Australian Biography

Jack Hazlitt - full interview transcript

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You said you survived as a runner for as long as you did because you were young and fit. Did the dysentery have an effect on this? When you got dysentery and you were sick it must have been harder to run so fast.

Well, yes. I think that when people get into desperate situation because it was becoming more and more ... although we didn't admit to this there, as the months went by and the various attempts to overcome the Turkish army were failing - Lone Pine was example there. The slaughter there for our poor old Lighthorse was dreadful and so on. And we began to realise there that we weren't going to overcome them. And I don't think that any of the old veterans that got off there would ever admit to this, but there was a feeling of relief when the British General Staff decided to call it off, evacuate it. Well I was about three weeks before they did that. I was carted off to hospital condition. But when you get into a desperate frame of mind, compared to ordinary living conditions, I think you think differently. As I remarked to you earlier, I ... You asked me a question and I won't repeat the question even if I could think of it now but I now the import of it was ... You get so used to people you train with being blown to bits and hit with shells and goodness knows what that ... as I mentioned to you I was in the signal company and those telephone wires ... We tried to keep up some sort of service between Brigade Headquarters back, and the front line, but I can remember a remarkable scene there. This was in France, not in Gallipoli, where obviously there had been quite a number of dead buried near where a sap as we called it, a trench, had been dug about six foot deep and I was looking for places to hitch on with a clove hitch this telephone wire. And here were the feet of the skeletons, who'd been dead a month or two, sticking out on the edge of the trench and I was looping the telephone cable around their big toes, the bone part of it. Well you wouldn't do that in normal life, would you?

And what were you thinking as you were doing it?

Well, we took advantage. There was so little, with this wire, although it was insulated, it's better not to let it lie down continuously wet and all the trees and shrubs and so on had been shot to blazers by weeks and weeks of shell fire so there was nothing much to put this insulated wire up and I just saw all these bony skeletons there and I tied. I didn't feel any remorse or ...

Did you think of them as humans?


Did you think of it as human or simply a mechanical device?

Oh well, I knew it was human, they were skeletons all right. It doesn't take long there even in that climate for the flesh to all disappear leaving only a bony structure that, of course, lasts for years. And the bony part of the big toe was a very handy peg to put the telephone wire on. It's just an example of the attitudes that one, I suppose, cultivated to avoid going bonkers.

You felt that being callous as it were, was very important to survival?

Oh, you couldn't help it. You had to build up. Or you'd ... which I never remember anybody doing in my unit, [but] you feel you want to turn around and run out of it, but there was nowhere to run to anyhow. But you do get horribly stretched nerve-wise.

Talking about how you felt in Gallipoli, when you were running and the snipers were there after you and shooting at you, what would go though your mind? What would be your state of mind?

Well hoping that nothing hit you. Because as I remarked a while ago the ... you couldn't follow down the intricate line of trenches from the front line to the base. That took too long, so you used to short-cut with your message you had to deliver, and it was a case of swerving and running and hoping that nothing hit you, but a lot of the fellows did get hit on that thing. And afterwards, we had the same experience in France you know, down on the Somme. There was still no thought of radio and we were trained as signallers to work morse code with big flags, like the navy uses to some extent, or did, and we found it absolutely absurd to put up a flag on Gallipoli. As soon as you went up above what you were protecting, your mound of dirt of whatever, it would get shot out of your hands. They were marvellous shots. They could ... they could knock anything. A 1,000 yards was nothing, and that's a long way away.

Better shots than you were?

In many cases. Oh of course we had some good shots. They all became snipers on our side but I would say the average Turk, I remember, he was a much more dangerous man on his aiming of his rifle than the average Aussie was.

Did you feel that you'd been trained well enough for what you did?

Well there's a yes and no to that. I think we felt that ... the need ... The casualty rate were mounting at such a rate that reinforcements were badly needed to keep propping up the at least the adequate strength of the front line people. And I do think that more training would have helped. It wouldn't have helped on the health problem but it would have helped on the shooting side of it. An example of this was that rather unhappy Suvla Bay landing, which was the last desperate effort by the General Staff to sort out the Gallipoli position. That was a few miles up the coast. That was largely carried out by the British Army and it was a horrifying part of the whole history, I think, because most of the troops were not professional soldiers. They'd been got together with that Kitchener's army in England - very young in most cases and very quick training. And they were landed off these barges up there against the strongest unit of Kemal's army - professional Turkish soldiers. They didn't have a chance. With the casualties out there they had to give up, you see. That was the last chance to resolve that Gallipoli position. After that it was just a stalemate.

So, it wasn't just the Australian soldiers that were sacrificed?

