Suvla Moon: Charles Higgins
A Gallipoli account that has kindly been sent in from Andrew Robinson from his Great Uncle Lieutenant Charles Samson Higgins, Royal Engineers of his time at Suvla, where he was wounded on 15 August 1915. Charles survived Gallipoli, eventually passing away in 1980.
Charles Higgins (1893–1980) was an author who wrote under the name Iain Dall and also an artist who signed himself 'Pic' by which name he is commonly known.
He was the son of an engineer, was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1893. He spent a carefree, idyllic childhood there under the supervision of his gaelic speaking nanny called ‘Ah-Ah’. But his private world of play and imagination was brought to an abrupt and painful end when, aged seven, he was sent to a boarding school. On returning to the UK the family settled in Wimbledon from where he went to Malvern public school.
He later trained as an engineer and worked periodically in South America. He joined Kitchener’s Army seeing service during the Dardanelles Campaign where he was wounded. He later wrote a very moving account of his ordeal and rescue in the trenches called ‘Suvla Moon’. This is included below.
He first started to write during his convalescence and went on to write two books of poems and several other works associated with his many travels and inner experiences. These included a book about his childhood called ‘Sun before seven’ with a forward by Walter de la Mare and an account of life on the Isle of Barra, where in 1929, he built a traditional stone house. He felt a strong connection with his own Scottish roots and for the people who were untainted by modern life and still possessed traces of that atavistic clairvoyance which enabled them to experience fairies. His writing not only has an exquisite command of English but is imbued with a strong underlying conviction and truth.
As a painter his early work had a whimsical and humorous style depicting everyday events. But around 1940 his work underwent a radical change. Perhaps under the influence of his wife Kate Olver, an accomplished portrait painter in the classical mode, he painted a number of striking portraits which draw you into the soul. There soon followed a rich vein of imaginative paintings drawn from his unconscious world often depicting people or horses, past and present, and their inner lives in remote landscapes of Morocco, Afghanistan or South America. Both the titles of the works, which were often in French, and the unique frames made by his friend Robert Siele, formed an integral part of his work. His subject matter was also complimented by a free technique which might incorporate newspaper print or the knot in the plywood board into the work.
During the later years his work became progressively smaller – occasionally even as small as a coca cola top! He called them his ‘tinies’ and consisted of simple glimpses rather than comprehensive works. They often depict a landscape vision as seen through a human eye and have a nostalgic even lonely quality. Some of these latter works can be purchased at www.paintingsbypic.co.uk.
Between 1930 and 1970 he had many solo exhibitions but it was during the 1940s’, when he exhibited alongside such artists as Picasso and the French impressionists, that he received considerable acclaim; he even shared an exhibition with Braque. But as the years speed by he found his own preoccupation with the spiritual qualities of the past increasingly at odds with the materialist values and fashions of the modern movement and faded from view. Nevertheless there are a small number of enthusiasts who are charmed by his work, and in my opinion, he ranks as one of the most interesting artists of the twentieth century. The time will surely come when there will be a renaissance of new interest. He produced a large body of work during his lifetime many of whose whereabouts remain unknown.
We were standing on deck watching the moon over Suvla.
“It’s too marvelous”, said Susan. “I simply must dress for dinner.” She went away.
John stared at the shore. “I’m glad I’m not over there” he said.
“Don’t know. Looks as though the place was under some sort of spell. As though one might lose the ordinary sense of reality in it. By the way,” he added, “You were here at the time, weren’t you?”
Then why haven’t you written anything about it? You do write, don’t you?”
“Certainly. Fairy tales and that. Well, here it is ---- a faery land forlorn. I say, though, I will be late. Aren’t you coming?” He hurried off.
I stared at the moon, and suddenly I went back in time.
At a quarter to three the barrage started. The gun-boats, hidden behind the headlands were pouring shells on the rough hillside before us, and I stared through a crack in the mud at the inferno. Black geysers roaring from the earth out of a red core of explosion. Acrid smoke, sunlight dulled by the shudder of projectiles, screaming, almost visible.
I was seeing things in detail that day, with the clarity of a dream. We had been five days without sleep or respite, fighting, crawling, blundering into senseless small actions which the chaotic staff-work created, and which had brought us to the brink of annihilation. The battalion was now two-hundred strong. Richardson, who had been my senior in “D” Company was in command. We were crouching now in the hole that was battalion head-quarters getting the last instructions.
