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Borne of Necessity

I have titled this article Borne of Necessity after the ingenious creations the ANZAC soldiers created to make their situation that little bit more bearable during the godforsaken Gallipoli campaign. They are true testaments to the industrious nature of the ANZAC legend and I have nothing but the utmost respect for those brave men who gave their lives at Anzac Cove.

In my early teens my brother and myself attended The Kings School, Sydney, and during my time there I was apart of the schools cadet corps. The highlight of the corps was the annual camp that took at the Singleton Defence Force Base. These camps were absolutely awesome experiences, spent tramping through the bush, completing military simulations and so on, but one thing I remember above all from the camps was the one that fell on ANZAC Day.

On April 25th my platoon was at basecamp, and I still remember waking up to a wolf-grey dawn and a lone bugler playing The Last Post.  I can vividly recall standing on the frosty ground with a thick mist surrounding us, and rank upon rank of boys in military fatigues standing silently as the haunting notes echoed off the hills around us. I remember thinking to myself that I was one of the few Kiwis there to represent my country that morning, and my pride in doing so. Being a New Zealander at an Australian all-boys school meant that there was a near endless stream of jokes and debates about which country was better, but on that morning all of that ceased to exist as the buglers notes rung out and we paid our respect to the brave men who gave their lives in WWI and the Gallipoli campaign.

During my time at Kings I also studied Australian history, looking at Gallipoli and the ANZAC legend from their perspective. It was during this time that I first learned about the ingenious inventions that the ANZACs created such as the Periscope rifle, Jam Tin grenades and the Drip Rifle.

The Periscope Rifle is the first of these inventions. The rival trenches of Gallipoli were often only separated by a few metres, meaning that every time a soldier raised their head to fire at the enemy, they exposed themselves to enemy snipers, and at such a short range the losses were high. In some places such as Quinn’s Post there was only 50m between the two forces. This situation lead Lance Corporal William Beech of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF), a builders foreman in civilian life, to seek a solution, finally settling on the periscope rifle. According to Private John Adams who served with Beech, the idea came to him after watching fellow soldiers get shot in the head while trying to fire on the enemy.

Beech’s device worked by setting a mirror to look along the sights of the rifle, which was then reflected on a lower mirror into which the soldier looked, enabling troops to fire at the Turks without exposing themselves to return fire. Although Beech’s rifles were less effective than conventional rifles, it proved a useful weapon and soon spread up and down the front-line trenches, being produced in a makeshift workshop on Anzac Cove beach. Beech’s invention was later adapted and used in other theatres, including the Western Front, and in 1921 he was awarded £100 (c. $7,091NZD today) by the War Office for his invention.

The attack on Gallipoli had been planned to be a quick campaign that would see the Allied and ANZAC forces reach Istanbul quickly and knock the Turks out of the war, thus shifting the focus back to the Western Front. The reality though was a long, drawn out, eight-month campaign that relied heavily on trench warfare. Although the troops received equipment and supplies throughout the campaign, they were often delayed or destroyed by Turkish shelling and bad weather, and so the ANZAC troops had to be industrious and innovate. One of the most famous examples of their improvisation was the ‘jam tin’ grenade. In the scheme of the war, Gallipoli was regarded as a sideshow, and because of this the troops stationed there didn’t receive the number of grenades that they needed, so the soldiers turned to the piles of tin cans and shrapnel around them to create their own. The troops established a “bomb factory” above Anzac Beach, and began producing their own bombs, churning out over 200 a day. The grenades were made from old ration tins that were then filled with explosives and pieces of shrapnel (such as nails, barbed wire and small pieces of shell) before being sealed closed. More elaborate versions had a second smaller tin inside, thus creating a separate inner chamber that also held explosives and extra shrapnel. The grenades were then activated with either a cigarette or friction device and were even used as booby traps by rigging them to pressure triggers and leaving them under bodies or other heavy objects.

Another ingenious invention was borne out of the evacuation of Gallipoli. The campaign, led by Lieutenant-General Sir Ian Hamilton, had been a shambles from the start, and as the operation stretched on and the losses grew, the British government began to question the value of continuing at Gallipoli. On October 14th 1915 the Dardanelles Committee in London replaced Hamilton with Lieutenant-General Sir Charles Munro as commander-in-chief. Munro quickly ordered the withdrawal, pulling the troops back to the Greek island of Lemnos where the troops could rest and recuperate before being sent to fight on the Western Front or in Salonika, Greece.

As the main force withdrew, those who remained gave the impression to the watching Turks that everything was normal, playing cricket in the ravines and leading supply-laden donkeys and mules too and from the trenches. The remaining troops were even given 100 cigarettes each in large tins, so that the Turks would see the smoke rising from the now mostly-abandoned trenches and not suspect a thing. 

By the last day, there were only 2,000 troops remaining at Gallipoli, and it was in these final hours, while the final contingent left the beach with hessian sacks on their feet, that the Ghost Brigade and their Drip Rifles played their part.

Critical to this stage of the withdrawal the Drip Rifle was an innovation created by Lance Corporal William (Bill) Scurry of the AIF, an Architectural Modeler from Melbourne.  To make the drip rifle work, two tins were placed one above the other, with the top one filled with water and small holes in the bottom.  The water would drip into the lower tin, and once it was sufficiently heavy, it would fall, causing the weight to drop and the trigger to be “pulled” by a member of the Ghost Rifle Brigade, thus firing the weapon.  While the drip rifles were only used in the closing hours of the evacuation, without them the Turks would have caught on to the ruse given the close proximity of the opposing trenches, and the evacuation would have been foiled.  As it was, some 80,000 men were successfully evacuated from Gallipoli with only three casualties. Scurry was later awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal and was promoted to Sergeant for his idea.

All plans to evacuate Gallipoli indicated that there would be roughly a 30% loss of life, if not higher, as leaving the beaches would be as perilous as arriving had been eight months earlier. With this fact in mind, the reality of the Gallipoli evacuation was nothing short of amazing, and has been described by some military historians as the best executed military manoeuvre in modern history.

The ANZAC legend, and what it represents, has become a corner stone in our small nations identity, as it has in Australia.  Every year on April 25th our two countries stand still in the early hours of the morning and pay homage to the brave soldiers who gave their lives at ANZAC cove, fighting in a war not of their making, far from home in conditions that were as abhorrent as they were trying. By the end of the Gallipoli campaign, some 8,709 Australians and 2,779 Kiwi’s had died.  For New Zealand this loss was tragic, representing roughly a sixth of the force who landed on beaches on April 25th 1915.  Australia’s official war historian, Charles Bean, popularised the ANZAC spirit in his book Anzac to Amiens where he writes: 

“ANZAC stood, and still stands, for reckless valour in a good cause, for enterprise, resourcefulness, fidelity, comradeship and endurance that will never own defeat”
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