Jubilant ending to one man’s epic Gallipoli war story

By Rick Feneley at Anzac Cove

You have to wonder what Frank Renehan would make of the “Aussie Aussie Aussie, Oi Oi Oi!” brigade.

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They’re here once again for April 25 at Anzac Cove, though their chant is mercifully more subdued this year. One year after the centenary of the doomed landing on the Gallipoli peninsular, there are perhaps 1000 Australians and New Zealanders assembled here – a sixth of the usual turnout, a tenth of the record crowd that came to Turkey last year for the Anzac Day dawn service to commemorate one of history’s most pointless military bloodbaths.

Francis Faey “Barney” Renehan, remarkably, was not among the 8709 Australians killed in the 240 appalling days that followed the doomed landing.

You only have to hear his story, and what became of the British flag he purloined in Egypt then smuggled to Gallipoli, to appreciate that “Oi Oi Oi!” – the well-intentioned but empty echo of banal sporting triumphalism – has no place on this fatal shore.

“Yes, it’s a bit cringe-making,” says Rehahan’s grandson, Eugene, who is here for his second Anzac Day, this time with his wife, Joanne, and their children, Samantha, 19, and Oliver, 12. 

Two days ago, the family walked on Anzac Cove, the tiny strip of pebbly beach where Frank came ashore on April 15, 1915. They discussed how lucky they were to be here, and how lucky that any of them were born.

Frank had signed up within two weeks of the declaration of war in August 1914. Among the first Australians to volunteer, he was given the number 396. He was already in his early 30s, older than most. Frank was assigned to the 6th Battalion AIF, D Company, and soon dispatched to Egypt.

There the Australians earned a reputation for foul-mouthed irreverence. They weren’t given to saluting a British officer who passed them in the street. And Frank was a lark. He accepted a challenge on Christmas Eve, 1914, to “souvenir” a British flag. It was their flag, too, after all. They were fighting for King and Country. The Australians were British for the purposes of the Great War.

But this particular flag, the Red Ensign, was suspended from the first-floor balcony of the British headquarters at Cairo’s Shepheard’s Hotel. Frank found a way past the guards, then crawled out on the seven-metre flagstaff to unclip the flag.

By now there were military police on the balcony. More were waiting on the street below to arrest him.

Drop, the Australians cried. Frank dropped, blended into the crowd and escaped with a sprained ankle – and the flag. Boarding his ship for Gallipoli, he wrapped it around his body to avoid a search of soldiers’ kit.

On April 25, Frank was in the second wave of Anzacs to go ashore. The first wave had made light work of it. That was because the Turks had made no plan to defend this cove. Why would they?

It seemed a preposterous place to launch an attack, steep hills and cliffs rising just 30 metres from the water’s edge. It has been long recorded that, in the dark, the Anzac ships drifted past the intended landing point and onto the inhospitable moonscape beneath the Sari Bair range, which would forevermore be known as Anzac Cove. And yet orders to invade precisely where they landed were issued four days earlier. 

The Turks mustered and were ready for this second wave of Anzacs.

On their ship, Frank and his unit played two-up as they awaited the order to climb down the Jacob’s ladder into the small boats. The family legend is that Frank won a fortune in that game – enough to buy a house.

“Maybe it was enough for a deposit,” says Eugene Renehan. “Either way, he never collected his winnings.”

Frank was the only man in his little boat to make it to shore alive.

“To me this is no valley of death – it is a valley brim full of life at its highest power. Men live through more in five minutes on that crest than they do in five years in Bendigo or Ballarat.”

The British corps commander, Aylmer Hunter-Weston, had warned before the invasion that “heavy losses by bullets, by shells, by mines and by drowning are to be expected”.

How right he was. Frank’s mates were shot, drowned or both. The Turks, perched above the beach, peppered them with bullets and shells.

Frank buried his kit bag in the sand. He didn’t realise it contained the first “Australian” flag to reach Gallipoli that day. He joined another company, climbed the cliffs and went into battle.

