Tuesday 28 April 2015

Sapper Smith's Gallipoli diary

Last weekend marked 100 years since the start of the First World War’s tragic Gallipoli land offensive, aimed at securing the strategic peninsula in the Dardanelles - the vital sea route to what was then the Russian Empire. It was the first combined naval-army operation in history, but both offensives were effectively repelled by Turkish forces. After eight gruelling months, Allied forces had to be withdrawn to Egypt. This was a serious defeat with significant political and military repercussions, and an estimated over 60,000 men from Britain, France, Australia and New Zealand killed and possibly 87,000 from Turkey, as well as huge numbers dying from disease.

My grandfather, Alfred Smith, a naturally quiet and peaceful young man, was among those who served at Gallipoli. Having worked in the local post office in Malton, Yorkshire, before the war, Alf had chosen to enlist with the Signals Division of the Royal Engineers, serving his country by laying the insulated telephone cables that would enable rapid military communications, and as a signaller himself.

My grandfather, Alfred Smith's 1915 war diary
Alf's war-time diaries start on 14 April 1915 when he left Biggleswade to join the ship that would transport him across the Bay of Biscay; ‘sick’ he scribbled in pencil. He then continued to the African coast, ‘Boxing contest aboard ship’; and past Malta to Alexandria in Egypt. From there he was sent to Imbros, now Gökçeada, the largest Turkish island in the Aegean, just across from Gallipoli, where he watched the ‘checking of Dardenelles by warships’. His diaries are never effusive, at most four short lines a day, with more space given to notes on signal flags and so on, but they provide a fascinating glimpse into his months at Gallipoli.

Because of its strategic location, Imbros had been retained by the Ottoman Empire in 1913 when the other Aegean islands were ceded to Greece. However the island remained under Greek administration. The first Allied attack on the Dardanelles had been launched in February 1915, followed by more sustained action a month later. During the battle, according to an account by the Ottoman General Staff, ‘all telephone wires were cut, all communications with the forts were interrupted’, but the enemy forces rallied and the British fleet was forced back, giving a huge morale boost to the Ottomans. Over the following month Allied ground forces assembled in Greece and Egypt, tasked with eliminating the Ottoman artillery so that Allied minesweepers could clear the way for the larger vessels to return. The Royal Engineers were also sent in to lay communication lines. However, a month’s delay allowed the enemy to prepare effective defences. The land campaign was launched in late April, with appallingly heavy casualties on both sides from the start.

Alfred's diary, April-May 1915
It was now that Alf’s ship arrived in the area. Although his was not an active combat role, he would soon find himself serving under fire. In early May, still onboard ship, he noted the ‘heavy bombardments’, and reported watching ‘severe fighting all morning’ on shore. Nevertheless, whenever there was a lull in the fighting and he was not sending cables, Alf managed to swim from the ship or listen to piano on deck. They docked on 19 May, and for the first few weeks Alf’s diary is filled with the heavy work of laying cables, as well as cleaning rifles, blue skies, desert winds, and ‘rumours of pay’.

The battles continued through the spring, and by mid-June Alf was noting ‘heavy bombardments’ again, and on 1 July, ‘shells falling all day… near our dug out. One, just behind, killed two men and eight horses’. Later that week he witnessed a troopship torpedoed and sunk in five minutes, and after that there is little let up in the bombing. ‘Turks using incendiary shells’ he wrote on 22 July, ‘which fired gorse on left flank’. Alf chose not to dwell on the horrors he must have witnessed, although he recorded when one friend was killed while bathing, and others were killed or wounded during the shelling of the signals camp. A few lines later he noted that ‘fresh fruit is obtainable’. Small pleasures had become remarkable.

In August Alf was sent to Suvla Bay on the mainland peninsular, five miles north of the Anzac sector, as part of the final British attempt to break the deadlock of the Battle of Gallipoli. Fortunately, he was in the second landing. Had he been in the first, his chances of survival would have been slim as wave after wave of men were shot down as they disembarked. The land there even today is full of bones and spent bullets among the broken seashells. With no picture of the wider battle strategy, Alf's diary comments only on the action nearby, the courage of the Australians, casualties among his signals staff colleagues as they worked to repair and extend communications, and the consolation provided by their meagre pay, mostly spent on cigarettes.

Alf's Royal Engineers cigarette case
The failure of the August Offensive finally showed the Allied leadership that the Gallipoli campaign could not be saved, but the knowledge was slow to effect change on the ground. Alf was still there when autumn brought relief from the heat, but gales presented new problems. He was now tormented by ‘dust and wind’ and often ‘terribly cold’ at night, even after second blankets had been issued. The dugouts flooded when the rains arrived, and a friend died from hyperthermia during one freezing period.

