First World War

Gallipoli: Tom’s Story

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.

Thomas Alexander Gillanders (8 April 1881 - 25 April 1915)

Thomas Alexander Gillanders (8 April 1881 – 25 April 1915)

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.

The Australians were of course in Egypt as well. In one letter Tom shared the following story about the occasion when an Australian Light Horse unit was mistakenly identified as New Zealanders:

“We had a great march through Cairo last week on the occasion of the new Sultans ascension and marched past the Commander in chief of Egypt. The NZ troops took an hour and a half to march past – particularly everyone was out on the march there were some Australians, about 3000 mounted and they (the Australians) were very sore over the comments of the leading English paper which said that included among the NZ regiments were the Queensland Light Horse and there has been several letters sent to the paper pointing out that Queensland is not in NZ. The Australians were too far from Cairo for them all to march through Cairo and they sent no infantry. We all marched very well and went all round Cairo through the native quarters and slums where the artillery and transport wagons had some manoeuvring to get through the narrow streets and corners. Our band was playing the Marselaisse going through the European quarter and you could pick out all the French people along the route. They came out and they started cheering as soon as they heard the band.”

Much is said about some instances during the Gallipoli campaign when New Zealanders were confused for Australians, so it is interesting to note that the confusion sometimes went the other way too. By the sounds of it they didn’t like it much either. The two ANZAC nations had a lot in common but they had their differences too. And still do.

When not out training in the sand Tom had the opportunity to soak up some of the sights in what must’ve been an exotic land compared to what he was used to. He particularly enjoyed the climate. I imagine it was significantly better than that winter in Winnipeg.

Tom had two days leave for Christmas, which he spent in Cairo where “things were fairly lively with all the troops loose there.” During one of his visits to Cairo Tom bought handmade silk and lace as gifts for his mother and sisters. While based in Egypt, Tom attended the Church of Scotland with a fellow Scotsman, Alex Patterson, who also lived near Te Kuiti. Sadly Alex would lose his life at Gallipoli.

On 4 April Tom sent a letter to the eldest of his sisters, describing in detail the aftermath of the infamous Good Friday riot, where some Australian and New Zealand troops went on a rampage through a district in Cairo; causing considerable damage. Tom passed by the still smouldering ruins the following morning on the way to attend a lesson in hand grenade throwing.

By now there were also rumours spreading through the camp; something big was coming up. Tom wrote to his eldest sister with details:

“The weather has been getting fairly hot lately but we will soon be out of it for good. We have orders to sail on Wednesday for a destination unknown but as we only have a two or three days sail we are not going very far. We have been told we will have to land on open beaches and will probably have to fight our way ashore so that things will be a bit lively soon. General Sir Ian Hamilton has come out from England to take over command of the expedition, which will consist of N.Z., Australian, Regular and Territorial Eng troops and Indians. Also French troops. There must be something big on before they would send out one of their best Generals to take command. We were paraded today in full marching orders to see that everyone was fully equipped for the field.”

He followed this letter with one last postcard home, letting his parents know that he was still alive and well. Before he left Egypt there was a special occasion for Tom; on 8 April he celebrated his 34th birthday. Two days later the Waikatos travelled by train to the wharf. Men from the Mounted Brigade gathered to cheer them as they left, some of them were envious as they felt they were going to miss out on the action, but their turn would come soon enough. Tom boarded the troop ship Lutzow, a German prize, and headed towards the Dardanelles.

Auckland Battalion landing at Gallipoli, Turkey, during World War I. Lawson, Alan Wallace 1893-1961 :Photograph album. Ref: PA1-o-1312-07-2. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Auckland Battalion landing at Gallipoli, Turkey, during World War I. Lawson, Alan Wallace 1893-1961 :Photograph album. Ref: PA1-o-1312-07-2. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

One hundred years ago today, just before dawn on 25 April 1915, the first of the Australians landed at ANZAC Cove, Gallipoli, and started to move inland. Later that morning Tom was among the first of the New Zealanders to head ashore, jumping out of the boats and wading the last of the way as Turkish shells exploded overhead. The New Zealanders were keen to put their training to good use and prove that they could do the job expected of them.

