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Book Review – An Eyewitness Account of Gallipoli

January 8, 2011
An Eyewitness Account of Gallipoli.  Words and Sketches by Signaller Ellis Silas, edited by John Laffin, Published 2010 Rosenberg Publishing Australia

From Rosenberg Publishing Australia

As I noted when I bought this book, I sat on the floor of the bookshop at the State Library and read it from cover to cover.  But the floor of a bookshop is not the most conducive place for enjoying a good book, so I brought it home to study it in detail.

An Eyewitness Account of Gallipoli Words and Sketches by Signaller Ellis Silas, Edited by John Laffin, published

2010 by Rosenberg Publishing,  is an edited and annotated republishing of the original, Crusading at ANZAC A.D 1915 published in 1916.  I haven’t quite got to the bottom of how An Eyewitness Account came to be published 10 years after the death of the editor, John Laffin yet.

Until I bought this book, like many other Australians, I’m guessing, I had never heard of Signaller Ellis Silas.  Since reading it through for the second time at home, I’m wishing I could meet him.  It’s so disappointing when you discover someone for the first time, only to discover that they have long since passed away.  I remember feeling very sad when it happened when I discovered Leo Buscaglia.  I wanted so much to find him and hug him.  Or at least write him a letter of thanks.

AWM P02801.001

 

Ellis Luciano Silas was born in London 13 July 1885, the son of an artist/designer father and an opera singer mother.  He was slightly built, sensitive and an artist.  He loved the ocean and painting the ocean, so he joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, to better study the sea.  He emigrated to Australia in 1907, finally settling in Perth, and established a studio here.  When war broke out in August 1914, Ellis Silas wanted to enlist immediately.  He was knocked back a few times because of his size, but was eventually accepted.  He thought he would be best suited to be a medical orderly, but was instead enlisted in the 16th Battalion, as a signaller.

He was 30  years old when he enlisted at Blackboy Hill, Greenmount, just east of Perth on 20 September 1915.  His occupation was ‘Artist’ and his next of kin was listed as Dr JE Gordon, Cliff Terrace, Perth, Western Australia.  He was present at the landing at Gallipoli, and was officially discharged on 17 August 1917.

Radio communication did not exist in 1914.  Communications between military units and personnel was conducted by semaphore code, using flags.  All well and good in the day time.  At night time the signallers had to run the messages from one place to another, under enemy fire.  Even in the day time, it was not so ‘well and good’ – in order to be seen by the unit he was signalling to, the signaller had to rise up out of the trenches to do the flag thing, in full view of enemy snipers.  Signallers generally didn’t live long.  It is a miracle that Ellis Silas survived the month of active service he saw, and hence the war itself.

He got into trouble a couple of times when parading, because he had altered his slouch hat by turning the brim up on both sides and wearing it at a different-to-regulation angle, because he thought it looked nicer that way.  He also drew himself riding a donkey, wearing the leather leggings usually worn by the men of the Light Horse, not by the infantry soldiers.  He notes that ‘I wear leggings because they look nice.’  He was a gentle soul, but he was brave and tireless.  Even aboard the hospital ship, exhausted and ‘delirious at night, I had the use of my limbs’, so he worked, sometimes from 7am to 11pm as an orderley, even though he himself was suffering.  John Laffin notes that ‘Silas did not spare himself in doing his duty and he collapsed on the battlefield, from where he was rescued’. He was medically discharged eventually, diagnosed with neurasthenia – shell shock – as a result of being exposed at close quarters to incessant shell fire for extended periods.  At one stage, because three other signallers were dead he was working for two battalions.

And in the midst of all of this, even on the hospital ships, he found time to draw his experiences.

The drawings are line drawing sketches, and I wondered how true they are to the originals, in that some of the detail he describes in his notes seems to be missing from the drawing on the page on the other side, or not clearly distinguishable.  But you get the drift.  You can see the original drawings here, and they are worth a look.  Some of the detail may have been lost in the reproduction of this beautiful and disturbing work.  The good news is that once back in the safety of London, and then Australia, he translated some of his sketches into paintings, some of which were bought by the Australian War Memorial, and are still in the collection.

It occurred to me that as a signaller, aboard a ship that was a part of the convoy that left from Albany – the subject of The Lighthouse Girl – that perhaps he was one of the signallers who signalled messages to Fay on Breaksea Island.  I like to think so, although I suspect his ship was not there long enough for that, leaving for Egypt shortly after it arrived.

Silas Ellis lived on after the war, to publish, to paint and to marry, in London in 1927.  He died in 1972.

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