By Craig Fullerton
|Australian Signalers at Gallipoli—Cyril Lawrence on Right|
(Editor's Correction: This article was revised and corrected on 2 June 2020. The editor's were lately very surprised to discover that there were two members of the AIF named Cyril Lawrence, who served in Gallipoli and on the Western Front and were both diarists. Ignorant of the second diarist, your editor drew from the writings of both Cyril's to supplement Craig Fullerton's original article. In this revision, I have deleted the entries from the second Cyril and expanded the entries from Cyril #1.)
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: [Aboard ship] 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.
The Assembly is sounded – I have never seen it answered with such alacrity – there is a loud cheer as we gather together in the hold. Here for last time in this world many of us stand shoulder to shoulder. As I look down the ranks of my comrades I wonder which of us are marked for the land beyond. Perhaps I shall fly through the side of the ship to answer my question. I don’t think I can carry my kit – I can scarcely stand with the weight of it ... I have often been told of the danger of signalling – that few signallers last more than three days. Now indeed is this brought home to me with considerable force – once more I pray that I may not fail the Battalion in the hour of need – I know full well that the miscarriage of a message may mean the lives of hundreds of men. The destroyer alongside us is signaling, but the Navy men are to quick for me – please God the others won’t be. The sailors are very kind to us, I think they know what we are going to face – can see boat-loads of wounded being towed from the shore – shrapnel just burst over our heads, thank God no damage – getting nearer the shore, Turks pelting us like anything. The ships are keeping the top of the ridges under a continual line of fire – am just told that we have landed 20,000 men. We are transferring into the boats – it is raining lead – Turks firing wide.
Finally Ashore: It was relief to get ashore; we are packed so tightly in the boats and moreover so heavily laden with our kit that, had a shot hit the boat, we should have no chance of saving ourselves – it was awful the feeling of utter helplessness. Meanwhile the Turks pelted us hot and fast. In jumping ashore I fell over, my kit was so heavy; I couldn’t get up without help – fortunately the water was shallow at this point, otherwise – . It was a magnificent spectacle to see those thousands of men rushing through the hail of Death as though it was some big game – these chaps don’t seem to know what fear means – in Cairo I was ashamed of them, now I am proud to be one of them though I feel a pigmy beside them. Wish there wasn’t quite such damned noise with the guns, it is sending me all to pieces – don’t think I shall ever make a soldier. The beach is littered with wounded, some of them frightful spectacles; perchance myself I may at any moment be even as they are. Indians bringing ammunition mules along the beach – the scene of carnage worries them not all. It is commencing to get dark – we are now climbing the heights. I am given a pick to carry – half way up I had to drop it, it was too much for me. The lads on the top of the hill are glad to see us for they have been having an anxious time holding their position on the Ridge – ‘Pope’s Hill’ – they had scarcely time to throw up more than a little earth to take cover behind. The noise now is Hell.
Into Action: Cannot find any Signallers of my Station – I will look for my Captain, Margolin, they are sure to be with him. There was no time to wait for orders; I must work on my own initiative – in any case the Captain will want a Signaller with him. Now some of the chaps are getting it – groans and screams everywhere, calls for ammunition and stretcher bearers, though how the latter are going to carry stretchers along such precipitous and sandy slopes beats me. Now commencing to take some of the dead out of the trenches; this is horrible; I wonder how long I can stand it. ‘Signaller’ – I just had to get a message to Headquarters – it had been raining a little, I found it almost impossible to keep my foothold, I kept slipping down all the way along. Colonel Pope seemed very worried and tired; have just heard that our Signal Lieutenant Wilton and Sergeant Major Emmett badly wounded in abdomen. Turks playing funny bugle calls all night long and yelling out, always in English. Bursts of fire from our men – officers doing all they can to stop it as we are getting short of ammunition – more bugling by Turks, makes me think of a Cairene descendanTs of marY Jones 497 Bazar; the idea of the bugles is supposed to impress us – the Turks would be vexed if they knew what we really thought. I have been running dispatches all night and in between endeavouring to make a dug-out – I couldn’t lift the pick so had to use my trenching tool. Wonder what I am going to do for rations – I had to throw mine out, it was too heavy for me to carry. Feeling very weak and tired. . .
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 occasionally having a go at my dug-out which, up to the present, is nothing more than a hole – the continual cry of ‘Signaller’ never seems to cease. While going up to the Captain’s dug-out with a message from Headquarters I nearly got pipped by a machine-gun; fortunately one of the lads pulled me down into safety – I don’t seem to feel it’s any use worrying; if I’m to get hit nothing can stop it, and to keep dodging down into dug-outs gets on my nerves – I can’t stand being cramped into small spaces. The Turks have now got hold of the names of our officers and keep giving messages purporting to emulate from said officers. All night long the Turks have been harassing us heavily – ever and anon ‘Enemy advancing on the right,’ ‘Enemy advancing on the left’ – all messages now have to be whispered along the line. There is a pale moon – any minute we are expecting the enemy to rush the trenches – we have no reserves.
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.
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.
|The New Sergeant|
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:
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.
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/
He also has information on all the members of his extended family that served, and in some cases lost their lives in the war here: