Phillip Island & District Historical Society

Letters home to Gar, WW1

Last updated on 08-Jul-21

Speaker: November 2015   Member Peter Maclellan introduced his daughter Susan who has been researching letters that have been in the family’s possession since World War One, as they had been sent to Peter’s grandfather John Maclellan who ran the Foy and Gibson conglomerate of stores, including “The Big Store” in Prahran. Many of the letters were sent by family members or employees who had enlisted. Susan read extracts from the letters, which she had divided into categories according to where they had been sent from and under what circumstances. 


The following is some of the extracts which Susan read out to us. The full text of the extracts can be found under “Essays and Talks” on the society’s website: The talk is titled “First World War ‘Letters to Gar’” as Peter’s grandfather was known as “Gar”. Some of the letters came from relatives, and some from employees.






Eric Connelly “We were up and had breakfast before daylight; then just before the break of day we slipped close in and dropped anchor close to the shore. There were warships and transports all around us, but we hadn't much time to look about us, as they had started on the beach, and we could hear pretty lively rifle fire. The 3rd Brigade landed first, and got ashore before the guns started, but got it hot from rifle and machine gun fire; but they charged like devils, and chased the enemy off the beach and up into the hills, which rose very steeply off the sand. Meanwhile the 2nd Brigade was landing, the 7th going first. I got my platoon into the boats, and a naval launch got us in tow and ran us in. By this time the Germans and Turks had their guns going, and shelled us all the way in; in fact they shelled our transport before we left her. The launch slipped our tow rope when we got close to the beach, and we had to row the rest of the way. Up to this time, although rifle bullets had been plopping in the water around us and shells had been flying, none of us was hit, and I thought we were going to get ashore without a casualty. Anyhow as soon as we had started rowing, two shells in quick succession exploded right over the boat and showered us. I called out, "Is any one hit?" and got no answer, so kept on coaching them as they rowed. One man wouldn't keep time and was throwing the others out, so I was cursing him. After we got ashore alright, and when I was getting the men out of the boat (into the water) I discovered that the man who had not been keeping time had a shrapnel bullet right through his shoulder, and had sat there rowing away without saying a word even though he was being sworn at. One of the others had one right through his wrist, and he also hadn't said a word. I sent them both back to the troopship, and we went on.   

“We stacked our packs on the beach and went along to the place where we were to assemble, and although we were being shelled they never got any more of us there We formed up, and then started on the rather difficult job of finding Turks It was a difficult job, because the country is covered with scrub up to your knees, and they had well concealed trenches all over the place. You could not stand up and look around too long, as too many bullets were buzzing, and they had snipers all over the place. So as to, conceal their snipers, they had dug pits, and in these pits stood men with bits of scrub, tied round their shoulders and heads, making it almost impossible to see them. Our fellows at first thought they were seeing things when a bush would hop up and run like mad, but the said bushes never ran very far without getting a message to stop.”  


Clive Connelly “Our division, the New Zealand and Australian divisions, were in reserve, and landed as soon as the Australian division was ashore. My battalion happened to be the last to land, some going ashore Sunday night, but most of the battalion, did not get ashore until early Monday morning. I got away with the last boatload. Last Sunday night made a big impression on me. We were waiting for the order to land, when along came some boatloads of wounded, and as military transport officer it was my job to see they were got aboard. Well this job lasted until daybreak, when I had to refuse any more. It was sad, and came as a great shock to me to see so many wounded. You only see a few at a time in the firing line, but, by gum, the behaviour of the wounded made you proud to be Australian. Needless to say, there were wounds of every description and in all sorts of places. The scene was quite different to what one would picture. Groaning was scarcely ever heard, and the men gave mighty little display of the suffering that was going on. There was plenty of talking, and laughter was by no means absent as the more lightly wounded recounted their adventures. Our men worked well helping to get the wounded aboard, and in taking round, hot tea, bread and butter and jam. We were going all night.”




Andrew Gillison “The whole place is like nothing I ever saw, with its burrows all over the steep slopes wherever safe, and the hill sides bared of much vegetation & scarred with trenches.In places it looks as if alluvial miners had been at work & had turned up every inch of soil, leaving it in broad ribbons on the surface & all the intervening space dug over.  Gun fire is partly responsible for this of course.”


Captain Benjamin Jack “They wouldn't face it and we went forward again.I found I felt much safer with a rifle and bayonet and hung on to one all day.  Major Bennett & I located a 3 gun battery on the map and sent it back to H.Q. and the battleships blew it out 1/2 hour later.  Then Bennett got wounded and left another sub. and I in charge of about 200 men.  I was never in such a fix.  I didn't know whether to dig in, go forward or back.  The latter I couldn't do so I stopped….. My christening of fire will be remembered for ever.  I felt sick, a peculiar feeling in my stomach.”


