I set off in a pinnace towing two ammunition lighters, and headed for the River Clyde, an old collier that had been turned into a sort of ferry-boat for troops, to carry them from troopship to shore. Great open spaces had been cut in her side at her between-decks, and lower down platforms and runs had been built that men might rush from her quickly when landing under accurate fire. Encased machine-guns stood on her forecastle that she might, when desirable, give the Turks fire for fire. She had now been beached, purposely, as near shore as had been found practicable. From her to the shore ran a rough bridge of boats, lighters, and miscellaneous small craft across which the men had to crawl and slide to the shore. This bridge had been built at a terrible cost, with a disregard of death as glorious as anything in the history of war. When the River Clyde was beached twenty-five launches packed with men slipped ahead of her, and the men in them – knowing perfectly the nature and the extent of their danger – began to make the required bridge, getting small boats into position and securely moored, working from the River Clyde to the beach. Soon after she grounded, the Turks opened fire on the heroic little bridge of boats, finished half-way or more to the shore, bombarding it from the ruined castle of Sedd-el-Bahr, from the higher town, and from the splendidly fortified and magnificently manned and munitioned hill that stretched across the bay, aiming at a target that even poor marksmen could not have missed and these were good marksmen.
The waiting troops on the big ship were more protected, for the River Clyde was fortified too, and had many contrivances of defence, but the little boats were naked and helpless. The Turks are computed to have sent from five to twelve thousand shots a minute into that devoted band of men. Not one man flinched. But most of them died. As a boatload perished, men rushed down the gangway of the Clyde and carried on. A man who lived ten minutes under that Turkish fire seemed to have a charmed life. Most dropped within four minutes. But before they dropped they worked – ah, how they worked while they yet lived. Each did his small vital bit ; and when he lurched bleeding into his sea-grave, a comrade, newly come, snatched up his job until he too died, to be succeeded by yet another British soldier.
The men waiting on the collier, silent for the most part, but some swearing, fought among themselves to be the next to go. The toll was hideous, but the object for which the men died was fulfilled. The bridge was completed, and the Turks could not prevent it. A Turkish officer, our prisoner later, swore by Allah that it was the finest thing he ever saw, and ten times braver than he would have credited any man.
It was over this blood-cemented bridge that Lieutenant-Colonel Doughty-Wylie had led his men, to storm, through indescribable difficulties, the ruins of Sedd-el-Bahr. And it was over it that I now went, as cautiously as possible, leaving my pinnace beside the River Clyde, and scrambling as best I could from boat to boat. The moon had risen by this time, and the beastly evidences of the relentless conflict were thick about; you could not fail to see them clearly, and they looked all the ghastlier in the theatrical limelight of the moon. The heroism of the troops who built that bridge of boats, in daylight, under tremendous, hellish fire, must have been superlative. It beggars all words, and I will attempt none. But we thought of them, and our thoughts were eloquent. For we found it no small thing to pick our way, at our own pace, the Turks temporarily inactive, over those swaying, bobbing craft. To go over them in full marching order must have been a difficult feat in itself, let alone building the way as they went, doing it under shot and shell raining down at the rate of ten thousand shots a minute.
On reaching the beach, I clambered over the lighters to see where the ammunition was to be dumped first, and began to slip and slide all over the place. I bent down to examine the wood on which I was skidding, and I saw – well, it wasn’t water that was making me slide about It was something thicker than water.
