The departure of the Munsters from Coventry was a tumultuous and emotional affair. It was meant to be a dignified march to the station but the good citizens of Coventry would have none of it. These sons of Ireland had been adopted as their sons, their lovers. Children weaved their way in and out of the marching ranks, women hung round the necks of soldiers. The police tried to control things, but were no match for the high emotion of the people.
Through the night, there continued the tears and embraces. Three trains came, and went, carrying away their cargo of men. Until, in the cold dawn, there was nothing but silence. And waiting.
The progress of the troops would now be recorded by officers of the battalion. Twenty-six officers, a chaplain, and one thousand and two other ranks left Coventry. Three in particular engage our attention because of the records they left. As it happens, two of these were named Guy.
The name you will see on the monument is that of Colonel Tizard, battalion commander. Now, by chance, I once met the Colonel, at a memorial service, fifty years after Gallipoli. To me he did not seem especially prepossessing — a little, as I recall, like Captain Mainwaring, in the television series, “Dad’s Army”. I did not suspect then, what I suspect now, that I might owe my very existence to one of his unspectacular decisions. As battalion Colonel, he would be placed at HQ, not as close to the action as the junior officers.
Captain Guy Geddes was closer to the action than any human being would wish to be. He may have been a New Zealander, though I am not sure. There is a terse, sharp and direct, quality to his comments. He describes himself as not having the pluck of a louse, a phrase that seems a favourite with him. In fact, the record shows just the opposite: he demonstrated both outstanding physical bravery and moral courage.
Lieutenant Guy Warneford Nightingale was a much more complex character. He was born in India, the son of an English engineer at the time of the Raj and was sent home to be educated here, at Rugby. It was a definite part of his intention that he should put on record the activities of the battalion, as part of regimental history. He put these accounts in the form of diaries and letters to his mother and, sometimes, to his sister. Since he was responsible for censoring his own letters, these are more open than might otherwise have been the case.
His mother, Maude Nightingale, was an interesting character in her own right. She was born a Warneford, one of those long established County families — in her case, in Berkshire — and there were connections to India and Warwickshire. Some will recall the Warneford Hospital. Maude wrote a charming and lively account of growing up in Victorian England and India, where she was presented at Court to the Governor.
The day following departure from Coventry, the Munsters sailed from Avonmouth in the Anson and Alaunia. There was a submarine alert on the way out, but otherwise, days of lovely sailing by way of the Bay of Biscay through the Straits of Gibraltar to Malta, where they spent a day or two. I don’t know whether Bob and Peter Jordan realised that they were treading ground that their father had trodden before them: he spent two years in Malta between The Crimea and the Indian Mutiny.
Then they were diverted to Alexandria. The reason for this was that the rushed organisation had resulted in the boats being mis-packed, the equipment needed first buried beneath other stuff. “A pretty fair state of chaos” was Geddes comment.
In a way, this comment might be seen as the first of many criticisms of the organisation of the Gallipoli Campaign. It is, I suppose, normal that many seek a share of the praise in the case of victory and seek to divert blame for failure. Retrospectively, the Gallipoli Campaign has been often praised for the brilliance of the strategic vision and the dismal quality of the application. There has been much blame of individuals. In some ways, this is just; in others, grossly unfair. Much of the blame should attach to culture and the climate of social expectations.
I think of a significant moment when Hamilton was appointed by Kitchener to command, the very day that the 29th were inspected by the King, rather late in the day you might think. There was a short pause, when, it seemed, the diffident and gentlemanly Hamilton expected guidance on how to carry out his task. There was none. The problems were his. Diffidence, a lack of will to impose control on his generals is seen as the key weakness of Hamilton.
Only two days before that, Hunter-Weston had been appointed. His characteristics were the very opposite of those criticised in Hamilton. He was to be criticised not without cause, for butchery, the unthinking disregard for casualties. Somewhere, implanted in his mind, was the unquestioned slogan: “casualties do not matter, if the military objectives are obtained.” This was held to be the logic of war. Both were, in their way, victims of hierarchical structures, where the man at the top has the vision, those below have to deal with the awkward details. Those who criticise the vision cannot expect enhanced career advancement. Understanding of their implicit roles was almost bred in the bone. Inadequacy may seem a feeble defence; it may be a true explanation.
Churchill, too, would not, could not, question his role. He belonged to a long aristocratic line. Look at the great gardens of England, and you may see what I mean.
It is for the aristocrat to display the vision; for the labourer to wield the spade. But, if the detail is left to others, the devil may find his way in.
Such thoughts aside, it would be interesting to read the minds of the soldiers as they sailed into Alexandria. I guess the men would explore for what sources of interest and pleasure they might discover. Geddes recorded strolls in the town with Jarrett and Henderson. Guy Nightingale cried off with ‘flu. There was tennis and tea at the club. There were also military exercises at Camp Mex: Geddes says the men performed splendidly.
For some, Alexandria may have held a special interest. Many, if not most, of the officers had received a classical education and may have remembered the special place of Alexandria in the Ancient World. It was the meeting place of East and West, the meeting place of Greek and Roman civilisations. While Athens remained the centre of philosophy, of Plato and Aristotle, Alexandria became the centre for Science, of mathematics, astronomy, biology and medicine, the home of Euclid and Archimedes.
All this was symbolised by the great Library of Alexandria, built by the Ptolemies in 290BC. Here was collected all the accumulated knowledge at that time. The circumference of the world was first calculated here, the stars were first mapped, the power of steam was discovered.
Here too, Cleopatra practised the political use of sex to preserve Egypt from Roman rule. In the process, she bore Julius Caesar a son, and Mark Antony three children, all coincidentally to great political advantage. Ultimately, all to no avail. Defeated, with Antony, at Actium, she preferred suicide by poisonous asp to the indignities of defeat. The great library was then burned down by Augustus Caesar. It held too much knowledge that was offensive to too many people.
Little was all this to do with the soldiers of the Fusiliers, except for one significant matter. One person at least remembered something of a classical education. On the coast of the Dardanelles Straits, opposite to where they were to invade, was the site of Ancient Troy, where Greeks defeated Trojans by means of the deceptive gift of a Wooden Horse containing soldiers. Commander Unwin of the Navy saw that this idea could be adapted to modern needs. A ‘wreck ship’ could be adapted to become what we now know as a landing craft for landing soldiers on the shores of Gallipoli.
The idea was clever and ingenious. But was it wild and impractical.
Twenty-four days after leaving Coventry, the Munsters departed Alexandria, en route for the Greek Islands, in the Anchor Line ship Caledonia. Their stay in Egypt had advertised their intentions. Von Sanders and the Turks were given good advanced warning. They would use this time well.