An ANZAC Day Letter
On April 25, 1915, Ray Baker, a young soldier from Gympie,
landed at Gallipoli with the Anzac troops.
Wounded that first day, he was repatriated to Malta and 10 days later wrote to his childhood Gympie sweetheart, Vera, about the Anzac landing.
The letter is one of the most descriptive and poignant accounts of the event which made Australia a nation. It was made public in 1981 by Vera’s daughter Desma Healy, of Brisbane, who’d had the letter since her mother died in 1973. Born in Gympie on June 12, 1897, Vera Johns was a teenage sweetheart of Ray Baker and was 18 when this letter was written.
She did not marry Ray, but she did become the bride of a World War 1 Digger, Harold Charles Kemp. Harold enlisted with the 18th Reinforcements of the 26th Battalion in October 1916. He was gassed at Passchendaele Ridge on October 30, 1917, marked unfit for duty and honorably discharged.He died in 1961.
When she passed away in 1973, Vera was survived by her two daughters, Desma and Elwyn Baxter, of Kilkivan.
“My mother used to read it every Anzac Day,” Desma said of the letter in 1981.
'The Australians proved what stuff they were made of'
From my address in Malta you see that I am now stationed in another part of the globe and not having too bad a time taking things all round. It is a long time since I have been able to write a decent letter to you so now I will try to give you an account of things since I left Mena Camp on February 28.
Our battalion entrained at Cairo about 11.30pm that night reaching Alexandria at 5 o’clock next morning. We boarded the troopship “Ionian” along with the 10th Battalion and Ambulance Corps. There were 2500 of us on board and packed in like sardines, there being hardly room to move about.
It was midday the following Tuesday before “Ionian” left Alexandria. They had been busy taking on stores etc. As we left the harbour we passed an American cruiser (North Carolina) and they signalled “Goodbye and good luck” and their band played “God Save the King”.
On Friday, March 6, the “Ionian” dropped anchor in Lemnos Island harbour and the following Sunday we landed on the island and marched two miles to a place near a village where we were to camp.
Dear Vera, I will not dwell on the time we spent on Lemnos Island, where we had many varied experiences, for I have much to write about and that will keep for some future occasion.
It was on April 15, I think, that the 9th Battalion left the island and embarked on the troopship “Malda”, but a couple of days before that another chap and I were sent aboard as winch drivers and had a lot of loading to do – hauling stores on board and more than 300 horses. Everyday we expected to get word to move and were getting very impatient at the delay.
It was April 24 – (eight months since I left Gympie) that we were told to be ready. At 10pm that night we had our last meal on board the “Malda”. The ship had left the harbour just before sun-down and after four hours steaming had anchored at some place in the open sea unknown to us.
Somewhere about midnight, two British destroyers came alongside and we were immediately trans-shipped to them. They were to take us to the place where we were to land to meet the Turks.
Our company was on board the destroyer “Colne” which steamed away in the direction of the Dardanelles. We were fairly crowded on the upper deck but quite comfortable and at 3am Sunday morning hot cocoa was served out all round.
“Colne” and other destroyers and cruisers that were near stopped about this time waiting for the moon to go down and at 4.30 started to move again. We had not gone far before land was sighted ahead and we all got into the small boats that were alongside. We were near the place where we had to land.
The destroyer stopped 300 yards from the shore and the order was given to us to push off just as day was beginning to break. The oarsmen gave way with a will and we were still 100 yards from the shore when the exciting times commenced.
There were dozens of boat loads of us making for the shore when the bullets began to fly all round us – the Turks must have been on the look-out. Luckily not one in our boat was hit but others did not get off so well. One chap was killed outright and many were wounded.
When our boat grounded we jumped out almost up to our hips in the water and made for the beach. It was just my luck to step into a hole – my rifle going right under water. I almost followed it, but I managed to get ashore otherwise unhurt. The order was given to fix bayonets, open out and advance.
Ahead of us was a steep hill covered with thick undergrowth from two to five feet high, forming excellent cover for the enemy and also for ourselves, but not bullet-proof. The Turks fell back before us and we got to the top of the first hill in quick time and without mishap.
As far as we could see, the country was all hills and hollows covered with the same thick undergrowth with a few clumps of trees here and there.
It was now broad daylight and as we forged onward an occasional bullet would whizz past unpleasantly close. But the flaming Turks were poor rifle shots, for by the time we got to the top of the second hill only two of our fellows had been wounded.
So far we had seen very few of the enemy but later on we were to see enough of them. As we advanced we got mixed up, owing to the nature of the country and I lost sight of most of my own mates.
There did not seem to be many of the enemy opposed to us at this point, although we came across many abandoned kit-bags and gear which they had left in a hurry. We also passed some of their trenches.
