Sergeant Ernest Richard ('Eber') Johnston was born in Thames on the 28th of May 1890, the son of Lucy and Richard Johnston of Queen Street, Thames. When war broke out, he was a blacksmith working for A & G Price in Thames, as well as being a member of the Thames Volunteer Fire Brigade. He also played Rep Football in Thames. His family was wracked by tragedy, caused most likely by TB. His mother died in 1901, his sister Lily died in 1902 and another sister Elsie died in 1909. When he enlisted at the age of 24 in August 1914, another sister Evelyn Winks nee Johnston was his next-of-kin. He departed New Zealand on 16 October 1914 with the rank of Sergeant and arrived in Egypt 3 Decemebr 1914. He was amongst the ANZAC troops who landed at Gallipoli on 25th April 1915.
The following letter was published in the The Thames Star on 21 July 1915.
In a letter to his sister, Miss E. Johnston, of Thames, Sergt. E. Johnston, of the 6th Hauraki Company, wounded in the Dardenelles fighting gives some impressions gained previous to the fighting, and after the battle. Under date April 23rd he says:
You will see by the head lines that the date was premature, but circumstances warrant it. You understand that this is just before the battle and this letter, although old will contain news which it was impossible to let you have before.
We left Zeitoun on the night of Friday, April 9th, at 10.15, by train and arrived at Alexandria at day break on Saturday. Straight away we boarded the luxurious Nord-deucher Lloyd liner Lutzow, a fine German passenger boat which formerly traded between Bremen and Australia.
It must now be very galling for our enemy to know that it is conveying two thousand New Zealand troops against Turkey. Say what people will, their ships are first-class and passengers had every convenience catered for, and I can assure you that this boat with her two-berth second class cabin will do men and many more. Of course we officers are better off than the men, on account of the ship being so crowded, but on a short run little else can be expected.
When the General came aboard at 5 o'clock on Monday, the 12th, the anchor was at once weighed and we were off as though to the seat of operations, but we soon found out we were a little out in our calculations. After two and a half days out over the the water of the blues and fairly smooth and passing many islands, we steamed into a beautiful harbour filled entirely with transports and ships of war of every description.
My word what a sight, once to be seen, will never be forgotten. Doubtless the greatly admired and costly and effective dinghy here was the Queen Elizabeth, the envy of all at this acute stage. To say that she was an object of curiosity was putting it very mildly. Every conceivable form of ship was here, dreadnoughts, cruisers, destroyers, submarines, palatial liners, cargo-carriers, tugs, floating foundries and airships, such an array of war machines has never been equalled and I do not think will ever be excelled in our time at any rate. It is in the peaceful island of Lemnos, about fifty miles from our real objective that all this is taking place. The land round about us is the nearest approach to New Zealand that we have come in contact with since leaving our native shore. The climate is a little sharper if anything. We have put in exactly one fortnight here, being pulled ashore daily in light boats for exercise, for things were very crowded aboard ship and everyone was glad to stretch his limbs and see what is to be seen.
In this case very little, for the island has only five thousand of a population, exclusively Greeks, who seem very poor, but honest and hard working. They gain their livelihood chiefly by tilling the land and grazing sheep and cattle. The houses are nearly all stone structures, built more for utility than appearance and are generally situated in little groups a fair distance apart. The capital, which we did not see, contains two thousand five hundred inhabitants and has a Governor of its own. Exactly fourteen days after leaving Zeitoun, we weighed anchor at Lemnos, proceeding outward and again anchored, taking our position in the order in which we proceeded to the scene of hostilities. The passing of our boat through the regular network of shipping was grand, as one after the other, warships included, were left behind, the cheering was frantic and all the same time mutual. But anon, more will come later and you will understand I am writing this just before the battle, so Au-revoir and I hope things will go alright with us.
