In the hellfire and bloodshed of Gallipoli, Thomas Redford and his men never really stood a chance.
His story has been dramatised in the film Gallipoli, but few know the movie’s Major Barton, played by Bill Hunter, is based on the Warrnambool-born major and the impossible choice he faced in the trenches during August, 1915.
Major Redford was, as reports from the time show, much loved by the troops under his command in B Squadron of the 8th Light Horse. Theirs was a unit that existed before the outbreak of World War I, the men knew each other and their leader well.
In the futile Battle of the Nek, it was Major Redford’s role to lead his men in a charge, some 50 metres, to the Turkish trenches as the 8th Light Horse led the first wave of attacks. But as the time to attack approached, the bombardment of Turkish positions by ally destroyers ended seven minutes early.
Military historian and Warrnambool RSL’s Doug Heazlewood said it left officers with a gut-wrenching decision – charge early and risk being mown down by their own guns, or wait and possibly give Turkish soldiers time to man their positions.
“It’s an agony that sort of decision,” he said. “The reason he didn’t go was often in those kind of barrages the guns will save themselves up for a minute or two, let people start getting their heads out, and then hit them hard again.”
As historian Peter Burness wrote in The Nek of the minutes before the attack, the artillery shelling ceased “as if cut short by a knife” just as watches reached 4.23am.
“For three minutes, hardly a shot came from the Turks and then a scattered rifle fire broke out, above which could be heard distinctly the rattle of about 10 shots as each Turk machine-gun was made ready for action. The several minutes pause erased any hope that the enemy could be taken by surprise.”
Mr Heazlewood said, as in the film, Major Redford was let down by a succession of senior officers. Even his regimental commander, who was with him in the trenches at Walkers Ridge, took off as the naval guns stopped.
“And all the way up, up through Godly (commander of the New Zealand and Australian Division) and the rest of them who could have made decisions about the wisdom of making the charge when other things had already gone wrong. They let him cop the lot,” Mr Heazlewood said.
Major Redford’s first wave of light horsemen were slaughtered by Turkish rifle and machine gun fire. A second line scrambled over the dead and injured to make their own attack, many suffering the same fate.
Half the men who made the charge – including Major Redford – were killed. Nearly half those who survived were wounded.
“He almost made it to the Turkish trenches and was shot through the head and died,” Mr Heazlewood said of Major Redford’s fate.
“He would have had in his mind that all these magnificent men, loyal, courageous, ready to do whatever they had to do at his bequest, were gone.”
As a sergeant of the 8th Light Horse wrote: “Our gallant major, whilst facing the enemy’s trench in front of his men received a bullet through his brain... He died with a soft sigh and laid his head gently on his hands as if tired. A braver and more honourable man never donned uniform.”
That night, two men from his unit crawled across the bloody field to haul his body in. His was the only body to be brought in that night, although others were retrieved later on.
Major Redford was buried at Walkers Ridge. But like many local soldiers who did not make it home, he his remembered on the family’s memorial at the Warrnambool Cemetery.
The Redfords, of which he was the third son, was a prominent family in Warrnambool. They gave their name to Redford Street and they had a produce business on the corner of Fairy and Timor streets.
But time and rough weather has been unkind to the family’s monument, which now lays on the ground.
Local historians are working to track down descendants, and the Friends of Gallipoli group is being approached to consider helping fund a restoration project for the gravesite to ensure the life of Warrnambool’s “gallant major” is not forgotten.
- The Redford family memorial will be among the World War I graves visited as part of the annual Anzac Day cemetery tour The tour will meet at the Warrnambool Cemetery rotunda at 8.30am.