Once in a lifetime – The Descendants Project

Invited by a prize-winning artist to sit for a portrait. How often does that happen?

A portrait to commemorate the 100th Anniversary of the Gallipoli campaign and honour the memory of my great-grandfather, Sergeant Andrew Stewart Duncan. A once-in-a-lifetime experience.

I have the privilege of participating in The Descendants Project, an exhibition of twenty portraits by Mertim Gökalp of Australian and Turkish war descendants, exploring the understanding of peace between the two nations.

Each subject shared an object that had once belonged to their ancestor, along with a hand-written letter explaining their feelings about the project.

Andrew Palmer by Mertim Gokalp. © 2014 by THE DESCENDANTS PROJECT. Reproduced with permission of the artist.
Andrew Palmer by Mertim Gokalp. © 2014 by THE DESCENDANTS PROJECT. Reproduced with permission of the artist.
In my letter I wrote:

For the portrait sitting I was very fortunate to be able to borrow Andy’s fob watch. I only learned of its existence in 2013, when I made contact with a distant relative. To be able to hold Andy’s watch, to run my fingers over the engraved initials, “A.S.D.”, was very special. Andy had bought the watch in England in 1917, then posted it back to his wife Jane in Australia – probably after he learned he would soon rejoin his battalion on the Somme. For me holding the watch in 2014, I felt it still contained Andy’s hopes and fears from 1917.

The exhibition launched on 10 April. Of course I had to fly to Sydney along with my son to be part of it. Meeting other descendants that night made me realise how well Mertim had captured their essence in his art. Learning the Australian and Turkish stories gave a human face and an intimacy to the countless acts of sacrifice and heroism on both sides.

More sobering still is the realisation that the lives commemorated by The Descendants Project are a mere twenty out of the hundreds of thousands who fought at Gallipoli.

The Descendants Project exhibition is at The Rocks Discovery Museum (3rd floor) Sydney, 10 April – 3 May 2015

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Interlude

Pop, you died long before I was born. Although I never knew you, I will remember you.

You were wounded in the Gallipoli landing. The hot shrapnel that sliced into your back nearly killed you, but you survived. Other soldiers were repatriated to Australia for lesser wounds, but you were sent back to Gallipoli. Was it then that you learned your brother Hugh had been killed at Cape Helles? With lost and delayed mail you may not have known for some time.

You fought at Gallipoli until the evacuation. Then you were sent to France. The industrialised warfare and the scale of destruction were like nothing you had ever seen.

You took part in the capture of Pozières on 23 July 1916. The next evening the Germans started a massive artillery bombardment and you were injured for a second time. You don’t remember what happened. Perhaps you were buried by that exploding shell. Your leg wound was nothing compared to the shell shock that gripped you.

You were shipped to England to recover, but you couldn’t shake feelings of dread, the churning stomach, the lack of appetite, the bad dreams. You hoped to be sent home to Australia, to the wife you had married just four months before the war. After all, most shell shock cases were given a military discharge, weren’t they?

But you weren’t sent home. You were moved from one hospital to another, then to convalescent accommodation. Your hopes of a trip back to Australia lessened with each new day you spent in England.

On 23 March 1917 you returned to active duty. You surely knew that it was exactly eight months since your battalion had stormed Pozières.

You were posted to the A.I.F. training units on Salisbury Plains. It must have been a relief not to be sent back to the Somme. You had the job of training reinforcements just arrived from Australia, of preparing them for the horrors of the Western Front. Were you one of those tough-as-nails Regimental Sergeant Majors? Did you push your men harder because you knew what they were about to face?

Then, on 19 September 1917, you received orders to rejoin your original unit in France. For over a year you had been in England, hearing accounts of the battles of the Western Front, seeing injured men come through the training camps to be rehabilitated and sent back to the front. Now it was your turn. Did you fight a feeling of returning dread as you read your orders, or were you fatalistic about what was to come?

Wounded, then back to Anzac Cove

Crammed full with wounded from the Gallipoli landing, the S.S. Ionian made for 17th General Hospital in Alexandria, Egypt. If Andy was lucky, he would have been dosed with morphine for the journey, but he may not have received decent medical treatment until he reached Egypt.

