They landed in a place hotter than hell. Bullets tore through flesh before the soldiers had even left their boats, and numerous Tamworth men never made it home.
The shrapnel from Turkish guns on each flank hurled shell after shell into their midst like hail.
“They mowed us down like sheep for a while … It was cruel. The ground was covered with dead and wounded men,” Private A Garred wrote.
On the shores of Gallipoli, while bullets hit all around them, the Third Brigade held a ridge with one of the best bayonet charges in history, up a steep hill lined with Turks and machine guns.
Private Alfred Clevedon “Lal” Smiles doubled down, jarring his right leg, his sergeant instructing him to lie under cover.
And who should come hopping along but young Sergeant William A Grayston, of Tamworth.
The pair crawled into the firing line and started blazing away for their lives.
Just 13 days after the declaration of the World War I, 40 men presented themselves for medical examinations at the drill hall on Marius Street. By June, hundreds had been examined in Tamworth and left for Armidale or Sydney to enlist.
Now, a century after the end of the war, soldiers of the 12/16 Hunter River Lancers will exercise their Freedom of the City, marching through Tamworth with weapons and swords drawn on Saturday to commemorate the November 11, 1918 armistice.
Major Grant Prendergast said the effects of war were still felt today. In his time with the defence force, he has served in countries including Afghanistan, Iraq and East Timor.
“It was quite bizarre: I was walking on ground and fighting on ground in the Middle East where my regiment was 100 years before me,” he said. “That’s a pretty strange feeling, to think I was on the same ground a soldier from Tamworth, Armidale or Muswellbrook was fighting on.”
The regiment was given Freedom of the City in the 1960s, a tradition so ancient that Regimental Sergeant Major Andrew Donnelly can’t remember the last time it was exercised.
“If you picture the town with walls up, the body of troops would arrive and be met at the gates,” he said.
“From what I have read, I don’t think there’s any other unit in Australia that’s been granted more Freedoms of Entry to cities than the 12/16 regiment.”
The regiment has also been granted the honour in Armidale, Gunnedah, Muswellbrook, Merriwa and Scone.
The local Australian Army Reserve cavalry has fought in numerous battles historically, including Gallipoli and the Battle of Beersheba.
Some 25 Tamworth men were abroad with the 12th Light Horse in Gallipoli or Palestine.
Soon after, women in Tamworth started offering themselves as Voluntary Aids – the first a young lady named Florence F. Cousens. She, like many others, went to the army hospital in Armidale.
It was mid-morning on April 25, 1916, and all the shops in town were closed for Tamworth’s first Anzac Day service.
Held in front of a packed grandstand at No 1 Oval, those unable to find seats stood five deep on either side of it.
The government had asked its citizens to mark the day with a minute’s silence at noon. And so they stood. Silently.
Recruiting rallies continued at Ison’s Open Air Theatre in Brisbane Street, and residents met on street corners and passionately debated the matter of conscription.
Everyone had an opinion. The Tamworth Daily Observer editor, Victor C. Thompson, wrote fervent editorials supporting conscription – his opinion shared by a tailor, a dentist, an auctioneer and a solicitor.
At the polling booths, Tamworth voted “no”, and The Observer published a poem written by a Sydney soldier serving overseas, which included these verses:
“But here in the wet muddy trenches, within a few yards of the foe, we’ve learned that Australia has answered our asking for help with a ‘No’. We’re sick and we’re tired and we’re wounded, with death both above and below; Yet we’d sooner be here with the heroes than back home with the crowd that said ‘No’.”
From 1914 onwards, more than 1500 men from Tamworth enlisted and, of those, more than 200 made the ultimate sacrifice.
It was early evening when word the armistice had been signed reached The Observer on Monday, November 11, 1918.
A false report three days earlier had the townsfolk sceptical. It wasn’t until Mayor W.A. Bourne confirmed the news that Tamworth erupted into celebration.
The streets were filled with impromptu processions, and fireworks exploded in the streets. A great racket of voices, car horns, whistles, tin cans, church bells and fire bells rang across town and everyone marched down the street singing the national anthem.
Women and children ran through town in their nightdresses, while some made an attempt at an orderly celebration.
Barely audible speeches were made from the back of a truck at Treloar’s Corner at the intersection of Peel and Brisbane streets.
A century later at the same intersection, Tamworth remembers the great sacrifice of thousands of men and women who fought and served in World War I and marks the centenary of armistice.
- The 12/16 Hunter River Lancers Freedom of the City parade will start at the Darling/Peel streets corner at 10am on Saturday and head down Peel towards the council chambers. It will stop at the intersection of Peel and Brisbane streets, with a memorial service in Bicentennial Park at 11am.