Friday, 21 August 2015

"In the Trenches" ~ Gunner Frederick King's letter home

23 year old Driver Frederick Lucas King enlisted as a member of the 7th Battery.  Transported to Egypt on board the A22 Rangatira, Driver King was soon promoted to Gunner, before deployment to the Gallipoli peninsula with the other 'originals.'  Attached to the telephone staff of the 3rd Field Artillery Brigade on landing, Gunner King aided in construction of the communication wires between the Brigade's Batteries & Headquarters.  On the 8th July, Fred King suffered a less than dignified wounding, his dossier documenting the incident as, "Gunshot wound in Penis and Scrotum slight."  Transferred off the peninsula to hospital in Cairo, Gunner King wrote an amazing letter to his father back in Australia dated the 21st August 1915, documenting the 7th Battery's landing at Gallipoli on the 26th April 1915, & the events of the first few weeks of the Campaign - this letter was published in The Telegraph, in two parts, on the 13th & 14th of September 1915:

Gunner F. O. King (attached to the telephone staff, Australian Field Artillery), who was wounded, writes to his father, Mr. W. Myers King, from Ghezireh Palace Hospital, Cairo, Egypt, on 21st August, 1915, as follows :-

Since coming into hospital, I have had no mail at all, and I can tell you I miss it. Of course, it has all gone on to Gaba Tepe, and has to be forwarded on to me here, and goodness only knows when I will get any.

It is now nearly four weeks since I was wounded, and practically I am all right again, and expect to be sent out of hospital in a week or so. Time has passed very quickly, although there is little to do but sleep and eat and read, and one can't read all day. It's too hot during the day to go outside the building, and altogether when one becomes convalescent, it is quite difficult to put in the time.

There is very little news I can give you this week — each day is just the same as its forerunner, so I will start and write up the notes I took during the first month on the peninsula. A lot of it will be stale reading for you, but you might find something of interest in some of the little details in our experience, which will be fresh to you, and my own impressions of my first experience of war. First, I will say something about our entry into Lemnos. What a sight it must have been to the people of Lemnos to see a fleet such as ours was, anchored in their quiet and pretty harbour. There were ships of all size — Cunard liners (huge floating barracks now) — mail boats, huge cargo boats, tramps, battleships (including the giant Queen Elizabeth), cruisers, and destroyers. There were at least 35 Australian transports, about a dozen British transports, four naval division transports, several Indian, and about a dozen French transports, and the greater part of the fleet of battleships and destroyers. Everywhere you looked there were ships, and all of them huge ships, too. It was a wonderful sight. We stayed in Mudros Bay (Lemnos) for 10 days. The weather was glorious and it seemed good to live, although we were chafing a little at the delay. I kept my position right at the stern of the ship, and lived on dates, figs, nuts, and fruit, bought from the natives of the place. Everything was very   cheap, and the people — mostly Greeks — were very clean and polite.

On the third day a party of us went ashore in the ship's boats, and had a delightful stroll on shore. We went along such a pretty country road, through fields of young oats, and the wild flowers — they were beautiful — I picked about 10 or 12 different varieties, daisies, buttercups, blue bells, and heaps, I cannot name. The fields were quite white with daisies and yellow with buttercups, and the flowers grew right up to the edge of the hard road. One of the most noticeable features about the island is that, though so rich in cultivation, there are practically no trees, not even up on the hills. Our path led us round behind a range of low hills, with wind mills on top of it. We went up and inspected one of these mills. They are very primitive, just two big stones revolving against each other, worked by the wind. We went inside and climbed up the rough stone stairs, and saw the wheat being ground into flour. After walking about a mile we came to the prettiest little old world village imaginable — just a narrow straggling street ascending in some places by steps — flanked by stone walled red-tiled cottages, the place was so clean and fresh. In front of one cottage, with trim clean little window curtains, sat a toothless old dame, spinning cotton in the good old style. We watched her for some time, and were astounded at the speed and skill with which she twisted the loose cotton in yarn. Just as we were passing on, the kids all came out of school. Such fresh-faced, clean kiddies, dressed just like Australian school kids, and such a welcome change after seeing nothing but noisy, dirty Arab kids for so long. You should have seen them pull up short in their noisy play as they rushed out of school, when they saw us. Fingers went into mouths, and little tots hid behind their elder brothers and sisters. They soon got over their surprise, however, and gradually ran off to their respective homes laughing and playing. They seemed such happy, unspoiled kids.