Water Diviners

Captain Benjamin Jack We have a man in the Battn. who can find water by a divining rod. An ordinary twig held in his hands and he walks along, who he comes over water the stick bends.  This was done from several directions and it bent in the same spot each time.  I saw it done.  I have often read about it and laughed but never again.  We drag at the spots indicated and sure enough 4 ft down we got a lovely well.  We now have 6 wells close by, each marked out by him.  He is a very handy man in the army.”


Adventure of Stan Savige

Following the abdication of the Russian Tsar in 1917, the Caucasus Front collapsed, leaving Central Asia open to the Turkish Army. The British War Office responded with a plan to send a force of hand-picked British officers and NCOs to organise any remaining Russian forces or civilians who were ready to fight the Turkish forces. A request for Australian officers to participate was sent to the commander of the Australian Corps, General Sir William Birdwood. Some twenty officers, drawn from "the cream of the cream" of Australian leaders, were chosen, including Stan. This force became known as Dunsterforce after its commander, Major General Lionel Charles Dunsterville, the inspiration for the titular character of Rudyard Kipling's novel Stalky & Co. Dunsterforce arrived in Baku in August 1918. It was hoped that, from the Christian Georgian, Armenian and Assyrian people who had supported the Russians and historically feared the Turks, Dunsterforce could raise an army to contain the Turks but "the task proved superhuman


Charles Bean the Official Historian on the role of Stan Savige “The stand made by Savige and his eight companions that evening and during half of the next day against hundreds of the enemy thirsting like wolves to get at the defenseless throng was as fine as any episode known to the present writer in the history of this war.  For full details the reader must be referred to Savige’s own account: here it can only be said that the marked feature of the fight was that every Dunsterforce man knew that he could rely on each of his fellow members, however far they were separated, to carry out his part whatever the cost.,”


Clive’s superior officer (thought to be Pompey Elliott) "The strenuous time that I have passed through has had its effect on me, and I have been invalided to England. The last attack I made was with 350 men of the 4th Infantry Brigade and was one where fatal casualties occurred, only 110 coming out. The poor lads had to attack to take some Turkish trenches. It was a combined attack from three different directions—the Connaught Rangers, New Zealand Infantry and 4th Brigade. Prior to the attack an artillery bombardment took place on these trenches lasting from 4 to 5. It was difficult to conceive that any human life could remain in the Turkish trenches. On the cessation of the fire our attack had to commence. This was accordingly done. I formed three lines with a reserve placing Captain (Major) Connelly in charge of the first line. In less than ten minutes poor Clive was killed, shot in three places and about 50 per cent of his line. The second and third lines advanced, but owing to a difficulty of the ground and the effect of the enemy's rifle and machine gun fire very few reached the trenches. We recovered Captain Connelly from the position where he fell, but he did not last long and we buried him before daybreak. It was fearful slaughter, but it is only by this means that our advances can be made. We have only four of the original officers left, the rest being killed, wounded or invalided. You must resign yourself to anything that may happen, as so many are going under that no one knows when his turn will come.”



Alan Brooksbank “In September we stood on the battlefield of the Somme. One evening, as we climbed a steep hillside, and looked back on the way we had come, the level rays of the sun set revealed the shell holes on the plain, countless, unimaginable. Nearby was a roofless church and churchyard. The Huns had robbed the dead, smashing the coffins and leaving the bones in careless heaps, so that he might steal the lead linings of the coffins for munitions. Sick at heart we entered the church to thank God that some of Australian's sons are standing between her and such outrage. If more were needed to harden us for the coming stunt, the Hun has set traps everywhere to maim or kill men unawares, trip wires with bombs attached, souvenirs loaded with explosives, and his dead so placed as to make contact with mines.

Away in the distance are captive balloons, and nearer an enemy 'plane, which our archies are firing on without success, the pieces of shell falling all around us. Here is a notice, "The Bandicoots will show here at 5.30pm. Admission free," and further on a colony of canvas tents - a casualty clearing station. Broad or narrow gauge lines, motor lines, traction engines and horses haul the guns, munitions, and food supplies. Here come the "Dinks" (Infantry); some are smoking, some carrying extra gear in sand bags slung across their shoulders, marching easy, and well contented with their chances of reaching the line in good time.”


Vote of thanks: Graeme Clauscen gave the vote of thanks saying we were all grateful for the research Susan had done allowing her to bring these powerful stories from the front to us.