“In seven minutes” yelled Richardson “we go over. Set your watches.”
I saw the drawn features of the subalterns and the glaze of their eyes staring at their watches. Saunders, “A” Company, Moody, “B”, and Montgomery, “C”, still lived. I had “D” Company ---- scarcely thirty men, drugged with sleep.
“Dall, has the new battalion made contact on your left?”
“Not yet, There’s a gap ---- “
“Good God! If we go over with our flank open it’s ---- finish. Two hours ago they promised ----, Orderly! Orderly! Get through to Brigade. Tell them it’s ---- “
The noise was stupifying. Shells were falling short.
“Take your men!” roared Richardson, “Six more minutes.
From the right came a roar and the scream of voices. A shell in our trenches. “Stretcher-bearer! Stretcher-bearers!” “Signals! Signals!”
“Christ!” cried Saunders, “It’s my company.” He started off to the right. The gun was traversing. “Cr-r-umph!” I felt myself flung against the backward trench. “Signals! Signals!”
I went stumbling along the trench towards my Company. I was stepping over the bodies of “C” Company men pressed against the parapet or huddled in sleep upon the earth. Sometimes I trod on them where there was no room to pass. Behind me Montgomery and his sergeant were struggling to rouse them. Men who slept through this clamour were almost beyond waking.
At the turn of a traverse I came on a face, glistening. Strang, my N.C.O. “That you, sir?”
“Yes. We must rouse the men. Has the battalion come in on our left?”
“This minute, sir.”
“Thank God. Pass the word to the right. I’ll get in touch with the officer. We’ve got four minutes more.”
Strang in civil life was a blackguard ---- a rough, fierce character who defied the uses of law and order. He was my sergeant because of sheer gallantry and survival. The bond between us was powerful and complete. The kind of love that is between those sharing the last of risks. And the same bond was between us and the men whom we were now shaking, pounding out of coma into a haggard wakefulness.
“ Stand by to go over. Bayonets fixed! Magazines charged!”
I heard my voice rasping through the din the instructions from head-quarters: “Remember, your objective is the second line of trenches. Bayonet any that are still in the front trench and hold the second at all costs. The next wave will then come up. Bombers will mop up. That is all we need ----“
I did not look at their faces in case they were turned on me accusingly. The second wave, for all practical purposes, would be the first.
“Corporal Clare!” A fair head leant towards me. “Keep your ration party together and await your chance. When it quietens. Or after dark. There’s a mullah on our left. It may help. But get the tins up somehow. Good luck!”
“Thank you, sir.” Clare went crouching to the right, a tall cool countryman whose clothes looked scarcely torn.
Beyond Gillis, my left-hand man were a few yards of empty trench and then the new-comers. Two men in clean uniforms looked at me. I was muddy and carried a rifle. An officer pressed me against the earthwork sucked quickly at the stump of a cigar. He wore pince-nez, carried a revolver in one hand and a whistle in the other.
I saluted. “Contact with “C” Company 4th Glebeshires.”
The head gibbered towards me. “Good Lord! Are you an officer?” Contempt! It was intolerable.
“Yes. Are you?” I roared, “We go over together.”
He looked down at his watch, with tight lips, saying nothing.
“There’s a gap between us ----“
“Can’t help that.”
“How are our watches? We must make sure of the seconds.” I looked. I saw there was a discrepancy. Mine was thirteen seconds ahead of his. “It’s my brigade time,” he bellowed, “You’re wrong. I go over by this.”
There was nothing to be done. It was too late now to add a new confusion to the general chaos. The lifting of the barrage would determine our zero hour more or less effectively. The next few minutes would see things settled for the most of us one way or the other.
I got back to my men and felt their welcoming. Strang in the centre had distributed the cases and ladders by means of which some would scramble out when the whistle sounded. Others picked foot-holds in the mud. Shrapnel was bursting along the parapet. It was impossible to talk. I took up my position on the left of Gillis. If there was to be a gap it seemed to me I had better be here to try and preserve some sort of direction.
