ANZAC Day: They Rowed to Glory

A bullet-riddled lifeboat from HMAT Ascot, used to land troops at Gallipoli, and preserved in the Australian War Memorial.

25 April 2021

By William O’Chee

For Australians and New Zealanders, the 25 April signifies ANZAC Day, the anniversary of their soldiers landing on the shores of Gallipoli in 1915, in what is now Turkey, William O’Chee writes.

ANZAC Day has a significant and often underestimated link to rowing. The Gallipoli invasion would be the first large-scale, opposed sea-borne invasion in modern times. It was also the last such operation to use rowing boats.

All of this lay in the future when Britain declared war on Germany on the 4 August 1914, and on Austria-Hungary eight days later. On the other side of the world, Australians and New Zealanders flocked to enlist in large numbers. 

Soon there were sufficient men to enable the first convoy of Australian troops to sail to the Middle East from Albany in Western Australia on the 1 November 1914. There it was decided they would invade the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey in an effort to seize the Turkish guns that controlled the Dardanelles.  

After departing Egypt, and before landing at Gallipoli, the ANZAC and British troops spent some time on the island of Lemnos, before embarking on the ships that would ultimately take them to Gallipoli. They sent several days lying off the island, during which they practised transferring from their transports, and landing from small boats.

The plan for the landing was a complicated one. Transport ships would take them to the sea off the coast, where some of the men would then be carried to three battleships, while the others would disembark onto destroyers. These would take them close to the shore where the men would then climb into the ships’ lifeboats, which would take them to the beach.

The lifeboats were arranged in “tows” of three to six boats that were tied one behind the other and towed towards the shore by a “steamboat”. Within several hundred metres of the shore, the lifeboats were cast off, and then rowed to the beach.

A steamboat tows five lifeboats of soldiers during rehearsals off Lemnos.

Photos of the rehearsals off Lemnos, and a number of photos taken late on the morning of the landing, show that these steamboats were very much akin to the Thames Umpire’s launches that are well known to spectators of Henley Royal Regatta and the Boat Race.

James Bostock in 1914

James Bostock, who would ultimately find himself in the first boat ashore, kept a diary in which he wrote an account of the days afloat off Lemnos. His unit, the 9th Battalion, was embarked on board the transport ship Malda. In his diary for the 12 April, he wrote:

Continued mess orderly. C & D Coys practiced disembarking. Two deceased’s kits auctioned. General Birdwood came on board. Breakfast F.A. – stew condemned. Slept on deck.

And on the following day:

Managed to get tobacco & chocolate.

Rained during night. Our company practiced disembarking in morning but I was mess orderly, […] after dinner on our expedition.

Although the official history of the campaign states that the boats were rowed entirely by sailors, it is clear that the soldiers also were getting practice with the oars. Bostock’s diary for the 15 April records:

Up reveille (new reveille call) usual mess orderly duties, rations issued 3 p.m. instead of morning. I […] went with rowing party with 38 cases ammunition to Nizam – 2 dropped over. Issued with some tobacco on Nizam.

The original plan was to land on the 23 April, but this was delayed for two days by rough seas. Instead, the convoy left Lemnos at dawn on the 24, and was standing some distance off the Gallipoli coast just before midnight.

The delay in landing meant that the moon did not set until just before 3am. At least some of the men had been lowered into the lifeboats by this time, and the others soon after. The official history states:

At 3.30 the battleships stopped, and the order was given to the tows to go ahead and land. The small steamboats behind the battleships cast off, each with its tow of three ships’ boats behind. As the hawsers took the strain, the boats began to leap and race. The tows were to form all twelve in line and then make for the beach: the direction was to be given by the naval officer in charge of the starboard or southernmost tow; the other tows were to keep abreast of him, with about 150 yards’ interval between each one and the next.

This neat account is clearly not correct. As the men were taken ashore in lifeboats, it would have been impossible to land six companies of men (perhaps as many as 1,200 soldiers) from just 12 craft. In all probability, there were more than three lifeboats in each tow, as is suggested by photos of the rehearsals off Lemnos. 

The official history is also incorrect regarding another crucial point. The official history records that the lifeboats were manned by sailors of the Royal Navy. But letters and diary entries showed that in many of the boats, soldiers also did part of the rowing.

James Bostock had clearly been trained to row at Lemnos. Another man in Bostock’s boat was William Arthur “Andy” Fisher (whose nickname derived from the name of the then Australian Prime Minister, Andrew Fisher). Fisher had been born in England and was an experienced rower, having been a volunteer longshoreman in Essex before migrating to Australia.

Andy Fisher photographed before sailing for the Middle East in 1914.

In a letter shortly after to his betrothed, Anna Kruse, he compiled one of the most detailed accounts of the landing. In it, he wrote:

We left there on Saturday 24th on the HMS Queen bound for the Turkish coast. We left the Queen in rowing boats, towed by a pinnace, about 2 o’clock Sunday morning. We were then about 5 miles from the shore. I might say now dear, that the Queenslanders had the honour to be the first to land & my company was the first to get there. I was one of the rowers in the first boat. Well to go on, we hit the beach about 4.30, just about daybreak. Half of our chaps got out of the boat without anything happening. We were just beginning to think that the Turks were not there when one shot was fired. Then shots came from all directions. It was a glorious welcome. I was lucky to start with, one hitting my cap & throwing me in the water. You can guess I wasn’t very long in scrambling out. Well all our chaps got out safe, we then lay at the foot of the hill for about ten minutes, and my word Anna, the bullets were flying around. 

