In Memoriam

I am sorry about yesterday’s blog but the gremlins were in my computer and I lacked the skills necessary to overcome them.  I decided to abandon my editorial efforts and let my daughter, Katy, lead me out of the maze but she unfortunately was out of contact.  So I will plough on regardless and at some stage return to its unfinished state.  However even in its immature form it jumped to the fourth most popular piece in my league table.  It just shows you how everybody likes a little bit of smut with their breakfast.  The rest or yet to be written part of the text dealt with christian principles, honesty and fair play but if I had managed to type it out it would probably have been relegated to a lower division.

However today I want to relate a story I became aware of whilst in Turkey earlier this year.  The Turks are an amazing and unheralded race of people who with the help of Mustafa Kamal Attaturk, the founding father of modern Turkey, have learnt to honour and celebrate both their own and the allied dead of that ill thought out and badly managed campaign in the Dardenelles in 1915.  The Turks come in their thousands every day, from all over Turkey, to make the long journey down the peninsula to pray to the sacred memory of all the fallen.

As Attaturk said in 1934 when opening one of the memorials to the many dead of that abortive Churchillian effort to turn the war;

Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives; you are now lying in the soil of a friendly country.  Therefore rest in peace.  There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us, where they lie, side by side, here in this country of ours.

You the mothers, who sent their sons from far away countries, wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace.  After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.

I have never seen that philosophy of forgiveness and honour expressed so ably and honestly by a national leader of the so called “good guys”.

One such Johnnie was John Simpson Fitzpatrick who was born in South Shields, on the River Tyne, just east of Newcastle in 1893.  His father was crippled in a shipyard accident in 1906 and 12 year old John left school and started work delivering milk.  His father died in 1909, money was very scarce, his three brothers had all died in a scarlet fever epidemic, leaving his mother, Sarah, and his young sister, Annie.  So he joined the Merchant Navy and arranged for the majority of his wages to be paid to the home.  A year later bored with the humdrum life on board and attracted by the freedom of life in Australia, as opposed to the bitter social struggle in England, he jumped ship in Melbourne and spent the next five years doing whatever job came along, up and down the coast of western and southern Australia. Sometimes on boats, sometimes in coal mines, sometimes on farms and always sending home whatever he could to his beleagured mother.

His last job was as a stoker on a coastal vessel but he was beset by loneliness and was terribly homesick.  The first war had just been declared, so once again he jumped ship and joined the Australian Army Medical Corps in Freemantle, under the name of John Simpson, still worrying about the trouble he might still be in having deserted the Merchant Navy five years before.  He thought this was an easy way of getting home.  Sure he might have to go to war but he would not be far from home. Unfortunately he did not understand Churchill’s cunning plan for the Anzac forces, (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) then on the high seas heading for Europe.  Disembarking in Egypt and after a few months basic training, he, along with 12,000 Australians and 8,500 New Zealanders were thrown ashore on a beach, which was to go down in history as Anzac Cove on the western side of the Gallipoli peninsula, early in the morning of 25 April 1915.

They were confronted with a narrow strip of beach and then immediate hills rising very quickly to a height of 1ooo feet. These hills were only approachable up the weather beaten, scrubby and aptly named Shrapnel Valley and its tributaries.  In fact on that first day, a group from the Anzac force reached a point on Chanuk Bair, a strategic ridge, running from south to north up the southern end of the peninsula.  If they had the strength in numbers to hold this position, the campaign might have been won, but the Turks recovered and reinforced the area and the moment was lost.

Meanwhile chaos reigned on Anzac, with most of the 20,000 men trying to dig in and escape the hail of bullets and shells being poured at them from the heights.  No space, no cover and steep hills a recipe for poor control and management.  Eventually and with many casualties forcing the issue the medics quickly got their shop in order and John was ordered to carry water up to the thirsty troops in Monash Valley, where the initial fighting was taking place.  His mode of transport was donkeys carrying up panniers of water, a resource that was in short supply on these bullet ridden slopes.  Three or four times a day up Shrapnel Gulley and then Monash Valley he trudged and it was not long before he could see that the less seriously wounded, those with leg wounds, were being left on the heights because of the shortage of stretcher bearers and they could not walk down these tortuous trails because of their wounds.  The day time temperature was between 25 and 30 degrees centigrade and it was not long before these simple wounds turned septic and gangrenous.

So he decided on the empty return trip he would bring down a few of these casualties, he just used his initiative, no orders, nobody except his wounded knew anything about it.  Three or four times a day for three and half weeks he struggled up and down these steep trails with his three donkeys, bringing down Anzac or Turk, he did not discriminate.  He was a free spirit, his officers did not know where he was or who he was, he was just carrying out orders he had received on that first day of battle. Unfortunately on 19 May 1915, 25 days after landing, a bullet had his name on it, as he tramped down Monash Valley, and he died instantly.  His body was brought down and he was buried in Anzac Beach Cemetery, today a beautiful place overlooking the historic Aegean Sea.

Now John’s story would have been lost and he would have remained one of the faceless dead of Anzac but for the seriously wounded soldiers, some of whom he might have saved, who were shipped back to Australia and they enquired of this man and told of his exploits with his donkeys.  Their officers knew nothing but the newspapers greedy for a hero picked it up and the legend was born and to this day he is known as the hero of Anzac.  Anzac is burnt deep into the heart and conscience of the Australian people, Anzac was the Australian nation’s birthplace and John Simpson became its mascot, although he was a Geordie through and through.  Statues have been erected in his honour and there has been a massive press campaign for him to be awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross, but the generals who allow these these things rely on contemporary written officer reports and there was none.

Whilst we were there Danny Tiernan, one of our party, tacked a minature replica VC to a little wooden cross and placed it on his grave. I suppose at 22 years of age he was lucky to have a grave.  I hope he is a legend in South Shields as well.  Any one up there who reads this, please let me know.

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