|Australian Signalers at Gallipoli—Cyril Lawrence on Right|
Cyril Lawrence was apprenticed as a blacksmith in early 1913 when he was about 18 years old and working for a smithy in Brunswick, Victoria, when World War I broke out. He was probably living with his mother at 20 Staley Street, Brunswick, at the time. He enlisted as a sapper in the Australian Imperial Forces (AIF) on 19 August 1914, just 15 days after Australia entered the war. He had just turned 19. He was allocated the service number 132 and assigned to the 1st Australian Division Signal Company. He listed his next-of-kin as his mother, Mary. He indicated that he had previous experience in the Signal Engineers and Senior Cadets for two years. Cyril was just 5 feet 4 inches tall and weighed just 9 stone, 10 lbs, so he was not a big man. He had a dark complexion, brown eyes and dark hair.
He left Australia on 20 October 1914 on board the HMAT Karroo, and his unit initially spent time training in Egypt. But by 5 April 1915 they had joined the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force off the Gallipoli Peninsula. The MEF was part of the British Army and commanded all the Allied forces at Gallipoli. At this time it was in the throes of planning for the Gallipoli landings, which took place on 25 April 1915. Cyril Lawrence was among those who created the Anzac legend on that fateful day.
As soon as the sappers landed they established a divisional signal office and laid wires between HQ and the brigades at the front lines. This involved men physically rolling out miles and miles of cable—an extremely hazardous task. But by midnight the HQ signalers sat with telephones and message forms and were constantly in touch with the frontline commanders. One of Cyril’s signaler comrades from another battalion—Elias Silas—recorded an account in a book he published in 1916. His diary for 25 April provides a graphic account of what the signalers had to contend with on that day and the following days:
25 April: In the distance one can just discern the Dardenelles opening up – the thunder of the guns is much clearer – the weather this morning is beautiful; what will it be to-night? Studies. I have eaten well. I can now see fire from the guns. I wonder which of the men round me has been chosen by Death. I do not feel the least fear, only a sincere hope that I may not fail at the critical moment.
5.30 pm: We are on the battlefield, well under the fire of the enemy – it is difficult to realise that every burst of flame, every spurt of water, means Death or worse. For days before we reached the final scene in the ‘Great Adventure’ we could hear the ceaseless thunder of the bombardment, we have been told of the impossible task before us, of probable annihilation; yet we are eager to get to it; we joke with each other about getting cold feet, but deep down in our hearts we know when we get to it we will not be found wanting. . .
27 April: Still fighting furiously – now all signalers have been wiped out of A and B Companies except myself. Just had a shell each side of my dug-out – I felt in a real panic as it is a most horrible sensation. Our ships have missed the range and sent eleven shells into us in a minute; I do not think anyone has been hit – the Turks’ trenches are so near ours that it is marvelous how accurately the ships find the range. For three days and nights I have been going without a stop.
Somehow, Cyril Lawrence also survived the mayhem and carnage of these opening days at Gallipoli. However, on 26 May his luck ran out and he was wounded, receiving a shrapnel wound to his right leg. He was evacuated to the No. 1 General Hospital in Heliopolis, Egypt. By 15 June he had recovered, was discharged, and rejoined his unit at the front. Just over a month later he was back in hospital with a bout of influenza that laid him up for two weeks. He rejoined his unit on 7 August, when it was in the midst of the Battle of Lone Pine.
[Editor's note: Sometime during his hospitalization, Cyril became a diarist himself. Some of his entries appear in histories of the Anzacs. I've added some of his observations to the remainder of Craig Fullerton's article.]
7 August: As we approached the shore, what an aspect opens up before us. Valleys and valleys, scrub-covered hillsides, men getting about looking all the world like ants. But above all, the thing that meets, or rather hits the eye, is the number of dugouts. The whole landscape is covered with them. It looks for all the world like a mining camp. . . Anzac looks like a young city. . .
