Of all the bastards of places this is the greatest bastard in the world. – Ion Idriess, 1932, The Desert Column
It has often been repeated that the lived existence of soldiers at Gallipoli in the 1915 campaign was extremely arduous. The soldiers’ accounts and recent archaeological surveys of this best-preserved First World War battlefield illustrate just how inhumane and gruelling the conditions were for both Allied and Turkish soldiers.
Many factors contributed to making the Gallipoli battlefield an almost unendurable place for all soldiers. The constant noise, cramped unsanitary conditions, disease, stenches, daily death of comrades, terrible food, lack of rest and thirst all contributed to the most gruelling conditions.
The Anzacs were literally clinging onto the edge of a cliff with the sea at their backs and the Turks occupying the higher ground. They were forced to dig extensive trench and tunnels systems and to endure a semi-subterranean existence of cramped and filthy living and working conditions under constant shellfire.
Incessant noise from shelling, bombing, artillery, machine-gun and rifle fire caused psychological and physiological problems for the soldiers. These included shell shock, stress from unceasing exposure to loud mechanical noises, hearing impairment and lack of sleep.
The cramped conditions and steep terrain left few safe places for men to rest in the front line on Second Ridge above Anzac Cove. Severe exhaustion from lack of sleep caused by the constant noise in front-line positions such as Silt Spur, Quinn’s Post and Tasmania Post meant that many men fell asleep at their posts.
Food was a major concern to Anzac soldiers. Much has been written about the food rations provided for the Anzacs at Gallipoli, including the dark, humorous odes to bully beef and impenetrably hard army biscuits in The Anzac Book.
There is no denying that the rations issued to the Anzacs provided very poor nutrition due to the unvarying diet of processed foods: canned meat (corned “bully” beef, bacon or Maconochie’s beef stew), hard tack biscuits and watery jam. The diet was varied sometimes by sugar, condensed milk, rice and cocoa, but there was a distinct lack of fresh fruit or vegetables for the Anzacs.
These rations were intended to be lived on for only short periods of time by British army divisions, not for extended months as was the case at Gallipoli. Living on these rations caused major health problems for the soldiers. So prevalent on the Anzac battlefields were the food cans in which these rations were issued that their remains can still be found around the sites of Anzac trenches and dugouts.
The Turkish forces were provided with a wider variety of food. This was centrally prepared by cooks and consisted of fresh local foods, although it was often lacking in meat. French and Indian divisions had much better rations than Anzacs, with more vegetables and bread.
The poor nutritional content of the British rations contributed to the physical decline of the Anzac and British troops at Gallipoli. The unappetising and unvaried diet affected the soldiers’ morale and psychological well-being. It also increased their susceptibility to disease, which spread rapidly during the summer months of the campaign.
Disease swept through both Anzac and Turkish forces at Gallipoli. Dysentery, tetanus and septic wounds plagued the soldiers and necessitated the evacuation of thousands of men from the battlefield. The latrines were open and rudimentary.
There were no bathing facilities and few opportunities to wash bodies or clothes. The lack of sanitation in the Anzac areas caused the rapid spread of dysentery, known as the “Gallipoli Gallop”.
The unburied corpses in and around the front-line areas were the perfect breeding ground for flies. These were almost unbearable in the summer months. The flies were so thick that soldiers could not eat without their biscuits and jam being blackened with flies.
Flies spread diseases rapidly through the troops living in cramped, over-crowded trenches and dugouts and unable even to wash their hands. Lice were also a major problem for soldiers during the summer months.
The local water supply was very limited in the British- and Anzac-held areas of the peninsula. At Anzac Cove in particular, the water supply was a serious problem that contributed to the soldiers’ ill-health and exacerbated the wretched sanitary conditions.
Soldiers in front-line positions were issued only small amounts of water per day and the water quality was poor. Thirst and dehydration were common amongst the men. Often their only drink was extremely strong black tea.
Other factors that characterised the life of soldiers during the 1915 conflict were psychological. These included homesickness, fear and anxiety, the constant threat of death, killing and grief at the loss of mates, brothers and comrades on a daily basis.
Overall, these were appalling conditions, which indicate the wholly inadequate planning and response of the British and Allied military authorities to basic human needs and a failure in their duty of care to their soldiers. The Anzac soldiers earned the respect of others largely because of the projected image of their laconic good humour in the face of the most terrible circumstances.
However, some soldiers could not handle these conditions at all and understandably succumbed to mental, physical and emotional injuries, which continue to be marginalised or completely unacknowledged in the Anzac legend. The conditions took their toll on even the most stoic and fortunate of survivors, who felt the effects of their time at Gallipoli decades after the conflict.
You can listen to Michelle Negus Cleary speak about life on the battlefield below, in a podcast produced by La Trobe University.