New for Jan 2018: First-hand account of the fighting at Gallipoli

George W.E. Osborn, 2nd Battalion South Wales Borderers

Our latest diary to be added to the project [soon to be uploaded to the archive] is that of George W.E. Osborn, a drummer in the 2nd Battalion South Wales Borderers; Osborn had served with the Battalion at Tsingtau at the very beginning of the war, and on March 15th 1915 began writing a diary documenting his experiences in the Gallipoli campaign. For the first 2 weeks of the diary, we hear about George’s almost idyllic times aboard the S.S. Canada en-route to Malta, describing routine soldierly duties one day, and lazy, carefree times in the sun, games, singing and concerts on other days: ‘At present the sea is like a sheet of glass. So, what with nice scenery, a beautiful calm sea, and plenty of food, life is really worth living.’

After a brief stop at Malta, the Battalion set sail for Alexandria, where they would be billeted at ‘Mex Camp’ in preparation for the Gallipoli landings. George’s first impressions of ‘Mex Camp’ were not favourable: ‘This place don’t [sic] strike me as being any good at all…the march here was terrible. We could hardly stick the heat, and being stiff getting off the boat, we had 2 faint and a couple fall out.’ After spending a week at ‘Mex Camp’ going through amphibious landing training, route marches and parades, the Battalion embarked for Gallipoli on the RMS Alaunia. On the way, the ship travelling alongside Osborn’s ship – the RMS Andania, caught fire; he described the commotion: ‘It started in the first class saloon and lasted over an hour…I have never seen so much running about in all my life…had all the hose off our ship playing on her as well as her own. The damage is estimated at £200’. [The Andania and the Alaunia would both go on to be sunk later in the war, the former by a U-boat, and the latter by a sea mine].

After a few more days sailing, Osborn’s Battalion arrived at the island of Tenedos in the Aegean, and prepared for the landing at Cape Helles on the 25th of April. He recounted his experience of the landing: ‘…into the boats we scrambled, we cast off the painters and the chaps on the oars pulled like mad…The Turks let us come nearly to the beach and then we had it. Briscombe caught it first in the shoulder, then six more were hit in our boat, then I dropped over the side into six feet of water. I scrambled forward as best I could expecting to drown every second, never gave the bullets that were dropping round a second thought…what a sight, men were laying about like dead sheep. After a couple minute’s rest we blazed away at the Turks’ trench until an officer shouted and away we charged at the Turks’ trench.’

After taking the Turkish trenches on the coast and digging in, Osborn and his fellow soldiers were barely given a chance to rest, as they had to fight off Turkish counter-attacks and press on with their advance. They were helped by French forces, who reinforced the British troops and bore the brunt of a major enemy counter-attack. In his account of one attack on the 28th of April, Osborn writes: The Turks were pouring in a deadly fire all the time, and I saw too many of our fellows drop to suit me…the place was hell…I thought my time had come. Jones, the chap whose drum I took, died of wounds just by me…things were looking black, when just before sunset we were reinforced by the Naval Brigade…I nearly cried with joy when they came up…’

The constant fighting and lack of rest had taken its toll on the South Wales Borderers, as Osborn recounted: ‘One would hardly recognise our regiment now, at least what is left of it. All the men are ragged and the clothes are muddy and greasy. They look worried, haggard and worn out, in fact they look more like a pack of wolves than men’.  Further fighting took place, with Gurkhas and Sikh troops, as well as troops from the Border Regiment, Inniskilling Fusiliers, Lancashire Fusiliers and King’s Own Scottish Borderers, fighting alongside the SWBs. On the 18th of May, Osborn was sent off on an errand to fetch a pack mule, and was spotted by Turkish artillery: ‘Mr Turk spotted us and sent over a few shrapnel, catching the mule and missing me. The mule took fright and bolted over the top of the cliff and bumped on a ledge a couple of yards down. I climbed down and undone his girth, when he was free he made a jump down to the beach 40 feet below…When I was sure he was alive I scrambled down the face of the cliff. My word he was a sight, cut all over and like a pepper box…I took him to camp and put him in the sick lines in charge of the transport men…they said one mule did not matter as they have lost dozens.’

On the 28th of June, Osborn was wounded in action when a piece of shrapnel pierced his leg. He wrote: ‘At the word I jumped over the parapet…I ran for all I was worth towards the barbed wire, bullets were dropping all round. After I had run about 40 yards…something hit me on the leg…I had gone about 20 yards when my leg went stiff. When I looked down I saw blood running out of my puttee.’ After laying low under cover for a while and then going to the dressing station, Osborn had to walk himself back 3 miles to the beach HQ with a wounded leg; the excruciating journey took him 4 hours. The following month saw him evacuated from the Gallipoli Peninsula and recuperating in hospital, first in Alexandria and then in Malta. He writes about his convalescence with fondness, with comfort, clean clothes, ‘nice ladies’, lots of food and plenty of tobacco, a stark contrast to his experiences in Gallipoli.