The Damned; the Irish Shock Troops of V-beach, WWI

War had come swiftly. Some 21,000 Irish enlisted and fought in the beginning years of WWI starting in 1914; 47,000 more were to join later in the subsequent, brutal years.

It was a windless Sunday morning, April 25th, 1915, thousands of French and British surged the beaches at Cape Helles and the surrounding points on the Gallipoli peninsula in the region of the Dardanelles. The operation was supported by 18 Battleships, 12 Cruisers and 29 Destroyers. The objective of the campaign was to secure the straight by simultaneously attacking beaches dubbed, ‘S’,’V’,’W’,’X’, and ‘Y’ which would provide allied relief convoys to Russia and choke the Ottoman empire; it was a preemptive strike to stun the Central Powers and knock Turkey out of the fight.

The area however, was a defensive strong point. The peninsula was chalked full of gullies, hills, heights and even still, several ancient castles and sturdy fortresses. At the main landing site, ‘V’ beach was scarcley 10 yards in length. These factors made the offensive combatants look like cattle rushing into an abbatoir from hell.

It was 6:20 and the sun had begun rise, a sunburst of oranges pushed away pale blues. In that dissipating darkness the converted collier vessel namedthe S.S. River Clyde beached with little grace; it floundered in the current and shallow depths. Commander Lieutant Josiah Wedgewood, a firmly built man gripped the post and screamed orders in the confusion of orders. The tide had been stronger than expected and Commander Unwin, whose idea it was to convert the collier into a trojan horse was struggling to maneuver the vessel into position. Auxillary crafts, tugs and lighters required to complete the landing milled about in hostile territory as the bulk of the Clyde made it’s second attempt to get closer to the beach; the water was shallower than expected and the collier was forced to remain where it lay, 80 yards out.

Bullets ricocheted and clipped the vessels as they orchestrated amongst themselves in the water; it had come noticed despite the partial attempt to camouflage the Clyde with yellows like the sand. The contents of that ship was some 2,000 men mostly hailing from the 86th Brigade, Units from the 29th Divisions: the 1st Battalions of the Royal Irish and Munster Fusiliers. Sally ports and gangways were created by cutting through the steel plating of the Clyde. The gangways were supported by ropes which ran along side of the ship. A steam hopper was to act as a bridge to the shore but as it is said,

“The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.

The tide swept the hopper away forcing Captain Unwin to act on his valour. Jean-Conrad Dubois was sitting with his Dubliners, huddled on deck awaiting orders. He saw a great commotion between the Captain and his subordinates. The captain seized Able Seaman, William Charles William and thrashed him with a slap to the face.

Pull yourself together- we are getting those lighters or die!” William paled and his mouth was agape. “Sir!”

They Dove over the side of the ship from the gangways. They fought the tide and wrestled several lighters together. Private Jean-Conrad Dubois and the fusiliers watched in amazement. William had a rope that he was getting around a lighter when a scream could be heard escaping his lungs. He fell backwards and splashed into the water from the lighter. The Captain trembling, went after his friend but in doing so, he lost a lighter to the tide. He hailed for help aboard the ship and. Jean-Conrad jumped to his feet and ran down the gangway. With bullets making a hell of a din, he threw a thick coiled rope towards them and the lighters.

The work was quick and the bold captain alighted the Clyde with a dead Able Seaman William Charles William slung over his shoulder. The Captain collapsed near the gangway and sally ports. Men rushed to their aid and carried them away to the hospital quarters.

The ‘lighter’ boats were in place, now it was time for the call that’d ferry them to fate. From the small boats, two brave souls were required to leap from their bows, under heavy fire and pull the vessel towards the last stretch to the shore. Jean-Conrad volunteered. (These men would later receive the Victoria Cross, a high distinction but few would physically be able to receive it).

Follow the Captain, follow the Captain!” Lieutenant Watts cheered wildly. He was struck by a bullet thrice and fell backwards breaking his leg. Jean could hear him still shouting as he stepped over his body, “Follow the Captain!”