So, Fisher was rowing, and possibly Bostock too. This would make sense. The boats were not large, and although they needed some sailors to row them back from the beach after landing, the fewer sailors on board, the more soldiers each boat could carry.  

Another soldier in that boat was Lance Corporal Frederick Coe. He later wrote:

We touched shore, and Lieutenant Chapman was the first man ashore. I followed him, and we all got ashore. Private AK Wilson was taking my pack off when the first shot rang out; a pause; then seven more…..

Taking the accounts together, it is clear that this was the first boat to land that morning. In every other boat, the accounts we have, and the official history itself, record that the men came under fire before reaching the beach. However, Coe and Fisher clearly state that they had landed, and men had already gone ashore, before the first shot was fired.

One of the problems that all the soldiers faced that morning was the difficulty of getting out of the lifeboats. By their nature, lifeboats have high gunnels to reduce the risk of their being swamped in rough seas. This safety feature would prove a death trap for some at Gallipoli.

Australian soldiers try to get a stranded lifeboat off the beach. Note the heights of the gunnels of the boats. Australian War Memorial – HO3185.

Two of the lifeboats used at the landing are preserved in the Australian War Memorial and are on display. One came off the P & O ship Dervanha, which was used as a hospital ship at Gallipoli. After the war, it was donated to the museum by the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company, along with documentation proving it had been used at Gallipoli. The other came from the transport ship Ascot. Its bullet riddled steel hull was still on the beach in 1921 when it was salvaged and taken to Australia. Both were high prowed and high in the gunnels, and clearly demonstrate the difficulty of disembarking. To navigate the gunnels, the soldiers removed their packs and handed them to their comrades to hold while they climbed out.

This would prove costly, as the men were easy targets during this time. Even in the boat shared by Fisher, Bostock, and Coe, one soldier was killed before getting out, and a sailor was killed as he handed a pack to Captain Butler, the battalion medical officer.

Once ashore, the Australian and New Zealand soldiers found themselves faced with steep hills and ridges which they needed to capture in order for the campaign to succeed. Fisher gives a stirring account of what happened next:

We fixed bayonets, & the word was given to “charge,” and my word, we did. There was one huge cry of “Come on, Queenslanders! Come on, the 9th!” and we went up that hill. It was great. Queensland ought to be proud of her boys. Of course dear we were not the only ones, but we were the first. 

This courage would come at a very high price. The 9th Battalion landed a total of 937 enlisted men. Of these 496 were killed, wounded or missing in the first five days. The toll amongst the officers was worse: of their 32 officers, seven were killed on the first day and 12 wounded or missing.

Andy Fisher himself was wounded three times by shrapnel. The third wound ripped into his left arm and back and left him face down in a gully just above the 400 Plateau, inland of the landing place. He crawled to where the Indian Mountain Battery was firing at the Turks, and from there down to the beach. He was taken off that night to a hospital ship and did not return to Gallipoli until June.

In July, James Bostock was hit by a bullet that penetrated his thigh. The wound became infected and he spent months sick with pain. Finally, he was medically discharged and returned to Australia. In 1918, he had recovered enough to insist on enlisting again. He arrived in France just in time for the end of the war.

The eight months on Gallipoli would take a bloody toll. Seventeen thousand nine hundred seventy Australians were wounded and 8,141 died before the end of the campaign.

Duncan Chapman survived Gallipoli and went on to serve as a Major with the 45th Battalion on the Western Front. In June 1916, at Pozieres, he was killed by an artillery round and is buried in France.

Horse boats with drop ramps at the bows land the Indian Mountain battery at Gallipoli early on the morning of 25 April 1915.

Subsequent military planners learned much from the Gallipoli campaign. The next large amphibious operation, at the Lofoten Islands in the Second World War, would be conducted using specially built, motorised landing craft with drop down ramps, rather like the “horse boats” which took the artillery and horses ashore later in the morning at Gallipoli. Better preparation and planning would also come from the Gallipoli experience.

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, 1918.

More importantly, the Gallipoli campaign played a defining role in the history of Australia, New Zealand and also Turkey. The campaign would mark the rise of the Turkish Army officer commanding their troops at Gallipoli, Mustafa Kemal. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, he founded the modern state of Turkey, and become known as Atatürk.

Although over 61,000 Australians lost their lives in the First World War, Fisher, Bostock, and Coe were among 270,000 who survived and returned home, where they founded the institutions that form the core of Australia today.

Andy Fisher was very active in public life. He became the first Queensland State Secretary of the Returned Soldiers & Sailors Imperial League of Australia, now the Returned & Services League. He was also an Alderman on the local council in Brisbane. 

He continued to row after the war. His eldest son, Cec, described him as “top class in a rowing boat”, and recalled spending many hours rowing with him as a boy. Two of his other sons, Bob and Alec, were in turn active figures in rowing in Queensland. Andy’s granddaughter, Peta, is also a rower, and is frequently found on the water with Commercial Rowing Club in Brisbane.

Having cheated death at Gallipoli, he died of a heart attack, exactly 43 years later, at an ANZAC Day parade in Brisbane in 1958.

We salute the men who rowed to glory at Gallipoli, and the Turkish soldiers who so bravely faced them.

The author acknowledges the kind assistance of Peta Thomson, and Professor Robert O’Neill in preparing this article.

One comment

  1. William Arthur Fisher, my Grandfather. His Great-grandson, David Alexander Routh, eldest grandson of Grandpa’s eldest son, Cecil Alexander Fisher, rowed for The Rockhampton Grammar School and Harry Alexander Routh, great-great grandson also a rower, represented Kings College, UQ, at Henley Regatta. Incidentally Harry’s birthday is 25th April, Anzac Day.

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