The view of Russell's Top showing Light Horse bivouacs in the right hand top corner and No 2 outpost in the left distance.
The view of Russell's Top showing Light Horse bivouacs in the right hand top corner and No 2 outpost in the left distance. contributed

Field notes help solve WWI mystery

WHILE dodging bullets, shrapnel and Turkish soldiers, Private James Nicholas Murray recorded field notes that have now provided a missing link on how the Anzacs held Russell's Top and tunnelled towards the Turkish defence line.

Researcher Margaret Rawsthorne stumbled across Pte Murray's untold story and his survey documents - that played an important role in the final few months before the evacuation of the Gallipoli Peninsular - while she was working on the Emerald RSL Sub Branch's upcoming Anzac exhibition, Gone But Not Forgotten.

Like a cat with nine lives Pte Murray escaped some near-misses and lived to tell the story, keeping his memories and thoughts in a diary that would only see the light of day nearly 100 years on.

His field notes record officially that he began surveying on October 2, 1915, providing the Anzac headquarters with intricate details of firing lines and tunnels which would become the focus of the commanding officers in their mission to gain enemy ground and break into Turkish tunnels.

Anzac surveyor Private James Nicholas Murray.
Anzac surveyor Private James Nicholas Murray.

"Using just a compass, clinometer and 20 feet of string, Pte Murray mapped the location of the trenches and tunnels at Russell's Top at Gallipoli in intricate detail," Ms Rawsthorne wrote in a piece for the Central Queensland News.

"After transcribing his diary, I got a sense that JN was a quiet, reserved and honourable man who had enlisted to serve his country and was proud of his fellow comrades and never complained about the daily atrocities they faced on the Peninsular.

"He never wrote about being afraid but he had a lot to say about the commanding officers and how the ordinary soldiers were treated.

"JN's army field book of compass co-ordinates of the tunnels and firing lines of Russell's Top gave a new and fresh understanding of surveying techniques carried out on the Peninsular.

"We had to travel to the war memorial to determine if any such maps existed of Russell's Top with such intricate detail. They did not."

Pte Murray was the grandfather of Emerald surveyor Mark Murray who can testify that his family now boasts four generation of surveyors back to Gallipoli.

Mr Murray is keen to share his grandfather's secrets, stored for many years in a suitcase recently stolen in a robbery, with the nation after learning how significant the documents were.

JN, as he was known, died when Mark was 11, leaving his diaries as a legacy.

"My recollections of JN commence when we used to visit him in Rockhampton," Mr Murray said.

"I don't recall him saying anything about the war ... but what I do remember is he used to sit up in bed and we would go in there every night and listen to the poems.

"He used to recite Banjo Paterson poems like when Pardon won the cup and tell us Henry Lawson stories."

Mr Murray said his family would gift JN's collection in perpetuity to a yet-to-be named institution.

"I never really thought about putting JN on a pedestal, but what makes this so interesting is we have the records, the actual field diaries," he said.

"But what he has done at Gallipoli is far less than the blokes who gave their lives - that's the perspective I put on it."

Anzac historian Captain Andrew Craig said Pte Murray's wartime survey documents and diaries could well prove to be one of the most unique collections in the country.

"I believe the State Library is very interested in communicating with Mark, as soon as they get their ducks in a row, with a view to doing whatever the family wants done with the papers, offering to assist in whatever way and ultimately hoping to be the house for that collection," he said.

"There are layers to this and first is to get the documents properly preserved, stabilised and digitised."

Diary excerpts

James Nicholas Murray's account

Sunday, September 12

At 6 o'clock had an exciting time going for water. Snipers were on look out for us. Had to go about a mile down Aghyl Dere to nwest and to some place.

Bullets whizzed very close to us as we ran with heads ducked in shallow trenches.

Monday, September 20

Dony ridge work. Our camp where we spend time when not in the trenches is in a deep gully, which runs into Aghl Dere behind our trenches so far we have been absolutely safe there.

Capt Connor sent for me to have day out &

asked me to make sketches of trenches.

I was given a 1: 20,000 map of this part of Gallipoli linear contours. Very interesting.

Tuesday, September 21

Making traverse with Prismante compass & piece of string 20ft long of trenches. Would like job if I had assumed status but fancy that I am looked upon as an intruder.

Wednesday, September 22

Wednesday plot traverse on 1: 240 scale under great difficulties.

Sunday, October 10

Got a fresh plan to make for Colonel. Finished after great meal at dinner time.

Wednesday, October 13

Holmes killed. Walked down to the beach in hope of getting something out of canteen. We were faint today.

Nothing in canteen.

Friday, October 15

Went down beach & had a bath. A swindling Greek was selling stuff down there. Paid him 2 pounds for tin of condensed milk.

Nothing in canteen.

Wednesday, October 27

Turks give this place a great doing with shells & bombs. Several killed & wounded including poor Cakebread killed instantly.

Had I been in dug out I occupied a few days ago after it was dinner time, I would have had my head blown off. Dug out crumbled in with shrapnel.

I hear that today Anzac was subjected to heavy shelling experienced for long time.

Turks must have varying fresh supplies of ammunition.

At night had a look at the death toll for the day.

Six lying on stretchers with a blanket thrown over them in cemetery waiting for graves to be dug.

Poor Cakebread amongst them.

Tuesday, November 16

Very cold. No shelter in dug out, perished last night. See doctor & get off for day. Write letter to Willie & post it.

Saturday, December 11

Had a tooth extracted by stretcher bearer who is a dentist by name Ballard.

Have been feeling very well for last few days. Weather surprisingly mild. Troubled with lice &fleas.