P01016.002
The wharf at Alexandria, showing ambulances waiting to take from the steamship Ionian men wounded in the Gallipoli landing. Australian War Memorial collection P01016.002

Andy was admitted to hospital on 1 May. His condition was recorded as “dangerously ill”, but Jane Duncan received the standard notification

Sergeant Duncan is not reported seriously wounded. In the absence of further reports Egypt advises all wounded to be progressing satisfactorily.

Jane probably provided The Adelaide Chronicle with its 29 May article

SERGEANT A. S. DUNCAN. Chronicle (Adelaide, SA) 29 May 1915, p. 45
SERGEANT A. S. DUNCAN. (1915, May 29), Adelaide Chronicle, p. 45. Newspaper article found in Trove reproduced courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

Andy’s hospital stay gave him some respite from the dysentry and enteric fever that swept through the men at Gallipoli. He was treated at Alexandria for 37 days, then spent another 12 days at Tanta Government Hospital.

On 17 June 1915 Andy was discharged from hospital, carrying in his back the Turkish shrapnel that was to torment him in later years. He was judged fit for duty, and rejoined his unit at Gallipoli on 8 July 1915.

At the start of the great August offensive Andy was promoted to Company Sergeant Major. During the battle for Lone Pine Andy’s battalion was in support at Silt Spur, holding the existing lines.

Anzac Cove, Gallipoli, Turkey, 1915-08-17. A soldier from the 10th Infantry Battalion in a tunnel trench at Silt Spur. Shafts of light beam into the tunnel from firing positions (right), while on the same side bombing tunnels lead off from the main corridor. Australian War Memorial collection P02321.026
Anzac Cove, Gallipoli, Turkey, 1915-08-17. A soldier from the 10th Infantry Battalion in a tunnel trench at Silt Spur. Shafts of light beam into the tunnel from firing positions (right), while on the same side bombing tunnels lead off from the main corridor.
Australian War Memorial collection P02321.026

September’s cooler weather turned wintry by the end of the month. On 23 September Andy was reprimanded for neglect of duty at Anzac. Details of the reprimand are not recorded, but it appears to have come at a time of relative quiet. During lulls in the fighting some men took the opportunity to move about the trenches more freely, and some received reprimands for not staying below the trench parapet.  One officer had been reprimanded earlier for setting a bad example for his men. Perhaps Andy’s reprimand was of a similar nature.

November brought violent storms and heavy seas. On 21 November, in bitterly cold weather, the 10th Battalion left Gallipoli, rotated out of the line for a rest at Mudros on Lemnos island.  What Andy did not know was that he was leaving the peninsula for the last time.

The History of the 10th Battalion records that on arrival at Mudros

the blizzard which caused so many casualties on Gallipoli came upon them. That blizzard “which in four days by flood and frost caused 200 deaths, 10,000 unfit for further service, and 30,000 sickened and made old”.

During this severe weather Andy was reprimanded a second time for neglect of duty at Serpi rest camp.

While at Mudros Andy would have learned that Gallipoli was to be evacuated. How did he feel on hearing the news? There must have been relief, certainly. But he would not have the chance to visit the graves of the fallen and say a final farewell. Did he feel that he was letting his mates down by evacuating after all they had fought for?

Composite view of Mudros Harbour on the Greek island of Lemnos near the Turkish coast and tent lines at Serpi Camp. The camp at the time was occupied by the 3rd Brigade, after the evacuation of Gallipoli. Australian War Memorial collection A02170C & A02170D
Composite view of Mudros Harbour on the Greek island of Lemnos near the Turkish coast and tent lines at Serpi Camp. The camp at the time was occupied by the 3rd Brigade, after the evacuation of Gallipoli.
Australian War Memorial collection A02170C & A02170D

Andy spent Christmas day 1915 on Lemnos. The next day he sailed for Egypt, disembarking at Alexandria on 29 December and entraining for Tel-el-Kebir Camp.

Sources

NAA: B2455, DUNCAN, AS. National Archives of Australia.

