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Saturday, 24 May 2008
The legend of the female sniper at Gallipoli
Topic: Gen - Legends

The Battle at Gallipoli

A Legend from Exaggeration

The Mysterious Woman Sniper at Gallipoli


Three armed women in a group of Turkish Partisans.


The legend

The legend of the female sniper at Gallipoli teases the psyche and so refuses to disappear, despite the elapse of over nine decades since its origin.

The iconography of the story is evident, as is the sub text. There is the motherhood of a woman, the symbol of the life giver and nurturer suddenly turning on this role and becoming the life taker. Men find this rather chilling since their first memory of life is in the embrace of their mother and thus the learnt response for survival is to trust the mother. This male embrace of the mother translates to females per se as a gender. Life experiences may alter some of the ideas but the attachment of a male to his mother still remains regardless of the passage of time.

It is into this fertile soil of masculine concepts of femininity which allows the growth of a such a powerful myth. The durability of the myth adds weight to its inherent psychological power. Tracking down the myth thus proves to be a relatively simple task. Dismissing the myth from the male psyche is  almost impossible indicating that it will endure regardless of the evidence.

However, regardless of this grim reality, in the following essay, the actual myth will be analysed through the sources to its origins with a possible explanation.


War neuroses and shell shock

The best place to begin is with the end product through the mind of a man driven insane by naval bombardment at Gallipoli. In the book by F.W. Mott, War neuroses and shell shock, (London, 1919) at pp. xv-xvi this cuirous story emerges:

""I left England the 8th of March and went to Gallipoli on the 26th May, and about the middle of August one of our monitors fired short. I felt something go in my head, then I went to the Canada hospital; they said it was concussion." ... His wife says that she has letters from him, in one of which he described how he killed a Turkish woman sniper. He does not remember writing this letter, but there is evidently some retrograde amnesia."


[Note: A full analysis of Great War battlefield trauma in general and the story of this man in particular was published in an article by Onno van der Hart, Annemieke van Dijke, Maarten van Son, and Kathy Steele called Somatoform Dissociation in Traumatized World War I Combat Soldiers: A Neglected Clinical Heritage.  The cases is examined in Case B, Dissociative deaf-muteness.  See: Trauma Information Pages.]

While no evidence is given as to where this particular soldier was located during the Peninsular Campaign, the internal evidence and dates seems to lead one to the conclusion that it was with the British Army at Suvla Bay, possibly the Chocolate Hill assault. However, this is a guess based upon the evidence, not a certainty. 

The issue here is raised by the wife of this soldier receiving letters from her husband in which he claims to have  "killed a Turkish woman sniper". It is this startling claim from a person who was at Gallipoli as the claim directly ties a man to an action. The only problem is that there is no body found. 

However, that does not mean that there are no references in the Diaries of a female sniper. There is a remarkable entry in the War Diary of the 1/4th Norfolks Battalion recorded on 15 August 1915:


lt was decided that our first line should be relieved by the Essex brigade. I, from my ridge, was to give covering fire.

The 1st Battalion Essex advanced well and lost few men. The other battalions, who had delayed, suffered more severely. All we could do was to keep down the fire of the snipers by shooting into the trees. Rumour has it that some of these snipers were tied to trees, with water and food within reach. Women snipers have been caught within our lines with their faces, arms, legs, and rides painted green.


The key word in this particular entry is "rumour".  There is no complementary entry in the 1st Essex Battalion's War Diary stating that they captured any women snipers - as the above entry is in the plural. Nor do any other diaries make claims at capturing copious numbers of women snipers.

Information provided by the man described by Mott to his wife regarding the killing of a "Turkish woman sniper" indicates that this was the delusions of a very ill man rather than a reality. The fact that the soldier could not remember writing or sending these letters tends to support this conclusion. While not suggesting that this soldier did not suffer, for he clearly did, one thing he did not do was to kill a "Turkish woman sniper" as there is no evidence of such an action occurring through any of the documented sources.


The Australian Story

The Australian role in transmitting this legend is also strong. Here is an example taken from none other than the works of the Official Historian, CEW Bean and the Australian War Memorial. 