On our left the firing was fairly heavy and continuous so the party I was with moved in that direction and we were soon in the thick of it. By this time, many British battleships had opened fire on the Turkish forts and the noise was awful – I have never heard thunder to equal it.
We drove the Turks back and captured four guns and ammunition – also many tents and stores. But reinforcements were slow in coming up so we were forced to retire – but not for long. The Turks with whom were many Germans, took up a strong position behind a ridge. There were many thousands of them and they easily outnumbered us, having plenty of artillery and machine guns while all we had was our rifle fire.
Our artillery had not been able to get ashore, while our machine guns were late in coming – and then there was only one or two so you see the advantage they had over us was indeed great. Their fire was getting absolutely murderous, but our chaps advanced again and again, and were dropping in all directions, but would not be stopped.
That Sunday (April 25) should live in history, for the Australians proved what stuff they were made of and many a one made a hero of himself. And many a poor fellow died urging his mates onward with his last breath.
The hail of bullets was simply awful and the shrapnel shells were bursting round us all the time – they must have expended a marvellous amount of ammunition.
Many of our officers were shot down and most of the time we got no orders at all, but had to rely on ourselves to do the best we could. Whenever we did happen to see an officer the order was always the same “Get ahead lads and stick it into them”.
Another advantage the enemy had over us was a thorough knowledge of the country and the ranges for their fire and I suppose they were fresh too. We had been up all the night before, got wet through going ashore and had had no breakfast although we had food in our haversacks and no time to eat it.
All the different battalions were mixed up and it was only now and again that I saw any of the Gympie chaps. Once I spotted Monty Woody (sic: the name was actually Woodyatt) – and gave him a call. He yelled out to me to come on and we both dived ahead, but soon got separated again and I never saw him after that.
A chap told me later that Monty had been shot dead and I do not yet know if it is true. I hope not. Shortly after this I joined George Thomas and Bill Money behind some bushes and the bullets were coming thick and fast. The cries and groans of the wounded were deadly and there were no stretcher-bearers about to attend to them.
Things were getting hotter every moment and our position was not too good so Bill Money and I started to go ahead in short rushes – I do not know how we had escaped so far. We managed to get into a fair position and were ready to resume firing when I felt a thud in the back.
We were lying down and it made me get a bit lower. I afterwards found that a bullet had torn through the side of my haversack and went through a tin of “bully” beef that was in it.
We were wearing our haversacks on our backs although they are generally worn at the side. It was a close shave but I think everyone was getting used to close shaves.
Our lads all the time were behaving splendidly. We had often been told that a soldier nearly dies of fright the first few minutes when he first goes under fire, but dear Vera that is all rot. It makes you feel a bit uncomfortable but it also makes you want to get at the enemy and give him a bit of his own back – with interest.
One bad point (?) about our fellows was that they were too eager and rushed ahead in any sort of order, often exposing themselves unnecessarily.
Within a minute of getting one in my haversack I heard a groan beside me and saw Bill Money’s head drop. I knew at once that another bullet had found a mark and I at once went to Bill’s assistance, cursing the Turks all the time.
All he said was “Ray I’m hit” and I, with the aid of another chap turned him over on his back and managed to get his equipment off. When I opened up his coat and shirt, there was a bullet hole showing high up on his left breast. Very little blood was coming from it and the bullet may have gone into his collar bone.
Poor old Bill roused a little from semi-unconsciousness and wanted to know if the bullet had touched his heart. Of course I assured him that it had not and that he would be alright. We managed to dress the wound, gave him a drink and made him as comfortable as possible under the circumstances.
I stacked his gear up in front of his head to stop any more bullets from hitting him. All the time I was expecting to get hit for the fire was simply hellish – but my luck was in. So fast and thick were the bullets coming from the enemy’s machine guns, that some of the time the sound from the whizzing through the air was for all the world like the buzz of an electric fan.
We had only just fixed up Bill Money when a chap on my left got one through the arm. An artery must have been cut for when I cut open his sleeve the blood that poured out was horrible and my hands became smothered in it. We tied up the wound as well as we were able and advised him to crawl to the rear. By this time two others near us were down and I though it time to stop doing the stretcher bearers’ work.
You know it is against the rules in warfare for men that are needed in the firing line to touch the wounded, as there are supposed to be special men for that work, but it is hard to see a pal struck down and not try to help him. So I had another look at Bill M. and then retired a little to see if there were any ambulance men about, but I could see none.
The call came back for more men, so I advanced again with another group going slightly to the right so that I did not see Bill M. again. Later in the day one of our company told me he had seen Bill making his way to the beach, so I am hoping that he is doing alright.
