To Egypt ... then Gallipoli

The first Australian and New Zealand troops despatched to Britain’s aide expected to be thrown into the desperate fight against the “Huns” in France and Belgium. Plans changed though, when the Ottoman Empire (Turkey) threw her lot in with Germany in October 1914. The “Anzacs” were instead diverted to Egypt, where Britain feared an imminent attack on the strategically vital Suez Canal. The Anzacs were soon seen as the nucleus of the army needed to attack “the heart of the Turkish Empire” (Churchill 1927 p. 500). From Egypt, Ted Cook wrote home saying he was “glad to be amongst the stirring scenes” and “quite prepared for whatever may be in the future” (DA 25/3/1915, p.2). To young men from Pakenham, Egypt must have seemed like something out of the fairytales or Sunday school primers they had read as children. A soldier who wrote to Kitty Fogarty of Pakenham South said he was camped amidst the ruins of Memphis, which he said was the ancient capital associated with Joseph from the Old Testament. He also recounted climbing the Great Pyramid upon which he scratched his name beneath that of a French soldier who had fought in Napoleon’s army. In typically Australian larrikin fashion, the soldier also tried to put a cigarette in the Sphinx’s mouth, but had to content himself with only being able to “tickle” its chin, much to the amusement of his Egyptian guide (DA 9/9/1915, p.2). Of course, it was not only the antiquities of ancient Egypt which caught the eyes and imagination of the young Australians in Egypt.


Many of those who enlisted from Pakenham in late 1914 or early 1915 went on to serve at Gallipoli, where the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps (“Anzacs”) began landing on 25 April 1915. The Anzacs’ spirits were initially high and they were full of confidence. Robert (“Bert”) Ellett, a farmer from Pakenham South, wrote home optimistically before landing at Gallipoli: “remember me to all around, and tell them we will be feeding on 'turkey' in Constantinople within a fortnight”. The newspaper in which the letter was published added though: “Since then, he has had eighteen days’ hard fighting in the trenches at Gallipoli, and has had a close acquaintance with the 'turkeys'” (SBMJ 5/8/1915, p. 2). In another letter, Bert described his time at Gallipoli, noting: “I never imagined war to be so awful until I got there, and even then you can’t realise it. You are walking along and can’t see a Turk, and never know the minute you are going to stop a bullet. But the shrapnel was the worst ... (SBMJ 22/7/1915, p. 2). He also stated: “The Dardanelles are not to be taken as easily as you seem to imagine. I have been there and seen it, and the Turks are making a tough fight of it, but our boys will prove one too many for them, even though our progress is slow” (Ibid). Bert was also proud of the fact that the Turks called the Anzacs “White Gurkhas”. On a re-assuring note, he told his mother: “You don’t want to worry about us, we’ll get through alright, as it is really a man’s own fault if he gets hit, the Turks being such bad shots. The kids [presumably his younger brothers back in Pakenham South] could shoot spots off them ... So Mater, to all of you at home heaps of love ... Bert.” (Ibid).  


There was immense pride in the efforts of the Anzacs at Gallipoli, even though they eventually had to be evacuated.As early as June 1915, the Berwick Shire News commented: “Australia’s sons were not long in responding to the sacred call ... and how well and how bravely they have acquitted themselves ... The names of those heroes who fought and fell, or conquered, will be written imperishably in the annals of their native states and will be remembered with grateful hearts and pride by the people of Australia” (BSN, 9/6/1915, p. 2). Indeed, Gallipoli was already being seen as a major milestone in the development of the Australian nation. As the South Bourke and Mornington Journal put it in September 1915: “It has been said that the Australian nation was born at Gallipoli ...” (SBMJ 2/9/1915, p. 3).