Interview: Gallipoli veteran Martin Brookeby Jane Tolerton
"If there had been any rats, they would have been killed and cooked"
What was your immediate reaction to the outbreak of war?
"Oh I'm going to join up!"
Why were you so keen?
I loved excitement. I loved something new. I joined up right away. I got on the train in Pukekohe and came into Auckland, saw a doctor: “You’re fit.”
I went straight down to the army hall. I said, “Is Sergeant Major Beere here?”
“What do you want?”
“I’ve been passed by the doctor and I want to be in the Auckland Mounted Rifles.”
“Rise and shine!” – give you a kick in the foot. Quick and get all booted and spurred and go to breakfast: burgo (that’s porridge) and great big slices of bread and jam.
In just about every tent you would find a case of something that was due for the officers. There was a place where canvas was over all the stuff to keep the troops fed. [The guard would say], “Look – I’ll be up and down, I’ll give you the wink. I’ve loosened the ropes so you can easily get the case out.”
You thieved because you were hungry, and particularly because you never got any of the little things you liked most; it was just raw tucker.
When I got to the pyramids they said, “You’ve got to take your boots off and leave them outside if you are going down there to see the old pharaoh.” I’d got a good pair of boots on. I said, “That’ll be the day!” Other jokers came back and said, “I wish I hadn’t gone down there – somebody else’s got my boots.”
As we were coming ashore there was an officer’s door open and there was a beautiful white pillow and I grabbed that and put it with all the gear I had. That pillow went right through the troop. There’d be three heads going to sleep on that, and it was lovely to have a soft pillow to sleep on.
We had rifles and rounds of ammunitions and some baked beans and tinned meat and biscuits. And our water bottles full. “Preserve those as much as you can because we don’t know when the water carts will be here. We have to get water from Lemnos, and it comes over in a tank and the Turks often shell it.”
We climbed higher and higher. The sergeant said, “Have a bit of something to eat, but we have to move on to relieve the fellows at the top.”
We got there and the officers organised us. “They’re not finished digging these trenches; they should be a bit deeper. So we’ll get to work with sandbags and a shovel. Dig!”
Major Schofield, he’d been growing potatoes and onions on Pukekohe hill. He was more fashioned for the spade or the shovel than we were. He said, “I’ll give you a spell. Hold the bag and I’ll fill it.” Somebody said, “I’ll bet you’d never see that in the British Army – a major digging and filling the bags. Old Spuds – he’s better with a spade than a rifle.”
Our officer said, “You’ll be in here for a fortnight before you’re relieved. We’ll send drinks up to you when we can, remembering they have to be carried up that hill.” There was so little to be brought up in the shape of food and drinks. Just occasionally they’d come with something and you’d put your mug out and they’d fill it up. There was nothing more welcome than a hot drink.
We’d have so many hours on duty. They’d say, “You’re on duty now. Remember your enemy is over the top there. He’s not far away – in a trench – and he’s looking through a periscope at you, or he might be leaning up somewhere and you can’t see him. Don’t look over the top. Put your hat up on the end of the bayonet, and if there’s someone over there they’ll take a potshot at you.”
“Look through that!” It was the first time I’d seen one. “Aren’t they wonderful?” Periscopes. They said, “Put a few leaves over it for a bit of cover and it won’t be noticed.” It’s surprising the number of periscopes that were hit and men looking through, killed.
A bullet hit the periscope. It killed the sergeant looking through and it went through Scotty Stewart’s ear. Somebody said, “Of course it would be Scotty Stewart. What a lucky b------ he is. He’s off to Lemnos.” He’d be away for two or three weeks and then back again and, “Look! Scotty Stewart’s got another one!” It’s a strange thing how one man would have all that luck about him.
Then we were relieved, but we would frequently get “duties”. You were free from that trench, but you have to be available at any time if you were called upon.
We were back again into the trenches after another fortnight out and I had been digging, digging, digging and strengthening everything we had, putting plenty of stuff on the parados – that’s the back of the front of the trench, kind of protection, and if a shell hit there, it hit sandbags.
Somebody said, “Brooke, Sergeant Leighton wants you, Billy, Kenneth and Pat to go out to the outposts. You’ve got to hurry up there with food and bring back any wounded. They’re being attacked.”
Oh Gawd, here we go again! We were doing this at night-time. The sergeant said, “You’ll come to an area which is clear and it’s under the eyes of the enemy so watch the moon.”
We travelled back with the wounded – one in front, one at the back – and one at each side of the stretcher.
When we came in the second time, somebody said, “God, everything’s quiet.” And then we heard, “Allah! Allah! Allah.”
Somebody said, “My god, it’s the Turks! They’re attacking. Get your guns loaded and ready to fire.”
We’d heard [the German] General von Sanders had come in with two divisions of good hardened troops and guns and machine guns. We had practically one machine gun every two chains, that’s all – about one to a squadron.
There were officers running up and down: “Get right to the top. Start shooting. The enemy’s there.” By God, you knew the enemy was there!
