Today I thought I’d share a postcard that has a particularly fascinating story. It was sent by a New Zealander who was fighting in the trenches at Gallipoli.
For my non-antipodean readers the Gallipoli campaign was this ill-fated Allied attempt to knock Turkey out of the First World War. There are others much more qualified than me who can explain the impact the campaign had on the national identities of Australia and New Zealand, or the military blunders that contributed to the defeat, but what I want to share is a short but previously unpublished snippet of what life was like for the average soldier.
As I’ve mentioned before in earlier posts, I’m a collector and over the years have accumulated thousands of documents, letters, photographs and assorted ephemera. I’ve found them in bookshops, antique stores, garage sales, unattended attics and even on internet auction sites.
Vintage postcards make up one of my favourite collections, but there is a twist – I don’t just collect them for the pictures but also for the messages on the back. It isn’t unusual for the most boring looking of cards to have the most fascinating story behind them. That is very much the case with this rather regular looking postcard of some ruins in Athens.
It was the back of the card that captured my attention.
The black postmark on the far right indicates that it was sent free of charge (no stamp) from the N.Z. Division Infantry Brigade Field Post Office on 22nd July 1915. The squared red mark tells us that the military censor has checked the message. (On some of the postcards in my collection the censor has blacked out portions of the message that may have contained sensitive military information). Above the red censor mark you can see in pencil the words “On Active Service”, but it is the header at the far left that leaves us with no doubt about the origin of the postcard, “Gallipoli 22/7/15”.
The message is written in faded pencil and I found it a little difficult to transcribe the aged scrawled handwriting. Tweaking the image helped a little.
It took a bit of deciphering and I’m still not sure that I’ve got it completely right but here is my best attempt at a transcription.
My Dear Sisters,
I’m very fortunate to get hold of this card, but even if I had plenty we can’t say much. I have been very lucky up too now only this morning I had a bullet went right through the top button of my tunics sleave and only grazed my chest. We have had 6 weeks in the trenches and we have just returned to the trenches after a four day holiday on the Isle of Imbross (?). I tried to get hold of young Raddcliff but in vain. All the boys seem fairly well and hope it will soon be all over. I would of given 5 bob to of seen Miss XXXX in my suit. I’ll assure you I often think of you all. I am sure you don’t forget me and my love to all of you. Alan
It is hard to not be at least a little bit moved by that scrawled message written in pencil on the back of a Greek postcard by a soldier in a trench in Gallipoli. The way he mentions the bullet grazing his chest makes me wonder how many horrors he must’ve seen for a close shave like that to only warrant a casual sentence. The difference between those who lived and those who died could be measured in inches.
One thing that interested me is the mention of having four days holiday on an island. I can’t make the name out clearly but my best guess is that it is a reference to the nearby Greek island of Imbros. It had medical facilities, a military headquarters and other facilities to support the forces at Gallipoli. I know that later in the campaign many weary soldiers were offered a brief respite from the fighting on another nearby Greek island called Lemnos. Perhaps soldiers were pulled from the line even in the early months of the campaign, perhaps they were chosen to go back to help load supplies, perhaps they were treated for minor injuries and then sent back.
It does solve one mystery that initially puzzled me – why a soldier from Gallipoli would be writing on a Greek postcard. The soldier mentions at the top of his message that he was “very fortunate to get hold of this card”, so it might be a fair presumption that stationary was in short supply. It would make sense that any soldiers visiting one of the nearby Greek islands might raid the local store for any supplies they could, including postcards to send messages home on. That is my best guess anyway.
I did try to figure out who the sender of this postcard was. It was sent to a Timaru address but I’ve been unable to figure out the surname. If anyone recognises it then please let me know. Often soldiers would include their service number with their messages but unfortunately there is no such number on this card. I did however find a soldier from Timaru who may be the “young Raddcliff” that he was unable to locate. Sadly if this is indeed the young boy he was referring to it seems that he was one of the147 New Zealanders thought to have been killed on April 25th 1915, the day of the landing. Another to lose his life that day was my great great Uncle.
I don’t know if the sender of the postcard survived the campaign, let alone the rest of the war. His brief message home only gives a very small insight into what it must have been like fighting on the slopes of Gallipoli. The message is short, a “status update” of sorts. I think that is why I find it so poignant. It strips away all the legend, all the textbooks and all the speeches at dawn parades. It is what it is – a short message from a young New Zealander who probably wasn’t that much different to any of us.
The reason I was motivated to share one of my postcards from Gallipoli is that the planning for the upcoming centenary commemorations has recently been in the media. Due to the number of people expected to want to attend on ANZAC Day in 2015 there is talk of having a ballot to limit numbers. I can understand their reasons.
There are a lot of plans being made for the centenary. You can visit the site to have your say on how the 2015 Gallipoli ballot should operate. Also check out this site on some of the other plans for other First World War centennial commemorations. Peter Jackson is among those on the committee.
I’ve made a few battlefield pilgrimages in the past but am yet to make it to Gallipoli. The one thing I can’t decide on is if it is better to go there for an ANZAC Day commemoration or to go there at a quieter time of the year. At the moment I’m leaning towards the latter, perhaps in the middle of the year which coincides with some of the key battles of the campaign.
Has anyone been there or have any advice on what time of year to go?
© Lemuel Lyes