A letter to Arthur Wheen
A Gallipoli letter transcribed by one of our volunteers, Patrick
6 August 2015
This letter to Arthur Wesley Wheen (1897–1971), nicknamed “Skin”, requires no explanation but perhaps a little background.
Leslie Langham Dinning enlisted on 1 September 1914. Like Wheen (see my previous blog), he was the son of a Methodist Minister from the Hawkesbury-Windsor area of NSW and a boyhood friend of Wheen’s. With Service No. 660, he was an early enlistment and embarked for the front on 18 October 1914. He was soon promoted to lance-corporal on 29 April 1915, then to corporal (14 December 1915) and, finally, sergeant (14 February 1916).
This letter to his as-yet-un-enlisted friend, Arthur, is a laconic report of frontline ANZAC experience and future prospects. Dinning shows no resentment for his lot, but exhibits the equanimity necessary for a young man to cope with the maiming and death of friend and foe. He foresees that his future is more of the same once recovered from his wound. Dinning was wounded on 5 June 1915 and then more seriously on 10–11 August 1915 at the battle of Lone Pine, the preparations for which he describes in this letter. He moved to the Western Front in early 1916 where he received a grievous bullet wound in the chest, probably, at the battle of Monquet Farm where Australia suffered huge casualties. Dinning never returned to the front. He was repatriated to Australia in 1918 where he continued to be treated until his discharge in 1920.
His remarks about the interest of General Birdwood in the readiness of his troops for the battle of Lone Pine provide a contrast with Birdwood’s later treatment of Arthur Wheen and George Pratt in the latter’s letter of 23 August 1917 [MS.Acc12.113:Box 2 folder 13 item 5]. In this instance, Wheen and Pratt were given 25 minutes’ notice to find transport and travel eight kilometres to receive from General Birdwood a bar to Wheen’s military medal (MM) and a MM for Pratt. Having borrowed a messenger’s bicycle, they arrived at the parade ground as the General and his entourage were departing in their cars.
Now the letter …
I suppose you know by this time that I have been slightly wounded. A piece of Turkish shrapnel did the trick, hitting me in the left loin, but fortunately doing no more harm than simply breaking the skin and leaving a scar about the size of your thumb nail. It is healing rapidly and in a day or two I will be going off to the convalescent camp from which, after a week’s rest, I will be forwarded on back to the firing line. To tell you all the experiences that I have been through since we made that memorable landing till the day I was wounded would be a job I wouldn’t care to set myself out to accomplish. Some day I may, preferable a day on a steamer with its nose turned towards Australia when a chap can rest his mind, and think what’s happened. Things have happened, and at night time when lying on a comfortable mattress, vastly different from the uncomfortable ‘dug out’, I often wonder whether during the past short 3 months I have been living in another world or not. A chap seems to change in some way; possibly gets a new cast iron set of feelings, for some of the things you have to do on the field you would absolutely abhor doing in ordinary life. For instance, here, I have gone without a flinch and helped gather together the smashed pieces of a man’s body, help a man with half his head blown off and one of his hands hanging by pieces of flesh, little things which in ordinary life may tend to prey on your mind. Little things they are, too, when I come to compare them with a battleship sinking, lines of Turks being mowed down like grass before machine guns which soon presents a field of 3 or 4 hundred dead and wounded. I am beginning to see now what our Commander-in-Chief, Sir Ian Hamilton, means when he says you haven’t seen real life until you take part in active service. Also, when the “Tommy” said, “We ain’t got much money, but we are seeing life.”
However, enough of this. I suppose you have been wondering why the operations here have been so slow and why we are not yet in Constantinople. I haven’t enough tactical knowledge of the operation here to explain it (in fact the censor would not allow me to if I had), but I know it would not have been any use for us (Australians) to advance until the English had taken the hill Achi Baba. A new move, however, has been made on our left and in conjunction with this, the 1st Brigade i.e. 1st, 2nd, 3rd & 4th Battalions made a short advance to capture a certain position. At least 3 weeks before the move we knew something was in the wind. Whilst down on the beach getting water I saw hundreds of new stretchers being landed, fatigue parties were constantly employed carrying boxes & boxes of ammunition from the beach to the trenches, whilst the appearance of fresh troops lying in reserve in the valley were ample evidence that more hard fighting was about to commence. For weeks before, hundreds of men were employed at night time digging gun emplacements and deepening trenches. It was practically impossible to do this in the day time as the earth being thrown up over the parapet drew the artillery fire of the Turks with the usual result of casualties. Then one night two huge fatigue parties were sent down to a valley near by, Shrapnel Valley by name, and with much hard pulling and cursing dragged out two field guns, which had been cleverly hidden from the German [T]aube* and placed them in position just in rear of our trenches. From the direction in which the guns pointed we had a shrewd idea of what part of the Turks’ trenches was to be the object of our attack, and with many extra heart beats and knee trembling we found it was a position of great strength, and one which the Turks had taken great pains to fortify, being very liberal in the use of barbed wire, tree trunks & even concrete. Owing to the wisdom of the authorities in keeping things, at a time like this, so very secret and the confusion caused by the huge number of fantastic rumours one doesn’t know the actual facts, and then you don’t get the lot of them, until