There was a mountain battery of Sikhs with an English major and he was giving them orders in their language. They would say, “Yes, Sahib! Yes, Sahib!” They were firing.
I was in support, nearly on the front trenches, and when those shells went over our heads, I don’t think they were more than six feet above us. I thought my hair must be standing up, and you’re deaf for hours after.
Colonel Mackesy – somebody said, “He’s standing on the parados!” He wasn’t happy being down there giving orders. He said, “Give us a gun.” I heard him say, “I got him!”
I’m shooting and moving up the trench, and as I’m moving up there were different ones that had been shot. I think the Germans pushed all the Turks in front – and then they’d come in with a burst to try and clean us up. But we stood firm.
When it was getting daylight, I looked down and I thought, Gawd – that fine bloke there from Gisborne, Jim Thompson. He’d been shot through the temple, and it went right through the other side.
I thought, I’ve got to go to Latrine Gully. So I went, and when I got back I said, “You’ll never believe it, boys” – we were all huddled together trying to sleep – “I went in there to relieve my feelings, and who do you think was there? On one side was Major McCarroll and on the other, Major Schofield. Doing my billybobs right in the midst of all the top ranks!”
The British Army, they had special places for officers. Our army was completely different. We often used to call the officers by their Christian names. But when we were in the army: “Yes, Sir!”
Were there rats on Gallipoli?
If there had been any rats, they would have been opened and killed and cooked. The rats would have died there because there was nothing you threw away.
Anything that man or beast could eat, you would eat.
A lot depended on the cook of your regiment. It all depended on your officers and the staff. If they cared, they could do a hell of a lot for you. If they didn’t care, you got no attention at all. Old Pat Foley, he was a great mate, he knew all the cooks in the different regiments. He’d go and visit them and say, “Give us a bit”, and have a good feed himself, and he’d taken his billy, and he’d say, “Here …” "Where did you get that?”
“Oh, no telling.”
The corporal came up to me and said, “I have to get two or three men together and they’ve got to go to No 3 Outpost.” I said, “I’ve just been out to No 3 Outpost. You go and look for somebody else.”
He said, “I’ve been given orders to get some of them, and you’re one of them.”
He was only a corporal, carrying out orders from the sergeant – so you’re prepared to be obstinate. I said, “I’ve been on night duty and this duty and that duty, and I never get any rest.” He said, “I’m taking you.”
I started fighting him. I got him one or two blows. He said, “I’m going to get somebody to help me.”
I said, “I won’t be here.”
I was about to go back to the boys and this blasted shell … You could never hear shells when they were coming at you. You can hear them all right if they’re at the left or right of you, but you could never hear the shells when they’re coming at you. You wouldn’t know what to do if you could.
This shell exploded right in my face, went everywhere – through my shoulder, my leg, my knee. Somebody said, “My God, Brookie. It’s a wonder it didn’t kill you.” I said, “I’ll never get killed. I’ve been preserved for better things.”
When they carried me away and they dug a big hole in the cliff where it was cool, and there were all the blokes wounded there to go on the ship, Pat Foley came down and he had a bowl of sago. “Oh, God,” I said, “Isn’t that wonderful!” He got to one of the cooks and he brought that down to me. I said, “God, that’s saved my life.” We were there two days before they picked us up and took us to the hospital ship.
On the hospital ship we all had a ticket on ourselves. It was only later I found that all the tickets showed where you should go – on the operating table or down to Davy Jones’s locker.
In the morning I was lying in bed. I’d had something to drink and something to eat. I thought, what a peaceful place this is. And they said, “Do you want to come up on deck? There are a few bodies going overboard.” I’d never seen anybody buried at sea.
There were different forms lying on the deck. They were all in canvas – and you could see one leg here or one arm or two legs off – and with a big heavy stone they took them to the bottom. I began to see that they sort them out before they go on the ship. If they’d had penicillin [which only became widely available after World War II] 75% of the men would have been saved, but those wounds, they’d all be festering. Mine didn’t fester. I must have had some good anti-germs in me. There were nurses on those boats and it was lovely to have the nurses. I never forget the night when they’d been trying to do a bit of bone grafting and they’d got a bit to stick. The nurses would come around with a basin of vinegar with ice in it. “Oh, you’ll be all right, soldier.” That lovely silky hand coming over, combined with the ice – what a relief it was. They put their cold hand on your cheek. You were fascinated. You thought, what lovely girls they are. “Come on, soldier, you’ll be all right.”
This arm took a long time to heal because so many bones were shattered, but I gradually mended.
I was sent to Cardiff to convalesce. Mother came to see me in hospital. She put her hand round my face. “Oh, Martin, I’ve missed you for such a long time.” You see, I’d really run away from home when I came to New Zealand.
An Awfully Big Adventure: New Zealand World War One Veterans Tell Their Stories is published by Penguin Books on April 24,$45.
Jane Tolerton is speaking at Auckland Readers and Writers Festival on Friday, May 17, and holding a workshop on oral history techniques the following day.
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