The Dublin Fusiliers deployed first. The sound of boots and shouts rang into the air. As they went over, some drowned under the weight of equipment as they disembarked into the water, some were cut down mid battle cry by the machine gunners on the hill, others made it to the shore of V Beach where on its promontory, Sedd el Bahr castle looked down; its crumbling edifice  gave an image of a great mouth with teeth studding its ancient walls. To the left of the beach was Cape Helles and also another prominent Fort named Etrugrul.

He dragged himself to shore some distance behind the bulk of the Dubliners. He shook tremendously. Silt and the sediment of a blackened and dredged up sea had smeared itself, covering Jean Claudes khaki and green uniform. Where he stood, was a red clay and sand embankment, the sea before him seethed; swollen and choppy The sky was dull grey and pregnant with an impending storm.         “To the hill, to the hill! Was their rallying cry. He jerked his head to see the commander and he made the sign of the cross. The commander assessed and quickly changed his mind at rushing the well defended 200 meter gently sloping stretch towards the castle, briefed by the name of Hill 141.

Take cover!”

He sprinted up to the mass of troops that took cover in the dunes away from the devilish openness and blood-stained waters. As he was told, and fought in his mind, he kept from a straight line, weaving this way and that. 50 meters ahead he had managed to avoid the reaper’s sickle. Every bullet sought his blood. He ducked behind a twisted metal barrier and a shallow trench of sand. Sucking in the air around him, he looked towards the Brigadier General Napier and found him stretched out in an unnatural position. Two soldiers went to his aid.

The 1st Battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers and companies of the Royal Hampshires were pinned down and the medics were far and few between. The tide was reddened 50 meters out to sea with blood and the beach was rife with gore and the dead. The shrapnel and a hail of withering fire pushed the men together to take cover behind what barriers they could find

The sudden reality of his situation had detonated him out of this initial trauma from landing into another. Jean touched his shoulder as he stumbled onward. He pressed himself shoulder to shoulder with many others. He felt a burning sensation. His shirt sleeve was sticky and red. There were several gunners up on that hill, “A Turk, by god!” Jean screamed involuntarily at the rattling a saw guns whose bullets chewed up the sand and dunes in front of him. Every little house in the village was converted into a miniature fortress.  He ducked and began digging into the sand to fortify his position.

“Where’s my sodding Bayonet, my tin hat and me knife-for Christ sake, I’m a dead man!” Another of his contingent ran up behind him and dashed for cover. “Bajesus, Sullivan!” Jean had grabbed him by the shoulders as bullets ricochet off steel in front of them. “My god, man!” ” They sent us here to die, someone is having a bloody tea while this whole operation is going down in hell-fire!” Sullivan’s eyes darted about, they couldn’t keep focus on Jean.


Excerpt from Chapter 4, The Brass Trumpet, Joseph Foley. Publishing Pending. 

Medic!” Jean screamed. The field ambulance was a few yards crouched over another man in a shallow trench dug from the side of the embankment.

There was little protection if one decided to wait it out, “Oh god“, Jean thought, “We will loose and they will bring reinforcements, these heathen’s will fuckin’ boil me alive!” He could here screaming and grunts just ahead.  Jeans own hands mechanically went to his pockets.  He had removed a wet pouch of tobacco, then made violent oaths wishing he was back in the safety of that beautiful harbor in the Aegean or better yet back home in Ireland and to have never embarked on this fools errand.

Jean Claude looked over at Private Sullivan who was hunched and sitting now. His eyes were glassy. He tilted his head up and spoke quietly almost inaudible among the fusillade, roar of mortar blasts and screams. Jean noticed blood seeping from the mans stomach. Far from indifferent to the violence and gore, tears welled up in his eyes. “I’ll never see it home again Jean, my family, my mother in Tralee…”

            He kissed a crucifix around his neck gently. “It isn’t the pain…” He winced and ground his teeth despite of himself. “It isn’t the pain that hurts the worst Jean, it is knowing that you have lived, was once a child, was once in love, had…” His breathing became labored and his face grew pale. “…dreams…All of it doesn’t seem real…to have your life dealt as a card and wasted…”

Jean was on his knees listening to his dying brother in arms. The fair youth paled even still and closed his eyes. A first in his life, the death of a human and a follow Irishman shook him. For moments that seemed to last an eternity, he knelt beside him and wept bitterly- perhaps not solely for James did tears spill into the sand-but the whole damned situation at Gallipoli.  The dead mans last words, like a funeral pyre burned at his heart. He felt alone and sorely beguiled. His mind went to Margaret across the expanse of cold waves. He felt her warmth far away, her tenderness a memory.

