The SS River Clyde was and old coal-carrier used in the Gallipoli campaign in 1915, and Able Seaman Frederick Smith from Framlingham served on that ship. Fred “liberated” the bell from the Clyde, and the bell is now on display in the museum.
By 1915 the First Word War on the Western Front was bogged down in trench warfare. Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, set in motion a campaign to capture the Dardanelles, the narrow straits leading to Constantinople, the Black Sea and the Russian ports. This, he believed, would lead to the opening up of a fresh supply route to Russia as well as knocking Turkey, who were aligned with Germany, out of the war. It was to be a disastrous campaign which would haunt Churchill forever.
An Anglo-French naval campaign failed to knock out Turkish defences, and three battleships were sunk and three crippled, with the loss of nearly 700 men. In an effort to assist the naval breakthrough, troops were to be landed at several points along the Gallipoli peninsula. The majority would be rowed ashore in open boats, which risked exposing them to a storm of fire. However, Captain Edward Unwin of the gunboat HMS Hussar had another plan, which was initially dismissed but then rapidly gained approval. His idea was to convert SS Clyde, an old Glasgow-built coal carrier, to land around 2,000 troops on the main beach at the southern tip of the peninsula. They would leave through openings (sally-ports) cut in the sides of the ship, before reaching the beach via gangways and over a “bridge” of lighters which were to be towed into position.
Able Seaman Frederick Smith from Framlingham was serving on HMS Hussar and was one of s small crew selected by Unwin to beach the River Clyde on 25th April 1915. After an ineffective bombardment of the shore defences, the first troops charged through the sally-ports of the River Clyde to be met by sustained rifle and machine-gun fire. “They were literally slaughtered like rats in a trap.” Bodies piled up on the gangways and in the lighters that were to form the “bridge” to the beach. The attack was eventually halted and the remainder of the troops were not sent out until after dark.
Great acts of bravery were performed that morning, with four Victoria Crosses being awarded to crew members of the River Clyde, including Captain Unwin. He twice left his ship to secure lighters and to save many men who were injured and stranded on them, all the time being under rifle and machine-gun fire. The Turks, along with terrain and disease, proved to be a formidable foe. Advances were made over the following months, but it eventually became clear that the goals of the campaign could never be met. The Allies suffered over 250,000 casualties, of whom 58,000 died. Conversely, the evacuation of all forces at the end of the 1915 and early 1916 was an unprecedented success, much in the same way that Dunkirk would be in 1940.
Smith was one of the volunteer crew that beached the River Clyde with the soldiers on board. He was also at risk as the ship was under steady fire from the enemy, with several large artillery shells striking it. Some passed through the decks, many failed to explode but some did, causing death and mutilation. He sent information to the Framlingham Weekly News, where this report appeared in September 1915:
He was one of the volunteer crew that beached the River Clyde with the soldiers on board and says no one but the men who were there had any idea what it was like. ‘It was something awful for about 36 hours, during which time our troops gained the village of Sedd-el-Bahr. It was a glorious sight watching the four hours’ [less than one hour] bombardment by all our ships before our landing. Then and every day for five weeks we had a taste of Turkish shells from the Asiatic side — they shelled us continuously for five weeks, at the end of which we were relieved and sent back to our ships. We are at present engaged in hunting down enemy submarines.’
Fred liberated the bell, an iconic symbol of the Gallipoli campaign, before returning to HMS Hussar. It had been hit by shrapnel and lost its clapper. These scars are clearly visible. It was his prized possession and he refused substantial offers to buy it. He was a contemporary of Harold Lanman, founder of our museum to which he bequeathed it. Fred died in 1962.
He was one of four brothers who all enlisted in the Navy. See the main display panel for information on his brother Arthur.
For the full story see The Wooden Horse of Gallipoli by Stephen Snelling or see www.gallipoli-association.org.