Bush Matters Op-Ed – “Lest We Forget Our Bush ANZACs”

17 April 2015

The past doesn’t pass away so quickly at Gallipoli.

The thousands of tombstones, erected strong and silent, stand as a permanent monument to the misery and waste of war.

This ghostly, forsaken Gallipoli shore is Holy ground for Australians and New Zealanders.

Streams of our people arrive to follow in the footsteps of long-fallen soldiers whose deaths have given birth to a mythology that has not left our national consciousness in the century since.

We will again see many of these images next week as Australia marks 100 years since our nation entered the ‘war to end all wars’ in a reign of blood, death and fire.

No commemoration of the Anzac Day landings should be undertaken without acknowledgement of the first casualties.

There were 620 Australians who perished on 25 April 1915.

In the early days of the battle, the British Army had no official register to which these battlefield burials could be formally reported with a name and the location of the grave.

Soldiers were buried on the battlefields in individual or communal graves by their comrades.

The dead were sometimes buried where they fell, or in a burial ground near the battlefield.

A simple cross or marker might be put up to mark the location and give brief details of the individuals who had died.

The dead were often buried at midnight with the priest’s voice drowned out by the cracking of bullets whooshing overhead.

Otherwise, those who reached the hospital ship and who died of their wounds were buried at sea.

Gallipoli was Australia’s baptism of fire into the Great War.

“And we won’t be back till it’s over, over there,” was the popular chant of our men as they downed tools at their farms, workshops and factories and headed for basic military training in Australia and Egypt.

Many found they could quickly settle into the army because of their lifetime’s experience shooting a rifle and riding a horse.

These were blokes who were comfortable living with a swag, a kit bag and a bit of bush know-how.

But the cruel reality of war is that some men would only survive for a handful of hours when thrust into battle.

Of the 620 Australians who perished on 25 April, 488 have no known grave.

Among them was the 27-year-old West Australian named Arthur Walton, who simply put ‘bushman’ as his occupation on his enlistment papers.

He was among the first to perish as our troops fought the soldiers of the Ottoman Army, up on the ridges, well beyond the beaches on 25 April 1915.

There was 22-year-old Edward Pennell who worked alongside his brother as a stable hand at Northam, Western Australia, and would have been a familiar face at the Northam Race days, which remain a centrepiece of the town to this day.

There was 21-year-old Kalgoorlie mine labourer Percy Williams who was shot in the stomach soon after the landing and was transported to the hospital ship Gascon where he died in agony before being buried at sea.

As Percy lay dying on the hospital ship, his brother, John, was on his way to Gallipoli as a member of the 5th reinforcements of the 16th Battalion. It’s thought that by the time John waded ashore at Anzac Cove, he already knew his brother was dead.

John Williams, who had worked at a sawmill at the gold-mining town of Gwalia, north of Kalgoorlie, before enlisting a few months after his brother, would survive the evacuation of Gallipoli at wintertime before being killed in action on the Western Front in August 1916.

The parents’ heartbreak of losing both their sons was further compounded by the fact that neither man has a gravesite. The body of John Williams has also never been recovered.

There were other young men who had previously travelled to Australia in search of a better life, such as Scottish farm hand Alex McPhail, 25, and Manchester farm hand, David Palmer, 24, before deciding to enlist.

These men all had the potential to make greater contributions to the future of rural Australia. But fate intervened and now Gallipoli is their final resting place.

It is firmly entrenched in our national story that the first landings went horribly wrong – 1.6km downstream from the intended landing sight, forcing the ANZACs to scale seemingly impenetrable cliff-like terrain that Turkish machine guns turned into a death trap.

It is also sometimes forgotten that, amid the carnage of the disastrous landings, the Anzac divisions requested to be evacuated almost immediately.

The request was denied, with the order for our troops to dig in. This decision would doom many more thousands to die on those shores.

It was also amid this tragic backdrop that the Gallipoli mythology was born.

The resolute and unswerving attitude of those Australians who stuck to their commitment to serve despite British command incompetence, impenetrable terrain and unrelenting death remains a solemn inspiration.

The white tombstones and memorials littering Anzac cove will stand tall once more this April as we gather to commemorate our fallen.

Their bodies are buried in peace; but their name liveth for evermore.