Church of Ireland rector’s son who captured ‘the Anzac spirit’

Flora Sandes in her Serbian army uniform circa 1918
Flora Sandes in her Serbian army uniform circa 1918

Charlie Warmington on the significant, but little-known, Irish connections to Anzac Day and the Gallipoli campaign

Amongst the tragic statistics outlined in the News Letter’s Gallipoli Anzac Day Centenary reports are many Irishmen who died and were wounded from the 10th (Irish) Division, which included the Royal Irish Regiment, the Royal Irish Fusiliers, the Munsters and Dublins, the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, the Leinster Regiment, the Connaught Rangers and the Royal Irish Rifles.

HMS M33. built by Workman Clark in Belfast

HMS M33. built by Workman Clark in Belfast

On Saturday and Sunday they are all being remembered.

There are other historic Irish links with Anzac and Gallipoli that aren’t often recounted: three of them quite remarkable indeed.

It was the dawn landing of the ANZACS, the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps, that bestowed the title ‘Anzac Day’ on commemorations that have continued since 1916.

But it was an Irish journalist, poet and writer who contributed much to the cultural legacy and legend of Anzac.

“Night – and those shadowy ships with heroes freighted!

Before them the destroyers race, bows under,

Guiding and guarding till the moment fated.

Dawn – and a Deed that makes the wide world wonder!”

Those are the opening lines of John Sandes’ poem ‘Landing in the Dawn’, written for the first anniversary of Gallipoli on 25 April 1916.

From the early 1920s an ‘Anzac legend’ burgeoned as part of the national identity of the two young countries – Australia and New Zealand.

John Sandes, son of Rev Samuel Sandes, a Church of Ireland rector, was born in Whitechurch, Co Cork, in 1863.

When he was nine the family moved to England where John attended school before entering Oxford University and gaining a B.A.

He emigrated to Australia in 1887, where he became a newspaper columnist and novelist, using the pseudonym Don Delaney for some of his books.

His poems contributed much to the ‘spirit of Anzac’, evidenced in the second verse of ‘Landing in the Dawn’:

“Thus Australasia, by Old England warded

Through the long night of her eventless story,

Dreaming, by outer peoples unregarded,

Came to her day of sacrifice and glory.”

The ‘Anzac spirit’ characterised the distinctive qualities of heroism, honour, manliness and dependability shown by Australia’s and New Zealand’s soldiers.

The depth of mood in John Sandes’ final verse of ‘Landing in the Dawn’ summarised that spirit.

“Then, by grace of God above you,

Oh my sons come back today

In the thoughts of those who love you,

In the tears of those who pray.

This I know – and nothing surer

Is from heavenly wisdom drawn –

Earth is sweeter, nobler, purer,

For your Landing in the Dawn.”

John Sandes died of cancer in 1938, outlived by his younger sister Flora Sandes who died aged 80 at Ipswich and East Suffolk Hospital on 24 November 1956.

Flora was the only British woman to see front line action in WWI!

Born in 1876 after the family moved from Co Cork to North Yorkshire, she had a typically middle-class rectory childhood but she dreamed of adventure.

After attending finishing-school she travelled and worked as a secretary in various parts of the world, shooting a man in self-defence when she was in America.

She was 38-years-old when Britain declared war on Germany in 1914 and signed up as a volunteer with the ambulance service.

Within eight days Flora was on her way to Serbia with the first volunteer unit to leave Britain.

Initially she worked with the Red Cross but soon enlisted in the Serbian army – one of the few armies in the world to accept women.

She quickly moved up the ranks, from corporal to sergeant-major, and was wounded by a grenade. A lieutenant in her company crawled to her under fire and dragged her to safety.

For her bravery, Flora was awarded Serbia’s highest military honour.

Having moved to Yugoslavia, 65-year-old Flora, now married, joined up again for WWII, but within days her WWI wounds put an end to her plans.

After WWII ended, and widowed, she moved to Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, before returning to England, where she travelled between her local villages on an electric wheelchair.

Ending the trio of little-recounted Irish links with Gallipoli is a Belfast-built ship that fought in the campaign.

The 500-ton Monitor (gunship) HMS M33, currently being restored in Plymouth, is the only ship remaining that fought in the Gallipoli Campaign.

Coincidentally, HMS M33 and HMS Caroline are the only two warships remaining from WWI.

Five Monitors that fought in Gallipoli were built on the River Lagan, three by Harland and Wolff and two, including M33, by Workman Clark.