Remembrance Day: Lest we forget

11 November 2015

Honouring those who have died or suffered in all wars and armed conflicts, we share the letters of graduate Eric Mortley Fisher from the Gallipoli frontline.

One hundred years ago, as the First World War raged on, fighting continued in Gallipoli and the Dardanelles.

Of the 16,000 Australian soldiers estimated to have landed at Gallipoli only seven months before, some 102 were part of the University of Sydney community.

A third of those were doctors and medical students, 18 were graduates and students of the arts, and 12 were from engineering. There were also ten students and alumni from both law and economics, and four members of staff. At least 12 soldiers from the University community were killed or died of their wounds in the first three days of the Gallipoli campaign

By November 1915, there were 395 staff, students and alumni still serving in Gallipoli. Poor conditions, high rates of disease and dreadful weather conditions were adding to the already mounting injury toll.

One of these men, Eric Mortley Fisher, graduated in medicine from the University of Sydney in 1913, enlisted in March 1915 and by November was a medical officer working at a beach dressing station at Gallipoli.

The fighting continued for another three years until the armistice was declared ending the Great War, on 11 November 1918.

After the war, in 1920, Fisher returned to the University of Sydney and gained his Masters of Surgery.

This year marks the 97th anniversary of the Armistice, which ended the First World War in 1918.

Today, through the letters of Eric Mortley Fisher, we remember all those from the University community who have died and suffered as a result of armed conflicts.

Letters of Eric Mortley Fisher, November and December 1915

Gallipoli, 3 November 1915

You soon get to have a special set of elastic morals here, and your vocabulary - especially words of invective, vituperation and exclamation – undergoes extensive alterations and additions. Of course we all hope these changes are not permanent; but will disappear when we get back to civilisation.

The weather here is beautiful now and has been so for a week since we had a cold snap, but I expect Christmas will be cold and wet. Still we ought to be able to hang it out all right, having plenty of warm things and we are to get sheep skin vests and other things issued to us when the weather gets cold enough for it.

I’ve a comfortable little dugout and have made a few additions since I got it, a table, a seat and a bow window of sand bags, it is water tight and will stop shrapnel and anything except a big howitzer shell but am not looking for that.

There is no doubt it is rotten to see men killed and wounded, but it's good to be able to do something for them. The men are boskers, they are wonderfully cheerful, always playing jokes on each other and the Indians and Ghurkas, and the wounded are so uncomplaining and cheerful too that it makes one marvel.

There is very little rifle fire only odd snipers being at work, and the single reports from their rifles sounds just like the noise of a ball hitting bat at an empty Sydney Cricket Ground, occasionally the machine guns fire six or 12 rounds at lord knows what, their noise being just like the quick reports of a motor bike … as a rule the sunsets can beat anything you ever saw in our own Blue Mountains.

Gallipoli, 28 November 1915

We are having the time of our young lives here, I don’t think. Imagine my delight on waking up early this morning, feeling terribly cold, to find the ground all white with snow and a blizzard blowing, it really looked very pretty but no one was in the mood to appreciate nature. All day long we have been walking about in frozen slush, and our feet though not wet have been very cold. ….

Our food supply suffers when we have rough weather, as stores cannot be landed. So we get tinned stuff and no fresh meat or bread, but still this cold weather stimulates your appetite and the quantities of food, which are absorbed would open your eyes.

We haven’t had much news here lately, but know things are not too good generally, but we try to keep cheerful and succeed pretty well, though our tempers get a bit on edge with the monotony and uncertainty and the language of everyone has become more Australian than ever. I suppose you have noticed mine rather degenerated lately, but civilization and comfort will make a big difference I think.

Gallipoli, 11 December 1915

The weather here is extremely cold we have had several severe gales and one snow storm which covered the ground and laid about for days, we had a hard freeze the temperature being down to 14 degrees below freezing point 18 feet of frost so you can imagine it was pretty cold. There were several cases of frost- bite the Ghurkhas getting it badly and conditions in the trenches were hardly bearable. To make it worse the water pipes burst and we were on quarter rations of water for some days, this means you wash, shave etc. in half a cup of water and are not able to get much warm food, which means everything in cold weather.

Things are pretty bad just now and are going to be a sight worse in fact; the future doesn’t bear thinking of. We have to live like animals, in present, and if your thoughts get wandering off the next meal and your bodily comfort you have a bad time. But still if I had remained in comfort and safety I would have felt ashamed for the rest on my life of being a squib and you would have been ashamed of me too.

You get past caring for cleanliness and wash at infrequent intervals as it is too cold to swim now, change your shirt and socks when your friends complain about you, and no longer worry about lice or fleas, as they are omnipresent. Good manners have gone overboard and your morals have become so stretched as to be unrecognizable as such. You see newly arrived men with clean collar and uniform, still clinging to the obsolete beliefs of the past and you sadly say: 'once I was like that'.

Read the letters of Eric Mortley Fisher, and other members of the University community involved in the Great War, at Beyond 1914.