[World War I veterans 1959 reunion : Capt. Ray Curtis]
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Part of a series in which an unidentified male broadcaster interviews World War I veterans at a reunion in 1959 in Timaru.
Interviewer: We have now with us Mr Ray Curtis. And what was your rank and your, uh...
Interviewer: And what division were you attached when you left New Zealand?
Curtis: First New Zealand, uh, I was with Canterbury Machine Gun Corps. Actually Canterbury Machine Gun Section because we had, didn't have a corps in those days, we just had one section for each battalion.
Interviewer: Now, I believe, Mr Curtis, you were one of the last few men that left Gallipoli.
Interviewer: Could you tell me what it felt like to be one of the last to leave?
Curtis: Well, it's rather difficult to, to look back on those days, but, in those days of course we were very much younger than we are now, but I can't say that there was any experience of fear or anything of that kind. It was more of an adventure. More an adventure actually, we looked forward to it. Uh, there was nothing very exciting about it, it all went off very well organised and very quietly. And, uh, the position was at the time, uh, I had eight machine guns on Cheshire Slope [?] and we evacuated over a period of three nights. The first night we sent off two guns, and the second night we sent another two guns, and the, early in the evening in the third night we sent off another two, and then we had one gun left at the very last, and that gun was manned by six gunners who were picked the earliest and the best. Oh, I won't say the best, they were all good, but still they were choice picked men and, uh, it was their job to, uh, man that gun and put it in a position to, position to imitate rifle fire and make it appear to the Turks that the trenches were fully manned. And then after, uh, half an hour of that, then we withdrew the gun, I think round about half past eleven at night. And, uh, dropped the barbed wire. I was met then by the Colonel of the, of the uh, of the regiment and he and I and his one or two assistants and gunners, we dropped the crossed barbed wire, uh, knife, what we call knife rests into the trench to impede the Turks should they come in, and we retired then to the inner camp, which was about quarter of a mile down the valley.
Interviewer: Were the Turks not aware of the evacuation?
Curtis: No, they hadn't the slightest clue that we were going. And uh...
Interviewer: They were sort of just left there.
Curtis: They were just left there. High and dry so to speak, yes. But we left a lot of booby traps behind us. We left booby traps in the form of, uh, bombs with the pin drawn and wrapped up in a blanket so they couldn't explode until they were disturbed. We left, uh, bombs, uh, grenades, all types in brackets in the trenches and we left, uh, anything we could devise in the way of a way of a booby trap we left behind for them to get a bit of a surprise and something, give them some interest.
Interviewer: And how did you actually leave the cove?
Curtis: Well, when we got down to the inner keep we had to retire into what you call, uh, really the inner keep, there were two keeps, one further up the valley, and the inner keep was about a quarter of a mile off Anzac Cove itself. Now when we got down there we just gave our password and passed through the keep, uh, reported our presence and the last man through, and then we retired onto the beach. And there was a small knot of men assembled, waiting for, uh, to get onto their lighters and go out to the ship. Uh, the Engineers of course were entrusted with the job of pressing the double button and setting up the mines which were charged with all the explosives that we could possibly muster. There must have been many hundreds of tons of explosives left behind, all put into, uh, mined by the tunnellers under the Turkish trenches, and it was the Engineers' job to press the button and blow them up as they stepped into their boat. That was the last of Gallipoli.
Interviewer: And what, what destruction did this explosion cause?
Curtis: Well, it was very spectacular from the ship. We were about half a mile out when the thing went up. And it was very spectacular, it made a terrific noise, of course. There was a lot of flame and, uh, the Turks were, must have been terribly alarmed because when they, when the mines went up they started to fire, at random of course, being nighttime. And, uh, we got a lot of, uh, hardware thrown at us. You couldn't see anything of course. But, uh, the bullets and the hardware was landing on us, all around us in the sea, but nobody seemed to be hit anyway, we didn't suffer any casualties.
Interviewer: And what type of ship did you finally leave on?
Curtis: Oh, we got onto a, um, one of the ships I can't recall the name of now but uh, shortly afterwards, uh, about half an hour after, I suppose, the last body of the Engineers and the generals and others who, the brass hats were, joined us and celebrated and champagne at the, down in the saloon.
Interviewer: Was it a Navy ship or a merchantman?