With great reluctance he unfastened James Sullivan’s helmet, his head slipped forward, slumping chin against chest. Jean hesitated but proceeded to divest the soldier of war equipment. The helmet fit, though loosely and the carbine, an automatic, functional. It was enough. Reloading the weapon, he jammed a charger on top of the magazine.

James had small amount of change on him and in addition, a gold plated necklace and two pictures; a young women of what could be guessed, 20’s and an older thin faced graying women. None were smiling. Presumably, the last picture was James’ mother in Tralee. He put the photograph back into the dead mans breast pocket but kept the leather purse. He placed into his own breast pocket then systematically buttoned it.

Nearly 4 hours later, only 200 had yet made it to shore. It wasn’t raining yet but by god it was. Those Lee Enfield rifles wielded by the shock-troop, Irishmen pierced the sky and their barrels sizzled and smoked as some let loose nearly 30 or more rounds a minute. The shells hailed from all directions, directions known only to He himself and those watching from cozy ramparts on the ships in the harbor. The cries of dying men were as abundant  as myrhh and burning oils for the clergy at mass. “What on earth have I the power to do.” He pumped the bolt of his rifle and took helpless pot shots at a gunners box.

He held the rifle without conviction, each shot was worth dust in a sea of led. Each time the rifle spoke up, jean could feel the leaping gun butt flash and kick.  His shoulder bruised. He looked over and away from the iron sight pointed at the hill. James was still there as peaceful as a lamb; wrapped in the slumber of death. It seemed to Jean an eerie juxtaposition between hell and salvation. He unwrapped a biscuit and drew a canteen from his hip. He jammed the biscuit into his mouth with muddy hands and blackened fingers and guzzled his canteen; tilting its contents vertically and emptying the last drop down his scorched throat. With a wavering voice, a soldier shouted into Jeans ear, “We are lions led by asses- who is this fool-general, Hunter Weston?” Jeans eyes were hollow and sunken. He was dehydrated and stared mutely at the other soldier.

Survivors either held that low sand bank or sheltered themselves behind the plates of the Clyde. The fighting was bitter and night was fast approaching.

Monday April 26th, 1am, in the cover of night, all 1000 or so of the remaining troops aboard the SS River Clyde stormed the beach to collect the wounded and bolster the line.  The enemy snipers picked off targets till morning.

The invasion force had met the defensive and it seemed a heavy hand to hand battle had begun.That following day the campaign was won and the beach and town had been captured. Jean was ordered to plant a British flag on top of the fort. He climbed his way up to the top. From a corner he could not see, as he was ascending stone steps, a Turkish defender in hiding leaped from his position.

Jean saw a shadow and he sidestepped instinctively and crouched as he pulled a spade from its leather sheath.

The man was rabid, his eyes were red and blood-shot, he was covered in dust and and mud and his black hair was greasy and matted. He flung himself onto jean whose rusty and sharp digging implement was held fixed in his hand.  Jean grunted at the force the man fell into him. He felt his steel slide into the mans stomach, who screeched and clawed at jeans face. He checked the Turk with a ram of his shoulder which sent him to the ground. Jean picked his .303 from the floor and leveled it at the man who scrambled like an animal on the floor.  He fired three shots in quick succession. The first one laid him still, the second and third seemed to be a waste and sunk deep into flesh. Jean looked to the ground and away from the man whose eyes were wide open in some fervent terror. His hands froze clutching the air and reaching for something. Jean stood there for moments after. Jean grabbed the dead man by his shoulders and dragged him off the steps, folded his stiffened arms and closed his eyes. Jean proceeded up the steps. He began affixing the Union jack but his hands trembled as he caught the vista of corpses. The mental exhaustion made him stagger and he dropped to his knees and a flood of memories from Ireland and the oaths he cast aside when he took the British coin.