As we approach the annual Lemnos Gallipoli Memorial service in Albert Park to be held on 12th August, it was fortuitous that a few weeks ago I had the pleasure to meet Elizabeth Connor, the daughter of Roland Newitt, an Australian veteran of both world wars. She had approached me out of concern to safeguard Roland’s memorabilia that she had preserved. Soon I was carefully examining this important archive – postcards and letters, photographs and military documents, military hospital magazines and private receipts – all documenting the wartime experiences of this fascinating young man.
Amongst the mass of materials, I was drawn to a tiny diary. Leafing through its pages with Deb Stewart –the granddaughter of Nurse Evelyn Hutt who served on Lemnos – we discovered that it was mostly empty. Nevertheless his writing did record in some detail his experience on Lemnos as he prepared for the coming landings at Gallipoli. For all interested in the Hellenic link to Australia’s Anzac tradition and the role of Lemnos in the Gallipoli campaign, Roland has left us his personal reflections on his time on Lemnos in March 1915. These contain some unique and endearing insights.
Military records reveal that this 21 year old tram conductor from Tasmania enlisted in August 1914, being appointed to the machine gun section of the 12th Battalion, a unit raised in Tasmania and one of the first battalions raised by Australia in the First World War. After departing Hobart, Roland would continue his training beneath the Pyramids in Egypt – capturing the iconic scene in a photograph – before sailing north across the Mediterranean, headed for Lemnos.
Roland noted their arrival at Mudros Bay on the morning of 4th March, writing in his diary that they had entered “the harbour of an Island called Lemnos” with “several battleships” already present, the beginning of what would become a huge Allied armada. As the sun rose above the hills, Roland wrote down his first impressions of Lemnos, writing that “a glorious sight greeted our gaze. There were several villages to be seen lying bathed in sunshine and green fields, windmills etc.” Soon Roland’s Battalion was joined by the other Australian battalion’s of the 3rd Brigade.
Over the next few days at Lemnos Roland’s diary records their completing military tasks while remaining aboard their transport, such as stripping and cleaning their weapons “thoroughly” as well as church parades. He also makes reference to their army food, with bread and tea for breakfast, “weak stew” for dinner. A few days later he would remark disapprovingly of this stew, “it does not seem to get any better.” The 12th Battalion history – The Story of the Twelfth – records that the rations served aboard ship at Mudros were “deplorable.”
Soon Roland and the other 3rd Brigade troops were going ashore to continue their training. While most appear to have returned to the troopship by late afternoon, those of the 9th Battalion established a camp north of Mudros. It was these troops that would help build the Australian Pier north of Mudros, a structure that remains in use to this day and whose name was restored in 2018 on the instigation of the Lemnos Gallipoli Commemorative Committee.
The Battalion history records that the 12th Battalion troops came ashore nearby what is now called Cape Lichna. While other Australian troops landed on 5th and 6th March, Roland writes that some of the 12th Battalion went ashore for a route march on 7th March, his noting that “the weather here is perfect.” This march appears to have been a celebratory affair, with local children joining in the three mile march around the Bay, with one youngster leading the march with a large Greek flag! The march was “remembered by everyone”, with one Battalion officer making a drawing of the scene which was subsequently published in a major London newspaper and reproduced in the 12th Battalion history.
Roland records his coming ashore for the first time the next day to take part in a route march, which he “enjoyed … to the full”. Following the march Roland writes of visiting a local village – writing that they were curious to know what a Greek village was like –aiming to buy some fresh eggs. Here Roland writes of meeting some of the locals, including “a Greek girl who could speak English splendidly”. He was so engaged that he was castigated for being late back to his ship.
The next day, following more training ashore, Roland writes that while the troops enjoyed lunch on the side of a hill overlooking a village “all the people came to see us” and brought cheese and other goods to sell. The Battalion history writes that the locals did a “roaring trade” with the soldiers on such occasions.