The water supply for the village is got from wells, which are right in the main street, and the openings are covered up with big flat, round stones. 

On the way back to the boats I gathered a big armful of greenstuff for my dear old gee, and did he not rush it when I gave it to him. I was so wild I forgot to take my camera with me, so lost some interesting photos.

Every day we used to enjoy a swim off     the ship. We hung a rope ladder over the stern, and got in an out from that. The water was beautiful, clean, and quite fresh enough to chase you out after about five minutes' swim.

Anyone wanting a complete rest cure, would find Lemnos an ideal spot for it under normal circumstances. Everything is so quiet and peaceful, no trains, no omnibuses, no motor cars, very few  carts even, everything is carried on donkeys and mules. No one hurries, no one seems to work hard, everyone seems happy and contented, and the place is beautiful. We left Lemnos, after endless false alarms, on Saturday, 24th April, drawing out from the harbour about 4 p.m., and anchoring outside, and leaving about midnight. At daybreak on Sunday morning we could hear the dull boom of the big guns and we began to realise that at last we had come to face the great unknown, and might expect anything to happen. I can't just say what my feelings were. I was dreading the first shot, yet somehow felt I should not worry very much when it did come. I was not afraid or nervous, more curious, I think, than anything. 

As we drew nearer we could make out the battleships, see the flash of their guns, and hear them thundering away. At last we anchored about a mile and a half from the shore, and quite near one of the battleships. We could now see the shells bursting on shore, and were told, by a destroyer which came alongside with orders, that our boys had done so gloriously. We gave them three hearty cheers and waited as patiently as we could for the order to go ashore. With telescope we could see our chaps onshore climbing up the hills to reinforce, and entrenching themselves on the top of the hill.

I was on the bridge nearly all day, and could see a good deal of what was going on with the ships telescope. About 10 a.m. we got our christening. I may have told you about this before, but in case I have not — well, here goes. Our ship was a very high one, and had a big yellow funnel. The Turks on Shanack Fort must have seen it in a gap between the hills, and opened fire. At first they fell a lot short, and we did not think they were firing at us, and were laughing at each shot as it fell harmlessly into the water. Presently, we heard a whoo-o-o-op-flop, and a shell had gone right over us, and fell about 300 yards away. Then they put them in in pairs. They went so near that the spray from some of them splashed the sides of the ship, and a little destroyer just near us had one so close, that we thought she had got it. It must have missed by inches as the little boat rocked and quivered with the jar of the explosion as the shell struck the water.

Shall I ever forget that Sunday? I think not. The shells were all being fired at long range, and the whoo-oo-oo whoop as they passed overhead and struck the water was most unnerving. I ducked — for the first few — I simply could not help it, but after a while got control of myself sufficiently to pretend not to notice them. I will swear though that one missed the bridge by a few feet only. We waited all morning for an order to get ashore. We could see the beach crowded with reinforcements and wounded — could see the Turks' shells bursting along the ridge held by our boys, and watch the awful effect of our naval guns pouring shells into the Turks' position. Of course, we up anchored and cleared away out of range when the shells came so unpleasantly close to us, and took up a position right close to the Queen. After dinner we got all ready to load the pontoons, and I was on the bridge waiting for an order to come from the Queen for us to go ashore. About 3 o'clock started one of the heaviest bombardments from the battleships that had taken place since the commencement of operations in the Dardanelles. The Queen — so close to us that we could see the guns moving as they were trained — was firing broadsides of four six-inchers, and the reports were deafening; the bridge structure shook with the concussion. The Majestic, Queen, Triumph, Bacchante, Queen Elizabeth, London, and one or two other ships were going as hard as they could, and we could see the shells bursting on lines amongst the Turks. The shooting was superb, and I almost felt sorry for the Turks. But the din was awful. 

Boatloads of wounded were coming off, and as they passed up, they cheered, and we cheered back. They had won the day, even though some had paid dearly for it, so they were happy. About 4 p.m. the order came to load the pontoons. It was done in double quick time, and we were all ready to start, when word came that it would be useless to land artillery, as there was no chance of getting guns up to the firing line until roads had been constructed. Twenty men — Corporal Hare amongst them — went ashore to help to make roads, and we all came aboard again. 

Sunday night was the worst night I think I ever put in. I was due for bridge duty at 1 a.m., but got very little sleep before then, as I was sleeping on deck, and it rained, and I got sopping wet. At 1.15 a.m., an order came through that made our hearts go right down below zero. We were to lower all boats, man them, and be on the alert to send them ashore with all speed, should such an order come through. Evidently things were serious.