Writing from St George Barracks, Malta, May 20th, Sergt Johnston continues:-
Events have passed rapidly. I have seen over a fortnight of hostilities but of war enough. You can form no idea of modern battles. Have since been wounded and am in Malta but for how long, no one knows. Malta is an exceptionally pretty place. The land is one mass of rock and fortifications. The buildings are all stone and the town is very clean and the natives, Maltese, are immeasurably superior to this we left behind in Egypt and though they have their own language, English is also spoken by nearly all and this comes as a pleasant surprise. Articles in Malta are very reasonable to purchase. The Maltese receive very small pay - about eighteen pence a day. Nevertheless they live and dress very well indeed. Their womenfolk being scrupulously tidy. There does not seem to be any industries of any importance, soldiers and shipping being the outstanding features.
We have had an opportunity of seeing some of the best English regulars, some who were at Mons and without trying to detract in the least, give me the Colonials every time for physique and dash and initiative. You might remember me writing scathingly of the behaviour of the Australians in Cairo, but as fighters they are second to none. We have indelibly impressed our names on the Gallipoli Peninsula
It has been a glorious day for the Colonials but my word it has been very sad and there will be many a happy home in New Zealand left with sorrow, but this unfortunately is only to be expected when the nature of the enterprise in hand is understood. The number of crippled there is going to be after the war will be appalling and it makes one sad to think about it. We are now a totally different body of men to the many which left New Zealand, and are now scattered far and wide, but can honestly say that we have done our best.
In all our travels to date, we have come in contact with many lands and various peoples, but not one can compare with our own land, not in any respect. The climate of some has approached New Zealand somewhat, especially Turkey, but in other respects are a long way behind. The Malta nights are lovely but the days are very warm and this being summer time, things are very dry and parched up.
When with Captain Sinel leading in a bayonet charge, I had the bad luck to be counted out after seeing over a fortnight's fighting. I was struck with a bullet as far as I know. It has shattered the bone and sinews connecting the thumb with the wrists and made a big hole in the back of my hand. It is useless to expect that my thumb will be of any further use and I am afraid they will take it off. I am undergoing an operation in a few days. There is no mistake a chap was really lucky to come out of such a charge with his life, (let) alone anything else. I have been exceptionally lucky compared with the hundreds that have gone and although I am practically helpless for the time being, it will not be long before I shall be able to get about again. At present I have no idea of any future movements; suffice to say it will be some time (if ever) before I get back to the firing line, so must rest content for the time being.
Although every possible thing is being done in the matter of our wounds one cannot help thinking that the medical facilities are lamentably inadequate and there is no doubt that many cases will be be permanently injured. The people here are exceedingly kind to the wounded. The way they treated us on our arrival here could not be surpassed by our own people in New Zealand. We are rationed in barracks and the conditions are a long way from what we have been used to. Sentries being posted everywhere and liberty is quite restricted.
You will find enclosed a paper from England which contains an untarnished account of our landing and it is absolutely true in every detail. I could not describe it better (if I had the use of my hand to tell you all) showing us where we clearly made a slight mistake in going a wee bit too far in our first assault. From beginning to end it should read: 'Australia's and New Zealand's battle.' Owing to my injuries making me useless as a writer at the present time, all my news is being written through the kindness on one Corporal Mills. Much news I could give you but will delay for a future date and if ever I reach home I will be able to tell you many incidents that have happened since leaving our native shore.
Sergeant Johnston was transferred to various hospitals in England where he underwent further treatment for his hand injury. He was at the Walton-on-Thames New Zealand hospital a year later in June 1916. His hand was largely healed but by then he was seriously ill with TB. He was shipped back home to New Zealand in 1917, discharged as no longer fit for active service and returned to his home in Thames. His brother Frank had died in 1915, aged 17 years, and his father died in 1917. Eber Johnston died at his home in Thames on 11 November 1919, aged 29 years old. He and all his family are buried together in Tararu Cemetery, Thames.
