On those quieter autumn nights in 1915, a young South Australian, Herbert Keith Furguson, would find a little time to be alone, climbing to a high, protected spot, to forget for a moment the hell around him and enjoy the simple beauty of the sun going down.
He told about it in a wonderfully eloquent letter to someone back home: “Since leaving Australia I have seen many sights, some glorious and beautiful, some squalid in Egypt, and some here I wish to forget.”
Here being Gallipoli.
Furguson was a private in C Company of the 28th Battalion of the AIF and as he scribbled those words he was on Russell’s Top, a key, bullet-crossed high point in the failing battle for the peninsula. Sunrises there were just a colouring of the sky, hidden behind the impassable ridges, he wrote.
The rattle of murder
“But the sunsets I have seen I haven’t the power to paint a word-picture good enough to describe. They are beyond description; magnificent: To use an Australianism, ‘It has me beat’. I have stood whilst stationed at our highest and furthest point inland, 40 yards from the Turks, and watched the glories of a Mediterranean sunset in front and heard the rattle of murder behind.
“Therein lies the difference between nature and human nature. I am not alone in this. We watch, we wonder, we smile, then we pick up the rifle and have another shot.”
Over recent years, I have researched the battles and battalions of the First World War for a series of books charting the journeys of individual Australian soldiers. In between the dry unit diaries and the dense official histories is a treasure of first-person reportage, recorded in letters home, passed on and published in the Anzacs’ local newspapers.
Many are written with the same sort of poetry, power and perception – and often, heartbreaking honesty – as Furguson’s lovely letter. These farmers’ sons, clerks, teachers and navvies sent home unvarnished truths – and sometimes, you have to suspect, outright reassuring lies – about how they and
their mates lived and fought and died on Gallipoli, in the desert and in the mud and blood of the Western Front.
The great war poet Wilfred Owen – killed one week before the war’s end – said: “My subject is war and the pity of war.” That pity seeps through so many of these letters, such as Light Horse Trooper Hamlin Carrol’s rumination on the future from Egypt in 1916: “I suppose we must expect big casualty lists from now on – for in peace children bury their parents and in war parents bury their children.”
You have to wonder what those in Australia – and particularly the authorities – thought when the Adelaide Advertiser ran this, from Private Arthur Tame on Gallipoli: “People do not know what this war is like: it is next to hell”. Or this in the Maitland Daily Mercury from Private Nugget Bell of the 20th Battalion near Armentieres, following an artillery barrage in 1916: “I don’t call it war, I call it scientific murder.”
The writers – and editors – spared their readers none of the horror. Edwin Floody, a wounded 6th Battalion private, wrote back about what he experienced while delivering “tear producers” (letters from home) at Gallipoli: “The moans and groans, the entreating cries of some to be released from their agony, the dreadfully mutilated bodies of the hopelessly wounded, and the corpses of those who have given their all for their country’s cause, all contribute to the ghastly pageant of bloody butchery – the thing that you at home call war.”
Then there was the stench of the dead lying everywhere, he added. “It is like a stage scene, with the dull crimson setting of blood.”