Engineers reveal harsh realities of Gallipoli


Some idea of the splendid work of the Royal Engineers is given in the following letters from local men serving with the East Anglian Divisional Engineers in the Dardanelles.

Cpl H. H. Foster, writing to his brother Mr Edgar W. Foster, 31 Park Street West, Luton, mentions the ravages occasioned by dysentery from which he has escaped with a comparatively slight attack.

He goes on: "I hope, if God spares me, to be able to stick to my company until we return. We are short-handed enough now, and chaps crocked just now are doubly missed. One can understand the complaint flourishing out here, as in addition to hot days and cold nights, there is the sand which is very fine and must get into one's system, and the chief cause of all - flies. They are absolutely abominable. I never saw anything like them. They absolutely swarm.

"We are a bit quieter here just at present, a rifle shot here and there, and the occasional boom of a gun is all. I went out and had a nice swim in the sea yesterday afternoon and, incidentally, did a bit of washing."

To his nephew Edgar, Cpl Foster writes a much longer and more interesting letter, the sort of epistle to delight the heart of a boy. He says: "Things out here seem to remain as they are. We daily bombard Master Turk with out big guns and he duly replies with shrapnel and bullets. He is a game old bird, our friend the enemy (Turkey). He asks no quarter and he takes jolly good care he gives none.

"Every teatime he sends us his compliments in the form of 7.5s, which are not nice. As a matter of fact they are distinctly unpleasant, but he seems to think they agree with us, so I suppose we must put up with it. There is one thing we are used to now - the sound of the guns. For two months we have had nothing else, night or day, but the boom and rattle of guns. They don't seem to cease.

Night of a blizzard

"I am engaged for a few days on a comparatively calm job, with the R.A.M.C. people, erecting shelters on the beach for the sick, and preparing the officers' dug-outs for the winter, which seems to be fast approaching. We had a blizzard the other night, and well we knew it.

"I was not in the bivouac, but poor old Haycock was. He was sitting comfortably writing when suddenly he found the roof was blowing away, the candle out, and the rain simply pouring like water from a bucket on him. Poor old chap, he was in a state, but I was in a worse one.

"That night I had a party out in front of the Sikhs' trench, on wire entanglements. When you are out on that job you have to let the officers in charge of the trench know, so that they can inform their men that you are out, or they might think you were the enemy. Well we got over the parapet safely with our wire, tools etc, and all went well. We had about 70 yards of wire run out when lightning started. That unfortunately gave us away. The Turks evidently saw us, and promptly started to 'pot' at us. This we thought was most unkind, so we promptly lay down flat. They sent a bomb or two over to us without result, so they quietened down again.

"We lay still for a time and then we got up to proceed with our work. Then came the blizzard. At the same time the Turks sent up a large star shell and saw us. And didn't they let fly! We ran for it like rabbits but, sad to tell, the Sikhs, who had evidently not been told we were there, would have bayoneted us had we not yelled 'English Tommy'. They lowered their rifles and we scrambled into their trench - everyone drenched, but safe.

The Turks kept up a smart fire for some time but we were well down in the trench under cover, where we waited till the storm was over. We went and finished our job the next night, and our Turk friends did not spot us, as it was dark. Still, I think putting out wire entanglements is our most dangerous job, and not at all to be sought after, but the soldier cannot choose his job and one wants to do everything that comes along with a good heart, and then things seem to go fairly smoothly."

Hymns and gunfire

Another account of the work of the Engineers in Gallipoli come from Sapper A. 'Gus' Healey, whose home is at 31 Court Road, Luton.

"We are fairly well settled down to this life now," he says. "An order has just been given out, 'Holy Communion in the morning at 7.45'. We usually have a very nice, short, open air service on Sunday evenings, and I can assure you that it very impressive to hear our lads singing hymns to the accompaniment of the boom of artillery and the crack of rifle fire.