The battle plan for that first day had been for the Anzacs to advance six kilometres inland and capture Maltepe, a vantage point critical to the Dardanelles campaign. The British and French, likewise, were to push through to high ground.

From those vantage points they could take the true prize – the Narrows to the Sea of Marmara, so the Royal Navy could steam ahead to Constantinople (Istanbul) and establish a supply line all the way to its ally, Russia.

But they never did take those hills, not on the first day and not in the 250. By the end of day one, the besieged Anzacs could only dig into those hills above the cove.

By midnight, it looked so hopeless that the Commander of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, William Riddell Birdwood, pleaded to abandon the ANZAC position.

“The whole brave army may disappear during the night … at least we shall have lived, acted, dared.”

But the Australian submarine AE2 had penetrated the Narrows. The overall commander of the Dardanelles campaign, General Ian Hamilton, replied that Birdwood must appeal to his men to make a supreme effort: “Dig yourselves right in and stick it out.”

Hamilton’s postscript to Birdwood read: “You have got through the difficult business, now you have only to dig, dig, dig, until you are safe.”

So the Anzacs dug and dug and dug their trenches until they earned their title, the Diggers. But it did not make them safe, and the difficult business was only beginning. The rest of the campaign would be fought for gains and losses of hundreds of metres. They never did get the Narrows.

Hamilton, the poet general, had also written in his diary on that first night: “The whole brave army may disappear during the night … at least we shall have lived, acted, dared. We are half way through – we shall not look back.”

The losses continued, as expected.

Hamilton again: “There are poets and writers who see nought in war but carrion, filth, savagery and horror … They refuse war the credit of being the only exercise in devotion on the large scale existing in this world … Each one to his taste. To me this is no valley of death – it is a valley brim full of life at its highest power. Men live through more in five minutes on that crest than they do in five years in Bendigo or Ballarat.”

Frank Renehan was from Camberwell In Melbourne, not so far from Bendigo and Ballarat.

After 20 days in Turkey, Frank’s smuggled flag was put to tragic use – a burial. Later he would write the flag’s history in ink on its border, including: “Serviced as frill for the 1st casualty 15 May … 1915”.

In August that year, Frank would join the Anzac attack on Plateau 400. This Turkish position, 400 feet above sea level, is better known as Lone Pine. In three days of battle, 2217 Australians and about 4200 Turks died.

Once again, Frank was not among the dead. But he was wounded in the leg. It became septic. Two medicos debated the treatment: one wanted immediate amputation, the other to wait a day. Frank kept his leg. He was sent to the Greek hospital island of Lemnos. His kit – with his flag – was returned to Egypt.

And Frank would live to fight again. The Allies conceded the hopelessness of the campaign and retreated from Gallipoli in December and January.

Less than a year after he was shot, Frank was among troops moved to Pozieres, France. He was invalided in mid-1917 but was not discharged from the army until 1918. He was among the few original Anzacs to survive the entire Great War. Frank’s brother, Tom, went to Gallipoli and he survived too.

Frank returned to Australia and married Eileen Pitt.  They had seven children who gave them many grandchildren.

Frank’s youngest is Frank jnr. He has a girl and four boys. Eugene is his youngest, and he was among four of the siblings who joined their father at the Anzac Day dawn service in Gallipoli in 2009.

“And so here we are now,” Eugene told his son, Oliver, at Anzac Cove two days ago.

All of Frank Faey Renehan’s progeny count themselves lucky to be alive. And they share his heirloom, the flag.

A Captain J. Connell, at AIF Head Quarters in Egypt, found Frank’s flag during a search of the kit stores. He returned it to Melbourne.

Frank lived until May 16, 1970. He had a big flag pole built in the garden of his house at Camberwell. Each Anzac Day and Remembrance Day, he’d fly that stolen flag.

It is a jubilant ending to one man’s epic war story. It does neither Frank nor any of us justice to reduce it to “Aussie Aussie Aussie, Oi! Oi! Oi!”.