A letter from Corporal William J Powell

A LETTER – found inside an old chest in a Berri home and revealed publicly for the first time today – has sketched an Australian digger’s first-hand view of the battleground horrors at Gallipoli 100 years ago.

The letter from Corporal William J Powell to former champion Riverland and Port Adelaide footballer Harold Oliver during World War I is published below.



Ghain Tufficha Malta

Dear Harold

I must first apologise for not writing to you before as I promised but really it is not because I have not often thought of you as on the contrary I have scores of times thought of you and made up my mind to drop you a line but something or other has always happened and compelled me to postpone it, however I hope you will take the will for the deed and forgive the omission of the latter.

Well Harold, old boy, we had rather a rough start to the first week of the voyage and experienced very rough weather as far as Freemantle and the majority of us including myself were very, soon down and out with the Mal-de-mer. I think our Colonel (Dollman) was the greatest sufferer of any. He was quite prostrated and was confined to his cabin until just before we reached Freemantle. We called in there but no leave was granted except to about 20 of whom luckily was one and I can assure you we had a very pleasant time in the chief seaport of WA. It was a public holiday on the day we were ashore and as the weather was perfect needless to say there were thousands of people about and I will never forget the kindness that the good people of Freemantle extended to us. They simply couldn’t do enough for us and treated us royally everywhere we went they refused to accept payment for admission. I went to the football in the afternoon and was ushered into the Grand Stand and had the pleasure of seeing an exciting match between East Freemantle and Midland Junction, but although watching them play my heart was with my old love the good old Ports away back in dear old SA (It was a great blow to me to hear that you were beaten in the final play off, but never mind better luck next season when I hope to again have the great pleasure of urging you on).

There is one thing Harold that I must mention to you right here and it is something which ought to make you and Mrs Oliver and also little Miss Oliver phoned and it is this that since leaving Dear old Australia I have heard your name and fame discussed in three different countries namely Egypt, Lemnos Island (Greece) and at the front offensive in the ferocity line even amid the din of battle when bullets bombs and shrapnel were dealing both death and destruction on all sides I have oft times heard your fame discussed in arguments about football and I remember as we were travelling from Port Suez to Cairo going through the valley of the Nile by train we passed some Indians who are stationed there, playing football and as the ball was up in the air someone on our train yelled out the old famous battle cry “Oliver”. I can tell you Harold it sent a thrill of pleasure right through me to hear the good old name and know that others besides myself had not forgotten you.

Now I must go on with my travel. We left Freemantle on Tuesday June 5th and also left 85 of our men behind who had managed to get ashore. They were all classed as deserters although I am sure they majority of them were not so by any means included among them was Corp W Neill ex Port Policeman. I can tell you Harold I felt a mist before my eyes as I gazed my last on the shores of Dear old Australia and as the dim outline faded away from view I wondered whether I would be spared to return once again to the loves ones I was leaving behind.

I can assure you it was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life parting from my dear Wife and Children, but duty must be done and better to fight the foe outside your home than inside and God forbid that the good people of Australia will ever have to view the awful scenes of bloodshed that occur on the battlefields of today.

I never want to witness again what I saw on the Blood-soaked heights of Gallipoli. How I got out of it alive God only knows, or any other man.

It was purely and simply a Human Slaughter House. The English soldiers who had been fighting in France before coming out to the Dardanelles say France was like a picnic in comparison.

Well to get on again, we left Australia absolutely on our own, no escort or anything and heading for the Indian Ocean started on our long voyage and knowing that some of us at least would never return such is the fortune of war. Our voyage across the Indian Ocean was fairly pleasant on the whole but rather monotonous. We had to do a little drill every day and attend lectures etc, but gradually as the weather became hotter the drill was lessened crossing the “Line” we had exceedingly hot and muggy weather, but it was even worse in the Red Sea (which by the way is not red at all but a deep blue) and most of us were going about almost naked. Fortunately there were no ladies on board. It is a very trying heat in the Red Sea and makes you feel as if you had been rubbed all over with grease and no amount of washing will freshen you up, Early one morning about 2am a lot of us were sleeping on deck when in an instant a tropical shower came down in buckets full and we were drenched to the skin before you could say ….It was laughable to say the confusion as we all made for the shelter down below, but comparing it with what we have been through now in the battle it felt like comparing a flea to an elephant.

