The historian’s job is always a work in progress. No matter how extensive ones researches have been it is always likely that new sources, new firsthand accounts and photographs will come to light. Last year a previously undiscovered private war diary was brought to my attention, providing new insights into the Australian experience of Lemnos during the Gallipoli campaign. Today I write of another discovery – the first-hand account of the neighbouring northern Aegean island of Imbros by a young Australian soldier from Melbourne.
William George Marshall was 22 years old when he volunteered to join the Australian Imperial Force in December 1914. A metalworker who had been born and bred in Moonee Ponds, William was part of a large family, his parents Abe and Letitia having had nine children.
He was appointed to the 14th Battalion which would become famous as “Jacka’s Mob”, in recognition of the bravery of one of its soldiers Albert Jacka who was the first Australian soldier in the war to be awarded the Victoria Cross. After having taken part in the landings at Anzac Cove and survived the defence of the Allied perimeter throughout the ensuing months, William and his Battalion were ordered to Imbros for a short period of rest. The Battalion War Diary reports how the men sailed to the island’s Kephalos Bay in trawlers under cover of the darkness of the early hours of 11th July.
William arrived at the Army camp that had been erected around the Bay before 9am on the 11th July. The War Diary details the various activities undertaken by the soldiers – cleaning the camp, military training and church parades. The weather is reported as having been “fine and warm” during their time on Imbros, which would have made their regular bathing parades all the more enjoyable!
It was during this time that William not only took some time to explore the island beyond his campsite but also to write down his experiences there and to send them home in a letter that would be published in a Melbourne newspaper, the Flemington Spectator. His letter would carry the title “A holiday trip from the trenches of Gallipoli”.
William begins his account of Imbros by recounting the sight of it from Gallipoli. As he looked westward from the heights on the Peninsula, he could see Imbros “plainly … being like a huge rock cut out of the blue waters of the Aegean Sea”. While it seemed close to the eye, Imbros was in fact some 14 miles distant.
He notes that Imbros is “exceedingly hilly”, some formed of gigantic rocks, rugged and lichen-covered. Between the hills were gullies, furnished with “beautiful scenery” and “full of bracken ferns”. He goes on to describe one such gully in lyrical terms:
“Through one not far from where we are camped, runs a stream of clear crystal water, which is splendid for drinking purposes. Numerous trees grow alongside the stream, and undergrowth thrives luxuriantly there. Among the shrubbery may be noticed innumerable gaily coloured wild flowers. Wild thyme grows in abundance. The sweet purple blossoms throw off a fragrance most pleasant to the nostrils.”
He goes on to describe the local islanders and their cultivation of the island. He observed that some of the “sunny slopes” were under cultivation, the harvest having been brought in and many of the locals being “busily engaged” in threshing operations. He witnesses these practices, remarking that they “may have been the same as those used in Christ’s time”. The hay is placed on a circular threshing floor, constructed of stone of 7 to 8 yards in diameter, with animals – usually three ponies or a couple of oxen – driven by young girls in order to separate “the golden grain” from the hay. Being taken aback by such “primitive” practices was a common response by Australians on Lemnos witnessing similar scenes.
Yet William expresses admiration for the work of these girls. When they are not engaged in threshing work, they are knitting or crocheting, remarking that they are not only “very pretty featured” but “most industrious”.
Like most Aegean island’s the milling of flour was achieved by the use of windmills erected on hilltops. William wrote of visiting such a mill that stood above the salt lake near the Allied camp. He wrote of going up to the “trembling stone tower” as the wind propelled its sails, turning “some rude wooden machinery” which crushed the wheat, oats or corn under a revolving round stone, producing flour. The whole scene is “pretty”, with the old miller and his wife seeming “happy at their work”. This wind mill was so picturesquely located above the camp that it was photographed by another Allied soldier, Petty Officer Bill Pollard.
