Australian Biography

Jack Hazlitt - full interview transcript

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What was it like on the ship going over to Gallipoli?

Well it was ... it had no luxury in it. There were no cabins. The ship we went on from Fremantle to Suez was really a cargo ship and Ascadius, and what were originally decks for stowing cargo, they provided hooks, just like the navy, where you slung a hammock and we were packed in. There was some attempt at ventilation down into the hulls but they tried to get canvas shoots up, slung up from the mast, to direct ocean breezes to go down these things but it didn't happen too well. And the air down there, I tell you, was unbelievable and, of course, we each got into a hammock. And hammocks you can't get straight. Each end of you goes up and the middle goes down into a sort of a U-shape, but still when you are very young you put up with that.

You wouldn't want to sleep in one now?

Oh, I don't think I could last, and also we had to eat there you see, so, as with the navy when the reveille came on you had to get out and fold up your blanket and so on - you had no sheets - and hook up the hammock and then along underneath were board tables with tressels and that's were the food was served, so you ate underneath where you slept. But it was no joy on that trip.

You began to get the idea that maybe travelling overseas on a ship wasn't such a fantastic idea after all?

Well I didn't ... still you know, we thought that we were going to see the world. We still had the spirit of adventure in us. We lost a bit of that when we got to Egypt and we were stuck in tents out in the sandy desert and started training.

How did they actually train you? What did they get you to do?

Well, there were long marches across the sandy country carrying ... you had an eighty pound weight pack on your back, which held your ground sheet that you slept on, emergency rations and a little bit of underclothing and a blanket and then hanging to one side was a bottle, a water bottle, the other side was a bayonet. And hanging and flapping just above your posterior was an entrenching tool. It was a pick on one side, when you put a handle in it, and a shovel shape on the other. That's what you used to dig down the trench.

So you were trained and shown how to dig trenches, how to use a bayonet and how to march.

How to march in what was sandy country and very little water.

And most particularly, how to endure.

Yes well, that's why they had us all very young, I mean fellows were getting into their late thirties and forties, weren't good material out there. A lot of them started to feel physical troubles, once they get into their forties. I speaking now out in the desert, in Egypt.

So it was quite gruelling.

Yes, and the sand was so dry. You see we used to also lay - being the signal company - insulated telephone lines across the sandy desert from the Canal, where the headquarters were, out to where we were in the desert. But it was only a single line. It wasn't a duel line business like they have in the average telephones. Earth return, that is you peg, you drove in to the sand, had a single cable on it and then if it was driven into ordinary moist earth, it would act as a return - a bit off, but usable. But the sand was dry there we found we couldn't get a signal at all, many times, and we used urinate on the peg, which used to make it work to some extent, but I only illustrate that as conditions out there were pretty awful.

Now talking of urinating, when you got to Gallipoli, and you were living there in those very harsh conditions with bad food, and bad clothes and everything filthy, what did you do about going to the toilet? Did you have latrines and were they safe?

Oh well. what they had to do was first of all make certain that none of us were relieving ourselves in the trench, 'cause it soon become, might become impossible. So they used to generally pick out a suitable spot, as well as they could, out of sight of the Turkish trenches, and then a pioneer company did this. They were soldier diggers really and they used to dig down into the dirt and trench anything up to six feet down and about four feet wide and then they'd lay a long pole along it on a tressel each end, and that's where the relieving was done. You get as many as about fifteen men on that pole at any one time, but the Turks were very shrewd people and they found out what was going on. This doesn't actually apply to the whole of the front line, which was a pretty long one even on Gallipoli, but I know on our part they discovered that they could lob a bomb into that thing by sending up, we called them, broomstick bombs with a big brass case full of explosive and a wooden tail on it. That's why they were called broomstick, and that was to steady the thing on the way down. And of course if one of those fell in the trench when a lot of people were using it, it could cause some devastating results.

Did you get any warning?

Oh, yes, some. See a lot got wounded, others got killed in the thing and those of us who survived we could hear this whistling sound that the broomstick bomb made and no matter what stage we'd reached that took us there in the first place, we'd pull up our pants and we'd go for our lives out of that pit. And that's how I think a few of us saved ourselves. But it is no way to live. But it was the best they could provide because the only other thing would to have been to have the men in the front line, when they had to go somewhere, allowed to go right back somewhere. Well you never knew when there wasn't going to be an attack. Any hour of the day or night, so they had to keep the troops in the front line and they could just be allowed to go out a few yards to this trench.

They all had dysentery anyway.

Oh that and bad water, were the two main reasons, I think, why the Gallipoli campaign suffered so badly.

Do you think it played a real part in the success or failure, as I should say?

It played a big part. Because half the soldiers within about two or three months after they had got there were weakened already from the good strong bodies they had when they landed there, and they were weakened by dysentery caused by infected water, lack of proper food and vitamins. Mind you of course, the Turks had it pretty bad too, but it was their country and, I suppose, they were a bit more accustomed to it.

During the time that you were at war, were you taught to hate the enemy?

Taught what?

Taught to hate the enemy. Was that part of your training to learn to hate the enemy?

No, it was never even mentioned in any of my training.

So when you called ... when they called the Germans 'the Hun' and so on, you didn't have any sense that they were somehow or other not human, [or] different from you?

Oh well things were a little bit different in France, Robin. We were never confronted with any incident with the Turks that they were not normal people. Even some of our chaps, who became prisoners, were given proper treatment. It wasn't easy but ... But with the Germans there was different stories going around there, that some of the battles on the Somme they ... It was rumoured around - I never had any evidence of it myself - they didn't bother about prisoners. They hadn't room for them. They couldn't spare the men to take them back behind the line, some miles away from the front line, and the rumour was that they were polishing them off. Well that didn't make us love the Germans anymore. But I don't know to this day how true that was. I saw no evidence of it myself.

So you never felt anything but really a sense that you were fighting other human beings?

No. I think it was a case of try and shoot somebody else or be shot yourself. There is no time for any other feelings. [INTERRUPTION]

Having experienced 'The Great War', the Great War of this century, what do you feel now, looking back with the wisdom of old age about the whole business of war?

Well, it solves nothing. A lot of misery, a loss of life, but the idea of overwhelming another country, the original idea was that you take possession of what you've captured, enlarge your own country. I think that was the primitive approach to it, of fighting battles. And neither of the World War One or World War Two, ever proved any sense in that thinking. I went over to Germany soon after World War Two, on behalf of the company, on business, and of course, Germany then had taken a dreadful battering from our bombing during World War Two, but when I went over there about three years after that War finished, I noticed in a lot of the factories that I inspected, and so on, the most modern machinery, motorised machine tools, spanking new, humming away, and back in England they still had old machines all riven by belts with shaft overhead. They were a way behind because the Germans had it been largely furnished modern machine tools by the Americans.

[end of interview]