The rifle fire on shore was very heavy, and practically continuous, and you can imagine how we felt, watching up there in the rain and cold for an order we dreaded — an order which could only mean a retirement. Thank God, it never came. Few realised how near a thing it was that night. Our men, after the first dash, had to put in the whole of Sunday under a fire from rifle and shrapnel that must have been cruel, and then, when night fell — officers practically all gone — units all mixed up, a dirty, dark, wet drizzle, nerves anyhow, dead tired, and with the Turks attacking again and again, in great numbers — I wonder how our chaps hung on. There was only a thin single line in some places, just a dozen or so plucky, determined fellows, to keep back hundreds of Turks, and the trenches were very inadequate in some places, just a hollow in the ground. It speaks well for the initiative of the Australian soldier that, without officers, he hung on to a position like that. Then, the poor beggar had to go on through Monday, Monday night, and some of them till Tuesday night, and even Wednesday morning, before they got a spell. Imagine all that time, from Sunday morning to Tuesday night — no sleep, no rest, dry biscuits and bully beef only to eat and keyed up to a pitch enough to drive a man crazy.

On Monday morning, about 7 a.m., we landed. I felt a trifle nervous, but soon got over that when I was following the major up the hill to where our guns were to be placed. They had cut a bit of a zig-zag road up on to an open place that had once been an oat field, and surrounding this field was a semi-circle of hills, on which our men were entrenching. We had to get our guns on to those hills, and as quickly as possible, too. I was laden with telephone gear, etc., and you can imagine what the hills were like when I tell you that the river bank at Corinda is about as steep, only not nearly as high. It took 100 men to drag one of our guns up to the top, and we were all day over getting two up. By 8 p.m. on Monday we had two guns stuck right up in the open in the infantry trenches, and were giving the Turks a good dose of what they so liberally gave our men on Sunday. The Turks attacked in force on Monday night, and those two guns fired point blank shrapnel into them, and simply mowed them down. By morning the other two guns were in position, and the 7th battery was the first complete Australian battery of artillery ever to go into action, and the first battery of 18-pounder field guns ever put right up in the first line of infantry trenches. The infantry were glad to see us. They told us that those four guns barking away on Monday night and Tuesday was the best music they had over heard.

Each gun was worked independently, so no telephones were required. I was therefore a spare man, and put in my time carrying ammunition up to the guns or helping carry wounded down to the dressing station on the bench. I found that quite warm enough for me, as bullets were spitting up the dust all over the place, and you were safe nowhere. Snipers are very bad, and one had to be terribly careful when at the gun, as to show your head above the shield meant a regular shower of bullets. The snipers were hidden in the bushes too, even inside our lines. Three or four of our chaps were hit during the first few days, and we had some narrow escapes. Gunner Price, while looking through a pair of field-glasses had them shattered in front of his face by a bullet, receiving only a slight scratch on his forehead.

The situation near our gun, had it not been so serious, might have been humorous. There were men from all units scattered all along the line. We had men of the 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th, and 8th Battalions around as, and few officers to look after them and sort them out. The result was that in many cases a man did not know his next door neighbour, and as spies were known to be in our midst, and many Turks still inside our lines lying hidden and sniping during the day, everyone was inclined to look askance at anyone he did not know, who passed an order on to him, or who might, unconsciously, be doing something that might be misconstrued. At night a man could not go a dozen paces, without being challenged and questioned as to who he was, and taken to some of his unit and identified. There were no monkey tricks then. It was answer promptly and truthfully — or ten inches of cold steel between your ribs. We could not afford to run risks. Our colonel was marched up to our gun one night by a determined looking infantryman, who made the colonel keep his hands right up above his head all the time until he was recognised. Several spies were caught hanging round the trenches, passing on bogus orders, etc. It was just a case of: 'Who are you? Where from? What ship did you come across in?' If the answers were not satisfactory, it was a case of shoot him on the spot. We could not spare men to guard him, and there was no officers to hold courts martial. It was a time for a man to keep his nerve, and look after himself.

On Wednesday we connected all four guns by telephone, and I was put on No. 4 gun. The phones worked splendidly, although they had had a lot of knocking about, and we were afraid they might give trouble.