Pope's Hill, Gallipoli

[From: AWM G01767]


The description of the photograph reads:

Looking north up Pope's Reserve Gully (Hill) from the old casualty clearing station, 150 yards above the supply depot. The lowest point on the skyline was held by Turkish soldiers. The high corner on the right is the extreme left corner of Pope's Hill. The high ground on the left is Walker's Ridge. A small pine tree on the left centre on the slope of Walker's Ridge is the tree which was pointed out to the new arrivals by the older hands as the place where the lady sniper was caught in the early days of the campaign. One of a series of photographs taken on the Gallipoli Peninsula under the direction of Captain C E W Bean of The Australian Historical Mission, during the months of February and March, 1919.


It must be pointed out that this is an iteration of a rumour, not a statement of fact by Bean or anyone else involved in the taking of the photograph or provision of the description.

The photograph and description point to an entry point for various Australian letter writers to detail the capture and killing of a "female Turkish sniper".  Stories and legends grew up about this very issue. In the book compiled and edited by C.E. Crutchley, Machine Gunner 1914 - 1918, (1975) there is a paragraph which reads:


"An Australian patrol caught a Turkish woman sniper who had the identity discs of several British soldiers hanging round her neck. They shot her, and that shocked me for I thought she was a brave person doing only what many British women would have done to invaders of our land. But I kept my mouth shut for I knew that in war everyone is effected by its lunacy."


Adding to the many Australian voices is the recently published letter by Professor Dr Mete Tuncoku, the current Director of the Atatürk and Battles of Çanakkale Research Center (AÇASAM), in whose book Çanakkale 1915: The Tip of the Iceberg a copy may be found. The letter purports to be from an Australian soldier, J.C. Davies. It reads:


A Turkish girl sharp shooter was fighting while waiting in an ambush on May 18, 1915. She sniped the whole day and killed many of our soldiers. I was still upset to see that she was shot dead before sunset by one of our soldiers.


Two aspects of this claim clearly stand out.

The first relates to the actual author of the letter, J.C. Davies. The possible candidates are:

15523 Sapper John Campbell DAVIES, 2nd Divisional Signal Company, 16th Reinforcement;

8062 Private John Charles DAVIES,  1 Australian General Hospital 1-6 Special Reinforcements and 2nd Australian General Hospital, Special Reinforcements; and,

5499 Driver Joseph Cecil DAVIES, 1st Field Artillery Brigade, 11th Reinforcement. 

An examination of the Service Files from these members of the AIF reveals that no such soldier by this name served at Gallipoli, let alone on the date mentioned in the letter, 18 May 1915. Unless the name on the letter is incorrect, then the letter cannot be attributed to J.C. Davies. 

Secondly, the War Diaries of AIF units serving at Gallipoli are totally mute on this story.

One thing that is certain is that many letter writers to home told some wild tales to their loved ones. The reasons were many fold. Much of it relates to the fact that war at Gallipoli was a weary, grinding, boring affair gutted of any great glamor. One could not write home that the trenches stank like an unkempt abatoir mixed with raw sewage. Or that the day was filled with drudgery such as guard duty, standing to, carrying water and rations or just sitting in funk holes anticipating the next shell. No glamour or derring do. So stories were invented to spice up the experience. So too was the legend of the female Turkish sniper. Deprived too long of female company, these men began to fantasize about meeting women. The only way they could have such contact on the Peninsular was if they were Turkish soldiers. So the solitary, sexually available sniper became the focus of the fantasy.

A multitude of letters were sent home to Australia by AIF soldiers serving at Gallipoli which described in detail the capture and death of the young female Turkish sniper at one location or another. The legend was as strong then amongst the soldiers as it is today.

To resolve the veracity of these claims, an examination of all the available War Diaries of the units who were stationed at Gallipoli during the campaign of 1915 is the best method of resolving the issue. The Australian War Memorial has produced a full collection of these diaries and made them available online. So the process is more of reading the diaries rather than of access. Anyone and everyone with access to a computer is able to examine the claims for themselves. The Great War Diaries may be accessed at this address:

Australian Army War Diaries - First World War

For those willing to accept the word of the author of this article, an examination of these diaries reveals that there is no mention of any female sniper being captured by any unit at any time during the whole campaign. There is not even a hint. Many notations are made about the scourge of the snipers surrounding the trenches but no mention of any female.

