It’s a long way to Gallipoli

Published in Features, Issue 2 (March/April 2015), Volume 23, World War I

Major General Henry de Beauvoir de Lisle (sitting, right, with a fellow officer in a trench in Gallipoli), commander-in-chief of the 29th Division, had appointed Armstrong as one of his aides-de-camp. (Glucksman Library, UL)

Major General Henry de Beauvoir de Lisle (sitting, right, with a fellow officer in a trench in Gallipoli), commander-in-chief of the 29th Division, had appointed Armstrong as one of his aides-de-camp. (Glucksman Library, UL)

It’s a Long Way to Tipperary—An Irish Story of the Great War follows the daily lives of a single family from July 1914 to December 1918 through weekly posts of diary extracts, letters, photographs and other wartime memorabilia. The posts are based on documents accumulated by the Armstrong family of Moyaliffe Castle, Co. Tipperary. This material forms part of a collection of some 50,000 items, including over 13,000 photograph albums, prints, negatives, metal and glass plates, slides and film, donated to the University in 2001 by Graham and Susan Armstrong of Natal, South Africa.

Over by Christmas?
When Britain declared war on Germany on 4 August 1914, officers were given orders to return to their regiments, which in Pat Armstrong’s case meant waiting for the 10th Hussars’ return from South Africa. This Pat would not do, for the general consensus was that the war would be over by Christmas and by following orders he would run the risk of missing out on the action. Having initially attempted to attach himself to the 18th Royal Hussars (Queen Mary’s Own), Pat got a lucky break from Brigadier General Henry de Beauvoir de Lisle, who, as Commander of the 2nd Cavalry Brigade of the British Expeditionary Force, agreed to ‘smuggle’ him out as an orderly officer. Pat’s initial enthusiasm dissipated as one bloody battle followed another and one by one his fellow officers fell dead, cut down by shrapnel, shot by snipers or blown up in trenches. The lucky ones received a hasty burial; those not so lucky sank anonymously into the mud of the Flanders fields, leaving bereft relatives in perpetual grief and uncertainty. ‘I am most dreadfully weary,’ Pat wrote to his mother a few short weeks into the war. ‘It’s awfully hard to remember things as night and day seem more or less the same. In fact it always seems to be day.’ For the next several months one conflict followed another: the First Battle of the Marne (6–12 September 1914); the First Battle of the Aisne (13–18 September); the First Battle of Ypres (19 October–22 November); and the Second Battle of Ypres (21 April–25 May 1915). Pat’s letters and diary entries from this period reveal a growing disillusionment, as hopes of an early conclusion to the conflict slowly ebbed away. The stupefying boredom of trench warfare also became evident as months dragged on:

‘It is a rotten show and is simply a war of endurance. It’s a war of rats, as soon as one gets a bit of ground you have to immediately dig a deep narrow trench to get into. There is no sort of excitement about it at all and casualties are dreadful.’

Off to Gallipoli

Captain William Maurice ‘Pat’ Armstrong. (Glucksman Library, UL)

Captain William Maurice ‘Pat’ Armstrong. (Glucksman Library, UL)

In the face of the grinding tedium of trench warfare, the order to depart for the Dardanelles in May 1915 came almost as a relief to Pat Armstrong. The order followed de Lisle’s promotion to the rank of Major General and his appointment as Commander-in-Chief of the 29th Division. The Division had been formed earlier in the year from infantry units in distant garrisons of the British Empire and had made its first landings in the Dardanelles on 25 April 1915. De Lisle, who had appointed Pat Armstrong as one of his two aides-de-camp (the other being John Hardress Lloyd), charged him with the responsibility of overseeing the transportation of the Division’s horses to Gallipoli. Pat embraced the opportunity to travel and cherished the sea voyage, which was ‘simply glorious it is just like living in the Ritz’. On arrival, he wrote enthusiastically of their ‘great big dug out . . . about as big as Ione’s bed room . . . Then we sleep in tents outside rather cut into the face of the hill. We are quite close to the sea and have quite a nice view.’ This was no holiday, however, and the true nature of Pat Armstrong’s expedition became apparent on 28 June, just days after his arrival, in the form of the Battle of Gully Ravine, which lasted for a week with heavy losses on both sides. The hostile rocky terrain and close fighting made it impossible to bury the dead, and the resulting conditions are difficult to comprehend.

‘There were dead Turks, dead and wounded men everywhere. I had to cross over a bit of ground which for some time had been a no man’s land. There were several skeletons of our men and Turks lying about. Then I went on and was able to see a little of what our shells can do. Their skeletons were broken down and many of the trenches were knocked to bits. I went on up there and got in touch with our men in the front trenches. It was awfully interesting to see it all but it was dreadful going along the trenches as they were packed with dead and wounded both English and Turk. It was horrid having to step over them and in one place the Turkish dead were so thick that I had to walk on them.’