On the shore I found a very tired-looking assistant-beachmaster. He seemed ‘all in’, but he directed me alertly enough where to go and what to do. Nothing in all my brief but vigorous soldiering has impressed me more than the miraculous way in which men who look completely finished can and do go on, not only doggedly (that one expects, of course, until they drop), but vigorously and alertly. I remarked to the assistant -beachmaster, ‘You seem to have had a pretty thick time’. He answered not a word. He only looked at me. It was enough. i shall remember that look while I live. There were words, and more than words, in his eyes. They seemed to say, ‘I’d far rather suffer the tortures of the damned than go through that again’. I turned and went away quietly, rather sheepishly, I suspect, back over the lighters to my pinnace to give the necessary orders, thinking hard the while. One does a good deal of vivid thinking in one’s first days of actual warfare. As time goes on one’s senses get blunted for the time being ; but it all comes back sharply enough afterwards. It is Providence, I take it, that steps in and does the temporary blunting; otherwise mortal men could not carry on.Beautiful prints made from vintage illustrations and artworks
Commanding the pinnace was a midshipman of His Majesty’s Navy, a ‘snotty’. I think these boys – you can call them nothing else are the bravest of all Britain’s brave. Certainly they are second to none. Among all the branches of our services that I have worked with, I have never seen quite their match. Yet for the most part they are downy-faced lads. soft-skinned, warm from home and mothering. An Eton school captain told me once that he could always pick out the ‘mother’s boys’ from any footer team, because they always gave and took the hardest kicks. And his remark often came back to me at Gallipoli. This particular boy had been at it for over seventy-two hours without a moments rest. Impossible? Of Course it was, but he had done it. ‘In the lexicon of youth’, you know; and the Dardanelles campaign was an endless chain of impossibilities done – and done well. He had done it, and there was no look of ‘all in’ in his face. Merry as a cricket, he took charge of me at once. It is no exaggeration to say that he mothered me. Each time the Turks woke up a bit, he coaxed or commanded me to take cover behind the netting of sandbags which served the pinnace for earthworks, but never once would he take cover himself. It never occurred to him to do so, and when it was suggested he only laughed, and went on working and whistling. He was greatly annoyed because one of his pals had had the luck to got pinked, just a scratch somewhere – wrist, think – and could brag he had been wounded. ‘Lucky beggar!’
I admit being a trifle excited at having at last put my foot on the enemy’s soil, and any number of things, no immediate part of ‘my job,’ escaped me. After finishing giving instructions for unloading, I noticed for the first time a continual spattering in the water beside me, not many feet away, and it dawned on me that it was bullets, a rain of bullets from the machine-guns and the rifles of the enemy on the cliff above. I was safe enough in the pinnace at the moment, for we were under the lee of the River Clyde, and the bullets were going over us. But they made an uncanny sound, and again I did a little thinking. It was all right enough on the pinnace, but our work there would be over presently, and it was all very wrong indeed going across the lighters to the beach. However, I was favoured with beginner’s luck, and had no one hit.
Tommy is a wonderful creature! When we were on the beach my chief difficulty was to get the men to hurry up with the job, as every one of them desired to have a look round. They are full of curiosity ; far more curious than children, but very like children. New places drive them crazy, if they are not allowed to investigate. I had to tell them repeatedly that the war was waiting, but the Turks were not, before I could get them really to knuckle down. Not once but fifty times have I seen Tommy down arms, go up to, and gaze curiously at, a comrade whom any one from a distance of twenty yards could see had made the supreme sacrifice,’ then turn round, come slowly back, and in a surprised tone of voice say to a pal, ‘Say, mate, that un ‘s gone West’. Then the mate would give over his work, go and have a long look, come slowly back, and say, ‘So he has, Bill’. Esprit de corps! Tommy ‘s esprit de corps.
Soon after we had reached the beach I lost a man for quite a time. When at last he reappeared I ‘strafed’ him roundly, but his reply was too much for me. He replied, ‘I’m sorry, sir ; but I just wanted to see what was going on at the top of the bank’. And I had thought him killed!
About three o ‘clock (still A.M.) a French regiment began to disembark just beside us. They were wonderfully quiet, almost noiseless. But they looked to me – not a little like fully dressed Christmas-trees. They seemed to have every conceivable object slung and tied on their backs.
It was not much after four when I got back to the ship, feeling quite pleased with myself.
I had done my first bit.