Across my many years as a student of history, the discipline has never failed to surprise me. Truth is often stranger than fiction. Delving into the sources and records of an event throws up stories that connect the unexpected and travel down the years to resonate with us today. Today’s story is another part of the Hellenic link to Anzac, bringing together a suffragette and her former Victorian Governor husband, their ocean-going yacht, the waters of the northern Aegean, the Greek residents of Imbros and the Gallipoli campaign.
I first came across a reference to this story in a reading of the Gallipoli commander General Sir Ian Hamilton’s Gallipoli Diary. Amongst his daily reflections on the ups and downs of the campaign was a reference that intrigued me. As he inspected the Allied field hospitals on Lemnos in early September 1915, with their Australian and Canadian nurses, he remarked on that he had not seen such women “since Lady Brassey descended in some miraculous manner upon Imbros”.
Imbros was the location of a major Allied base for the Gallipoli campaign (along with the nearby Islands of Lemnos and Tenedos), with rest camps, stores, medical facilities and Hamilton’s own campaign Headquarters, its bay providing a roadstead for the hundreds of Allied vessels going to and from the Peninsula. Recently liberated from Ottoman rule in 1913, its Greek population hosted these new arrivals from across the globe. Having researched the story of the Australian and other nurses on Lemnos for many years I was intrigued. Who was Lady Brassey and what was she doing in the war-zone of the Gallipoli campaign?
Further research revealed that Lady Brassey was Sybil Capell, an aristocrat in her own right and by the time she arrived at Imbros was the second wife of Lord Thomas Brassey, an English peer and former Liberal MP. Both were supporters of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Society, Sybil the President of several its local branches and participant at some of the large suffragette rallies organised before the war. One should remember that, in arguing for votes for women, the suffragettes challenged the status quo, in the face of stern measures from the authorities. In joining this movement Sybil was in the company of not only the famous Pankhurst women but also Australian suffragettes like Vida Goldstein, Catherine Spence and Miles Franklin. The outbreak of the First World War split the movement with some opposing the war and others suspending political activity in favour of supporting the war effort as a demonstration of their loyalty in the hope of gaining a women’s suffrage dividend at war’s end.
This is the context in which to view Lady Brassey’s arrival at Kephalos Bay in 1915. The couple were accomplished sailors. Thomas had strong connections to the Royal Navy and had sailed the world, even to Australia and back. He had even sailed the waters of the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean with his first wife Annie, visiting the Greek Islands, Constantinople, the Asia Minor coast and on to Cyprus in the years before 1900. Sybil studied the principles of sea navigation and had accompanied him on a voyage to and from Australia.
So, it is in some ways no surprise that the outbreak of war saw the couple re-fit their ocean-going auxiliary steam yacht, the Sunbeam, as a hospital ship, complete with bold Red Crosses on its sides. Their offer of this swift hospital yacht was no doubt welcomed by the British Admiralty as it faced the increasing casualties at Gallipoli and as it sought to overcome the deficiency of the military medical provisions in the region, including appropriate medical transport. The Sunbeam was one of two private yachts re-fitted as hospital ships which were utilised by the Allies during the Gallipoli campaign, the other being Lord Tredegar’s Liberty.
And so, the Sunbeam and its prestigious crew sailed from England, through the Mediterranean and across the Aegean. She arrived at Imbros’ Kephalos Bay on 14th August, General Hamilton’s writing in his diary that they arrived with “two friends” on board, having shown in his view “great enterprise in getting here.” The arrival of the Sunbeam was reported in Australian newspapers, the 79-year-old Lord Brassey reported as representing “the bulldog breed” for his deed.
