An Axe in the Tree – The story of a son about his father at Gallipoli

Late in 2014 I was pondering the year ahead. I’d applied for the DVA ballot for the 2015 centenary of the landing at Anzac Cove. I had applied on behalf of my daughter and myself. I saw my daughter as a true ‘daughter of ANZAC’, a father dedicated to the history of the conflict, a mother whose family had a long tradition in the Turkish armed forces, her grandfather a retired colonel, tank squadron commander. Both Australian and Turkish, surely a great example of the bonds of friendship that exist between our two countries. 

At this time I’d heard that Mat McLachlan Battlefield Tours would be staging their own private Dawn Service, and to my pleasant surprise, they would bring Eric Bogle to perform his classic anti-war anthems for the crowd. Instantly I thought this a great opportunity. I’d worked for a local agency 5 years earlier and we’d done some business for Mat’s company, so I dug out the old email address of the person I dealt with. I’d sent an email to her and to my surprise I was informed that Mat himself wanted to speak to me. Mat told me that of course, I was welcome to join their service at Dardanos Fort but would I do it on behalf of the company and take two of his groups in the process. I was shocked. They told me who else I would be working with and I was pretty gobsmacked. The world of Gallipoli authors from Australia and the UK and a few respected battlefield guides from the Western Front thrown in. I met up with Mat at the Hilton in Istanbul. The first thing I said to him was that I hoped I could be upto the task with such a celebrated group. He assured me that my experience in tourism and especially Gallipoli would carry me well. In the first group I met at the Hilton that day were a father and daughter. They had already come with a bit of media attention. They were Mack Rees and his daughter Cae. Mack had written a short story of his ‘Father’s War’ for his local newspaper. The story had been picked up and published. So they were on my first tour group. There were also some media outlets covering the centenary that were hoping to catch up with Mack. 

Tears fell like monsoonal rain from Mack as he described his father’s story.

Mack’s father was christened Nugent William Crauford Rees. At the outbreak of war he was working his parcel of land in Outback Queensland. He had emigrated with his family earlier in his life and had some military training back in England, he came to Australia in 1907. His property was pretty wild. When war was announced he rode into Brisbane to enlist. He was Service Number 166 and joined the 2nd Light Horse regiment of the 1st Light Horse Brigade. He had time to go back to Wondai to get his affairs in order before shipping out. He rode around the surrounding properties and encouraged many of his mates to ‘sign up’.

My father was christened Nugent William Craufurd Rees, son of an Anglican Vicar in the farming community of Pen-y-Clawdd, in southern Wales. After attending Monmouth Grammar School he spent some time as an estate agent at Pen-y-Clawwd and then as a clerk for a gas company in Newport. He spent 2 years military training with the Royal Gloucester Hussars. This was a mounted force on horses. He migrated to Australia around 1907.

When war broke out in August 1914, he was quick to travel to Brisbane to enlist at the Enoggera Army barracks. Because of his training with horses he became No 116 of the 2nd Light Horse Regiment of the 1st Brigade.

He enlisted on 24th August 1914 along with a number of others from Wondai/Proston.

I understand he went back to his property to tidy up his affairs and to encourage others to enlist. A total of 27 enlisted from this district. ………Fewer than 10 returned. This obviously haunted Nugent William Craufurd Rees until his death in 1959.

 The Light Horse left Brisbane from Pinkenba on 24th September 1914, on the ship “Omrah”. They travelled south to Melbourne where they spent some weeks in camp training, while a convoy was being organized. This convoy included ships from New Zealand. I remember him saying that while in Melbourne they were being trained in drill etc but with insufficient rifles, many used broomsticks for drill practice, “sloping arms etc.”

Mack’s story…… 

The convoy eventually left Australia from Albany WA on 1st November 1914. “Omrah”was the HQ ship. I remember my father saying that whilst in the Indian Ocean near Cocos Island they could see the smoke over the horizon where the “Sydney” was in battle and eventua

lly sank the German raider the “Emden”. This was a great prize for the Australian Navy. The “Emden” had already sunk or captured more than 20 merchant ships, mostly colliers. During the battle the “Sydney” had suffered only minor damage with 16 casualties while the “Emden” had 132 survivors with hundreds lost when it sank. 34 survivors were taken prisoners of war on the “Omrah” and taken to the Middle East. 