Oh no. The British, the 29th Division, which landed down at Cape Hellas - that was the end of the Gallipoli Peninsula - they were Turkish [who] fought there. They took an awful pasting. I don't remember the figures, but the losses down there were much more than the ANZACS lost. Up at ... You see ANZAC itself was up the coast about twelve miles from ...

During that long period from July to November, was there every any time when you could really relax and feel secure and safe?

Well the only thing was ... You see without any bathing arrangements and all that ... was never available ... when we could get leave from our own job we had to do, we'd try and get down in the night time and have a dip in the sea. That's where we cleaned ourselves up a bit. It's the only time though we had any chance and if it was possible to show pictures ... I've not seen any myself ever, but once our army uniforms ... We became like a lot of ragged tramps in the end because it was hard to get any fresh clothing. And we mostly wore shorts and they were in rags and our khaki shirt were also in rags, and of course we didn't have tin hats then. We didn't get the tin hats 'til we got to France. And the cloth cap didn't last very long. So I think we really were a ragged looking army in the last few months.

Where did you go to the toilet?

Well that has one of the few memories I have which was tragic and yet hilarious. 'Cause you mentioned the APEX a while ago. Where did you get on to that by the way?

Oh I have my sources.

All right. Well that ...

Could I ask you that question again and I want a nice sort of total answer, so I'll ask you the question again and you come in as if we hadn't had a conversation about it before. Because they don't know about the conversation, so I'm going to ask you the question again.

How did you relieve yourself? Did you have latrines or what did you have?

You see, it's obviously hopeless to have people relieving themselves in the bottom of the trench where they were holding the position. It would become absolutely ... if it were possible, worse than it was. So just a hundred yards or so behind the front line, mostly, a T Party sunk a very deep trench as near out of any direct aim from the Turks as possible. [They would] find some little place behind a little hill, a bit of a hill and so on. All rocky country there. And they'd go down about ten or twelve feet and then they'd put cross trunks of trees each end and a log, which they'd chop down, or sometime they used a post they'd bought up from the beach. And I remember the run up [to the] APEX. It was about as long as this room - resting on cross beams at the end and that's where the troops ... when the urge became unbearable, they sat on the log. The hilarious part about it, when I think about it today, the Turks were a cunning mob. They got to know about these sort of things and they knew if they could lob a bomb in there, the fellows, by the time they pulled up their pant or whatever they were doing, would be sitting shots for a decent sort of an explosion. So again using my word 'hilarious', I've seen where ... The bomb they used to send over was called a broomstick bomb. It was a big brass case, with a thing like a stick, like a tail, which helped to keep it on course, and it was Howitzer type, but it was shot out of a mortar and aimed to then come down into that trench. Now you could hear this whistling sound for quite a while before it hit, so whatever stage you'd reached on obeying nature, you had to simply rush for your life out of there: fellows dragging up their bit of clothing or with no clothing on - they'd left it behind in the hurry - and you could imagine what the scene was like. The word dignity, of course, was abandoned. So that's the story of relieving in that position and I think probably something like that was used in other parts of the line: a trench and a pole along it.

So you could really literally do nothing in peace?


You could literally do nothing in peace. There was no peace for anything.

No you see ... I think although it was worse in France. The roaring of guns, thousands of them on both sides, went on twenty-four hours a day. You never really got used to it. A lot of us were quite deaf when we finally were sent away. This roaring noise: machine guns and artillery, both sides banging at each other, day after day and night after night. It never stopped. So I think that's one of the reasons I'm a bit deaf now. [Laughs]

You don't wear a hearing aid.

No, no. It's a ... I can hear you quite well, but I think a bit of ordinary hurried conversation = I sometimes have trouble sorting it out. Lesley gets to work on something - speaks very rapidly and I don't pick it up. I would've, I think, a few years ago. [Laughs]

Well I think at ninety-four you've got a right to have a slight hearing loss even if you hadn't spent your early years in the trenches. Now you were there and you were taken out just before the end, because you were ... because you were so ill. Where were you taken when you were evacuated?

To a so called hospital at Lemnos Island which was about forty miles away from the peninsula, the Gallipoli mainland.

Why did you call it so-called hospital?

Well, there were no nurses as we know them. Female nurses, trained. There were men, who had I don't think any of them had ever had any medical training and they were the ones that had to look after us. And there were no proper beds. There were beds made of cane, which through constant use, bodies being in them and then removed, the whole wicker work had gone down in the middle and up like that, so your bottom was down near the ground and your head and shoulders were up like that [HOLDS HANDS ABOVE SHOULDERS] so you weren't very comfortable and that's where I was until, I think, more by luck than ... We had very poor food. We never saw any fresh food even there but it was a little better than we had back on the mainland and I gradually recovered and ...

Were you looking forward to going home then?