Curtis: No, oh no, no a merchantman. Merchantman, yes.
Interviewer: I believe you were also attached, Mr Curtis, to the Māori Battalion for a while.
Curtis: Yes, I was attached to them when I got my commission on 6th of June 1915. And, oh I wasn't with them very long because they ceased to become a combatant unit, a fighting unit, owing to their losses. Uh, they formed the Pioneer Battalion, of course I withdrew then, I went into the fighting lines again with the Machine Gunners. So I wasn't with them very long.
Interviewer: And what is your personal opinion of the Māori Battalion?
Curtis: Oh, they were great fighting men. A little bit impetuous perhaps, when it comes to battle because, uh, it's in their blood I suppose. But they did put up a good performance. And I did notice that, uh, when there was anything really doing by another battalion they had the, uh, inclination to join, uh, join in and be in it too. And that, of course, led to some of them, uh, suffering casualties, uh, more casualties perhaps than they would have had.
Interviewer: You were associated with Sir Peter Buck, I believe.
Curtis: Yes, he, I shared a dugout with Peter Buck. And, uh, I found him very interesting. He used to regale us with stories of Māori lore in the quiet evenings sometimes in the dugout. He'd tell us all sorts of stories, Māori stories, a very interesting man.
Interviewer: And where did you go when you left Gallipoli?
Curtis: We went straight back to, uh, Egypt. And, uh, it was there I was the only surviving Machine Gun officer. And we had then to think about forming a corps. A corps then which really meant withdrawing all the machine guns from the battalions. Up 'til that time we had two machine guns for each battalion. Four battalions, eight guns. Uh, and we formed the corps that was the nucleus of the corps. We then drew in numerous other senior officers from the unit who volunteered to join the corps. But they were untrained, they had to be trained for their job and, uh, we formed the corps, and the corps ultimately expanded into sixty-four guns, instead of the original eight. Incidentally, I could mention, that, uh, speaking of these guns, it was the Maoris came on when they landed at Gallipoli with their two machine guns. They had number 10 and number 15, and when it's realised by machine gunners, of course that the number of a gun usually ran up to, into the thousands, it was rather remarkable that two guns should still be in action number 10 and number 15. There they were, number 10 and number 15. The history sheet was about a yard long. It passed through every battalion I suppose, every battalion pretty well making up the British Army.
Interviewer: Just the ordinary machine gun?
Curtis: Yes. They were the old Maxim guns. Number 10 and number 15. And yet, of course, they had been uh, converted to take modern ammunition mark 7. But, uh, they were very very old guns and still in action, and still did their work efficiently.
Interviewer: And how many men to each gun?
Curtis: There were actually six men to each gun. Six men to each gun.
Interviewer: And what was their duty?
Curtis: Well number one took the, his job was to mount and operate and shoot it. Fire it, press the double button so to speak. Number two looked after the ammunition. Feeding it through the belt so that it ran through clear. Number three was further back with spare parts. Number four had a spare supply of ammunition to back him. And number six was a scout who remained in the back with the reinforcements then, but still his job was specialised in signalling and scouting. That was his job.
Interviewer: Were you in France at all, Mr Curtis?
Curtis: Yes, I was right through France.
Interviewer: And have you any experiences you'd like to relate, um, any heroic or humourous experiences you saw in France?
Curtis: Well, uh, speaking first of all on Gallipoli of course, we didn't have very much in the way of food down there. There was no choice of food or anything there, but we did have the dog biscuits, which was a very hard biscuit, usually used as a label more than eaten I suppose. We used to bore or drill a hole through them and send parcels back to New Zealand with these dog biscuits as labels and they seemed to survive the test. Never broke up or anything. [laughs]
Interviewer: They were used as labels?