Even the New Zealanders get in on the act

One of the most bizarre claim is found in the book edited by Walter Wood called In the Line of Battle - Soldiers' Stories of the War. At page 60 is the following story told by 9246 Private John Frank Gray, 5th (Service) Battalion, Wiltshire Regiment.


It was round Chocolate Hill that we made our queerest find of all — women snipers. There was a kind of blockhouse which had been a farmhouse, and it had a very fine well, which had some very fine water — a precious thing. There was a big run on the well, and a lot of fellows were shot by snipers who could not be traced, till a fellow in a Welsh regiment swore that he could see some one moving in some trees not very far away. A machine-gun was brought up, and fifty rounds or so were fired into the trees, which dropped some very rare fruit — four men Turks and one woman Turk, all snipers. When we went up we found that they were almost naked, and had their faces and hands and bodies and rifles painted green to match the trees. And there they roosted, like evil birds, potting at our chaps whenever they got the chance, which was pretty often. This was such a good haul that firing was directed on all the trees, and more snipers were brought down, including several women. Some of the women wore trousers, like the men, and some had a kind of full grey-coloured skirt. They were as thin as rats, and looked as if they had had nothing to eat for months. I think there were six or seven women snipers caught in the trees, and it is said that the Turks have women in the trenches; but I don't know if that is true. I saw one woman sniper who had been caught by the New Zealanders. I don't know what was done with her; but as the men came back they told us they had bagged her in a dug-out, where she had a machine-gun and a rifle, and that she seemed to have been doing a very good business in sniping.


An analysis of the 5th (Service) Battalion, Wiltshire Regiment, War Diary  of the period shows nothing. It provides a good description of snipers in this particular region. While stationed at Lala Baba, Gallipoli, on  Monday, 20 September 1915, the following entry was made:

Orders to take over lines of trenches from 53rd Division. We take over portions of lines of 1/7Cheshire Regt. (T.F) and 1/5 Welsh Regt. (T.F). Lines inspected of 18th September and dispositions decided upon. 40th - 39th Brigade in Firing line. 38th Bde in reserve at point 117 L 7-8. Trenches in moderate state of defence but extremely clean. Enemy trenches now between 300-400 yds distance but their snipers show great enterprise and approach & establish themselves within 12 or 15 yards of our sap heads.


In the War Diary of this Battalion written during their stay at Gallipoli, only three entries were made that referred specifically to snipers. They were on 20 September (above), 23 and 24 November 1915. Not one mention of a female sniper being captured either dead or alive.

So in regards to the official record of this battalion, the story has no recognition. However, this is one of the best stories yet within the female sniper of Gallipoli genre. This one has everything in it. Sex, naked trysts, nests of snipers and a lone naked woman armed with a rifle and machine gun secretly blasting away at the Enzeds, surreptitiously mowing them down with a specially adapted sniper machine gun.

Let's first deal with the machine gun toting, kiwi killing, semi-nude, sylvanian bint. This event was alleged to be personally witnessed by 9246 Private John Frank Gray, 5th Battalion, Wiltshire Regiment [although it should be noticed that he later becomes 24067 Private John Frank Gray, Hampshire Regiment] .

Here is a vague, unknown New Zealand unit that wandered out of its position to move north to the Chocolate Hills and capture a female sniper au natural. To date the only official accounts of New Zealand troops and Chocolate Hill is them witnessing the attacks on 7 August from miles away. A quick check of the War Diaries for August 1915 indicates not one New Zealand formation was within cooee of Chocolate Hill. So while there is a named individual giving this account there mention of a vague New Zealand formation in action that could never have been witnessed by him.

But even if New Zealand were in the area, the author of the extract demonstrates a poor understanding of the use of machine guns and their usage at Gallipoli. The Turks suffered a very great shortage of machine guns at Gallipoli. Every Turkish infantry regiment [equivalent to a British Brigade] had only 4 machine guns. No Turkish battalions had machine guns. A machine gun company was deployed by Regimental HQ to where it was felt to be most effective rather than at the beck and call of the individual battalion commander. So with such a shortage of machine guns, the likelihood of such a weapon being secreted in a burrow for the personal use of a semi nude female sniper begins to look a little thin indeed.

