by Dr Jonathon Hicks
THE YOUNG ROYAL MARINE AT GALLIPOLI
On the 22 September 1914 my great uncle, Harry Osmond Fielding, of Claude Road, Cardiff made the decision to join the growing ranks of men who were answering Lord Kitchener’s call. Quite why Ossie chose to join the Royal Marine Light Infantry [RMLI] is unclear, but there was a strong Royal Marines recruiting drive in progress, with many of Kitchener’s new recruits being persuaded to join this unit at the enlistment venue.
Ossie was a Railway Clerk, who had been educated at the Municipal Secondary School, Cardiff. A high proportion of the recruits to the Marines were miners or labourers, who were extremely fit, strong and tough. Indeed, it says much for Ossie’s strength of character that he felt that he, as an office worker, would not be out of place in such company.
Enlisting at Bristol, the nearest RMLI recruiting station, he was enrolled in ‘C’ Company of the Plymouth Battalion. He was given the unique Service Number of Ply 331(S) – the ‘S’ being an indicator of his desire to enrol for the ‘period of the present emergency’, a short service enlistment. He was five feet six inches tall, with a fresh complexion, blue eyes and brown hair. Having been born on the 24 April 1896 at Cwmtillery, near Abertillery, he had lied about his age in order to enlist – his service record shows that he claimed to have been born in 1895.
Ossie was sent to Stonehouse Barracks in Plymouth for basic training with the RMLI. Short Service Marines underwent only six weeks’ training so there was a frantic pace. The physical demands of the training were hard, and given his previous occupation as an office worker, the first few weeks would have been difficult to adapt to.
On 29 January 1915 the Plymouth Battalion was at a camp at Shroton, near Blandford in Dorset and was ordered to prepare for embarkation for the eastern Mediterranean. The battalion left Shroton at midnight on 5 February and marched to Shillingstone Station, some five miles away. It was a pitch-black night and rain was pouring down. They eventually arrived at Devonport and set sail on 6 February aboard the Braemar Castle. They had no idea where they were bound, and, as the ship left Plymouth Sound, Ossie must have had mixed feelings.
The ship anchored in Mudros Bay on the island of Lemnos at 4.00 pm on 24 February. The following day Ossie and his fellow Marines received their orders to proceed to the Dardanelles and to prepare for landing. That evening, perhaps aptly, a heavy thunderstorm broke over the ship.
At 7 am on 4 March, four destroyers came alongside the Braemar Castle and Ossie’s ‘C‘ Company, along with ‘D’ Company, were taken across in preparation for the landing. Ossie’s company boarded a torpedo boat and were put ashore at Kum Kale on the Southern and Asiatic side of the peninsula. They were being put ashore as a screen for the demolition parties, whose mission was to destroy artillery guns and ammunition dumps which had not been destroyed by the naval bombardments.
Upon landing, the Marines made their way to Kum Kale fort unopposed but then came under fire from Turkish soldiers in two windmills close by. They met with strong opposition as they entered the fort, but cleared the area and searched the fort thoroughly.
They then proceeded in attack formation towards the village of Yeni-Shehr. About halfway to their objective they came under heavy rifle fire and the advance was stopped. The landing now disintegrated into chaos as they found themselves virtually cut off and unable to proceed. They were eventually evacuated but it was not until the following morning that the whole of ‘C’ Company was back on board the Braemar Castle.
That afternoon the Marines gathered on deck to bury their dead. This was their first casualty list, and as Ossie stood there and witnessed this scene, it must have brought home to him the kind of mission he was now on, and the danger he was placed in.
The landings at Gallipoli were arranged for 5.30 am on the morning of 25 April. At 6 pm the day before, the Plymouth Marines tried to sleep on the deck of the Braemar Castle, with their equipment all around them. At midnight they boarded a fishing trawler alongside, and at dawn the fleet began a heavy bombardment of the coast, whilst the Marines waited on the trawler a short distance away from the shore. When the signal came, they were transferred to navy cutters and were taken in close to the shore. They jumped into the water, which was waist deep, and waded ashore cluttered with equipment.
Ossie was part of a force of 2,000 men who landed at ‘Y’ Beach by 5.45 am: the Plymouth Battalion RMLI, the 1st Battalion King’s Own Scottish Borderers [KOSB] and the 4th Company of the South Wales Borderers [SWB]. They were led by the commander of Ossie’s own Plymouth Division, Lieutenant-Colonel Godfrey Matthews.
At around 1.00 pm the Turkish troops of the 25th Regiment began to arrive, but it was some three hours before they were sufficient in numbers to begin inflicting casualties on the British troops. At 5.00 pm the Marines advanced to the head of a ravine and at 6.30 pm fixed bayonets and rushed forward into the firing line. There was, however, not enough room in the line for them and they were given the order to retire. As they did so they came under heavy machine gun fire and had to drop flat.
