Communication in the battlefield of Gallipoli in 1915 was, by today’s standards, rudimentary. Commanding officers and their troops needed a way to talk between the front lines and headquarters.
This was the job of Signallers, trained infantry that laid phone wires, operated lamp and flag signals, and read maps. Often they sped through the battlefield on their bikes repairing lines and raising flags under heavy gunfire.
Surviving Signaller, Private Ellis Luciano Silas had another skill. He was a talented artist. Upon his return from war, he documented the plight of the 16th Battalion at Gallipoli in his book, Crusading at Anzac A.C 1915, and through his paintings.
From London to Gallipoli, via W.A.
Silas was born in London in 1885 and migrated to Australia in 1907. He travelled the east coast before moving to Perth.
In 1914, Silas joined the 16th Battalion in Perth, Western Australia. He was patriotic but doubted himself and his physical ability. During his service with the Australian Imperial Forces, Silas kept a diary. Some entries gave vivid portrayals of war that leapt off the page, implanting vivid imagery in the reader’s mind, whilst others were merely time stamps of train trips.
His ANZAC journey began at Camp Blackboy Hill. During their training at the camp he continued to paint, fearing that the work may be his last piece. In fact, these thoughts kept him awake for the better part of five days. Silas very nearly gave up before embarking on the journey to Gallipoli with the rest of the troops.
As they gathered for their final assembly aboard the destroyer ship before disembarking for Gallipoli, he remarked, “Noise of the guns simply frightful. Colour of the sea beautiful.”
And, “It is raining lead.”
The job of a signaller was so imperative that should messages be relayed wrong, or too slow, lives were at stake. Before the landing, Silas was told that few Signallers last more than three days.
On his first night he had to relay messages all night while trying to dig a hold for himself and his pack. So heavy was his pack, he had thrown out his rations. By the following day nearly all the other signallers had been killed. He continued dispatching messages under sniper fire and dodging the dead.
Within two days of their landing, Silas was the only surviving signaller in A and B company.
Silas continued to race around the 16th Battalions advances and headquarters with messages for his wounded Captain while he himself began to suffer from fading eyesight. Surviving a rough spot under enemy fire known as “Dead Man’s Patch”, Silas tore his pants to race to the other side to deliver a message.
After four days he was finally relieved for a few hours from the firing line for rest.
Silas was mentioned for decoration for his efforts, though he did not think himself worthy. To him, he was just serving his duties. Other men, he thought, were doing truly courageous things.
Of the news, he wrote, “show a somewhat sneering world that artists are not quite failures on the battlefield”.
Not bad for someone who thought themselves incapable right up until his boots touched the sand of Gallipoli.
He never received formal decoration for his gallant efforts.
After several more days of non-stop dispatches, Silas collapsed in delirium with shell-shock. He was finally evacuated and was discharged the following year, in 1916, for being medically unfit. That same year he published his book detailing the experience.
He was one of only three artists with first-hand experience who recorded and painted Australia’s involvement in Gallipoli.
Ellis Luciano Silas returned to civilian life in London, before moving back to Australia, and eventually Trobriand Islands in New Guinea where he continued to paint and record his first-hand experiences. His artistic skill was also employed by newspapers and ocean liners.
He died in 1972 in London.
His forward thinking to document his experience, as well as the entertaining writing he did, allows us to grasp just what the ANZACs must have experienced at Gallipoli. The paintings of life and battles the troops faced, only help to build the image of how harrowing the fight was. The fact that he survived, along with his diary, is a miracle.
Silas’s diary and paintings, and his own efforts, offer a testament to the bravery and resilience that is core to the ANZAC spirit.