The trenches are totally different to what I expected. It is sure death to put your head up to look around. Even the periscope mirrors measuring three inches square at most are picked off one after the other. When the Turks charge they usually cry ‘Allah, Allah’, and our boys reply ‘Come on you bastards, we’ll give you Allah’. From the frequent use of this word ‘poor old Turk’ wants to know if ‘Bastard’ is one of our gods.
|Cyril on Left at Anzac (AWM)|
The Australians suffered an estimated 2,277 casualties and the opposing Turkish forces between 5,000 and 6,000 killed or wounded during that battle. Two months after enduring the horrors of the Gallipoli landings, Cyril was still in the thick of it. Later, he would vent about the mismanagement of the campaign.
Date?: Soon these English idiots will have ruined one of the finest bodies of men that ever fought. Once, I used to worship the British soldier as a hero and I was proud to be a Briton, but jigger me if I am now. For we see nothing but British blundering, boasting, bullying, bluff and blasting failure and doing nothing. God but it’s disheartening.
On 1 December 1915 he was promoted to the rank of 2nd corporal. This was initially a temporary promotion necessitated by the evacuation of 2nd Corporal Burns, who was sick, but he was confirmed in the rank on 12 January 1916. He rose rapidly after that, attaining the rank of corporal on 28 February 1916 and just over a year later, on 30 March 1917, sergeant. The Australian 1st Division left Gallipoli in December 1915. Sometime before his departure, Cyril made one of his most lyrical entries one evening:
From my office I can look out the door and see him [the sun] go down. First the water away down below. . . ever restless now, takes on a deeper hue. Imbros [an offshore island] seems to rise from nowhere and stand in somber silhouette against the violet sky beyond. . . the mist, grey nothingness, seems to rise; then there is on last flash of crimson fire across the dancing water and. . . he has gone.
He boarded the Grampian on about 21 March 1916 bound for France, disembarking at Marseilles a week later, on 28 March. On 28 May he was once again admitted to hospital and finally rejoined his unit on 17 August and within a few days was sent to England for training at the Royal Engineers Training Depot at Hitching in Hertfordshire. He would spend his 21st birthday there, and his training concluded on 21 March 1917 when he set off to rejoin his unit in France, arriving six days later. By this time the 1st Australian Division Signal Company was in Baizieaux, in the Somme region in the northwest of France.
|The New Sergeant Just |
Before His Death
By 7 April the unit had relocated to nearby Bancourt where it engaged in the never-ending task of maintaining the communications network, laying miles and miles of telephone cable to the ever-changing infantry and artillery frontline positions as they began to get the upper hand over the beleaguered German forces. Upon being promoted to sergeant on 30 March 1917, Cyril was assigned to the No. 1 Artillery subsection. It was during battle on 18 May 1917 that he was hit by an enemy shell, receiving a severe wound in the back. He was evacuated and treated at the 34th Casualty Clearing Station (CCS) situated in La Chapelette, near Peronne about 12 miles to the east of Amiens. Tragically, he died from his wounds just five days later, on 23 May 1917. In his last days he received a number of visits from the chaplain of the 34th CCS, Rev. John M. Forbes, who wrote to his mother, Mary, after Cyril’s death. Cyril was buried at La Chapelette British Cemetery. His grave is located at Plot I, Row E, Grave No. 7.
Back home, Cyril’s death was announced in The Argus:
LAWRENCE – Killed in action, somewhere in France, on the 23rd May, Sergeant Cyril Lawrence, dearly beloved eldest son of Mary and the late Harry Lawrence, “Selukwe”, 20 Staley Street, Brunswick; loving brother of Jean (Mrs Reitschell), Nellie, Florrie, and Aubrie, after two years and 10 months service in Egypt, Gallipoli, and France, of the First Contingent, aged 21 years and 8 months; late of Harrietville. Another Anzac hero Called for higher service (Inserted by his loving mother, sisters, and brother)
Excerpted from Craig Fullerton's IN THE SHADOW OF FEATHERTOP, 2014 winner of the Alexander Henderson Award for Best Australian Family History. The book can be ordered at Craig's website: https://craig-fullerton.com/.