Friday, 11 December 2009

Sergeant Hill

On 29 November I wrote that a member of our boat syndicate had the diary of an uncle killed in the Great War which she was willing to lend me. I wrote

I've been wondering whether such a fragment could possibly be built up into a mini-biography, if there are no other papers or records about him. I believe it could, if there was sufficient of interest within the diary. It could, perhaps, be done at three levels: the campaign, within the context of the war on the Western Front as a whole; the regiment, and the training of troops; and the battle, and the death.

I have now been able to read the diary of Sergeant Hill of the 4th Waikato Squadron of the Auckland Mounted Rifles. The British army had used mounted infantry extensively in the South African War to try and deal with the elusive Boer commandos; presumably the AMR was one of the Imperial regiments raised between 1899 and 1902.

The diary is prefaced with "In the event of my being killed, I wish this diary to be sent to Mother.
Mrs. Geo. Hill, …, Opotiki, Auckland, New Zealand".

The first entry in the diary is on 10 October 1914, barely two months since the war had started: "at 3 pm … we stepped off New Zealand into the boat". The convoy of ten troop ships reach Tasmania on 21 October, where they spend a day route marching ashore, and a week later they join 28 ships carrying Australian troops in Western Australia. On 30 October "the General arrived and after having a look round us inspected the ship and was very well pleased with everything, at least he said he was". The convoy continues to Ceylon, where the troops stay a couple of days, and after a hot and sweaty voyage up the Red Sea, they reach Alexandria on 4 December.

The Sergeant is now active in training his squadron at their camp in the desert , with the occasional visit to Cairo and jaunt up the Nile. "19 January. We had our usual Regimental Training today and the General was umpire and lectured Officers and N.C.O.'s on day's work."

The General is Sir Alexander Godley, whose early army career had been spent as a polo-playing subaltern in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. The DNB describes him as a "tall, spare, publicly reserved man, […] seen by his troops as stuck up, distant, and unfeeling". His wife, a hard-hunting Irish woman, accompanies him to Egypt where she too is unpopular. Observing the troops training in the heat and sand, she is reputed to have commanded her husband: "Make them run again, Alec!"

Training continues through the first four months of 1915, then there is the first mention of an ominous name, the Dardanelles. "2 May. Apart from the usual work we had a very quiet day. I stopped in camp all day. We have been hearing today all sorts of awful news of our forces in the Dardanelles but there is nothing definite as yet." On 5 May it is confirmed that they will be going there, "without the horses". On 9 May they embark at Alexandria and on 12 May they disembark: "all the while we were landing the noise of the guns would almost deafen one."

The Dardanelles campaign was intended to knock Turkey, an ally of Germany, out of the war. This strategy was conceived by Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty. The original plan was that a squadron of obsolete battleships would be able to force their way through the Dardanelles, the narrow channel between Europe and Asia, penetrate the Sea of Marmara and bombard Constantinople into submission. This attempt failed, so a parallel land campaign was launched, using Anzac (Australia and New Zealand Army Corps) troops stationed in Egypt.

It is now 22 July 1915.
Owing to lack of energy and time I have not written a word here for over two months but as I have a little more time now I intend to make a start again and hope to be able to keep it up. [Summary of what has happened since May]
23 July. […] The Turks are very quiet today, hard on shooting. […]
24 July […] A very quiet day. […]
26 July […] Very quiet.
30 July […] A very quiet day, nothing doing at all. […]
2 August. Our Squadron is Injury Picquet and went up the hill. A very quiet day, but awfully hot. Lydsten to hospital.
3 August. We arrived home about 8am this morning and spent most of the day lying about. Norman and I went out for water to the Outpost about ½ mile and the heat was very severe, because having to keep to the trench all day you get no breeze. Stokes and Saxby went to hospital.
4 August. A few fatigues today but nothing to make a song about. A lot of Troops landed last night but I don't know how many.
5 August. Ordered this morning to get ready to move out to take part in the big advance. Paraded at 8:30pm and forwarded to No. 2 Outpost where we slept.

The General is meanwhile putting the finishing touches to his plans for "the big advance" to capture The Nek, an easily-defended narrow stretch of ridge on the Gallipoli peninsula which separated the Anzac troops in the south from the British troops due to be landed at Suvla Bay in the north on 6 August.

6 August. A very quiet day all getting ready for the attack at 9pm. I may not write any more of this Diary but whatever happens I hope to do my duty and trust for the best.

Picked up by Corporal E.J.Jones, 7/501, 1st Canterbury Mounted Rifles.

The Battle of the Nek became known as "Godley's abattoir". Sergeant George Hill was just one of the many New Zealanders slaughtered there.
* * *
This is a summary of something that could perhaps be developed into something bigger along the lines of the second paragraph. My initial feeling is that it could be, but that I as an Englishman am not the right person to do so. Gallipoli is so central to the national myth of both New Zealand and its sister dominion that an outsider could not do it justice. I need to discuss this, and other practical considerations, with Sue during the Christmas vac.

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