No. We knew the rumours were all strong that because the thing had failed on Gallipoli the War hadn't stopped. It was more fighting than ever in France. The Somme Battle still hadn't started and so after they rushed us back in a Hydra, sufficiently recovered from the dysentery, they whizzed us down, off across the Suez Canal, from where we'd been in camps, about twelve miles in on the Sinai Peninsula, which is just simply a row of sand hills, 100 miles or ... 'cause they thought the Turks were going to come down through Palestine and get into Egypt and knock us out. So we had to dig trenches there. And the heat was ... averaged about 120 degrees Fahrenheit, in the daytime. And we had one army bottle of water issued per day, per man, and you could drink the lot in an hour if you let yourself and if you didn't save a bit for the cook you never got anything from the cookhouse. You had to give a bit of that water for the stew and other stuff that the cooks were making. So we were back to some extent on the old tinned beef and hard biscuit. Again no bread, not much water. And after a few months of that the General Staff must have decided the Turks weren't going to have a go, so they shipped us back across the Canal, via train up to Alexandria, and on to a ship and across the Mediterranean to Marseille. So that was the end of the Gallipoli Peninsula position.

And the start of your War in France.

We were taken across from, as I say, right across up to Belgium. I remember a lot of the poor fellows, who didn't survive. As I remember, we were all excited because the train line took us within about sight of Paris. We all thought we were going to get leave in Paris. We'd all read about Paris. [Laughs] The train kept going right up, across the Allontierre [?] and into Belgium, and that's where we were deposited. I don't know how much you want of this detail but I'll go on it you want me to.

You had no idea as you were being transported around from place to place, literally where you were going, or why?


Did this seem annoying to you or did it seem natural?

Well I think we felt that we had no control of the situation and we just simply tried to be complacent about it, because any news - we used to call them 'furfies' - was usually false, unreliable. When we got to Marseille we had no idea we were getting taken right up to past Paris. We might have been more excited than we were. I suppose some of the senior majors and colonels and so on probably knew what was going on, but any of the lower ranks - we were kept in the dark and ...

So where was your final destination? Where did you get to?

Well we ... They didn't have camps. You see, the War had gone on with Germany, of course, and England and so on ... by a year or two then. We didn't get to ... we didn't get into France until 1916. The War started in 1914 and there was a sort of a half stalemate on the whole of the front line, right across France. So we were put up, whether the owners liked it or not, in any village. My unit was near a little village - I just can't remember its name now, it doesn't matter - where they'd simply knock on the door of a little village, simple little home, and say they are army, and of course talk in French or Belgian, find out how many beds were in the house and how many rooms and did you have an outhouse where the ... of course in those days, before the motor age, there was mostly a barn with stuff and the officer in charge of the billeting - it was called billeting - would simply say, 'All right you and you and you, you sleep here'. What happened in one village, a husband and his wife and two sons had to all sleep in the one bed because we'd taken over the other beds. Well that's the way the army dealt with the thing and that type of war.

Did they have to feed you?


Did they have to feed you, the owners of the house?

Well not have to, but we got our regular tinned stuff, you see, and at least there the food was better than Gallipoli. We used to see a loaf of bread now and again and even a pat of butter and a bit of fruit from a nearby orchid. So that's where we were for a few months. In the meantime the War had roared up further down the line - down around Albert, near the Somme and they were having a bad ... The British soldiers there were having a bad time too. So we all whizzed off down there and again on train trip. And it had one advantage over Gallipoli. When you went into the line there, after ten days you were pulled out and replaced with another one and you went back far enough ... You could still hear the guns but you could have a bath, a shower, and get some decent food. But of course after the ten days - in again you went, those of you who survived, but of course the carnage down on the Somme battlefield was infinitely worse than I ever saw on Gallipoli. The casualty rate went up. The Germans had far more machine guns than the Turks and they largely did the damage. When our troops would try and go forward they would mow them down, you know.

Did this have a terrible effect on your spirits, on the feeling on how the War would end?

Oh well I was ... I hung on when I look back there. As you can understand Robin, it's now a long time ago and I do know I came back in my discharge, bombed out, I think they used the term. My brain was bombed out, and I was ... I didn't last until the Armistice. They shipped me off back to Australia about a year before the War finished.

Can we go back to France and there you were surrounded by people being mowed down by machine guns. The feeling that it might be you next. What did you ... did you think a lot about death and dying there in the trenches?