"We get plenty of shells and stray bullets about here, the latter especially at night...I was lying at night in my dug-out when a stray bullet came and ran right up my back. My tunic and overcoat were riddled with holes where they rucked up as I lay down. I almost felt the bullet, for it could only have missed me by half an inch. I remember when I heard the bullet zip so close, I said to my mate,'Am I hit?' and he replied 'Well how the dickens do I know'. Then I moved about to make sure I was not hit.

"We are bivouacked about 700 yards from the first line of trenches. We have got the Turks on the top of a long hill, and as the firing line, which stretches for some miles, is curved in shape, we get stray bullets from all directions.

"From our position we can see the trenches on the top of the hill. When the Navy are bombarding it is a rare sight to see the shells burst in the enemy's trenches. It must be hell up there.

"If you think that trench warfare is men standing firing over the parapet as you see it in the pictures, you are mistaken. The only soldiers who take deliberate aim are the snipers. Quite a lot of rifles with periscope attachments are used in the trenches. Also hand grenades and bombs play a very important part in trench warfare. For a man to put his head above the parapet would be asking for trouble. The Turks often fire at a periscope when they see an opportunity.

"The gruesome sights one sees through the periscopes are beyond description. Some of the dead have been lying there for over a month.

"The Engineers' work in the trenches comprises building dug-outs, sapping and mining etc, and generally improving the trenches. Some of the trenches are a marvel of military engineering. To hear one talk of the trenches, you would think they were referring to some town, as they are all named - such names as Bedford Road, Turkey Trot, Cobblers Alley and Southampton Row etc.

"I have only seen two Turks, and they were both prisoners. Of course, there are plenty of dead ones lying between the trenches on the parapet, in the firing line. There are plenty of graves of English and Colonial soldiers who have fallen scattered about. Most of them have a simple wooden cross over them, and everyone shows great respect for them.

Trench recipes

"With regard to our food, the best meal of the day is breakfast when we get tea, bacon and Army biscuits. For dinner we have bully beef and biscuits and sometimes boiled rice, and at teatime we have tea, jam and biscuits. Occasionally (about once a week) we get fresh meat, and about twice a week we get bread, which we consider a luxury. You ought to be able to judge from that what sort of parcels we should welcome out here.

"We get an issue of cigarettes, but we do not get anything like enough. They are of great commercial value, money being no good at all to us. When I first landed I was offered 2d for one cigarette. Of course I did not take the chap's 2d. Some nights we get an issue of some. Matches are very scarce out here. Cigarette papers, too, are very valuable.

"Considering the trials and hardships we are going through, I think the boys are showing a wonderful spirit and keeping their pecker up jolly well.

"While I was speaking of the food I ought to have mentioned how we do a lot of cooking for ourselves. The following are a few recipes.

"To make rissoles - soak some Army biscuits, chop some bully beef and onions up fine, mix them all together and fry them in fat. The great trouble is that we cannot get hold of enough fat for frying purposes.

"Pancakes are made by mixing flour and water till it forms a kind of paste, and then frying in fat - but flour is scarcer than fat.

"Biscuit puddings - soak some Army biscuits, mix them up and boil them in a cloth. When they are finished they look like a Bedfordshire clanger.

"Of course, the section cooks do not make these things for us - this is what we do on our own.

"I suppose now you begin to wonder how we spend our leisure time. Well, we do not get much, and most of that is spent in letter writing or reading (if we can get hold of any literature). I have got a home-made draughts board, the squares being painted on it, and the 'men' cut out of tin, and one set burnt in the fire to make them black.

"We are allowed a water bottleful of water per man, so you see we cannot have a wash every day. I think the water supply reflects great credit on the Engineers, as it has been their job to find and dig all the wells on this peninsular, and the water supply for thousands of troops in a hostile country is no small matter.

"Don't think that 'Poultice Wallopers' have a good time, for I can assure you that the R.A.M.C. are doing wonderful work out here.

"I suppose you know that out company is composed of Luton and Bedford chaps. Well that fact often brings on a Luton and Bedford argument."

[Beds & Herts Saturday Telegraph: November 6th, 1915]