgery, in order to simply survive. 

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Drifting in and out of sleep, his reality blurred into delirium.  Jack Hanly stood motionless, smiling.  Standing to attention he lifted his hand to his forehead, forming a salute.  “Don’t turn back Will.  Just don’t turn back.” He said before disappearing.

Will lifted his head off the supporting sand bag to speak, but his words whirred around in the torrid of thoughts that muddled his brain, unable to escape.  He searched out across the jumble of reclining figures on the sand, and  through the moving forms of stretchers and bearers, carrying more injured and sick.  Poor Jack had gone.  He was just one of many friends who will never leave the Peninsula.  For them there will be no fanfare on their homecoming, only a pink telegram laced with tears. 

“Lieutenant William Lyons!”

Will  managed to slowly raise his hand to claim his name.  At last, it was his turn to leave this hell, although he knew that the inviting blue waters of the bay may be luring him to his own demise.   There were no guarantees that he would not be a target for a Turkish sniper. 

Crack, Crack…Crack., Crack, Crack…..followed by several loud booms crashed across the sky like angry thunder.

 “It sounds like business as usual!” Will noted to himself, as the distant argument became more  intense.

Glancing up, Will’s eyes clouded over as they mirrored the meanderings of smoke rise out of the honeycomed cliff face. 

“I agree with Ion Idriess,” He whispered, recalling the words of his fellow light horseman.

Of all the bastards of places, this is the greatest bastard of all!”¹

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Photographs: All photos are from William Lyons’ personal collection.

References:

  1. The Desert Column, by Ion Idriess.

Monday Musings From The Writer’s Desk

writing

As we cross the threshold into a new year, through the flashing blaze of new year resolutions, my thoughts go back to the beginning of 1916.  If I asked my Great Grandmother what resolutions she aspired to, upon the dawning of the new year, I am sure the list would not include any of the frivolous and selfish items that form a modern woman’s wishlist.  She would not have given a thought to improving her exercise regime or diet.  Nor would she have spared a thought for more “me” time or redoing the household budget.  In fact, she would have considered the question of resolutions, quite ridiculous and a waste of precious time.  Spare time was a scarce commodity for Cis Lyons.

Having said that, I wish I could travel back to January 1916 and ask her anyway.  I can only imagine her replies.  First and foremost, I know she would wish for the safe homecoming of her husband who was away fighting a war.  I imagine  she would not have wanted to dwell too much on the subject and the possible outcomes.  She would not want to think about the possibilities such as William being permanently maimed or worse still, paying the ultimate price.

My Great Grandmother was not a praying woman, however, if the drought of 1915 continued well into 1916, I think she would have fell onto her knees in desperation.  The sugar crops of the Burdekin district were reduced by 100000 tons due the severity of the drought and the situation was further exacerbated by rising costs due to the war.  The only crops that survived were those under irrigation and only two out of three of the Burdekin Mills crushed that year.

According to her daughter in law, Vivienne Lyons,

‘Unlike most women, Harriet never did have the luxury of keeping the home fires burning while the men toiled in the fields.  Instead, she was on one end of a saw while young Tom Hourigan was on the other.  Her four boys each had their own hoe. Even four year old Billy had a miniature version.  Her father, rather than being a help while Will was away at war, was forever “borrowing” Tom to help him on one of his own projects.  Harriet would often set Tom up on a job only to come back hours later to find him missing.’ ¹ 

Considering the many hardships that Cis endured during the war years, she may have hoped for more kindness and consideration from her father.

Whilst running a farm almost singlehandedly, Cis Lyons had little spare time to ponder her life during those trying years 1915 to 1918.  She had no time to consider resolutions when there were too many pressing tasks calling for her attention.  With a farm to run, she had fields to plow, seeds to plant and crops to water.  She also had a household to run, chickens to tend to, cows to milk, wood to cut and children to care for.  She was spared the luxury of shopping centres and supermarkets that pander to every possible whim and desire.  Her life was almost totally void of mechanization to assist in her daily life.  She had no choice other than to put her best foot forward.

Cis would also have hoped that Will’s letters continued to arrive from abroad. I imagine that each sulky ride down the lane to the Minehan General Store and Post Office filled her with feelings of both quiet excitement and apprehension.  Whilst Will’s letters kept coming, she knew there was hope.  However, there was always the lingering fear that a pink telegram, the bearer of bad news, awaited her.

Lastly, I’m sure that if Cis Lyons did secretly harbour any resolutions at the beginning of each new year, the most pressing wish would be that the war will soon end and upon her husband’s return, her life would return to normal.

References

  1. Information provided by Jenny Saxby.