Who are your heroes of Gallipoli? An exclusive interview with John Gillam, The author of “Turkish Charlie Ryan” (with Yvonne Fletcher ) ( Tuncay Yılmazer )

First of all , I congragulate you for covering such an important figure. Could you introduce yourselves to our readers?

Thank you Tuncay.   We appreciate this opportunity to tell the story behind the story and why publishing this book was so important to us.

How was “Turkish Charlie Ryan” book project came out?

We had worked on a project to support Ismail Kayhan of SBS Turkish Radio for the 2015 Centenary of ANZAC.  He introduced us to the “Two Trenches One Letter” Project of TED Mersin Teacher Celal Yildirim and his students.

Yvonne Fletcher took the project to her school.  Her students responded by writing and then skyping with the TED Mersin students.

During a skype conference Yvonne Fletcher and John Gillam were asked by the TED Mersin students, “Who are your heroes of Canakkale?”  Of course Simpson and his donkey were mentioned and a few Victoria Cross winners came to mind.  One young man (Tuncay Yildiz) holding up his textbook asked “Do you not know of Charlie Ryan?  He is a hero to both our nations.”  A chapter in the book by Haluk Oral, (Gallipoli 1915 Through Turkish Eyes) (Turkiye İş Bankasi 2007), studied by these school children is devoted to Charlie Ryan and his time at Gallipoli.  This young man humbled the historians, turning teachers back into students and we went in search of the story of Charles Ryan.    

Is he well-known figure in Australian history?

The story of Sir Charles Ryan is virtually unknown in Australia.  He is credited with taking the only photographs of the May 24 Armistice.  However, his influence on the May 24 Armistice, as recorded by the Turkish perspective, was completely unknown.

 What have been the reactions since you published this study?

The Turkish Ambassador to Australia Korhan Karakoc said “He fought with us, He fought against us, Now he is hero to all of us”.  Australians who read this story are amazed that they have never heard it before.  Equally, they are amazed that his service is so well known and remembered by the people of Turkey, that it is taught to school children, so he is never forgotten. 

Why is this a “child book” format? 

One of our primary goals for the book was to educate Australian school children in the rich and interesting story of Charlie Ryan and the important message the story contains.  The format was chosen as one of a series of stories that we specifically wrote for school children.  The illustrations help those who struggle to read the written word to more easily comprehend the story.  The book is intended to be a “read to” book.  The teacher should read the book aloud to the class and open broader lines of discussion and questions about the content of the story scene by scene to enhance understanding.  A teacher notes package has been prepared to assist teachers in learning activities.  It is aligned to the Australian National Curriculum for History and English.  Having said that the story itself is true to history and the illustrations also appeal to adults.  

Could you tell us who was Charlie Ryan in several sentences? Why did he attend Ottoman Army in Turko-Russian War 1877-78 ? Could we say that he was of quite adventurer personality?

The son of wealthy farm owners, Charlie finished his medical education in Scotland.  As many young Australians do to this day When Charlie Ryan graduated as a doctor from University, he went looking for adventure and life experience.  Charlie achieved this by joining the Turkish Army.  The book he wrote in 1897 of his exploits “Under The Red Crescent” would indicate he was quite an adventurous young man.

Initially assigned to a military hospital, Charlie left to serve in the “Battle of 93”.  Although a doctor, he was also an officer, and in command of 3 000 Turkish soldiers.  He suffered from dysentery as he marched with them for ten days, nearly dying from exhaustion. 

On arrival at Plevne they were thrown into their first battle.  Charlie was the only doctor and he needed all his skills to save lives.  Charlie spent more than four months besieged at Plevna.  Here he would serve with Osman Pasha, the Turkish hero of the Siege of Plevna.    The brave actions of the soldiers stopped the Russians from invading Turkey.  When they finally evacuated the town, Charlie was the last to leave.

As he was leaving, Charlie saw two wounded men.  He slung them over his horse, and cautiously led them away.  As they made their way to safety, the Russians shot at them, and the Turks began firing back.  Fortunately, Charlie’s bravery brought his patients to safety through the cross fire.

After Plevna, Charlie moved to Erzeroum where he was again in charge of a hospital and ambulance unit.  This city too was besieged by the Russians for six weeks.  For four of those weeks Charlie suffered from typhus.  Eventually Erzeroum was captured by the Russians and Charlie became a Russian Prisoner of War. 

After that war the people of Turkey honoured Charlie’s distinguished service with the Order of the Medjidie 4th Class and the Badge of the Order of Osmaneth.  On his return to Australia Charlie would wear these and his Turkish war medal proudly.

Forty years later, as the head of the Australian Army Medical Corps he landed at Gallipoli to fight his former friends.  His previous association with the Turkish Army led to a most extraordinary event

Did he attend Anzac Corps voluntarily as a surgeon?

On his return to Australia in 1879 Charlie enlisted in the Reserve forces.  His experience as a battlefield doctor was most appreciated.  When World War One started Charlie was automatically recruited for active service as the senior medical officer of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF).  

What was his first reaction when he learned that he would head to Gallipoli?

