Sergeant Claud Charles Castleton, VC, of the 5th Australian Macine Gun Company, was one of a First World War type: the Pom Auusie. We often read about the ANZACs, the Australian and New Zealanders of the First World War and imagine young men with thick antipodean accents to whom the Europe in which they came to fight was somewhere not merely distant, but wholly alien. In fact, many of those young men were in some senses not Aussies or Kiwis at all, but first generation immigrants who saw themselves as much British as anything else.
Claud Castleton was born on April 12th 1893, at Kirkley, near Lowestoft, in Norfolk. He went to Morton Road Council School, before joining Lowestoft Municipal Secondary School, before returning to Morton Road In September 1910 as a student teacher. He was thus, by the standards of the time, well educated. At the age of 19, like many an educated and ambitious young man at the time, he decided to give it a go in Australia, arriving in Melbourne in the autumn of 1912.
He wound up making his way along the Eastern Coast of Australia, working on sheep farms and prospecting gold before crossing into Tasmania to follow his interest in nature and Geography. He planned that one day he would return to England, but not before having made enough money to travel to New Zealand, India and Africa beforehand.
When the First World War broke out, Castleton was in Papua New Guinea, working for the authorities at Port Moresby wireless station preparing coastal defences. He returned to Sydney on March 11th 1915, so that he could enlist, and fight for the mother country. The enlistment papers described him as 5 foot 7 and a half, a fairly typical height for the time, of fair complexion, and with blue eyes and brown hair.
On June 25th 2015 he was posted with the 18th Battalion, which , then headed for Alexandria, Egypt, in turn moving on to Camp Heliopolis in Cairo. He was moved along with the 18th and D Company to Gallipoli. That many ANZACs fought at Gallipoli is something well known, though in fact the largest contingent of allied forces in the campaign were British (and the next largest contingent were, in fact, French). On August 22nd 1915, he was one of 750 troops that took part in the assault on Hill 60. This attack was the last of its kind in the Gallipoli offensive, and is well known to Australians and New Zealanders alike.
As we said, the ANZACs were part of a larger force; also fighting with them on Hill 60 were the Connaught Rangers. Hill 60 became name prominent in all the Dublin newspapers, as was the role of the Connaught Rangers. Just then, Croke Park, Dublin’s Gaelic Games stadium, was was undergoing further development, and a bank of terracing acquired the nickname of Hill 60 in honour of the gallant Irish. But then, in the ‘thirties, the name changed to Hill 16, now in honour of the Easter Rising, as Ireland tried to forget the story of Irishmen who had fought in in the Great War.
Like the Gallipoli campaign itself, the battle of Hill 60 is commonly seen as a failure, though it did achieve some of its objectives. It was once taken as axiomatic that Gallipoli was a complete failure. We no longer hold that to be so. There were military successes, the lessons learned would inform subsequent amphibious assaults, and the final evacuation was a logistical triumph. It was, however, hardly an unalloyed victory.
It would also be a while yet before the ANZACs acquired their reputation as crack troops, though that is what they already were. They had certainly paid the price: the Connaught Rangers sustained some 190 casualties, the 18th battalion 380, the New Zealand Otago Mounted Rifles were all but obliterated as an effective unit. Need, it is from these particular moments that Gallipoli becomes etched in the national consciousness of Australia in particular.
Castleton emerged unscathed, only to be struck down with dysentery in September. The First World War was the first major war in which the British army sustained more casualties from fighting than from disease, in part thanks to great improvements In medical care, but most of all to a very healthy obsession with latrines. However, the Gallipoli campaign was the major exception to that rule. It was disease that had accounted for the vast majority of the British deaths in the Crimean War in the previous century; of the 213,000 casualties sustained at Gallipoli, around 145,000 were due to disease, many to a dysentery epidemic. Castleton benefitted from the much improved medical care of the Great War: he was subsequently taken to an Australian casualty clearing station, and then transferred to a hospital ship bound for an Auxiliary Hospital in Cairo. He was not discharged, however, until October 22nd.
He returned aboard the Royal George on November 8th. On the Greek Island of Lemnos he was made corporal on December 7th, returning to active service the next day. He was posted to Gallipoli once more, and was among the Allied troops evacuated in December when that campaign was being wound down.
On the 9th January 1916 Castleton travelled to Tel el Kebir, Egypt, where on January 27th he was struck down by disease once more: this time with Malaria. Admitted to the 1st Australian Stationery Hospital, he was discharged on February 16th. Moving on to Ismailia, he was made a temporary Sergeant, being posted to the 5th Australian Machine Gun Company, 2nd Division on March 8th. Eight days later he was promoted to a full Sergeant, and then departed for Marseille.
Castleton thus arrived in France in time for the battle of the Somme. On July 27th 1916, he was posted to Pozieres Ridge, where both British and Australian troops had been involved in heavy fighting for several days. The ridge was a first rate observation post. As such, it had been heavily defended by German trenches and redoubts, and the Germans fought hard to recapture allied gains. Castleton, along with the 2nd Division, were part of a planned attack on those enemy positions. That assault was planned for the 29th, but it was hardly a surprise assault given the previous fighting and the fact that preparations for the attack were made in full view of the defending German troops, as the Germans constantly lit flares in the area.
On July 29th, just after midnight, the attack was launched; it was met by a massive German artillery assault. As the dawn came, the German fire started to ease, but by then many were left killed or wounded in no-man’s land. Over 3,500 men were killed or wounded in that assault of Poziers, and now Sergeant Castleton found himself among them. It might, one supposes, have been the sight, or the cries, of his wounded comrades that moved him. Whatever it was, he was moved to do something extraordinary, climbing out of the safety of his trench and out into no-man’s land. Facing German machine guns, he carried back a wounded man from what would have might well have soon become been his grave. He then repeated this act of bravery, returning with yet another wounded soldier.
The gallant Sergeant again climbed out of the trench once more, but this time he would not return. As he carried a third wounded man back towards the safety of the Allied trenches, he was shot in the back. Castleton was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for his heroism, giving his life for his fellows. He was one of 628 such awards (as reported in the London Gazette, September 26th 1916).
There was almost a week of heavy fighting over that ridge still to come: the ANZACs won their reputation the hard way.
Sergeant Castleton is buried near that ridge even now, in Pozieres Military Cemetery. The ANZACs, like the Canadians, had won their reputation as crack troops, but at the cost of the loss of men like Claud Casterton, the British Australian from Lowestoft.