From late September through to December Alf was busy filling in old dugouts and digging in new foundations, helping to mend roads, make mortar and lay bricks as they shifted camp, as well as spending long days laying new cables. He must have been extremely fit. Perhaps it was a relief to work hard physically, although he was saddened to have to destroy ‘an old Turkish house, rather fine old place which has had very fine gardens’. His humanity shows in such details. He used his rare days off to inspect a downed aeroplane, explore the local town, help some fishermen to haul in their nets, and bring back sour oranges picked from roadside trees.

Alfred Smith, front right, and friends from
the Royal Engineers Signal Corps,
Imbros, November 1915.
A black and white photo shows Alf and five sun-tanned pals in front of their heavy canvas tents back on Imbros in late November, all in shirt-sleeves and army trousers, one wearing a Fez, and each with a pipe or cigarette clamped into their mouths. The British Cabinet confirmed the military decision to evacuate in early December. Alf was finally shipped out to Egypt, heading for the ‘Cleopatra Camp’, two days after Christmas. ‘Not a bad ship,’ he wrote, if ‘somewhat crowded’. He would spend the rest of the war laying cables and sending signals from Egypt and Palestine.

Alf had a hard war, losing many friends and, while in Egypt, contracting the malaria that would plague him for the rest of his life. However he was fortunate to have been accepted into the Royal Engineers and, unlike so many, to survive both the Gallipoli campaign and the rest of the conflict. His greatest achievement, he said, was to have done his duty without having had to kill anyone. In 1919 he returned to work for the Post Office, moved to London, married his sweetheart, and in 1930 became father to my mother. Like many, he rarely spoke about his experiences or elaborated on his diaries – but he did not destroy them either.

Alfred Smith's war medals: The 1915-18 Star,
The British War Medal 1914-1918, and the Victory Medal.
Along with a few possessions, photos and some letters, I have Alf’s service medals. Still kept in the small cardboard box in which they were posted to him are his British War Medal 1914-1918, and his 1914-15 Star, stamped on the reverse to ‘Spr; A, Smith.’ – a more modest name you could hardly imagine. He also received the beautiful golden Victory Medal with a great winged angel on the front, and on the reverse the inscription ‘The Great War for Civilisation 1914-1919’. This was never threaded onto its fine rainbow-striped ribbon, and it is clear that Alf did not choose to wear it. Indeed I wonder how much any of his medals saw the light of day; my mother says she never saw them during his lifetime. Perhaps as these were fairly standard medals he did not seem himself as a hero, or perhaps he could not share his nation's official sanction of the conflict, having witnessed slaughter on such a scale to so little end at Gallopoli.

Back of Alf's Imbros, 1915 framed photograph
Alf's 1915 photograph, however, of himself and his mates from the Royal Engineers, who all courageously served during the Gallipoli campaign, was carefully dated, annotated with their names and home towns on the back, and framed with a hook to be hung on a wall. The photo is yellowed from exposure to the light, and was clearly highly prized. Alf died when I was a child and I never spoke to him about his war-time experiences, however I think this says much about how my gentle, very decent grandfather chose to remember his war.

I would be very interested to know if any readers have inherited similar papers, photographs or possessions?

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  1. That is such a good find and I think that the diary had some really important stuff written in it. Hope it gets returned to his family becuase they will love to have it.

    1. It is my grandfather’s diary, safely with his family. I’m glad you enjoyed the blog post.

  2. Hello Clare, perhaps you may know of IBCC, but I am sure they will be extremely interested.Best Wishes, Lesley

    1. Hello, it is not a Bomber Command story, but as you suggest it I will email them, thank you.

    2. Thanks Lesley. This is WW1 as opposed to WW2, which is our focus but these kind of documents on Bomber Command are exactly what we are looking for. We have preserved over 220,000 items like this so far but there are a great many more out there. We need to preserve them before it is too late! Nicky Barr, IBCC

    3. Very important that all such documents should be preserved, ideally with their families with good copies in public archives. All best with your work Nicky Barr.

  3. Being able to flesh out family history in this way with artefacts, but most poignantly a diary, is a wonderful thing. I was intrigues to see the figure of Mercury on the cigarette case (which is the emblem of the Royal Signals), and discovered that it wasn't formed until 1920 - and previously was part of the Royal Engineers.

    My mother's father served in the Army Service Corps (which received it's Royal prefix post WW1). She has his two medals (14-19 WM and VM); both ribbons have creases and pin marks showing they were worn. She only has one photograph of him in uniform. We had a lightbulb moment when we realised he has these two ribbons on his tunic; an accompanying photo of a camp was marked "DOLOY" and some detective work identified this as the Duke of York's Own Yeomanry. I was able to establish that he'd enlisted as a Territorial in 1924 and served for four years. I also got copies of his territorial service records (his WW1 records were destroyed, as so many others, in the Blitz). It was an emotional moment when I showed them to my mother. He'd died when she was 7 and she'd never seen his signature before.

    1. What excellent detective work, and how wonderful that you managed to unravel some of his story for your mother. What a moment - to see his signature for the first time. I imagine he would have been so pleased at this emotional connection with the woman his daughter had become. Apologies for replying so late - I have only just seen your comment.