A Life Less Ordinary
By Greg Growden

(The Sydney Morning Herald, June 23, 2001)


Tom Richards hit the beach running on the morning of April 25, 1915. As a member of the 1st Field Ambulance, 1st Australian Division, it was his job to follow the soldiers up the Gallipoli cliffs and bring back the wounded.

Before following the tribe, he turned, aimed his camera at those coming in behind him, those in front of him. He wanted a permanent record of this most extraordinary day. It was also the longest day of his life.

Within minutes of climbing the cliff and hiding behind a shrub he thought he was "done for". A Turk, only 30m away, put him in his rifle sights and blasted away. The shrub exploded, leaves and twigs going everywhere. The Turk was about to take a second aim when someone, somewhere, shot him.

That night, Richards buried himself away in a dugout on the cliff-face, found a candle and, stimulated by what he had seen and felt, wrote into the early hours, explaining what had gone on around him. Even a man who had seen so much in an already astonishing life struggled to comprehend how the world had suddenly turned upon itself and, it seemed, gone completely mad.

"Twenty minutes [after landing] with stretchers we were climbing the steep, rough hills looking for wounded, but it was about 1 pm when I got my first case, and from then until 6 pm I had fully 20 dressings to do.

"The wounded were in splendid spirits and told me that in landing this day the Turks were right down on the beach but were soon driven back over the terrible ridges for a distance of two miles, but alas, our fellows got knocked about badly before this.

"Seeing that the Turks had been pushed back and three guns taken, it was surprising to me to find only a few dead and wounded Turks, while our officers and men were knocked about.

"In a fairly well-sheltered valley I waited for an hour within a short distance of the attacking party. The word was continually being sent back that help was badly needed on the left flank.

"A whole battalion of men were sent in, but it was too late. The Turks had brought about a successful counter-attack and driven our men back, chiefly by the use of machine guns and shells. Showers of these shell bullets were falling all around our positions and it fairly made us shake.

"Machine guns were being pushed forward by the New Zealanders. They only just passed our little party when a captain got a bullet through his calf, and a lieutenant got a shattered forearm. Both came under my treatment.

"A fellow came along and asked me to go and fix up his pal, whose foot was shot. Watts and I went only 100 yards along the valley. The bush was too thick and the water-worn track so rough that we discarded the stretcher and proceeded on all fours up to the firing trenches upon which our fellows had been driven back.

"Here was a poor fellow with his heel and sole of his foot blown away, and although in great pain he was what might be considered cheerful. I cut his boot off and dressed the foot.

"The trouble was to get him away with rifle fire pinging overhead and through the bushes within a foot of us.

"This safely done, the way out was awful, but my patient skipped down the steep side on his hands and seat, while I went forward holding the limb. In the bottom of the gorge I got him onto my back and made good progress, but as the foot started to bleed heavily I had to put a ligature onto the artery at the thigh.

"Two hours had passed before we got back to the boats taking wounded aboard the transports, and he bore up wonderfully well throughout.

"In his belt was a large sum of money, which he said amounted to 100 pounds. When we got back I was pretty well finished. It was a hard job for me, but truly terrible for the patient.

"When he was waiting he got out a sovereign and made me take it. It was a remarkable day right enough and a day in which it was easy to pick out the wasters, also the brave men. I am delighted with our Australian troops; the way they take the gruel is splendid.

"At times there was a shortage of ammunition, and reinforcements were badly wanted, but seeing they had landed everything under shell fire I should say they did very well.

"The Turks seemed to do most damage with their shrapnel shells, not so much damage perhaps as fright, as really they are uncanny damned things. Our warships kept up a steady fire throughout the day but I fear they were missing their marks badly.

"It was heart-rendering to hear the plaintiff, and the only-too-ominous call of 'more ammunition wanted on the left'.

"What a doleful story these words really unfold. Also, the call for reinforcements that came back from mouth to mouth to dire troubles that were being experienced on the other side of the hill.

"'Reinforcements hung up on the right!' What a significant sentence, especially when uttered by the parched lips of a wounded man. Reinforcements were hurrying forward, sweating and panting, loaded with their equipment and a box of ammunition between two."

Richards could write no more. The candle was about to go out. It had started to rain. He was exhausted and knew he had to be up at first light for another day of searching for casualties and bodies in the crevices of this living hell. He also had to keep his head down so he did not become another statistic.

On April 25, 1915, the first of 8,141 Australians, including several Wallabies, were killed in the Dardanelles campaign. But Tom "Rusty" Richards, the great survivor, lasted that day, and more. In a letter to Harold Austin, the Manly rugby club secretary, Richards said football was "a splendid break in the irksome routine of military life, which dulls one's wits and brings on a state of general carelessness".

Richards wrote that most of the football matches in Egypt before the soldiers travelled to Gallipoli were played under the shadows of the Pyramids - "games that meant as much to the players and the keen followers as ever did an international game on the Sydney Cricket Ground". [Note: This is a scene in the movie "Gallipoli." - Wes]

The playing area was marked out in the Nile Valley, with the ground crusted with "sun-baked mud that rashed and cut all unwary players, or several inches deep in heavy, black mud", depending on the rise and fall of the Nile.

Some games, according to his close mate George Hill, were played on "beautiful flat grassland" and involved numerous Sydney and NSW Country representative players.

The star performer still was Richards. "Games were fought out with the vim and earnestness of a rival inter-town match," he wrote. "Whether the surface was soft or hard, what mattered it as long as the prestige of the company or battalion was worthily upheld?

"Playing on the Delta country, with the mighty monument of Cheops towering to a height of nearly 560 feet [170m] above our playing level, stirred everyone with a feeling of awe.

"It was certainly a venerable spot to play on.

"On one end the old fortifications, high monumental tombs, and a mosque that stands out strongly in its architectural grandeur, with the finest of the splendid mosques built in many lands by Mohammedan worshippers, could be easily seen and appreciated from a spectacular standpoint.

"There was an atmosphere so full of Eastern mesmerism - the mystic veil of the East - that all young Australians conjured up wild imaginations of and played their manly game with the same vigour and dash as if they were in an amphitheatre, where any lack of determination meant 'thumbs down' which, in turn, meant death to the losers."

The highlight was the NSW-Queensland match, which was played under league rules.

"I would have been playing but for my gravel-rashed knee, which is very slow at healing," Richards wrote. "I don't like the league game though. It's altogether too continuous, like a hurried-through film at the picture show.

"The union game gives more scope for thinking and seeing ahead of movements, and also a chance to see them succeed or fail according to the understanding and ability of the players.

"Yes, the more I see of league brand the more I find in and think of rugby union. There was a time when I did give some little thought to playing league for the money there seemed to be in it, but I am now very thankful that I did not do so, as professional sport has not the same honour and enthusiastic achievement. It does not carry the 'hallmark' on it."

Richards's anti-league view was not improved by a visit to a nearby camp to see the Member of Parliament, Ted Larkin, who before the war had been the NSW Rugby League's first full-time official. His reign as secretary followed a short rugby career in which he played one Test against New Zealand.

Richards described Larkin in his diary as "a peculiar type of person to be a Member of Parliament".

"His tales circled round can-can and the lewdness of Cairo in a lightly jocular manner. I can't see how the Australian Government is going to be strengthened or even run on honest lines when this type of man can secure recognition and a seat in the House."

The Government never found out, as Larkin was killed at the Gallipoli landing.

Gold, Mud 'N' Guts ... The incredible Tom Richards, footballer, war hero, Olympian by Greg Growden, ABC Books