‘Gallipoli gallop’

A camp at Gully Beach—‘. . . we sleep in tents outside rather cut into the face of the hill. We are quite close to the sea and have quite a nice view.’ (Glucksman Library, UL)

A camp at Gully Beach—‘. . . we sleep in tents outside rather cut into the face of the hill. We are quite close to the sea and have quite a nice view.’ (Glucksman Library, UL)

When Pat was not dodging shell fire he was driven to the brink of madness by sand, flies and intense heat. Having fallen sick as a consequence with a bad bout of explosive diarrhoea known as the ‘Gallipoli gallop’, Pat was sent to Athens to recuperate. His relief was palpable.

‘It is lovely getting away from the dust and dirt and knowing that everything one eats isn’t full of sand and hasn’t been crawled over by thousands of flies. If soldiering does nothing else it makes one appreciate the comforts of life when one gets them. A third-class London doss house would be a palace after Suvla.’

Pat’s recovery from the ‘Gallipoli gallop’ was aided by help from the family. Cakes, chocolates, butter and jam, which had formed the welcome contents of parcels from home on the Western Front, were replaced by castor oil and flypaper, along with peppermint tablets and ammonia to fend off the stench of rotting corpses. It is sobering to consider that of the 213,000 British casualties at Gallipoli, 145,000 were caused by sickness.

For the Allies, the Gallipoli campaign was a failure. After the initial landing, their attempts to penetrate inland in order to seize the high ground from the Turks were unsuccessful, confining them to the narrow beaches of the peninsula. Much to Pat Armstrong’s dismay, poor planning, insufficient artillery and tactical deficiencies soon resulted in a stalemate, and fighting quickly degenerated into trench warfare not dissimilar to the situation on the Western Front from which he had been so eager to escape. On 17 August Pat wrote:

‘We hear nothing from Anzac & Suvla & things are very quiet here. The trenches on both sides are so strong and so numerous here that it’s almost impossible for either side to advance. I wish we could get this business finished. I don’t think that anybody realised at first what a big show it was going to develop into.’

Two months later, nothing had changed. ‘We have done absolutely nothing since Aug 21 & everybody knows what a ghastly affair that was. Most of the time now is spent making drains & preparing for a winter campaign.’

Torrential rain and snow
And what a winter it was to be. The stifling summer heat was replaced by torrential rainstorms, transforming the trenches into rivers of mud. On 26 November,

‘. . . it started to rain in the afternoon & then came down in an absolute deluge. The trenches were all flooded & the men in a dreadful state. The 96th Bde was absolutely washed out. They had men drowned & dying from cold & exposure. The Worcesters & Newfoundlands were almost as bad. I had an awful job to get rations up to them as the mud was so deep & the roads so slippery that the mules could hardly get along.’

After the rain came the snow, causing extreme hardship.

‘I went round the dressing stations in the afternoon, that was absolutely ghastly, men were in a dreadful state of exhaustion. One saw big fine men crying like babies from cold exposure & exhaustion. It was really pitiful. Everything was wet & it was hard to find a dry spot to put the poor devils. I never want to see the sights I saw that day again. It was far worse than any battle.’

Amidst these scenes of misery only one option lay open to the Allies. The evacuation of the peninsula was authorised by the British government and began on 7 December, with the last troops leaving Helles on 9 January 1916. For Pat Armstrong, at least, the evacuation had a silver lining: his involvement in its planning and execution was to earn him a Military Cross.

Consideration of Irish involvement in the First World War has been slow in coming. The Armstrong archive allows for the daily exposition of the difficulties encountered by an Irish officer in the field and his extended family at home. It reveals the excitement and elation at the time of embarkation to the first theatre of war and the initial view that it might be a jolly jape and we carry on as before. Pat Armstrong soon found himself experiencing indescribable hardship, however, and had to face the barbarity of war head on. While being a cavalry man and an officer softened the blow, such benefits were soon eroded in the muddy trenches of Flanders and under the ceaseless shell fire of Gallipoli. The Armstrong archive and website allows us today to view first-hand the reality of the daily misery and grind that was the First World War from the comfort of our sitting rooms. Engaging with the website will allow viewers in ‘real time’ to experience how the war changed people both at home and in the trenches. Any number of history books would not provide such an intimacy.

To follow Pat Armstrong to Gallipoli and beyond, visit http://longwaytotipperary.ul.ie.

Anna-Maria Hajba is a consultant archivist at the Special Collections and Archives Department, Glucksman Library, University of Limerick.

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