But then we have the additional problem of machine gun usage. They are most effective as an indirect weapon. Training at that time placed machine guns at an oblique angle to the firing line rather than front on which was totally ineffective. For maximum effect, the machine gunners were trained to fire in 5 second bursts and then move the gun angle followed by another 5 second burst.

Two obvious factors arise in this situation.

The first is the consumption of ammunition - it is tremendous and this semi nude woman would not only be sprayed by hot shell casings from spent ammunition but also had to feed the gun as a solo effort, an extraordinary feat considering most teams employed a minimum of four men for efficiency.

The second factor is the muzzle flash. Any sustained use of the machine gun gave off a clear muzzle flash which was easily spotted. One technique employed by the Allied troops was to employ a sun helmet as a shield and thus reduce the muzzle flash. This required one brave soul putting the hat over the barrel and moving it around as the material disintegrated and thus suppressing the muzzle flash visibility to the Turks.

In essence, even if that brave, semi nude, woman had wanted to use a machine gun, as a solitary affair, it would have been near impossible. The story is risible and can be dismissed as pure fantasy.


The British angle

The following letter is from Lieutenant Colonel Frank Mills to C. F. Aspinall-Oglander, the author of the British Official History of Gallipoli. Prior to publishing the volume, various incidents were sent to the men involved for their comment. Mills sent this letter on 5 February 1930 as part of his comments on Aspinall-Oglander's Chapters XXV & XXVIII which dealt with Suvla from 9 - 10 August  and 15 - 16 August 1915.


Mills to Aspinall-Oglander, 5 February 1930


The letter reads:


You say nothing of the Turkish sniping, the wonderful shooting, and organisation of the Turkish snipers, shoul surely not be omitted in a history such as this. The sniping from their trenches was unique, but nothing to the sniping from the trees, by Turks left behind our line, after our advance. The country is covered with stunted oaks, low, thick boles, and very bushy. The Turks left men in these trees, in hummocks, a large amount of food, and ammunition, clothed in green, and faces coloured green. These men did endless damage. You dare not go out in search for them by day, and at night it was too dark to see them. One cannot help admiring these men. They must have know what their end would be, and yet they continued sniping till killed, and they did a lot of killing before being theselves killed. The men never forgave them, and when one was caught his end was quick. I did not actually see it, but was told on the best authority of one case, which shows how our men looked on snipers behind our lines. He was at last located, and some went out to the oak and mad him come down. To their surprise he had a girl with him. She spoke a little English. They bayonetted the man at once, but the girl said: "Ah but you English do not kill women." The men were so infuriated at the loss of their pals, that one of them said "don't we" and put his bayonet through her. She also had been sniping, and had a rifle, and knowing the state the men were in, awful as it may seem, one can perhaps understand it. 


While the story is very interesting, it is actually unsourced and unsubstantiated. The usual pre$$$ "I did not actually see it, but was told on the best authority of one case ...." is employed before telling the story. It is a dead give away that the story is suspect. There is no mention of a unit or a date in this story so no corroboration can occur through independent third party sources. 

Then we have the letter of 13790 Corporal Ronald A Semmence, 6th Battalion, Royal Dublin Fusiliers who was writing from G Ward, British Red Cross Hospital, Giza, Cairo, Egypt, 22 August 1915:

"I was wounded on Sunday August 15th, when our lot along with the Munsters and "Skins" took a Turkish trench and about 20 prisoners. ... The place is simply walking with snipers, and they paint themselves green. I have heard that some female snipers were captured. How true it is I don't know."
[See: Athy Heritage Centre - Kildare Observer.]


Semmence clearly isn't convinced about the stories of the female snipers which is indicated by his caveat - "How true it is I don't know". Since the number of snipers is now plural there is the suspicion that every sector on Gallipoli had its own female sniper story.

The next story told by Myles Dungan in the book Irish Voices from the Great War, the following extract tells a similar tale:

"Some of the best Turkish marksmen, as it turned out, were markswomen. 'Among those discovered was a peasant woman - the wife of a Turkish soldier - who lived with her old mother and her child in a little house near the Irish lines' (referring to Suvla). This particular woman was a good shot who specialised in hitting stragglers on the many trails between the front lines and the beaches. Having made sure her targets were dead she would then rifle their bodies. When she was finally identified and captured her house was searched. A large quantity of money was found, but more surprising was the discovery of a number of identity discs. Either she was proud of her work or she was getting paid a piecework rate for the job!"