As well as horses and Light Horsemen the “Omrah” carried army nurses. The nurses had their first encounters with war wounded when the German sailors needed shell shrapnel removed from wounds. Great training for those nurses who would be based on Lemnos in the Australian General Hospitals (AGH)

 The Australian troops expected that they were to go to a base camp in England to assist British troops on the Western Front in France. However Harry Chauvel who was at this time a regular soldier and in charge of the Australian Light Horse, had them go to Egypt, the climate being more suitable for the Australians.

 In 1914/15 Russia was an ally and the British and French navies had been defeated by the Turks when they attempted to gain control of the Strait of the Dardanelles on March 18th 1915, so that supplies could be shifted to Russia via the south. After the naval defeats Winston Churchill persuaded the Entente to send in land armies of British and French troops to take control of these straits -hence the Gallipoli campaign.

Troops commenced landing at dawn on the 25th April 1915. My father’s 2nd Light Horse Regiment landed at Anzac Cove on 12th May 1915.

 When the Australians pulled out of Gallipoli in December 1915 many of the Light Horsemen went to fight in the Middle East. Many however, including my father, went to France to fight in places like the Somme.  Horse drawn wagons were the main form of transport and my father was probably largely involved as a Driver. My father spoke little of action during the war.  I did hear of the smoke seen over the horizon when the “Sydney” sank the “Emden” in the Indian Ocean; the riots in Cairo, ‘TheBattle of the Wazza, where a British officer pulled out his revolver and shot an Australian soldier who attempted to cut the fire hoses of the local fire brigade trying to put out a fire at a house of ill repute. The Pyramids; the leaving of Gallipoli; and when in France of the rum issues which he used on his feet to prevent trench feet; the lice; mud and shell holes. With all this I never heard where he had been involved in serious action.

He died in 1959 and it is only since then that I have learnt so much more.

 All the family knew that his occasional screaming nightmares and rare quite explosive

temper were related to his war experiences. Many years after his death when discussing this with my mother she said that he had to bayonet a German in the stomach and in his dream the German was coming back to get him. A local schoolteacher also said that it was rumoured that he had killed a German with a shovel. Recently a builder friend whose grandfather fought on the Western Front was told that the Australians did sharpen shovels and use them as weapons. They were much easier to wield in the trenches than a bayonet.

 My mother said however, the thing that seemed to affect him most was the witnessing of the death of his CO on Gallipoli, Major Tom Logan. She said they could not get him off the barbed wire. This was a vital piece of evidence that would pinpoint one of the actions in which he was involved. Oddly enough when Tom Logan was killed he had a number of children back home and one aged about 7, Beatrice (Trix) later married Charles (Bon) Whitehouse. Bon Whitehouse was my wife Gilruth’s uncle. Their son Peter Whitehouse, grandson of Tom Logan was able to provide more information.

 I discovered that Major Logan was killed on 7th August 1915. This was the date of the massacre at The Nek – shown in film and also Lone Pine. Was my father there?

 At the time the British were landing reinforcements at Suvla Bay, a good distance north of Anzac Cove while serious action was being taken on many fronts to keep the Turks busy while these reinforcements came ashore. When I told Peter that his grandfather had been my father’s Major, he informed me that Tom Logan had been killed at Quinn’s Post. This must have been the action in which my father had been involved.

In his wanderings back in Queensland he encountered many mothers who were distressed that he had encouraged so many of the locals to enlist and yet very few returned. they often took it out on him for his efforts to get his mates to enlist. In war everybody is a victim I guess.

BACK TO 2015…

I met Mack and his daughter Cae and they told me their story. We spoke for ages about Gallipoli, the Light Horse and Mack’s father.The hair on my neck stood on end as Mack told me what his father had endured. I’d met a few sons of Gallipoli veterans but none struck me the way this story did. It was like talking to the veterans themselves, a tangible link with our historic past.

Over the next few days leading upto the Centenary Dawn Service, this group were all ballot winners and would watch the sunrise over Anzac Cove. Along the way Mack and Cae were interviewed by media and indeed by Mat McLachlan himself.

Mack’s story of Nugent William Rees and their pilgrimage back to this battleground has had a life changing impact on my work at Gallipoli. To this day I’m in contact with them both and am happy to call them friends.

The image of his AXE IN THE TREE still haunts me to this day.




  1. Leslie Bryant


    Incredible story Craig .the Mat McLaughlin Dawn Service must have been great experience for you.

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