Curtis: Yes, they were, but I did have, of course we had as I said, no choice of food, and food was a big question with us. And water was, fresh water too was another difficult thing to come by. But uh, Murray, a man by the name of Murray, an old naval man who could make shift in any circumstance at all, he undertook to provide me with a treat. And so he got one of these dog biscuits and ground it up between two flat stones and, uh, when I came down to the dugout he says 'Well, sir, I don't know what I'm going to give you for breakfast this morning' but he said 'I've done my best,' he said 'I'll make you a chapatti'. Yes, well I said 'Murray, that's your department, if that's the best you can do you can't do better,' I said, 'you go ahead'. And so he made this chapatti with a little bit of bacon fat fried up and it was served up as chapatti. Well, of all the vile things I've ever tasted I suppose this was the worst. And uh, I had chapatti, I praised it up of course to him for his effort, but uh, of all the vile things I've ever tasted I could never imagine any worse really. I suffered this thing for breakfast, dinner and tea then for two or three days out there, until poor old Murray got a blighter, he got a wound in the portion of the body I can't imagine but anyway, Murray was evacuated and it was a very nice little wound. And I wasn't sorry to see the last of Murray, although he did his best, poor devil. [Laughs].
Interviewer: I understand, Mr Curtis, that you are a holder of the Military Cross and Bar.
Interviewer: Could you, would you like to tell us how you earned that decoration?
Curtis: Well, uh, those are the sort of things we don't like to talk very much about, but uh, I suppose it's an honour more to the section than it was to me. We had a remarkable experience, as I said, the Canterbury Machine Gun section were the first on Gallipoli along with the first on Gallipoli the landing. They were the very last to evacuate, and to fire the last shot on Gallipoli. Then when we went to France, they, we were in the line three days before the infantry, we took over from the 42nd English Division and we were in the line three days before, which meant of course that we were, the battle was joined as far as we were concerned and we fired the first shot. And, of course, the Canterburys were the very last because we did fire the last shot up in, at uh, Forest of Mormal and Bavay Road. We were a mile and a half then in front of the infantry. And it was during that action, of course, that we put up such a good performance, the boys did, uh, they got, uh, two DCMs and four military medals, for sixteen men, which was a record I suppose for the British Army.
Interviewer: A very distinguished, um...
Curtis: Yes, they're very distinguished, yes, a great effort. Uh, nothing very spectacular about it but it, the mere fact was that we used our guns with boldness and got in. The infantry were held up in the forest and we just simply went ahead to Bavay Road and took a position there from whence we could bring a lot of fire to bear on retiring troops, the Germans. As they retired out of the wood we had them right and left, and even took sixteen prisoners, as equal to our own number, we took them down the cellar. Uh, we rushed them and took them down the cellar, and we had our guns mounted, shooting through the, uh, the tiles of the roof, and others were shooting from the lower level, from the doorways. But uh, we had great shooting there. Wonderful bit of work. We, then, ultimately got withdrawn that night, we got relieved from the 42nd English Division, came up and relieved us and we left there. It was there that the men had got their two DCMs and four military medals.
Interviewer: How did Gallipoli compare with the action you saw in France?
Curtis: Well, of course it covers a very big field, but Gallipoli in many respects was a different war for altogether, uh, more individual warfare and, uh, in France we were, uh, confined to trenches a good deal, we suffered a terrific number of casualties through heavy raids. The raiding I suppose was one of the worst features of the war there. Thousands of guns brought to bear on a small sector of two or three hundred yards and we, and it's very lucky to come out of it at all. Very very lucky.
Interviewer: Casualties would be very heavy.
Curtis: Oh they were, in all circumstances. The raids were, that the infantry put over from both sides were very terrific. They were the worst feature of the war. In fact I can't conceive anything in the Second World War, or any other war, that would possibly compare with the raids. We used to, each battalion became more or less competitive, see how many [unclear] they could get in a raid, and it was more and more severe every time that we made a raid. They were really terrific.
Interviewer: Well thanks very much, Mr Curtis, for your memories that you've given us on your wartime experience in Gallipoli and France. Thanks very much.
Curtis: Thank you.
Transcription by Sound Archives/Ngā Taonga Kōrero
Reference number 255956
Media type AUDIO
Collection Sound Collection
Ngā Taonga Korero Collection
Curtis, Archibald Raymond (b.1894, d.1966), Interviewee
New Zealand Broadcasting Service (estab. 1946, closed 1962), Broadcaster
New Zealand. Army. New Zealand Machine Gun Corps
28 NZ (Maori) Battalion Assoc.
World War, 1914-1918 -- Veterans -- New Zealand
World War, 1914-1918 -- Campaigns -- Turkey -- Gallipoli Peninsula
World War, 1914-1918 -- Campaigns -- Western Front