This is a curious tale comes closer to the actual origin of the story. Bear in mind that this story takes place at Suvla as does Semmence story. Dungan also states that the story is extracted from Michael McDonagh, The Irish at the Front, (1916) indicating that it is second hand and recycled.

It is time to compare this story with the first known published account of the female Turkish sniper at Gallipoli. 


The first published account

The London Times edition of 16 July 1915, carried this article on page 4.


It was fitting that the first convoy of wounded from the Royal Navy to be admitted to a London hospital should have been fallen to the Dreadnought Hospital at Greenwich. The convoy, numbering about 60, arrived on Wednesday night and consisted entirely of men wounded in the operations at the Dardanelles. The men were drawn from several branches of the service, including the R.M.L.I. and the R.N.D. All of them had borne a share of the terrible work in the Straits or upon the peninsula, and all had stories to tell of heroic adventures and splendid deeds.

One of the most interesting personal narratives was that of a young fellow who worked on a minesweeper in the Straits, floating mines were encountered in great numbers, and as it was only just possible to see them the danger from them was great. "Observation mines" were also met with; these are in reality a continuous chain of tames under electrical control stretching from one shore to another, across the channel. Observation posts are stationed at either end of the chain and as soon as a vessel crossed the line mines are exploded. The mines cannot, for obvious reasons, be swept up.

One day the minesweeper ran ashore while under a hot fire. There was danger of complete destruction and the crew were disembarked. The sweeper was, however, refloated that night. The shelling from the forts was severe, the mast being cut away and the engine-room damaged.

In the next bed lay a young Northumbrian who had taken part in tho great landing on April 25. He cherished lively recollections of his experiences more especially during tho period, when tho attackers found themselves obstructed by submerged barbed wire. The scaling of the cliffs, too, seemed to have left a deep impression on his mind, " That was a great sight, and how we did it I don't know." This sailor witnessed the capture of a woman sharpshooter in a little white house near the shore. She was a Turkish woman, and the house was her own. She had refused to leave it: Her old mother and her child were with her when she was taken. She had persistently fired on our men from a window, aiming in particular at the officers. She must have rifled the bodies of her victims, for some 16 identification discs and a considerable sum of money were found in her possession.

Sharpshooting by women was described by several other men.

Marksmen in Green.

Some most remarkable devices seem to have been adopted by tho Turkish marksmen. Thus one man had his face painted green so that it would be indistinguishable among the leaves of the tree in which he hid. He was dressed in green clothes. Another sharpshooter, who worked from a trench, had erected a bush in front of him; his presence was betrayed by the disappearance of the bush into the trench during a period of inactivity. While night attacks were in progress, a fresh batch of sharpshooters invariably tried to pass behind our trenches and conceal themselves in trees or behind shrubs, and thus there was danger from tho rear as well as from, in front.

One patient described tho bravery of Mr. Asquith's son during the advance in which he was wounded. Some of the men had thought that Lieutenant Asquith was of too gentle a disposition for this rough work.

"But," said the patient, "they soon found out their mistake. He was as brave as a lion. He dashed out in front of his men and kept well in front, calling to them to come on and waving his arm. When he was hit he was 90 yards in front of the others. It was a fine sight to see him."

The general opinion about the Turks was that they were fine fighters until our men got to close quarters. Their good equipment was emphasised and the enormous numbers of machine-guns they possessed, and the extensive character of the fortification and trench workings.

Several men described the heavy shelling from the Asiatic shore of the Straits. One man said he saw a huge shell from this quarter fall on the beach and kill 60 horses; the next day another shell killed 16 horses. It was reported that the guns on the Asiatic side were mounted on rails and ran back when not in use into caves or tunnels.

Two of tho wounded men, had been at work with the Australians. They cherished a lively regard for these troops. "They fear absolutely nothing" one of them told me. "They would go through anything; and it they were all dead I believe their corpses would go on fighting. They are the fiercest thing God ever made, and there's nothing so sure in the world as that they will go through, the Turks before they are done with it."


This article published in such a reputable newspaper gave credulity to an incredible story. People now had permission to make up stories about this issue knowing that it was backed up by one of the most respectable newspapers in the British Empire.

