How did a lifeboat, left to rot on the shores of Gallipoli, come to have pride of place at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra?
Curator John White tells the story of this little boat’s tumultuous journey as Warren Brown helps us imagine what it was like for those first Anzacs on the day that helped forge Australia’s identity.
Investigating National Treasures with Warren Brown is also available for purchase from the NFSA Online Shop.
Anzac Cove, 1915. The day young Australians fought and sacrificed their future. But they left behind something that will live on forever. Australia observed its first Anzac Day just one year after that fateful landing, but it took another five years for the relics of Anzac to find their way home, and one of those relics was a rotting, rusting hulk that had to be cut up to be brought here, so how did it come to have pride of place in our national capital?
That restored treasure is here. It’s the first thing you see when you walk into the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. This is lifeboat number 6. On the 25 April 1915 it was launched from His Majesty’s Transport The Ascot and landed on the beach at Anzac Cove, so this boat was there on the very first Anzac Day.
The thing that impresses me is the sheer size of this boat, but 28 soldiers had to fit aboard, that’s seven diggers on each seat, and they’re pressed in so tight they’re like sardines, and on top of that there are explosions of shrapnel and machinegun fire, and because they’re pressed in so tight, if a bullet hits one guy and he’s killed, there’s not enough room for him to fall forward, let alone fall overboard, so you might be sitting on a seat and your mate might be dead next to you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
Our props department has kitted me out so I can give you some idea of what it must have been like. Say your average soldier weighed about 75 kilos, and when he’s sitting in the boat he’s got his leather-soled hobnail boots on, his full woollen uniform, 200 rounds of ammunition, his 303 rifle with bayonet, and on his back is his backpack full of tinned bully beef, and biscuits that are like bits of fibro, so that must have added about half his bodyweight again. And remember this is not a motorised D-Day style landing, these blokes are rowing ashore under incredible enemy fire, they don’t want to stay in the boat because they’ll get shot by Turkish snipers, so they jump overboard. Now the lucky ones touch the bottom, but they don’t find sand, they find slimy rocks, so they’re flailing around in the sea. The other guys, who are not so lucky, never touch the bottom, and sadly some of them drown.
John White is an expert on the War Memorial’s naval collection.
Once the job at Gallipoli was done, lifeboat number 6 was soon forgotten. But getting it back to Australia was a story in itself, wasn’t it, John?
In 1919 Charles Bean, the official historian for Australia¹, went back to Gallipoli. He was looking for information and he was looking for relics and the boat came to his attention. So it was decided to recover it, and to bring it back to Australia, where it arrived in 1921.
So lifeboat number 6 sat around on a beach rusting away for four years and then they got it out. How did they get it out?
Well, it was badly damaged, it had to be brought around by a little narrow track. It was cut in half to do that and hauled by hand apparently to where it could be reloaded for the trip to Australia.
So you’re telling me that this Gallipoli icon was sort of hacksawed in half to be brought back.
Well, it was either do that or leave it there to rot and that could have just been the right decision — to recover.
In 1916 the papers of the day reported that Australians came together for the first Anzac Day to commemorate and celebrate. The Anzacs are no longer with us but pride in their deeds lives on. When you look at lifeboat number 6 you’re looking at a direct link to those men, and to the day an important part of our national identity was established, and that’s what makes it a National Treasure.
¹ Correction: Charles Bean was one of a number of official war historians.