One more minute. How amazingly clear my mind was. Observing the seconds I was still keenly aware of the quality of earth, raw, reddish, dry, that pressed in upon me, cracks in the clay, and the sharp outline of a weed that gave out a minty savour. Weariness gave me the sense of being outside my body, observing my every movement. I put out a hand and felt my bayonet. Was that my hand, my weapon? What was I to do with it? Stab with a thing like that? Abominable. I must shoot wherever possible. Better to shoot. Stab. I must stab. Remember it’s him or me, remember, him or me, remember. Scream. Horror of screaming. Him or me. Who’ll scream? Stop that: I’m here and that’s the mud. I won’t be struck in the stomach. Hedda Gabler. It doesn’t happen that way with me, and seeing I’m numb anyway it won’t -----
Twenty seconds. I’m all right. Miraculous. Glorious here. I can’t go black out. Not ---- me.
Fragments of tunes were sounding in my head, twangling from the gunfire: “Baby, look-a here, look-a here, look-a here ---- Well! What is it, dear? What is it dear?” It was suddenly delicious. There was something there that seemed to want me to laugh. It’s not true, any of this: “Gillie,” I shouted “we’re here!”
Five! Four! Three! Two! One! Zero! The whistle struck against my teeth. As the gunfire dropped we went scrambling, scrabbling over the heaped-up mud. It was not quite a silence but a back-suck of sound against which the men stumbled, mute. The earth seemed to take a long sobbing breath, then the whole hill woke with a roar. The rocks and ravines were bristling, crackling stabs of fire were everywhere, red against the smoke, shrapnel lashed the air. The line winced before the impact. Men went down, hovered, lurched forward. It went through my head that the barrage had failed. It hadn’t learnt to creep, nor we to crawl behind it. Gillis on my right put out both his hands and groping, collapsed in a heap. I saw his profile, the small, refined features of a clerk, sharpen in horror of what was happening to him. I couldn’t stop. Individuals could not be considered. Not now. I must keep the line, must keep the line.
A little group of my men had drawn together ---- instinctive, fatal bunching under fire. I ran towards them. “Don’t bunch! Don’t bunch! I flung my arm, “This way, this!” I ran towards the left again, looking back to see them follow. As I turned my head they all went down. All but one man, staggering forward.
Sharply I knew I was alone now, alone in the gap. The fatal thirteen seconds. The men about me shot down. To my right a few men stumbling. I must get to them, go on or down with them. I ran on the nightmare ground, crouching, the rifle carried across my stomach. Somewhere a flickering vision of Montgomery, dark, waving his arm as he pitched face forwards. The whole air was flickering, sighing, shivering, thick with objectiles, the crashing horror of explosives drowned the human welter. It did not seem possible that I was still unstruck. How many of us were there? Half a dozen? Is there no-one behind us? Attack failed. God! A blinding beat of fear. Blackout. Not ----- me. Now near? Now nearer? When’s it coming? I must go down, must keep on ---- must ----
The air beside me suddenly blazed and something struck me in the right side, hard as the kick of a mule. The impact spun me round and I went forward on my left face. Falling, I felt a stab like a knife in the right shoulder and another in the groin.
The physical shock brought a brief back-check from uncertainty. The pain was not intolerable. Perhaps because of exhaustion and the sense of detachment which allowed me to review my body and its sensations. I turned my head and something like the lash of a whip went across my forehead. Strang was lying a few feet behind me to the left. His face was distorted with pain and anger, and I saw that his leg was shattered.
“Strang,” I yelled “keep flat!” My eyes seemed suddenly blind. I put my hand up and found that blood was running into them. I must have looked worse than I was.
“Christ, sir! What have they done to you?”
“Never mind. We’ve got to find a hole and get into it.” Bullets were whipping the ground about us into spurts of dust, there was a traversing of machine-guns. It was impossible that we should not be seen from the enemy positions not fifty yards away. The nature of the ground grew sharply intimate and important. The o-mans-land was tawny and parched, broken by small ridges and clefts, swarmed over by a low undergrowth. Though I had run in a nightmare, regardless of the ground, I knew there was no ditch behind capable of covering us. We had fallen in a patch of grass, harsh and scattered. A few feet ahead a fringe showed thicker. I could use the whole of my left side, and my right arm a little. I went squirming towards the fringe and saw a ditch. It was scarcely more than two feet deep by three wide, but it meant a respite and a chance towards life.
I went into the ditch with a shout to Strang. Already he was crawling after me. Our movement shook the grass. There came a concentrated burst that whipped the surface overhead. Strang at the edge of the ditch gave a sudden shudder. I began to drag him in and I saw that he was dead. There came a sort of choking bitterness and I lost consciousness.