When Charlie enlisted, the AIF was being sent to England to fight in Europe.  Turkey, while technically an enemy of England, had not been seen as an active participant.  Due to a very harsh winter and poorly prepared training camps in England, the AIF was redirected to winter and train in Egypt.

In an attempt to break the trench warfare of the western Front the British decided to attempt a naval assault on Constantinople via the Dardanelles, then attack Germany from behind and ease the pressure on the Western Front trenches.  It was a spectacular failure.

The British then took the decision to invade the Canakkale peninsula and go overland to Constantinople.  The Australian and New Zealand forces were perfectly placed in Egypt and were then directed to mount the April 25 attack along with the British and French forces.

Until early April no one in the AIF (including Charlie Ryan) knew that they would attack Turkey.  To quote Charlie:  “If, after 40 years, I am now about to fight them, it is not because of a feeling of enmity, but because of orders I have received as a soldier.”

 When did he come Gallipoli?  Where was he serve?

Charlie landed shortly after the main force to establish the field hospital on the beach at Gallipoli.

What did Charles Ryan think of Turks in Turko-Russia War? What was the impact of this 1877-78 war on his thoughts about Turks?

Clever military officers understand and respect their enemy.  Charlie now faced an enemy that had been his friend forty years before.  Charlie was very concerned for his Australian comrades.  Plevna had taught Charlie the ferocity with which the Turks would defend their homeland against invasion.  Eventually, Charlie Ryan would use his respect and understanding to create peace at this awful place, if only for a short time

As he came to Gallipoli against Turks years later. What was the his task in Gallipoli campaign

Charlie was the chief medical officer of the AIF at Gallipoli.  As the head doctor he was treating the wounded and evacuating them to hospital ships in the bay and then on to Egypt, Malta or England for treatment and recovery.

Do you think that his opinions could be changed by war conditions?

Our research sheds no light on the answer to this question.  The only indicator we have of Charlie’s lateral thinking about war occurred during the May 24 Armistice.

Before attending the Armistice burial and medical teams, Charlie Ryan put on his uniform and chose to wear his Ottoman ribbons and medals.  He must have known the significance of this choice.  Surely the Turks would recognise the medals and it would open conversation of some sort.

We have interpreted his actions by saying he knew there would only be peace when both sides shared respect and a mutual understanding of each other.  To our minds he sought to do that.

Photography was against the rules, but Charlie decided to break this rule.  He would take the only photographs of this special day.

How did he describe Turk- Anzac clashes on the Arıburnu front especially 24 May 1915 armistice?

We have no research information regarding his observations of the fighting at Gallipoli..  As a medical officer he would have been away from the front lines in a field hospital.

How was his post-war years?  

There are two post war years for Charles Ryan  1878 and 1919. With this unusual background Charles Ryan returned to Melbourne in June 1878 and next year was elected to the honorary staff of the (Royal) Melbourne Hospital, serving as surgeon until his retirement in 1913, when he was appointed consulting surgeon. He also was honorary medical officer to the Children’s Hospital, Carlton, in 1883-1913, then became consulting surgeon. He was chief medical officer to the Victorian Railways in 1903-24. He was an active member of the Victorian branch of the British Medical Association, president of the Medical Society of Victoria in 1893.

He was president (1905-07) of the Australasian Ornithologists’ Union and enthusiastically supported bird protection, the introduction of nature study in schools and the holding of an annual Bird Day.

In June 1915 he contracted enteric fever, was evacuated to Egypt and later to England. From July 1916 he served in London as consulting surgeon, medical headquarters staff, A.I.F., where he achieved a reputation for ‘toughness’ on medical boards.  In August 1917 he was appointed honorary surgeon-general, Australian Military Forces, and returned to Australia in May 1919.  In July he was placed on the retired list with the rank of honorary major general. By this time he had received many honours, C.B. (1916), C.M.G. and K.B.E. (1919).

Did he contact with any Turks after the wars ?

After his return in 1879 he maintained his association with Turkey, serving for some years as its consul in Victoria.

This vital, cheerful and sociable man delighted in being a raconteur and enjoyed debate and discussion with his many friends.


On the 10th of March 2019 there was a launch to introduce the book you published where there was picture of Charles Ryan in a uniform of an Ottoman government official. Could you give us an information on the story behind this picture?

Siobhan Ryan, Charlie’s great granddaughter brought this beautiful portrait photograph of Charlie in his Turkish uniform to the book launch.  She said family history held that he liked to dress in his uniform to attend society parties in Melbourne.

What do you think “Anzac” term and “ 25 April Anzac day” ? How can they be described almost a century later?

ANZAC was originally a stencil used on supply boxes.  It stands for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps.  The soldiers became known as Anzacs.

Anzac Day, 25 April, is one of Australia’s most important national occasions.  Although a military failure the Gallipoli campaign created the “Anzac legend” an important part of the identity of both New Zealand and Australia proving to the British Empire that these countries had come of age.