Scene at Anzac Cove, Gallipolli, Turkey. Gresson, Kenneth MacFarlane, 1891-1974 :Photographs of the Gallipoli campaign in Turkey during World War I, and photographs of ships in a bay. Ref: PAColl-3604-01. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Scene at Anzac Cove, Gallipolli, Turkey. Gresson, Kenneth MacFarlane, 1891-1974 :Photographs of the Gallipoli campaign in Turkey during World War I, and photographs of ships in a bay. Ref: PAColl-3604-01. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Our family is fortunate in that one of the best descriptions of the landing was written by Lieutenant Spencer Westmacott, who before the war had also been a farmer near Te Kuiti and not only knew Tom personally but also led him into battle at Gallipoli. His memoir mentions Tom several times and thanks to his incredibly moving and thorough account it is possible to trace Tom’s movements with remarkable detail.

Westmacott was ordered to reinforce the First Australians, who were already fighting the Turks high up on the slopes overlooking the beach. He led his men inland, up the steep cliffs and into Shrapnel Valley. “The shell fire was constant but light and too high overhead to do much harm. We kept halting frequently to let the rear come up. During one halt a shell did burst closer than usual overhead throwing some dust and twigs over us.”

Evidence of the Australian advance was to be seen along the way in the form of dead Turks, or the occasional injured Australian making his way back down the slopes. So far this had been Australia’s day and the Waikatos were keen to make it to the front line to get a share of the action.

They climbed higher into the hills.  The First Australians were somewhere in front but the Turks were also about and it was impossible to know what was over the next ridge. Westmacott needed volunteers to scout ahead. “”Now then”, I said to the nearest, “I want four men to go up to the ridge, find out who is up there and report back to me. Who is going?” Tom volunteered for the job but as he was a corporal in charge of a section he was kept back.

Four men went ahead and returned, reporting that the Australians were two or three hundred yards along so Westmacott led his men the crest of the hill and ordered them to file along a depression in the hill, facing forward and with their rifles at the ready.

“When they had numbered off and lain down I found I had 28 men. I divided them into two sections under Corporal Grant on the right and Gillanders (Tom) on the left.”

Another platoon of Waikato men under the command of Baddeley arrived and along with Westmacott’s men, including Tom, who was now leading a section of fourteen men, they advanced through the knee-high scrub in the direction of the First Australians on the slopes of Baby 700, a prominent hill and one of the key objectives of the landing.

As they advanced one man stumbled and fell, but then got back up again, he had tripped up on the body of a dead Turk. Westmacott recalled:

“The bullets were cracking round us now. We were getting it on the right, but there was nothing to indicate its direction. We could see no live enemy.

Steadily we moved on. Suddenly, from in front appeared an Australian officer running like a deer. “Hello! There you are! For God’s sake push on!” he shouted as he came. I signalled my men to “Halt – Lie down,” and the officer also stopped, panting. I sat down and he did too. It seemed no place to stand about. He sat there, beating the ground with his hand, his breath coming in great gasps. When he recovered a bit I said, “Now. What’s the matter?” “For God’s sake push on,” he replied. “They are getting Hell in front and I am going back for reinforcements.”

The two Waikato platoons pushed ahead, probing for the Australians on Baby 700. Westmacott briefly stood up in the scrub to see if he could see them and immediately came under heavy fire. A voice called out indicating that the Australian firing line was just ahead.

“I decided to go and signalled the men with an under arm wave to follow and looking to right and left long enough to see them rising to obey my order led the way down the slope. The fire was very heavy, terrific it seemed to me. I doubled less than 20 yards jumping over dead men, and tripping over a bush fell forward into what had been the firing line of the First Australian infantry. From the time we moved for this last rush we were met by such a hail of bullets I expected each moment to be our last.”

The First Australians were in poor shape, having suffered many casualties. The Waikatos joined them but were now also pinned down with fire coming from the front, the right and even the rear with snipers firing on anyone who showed himself. One by one the Waikatos were being cut down. Then through the scrub a soldier spotted Turks advancing on their position; Westmacott ordered his men to fix bayonets and open fire. By this stage the brave officer had been hit in the right arm so used his left hand to draw his revolver and take aim. Remarkably they held off this attack, but shortly after the order came to retreat. As what was left of the Waikatos started to pull back Westmacott was knocked down by another bullet. A sergeant went to his aid but Westmacott ordered him to leave him alone and to instead take command of the platoon. “I beg pardon sir”, said he, “It is no use talking like that but there is no platoon left.” He was right. The platoon had been decimated.

The following day the only surviving non-commissioned officer of the 16th Waikato was asked to find out how many of the 226 men from the company had survived. He could find only 34 men. Another 30 showed up the next day. The rest were wounded, missing or dead.

