40 William Alexander Sutherland was born in 1893 in Wallsend Newcastle, to parents William Swanson Sutherland and Annie Elizabeth nee Sessions.
William had three sisters , Nellie, Emma and Edith and two younger brothers Neil and Allan.
William was 22 years old when he enlisted in August 1914 and had been working for five years as a Cooper or “barrel maker” for Stewart and Hawkins Ltd. of Newcastle.
His younger brother Neil also enlisted later in April 1916 and was No. 2405 with the 4th Reinfs. 35th Battalion 9th Brigade.
While at Gallipoli on the 4th May suffering from rheumatic fever he was admitted to hospital and transferred to Mudros and then transferred to Cairo hospital.
While in hospital William would provide one of the earliest letters from the war in the Dardanelles to his father dated 12th May detailing the landing at Gallipoli, his narrow escape from a bullet and his involvement in being the first ashore on that morning of the 25th April.
His letter published in June in the Sydney Morning Herald also provides great insight into the large scale of works conducted by the Engineers at Lemnos prior to the Gallipoli landing and at Gallipoli itself in the first weeks.
Sapper W.S Sutherland writing to his father, Mr. W. Sutherland, manager of Hawkin’s Ltd., Newcastle, under date May 12, from Kasi-el-aine Hospital, Cairo, says:-
“We are receiving great attention. Nothing is too much trouble for the nurses to do for us. The Egyptian doctors who are attending us are very good, and although I am feeling well now, they will not hear of my getting up out of bed until I am properly well.
We landed on the Island of Lemnos. We formed a base for No. 1 stationary hospital. Our first job was to build a landing pier. It took us over three weeks to do this. The pier consisted of 100 feet of stone work, and 100 feet of wood work, and when finished was christened the ‘Australian Pier.’ We got praise for it from the Imperial Royal Engineer Colonel.
Our next work was in connection with the water supply, and to get this we had to sink about a dozen wells 30 feet deep, and had also to lay 3000 feet of pipes. I can assure you we were not idling our time away. We also had to construct a road from the pier to the hospital – a distance of about a quarter of a mile. I will be able to turn my hand to anything when I get back.
The weather was remarkably cold, there being a snow-clad mountain about six miles away. We used to get some terribly rough weather at times, and it was not an uncommon sight to see us hanging on to our tents in the pouring rain at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning. On the 24th we were taken with two companies of the 9th on to a British battleship. For the 12 hours we were on her we had the time of our lives. The sailors could not do enough for us. They gave us some glorious feeds. We steamed out of Lemnos Bay about dinner time on Saturday, and by dark we were well on our way to the Dardanelles. About midnight we were all ordered up on deck, and instructed to be ready to go into the boats.
When we landed the air was thick with bullets flying all around us. How it is that we were not all killed, goodness only knows. In that rush through the water and across the sand into shelter of the scrub, I don’t think I ever ran harder in my life. Anyway, I have no wish to go through the same thing again. It was just like swimming into death, and I must have had a guardian angel over me then. Day was just breaking, and we could see that the surrounding hills were crowded with Turks. Notwithstanding this, our boys fixed their bayonets. It was great. The Turks fled, our boys after them, yelling for all they were worth. They never stopped chasing them until they had taken up a good position in the ridge, and so could cover the rest of the troops landing. The transports had now come up, and troops were coming ashore in boatloads. The Turks opened fire on us with their artillery, and shrapnel flew everywhere. Then the battleships started, and the roar was terrible.
For the ten days and nights I was in the trenches I was out of the firing line only one night, and that was to have a sleep on the beach. Our company was sapping, building roads, trenching, and digging all the time, night and day. For the first three nights we got absolutely no sleep whatever. We were either digging or else standing to arms. Poor chaps were being shot down all around us. We lost a terrible lot of our chaps, and the sights we witnessed were awful.
I had a lot of awfully narrow escapes. One bullet went through the sleeve of my coat, but never touched the skin. A piece of shrapnel hit me on the knee, and made me limp for a few days. I was feeling quite right up to Tuesday, when I felt a bit of a cold coming on me. I worked up till 3 o’clock on Wednesday morning in the trench, when I lay down to have a nap till dawn. When I went to get up, I found that I could not hold my head up, and the pains in my chest, legs, and back were terrible. So the major sent me down to see the doctor in the afternoon, and he told me to go along to the 4th Field Ambulance, and sleep there for the night. Next morning Dr. Beeston ordered me off to the hospital ship for a few days. On that ship everything was up-to-date, and I was given a bunk in a first-class cabin.”
On his return after a period of convalescing he returned to his trade as a Cooper and in 1918 he married Vera Isabel Elliot in Newcastle. Together they had a son Gordon William Sutherland born in 1919 and they had settled in Hamilton, Newcastle.
By this time his brother Neil had also returned home safely.
The years had passed and in 1962 sadly William’s wife Vera passed away.
In 1967 William made application for his Anzac commemorative medallion and lapel badge. He was still living in Hamilton at 182 Lawson st , in a small workers cottage which still stands today.
William was thorough, his letter clearly showing his penmanship and his ordered summary of his service. Most importantly his letter was once again proof of the 1st Field Co. Engineers of New South Wales being among the first landing party ashore.
“Was a member of the first landing part to go ashore on Gallipoli Peninsula on the morning of the 25th April 1915” – Sapper W.A Sutherland
In 1972 William was still quietly living at 182 Lawson st, Hamilton, he would have had no idea that his letter to his father published in 1915 would see the light of day once again, and republished one hundred years later. His very own testimony to the 1st Field Company Engineers and their historic involvement in the First World War.
William later died on 29th December 1980 , he was 87 years old.
Story ©VanceKelly 2016
Sources and References:
AWM, NLA, NAA
Full biography on brother Neil Robert Sullivan in the Harrower Collection which also includes a picture of William Alexander Sullivan as a youngster.
Source – The Harrower Collection – http://harrowercollection.com/index.html