Sergeant Johnston avoided speaking about his two weeks at Gallipoli in his letter to his sister. This was a common occurrence amongst the World War I veterans; the experience being too painful to recall in any detail. They were determined to put the memories behind them and to avoid upsetting their families back home with stories of the violence and horror of Gallipoli and the bloody deaths of their comrades. However The New Zealand Herald on 16 June 1915 published a description of the battle at Gallipoli by Private Arthur J. Phillips, an engineer from Auckland that helps fill the gaps in Sergeant Johnston's personal description of the Gallipoli Landings:
An interesting description of the landing of the New Zealanders and Australian troops on the Gallipoli Peninsula, on the historic morning of April 25, from the pen of an Auckland soldier, arrived by Monday's mail. The writer is Private Arthur J. Phillips, of the 3rd Auckland Regiment, son of Mr John Phillips of Point Chevalier who has been reported as being amongst the wounded. It appears however from his letter, that he had the ill-luck to sustain a sprained ankle whilst taking part in the charge up the heights at Gab Tepe, this of course putting him temporarily out of action. Private Phillips, who wrote after his return to the Zeitoun camp on April 30, gives the following account of what came under his observation in connection with the landing:-
We arrived at the scene of fighting at 4.30 a.m. on Sunday morning, April 25th. No bugle reveille was necessary to wake us from our slumbers. Boom! Boom!! Boom!!! The air was bristling with war as Britain's deadly messengers were groaning and shrieking over the land. As we sailed round a certain peninsula the actual gun reports became muffled through the increasing distance, but we were approaching a point where reports of a far greater volume could be heard, and where each report was accompanied by powerful atmospheric vibrations. What were the reports, you ask. Well ask the enemy, if there are any left living. They can tell you more about the explosion of a British 13.5in shell than we can. The British warships were bombarding from the far side of the peninsula, and their shells were dropping on the opposite side, our intended landing place.
Suddenly there was a bang! Crash! One thought the world was falling in as those one ton 15in upholders of British glory were hurtling over. Then it started in deadly earnest. The time had come, and that powerful fleet of British warships opened an unrelenting fire on those formidable-looking cliffs in front of us. Shells were dropping around us in all directions, but the German howitzers were incompetent to reply to such gunnery of our good old navy. There was a loud cheer as a fort of howitzers went hurtling into the air. The bombardment lasted for about two hours, and could be heard at a place 40 miles distant.
Prior to its commencement, however, the Australian Third Brigade, including the 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th Battalions, had started landing operations. The 10th led, and the 9th followed. The first cluster of barges, when being towed ashore, were covered on either side by two torpedo boat destroyers. The enemy were beautifully entrenched, and seemed well aware of our intended attack - hence a vigilant look-out on their part. On the Australian boats nearing the shore, the sentries gave the alarm by firing three shots. This set the mill going, and a rain of bullets was directed on the dauntless landing party from the cliffs towering overhead. Machine guns too began to pour lead on to the beach. In reply, the towing pinnace turned a machine-gun on them. Whether taken aback at the boldness of the landing or hampered by the darkness of the hour, one cannot tell, but at the short range of less than 100 yards the enemy succeeded in killing only one sailor. It appears that, in their utter confusion, the enemy merely closed their eyes and poured lead on the beach indiscriminately.
Well, thought the boys,-
Standing at the foot boys,
Gazing at the sky,
How can you get up, boys,
If you never try?
The Australian Colonel was on the beach waiting for more men to come. The Captain was standing awaiting orders. A stalwart Australian private, named Montgomery, clambered half-way up the cliff, crying, 'Come on, boys.' Out flashed every bayonet at the instant, and off they went! They charged, yes, they charged up those 'impregnable' heights. Not an enemy stood his ground: They flew, leaving rifles, ammunition, equipment, and simply fled before that rushing, cheering crowd - that inexorable onrush of cold steel. Up to the cliff-tops . . . and over; the way was cleared. A German staff-officer and a machine gun were captured.
Loud cheers came from the warships and transports. One old sailor said, 'Lads, I have heard of a lot of deeds being done, and have seen a lot of fighting in my days, but never anything like that!' A man off H.M.S. Ocean, which was recently sunk, said, 'If anyone had told me three weeks ago that those heights could be taken by soldiers, I'd have called him an outright liar. The cliff up which the men charged is over 150 ft high, and was covered in dense scrub, which afforded excellent cover for sharp-shooters, and greatly impeded the attackers' advance. Not only had they this scrub to hide in, but the enemy had dug trenches on the hillside.