Remarkably, Westmacott made it back to the Lutzow alive. His war was over. It was while he lay there severely injured that he learned of the fate of his men from another survivor. This is how we know what happened to Tom.

Corporal Gillanders, modest and brave, was shot through the head while passing an order.”

We’ll probably never know exactly where he fell, be it in the final dash under heavy fire to reinforce the Australians, or while they were pinned down under sniper fire or maybe during the Turkish counterattack or during the final withdrawal. What we do know is that he was killed instantaneously and that he was left where he fell, somewhere on Baby 700.

Casualty form in Tom's Military Personnel File in Archive New Zealand

Casualty form in Tom’s Military Personnel File in Archive New Zealand

The tragic news took quite a while to reach his family in Te Kuiti. The postcard that he had sent prior to leaving for Gallipoli reached his parents on 25 May, exactly a month after the landing. They wrote to my great grandmother:

“We had a P.C. from Tom today posted on the 7th but that would before going to the Dardanelles. One of those printed ones you know saying he was well all other sorts of messages crossed out thankful to say, we only trust he is still the same poor boy. Although many a poor boy has fallen since this awful war started.”

In June my great-grandmother received a telegram from her parents telling her the sad news, followed by a heartbreaking letter:

“My dear children, we know how you should like to be with us at this trying time and how we should love to have you. What a blank in our lives poor Tom’s departure will make, but we have much to be thankful of in the first place for the long time we had him and how he was everything a son and brother could be, we can never have anything but happy memories of his life, and we must think of him as not dead but gone before.”

My great great grandfather was very aware that all around the world other families were also receiving equally tragic news about their own loved ones.

“Oh what a dreadful time it is, practically, all over the world, with its millions of saddened homes, and blighted homes and the worst of it is the end is not yet. But oh we pray that the end may not be far away, and that Our Heavenly Father would have mercy upon our poor travailing world.”

My great-grandmother took leave to spend time with her parents during this sad time. One hundred years on and Tom’s memory is still treasured by his extended family.

TAGillandersKIAFor the rest of the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign Baby 700 remained in Turkish control. During a ceasefire in May Turkish forces likely buried Tom where he lay. When a war graves recovery team visited the slopes of Baby 700 in 1919 they found a number of graves of unidentified Australians and New Zealanders. They also found this fragment of a collar, complete with a 16th Waikato Regiment badge. The motto reads ‘Ka Whawhai Tonu Ake Ake’ (we shall fight for ever and ever). It is held in the Australian War Memorial collections and a photograph of it recently appeared in ‘New Zealand and the First World War 1914-1919’.

Despite my great great grandfather’s prayers that the war would soon come to an end the conflict would last for another three years. The Gallipoli campaign had a devastating impact on New Zealand but the number of lives lost on the Western Front would be even higher. Two of Tom’s younger brothers saw active service later in the war. One was injured while fighting with the Mounted Rifles in the Middle East and the other was taken prisoner on the Western Front. While they were both extremely fortunate to return home alive it must’ve been a further stressful time for the family who had already suffered such a loss.

Tom’s name appears on the Lone Pine memorial at Gallipoli. His name is also on war memorials in Inverness and at Te Kuiti. Today the children of the brothers and sisters who loved him so much still honour his memory, as do his many great great nieces and nephews. Every ANZAC Day poppies are placed next to his portrait in remembrance of his sacrifice. Some family members have also visited Gallipoli to pay their respects. I haven’t personally had the opportunity to make the trip yet but when I do I hope to trace his footsteps the best that I can and visit Baby 700, the place where he followed Westmacott’s example and bravely led his men.

To learn more about the landing at Gallipoli from New Zealand’s perspective I highly recommend Christopher Pugsley’s must-read account in ‘Gallipoli – The New Zealand Story’. A revised edition was published for the centenary and is in stock now. I also recommend ‘Bloody Gallipoli’ by Richard Stowers and ‘Shattered Glory: The New Zealand Experience at Gallipoli and the Western Front’ by Matthew Wright. Westmacott’s firsthand description of the day is essential reading for anyone wanting insights into the fate of the 16th Waikatos on the day of the landing. ‘April 25, 1915 ‘The most glorious day of my life’, a book based on Westmacott’s memoir and edited by Christopher Tobin, is currently available. All of the above were referred to while researching Tom’s story, as well as the Official History of the Auckland Regiment, New Zealand and the First World War 1914 – 1919, Tom’s military records at Archives NZ and copies of family correspondence and memoirs.