When we arrived in the harbour of Port Suez we found it crowded with shipping, some waiting to get through the Canal and others outward bound had been through and were waiting their clearances. We noticed that nearly all the boats had their bridges protected by sand bags as a precaution against Turkish snipers who were reported to be firing upon them as they went through the canal. We anchored in the harbour for a couple of days and were then ordered to proceed to the wharf and disembark and entrain for Cairo. It was very amusing to watch the natives unloading our boat. There would be about 100 around one case and all jabbering away like monkeys. They are terrible thieves and as one of them was caught getting away with a pair of shoes he was handed over to a native policeman who at once proceeded to deal with him. He grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and started whacking him over the head with a thick cane as he pushed him in front of him towards the police station. I reckon he must have been more dead than alive by the time he reached there.

The town of Port Suez is a fairly big place and the houses appeared to be all two or more stories high, some four or five. The population seemed to be mostly natives of all shades mostly Arabs and Egyptians and Turks and the Muslim races and they are indeed a dirty formative race and would take you down right and left if given the least opportunity. We saw a few Europeans including a few Englishmen, some of whom appeared to be stranded sailors.

We entrained at 6pm for Cairo, the famous or rather infamous capital of Egypt. We passed right along the banks of the Canal and afterwards through the valley of the Nile and were surprised to see the wonderful vegetation of this fertile valley which is all irrigated from the Nile and maize and all sorts of vegetables including melons, tomatoes and grapes grow in profusion, the maize to a height of 8 or 10ft. We stopped at several villages and were besieged by natives trying to sell watermelons grapes but most of us who bought any found them unripe and the fun started when fellows started aiming cut melons at every native thing they could see and had some fine sport. I got in one or two good shots myself. Well at about midnight we arrived in Cairo and then went to Heliopolis, a suburb of the former city and about 8 miles distant. We detrained here and marched to our camp site on the fringe of the desert on the out skirts of Heliopolis. We arrived here about 2.30am and tired; hungry and weary we just lay down for an hour or two till day light which occurs in Egypt at about 4am. The weather was extremely hot as in fact it was during the whole time we were in Egypt. It always appeared to be about 115 degrees in the shade and the second day after we arrived I had the misfortune to get a sunstroke and very nearly rolled up.

The population of Cairo and Heliopolis is composed of practically every colour creed and nationality in the world, and the very dregs at that. I had heard before I left Australia that it was the wickedest city on the face of the globe and it is a very accurate description as I saw things going on there that I would not have believed unless I had seen them with my own eyes. No wonder so many of the young fellows in our contingents get into trouble, the temptation is very strong especially in the way of women of whom there are thousands of what are known as unfortunates. They are of every nationality and some very handsome ones too and I can assure you they make good use of their charms. They live in great houses 4 & 5 stories high and sit out on the balcony dressed in only a silk chemise and stockings and shoes and invite all and sundry to come inside. I don’t know what the Rev. Lionel Fletcher would say if he saw them. I think he would drop dead don’t you.

There are some very fine buildings in Cairo also in Heliopolis there is nothing in Australia to compare to them. You never saw a single story building. Nearly all 4 or more stories and the decorations both inside and out are magnificent. It is all the more surprising when you consider that all the work is done by natives supervised by Europeans as architects. It must make Australian builders feel pretty small when they see buildings like them. I don’t know the population of Cairo but they say it is over a million and I don’t doubt it. You have to be very careful when doing business as they try to take you down at every turn and they pester the lift out of you to buy, buy, and buy if you go into a cafe you will be surrounded by pedlars of all descriptions selling every artifact under the sun. Our fellows generally carry a cane and my word you needed one.

We were camped in three different places in Egypt, and for a time in via Heliopolis, Abbasid and for a time in the Kaser-el-Nil Barracks in Cairo on the banks of the famous river Nile. It is an immense building capable of accommodating thousands of troops. I made some good friends in Cairo and on the whole spent a fairly pleasant time although we had to do some very serious training through the desert. Alongside of our camp at Abbasid there was a remount depot containing 72,000 horses said to be the largest mob ever got together in the history of the world. Some of the finest horseflesh in the world was there, horses from everywhere.