perhaps 30 minutes before the operation commences. For instance, we didn’t know whether we (1st Brigade) were to carry out the attack or whether, after making all the preparations, we were to hand things over to say a fresh body of English troops and let them “carry on”. However all our doubts as to who was to make the attack were soon put to the wind by the General, himself. General Birdwood came through our trenches and as I was making a few observations with the periscope he looked straight at me and said, “First Battalion feeling fit?” I answered in the affirmative and straining my ears as he passed I heard him make this reply to a question asked of him by our colonel, “It’s no secret now.” Now we knew the 1st Brigade were in for it. Things began to liven up during the next few days and the excitement was intense. Our artillery began to pound away with high explosive shells at the Turks’ trenches, a sight well worth seeing. Most of the Turk trenches were provided with overhead cover consisting of logs, sandbags and galvanised iron. When one of our shells struck the overhead cover on a trench a huge cloud of dust would be sent up in which you could see logs, broken iron, bushes, sandbags and as the more imaginative affirm legs and arms of Turks. Picks & shovels, extra rations, water, & sandbags were brought up and each man given 24 hrs iron rations, a full water bottle, a pick or a shovel, 200 rounds of ammunition and 3 sandbags. Some carried in addition to this, periscopes, signalling flags, bombs and other things which would be needed when we took up our new position in the Turks’ trenches. At last a welcome 24hrs rest was given us and we knew that probably the next day would be the day of attack. After this much needed rest the word suddenly came through like an electric current “to get ready to move off at 3 pm” and at 3 pm properly equipped, we moved from our trenches which were taken over by a battalion from 2nd Brigade, and marched to some reserve trenches in rear of the 2nd Battalion lines. Here we found also the 3rd & 4th Batts. Anxiously waiting, and here also we found to our relief that the 2nd Battalion were to make the charge supported by the 3rd & 4th with the 1st Batt. in reserve. Cramped in the trenches like a lot of sheep waiting slaughter we curiously waited to see what was the next move. The artillery were next on the programme and at 5 pm supported by howitzers in the valley and a couple of cruisers out at sea they commenced a bombardment on the portion of the Turk trenches about to be attacked, which compared to the minor bombardment we had seen during the past week was like comparing a waterfall with the drip-drip of a tap. Shells, high explosives, simply rained on the trenches and the screech of the shells as they tore through the air together with the report of the explosion provided the best big drum music I’ve heard since we landed. I don’t think you’ve heard any sound in Australia like a high explosive shell bursting. You want to come to some of these barbarous lands like Turkey to hear them. It is like hearing at the same time a loud explosion and the screeching of hundreds of bullets. It is a haunting sound and liable to produce a nightmare. Things, however, weren’t to be carried on just as we would like to have them carried on as the Turkish artillery suddenly woke up and gave us a thorough drenching with shrapnel. They seemed to know the exact place from where the attack was to be launched as ¾ of their fire was directed on the spot where the 1st Brigade was waiting.
Not content with shrapnel they sent over a few “Johnsons” or more fully Jack Johnsons huge 11” shells which do more harm morally than materially. When you hear the buzz, it’s not a whizz, of them through the air and see them explode you feel as if you had no nerves and that you would like to run. Then the blood began to flow. The Turkish shrapnel came in a never ceasing hail and many who in the execution of their duty, such as stretcher bearers, despatch carriers etc., had to move about the open were hit. At 5.30 pm the bombardment suddenly ceased and immediately the crack-crack of rifles was heard telling us the 2nd Battalion were leaping over the trenches making the charge while the Turks were firing on them. To cut a long story short, our turn soon came to get over to the Turk trenches and help hold them. I shall never forget the 75 yds sprint I made that evening about 7 pm. The Turks had their shrapnel and machine guns trained on the spot over which we had to double. How I got over without being hit is something I can’t tell you. The whole of the way was lighted by the flash of bursting shrapnel while machine guns were making the bullets sing around me. I saw 3 chaps in front of me drop one after the other. Once in the Turks’ trenches, I felt safer and immediately began to look round for some of my section to get them along to where help was most needed. As we made our way through the trench I saw the strangest of all strange sights – some of the Australians going through the dead Turks’ pockets getting money, cigarette cases and other souvenirs while their comrades were fighting for dear life farther on holding the trenches so dearly won. What I saw in those trenches during the next two days and what we had to do is beyond description. Turks mangled into all shapes, parts of bodies lying about, wounded staring at you in the last agonies of death vainly calling for water, standing on dead Turks all through the night for lack of room. It was Hell – I can’t describe it.
I’d like to write more but paper won’t allow. I’ve only a limited supply with which to write a good number of letters. I’m “stony broke” and can’t buy any more. (They don’t pay hospital patients.) If you don’t mind, I would be glad if you would show my father this letter and ask him to show it to my relatives at Gordon as I could not say much in the note I sent him.
Give my kindest regards to all at home and “Whaincliffe” and best wishes for a successful course at the Uni.
Yours very sincerely
Transcribed by Patrick Robertson, Volunteer, Pictures & Manuscripts Branch, 14 March 2014