The fascinating war experiences of Joseph Welsh

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the famous Battle of Gallipoli. That great battle of the First World War was part of a futile attempt by the Allies to seize the Dardanelles Strait, capture the ancient port of Constantinople (Istanbul) and thereby open a sea link from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea and the allied Russian Empire.

Gallipoli is usually associated with Australia and New Zealand, as troops from those two countries played a key role in the invasion of the Gallipoli peninsula. Anzac Day, a national day of remembrance in Australia and New Zealand, is held each year on April 25th, the anniversary of the first land assaults in 1915.

The landings of the troops initially seemed to go well. However, a five-week delay in the invasion had allowed the Ottoman (Turkish) forces to greatly improve their defenses. The Ottomans also benefited from the brilliant leadership of Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk), who later became the first president of Turkey, in part because of the fame he earned at Gallipoli.

Within a short while, the Gallipoli campaign, much like the Western Front in Belgium and Northern France, bogged down into a bloody stalemate. The Allied troops were largely pinned down along the shore areas, while bearing the brunt of merciless machine gun and artillery fire from the Turks on the ridge of hills above.

As the bloody stalemate continued, the casualties continued to mount. Some units suffered losses of up to 70% to 80%. The toll was made much worse due to such things as cholera, dysentery, typhus, and trench foot (a severe fungal infection) as well as frostbite, heat stroke and exposure. The Dardanelles Strait soon became filled with hospital ships, sent to handle the escalating numbers of sick and wounded.

What is often overlooked in the accounts of Gallipoli is the role of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment. It was the only North American unit to serve during the long battle. The Regiment landed at Sulva Bay on Sept. 20th, 1915. As was the case with all the troops which had gone in before them, the Newfoundlanders suffered heavy losses.

A link between Red Deer and the Battle of Gallipoli involves the participation of Joseph Welsh, the noted local teacher and principal. He had enlisted with the Herefordshire Regiment, after his application to join the Grenadier Guards was turned down because he was supposedly 1/8 of an inch too short.

In the spring of 1915, his unit was put on the troopship Euripides and dispatched to the Middle East. After brief stops at Alexandria in Egypt and then the Greek island of Lemnos, Welsh’s regiment embarked for Gallipoli.

The landing went quite well. However, as the troops tried to proceed inland, they were met with fierce resistance. After 10 days, Private Welsh’s unit had only managed to advance less than one kilometre from their initial landing site.

Then, Joseph Welsh was struck by an enemy bullet, just above his right hip. The stretcher bearers were able to take him down to the beach. However, they had to leave him out of the blazing sun under some bushes, until nightfall made it safe enough to him to be transported out to one of the hospital ships.

While an operation on the ship was able to remove the bullet, Private Welsh was sent to a make-shift hospital in Malta for further recovery. He was initially kept at Tigne, which he found to be a poorly-run and overcrowded facility with very bad food. Fortunately, he was then sent to the more pleasant Ghain Tuffeiha Convalescent Camp at St. Paul’s Bay where the Apostle Paul had been shipwrecked some 1900 years before.

After he recovered, Joseph Welsh was promoted to sergeant. He was sent to the Egypt, to help defend the Suez Canal, and then to the Holy Land for the invasion of Palestine. He consequently had the life experience of spending Christmas Eve in the hills of Bethlehem before proceeding into Jerusalem on Christmas Day.

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