READ MORE: A voyage to Imbros
My research so far reveals only the slightest hint of their activities at Imbros. The General’s diary mentions that Thomas and Sybil came ashore, conferred with General Hamilton and had discussions with the doctors at the Allied military medical facilities on Imbros who relayed the accounts of some of the wounded being treated there. Thomas shocked the General by his view that the renewed stalemate following the August offensives presaged the ultimate failure of the campaign. It is also likely that the visitors interacted with the many Allied troops based there as well as the local Greek population. The latter operated temporary shops near the Allied camps selling their goods to the soldiers and sailors who came to the island which were photographed by British official photographer Lieutenant Ernest Brooks. Did the Brassey’s enjoy some of Imbros’ local produce? Did they buy some fresh bread from the Australian military bakeries on Imbros? It is more than likely they did, replenishing their supplies with some fresh food and drink – some olives, cheese and bread, maybe even some local beverage!
It does seem that their efforts were of limited value at Gallipoli, given the scale of the medical emergency facing the Allies. Despite General Hamilton’s view that the Sunbeam would “make first class carriers”, a photograph from the time shows the Sunbeam at anchor in Alexandria harbour, being used as a convalescent ship for Allied officers. By the end of October, Melbourne’s The Argus newspaper had reported that Lord and Lady Brassey had returned to England, perhaps leaving the Sunbeam at Alexandria in its new role. In an account that would have dismayed the somewhat optimistic General Hamilton, the same article reported Thomas’ despair at the prospects of success for the Gallipoli campaign, calling for an end to “the useless slaughter”.
In coming to this conclusion, I wonder if Thomas would have felt the analogy with the story of the siege of Troy. Anchored in Kephalos Bay, with the Gallipoli peninsula near in both sight and sound, did they reach for their multi-volume copy of Homer’s Odyssey (possibly Alexander Pope’s translation) that they are reported to have kept in the Sunbeam’s library, making a comparison with that other ill-fated campaign near the Dardanelles?
One of the other interesting aspects of this story is its connection to Melbourne and Australia. Accompanied by Sybil, Thomas served as Victoria’s Governor for five years, sailing back to England after his term ended in 1900. While in Melbourne they experienced the city at a time when it was known as Marvellous Melbourne, attending the city’s premier horse race the Melbourne Cup and the politically tumultuous years leading up to Australian Federation. Sybil’s support for advancing the cause of women in society can be detected in some of her actions in her role as the wife of the Governor – delivering her own speeches, welcoming female university students to Government House, officiating at the opening of Victoria’s Queen Victoria Memorial Hospital – the first women’s hospital in Victoria – alongside the South Australian suffragette Catherine Spence and Dr Constance Stone, the first female doctor to graduate from the University of Melbourne. She also encouraged the new activity of bicycle riding, with its promise of increased freedom. How fascinating that nearby Sybil and Thomas’ official residence at Government House there now stands the Shrine of Remembrance, the Hellenic Memorial as well as the Edith Cavell Memorial.
A few years ago, I looked over the waters of Kephalos Bay on Imbros, having descended to its great crescent from the hills and valleys to the west that stretch back into the island’s hinterland. It is a great bay and now it is often filled during summer with holiday makers on its shoreline and windsurfers on its waters.
I look at the old photographs taken in 1915, with the bay filled with all manner of vessels – from great warships like the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal to the small naval pinnaces darting from shore to ship – and of course the local vessel of choice, the famed Greek caiques, leaving the shore to begin a fishing trip or selling their wares to Allied soldiers and sailors keen on some fresh food to replace their monotonous field diets.
I try to imagine the Sunbeam at anchor in the bay, standing out amongst the hard naval warships, this gentleman’s yacht with its newly painted Red Cross and its distinguished crew who had sailed the world and known our own Melbourne town. I reflected also on how I myself had also come all the way from Melbourne to touch the waters where the Sunbeam sailed over one hundred years ago.
Jim Claven is a trained historian and freelance writer who has been researching the Hellenic link to Anzac for many years, travelling across Greece and beyond to many of the locations of this link. He has authored many articles and books, including the book Lemnos & Gallipoli Revealed and the forthcoming Greece 1941 – Photographs and Stories from the Anzac Trail. He is currently working on a photographic exhibition and associated publication with Melbourne’s Imvrian Society.