I must have swooned or slept for some hours. When I came to I was lying in the ditch with my face close to the ground. There was a duskiness in the air and it seemed to be about sunset. The pain in my side came dull and sharp by turns. My right arm had stiffened. I had lost blood. The full clamour had subsided, but machine-guns chattered and bursts of fire broke nervily. Voices of the wounded could be heard in the silence, a faint moaning and reproach. At my back I knew was Strang, and from the corner of an eye I could see his contorted form. My hand caught on his fingers, stiff now. I would not look at him again. I went edging to the right, and there was an odour sickly and sweet. The ditch bent a little, and my hand groped on a helmet. Flies rose and I knew there were two men there that had not died in that day’s fighting. My backward movement attracted a burst of fire so near as to seem pointblank. I went flat to the ground, and something struck me on the back of the neck. I put up my hand and felt a bullet, still hot. Once more everything went black.
When next I awoke there was a roaring in my ears and a renewed clamour of battle. It was night, but a glow was in the air and somewhere a waver of flames. Fire. I felt delirious. Water. Revolver. Wounded were burned on Chocolate Hill. Peace, I only wanted to be left in peace, and it had broken out again. Yells, crashing, murderous noise. What was it? Another assault? A retreat? A counter-attack? Bayonets. If the Turks came out in their panic they would stab at everything, the dead and the breathing. There came a stampede of shapes overhead, flying forms. Two crashed down, striking me with an impact of terror. I cried out and they recoiled: “Caw, ‘e ain’t dead!” hoarsely. They rose up and rushed somewhere, forward or backward.
My fear reeled off into a light-headedness. I heard the tunes twangling again out of the clamour. “Baby, look-a here, look-a here, look-a here ----“ Puppets bouncing on strings. Then, underneath, the rolling of a Paraphrase: “When wicked men against us furiously ---“ “Well, what is it, dear? What is it, dear? ----“ “then certainly they had destroyed us all ----“ “That’s all, when you took me to the Barber’s Hall. Gee, honey ----“ “Such was their rage and bloody cruelty ----“. The puppets were dancing more remotely now, in a darkening world. Beyond, there lay a brightness, in or out of reality. My mind strove towards it. The roaring returned like a river, and the dark diapason “Deep river, my home is over Jordan ….” I went down into the blackness.
For the third time I awoke. I was weak and stiff, but my brain was clear. A brilliant moon was moving over the edge of the ditch. I could see how the blades of grass were furred with dew, how they bruised and darkened at my touch. There was altogether too much light. Rifles spat and crackled from every quarter with a jarring uncertainty. The lacerating pain had gone from my side, but perhaps I could no longer crawl. To leave the ditch was death, to lie here death delayed. I was parched with thirst and could not reach my water-bottle. I began to lick the dew.
Suddenly I knew there was someone alive in the ditch. Rifles roared and my head went down. When the lull came I looked and saw a face.
“Clare!” I whispered, “Clare, you ----“ Words were difficult.
“Yes, sir. Mr Dall, sir. It’s me sir.”
“How did you ---- What made you ----?”
“I knew you were out here somewhere. Couldn’t let you down, sir.” He came to me crawling across Strang’s body.
“I’ve turned him over, sir. A brave soldier. Followed you, sir.”
Yes, he had followed me. Clare gave me water and began to bandage my head with a field dressing. It was difficult to keep low to the ground.
“You bad on the right side, sir?”
“Don’t know. Numb. Might have something broken.”
“Can you crawl?”
“Not sure. Siff.”
“’Spect I’d better carry you sir.”
I knew that in such a light we could not move along the ditch unseen, neither could we leave it. My thoughts tore fiercely at the chances of life.
“What time is it?”
“Three fourteen, sir”. Twelve hours since the attack. I had studied the Suvla moon during the nights of fighting, and knew the hours of its rising and setting.
“At three-forty” I said “the moon sets. The first light breaks soon after four. We must go during that half-hour of darkness.”
“Very good, sir.” Said Clare. We lay talking in whispers. I had crawled up the mullah on our left and edged across the confusion of shadow, uncertain of how near he was to the enemy lines. The firing broke out as the moonlight struck him. He had stumbled into the ditch.
“They’re near, sir.”
“If they come over ---- “ the revolver lay near my left hand.
“Sham dead, sir.” Clare wound a dark handkerchief round his head. “Might be one of them, sir.”
I smiled. It was better to know what we were going to do, at least.
“Once they’re over we could go for it.”