Lemnos also reminded Roland of home. He wrote on the 9th March “this Island resembles Tassie in nearly every respect”. Importantly he went on to record what he heard of the size and religious affiliation of Lemnos’ population at the time, writing that “the Island has a population of 36,000 including 200 Turks. The chief town [Myrina] is with a population of 2,500”, confirming the overwhelmingly Hellenic composition of the population.
The weather on Lemnos was changeable, sometimes Roland recording it as being “perfect” and other days less so. The 12th Battalion history records the Island being swept by bitterly cold winds. No doubt exposure to this cold weather was one of the reasons that Roland wrote of his feeling sick and coming down with tonsillitis on 11th March. While Roland would recover, others were not so lucky. Another soldier in his Battalion – 21 year old Private Douglas Carlson from Hobart – would also become ill around the same time and would die and be buried at the East Mudros on 24th March. The 12th Battalion history records that Douglas was buried “with full military honours, both Greek and Australian padres officiating at the grave side.” Douglas would be among the first of what would come to total over 1,300 Allied war burials on Lemnos.
Following a full dress rehearsal of the troop landing procedure conducted at Mudros Bay on 22nd April, Roland and the Battalion left Lemnos at 2pm on 24th April headed for Anzac Cove where they landed at 4am the next day.
Roland’s service record reveals that he survived the landings on the next day only to be wounded on 1st May. Removed to England for treatment at the 1st Australian Auxiliary Hospital at Harefield, Roland would be returned to Australia, where he would recover and go on to serve on the Western Front. He would be promoted – first to Second Lieutenant in 1916 and then Lieutenant in 1917. He was awarded the Military Cross for his “conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty” during an action in April 1917 on the Western Front in which attacking enemy forces were repelled, an enemy trench and a machine gun captured, with many losses inflicted on the enemy.
Roland’s writings join those of other members of the Australian 3rd Brigade who were also among the first to arrive on Lemnos in 1915, including the 12th Battalion’s Private Garnet Rundle, the 9th Battalion’s John Donaldson and Corporal George Richards as well as d the 11th Battalion’s Albert Facey.
Roland’s entries are significant in a number of ways. Roland confirms many other eyewitness or participant accounts about their arrival at Mudros Bay in the first days of the Allied presence at Lemnos, the presence and arrival of Allied ships, hints of the life aboard the transports at anchor and the their military training and preparations for the coming landings at Gallipoli.
More importantly he records his experience of the local people and their villages. His writing of his conversation with a young English speaking village girl is unique and an indication that Lemnos and its people were not as isolated from the wider world as one may have thought. His recording of the population of the Island and its almost totally Greek Orthodox nature is an important confirmation of other sources. And how touching is his remark that Lemnos reminded him of home.
The welcome from the local villagers received by Roland and the other Allied troops who arrived at the Island is reflected in the amazing illustration reproduced in the 12th Battalion history, depicting the village children leading the soldiers and carrying a Greek flag.
A few years ago I walked the ground that Roland and the 12th Battalion marched as they prepared for the looming conflict at Gallipoli. There – atop one of the hills stands the remains of an old windmill, whose stones and wooden beams Roland may well have looked upon over a century ago. How moving to think that this young Australian soldier walked and gazed on the same ground, connecting Lemnos with Australia.
It will be my pleasure to assist Elizabeth and her family in the donation of her father’s archive to the State Library of Victoria for its safe-keeping so that it can be appreciated by future generations.
Jim Claven is a trained historian, freelance writer and published author. Secretary of the Lemnos Gallipoli Commemorative Committee, his publications include Lemnos & Gallipoli Revealed, Grecian Adventure and the forthcoming From Imbros Over the Sea., the latter drawing on his research for the recent pictorial exhibition by Melbourne’s Imvrian Society on Imbros role in the Gallipoli campaign. He thanks Elizabeth Cossor for her assistance with this story, as well as Deb Stewart. He can be contacted at – email@example.com