In 1916 the first Anzac Day commemorations were held on 25 April.  The day was marked by marches and services across Australia, a march through London, and a sports day in the Australian camp in Egypt.  In London more than 2,000 Australian and New Zealand troops marched through the streets. 

Each year we commemorate the landings of the Anzacs on the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey. Commemorative services are held across the nation at dawn – the time of the original landing, while later in the day, former servicemen and servicewomen meet to take part in marches through cities and smaller centres

The joint Australian and New Zealand Dawn Service at Gallipoli is also held each year on 25 April at the Anzac Commemorative Site.  Australian and New Zealand citizens have attended this service as far back as the 1920s

It is well known that the commemorative sites at Gallipoli are the sovereign territory of the Turkish people and holding the annual Anzac Day commemorations is only possible with the cooperation and gracious assistance of the Government of the Republic of Turkey.

Pictured is a service at ANZAC Cove in 1923


AS you release such an extraordinary figure’s ( pro-Turkish as well as a proud Anzac’s) book , a massacre of muslims  by a white supremacist’s terrorist attack  took place in Christchurch, New Zealand.  It was revealed that he issued a statement before the horrible terrorist attack, in which he frequently referred to history, Muslim-Christian wars . What do you think?

No matter how wrong their acts may be, nor whether the motivation be religious, political or cultural, history is full of “the evil men do” in the name of the righteousness of their cause.

When we first read the research of Charles Ryan’s exploits and the influence he had at the May 24 Armistice we were touched by his vision and leadership.  He knew there would only be peace when both sides shared respect and a mutual understanding of each other.  He chose in spectacular fashion to be the one that bridged the gap of warring parties that day.  Turkish Historian Haluk Oral says “he helped to establish the indestructible foundation of Turkish-Australian friendship amidst the trenches of war”.

We deliberately chose to emphasise, that respect and understanding, underpin reconciliation and we made them the themes of the book.  

Perhaps the best illustration of this came during the skype sessions conducted between the children of TED Mersin College Turkey and Thornton Public School in Australia for the Two Trenches One Letter project conducted by Celal Yildirim and Yvonne Fletcher.  Ms Fletcher said of the event that “the things they shared in common were many and united them and the differences only made them more interesting to both parties.”

As adults we are exhorted to leave a better world for our children.  How sad that we can’t conceive of a world where adults could approach each other seeking mutual respect and understanding to resolve issues. 

Ironic then, that in this story, ultimately, it is children who show us how a better world might be created.  



TED Mersin College Social Science Teacher Celal Yıldırım’s Foreword for Yvonne Fletcher and John Gillam’s  “Turkish Ryan” book

The adventurous writing process of this book started in 2015, the centennial anniversary of the Gallipoli Campaign. We, as the Social Science Teachers of TED Mersin College, thought about what we could do within the remembrance activities of the 100th year anniversary of the Gallipoli Campaign, in order to create historical awareness and a sense of mutual respect and friendship among youth in both countries. We had to do something in such a way that we could help unify those who took part in the trenches, and their children. However, it mustn’t be a fight with guns this time, we thought, but rather an attempt to build a true brotherhood.

We conceptualized our project based on this idea and named it ‘Two Trenches, One Letter.’ Our main reference in this project was Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder and national hero of the Turkish Republic. Atatürk, whose address “Peace at Home, Peace in the World,” and many other quotes are universally acknowledged even today, wrote a letter to the mothers of the ANZACs, our country’s eternal guests, in 1934 – a letter that still maintains its greatness: “After having lost their lives on this land, they have become our sons as well.” Indeed, there couldn’t have been a reference more influential than these words. 

We started out by teaching our students about life in the trenches on Gallipoli. We read historical texts, worked on maps, prepared postcards, and made our own medals out of paper. All in all, we made our students understand what actually happened on both sides of the trenches.

The next step was to put everything down on paper. Firstly, we encouraged our students to write letters to Atatürk, remaining faithful to his principles; then to the grandchildren of the ANZACs.

How would these letters reach their addressees in Australia? At that point our precious friends Ismail Kayhan, Yvonne Fletcher, and John Gillam stepped in for us. With their sincere help, our letters reached the students of Thornton Public School; thus, 100 years later, children from both countries had a chance to meet over their ancestors.

We have a saying in Turkey: “An open door opens another door.” The project wasn’t limited to the letters and postcards. The fact that our students mentioned Charles Plevna Ryan on the meeting with Australian students formed the basis of this unique book, which would later be introduced by Yvonne Fletcher and John Gillam after a productive collaboration and extensive research.

‘Who is Charles Ryan,’ you may be wondering. Let us give you a clue: he is a hero to us all – both to the Turks and Australians, and he certainly deserves to be   so for having fought beside us against our enemy. As to his fight against the Turks, everybody has their ups and downs, and life is like that.

An open door opens another door – who knows what new projects we will carry into effect with Yvonne Fletcher and John Gillam.

 We hereby congratulate our dear friends and extend our sincere greetings from Turkey.

                                                                                          Best regards

                                                                                           From a Son of Mustafa Kemal

                                                                                Celal Yıldırım

                                                                                        TED Mersin College Social Science Teacher

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