Well I can only say that I do think you ... you build up after months become years, where you do, quite a degree, of being callous. Just as well, I think, or we would have all had gone bonkers. Just depends upon each individual temperament, I suppose. But you see the climax of my time in France, in that War, was my brother was in a different unit and I hadn't seen him for a month or two, in the movement of troops around, but I was still in the signal business and a runner, a surviving runner, and their Brigade Headquarters had occupied an old German dug out, which the Germans must have built when they thought they were going to be there longer than ... They were overrun by the British Army before we got there and this thing was about forty feet down under. They'd burrowed down into the soft soil of the Somme and that's where we had set up a little switchboard and then these insulated lines going up to various parts of the front line, radiated from that, and that's where - when the lines hadn't been busted - messages used to come and I was on duty on that time, on this board, and I heard heavy boots coming down the stairs they were made of wood, and it's me my brother. I hadn't seen him for months and he was taking a bomb squad up to the front line and it was pitch dark, of course, outside and he just wanted fresh information about finding a way for his squad. Of course, we exchanged greetings and ...

He wasn't expecting to find you there. Which brother was this?

It made us superstitious, the whole thing, because, you know, that's the last time I saw him alive because he went on up the top and I didn't hear anything for nearly a month, but what happened was, when he went into the line with his squad a piece of a shell hit him and wounded him but didn't kill him. They got him onto a stretcher. I heard all this later when I got to England and they got him to England to Cambridge to a Military Hospital in Cambridge and I think he'd have been alive probably today, although he is three years older than me, but the thing they didn't have any treatment for then was antibiotics. They hadn't been invented and this wound went all gangrene and they couldn't stop it and they took his leg off, but three weeks after they got him to the hospital, he died. I didn't know about that until sometime later 'cause he was in a different unit, you see. But he's ... he's buried in Cambridge Public Cemetery. There is a Memorial there. I've got pictures of that and what was hard on my mother, back in Australia, was that my eldest brother, who had moved to New South Wales - he was a Master at the Kings School out at Parramatta, and he was a cricketer too, he played for Australia, Australia 11 - he died a few months from my brother killed, so it left nobody but me.

Was he killed in the War too?

No, my eldest brother, I don't think he passed the medical to go. I'm not sure about that but he died at The Kings School from pneumonia. Didn't recover. Again, I think he might have recovered if he'd had modern medical aid.

Did you find out about the deaths of your brothers while you were in France?

I had ... I didn't know about my eldest brother because he was back here in Australia. But I finally got news that [my other brother] died in Cambridge about three weeks after he died. I knew he'd been wounded. So that was almost the end of the Hazlitts, wasn't it?

How did you feel when you heard the news of your brother's death because you said you'd become quite callous to death? Did this feel different?

Oh well, I suppose I was very saddened about it because he and I, we were very friendly. We'd been a lot together after we'd got into our teens, more than my eldest brother, who was more distant from us at the time. I didn't see much of him but I did of Richard. And ... But of course, what I said to you a while ago, I do think that when you've been in a war like that you've seen so many - I'm repeating myself now I know ... so many mutilated bodies along side of you sometimes. One little fellow, Holmes, he was in a trench next to me in France and suddenly I found he had no head. They'd taken his head clean off - a shell case. Well that's enough to make one go mad if it happens in civil life, but somehow or other you stiffen yourself up. You go to.

Apart from seeing your mates dead, of course, you too were in signals, but you were involved in killing other people?

Well, strictly speaking it was a technical unit. We ... we didn't ... We had rifles but we didn't carry them. If any man in the front line unit was found without the rifle near him, even when he went to relieve himself, he'd get into trouble. Never let them go, but you see we had to carry equipment: this telephone we used to slung around our knees, the Stephen phones, and we had theodolites and things like that, so we were not expected to carry our rifle but we had Webley revolvers. But we weren't really ... We didn't have a bayonet on the end of the rifle. So I didn't have ... I can't claim any great stories about sticking a bayonet into a man's stomach and trying to pull it out. It didn't want to come once they got in. [Laughs] They used to boot them off with a foot. I've seen it all happen but I wasn't into it myself.

Did you ever kill anybody in the War directly, personally?

I'll never know. I certainly didn't because our job was communication. And I think we were just like a lot of chooks in a chook yard if we ... If something hit us well that was it, if it didn't hit us we survived.

What did you think about the enemy?

Well, I have more respect for the average Turk because I had an experience in France, again down ... It was near Possiers, which is one of the fiercest battle there, with the Australian Army, and I was sent [coughs] from Brigade Headquarters because the line again had blown up. They weren't working and I was sent forward in the night time up to this 48th Battalion Headquarters and, anyhow, I ... you carried a mobile phone with you and you used to tap in, every now and again, to make certain the line was still there, and you wound a tape on it and on you went. Well I found that as fast as I mended the line on this night, the shelling from the Germans was so fierce that it was almost impossible to keep the line open, so I decided to take the material I had with me for that Battalion Headquarters and do a running job and a shell just missed me. It must have been a pretty big one I think, because it blew a hole in the earth as deep as ...

[end of tape]

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