As we advanced, the fire, if possible, became hotter but I seemed to bear a charmed life – one bullet ripped through my coat sleeve at the wrist without touching my arm. A little later when lying down, my water bottle, which was against my lip hip, stopped one, the only result being the loss of all my water.
I thought it time to move to a safer spot but when I got up I had a still closer escape, for a bullet tore through the collar of my tunic right under my chin. The metal badge on the collar must have turned it aside for there was a dent in it and a little bit of lead sticking to it. My collar was partly turned up at the time, for the bullet hit on the underneath side of it.
It was not till about 3pm that I was put out of action when we were giving the Turks and their German friends a hot time and of course getting it hot in return. Their rifle fire was bad but the machine guns and shrapnel shells were deadly.
It was a bullet from a shrapnel that got me, the shell burst just a few yards to my left (I was lying down) and the sensation I got was as if someone had hit me on the muscle of the left arm with a large club.
If ever I cursed the Turks, Vera, it was then. When I got back a few hundred yards, a chap bound up the wound for me and I saw then that a bullet had gone right through my arm near the shoulder, the hole it left being about half-an-inch in diameter.
I had nearly two miles to go to the beach and it was a deadly journey and I had to drop my equipment before going far – but I stuck to my rifle and filled one pocket with ammunition – although I could not have used it.
Stray bullets were flying about all the time and I expected to get a few more gentle reminders from the beastly Turks, but in due course I arrived at the beach without further harm.
Dear Vera, don’t you think it was hard luck for me to be put out of the fighting the very first day – but still I had about 10 hours of it and it was hot stuff too. Many old soldiers said it was the worst day they had ever had under fire and did not want another like it.
But the first day was the worst for us and we suffered rather severely. Old Col. Lee was heard to exlaim – “Oh! My poor ninth, my poor ninth, they will be cut to pieces, they are bearing the brunt of it all”. I believe he was shot in the hand.
Things were humming on the beach when I got there and wounded men were lying about everywhere. The other Gympie-ites I saw were George Thomas and W. McGown, wounded in the arms.
I believe Isaac Jackson was also shot in the arm although I did not see him. Even on the beach we were not too safe for the Turks’ shrapnel shells kept bursting over our heads all the time. They were firing at the batttleships in the bay.
You could hardly credit some of the marvellous escapes from death that some of the Australians had. The wounds of some of them were awful and it proved that there are not many parts of the human body on which bullets prove fatal.
One chap I saw had been shot right through the head, the bullet going in one side about an inch behind the eye and coming out the same distance behind the other eye. He was not much the worse for it except that he had two lovely black eyes and they were nearly closed up, but the sight was uninjured.
There are numbers of fellows with bullets still in their heads which do not seem to affect them much. Many others have bullets in various parts of the body and they will soon get alright when they are extracted. One poor fellow was struck deaf and dumb by the bursting of a shell within a few feet of his head. He was otherwise unhurt and may regain his hearing and speech anytime.
Here is a tragic happening, Vera. A chap that had half his face blown off was seen to coolly finish himself off with his own rifle. One of his mates was with him at the time. The horrors of that Sunday will long live in my memory and I hope dear Vera such a recital as this will not make you sick.
The following is an amusing incident that occurred during the day and will help to tone down the other part a little. A private lying down behind cover was busy plugging away at the enemy when another chap dashed up and dropped down beside him.
He only noticed that the newcomer had not a rifle so roared at him “What are you doing up here without a rifle you damned fool?” The other (who happened to be an officer) just calmly replied: “Officers don’t carry rifles you damn fool.” No doubt the private would feel rather small, that is if he had time to. But things get rather slack when in the firing line and rank does not count so much as when on ceremonial parade.
A hospital ship was lying out in the bay and the worst cases were taken on board her as quickly as possible. Those not seriously wounded were taken to the empty troop-ships.
About 800 (including myself) were placed on board the “Clan Macgillivary” and other transports were also filled so you see the Australians suffered greatly the first day. We heard that the dead, wounded and missing numbered 5000 but do not know how true the statement is.
We were crowded on the Clan Mac and most of us had to sleep on blankets on the deck and were fed on hard biscuits, cheese and jam – poor treatment for wounded soldiers but they did the best they could for us. The ship proceeded to Alexandria where 200 of our worse cases were taken off and also about 60 who were well enough to go back to the front.
There was no room for the rest of us at Alexandria so the next day our ship left that port and made tracks for Malta. We were wild at being kept cooped up on board for a few days but now I am glad, for this place is miles ahead of Egypt and we are very comfortable.
