'To make you happy would have been my sole ambition'
On the 24th of April 1915, Private Thomas Anderson Whyte wrote a letter he hoped would never be sent.
Writing aboard a transport ship just hours before the Gallipoli landings, the 29-year-old penned a heart-felt letter to his fiancée, Eileen Wallace Champion, to be sent in the event of his death.
“My Dear Sweetheart,” he wrote.
“I thought of writing this in case I went under suddenly. Not that at present I have any thought of not seeing you again, but in case of accidents.
“You will know that my thoughts will have been of you right until the end. Of this I feel absolutely certain.
“You can’t imagine how it hurts to write this letter. The one thing I can’t bear to think of is the possibility of not being able to see you, to marry you, to live the happiest of lives with you...
“But the thought that hurts worst of all is of you and your sorrow …
“Darling, I want you to grieve as little as possible. Just think of me as non-existent in spirit, blotted out completely.
“It would soften the last thoughts if I knew you would be really happy again… I want you to marry when the opportunity arises. If it is not to be me, may it be to someone much worthier …
“I have endeavoured to make you as happy as I could … and to make you happy would have been my sole ambition.
“Goodbye my love, may you get all the happiness you deserve, that will be my last wish.”
Whyte was shot the following morning as he rowed ashore during the first wave of the Gallipoli landings. Eileen cherished the letter for the rest of her life and it was donated to the Australian War Memorial by her children almost 100 years after it was written.
Historian Dr Meleah Hampton said Whyte’s letters provided a powerful insight into the thoughts and feelings of those who landed on Gallipoli more than a century ago.
“Through these letters we learn the story of Tom Whyte and his fiancée, Eileen Wallace Champion, but it is also the story of so many young men and women who suffered the loss of life and love during the First World War,” she said.
Thomas Anderson Whyte was born in Unley, South Australia, and educated at St. Peter’s College in Adelaide. He developed a passion for rowing and lacrosse, and was known as “a good sport and kind-hearted man”. He played lacrosse for South Australia between 1908 and 1912, but it was as a rower that he was best known. A popular member of the Mercantile and Adelaide Rowing Clubs, he represented South Australia at interstate competitions and was described as “one of the best oarsmen South Australia ever produced”.
Whyte enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 19 August 1914, with a group of mates from the Adelaide Rowing Club. They went on to serve in the 10th Battalion, one of the first infantry units raised for the war.
Whyte left Australia in October, corresponding at length with Eileen about the voyage to Egypt and his training at Mena Camp. He described the exotic and unfamiliar landscapes he experienced, the ancient treasures in the Museum of Antiquities, the local curio shops, and the sporting matches he competed in with his mates. He recorded copies of the letters in his notebook; tucked between the pages was a photograph of Eileen, which Whyte would prop up to look upon as he wrote.
The 10th Battalion was among the first Australian units to land on Gallipoli in the early hours of the 25th of April 1915. Whyte’s friend Arthur Blackburn, who would receive the Victoria Cross the following year, wrote about Whyte’s fate that day.
“The men off the transports had partly to be towed, and partly to be rowed ashore amidst a hail of shrapnel and bullets that was simply indescribable," he wrote.
"The most dangerous position of the lot was that of the men who were rowing, as they could take no shelter. They could not even crouch down in the boat, but were compelled to sit up and row. The dangers of such a task were so apparent that officers hesitated to order men to expose themselves to the work of rowing. Tom immediately grasped the situation, and, as everyone knew he would, volunteered his services as a rower.
“As the boat crept in towards the shore the fire became hotter and hotter. The men towing had a terrible time, but they stuck to it in a way which was absolutely magnificent. Just as the boat touched the shore Tom slipped over on to the bottom of the boat, and it was then discovered that he was badly hit.”
Thomas Whyte died that evening aboard the hospital ship Gascon. Sitting beside him was Sister Katherine Porter. Sister Porter, or “Kitty”, as she was known, was also engaged to be married. She felt something of the heartache his death would cause and wrote to Eileen to offer what comfort she could.
“I remember Private Tom Whyte very well,” she wrote. “The poor man came on the Gascon during the morning. He had an abdominal wound and was taken to the operation room almost at once and everything possible was done for him … Late that night I went to the poor man and stayed with him til he died. Really I don’t think he suffered very much pain but was glad to have some woman there. He died between 12am and 1am … the only thing he was worried over was some package being delivered to his friend … I feel certain that there must have been some message for you in it … He was a brave man and died as a man ought … knowing that he was engaged made me stay on duty a little longer to be what comfort I could to him. It was a terrible day for us all and I saw so much that was awful that day …”
Blackburn learnt of his friend’s death four days later. “The poor fellow was killed before he had fired a single shot, but there is no doubt that it was largely due to the courage and endurance of Tom and his fellow-rowers in all the boats that everyone was landed with the minimum of loss,” he wrote. “No one was more cheerful than he. He was joking and laughing all the way to the shore, and our battalion has lost one of its best soldiers.”
Whyte was buried at sea between Gallipoli and Alexandria. His final letter to Eileen was packed with his belongings and sent home to Australia. Today, it is part of the Private Records Collection at the Memorial, a poignant reminder of the lives and loves lost during the First World War.
“His next of kin are notified that he’s been killed in action, but it’s not until 1916 that the actual manner of his death comes out,” Dr Hampton said.
‘A lot of men just disappeared that day and we never know quite what happened to them or how they died. His friend Arthur Blackburn wrote a letter which was published quite widely in the newspapers in 1916 and that was the first anyone really knew of what had actually happened to Tom and how he died.
“He was in one of the lead boats going ashore, and it was absolutely still. There were no waves or anything, and men talk about only being able to hear the sound of the oars dipping in. Nobody was saying very much. They were wondering what it was going to be like, because nobody knew. They were part of the covering force, so they didn’t even have the imagination of having heard the guns kick off. They just know that it’s silent and that something is about to happen. It’s probably the most intense moment of their lives, because they know that what is about to happen is going to kill people and it might be them.
“As the war diaries say, they were rowing along quietly, when suddenly a shot rang out from the cliffs. The water around them starts getting peppered with bullets and the men duck down below the gunwales of the boat. Tom couldn’t duck down while he was rowing, so he just kept cracking jokes, saying ‘Don’t worry,’ and keeping everyone calm. He rowed ashore, and as they pulled up on the shingle he slumped over in the boat. The shot had come down from angle on the cliffs and gone through his pelvis. He’d somehow managed to get the boat ashore, but he never actually made it on to the beach as far as we know.
“His death must have been devastating for Eileen. His letters to her are deeply personal, and it’s something we don’t get to see very often, especially if they are not married.
“Because these letters were so personal, the women would often destroy them if they got married later, and if they didn’t marry, there was no one to pass them on to, so the fact that we have these letters, and they haven’t been lost, is really quite unusual.
“These men were contemplating their own mortality as they were preparing to go into battle. They knew they were at risk of dying the next day, and some of them wanted to face it and some of them didn’t.
“It’s a pretty universal experience to sit down and write someone a letter on the eve of going into battle, especially your first one. Sometimes it’s to reassure your mother that you’ll be okay, and sometimes it’s to make sure that you’ve said everything you need to say to someone.
“In Tom’s case, it was to write a long and intimate letter to the love of his life.”