Gallipoli – In his own words

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the start of the land campaign on the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey. The need for an ice free port in Russia prompted the Allied Forces to focus Gallipolimap2on the Dardanelles. A failed attempt to take the straits with naval power resulted in plans to secure the straits from land. The campaign lasted from 25 April 1915 to 9 January 1916 and ended in a failure that ultimately claimed more than a hundred thousand lives.

My grandfather spent almost two months in Gallipoli as part of the only North American unit to serve in the region. Lance Corporal James Ryan had to lie about his age to join the Newfoundland Regiment and Gallipoli was his first experience in combat. 

Lance-corporal James Ryan

Lance-corporal James Ryan

When he returned from the war in 1917, he wrote of his experiences and they were published in the Colonial Commerce Magazine*.

These are excerpts from his time in Turkey:

The little coaster Prince Abbas cast anchor in the Bay of Suvla at midnight on Sept. 19th, and transferred her human cargo to lighters that were waiting close by. Pulling into a rude pier we tramped noiselessly up the beach and prepared to sleep in holes dug near the rocks. Four miles in front of us rifles and machine guns were firing at intervals. When morning came a fine large bogey would have been more than welcome. Turkish observation officers found and “eye full” when they looked our way that morning and they did not spare the shrapnel either.

ANZAC troops dug in on the seaward slopes of Steele's Post

ANZAC troops dug in on the seaward slopes of Steele’s Post

The first was a “dud,” having failed to explode; but it sent a Hindus donkey flying over the road minus its load of empty water cans. We suffered about twenty casualties before being shifted from this position.

— Dysentry and enteric fever, so prevalent in other Regiments, soon made inroads on our boys. Many of them died at duty’s post by the hands of Turkish sharpshooters, but still more from those terrible diseases that made Gallipoli the hell it was. Water was scarce, the flies were plentiful and the heat intense; the nights were chilly and long. We had plenty of food, but the flies gave us little satisfaction in the eating of it; nevertheless, behind the lines, telling stories and singing songs soon helped to make the time pass and to look on the bright side of everything.

Trench Periscope

Trench Periscope

–When the sun rose and restored the circulation to our chilled and cramped forms the snipers started their activities, and we had to lie low and use the periscope. LeMessurier spotted three of the enemy gazing towards our lines, so he picked the middle chap and prepared him for a funeral. The remaining two jumped out of sight in less than a second – jolly lucky for them. Dead bodies of German officers and Turkish soldiers were scattered in front of our line in this area, and with the change of wind, the odor was not too pleasant.

— That the Turk was clean in his methods of warfare towards the Franco-British troops in Gallipoli can be ascertained from many of her little acts towards us. A tale is told of a Turkish airplane sailing over our lines and dropping the following message to our artillerymen: “Remove big gun from position near Red Cross Camps or we will not be responsible for any shells bursting in medical lines.” The gun was removed. During the cholera outbreak many Turks died and their graves were marked “Cholera” in English so that British troops advancing would keep off the ground. All those little acts were well noticed by the French and British troops, and although they were massacring Armenians in hundreds of thousands, the Ottomans played square on our front.

No man's land.

No man’s land.

— It is a remarkable fact that small shells fired from Turkish guns and bursting inside our lines were manufactured in England. I have seen many of them and they were all marked in English. John Turk must certainly chuckle over a trick like that.

— Three cruisers, firing broadsides, made quite a nice little mess of the enemy’s trench one afternoon, and killed our pet Turk, who usually rose from his slumber at dawn and sang to us for hours.

— “So near but yet so far”; this little phrase has been muttered many a time by the lads doing sentry duty at night, who, turning their eyes to the Southwest, gazed longingly at the illuminated hospital ships lying at anchor in the Bay. It does make you feel a bit wretched standing in those rotten trenches with a floating palace under your very eyes. Every wounded man has a face beaming with pleasure because he has a clear knowledge of his destination. He is leaving the dirt and disease far behind him, and the wound is as welcome as a passport. We never sympathize with any chap who starts his journey homeward because of a “crack.” We call him “jolly lucky” and pray for one yourself.

Stretcher bearers

Stretcher bearers

— One fine morning an officer came up and acquainted me that I was a “bomber.” I did not know a bomb from an eggshell, but nevertheless, I was a “bomber.” I can remember throwing one of those “little devils,” but that was three miles behind the line. I am not sure that it killed any Turk – it was not very effective at three miles range.

–I would have liked to have been on Gallipoli at the evacuation, but my old friend “luck” stepped in and sent me streaming back home again. On the morning of the 11th of November I fell into one of the Turks special traps; I was one of a bombing party going out for a few hints on the use of a “trench mortar.” The enemy spotted us and waited until we reached a position where the accuracy of his fire would be certain; then he popped a shrapnel right over our heads. With a stinging pain in my right arm and a lump of lead protruding from my left knee I landed in a dressing station; there my wounds were bandaged and the bullet removed.

Lance-corporal James Ryan (standing) in Edinburgh, 1916

Lance-corporal James Ryan (standing) recovering from injuries in Edinburgh, 1916

— The following afternoon, Nov 12th, I was ticketed; the stretcher bearers put me on board of a small tug and I was transferred to the hospital ship Kildonan Castle, a splendid boat carrying a Canadian medical staff. Though not suffering any great pain, injections of morphine were needed to set me sleeping.

— An English soldier in the adjoining cot to mine lay unconscious with a bullet in his head. I watched the doctor plug the little holes left by the leaden missiles, and the poor chap breathed hard and fast. I did not think he would live long; his cot was empty when I woke the following morning. Many British and French soldiers have been buried in the waters of the Aegean Sea and Mediterranean.


Lance Corporal James Ryan spent time in Malta, and in December, 1915, he was transferred to England on the Mauritania. Recovered, he rejoined his regiment in France in April, 1916.


*Colonial Commerce Magazine, Vol XXVIL – No 4. March 31st 1918

**All Gallipoli photos courtesy Wikipedia Commons.

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