Kearney, R. 2005. Silent Voices: the story of the 10th Battalion AIF in Australia, Egypt, Gallipoli, France and Belgium during the Great War 1914-1918. New Holland Publishers, Sydney.

Limb, A. 1919. History of the 10th Battalion A.I.F. 1st ed. London; Melbourne: Cassell and Co.

Walsh, M. 1997. War Diary of Lieutenant Colonel Frederick E. Forrest MC.

Bean, C.E.W. 2007. Bean’s Gallipoli: The diaries of Australia’s official war correspondent. Edited and annotated by Kevin Fewster 3rd ed. Crows Nest NSW: Allen & Unwin.

Gallipoli. 25 April 1915

THE DARDANELLES. ALLIES IN GALLIPOLI. (1915, April 30) Bendigo Advertiser (Vic) p. 7. Newspaper article found in Trove reproduced courtesy of the National Library of Australia.
THE DARDANELLES. ALLIES IN GALLIPOLI. (1915, April 30) Bendigo Advertiser (Vic) p. 7. Newspaper article found in Trove reproduced courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

In the early hours of 25 April, Andy Duncan was on board a destroyer – possibly the Scourge – anchored about 5 miles from the Gallipoli shore. A hot breakfast and a tot of rum gave some comfort in the chill night air.

The NCOs including Andy were responsible for enforcing the rules of no noise, no lights, no smoking while the men waited for the moon to set and orders to embark.

Andy’s battalion was part of the covering force for the Anzac landing and the first ashore. The 10th Battalion war diaries give some idea of Andy’s arrival at Anzac Cove

At 3AM on Sunday 25th April B & D Coy & Hd Qr Battn Staff Signallers & Scouts left the Prince of Wales in cutters life boats &c being towed to within about 50 yd of shore by steam boats. Absolute silence was maintained by all in our boats & directly the boats were cast off by the steamers we quickly rowed towards the shore. Dawn was just breaking 4.15  & no sound was heard except the splash of the oars.

We thought that our landing was to be effected quite unopposed, but when our boats were within about 30 yd of the beach a rifle was fired from the hill in front of us above the beach, right in front of where we were heading for. Almost immediately heavy rifle & machine gun fire was opened upon us. We had to row for another 15 yards or so before we reached water shallow enough to get out of boats. This was about 4.15 AM – we got out of boats into about 3 ft of water & landed on a stony bottom. The stones were round & slimy & many officers & men slipped on them & fell into the water, but all bravely & silently made all haste to reach the beach, under a perfect hail of bullets. Many men fixed their bayonets before reaching the shore. I ordered the men to lay down, fix bayonets & remove packs. This was done in a couple of minutes.

The men of 9, 10 & 11 Bn were all mixed up on the beach but there was no time to organize so I ordered all to advance. The men sprang to their feet at once & with a cheer charged up the hill held by the Turks & drove them off it, following up their success by firing on the quickly retreating foe.

For the next 96 hours the men of the 10th Battalion experienced continuous fighting, shattered nerves and little or no sleep. If Andy was with the parts of his battalion fighting around 400 Plateau, then he was where the shrapnel was the heaviest. Shells burst just above the Australians. Red-hot pellets whipped through the air, flaying the unprotected backs of the men as they sought cover from enemy rifle and machine-gun fire.

Andy was hit.

He was ferried from the beach out to the ship Ionian with severe shrapnel wounds to his back. Medical staff on board classified the wounds of the soldiers arriving, sending the dead and those beyond help to a makeshift morgue in the ship’s hold.

Andy’s condition was assessed. He heard a voice say, “put him in the hold”.

As Andy was being consigned to the morgue he managed to say, “Give us a bloody drink”. Those words probably saved his life. He was moved to lie with the wounded.

Sources

Plowman, P. 2013. Voyage to Gallipoli. Rosenberg Publishing, Kenthurst, NSW.

1915 AWM4, 23/27/2 – March – April 1915. First World War Diaries – AWM4, Sub-class 23/27, 10th Infantry Battalion.

Pedersen, P. 2010. The Anzacs: From Gallipoli to the Western Front. Penguin Australia.