More and more colonials were landed. Our company went ashore about 7 a.m. In taking a short cut across the top of a steep ridge and endeavouring to dodge under a hail of bullets in my hurried advance, I fell about 20ft and sprained my ankle. Not being able to walk, I was taken off - you know the rest. Well, I am going back again very soon. Conditions are vastly improved, and they say that a good footing is established.
Private Arthur Phillips was born in Paeroa 12 April 1893. He fought overseas for five years, from his enlistment in August 1914 until his discharge in July 1919 at the end of hostilities.
The following letter was published in the Thames Star on 3 July 1915. It was written by Thomas Alfred Clare Gemming who was born in Thames on 31 July 1887.
In an interesting letter to Mr D. Coakley, of Thames, Private Thomas Gemming, son of Mr and Mrs Gemming of Kopu, and a member of the 6th Hauraki Company, who was wounded in the Dardenelles fighting, gives some details of the fighting in which he participated, and mentions inter alia, that Corporal V. Hollis, brother of Mrs C. Hayward, Thames who was injured in the shoulder, was getting along well. Describing the fighting, Private Gemming says:
I landed a couple of Turkish pills and my right hand and arm are thrown out of gear. It is pretty hard to try and give you an idea of what war is like; I guess one must go through it to realise what it is. The Australian boys landed about 3 o'clock on the morning of the 25th of April, under heavy fire. We lay in harbour till midday and then landed. Two boys were wounded as they stepped off the boat on to the beach.
What a sight met us.
Men dead and wounded and dying lying spread out on the beach. This put the finishing touch to the hard training we had in Egypt. I think the sights we saw turned us from boys to hard hearted men, and later from the latter to mad devils. When I sit down and think of the way we all rushed through the heavy fire poured upon us, I fancy when men get to that stage of a fight, they absolutely go mad. After passing along the beach for about half a mile, we halted to get ready to mount the hill. We had to carry our full kit, ammunition cases, water, for fear the Turks had poisoned the wells, and every man a spade and pick. It was pretty solid toil I can tell you, and after mounting the first ridge, we all threw our worldly possessions away, our packs about 40 pounds weight. At last we got to the top, open country, and then the fun began. The Turkish shrapnel played up a little hell with us.
We proceeded in short rushes taking whatever cover we could; as for shrapnel, only overhead cover is any use and we had not time to look for that. A lot of our boys were wounded by the shrapnel. We had no officer with us. God knows what happened to him. At any rate, an officer was no good; it was a privates' fight. We took a long spell here, and bound up the wounded. Those that could walk made a bolt for the beach but a lot had to wait for stretchers. By now we are quite used to the ping of the bullets. We proceeded till we reached the firing line, getting there about 7 at night. The Australians had lost heavily, and the wounded were about ready to be taken down the valley. There was heavy firing all night; we were all in good trenches. I put in four days with the 'A' company. Firing slackened off during the third and fouth days, but shrapnel was still flying pretty thick.
All the New Zealanders were called to the beach for a spell, more reinforcements arriving. The worst trouble to contend with is the sniper. He is always a crack shot, and never mind how careful we are, there is always someone falling, shot from behind. After a couple of days on the beach, we had the roll call, and had 121 men left out of 227. We had orders to proceed down the coast in gunboats to reinforce the Tommies and French. The landing in the first fight was conducted solely by New Zealand boys, no Tommies arriving until our lads were strongly entrenced. My word, the boys behaved splendidly, and upheld the good name of the Colonies. The papers here, (presumably Malta, as that was where the writer was at last advices) are full of the good work done by them. We went into the last fight with 121 sound men, and on the final rollcall, only 26 sound men were left. Well, we proceeded down the coast as ordered, but before leaving we had some rum, neat too, to keep ourselves warm. My word it was decent. Before we left the staging, one fellow got shot in the arm. He turned around and said 'I'll have another nip of rum. I've got a pill in my arm.' Austin (brother of Mr Coakley) being quartermaster, was the barman, running around with a big bucket of rum. On our way we passed one of the forts captured by us, and what a mess! We marched about six miles, before we settled down. Here we dug ourselves in, with shrapnel flying all around, but no rifle fire as the firng line was over the ridge. I could write for hours but my hand is no good, as you can see from the writing. We started short rushes and went about a mile before one of our men fell; we started again and then Hamilton Tapu, Vincent Hollis and myself got a shock and hit the ground. I managed to get up the hill to the boys and Austin tried to tie me up, but the fire was too hot. He had to leave me and a little while after he was himself shot, while turning round. We lost a lot of men here and as I had two good legs left, I left the boys and went away to look for stretcher-bearers. Took my water bottle with me, but had not gone far when it was knocked out of my hand. I managed to get within fifty yards of the big trenches, and was preparing to make my final rush, when ping!, another pill in the upper fleshy part of the leg, only a flesh wound though, thank God. Too hot for stretcher bearers, and the wounded had to lie all night.
