"What a living hell it was too, and how I managed to go through it from 4 o'clock in the morning of Sunday April 25, to Wednesday 28, under fire the whole time, without being hit, is a mystery to me."
These are the words of Duncan Chapman in a letter to his brother Charles*. The year was 1915 and 26-year-old Chapman was far from his hometown of Maryborough, Queensland - a town that now boasts a street art trail that honours him and others. More on that in a minute...
Chapman's correspondence describes what many have called the most horrific campaign in any modern arena of war – one that he survived physically unscathed, but which cost 8,141 other Australians their lives and saw an additional 26,111 wounded.
Borrn in Maryborough in 1888, the second youngest of 12 children, Chapman grew strong at a young age due to circumstance. His mother died when he was just five years old and his father never remarried. That left his sisters to take care of him and, in their necessary absence at times, Chapman was forced to mature well in advance of his actual age.
Maybe that accounts for why he acted with such responsibility, crushing the Trustees Entrance scholarship exam to gain access to a rare high school education. That was in 1903 and Chapman performed well at the local Maryborough Boys Grammar, proving to be good on the football field and an able gymnast too. He subsequently was employed at the office of Morton and Morton Solicitors, a firm founded in 1874 which exists to this day. Chapman was their articled clerk before choosing to obtain military qualifications with the Wide Bay Infantry, Kennedy Regiment in North Queensland and the 7th Infantry. That training was four years all up and earned him the rank of Lieutenant. Then in 1912 he moved away from the military and to Brisbane, where he was described as a paymaster.
Two years later, on 4 August 1914, Australia was at war.
That was the turning point in Chapman’s life, placing him unwittingly on a path that would see him named in our history books and immortalised in our monuments.
It took him only 17 days after war was declared to step forward and enrol, joining C Company 9th Battalion AIF. It embarked from Brisbane on HMAT Omrah A5 in September 1914, arriving in Egypt in December where the company camped near the pyramids. In March 1915 the 9th was rerouted to Gallipoli.
At 2.45 am on 25 April 1915 Chapman and 20 men under his command shimmied into a cutter and headed towards the beach of the Gallipoli Peninsula. No power. No lights. No talking. Silently creeping towards shore. At 4.10 am, as the first tinge of dawn lightened the sky, their boat was noted as being about 300 metres from the beach. At 4.18 am Chapman, as platoon commander, slid into the water to become the first Allied soldier to set foot on the shore at Gallipoli.
Reading the historical records, you could almost be mistaken for thinking disorganisation reigned. For instance, Duncan’s father received two official military notifications in quick succession, one stating that his son was wounded and the next stating that he was missing. I can’t imagine the anxiety that would have caused. Chapman apparently had gone missing very briefly on 26 April, returning two days later unwounded to his unit HQ – a hand-dug hole with galvanised iron sheets over the top to protect against shelling and bullets.
Duncan also wrote to his father on 14 May, stating that he’d been fighting non-stop since the landing 22 days earlier. Not long after it was noted at a roll call that of the 1,100 men from the 9th Battalion who had landed only 420 were still alive.
Chapman was one of the lucky ones. But his luck did not last.
He was promoted twice, to Captain and then Major, before being redirected once again through the Middle East to the Somme. That is where he died – on 6 August 1916, almost immediately upon arriving. Major Duncan Chapman is buried in Section III, Row M, Plot 22 of Pozieres British Cemetery.
While Gallipoli resulted in great loss of life with about 130,000 men dying, it had no impact on the course of WWI. Yet it has had a huge impact on the Australian psyche.
On 25 April 2015 on the 100th anniversary of the landing at Gallipoli a crowd gathered in Queens Park in Maryborough to honour their hero in a most amazing way. That morning a large bronze statue of Duncan Chapman was unveiled, and it was just the start of many amazing things. (More on what to see and do in Maryborough can be found here.)
The following year as the sun rose high on the cliffs above the beach at Gallipoli the then Federal Minister for Veteran Affairs, Dan Tehan, stepped forward onto the stage to read the same words that start this post.
The courageous role Chapman played in history was also the inspiration for what continued to evolve into Maryborough’s truly impressive ‘Gallipoli to Armistice Military Trail’, with the statue of Chapman now surrounded by an eight-metre-high representation of the three ridges of ANZAC Cove, sculptures, plantings and audio immersions that all bring World War I into sharp focus. The Trail traces the birth of the ANZAC legend, drawn from personal perspectives in letters from Chapman and others to loved ones in the Wide Bay district, through to the brutality of the Western Front.
‘Gallipoli to Armistice’ also received the Gold Award for the BEST MONUMENT OR MEMORIAL at this year’s Australian Street Art Awards.
In April 1915, upon learning what had happened at Gallipoli, Banjo Paterson wrote:
“Fight on, fight on, unflinchingly,
Till right and justice reign.
Fight on, fight on, till Victory
Shall send you home again.
And with Australia's flag shall fly
A spray of wattle-bough
To symbolise our unity --
We're all Australians now.”
War sometimes brings unexpected outcomes. Before Gallipoli Australians were still ‘fighting’ internally to maintain the colonial identification they had grown used to prior to Federation. It was a NSW versus VIC versus SA type mentality. The Gallipoli campaign, more than any other, changed all that. Banjo got it right – for the very first time we were all Australians.
The term ANZAC has long lost its singular reference to the men who fought at Gallipoli. Now it represents every man and woman who has served our nation, and the ANZAC spirit is recognised as the courage, stoicism, fortitude and mateship upon which our nation is forged.
Thanks to a tradition inaugurated by King George V in 1919, today – Remembrance Day – is a chance for us to commemorate Major Duncan Chapman, plus the other 102,000 Australians who have lost their loves in the line of duty.
Lest We Forget.
* In another letter to another brother, Fred, Duncan wrote: “It is a peculiar experience and one of extreme suspense to be crouched down in a small boat making towards a hostile shore not knowing the size of the force opposed to you, not being able to use your rifles then to suddenly come under heavy machine gun and rifle fire. Many poor chaps were killed in the boats and the deeds that were done in rescue work were beyond mention.”