We pulled hard at the oars, twenty of us rowing in unison, pushing our boat as fast as we could towards the shore. We wanted to be off the water and on dry ground, where we could fire back at the Turks on the cliffs. But more than that, we were excited to join the fight. The Great War had come, and we were keen to play our part.
With a crunch and a lurch, the boat hit ground. We let go of the oars and grabbed our rifles, leaping out into the shallows. Water filled my boots and soaked me to the thighs.
Billy grinned as he leapt into the water beside me.
“Last one up the beach digs the latrines!” he shouted before heading off at a run.
I followed eagerly, just as I’d followed him into schoolyard skirmishes and into the recruiting station when war came. We’d been lucky, just old enough to sign up. Now here we were, ready to stick it to the Turks.
Our captain stumbled as he climbed out of the boat. Blood streamed from his arm and his gaze was caught on a body bobbing in the surf beside him. My stomach churned but I forced the bile back and raced on up the sand.
Billy halfway up the beach when he suddenly spun around. I thought for a moment that he’d turned to urge me on. Then I saw the stain on his chest and the shock on his face. He fell sideways in the dirt.
I rushed towards him, a scream bursting from my lungs. All around, men were dropping like flies – some dead, others scrabbling in the dirt to dig a safe place. More bullets tore through Billy’s body and the sand beneath. I dropped to the ground and pressed a hand against his wound, but it was too late.
As I stared into my friend’s lifeless eyes, the guns thundered all around.
“Private Hughes, isn’t it?”
Captain Arundell approached along the sandy trench. He was the third commander we’d had since the landings. At least this one had the sense to keep his head down.
“Yes, sir,” I said, delivering a weary salute.
“I’m looking for volunteers for a raid on the Turkish lines,” he said. “They say that you’re a tough one, a survivor. I thought you might be a good choice.”
I snorted. “I’m a survivor because I don’t volunteer, captain. There’s nothing here worth sticking my head above the trench line for.”
“I have men who are keen to go,” Arundell said. “But they’re all new and inexperienced. Without some veterans to round out the team, they might not make it back.”
“Then good luck to them,” I said.
Arundell looked at me. We both knew he could order me to join. We both knew how well the rest of the men would view that sort of treatment, given what we’d already been through.
He turned and headed away down the trench.
I watched as the corpsmen carried Jones’s body off on a stretcher. He’d survived the landings and months on the beaches, only to succumb to a fever. He wasn’t the only one. Between disease and shelling, our safe positions felt more and more like a death trap.
I huddled against the wall of the trench and prayed for deliverance.
A private from the next platoon scurried along the trench. He paused as he reached me.
“Have you heard?” he said. “We’re leaving.”
I stared at him, hardly daring to believe.
“When?” I asked.
“After Christmas. They’re taking the ANZACs out first, then us.”
His smile was so wide, his face still fresh and innocent, it reminded me of Billy. I felt a moment of warm nostalgia, then one of nausea as I remembered him lying bleeding on the sand.
“Major Arundell’s looking for volunteers for the rear guard,” he continued. “We’re going to make sure the rest of you get out safely.”
My stomach sank at the thought of leaving this kid to face the Turks. But what could I do? My prayers had been answered. We were getting out at last.
The air stank of blood, cordite, and loose bowels. Even in the darkness of the night, I could make out the piles of bodies beyond our shell-shattered trenches, the remains of the last great Turkish assault.
I finished setting my rifle in place, rigged up with a tangle of strings and slowly leaking cans. It was a messy device, but a functional one. It would pull the trigger at odd intervals after I was gone, creating the illusion that a soldier was still here. At least, that was the theory.
The Turks had to know that we, the last few men standing, were about to leave. That was why they had launched the attack, to beat us while we were alone, before we could make our escape. And it was why we were still doing every last thing we could. Even if it only bought seconds, this still gave us a better chance of survival.
“Good work,” Major Arundell whispered, patting me on the shoulder. He pointed down the beach to where the boats were waiting. “Now let’s get out of here.”
As we grabbed the oars and set to rowing, I looked back at the cliffs of Gallipoli. I’d never been so glad to leave any place on Earth.
And I’d never been so glad to be alive.
* * *
I have a comic out!
“To Win Just Once” is a Commando comic, released yesterday in print and through Comixology. It’s about the experience of New Zealanders in the First World War. It deals with events on the Western Front, but references the Gallipoli campaign, and so this story is meant as a matching piece, showing what that campaign was like. If you want to read more about Gallipoli you could start with this article I wrote for War History Online.
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