“What about the ratio party? What about the battalion?”
Clare hesitated. “The party, sir? Well, they weren’t wanted. You see, them that got back, got back. The party was turned on to stretcher work. They’re been at it all night.”
“The officers? Mr Richardson”
“They found him, sir, and Mr Saunders and poor Mr Moody. You couldn’t have had braver gentlemen ----“
“They’ve not found him yet, sir. Marked as missing.”
I remembered my sight of him, falling forward. Names of men went through my head, but the effort of thinking was becoming too great. I closed my eyes. Above all a clear brain was essential at this moment. I must beat back the delirium that came with exhaustion, shut out from my senses that hateful sweetness of corruption.
Slowly, slowly the moon slid down the sky. It hung like a bubble, hovered and was pricked by the grass. I saw the spears etch themselves upwards upon its surface. At last it was a thin rim, then a glimmer. The glimmer went out, and it was dark.
“Can you see my head?”
“The bandage, sir!”
“Put the dark cloth over it.” Clare unwound his handkerchief and put it over the lint. We crawled from the back of the ditch. My movement was painful and slow. At this rate we would not be in by daybreak. I squirmed a foot or two more. There was a little firing, but none immediately behind us.
“Could you get on to my back, sir?” I managed to get across his shoulders. He went forward awhile under my weight. The ground was treacherous and the darkness intense. When we had gone about a third of the way Clare caught his foot in the scrub and we went sprawling forward into a shell-hole. Something metallic struck upon a stone and the rifles behind us broke into a roar of fire. We cowered in the hole. Clare was pressed against the body of a man. “Sandilands, sir, “C” Company.”
We crept out when the firing ceased.
“Let me try to stand.” I tried and fell down. I was dizzy, and he got his shoulders under me. We went on, following the obliquity of a ridge. Nearer, and nearer, we must get there ---- somewhere ---- It couldn’t be far now. Our straining eyes saw the blur of an earthwork. A boot rasped. There came a cry and a rifle went off. We dropped to the ground as the whole parapet burst into flame. Our own men firing! “Friends! Friends! We yelled, “Don’t shoot, don’t shoot! It’s friends! Friends!”
They missed. The aim was wild. Someone must have heard. More shouts, and the firing ceased. We cried out to confirm our identity. A head showed at a hole, forms swarmed out to meet us, and we were dragged in over the parapet.
In the trench there was a confusion and questioning. A strange battalion. They laid me on the fire-step. I wanted to say something to Clare, and I did not know how to begin. His head and shoulders were above me and he spoke first.
“We made it, sir. Knew we would. I’d better carry on now sir. No time to lose with the light.”
“What’s that! Where are you going, Clare?”
“The man in that shell-hole, sir. Sandilands.”
“But ---- he’s dead.”
“No, sir. Breathing, sir. Just a chance ---- “ His face went back into the darkness, and I did not see him again.
When I opened my eyes I was lying on a stretcher in another part of the trench. I was in a state between sleeping and waking and the walls were high and narrow. Suddenly I felt I was in a grave ---- I was being buried alive. I’m not dead, I’m not dead!” I cried, struggling to move.
“No, you’re not dead” said a voice. An M.O. bent above me grinning wearily. His sleeves were rolled up and he wore rubber gloves. “Get him in here, boys.” I was edged into a darkness filled with fumes and groaning. “Another lamp, there.” “Orderly! Iodine.” “Cut away that clothing.”
When they had done with me they tied a label round my neck and put my stretcher in the trench outside. Other stretchers were awaiting their turn. Someone leant over me. He too had a label round his neck.
“I see you’ve got your ticket.”
“Look here,” said Montgomery fiercely “Don’t make me laugh.”
“Because I’ve got a bullet under my ribs.”
The stretcher-bearers came, and we began the fitful pilgrimage to the beach.
I slept through the jolts and the journey. Once I awoke when the men dropped the stretcher, and once unaccountably, when an elderly man came out of the shadow, looked at my face and hurried away with a sigh ----
Leaning by the rail I felt suddenly cold. No, I did not think I could write anything about the place. John came from the companion.
“Hullo, not dressing?”
“No. I’ve been on shore.”
“What do you mean?”
I heard Susan coming.
“Heavens, still watching the moon!”
“It’s too marvelous,” I said.
Susan was wearing a creation of palest peach-coloured georgette, with broderie anglaise in a rose design worked in seed pearls and edged with ruching.