Voices from the Past

Bugler George Bissett

The battle scarred bugle of George Bissett

The ‘battle scarred’ bugle and medal group of the young George Bissett who was killed during the early fighting at Gallipoli are among 20 special stories of ordinary New Zealanders in extraordinary circumstances currently on display in the museum’s latest exhibition “Gallipoli: Ripping Yarns from the Peninsula“.

Bissett was only 20 years old when he landed at ANZAC Cove on the evening of April 25 1915 with the Wellington Infantry Battalion under the command of Lieutenant Colonel William Malone.

As a Bugler, he was responsible for rousing the troops with reveille, last post, food calls and so on. In battle, he would also be required to convey command signals via the bugle, meaning buglers were often the target of snipes as this would cut off lines of communication. As World War One progressed, this function of the Bugler would cease as calls could not be heard over the noise of battle.

Bissett hailed from Taranaki and did not spend long at Gallipoli. The morning of 27 April dawned warm and bright. More artillery was brought ashore and a makeshift camp was being established on the beach. The boys of the Wellington Battalion had a good breakfast and moved forward towards Walker’s Ridge. They moved in single file, the 7th Wellington West Coast boys were followed by 9th Hawkes Bay, 11th Taranaki and 17th Ruahine Companies, in that order. At the foot of the ridge, now under shrapnel fire, they split up.

The 7th and 9th Companies began the climb up the ridge, and very soon they were rushed into the firing line. The Wellington West Coast Company ended up at Russell’s Top on the right flank, the Hawkes Bay lads to their left at the Nek. These tow companies would see the fiercest fighting on that day.

George Bissett (NAM 2014-1871)

Relieving the exhausted Australians (who had been fighting for two days) the men crammed into quickly dug trenches and soon faced continual Turkish attacks. These were repelled by volleys of rifle and machine gun fire, with the Turks falling only metres from the line. Just after 3.00pm, an order was given to bayonet charge. The men on the right flank (including George) had to run down a slope into the head of Monash Gully, an area that was well covered by Turkish riflemen and machine gunners. The results were disastrous; the Wellington machine-gunners were hit by snipers, with several, including Lieutenant Edmund Wilson, killed.

The battle raged throughout the day with several accounts of extreme bravery, none more so than Captain Jesse Wallingford of the Auckland Infantry Battalion who almost single-handedly repelled numerous Turkish charges, first with a machine gun and then a rifle when his ammunition ran out. He was awarded a Military Cross (MC) for his actions that day.

For young George, he was one of the 25 Wellington Infantry boys who were killed. It is unknown at what stage of the battle he was killed but more than likely during one of the charges that happened throughout the day.

On 4 May, Lieutenant Colonel William Malone, Commander of the Wellingtons went on one of his reconnaissance’s possibly looking for Lieutenant Wilson’s body. He wrote:

“I went on a little scout by myself, on our left. I took a rifle and slithered into the scrub. Found several dead Turks about, poor devils – been there since 25 April. Not pleasant to look at…..Unfortunately we can’t bury lots of our men, poor chaps. We can see them here and there, but it is almost certain death to go out to them. There are two I would specially like to bury. Lieutenant Wilson and a bugler lad – Bissett from Hawera. He lies with his bugle on his back face downwards, shot in his tracks.”

Malone got his opportunity to bury both Lieutenant Wilson and George on 24 May 1915 which was designated ‘Armistice Day’.

Major Bill Cunningham, commander of the 7th Wellington West Coast Company wrote (in a somewhat matter-of-fact way) to George’s father the day after Armistice (25 May) stating “Before you receive this note you will have heard officially of the death of your son, Bugler G.F. Bissett, of the 7th Wellington West Coast Regiment. He was killed in the fighting in which our regiment took part on April 27 last. He was in the firing line beside Lieutenant Cross when he was shot in the head, being killed instantly. He was a very willing, well-behaved lad, very popular with his platoon No. 3, composed largely of Fielding boys, and his death caused very general regret. A good many of our brave lads fell the same day, and though it was their first time under fire, they all behaved with the greatest gallantry and coolness. We recovered your son’s bugle which he was wearing at the time of his death. It has several bullet holes in it. His body was buried during an armistice……In conclusion, permit me to convey to you from the officers, n.c.o.’s and men of this company our sincere and heartfelt sympathy with you and your family in their sad loss.”

He also suggested the bugle should be kept by the regiment as a ‘trophy’ which didn’t go down well with the family who received the bugle in 1916 and kept it in the family. It was placed in the corner window of Mr I. John Cobbe’s shop in Fielding for a short while as a memorial ‘piece’.

For Bugler George Bissett, he is commemorated on the Lone Pine Memorial, Lone Pine Cemetery, Gallipoli (Panel 75). He is also commemorated on the Fielding and Hawera Memorials as well as the Normanby School Roll of Honour.