We were right up on the extreme right flank, and since getting our guns into action the Turks had left us severely alone, and we had quite a peaceful time since about Wednesday morning. On Friday the 9th battery men, whose guns had not yet been placed in position, relieved us, after putting in five days and nights, during which time we got very little sleep but gave the Turks such a splendid example of how straight and how hard an 18-pounder can hit, that we hardly ever saw a Turk in front of our lines during the last few days. Bombardier Taylor was on the gun on Tuesday and he saw about two dozen Turks coming over a ridge 950 yards in front of us. He landed a shell right in amongst them and about half of them went under — the other half ran behind a clump of bushes for cover. Taylor simply swung the gun round and put a percussion shell right into them. We saw two Turks point skywards, and three others run for their lives and flop down behind another bush. Quick as thought Taylor laid the gun on that bush, and blew it away, and we saw no Turks more thereafter.

On being relieved we moved down the hill a bit and made ourselves as comfortable as one could wish, in the sides of a deep gully running down to the sea. We would just scoop a shallow cave out of the face of the hill, put a few bushes across the opening, and a safe and comfortable dugout was the result. We had four days' spell here doing nothing except eat, sleep, and swim. We got heaps to eat, and did most of our own cooking. It was so quiet — the surroundings so pretty and peaceful, that it was for all the world like a camping-out holiday. The weather was glorious, bathing fine, and altogether we were very happy. 

Every morning and evening the Turks would give us a little fireworks display with their artillery. They only fired about 20 shots at a time, and these all fell harmlessly in the sea. They would always open about meal time, and we got quite to expect them. Evidently they had no trained artillery men, as they were simply wasting ammunition. On the second day after being relieved, the 9th Battery men managed to catch a battery going into action and smash them up. 

On our right flank is a headland on which Fort Gaba-Tepe is situated. The navy settled the fort, but for some time it had been suspected that the enemy had an observation station there, and on Sunday morning, 2nd May, a party of the 11th Battalion, 120 strong, went ashore under cover from the destroyers to clear the place out. They found it a veritable nest of Turks — the whole headland was honeycombed with tunnels and bristling with machine guns. They had to retire, leaving 10 dead and bringing 30 wounded with them. (The man in the cot next me was one of the party.) While the retirement was going on, we saw some fine shooting, both from our own guns, and from the battleships.

One of the pluckiest things I have seen was done after this little engagement. About four of our men were seen to have been left behind, and in face of what must have been a very heavy fire, a sailor rowed ashore in one of the destroyers boats and brought them off. Later on, another two were noticed and once more the plucky beggar put ashore for them. We cheered him heartily from where we were, although, of course, he could not hear us.

At 4 p.m. on Monday, 3rd May, we resumed our places at our guns, to allow the 9th Battery to have a spell. On Tuesday evening we got a bit of a start and rather a narrow escape into the bargain. Without any warning, a Turkish gun opened on our gun with surprising accuracy, and burst a shell right over us. The gun was spattered all over with shrapnel, and Bob Anderson got one in the back. How the rest of us escaped, I don't know. We were all standing round the gun, talking and laughing, and the pellets fell all round us. We took cover at once, and then they gave us a peppering for about half an hour, doing no further damage. However, but landing some of them rather too close to be comfortable. After a while our No. 1 gun located the culprit, and we had the satisfaction of seeing it put out of action.

About a week after the foregoing incident we took our gun down from its exposed position in the firing line, and placed it so as to cover the headland of Gaba Tepe. For over a week no target appeared, and we had a real old loaf. Everything was wonderfully quiet, especially during the day, and at times an hour or two might pass without hearing a single shot. At night, usually the firing would break out in spasms sounding for all the world like a huge bush fire crackling away, and should the Turks attack at all, they are met with a fearful fire from our trenches, sounding like a continuous roar from some angry monster.

About the middle of May, the Turks evidently got artillery reinforcements and German gunners, because all of a sudden one day they opened fire on our position, with a 6-inch gun battery concealed behind a low ridge about 5,000 yards away. They made good shooting of it, landing shells right in our trenches, and doing a fair amount of damage. No. 2 gun had two spokes blown out of one wheel, and the shield damaged. Poor Captain Leslie was killed, and a couple of our gunners wounded. They also got onto the headquarters on the beach, and did some damage there. We tried to dig them out, but so well were they concealed, that we could not see if our shells were taking effect. Even up to the time of my leaving Gaba Tepe, those guns were still having it all their own way, although we can now drive the gunners off for awhile, but as soon as we stop firing, they come back and start their deadly business again. Those guns have accounted for hundreds of casualties. 

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