Private Thomas Gemming was invalided home to New Zealand in May 1916 with a leg wound. He died of his wounds at his parents' home at Kopu, Thames on 26th April 1917 after a long illness.
The following letter was published in The Auckland Star on 14 August 1915. It was written by Private Walter Greenslade who was born in Thames 12 January 1879 and in later years attended various schools in Thames.
The following letter has been received from Private Walter Greenslade, who was the 'Auckland Star' agent and reporter at Birkenhead prior to enlisting with the Fourth Reinforcements:-
A few lines to the tune of shell schrapnel and rifle fire. I will not have time for a long letter as I have to go on in an hour's time until midnight and then back in the trench until 4:30 a.m.. I am then relieved until 7:30 a.m. Ten minutes after being relieved I am always sound asleep. It is surprising the small amount of sleep one can do with here - or has to do with. It is not a bad game though, while the nerves hang out. I have had bullets and grape shot fall at my feet and into my dugout but have never yet received a scratch. Unless one has been on the battlefield, he cannot imagine the horrors or the inconveniences one has to go through. You can not buy a smoke for (love or?) money. I have been out of tobacco for nearly a week and yesterday could stand it no longer so went up one of the gullies and pulled some herb leaves which I am now puffing at. We have raw rations served out to us, and do our own cooking, which is preferable by far to the food we had supplied to us on the boats coming here. I wish you were here for a day just to see what splendid work our boys have done. They have (dispersed?) over hills very similar to what the country is between the Fishing Rocks to Tookeys Point and back to Punga Flat at the Thames. It is simply marvelous how they cleared the enemy out of such country. We are on the right flank while the left flank is about 13 miles away. I understand the hills I refer to have been fought for on (heavily censored). We had an uneventful trip to Suez. Trained from there to Zeitoun, where we arrived at 2 a.m. and were welcomed by the General. We were in Zeitoun three days, during which time we were refused leave. Some of the boys broke through the camp to go sightseeing.
A good many of them made their way to Cairo, and they all seem to have had their eyes opened. After three days at Zeitoun, we trained to Alexandria and went straight aboard the ---, where we lay for nearly ---- aboard. We then transhipped, and came here, where some of us received a lively reception in trying to land. The trenches we are now in are on a ridge of hills similar to Messenger Hill, Thames. The whole place reminds me of a goldfield rush. The way the hills are burrowed and battered with shell; the men toiling and making roads etc, the continuous noise of bursting shells, similar to blasting. Everything is bustle and dodging falling lead. The whole battalion has been cut up, and the men attached to different regiments. I have been drafted to the 6th Hauraki Regiment. There has been a frightfully heavy bombardment going on for the last few days by our warships. (Heavily censored). A lot of bomb-throwing takes place on both sides. You cannot imagine the heavy havoc they play.
Private Walter Greenslade was wounded, missing and believed dead at Gallipoli on or about 8 August 1915.
The final letter appeared in The Auckland Star on the 14th August 1915. The author was Private H.W. Keesing who was a stretcher-bearer with the New Zealand Medical Corp at Gallipoli.
Mr W.F. Goulstone, Divisional Superintendent, Onehunga Division of the St John Ambulance Brigade has received a letter from one of the division's members, Private H.W. Keesing, who is serving with the New Zealand Medical Corp at the Dardanelles. The letter is dated June 8th 1915, and an extract reads as follows:-
We had some Red Cross nurses at the hospital while I was there - little French girls of good family who wanted to learn nursing. They were good company to those patients who could talk a little French, but as far as nursing goes they would never learn. For instance they would look most awfully shocked if the Sister asked them to sponge a patient down, change a sheet or shirt, or do a bit of tidying up. They rather liked giving out medicine, painting sore throats, and other such tit-bits.