Well at last we got what we had been anxiously waiting for, orders to pack up and leave for the front, so we entrained for Alexandria, the chief seaport of Egypt on the coast of the Mediterranean 80 miles from Cairo. We stayed there a day. It is a wonderful city and horribly busy. The harbour was crowded with shipping. We boarded the SS Ivernia a sister ship to the Lusitania and set sail for the Dardanelles. There was two Battalions on board the 27th and 28th from WA and during our 3 days voyage in the Mediterranean we were in deadly danger from submarines, mines and ire as only 4 days previously the Southland had been torpedoed. Our boat was chased but by zig and zagging in her course we managed to evade them and arrived safely at Lemnos Island which is being used as a base for the Naval and Military. It is an island leased by England from Greece. The population are all of the latter race except the military at present of whom there are thousands mostly invalids from the front. The harbour is said to be the best in the world and there were hundreds of steamers in it while we were there of all descriptions from 2,500 tons, hospital ships such as the Ma…lan. Mcquitana. Giant warships and cruisers down to the little but very useful submarines. It was a wonderful sight. None of us had ever seen such a sight before or I don’t suppose we ever will again. We were anchored here for 3 days during which time some of us including myself went ashore and had a look around. We had a drink and got some fruit including grapes and tomatoes which seem to grow well here also in Egypt.

Well Harold, we had a very impressive sermon on board on the Sunday before we reached the Peninsular.

Our Chaplin preached a very urgent sermon and impressed on all of us to prepare for the very serious ordeal which we were just about to enter.

He said before next Sunday draws some of you at least will have gone to meet your God.

I can assure you it was a very solemn warning and made us all do some hard thinking, but I for one thought if I am to die, I will die as I have lived and I think that is what the majority thought as right here.

I may say that strange as it may seem, I can truthfully say that I heard more cursing and swearing on the battle field than ever I had heard before in my life even when men were getting blown to pieces and killed all around of you, you could hear curses everywhere.

This was not the fault of our Chaplin who was a real Christian man if ever there was one and he was kept going night and day reading the burial services. It’s a miracle he was not killed himself as he would go on calmly reading the service when shrapnel would be bursting all around. He at last had to leave suffering from dysentery. His name was Stephen.

I shall never forget the first night we arrived on the Gallipoli Peninsular. It was pitch dark and at midnight and the din of the big guns, artillery bombs, machine guns and rifle row was simply awful and hell…….hissing out in all directions.

We thought the fighting would be miles inland but were very soon undeceived and found we were right in the thick of it as soon as we landed.

We were rushed up to hold an important position and for the 3 months we were there we managed to hold our ground although the Turks tried their hardest to drive us back and sometimes fairly rained their fire on us. Our Battalion was fairly lucky and did not have many casualties but the 28th who were with us were very unlucky and lost many fine men.

Regards myself, I had some very narrow escapes and once I Was blown up into the air by a bomb which has left my nerves a good deal shaken, but I was marvelously lucky as I have seen some bombs blow men to atoms.

They all were surprised when they saw me jump up and make for cover. And I don’t mind telling you I was surprised myself for days afterwards I was almost Deaf.

I also had a bullet through my hat but reckon any man who spent 10 weeks at Gallipoli and comes away alive is very very lucky.

Of course for every man who was killed or wounded there were at least 10 who were sent away through sickness, and I myself had to leave through illness having an attack of Pleurisylaso Rheumatism.

I never had my clothes off during the whole time I was on the Peninsular and several times I was wet through to the skin, and they were the only occasions when you could get water on your skin as I only had about 3 washes in as many months and very little to drink either.

I came to Malta where I am in the Hospital ship Devanna and have been here now about 8 weeks first in St Paul’s Hospital at Pembroke, and at present in a convalescent camp at Ghain-Tuppicha.

The capital city of Malta is called Valletta and is a fine city. I will send you some post cards very soon. There are some fine cathedrals here in fact ………………..here for every family. They ought to be very religious but in reality are no better than what they are in Egypt and that is well not good by a long way.

I think I shall be sent home soon on a six months furlough and hope to find you in the best of health and quite recovered from the pains which I see you received during the football season and hoping Mrs Oliver and little Miss Oliver are quite well and wishing you all a happy prosperous New year, with very kindest regards to all

I remain

Always your sincere friend

William J Powell No 162.a.comp 27th battalion AIF.

Kindly remember me to Jack Gill, Jack Mack, Arthur Biscombe and Little Congee. I have often thought of all of you.

I told Mrs Powell to convey my kindest regards to you every letter. I hope she has done so.

It would be useless to answer this Harold as I expect to be with you almost as soon as you get this. You must excuse me using pencil but the ink has become exhausted

Au Revoir, Hoping to see you soon