Ossie now commenced digging a hole for himself in the barren earth, but the enemy fire was so fierce it is unlikely he dug any deeper than a few inches. He lay there, hardly daring to move as the bullets whistled by. At 10.30 pm the order came to turn around and advance to the front line.
The fire was continuous during the night and many times the Turks attempted an attack in massed formation. They advanced to within twenty-five yards of the British line but were driven back each time.
By the time dawn broke the Marines had lost 331 men killed, wounded or missing, the KOSB 296, and the SWB 70. Panic now seems to have set in and the soldiers began making for the beach. Boats were sent from the ships offshore to evacuate the wounded, and both wounded and able-bodied began to be evacuated, apparently of their own volition.
Just after 7.00 am the Turks attacked again. The centre broke, but the remainder and the Marines fixed bayonets, as they had no ammunition left, and drove them back again.
Eventually all the survivors reached the beach. By now they were tired and thirsty, their water bottles having been emptied several hours previously. They waded through waist deep water again to reach the cutters and were taken on board HMS Goliath, having been ashore for thirty-six hours. It was a sorry spectacle aboard the ship. Ossie and his fellow Marines were given a hot drink and a biscuit but all they really wanted to do was sleep and so they found a corner and lay down for the rest of the day.
Ossie had come under fire but had survived. He had fired on the Turks for over twelve hours until his ammunition was exhausted and had then taken part in a bayonet charge and hand-to-hand fighting before being evacuated, and all this occurring during the two days after his 19th birthday.
On the 6 May the Plymouth Battalion was involved in the Battle of Krithia, by now heavily defended and fortified. The ground in front of the British lines was open farmland, with excellent cover for Turkish soldiers in its copses and gullies. The Plymouth Battalion advanced towards the firing line just as day was breaking. By midday the attack was in trouble. Turkish machine gun fire had halted the British and French soldiers, so they dug in and waited for nightfall. Once darkness fell they left their trenches and advanced across open country, shrapnel bursting above them. They reached their new trenches and dug in for the night. At dawn they awoke cold and hungry and they were told to be ready to advance at any moment. They were shelled with shrapnel again but the order to advance never came and they spent another cold night in the trenches.
On the 5 June Ossie was again ordered into action, at the Third Battle of Krithia. When the artillery bombardment ceased at midday the men of the Plymouth Battalion advanced in the right centre of the line. They took terrible casualties but captured the centre of the Turkish front line trenches. By nightfall the British had lost a quarter of their troops, some 4,500 men. Survivors described there being bodies everywhere, covered in swarms of flies. The survivors themselves were ashen with shock.
There was precious little sleep for the Marines that day or the next and this obviously told on Ossie as on the 12 June he was sent to the 1st Field Ambulance Hospital suffering from influenza.
Two days later he was no better so he was evacuated back to Mudros, to the 15th Stationary Hospital. This was merely the start of what proved to be Enteric Fever. Enteric or Typhoid Fever is an acute, highly infectious disease caused by a bacillus transmitted chiefly by contaminated food or water and characterised by high fever, headache, coughing, intestinal haemorrhaging, and rose-colored spots on the skin.
He arrived at 21st General Hospital at Alexandria on 3 July and spent the next 25 days recovering, until on 28 July he was sent to Port Said. He stayed here until 16 September when he was invalided home on the Hospital Ship Runic. On 6 October he was in the Plymouth Hospital where his Enteric Fever was deemed to be ‘satisfactory’.
After he had recovered, Ossie spent a period of time based at Scapa Flow as part of the RMLI shore deatchment. Here he witnessed the departure of HMS Hampshire shortly before she hit a mine and sunk, taking Kitchener with her. In 1917 he was accepted for officer training with the Manchester Regiment. He subsequently served on the Western Front during the German Spring Offensive of 1918. There he suffered from neurasthenia – shell shock – and was hospitalised once more. In 1937 he sadly took his own life, nineteen years to the day of the event that caused his trauma — a dreadful fight with the Germans in no man’s land.
Dr Jonathan Hicks is a military historian and novelist, and sits on a number of committees advising the Welsh Government on the Centenary of the Great War. He is the author of the novel ‘The Dead of Mametz’ and its follow-up ‘Demons Walk Among Us’ . His latest book ‘Barry and the Second World War’ is the result of seven years of research and interviews. He is currently updating his 2007 book ‘Barry and the Great War’ and researching for his next book ‘ The Welsh at Mametz Wood, July 1916’.
Dr Jonathan Hicks is the Headteacher of St Cyres Secondary School in Penarth, Wales. His two novels ‘The Dead of Mametz’ and ‘Demons Walk Among Us’ are available through: amazon.com, GWales.com and Ylolfa.com