I think I told you that Comrie was a No 1 in a stretcher squad and also Straw, and that I was in Straw's Squad. Well since then Straw has been made an acting Lance Corporal (that was before we got into active service), and - better news still - Comrie has been mentioned in dispatches. I do not know what for. I expect it will be for hard work. On 2nd May we were just on ordinary work, when we received orders about 5 p.m. to move from the left to the right wing - about a four mile march, not over good roads, but on stony beach for the first half and up a track that had been made in the bed of a gully, over ankle deep in mud in places. We got to the head of the gully about 7.30 just after the Australian boys had made a charge and taken a trench. We threw off our packs and hid them away as well we could. (We heard later that this place had been swept with bullets a few minutes before so we were lucky.) We then went on to the dressing station on the beach - four miles return trip - over a track where you could not carry a glass of water on the stretcher without spilling any of it. Well I did that trip three times without a spell, except to get a drink of water on the beach each time. When I went back the third time I took a spell by dressing a couple of wounds that were waiting until the doctor has finished the more serious cases. I then helped with two more stretcher cases. With the first of the two a man started to walk with us (he was wounded in the thigh but thought he could manage.) We had not gone more than a hundred yards before I had to take him on my back. I carried him about half way, and then met another stretcher squad - the only one left besides our own - and they came back with us. The next trip we were the only squad out, and when we got back about 4.30 a.m. we found everyone had turned in, so we did likewise. I slept for an hour and was then wakened. A badly wounded man had just been brought in. I was in the squad that took him away and as more wounded came in by the time we got back, I went on working until about 10.30 a.m. I have given you my experience because I think it will give you a fair idea of how Comrie has earned his honour. I might add that we have had three experiences like the above, without counting the day we landed.
We found one man in a little gully at the side of a slip. He was wounded in the back and had the left femur fractured. When we got to him, we were absolutely done, and thought we would have five minutes spell, but the infantry were on to us to hurry up, as they could not hold the position any longer. So we got the poor fellow on the stretcher the best way we could and started off. On the way up the gully I thought that the guide was taking us that way for a short-cut as it seemed impossible to fetch a wounded man down that way, and that he would be able to show us another way back, but it was not so and down the gully we had come. Now remember there was no moon, it was pitch dark and drizzling rain. Well we started down the slip. I was at the head, two men at the foot, and the rest wherever they could get. I found my best plan was to sit down and dig the feet of the stretcher into the ground. I had no power to pull back. The poor fellow himself was full of pluck. The chaps at the foot did not have foothold enough to keep the stretcher levelm the result being that it was not long before the man was half off. We had no chance of getting him on again, so we got him to hang on to the canvas at the top, which he did. How he managed it, I don't know. It took us about a quarter of an hour to get down that slope - about half-way down a dead branch got between the canvas and the top traverse bar, and we had to drag the whole thing back about two feet.
All this time they were shouting from the top to hurry up, as the enemy were coming. When we got to the bed of the gully again, we had to walk - or rather stumble - over big stones, get down these waterfalls, or go up the bank to pass them, pushing through bushes all the time. There was not room for more than two men at the stretcher at the same time, and a man could not carry more than ten yards at the head, or more than twenty at the feet. The snipers, who could evidently hear us talking, were sending bullets all round us, and the guide was telling us that we would be out of it before daylight, or they would be able to pick us off. We got out all right, and reached the Major about five o'clock. He asked us to take the man on to the beach but we had to refuse - we could not have done it so a fresh squad was put on to take him the rest of the way. We went down with them and reported to our own officer who seeing we were done up told us to turn in. I forgot to say that when we reached the man he was done up with the rifle splint - it was very rough but we did not have time to alter it. His weight was about 14 stone. The Major that I speak of has been awarded the D.S.O for what he did that day - I have not heard just what it was but I suppose we will hear later.