Audacity, Ingenuity and Engineering

Courage, in all its guises, is documented historically, but continues to be shown by people all over the world today. Various careers demand it daily, others less regularly, but it can also be seen in the seemingly mundane. Someone caring for a sick relative, for instance, may find it takes courage merely to get out of bed in the morning to begin a new day with the rigour and relentlessness it requires. Some incredible individuals display it when they are faced with a circumstance which demands immediate action – often instinctively. A brave man recently tackled a 3 meter shark in the waters off the west coast of Australia. As part of a diving group when the attack took place, he came to the diving instructor’s aid by holding onto the shark’s tail until it released her. He then brought the badly bitten woman to the surface and the safety of the boat before she sank to the ocean floor – he saved her life. (Just google ‘man saves woman from shark attack’ and the story should pop up).

Anzac Day is almost upon us hence this foray into the world of valour. Before looking more closely at an individual whose actions were certainly brave, and undertaken amid gruelling circumstances, a quick explanation for the Anzac Day public holiday, observed on the 25th April, is required. It is a national day of remembrance in Australia and New Zealand, to honour the members of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) who fought at Gallipoli in the Ottoman Empire during World War I. Now, however, it more broadly commemorates all those who served and died in military operations for their countries. Anzac Day is also observed in the Cook Islands, Niue, Pitcairn, and Tonga, but is no longer observed as a national holiday in Papua New Guinea or Samoa.

The fearless young man I referred to earlier was a New Zealander, born in 1892. Cyril Bassett joined their Voluntary Force in 1909, but when WWI began he was initially rejected from the New Zealand Military Forces when he tried to enlist because of his small stature! He was, however, accepted by the New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF) as a sapper in the New Zealand Divisional Signal Company. A sapper is often referred to as a pioneer or combat engineer – they perform a variety of military engineering duties, devoting themselves to tasks which involve facilitating the movement of their forces and impeding that of their enemies.

On 25 April 1915, the opening day of the Gallipoli Campaign, Bassett, along with the other signalers of his unit, were set to work laying communication lines. Telephones, rather than radios were used extensively in WW1 as they allowed armies (often spread over great distances) to coordinate unit activity. Radio sets back then presented a range of challenges. They were not only cumbersome, but also heavy, expensive, in short supply and easily effected by weather. Furthermore, they were limited to sending telegraph codes (to avoid enemy interception) rather than voice communication. As a result they were reserved for emergency use. As an alternative the telephone was particularly valuable, but laying the wires on the ground was a major weakness and kept the signalmen busy. The lines were prone to damage as a result of the invariable and intense artillery fire.

Other forms of communication in war included the messenger service which became highly developed and included carrier pigeons, dogs, bikes and motorcycles. Visual signalling (using such devices as signal lamps, flares and rockets), was also effective for communicating prearranged messages. But the telephone was the fastest and on each battle field intricate systems of lines quickly emerged, involving thousands of miles of wire, with the main arteries running from the rear to the forward trenches.

By early May, less than a month after the Gallipoli Campaign began, Bassett’s courage under fire was noted in consideration for a gallantry medal. In August, later in the campaign and once he had been promoted to corporal, the New Zealand Infantry Brigade attacked Chunuk Bair, a prominent hill overlooking the battle field. This battle lasted for three days, during which Bassett, in command of a section of five other signalers, laid down and maintained telephone lines between the brigade's headquarters and the front lines.

One historian commented that “in broad daylight and under continuous heavy fire they dashed and crept, then dashed and crept again up to the forward line…..the lines were cut again and again, but Bassett and his fellow linesmen went out day and night to mend them”.

He worked with little sleep, suffering from the onset of dysentery and braved continuous gunfire. He was not wounded, but bullets passed so closely that his tunic was twice pierced. His comment was modest, “It was just that I was so short the bullets passed over me”. A few days after the battle, Bassett was evacuated from Gallipoli due to his poor health. He eventually rejoined his unit, who were by then on the Western Front in France as part of the New Zealand Division in June 1916. He participated in the Battle of the Somme the following September. A year later he was commissioned as a second lieutenant. He was wounded twice during his time in France.

For his courage during the Battle at Chunuk Bair he was nominated for the Victoria Cross. The citation for Bassett's Victoria Cross read as follows:
No. 4/515 Corporal Cyril Royston Guyton Bassett, New Zealand Divisional Signal Company. For most conspicious bravery and devotion to duty on the Chunuk Bair ridge in the Gallipoli Peninsula on 7th August, 1915. After the New Zealand Infantry Brigade had attacked and established itself on the ridge, Corporal Bassett, in full daylight and under a continuous and heavy fire, succeeded in laying a telephone line from the old position to the new one on Chunuk Bair. He has subsequently been brought to notice for further excellent and most gallant work connected with the repair of telephone lines by day and night under heavy fire.
—The London Gazette, No. 29238, 15 October 1915

Bassett was presented with his VC whilst recovering in England after the Battle at Chanuk Bair. His dismissive words again reveal his modesty, but also the deep trauma that would accompany years of extremity, where valour is called for daily, over an extensive period of time:

“All my mates got were wooden crosses”