Thursday, 20 February 2014
Heavenly Cairo to Hellish Gallipoli
In the summer of 1915 Pum was posted to Gallipoli, travelling on a small troop-transport so packed with men of a Lancashire Regiment that there was no room to sit down except for those who dangled their legs over the sides. They landed at Suvla Bay one grey dawn and were confronted by a low inhospitable beach hedged with sparse scrub and evergreen oak. Beyond that was a vast circle of shell-pitted trench-defences filled with the living, the injured, and the dead. Pum was attached to a field ambulance here in the midst of ‘the hell of war’ […]
From April 1915 to January 1916, nearly half a million Allied soldiers landed on the peninsula and clung to it: British, French, Australian, New Zealand and Indian troops fought there, and of these the British Empire alone lost 205,000, killed, wounded, missing or evacuated sick. They lacked military technology, logistics, weaponry and tactics; they had no chance against the Turks who were well dug in and well armed […]
Pum lived and worked in a dense cloud of flies in his badly made dug-out on a conspicuous hillock above Suvla Bay. With the field ambulance and in dressing stations up and down the endless labyrinth of trenches, he was constantly exposed to enemy strafing, hand grenades, and snipers hiding among the rocks and stunted trees as he attempted to treat and stretcher out mortally wounded young men […]
Yet occasionally, and with a terrible contradiction, Pum felt his spirits lift when he heard nightingales singing in the early morning, or watched the fine, tough, young Antipodean troops. They seemed to him to be different creatures to the dejected ‘raw’ Irish and North Country men, and to have come to Gallipoli as much for the sport and adventure of it all as for any other reason. They were tanned, strong, and loose-limbed and they were cavalier with discipline, a quality that enraged some British officers - but not Pum, he was full of admiration for them. Scores of these young men stripped naked and sunned themselves or played about in the breakers beneath the cliffs that sloped down from the battle-front. The Turks knew this was their habit and occasionally lobbed over a shell or two, but the New Zealand and Australian ‘boys were adept at anticipating and dodging the fire and, though there were a few casualties, they refused to give up their games’.
[…] Back in Cairo, he wrote a poem, ‘Weep, Weep!’, about the appalling ‘loss of young life, of youth, almost boyhood, for many young soldiers were still in their teens’:
Weep, weep, the unborn for the unborn,
And generations not to be for generations dead,
The ungot yield of many a youthful loin
The seed unscattered and unharvested.