This post is dedicated to the memory of my great great uncle Thomas Alexander Gillanders, who was killed in action one hundred years ago today, and to those who fought alongside him at Gallipoli.
Tom was a native of Inverness and the eldest of eleven children. He was a much-loved brother of my great-grandmother who fondly recalled the time he took her on a trip to Edinburgh when she was thirteen years old. He had recently spent some time working on a farm owned by cousins in Winnipeg but had returned announcing that he did not want to face another Canadian winter and had decided to try New Zealand. His father decided that the whole family would emigrate, as the other sons would likely follow Tom eventually anyway.
The family left for New Zealand in 1908 and in 1910 they bought land near Te Kuiti, in the Waikato, where they lived in tents while building a house and clearing land for a farm.
My great-grandmother was training to be a schoolteacher near Auckland when war was declared in August 1914 and soon after she heard that Tom had enlisted with the 16th Waikato Company, Auckland Battalion. The story passed down through my family is that at the age of 33 he had joined up to look out for the younger boys from the district. A number of others from Te Kuiti would serve alongside him at Gallipoli.
My great-grandmother enjoyed catching up with Tom while he was stationed in Auckland and later wrote down details of this precious time she spent with him.
“Tom came to Auckland with the 16th Waikato regiment stationed at what is now Epsom show grounds, before Greenlane Hospital was thought of. Tom would send telegram to me, “Meet me post office tonight”. We would go to tea in tea rooms, have a trip across ferry to Devonport and talk together.
One Saturday I went out to the camp and saw his tent and had cup of tea in it, then came the parade in Domain before embarkation. The day before I had my last telegram to meet him. We had tea together, then he swung himself on to back of tram after saying “Goodbye Kath, see you when I come back again”. Mrs. Hardy came with me to big parade, we stood near fence as soldiers marched past and Tom was looking sternly ahead, then suddenly turned his head and saw me and smiled, such a smile!”
Tom wrote a letter to his mother while the troop ship was anchored in the stream, waiting for the long voyage to begin. Carpenters and plumbers were frantically at work installing ventilators and electric fans, as well as framework for a giant awning over the exercise deck to shield the men from the worst of the heat in the tropics. The previous day Tom had been stabbed in the left side of his stomach with a needle to inoculate him against typhoid fever, the doctor breaking the needle in the process.
“The pilot has come aboard and we are getting ready to start – I have come below to finish this note. All the effects of the inoculation have worked off but I guess some of us will have had another kind of sickness before this time tomorrow but Mother I will now conclude with last love to everyone and remember me to the Waiteti neighbours. Au revoir and God bless you.”
The men were expecting to head for Europe but instead disembarked at Alexandria, Egypt. Tom wrote to his mother on 18 December 1914 from Heliopolis:
“Owing to the Turkish trouble we were landed at Alexandria instead of going home and our camp is about eight miles north of Cairo with which we are connected by rail and also tramcar about a mile from the camp.”
He also described his journey through the Suez Canal.
“We did not see much of the Suez Canal coming through as we came through at night but as it is all sand on both sides we did not miss much. The only thing of interest was in passing the camps of Indian troops who are stationed all along the canal to protect it from raids from the Turks and Arabs and there has been some slight skirmishing around about there. All the ships had search lights fitted on their bows going through the canal and that lit up the camps as we passed. All the troops turned out as we passed. At one camp a Pipe band turned out belonging to an Indian Batt. and they could play the Pipes as well as any Scotsman.”
Once in Egypt the New Zealanders set up camp and continued their training, this time in the desert. Tom wrote about how cold it was sometimes at night when sleeping rough during exercises and how his boots were struggling to hold together after so much training in the sand. He must’ve made a good impression on his superiors as while in Egypt he was promoted to Lance Corporal. Continue reading