‘It’s just hell here’

Image credit: Alfred Cameron's last 2 diary entries, 1914–1915. Ref: MSX-2853 Alexander Turnbull Library.

Colour photo of Alfred Edward Cameron's diary detailing his experiences in WW1. It shows the last entries written in pencil.

Canterbury farmworker Alfred Cameron was just 20 when he quickly signed up to fight in World War One. However, the Gallipoli campaign soon took its toll, which he revealed in his diary. Find out more, and explore our collections and curated resources.

Read a story about Alfred's experience of Gallipoli

Two double-page spreads from the First World War diary of Trumpeter Alfred Cameron (1894–1966) illustrate his journey from home and adventure into hell at Gallipoli. The diary begins optimistically enough. On 13 August 1914, in neat cursive writing in ink, the 20-year-old introduces his modest intent: ‘I write these lines hoping they will be interesting to those at home.’

Cameron, a Canterbury farmworker, had just enlisted (along with his horse Percy) with the Canterbury Mounted Rifles. On 20 August, 16 days after war was declared, he started training in a temporary military camp at Christchurch’s Addington Show Grounds.

By 3 December, the Canterbury Mounted Rifles were in Egypt at Zeitoun Camp, near Cairo. Here, Cameron’s diary records extensive battle practice, including military horsemanship training. In keeping with his military occupation as a trumpeter, he also notes: ‘Trumpet exam in afternoon played 20 calls on bugle and 20 on the trumpet passed for badge.’ However, there were also recreational trips into Cairo with his mate George Ilsley and a popular visit to the Pyramids of Giza, which New Zealand soldiers were known to sleep on top of overnight.

Cameron arrived at Gallipoli on 12 May 1915. On 24 May, he witnessed the ANZAC–Ottoman 24-hour armistice, during which both sides met in no man’s land to bury thousands of dead soldiers: ‘No shot has been fired all morning and quietness seems uncanny,’ he wrote.

From this date, Cameron’s diary entries increasingly appear in pencil and record his growing despair, poignantly and graphically captured in his last two diary entries from the front:

Anyday. It’s just hell here now no water or tucker only 7 out of 33 in no 1 troop on duty not either dead or wound. Dam the place no good writing any more.

My cobber George Ilsley dead. Killed August 7th. bullet through head. buried Taylors Hollow.

They were the last words Cameron scratched out before he himself was blown up and buried alive. Incredibly, he survived. A final short note in the diary records his twenty-first birthday, which he spent in the Port Said Government School Hospital.

When the Canterbury Mounted Rifles were relieved in September 1915, only 28 out of 677 men were still fit for service. The rest were either dead, wounded, sick or missing in action. Invalided back to New Zealand in 1915, Cameron eventually became a farmer near Fairlie.

Story written by: Dylan Owen

Copyright: Turnbull Endowment Trust

First pages of Alfred's diary

Image credit: First pages from Alfred Cameron's war diary, 1914–1915. Ref: MSX-2853 Alexander Turnbull Library.

Colour photo of Alfred Edward Cameron's diary detailing his experiences in WW1. It shows the first pages of his diary written in ink and dated 1914.

Find out more

Alfred Cameron’s war diary was donated to the Alexander Turnbull Library by his son, L. A. Cameron, in 1990. In 2012, artist Bob Kerr vividly portrayed its entries in his series of paintings ‘Hell Here Now’: The Gallipoli Diary of Alfred Cameron.

Explore the Alexander Turnbull Library collections further: Gallipoli.

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