The “Clan Macgillivary” dropped anchor in Malta harbour early yesterday morning and after breakfast we were taken ashore in lighters drawn by steam tugs. We are now quartered in stone buildings nice and clean with 12 men in each room.
There are men to cook for us, others to wait on us and Vera, we have beds to sleep in which is something new. I am on the third floor and there is a lovely view of the fort and the sea on one side and the harbour and the city on the other. We have electric light, water handy and all other conveniences.
The people here are very kind and gave us a warm welcome. We are allowed to stroll about within a certain limit so yesterday many of us visited the English school, 900 yards away, to the great delight of the school kids, who seemed to think we were great heroes.
The school mistress invited us into the school to hear the youngsters sing etc and we had a jolly good time. The young school children gave us great bunches of lovely flowers and some I got now adorn our room which presents quite a homely appearance.
The kiddies pestered the life out of us for our badges and foreign coins and got quite a collection. For the rest of the day the school mistress (a bosker girl) could get no work out of her young charges so gave it up as a bad job. Later in the day the children were going round with cakes, chocolates, cigarettes, papers and magazines for the poor wounded Australian soldiers.
A large room has been opened up as a recreation room for us where writing material is supplied free – also a billiard table and a gramophone. The Chaplain here is a fine fellow (Church of England too) and works hard for the entertainment of the soldiers, as also do many of the ladies. There are many English people here and the Maltese seem to be a fine race of people; it is hard to tell the difference between them and the English.
My arm is getting on fine now and ought to be quite well in another fortnight, so if my luck is in, I may be back at the front before this letter reaches you.
The only Gympie chap here is Billy McGown – Goodness knows where all the rest are; we seem to be scattered far and wide. George Thomas was left at Alexandria. Most of the officers of the 9th were wounded, two or three, I believe, being killed. But we did our work and that was: to gain a footing on Gallipoli Peninsula and keep it.
Here we get very little news of the doings at the Dardanelles but I believe our troops are advancing all the time.
And now dearest Vera, I have about finished and hope you have not tired of this epistle before getting this far. I think I have told you all the news pretty well up to date.
All I would like now would be to get a few letters from those nearest and dearest – I hope I may still consider you dear Vera in those terms. When at Alexandria I wrote to you in a hurry; hope you got it.
I have written home and hope my letters got through alright. We have been told that our letters will not be censored and have been given instructions how to address the envelopes – as you will notice.
Reprinted from The Gympie Times, April 23, 2004, and The Courier Mail, April 25, 1981
Ray Baker's ANZAC story
Douglas Raymond Baker was born in Gympie in 1887. He had five sisters and one brother.
Ray, as he was known, was educated in Gympie and, as a schoolboy, broke both arms while playing with a friend on the Gympie goldfields.
After completing his education, Ray worked on a Gympie gold mine as an engine driver.
He enlisted with the 9th Battalion on August 20, 1914, and trained at Enoggera. Private No. 692, he left Australia on one of the first troopships out of the country, the “Omrah”.
Ray Baker was one of the first men at the landing at AnzacCove on April 25, 1915, and was wounded the same day. After recovering from a bullet wound he returned to Gallipoli and fought there until the peninsular was evacuated. After the Gallipoli campaign, Ray was transferred to the 3rd Australian Machine Gun Company. Exactly two years and one day after writing the letter to Vera, he was awarded the Military Medal.
His citation, which is on record at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, reads:
“For conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty. At O. G. 2 (Hindenburg Line) on the morning of 6th May, 1917, Lance Corporal Baker, during the enemy counter-attack, under heavy shell fire and at great personal risk, assisted his Sergeant in mounting the gun in a fresh position and brought accurate fire to bear on the enemy, thereby keeping them in the trench.
“After the Sergeant was wounded, he took charge of the gun and continued to work it until the whole of the team were wounded. He then displayed great coolness in getting his gun out of action, being himself wounded in so doing.
“After placing his gun in a safe place with another section he returned and joined in the bombing attack and although wounded, remained on duty until the enemy was repulsed.”
Ray Baker was evacuated for medial treatment at least three times during the French campaign. When the war was over, he stayed in the army and was Depot Orderly Sergeant at Weymouth in England.
He met his wife, Nellie Elizabeth Fry, in England and married her in August 1918, at Sutton.
He was honourably discharged in 1920 and returned to Gympie, visiting South Africa on the return trip.
Unable to get work on the Gympie goldfields (which had run out of ore by 1920) he moved to Brisbane and lived at Windsor. He joined the Post Master General’s Department (now Australia Post) in 1921.Later he served as postmaster at Cordalba, near Childers, then at Tewantin and later Scarborough in Redcliffe. He died at Scarborough in May, 1951. There were still pieces of shrapnel in his body when he died.