The one common factor that becomes very noticable in all of these stories is the sheer quantum of female snipers at Gallipoli. They are everywhere from Suvla Bay to Cape Helles. With all this female sniping activy going on, one would think that surely one female sniper should have been captured alive. And yet not one was ever captured. Nor was there ever one body presented to an authority figure authenticating the existence of a female sniper. The shores of Gallipoli were flushed with bodies of men killed in action, of whom many were snipers, but the record is totally mute when it comes to the bodies of female snipers. 



Another subsidiary legends needs to be examined and thus allow an illustration of the methodology employed to move from myth to accepted history.

Below is a photograph that was originally published in the Sydney Mail, 22 September 1915, at p. 10. 


The caption reads:

The cables have told us a great deal about the work of Turkish snipers. This photograph shows one, ingeniously hidden in foliage, just after capture by a British patrol.


An identical photograph is held by the Australian War Memorial and is displayed upon their website: See AWM G00377.

Attached to the AWM photograph is a letter authored by 1763 Pte Arthur Greenwood, 8th Battalion. He was writing from his hospital bed in Hampshire on 16 February 1916 to his family. His parents had seen a photograph of him and another person identified as 1930 Pte George Clifton, 8th Battalion, escorting a camouflaged Turkish sniper. Greenwood wrote:


"That Black you see in the picture was concealed in the scrub decorated as you see him you could not see him in daytime he being exactly like a bush..."


The sniper had been hiding in scrub for some time -- "He was getting a lot of our men all the time" -- before Greenwood and Clifton disabled him at dusk.

From this letter, Greenwood states that he was the man who captured the sniper in this picture rather than the British as officially claimed. So now there are two stories -

1. The sniper was captured by the British; and,

2. Greenwood and Clifton caught the same sniper.

But this isn't the end of the story. We have the allegation of Bean which contradicts the claim made by Greenwood and the Sydney Mail. He said the photograph was:

... a complete fake. It was taken at Imbros. The Australians are from the Field Battery, and the Turk is a prisoner from the camp there.

That changes the complexion of both the Sydney Mail and Greenwood accounts. The only thing that appears to be factual is the story Greenwood invented for the sake of his parents. As mentioned before, the men in the AIF were enthusiastic yarn spinners. In this case, the photograph presents two well groomed, well fed men guarding a Turk who is also impeccably camouflaged. The one thing that stands out is that all three are clean. There is nothing remotely Gallipoli about them. The sandy, bare beach is nothing that could be seen anywhere at Anzac. In addition, at Anzac there was a stockade set up for prisoners.


POW Stockade at Anzac.

[From: AWM G01188]


One glimpse at the stockade and its vicinity would convince anyone that this scene is no where near that stockade nor Anzac. As Bean correctly records, the picture was staged for propaganda purposes and the media at Imbros.

This illustration takes the investigator one step further in unravelling the female Turkish sniper story until finding its genesis. One thing that becomes clear is that the sniper story is one of legend rather than anything that can be checked against fact. So what is the genesis of this story?

It was a common practice in these regions for women to pick bodies clean after a battle. It was a tradition that went back thousands of years. This action was reviled by the Australians as they wrote contemptuously about the Bedouin who stripped the bodies. The British felt the same. So here we have a tradition transcending the millennia relating to body stripping. Along comes tens of thousands of wealthy British, New Zealanders, French and Australian troops just covered in loot. For the impoverished farmers of Gallipoli this was a bonanza of looting that could not be missed. After all, someone had to compensate them for the damage done to their farms and halting their daily routines which was economically ruinous. So the bodies of these young men are picked clean, especially the ones who fell on the first day when there was no front line to speak of. Maybe a woman living in a white house outside of Krithia did pick some bodies clean. Who knows? But one thing we do know is that she was never part of the Turkish military establishment nor was she commissioned by the Turkish military to snipe. That part of the story just never happened.

At best we have a body looter taking advantage of an opportunity presented when the troops invaded Gallipoli on 25 April 1915.


Further Reading:

Myths and Legends

The Battles at Gallipoli

Battles where Australians fought, 1899-1920


Citation: The legend of the female sniper at Gallipoli

Posted by Project Leader at 5:15 PM EADT
Updated: Tuesday, 30 March 2010 2:59 PM EADT

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