Westmacott was also recently chosen by Weta Workshop as one of the eight subjects included in Te Papa’s ‘Gallipoli: The Scale of Our War’ exhibition. A giant sculpture of him immortalizes the moment when after losing the use of his right arm he used his left hand to raise his revolver and fight off the advancing Turks. I know I’ll find it particularly moving to visit this exhibition knowing that Westmacott was with Tom on Baby 700.

If any fellow descendents of the Gillanders family are reading this and have more information, or would like copies of the letters and records that my side of the family have, or would simply like to correspond with me then I’d love to hear from you.  You can message me by using the contact function at the top of this page. I’d also like to hear from anyone else who has an interest in the story of the Waikatos role during the Gallipoli landing, especially anyone who may have other accounts of what happened that day.

© Lemuel Lyes

19 replies »

  1. Great touching story of your family history. I’m guessing Westmacott is the same who lost a limb and later became a farmer, but has had attention recently for his artistic efforts as well.

  2. Hi Lem – thanks for sharing such a poignant family story. It must have been very hard indeed for them – perhaps harder than ever admitted. I believe the impact of Gallipoli, socially, was given added dimension here by the scale of the losses sustained during that campaign. Something unexpected and certainly unwanted, but which had to be borne by New Zealand families with a stoic acceptance of the reality of it, hard though that truth was.

    And thank you for the very kind shout-out!

    • Thanks for stopping by! Yes, I suspect that there was a lot going on behind the stoic appearance. At home as well as on the battlefield.

      It must have been a big shock when the first casualty lists were published. Especially for communities that were hit particularly hard.

  3. Thankyou Lemuel. Got this through the Gillanders page. Shall keep it. Appreciate your efforts for us all Sue Perry (nee Duncanson. MY Grandma was Isobel (Lal) Kath’s sister and of course Tom’s sister

    • Thank you! Westmacott’s account is so detailed and gripping, without it the story of the landing wouldn’t be nearly as personal. The full account is compelling, I’m just lucky that my great great uncle’s story was intertwined with Westmacott’s, as sadly while we have some of my uncle’s letters from beforehand we’ll obviously never read the story of the landing in his own words.

      My great great uncle’s accounts of the preparations for the campaign are an important record to preserve as well though.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  4. This is a really excellent article about a catastrophic episode in an even more catastrophic war. It has always seemed to me, as an Englishman, that to involve other countries from other continents, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India and the USA, to name just a few, in a European war, was basically dishonest and extremely cynical. That does not mean, though, that we should forget the sacrifice of any of these young men, and you have done an excellent job here in ensuring that that does not happen.

    • Thanks for stopping by. It was certainly a catastrophe, both the Gallipoli campaign and the war as a whole.

      At the time many people in New Zealand saw England as the mother country, so once the countdown to war was triggered it was inevitable that countries throughout the British Empire would become involved. The biggest fear that some of the young men had was that it would all be over by the time they got there. Most were surprised when they disembarked at Egypt instead of continuing on to “home”, or “the mother country”.

      It does seem particularly sad that the web of alliances and treaties that split the world in two resulted in young men from faraway countries, many of which had previously had no grievances, all of a sudden find themselves in a life and death struggle such as that at Gallipoli.

  5. Wow Lemuel, what a treat to read your story of Tom and the landing. My great uncle was also in Westmacotts platoon and knew Spencer and probably Tom in Tekuiti where he lived and signed up .Our boy was John , or Jack , Gregers Petersen, he was a lance corpral too. Jack led the little patrol into nomans land that you refer too and Westmacott recals him .Jack, who was only 18 died that day too , probably close to Tom and has no known grave.
    By researching Australian accounts of the battle I have found where on Baby 700 our boys fought and died that afternoon , Westmacotts diary has been a great help too.
    Our extended family , like yours , treasure the memory of our brave boy . So special to read of your very similar experience thank you , paul .

    • Hi Paul, thank you very much for stopping by. I recall reading about your great uncle in Westmacott’s account. I think you are right – he likely would’ve known both Westmacott and Tom in Te Kuiti at the start of the war, if not before. I don’t think I mentioned in my article, but Westmacott signed Tom’s enlistment form, I wonder if he signed your great uncle’s enlistment form as well?

      I’d love to hear more about your great uncle, and the information you’ve uncovered. I’ll send you an email.

      How fantastic to hear from someone like yourself who has traveled a similar experience, trying to piece together exactly what happened that day to those brave boys from the Waikato.

      Kind Regards,


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