He wrote about the village houses on Imbros, built of stone, “low and squat”, the exteriors being moss-covered and situated as if they were clinging to the hillsides! To his Melbourne eyes they seemed to have “a peculiarly ancient appearance”. He also noted that the interiors were kept “scrupulously clean” by their inhabitants. He found no fences demarking the boundaries of individual’s holdings, writing that these were not necessary as “no one encroaches on his neighbours possessions.”
The apparent simplicity of the islander’s rural life led this outsider from Australia to reflect that this “simple pastoral life” implied that the locals were living lives much as “their ancient ancestors lived” and that “modernity has never appeared in the island”. This life seemed to please the locals, William writing that they seemed “happy with their little farms, their sheep and their goats”.
Yet Imbros was not as isolated from the world as William writes. The island was connected to the mainland by the sea, local fishermen plying its waters and trading with the mainland. And one enterprising hotelier in the Island’s capital re-named his hotel the Grande Bretagne – in a nod to its namesake in Athens – to attract more Allied customers. Indeed William commented on how the presence of the Allied troops was an economic boon for the inhabitants, the latter selling many goods to the new arrivals, a financial benefit which he hoped would tied them over for many lean years once the war was over. He concluded his remarks on Imbros and its inhabitants observing that he was “very glad” to have been permitted to come to the island – it had been both “educative and interesting”.
William would return to the front at Gallipoli with the rest of his unit on 14th July, having enjoyed barely four days recuperation on Imbros. The War Diary records the men having cleaned up their camp site near Kephalos Bay and then at 5pm proceeded to march to the quay where they embarked on the trawlers that took them across the waters to Anzac Cove, landing “under cover of darkness”.
The next month would see William’s Battalion take part in a murderous assault on Hill 60 in the final days of the Allied August Offensive on the Gallipoli Peninsula. The days immediately prior to the assault were reported in the War Diary as being “quiet day and night” as the men of the 14th and 13th Battalion’s prepared for the battle. On the eve of the attack which commenced at 3.30pm the 14th Battalion strength was reported to be 15 officers and 460 other ranks. The War Diary reports that the advancing men of the 14th “suffered heavily” from enemy machine gun and rifle fire, such that they were forced to dig in where they were. As the night wore on the enemy subjected the Australians to more “heavy fire”. By the next day only 12 officers and 330 other ranks remained with the Battalion – a loss of 133 men in barely 7 hours of fighting.
It was at this time that William was initially reported as missing but it would not be until after the evacuation of the Peninsula that an Army Court of Inquiry would conclude in 1916 that he had in fact been killed in action on that fateful day for the 14th Battalion, the 21st August. It is testimony to the withering fire that the Australians were subjected to on that day that William’s body was never found. He would be commemorated as one of the over 3,200 Australians on the Lone P:ine Memorial to the Missing.
Unbeknownst to all concerned, William’s lovely letter home, with its beautiful description of his few enjoyable days on Imbros, would be published less than two weeks after his death.
It would not be until May 1916 that William’s family and friends were able to place a death notice in his memory in The Age newspaper, the family writing patriotically that he had died “For King and country”, a few of his comrades writing simply that he was “one of the boys”. His family was sent his war medals and a few of his personal effects, his mother being granted a pension.
The home that William departed from on the journey that would take him to Gallipoli, Imbros and his death no longer remains. But the touching and observant letter that he sent home to his mother does. Through its words we can connect to this young man from the suburbs of Melbourne who took the time during his short period of respite from the terrible fighting at Gallipoli to reflect on the life of this lovely island in the Aegean, this oasis for the soldiers who were lucky enough to enjoy it. We owe a debt of thanks to William.
* Jim Claven is a trained historian, freelance writer and published author. Having written various publications on the Hellenic link to Australia’s Anzac story, Jim’s most recent publication is From Imbros Over The Sea, telling the story of Imbros’ role in the Gallipoli campaign, published by Melbourne’s Imvrians’ Society last year. He also curated an extensive and unique photographic and historical exhibition on Imbros and Gallipoli. For more information on the exhibition or the book, Jim can be contacted via email – firstname.lastname@example.org