Meet the real ‘Water Diviner’

By Dr Panayiotis Diamadis | Monday, 19 January 2015

1918 Photo of Patrick O’Connor:

Private Patrick O’Connor was captured on Gallipoli and spent more than two years in captivity. He should have served as the historic basis for Russell Crowe’s attempt at epic fantasy. The parallels between Private O’Connor and the film’s subject are striking, serving to highlight how free and loose scriptwriters Andrew Anastasios and Andrew Knight have been with history in creating this “silly film”, as Professor Peter Stanley labelled it.

The Water Diviner is about an Australian farmer named Connor who travels to eastern Thrace and Anatolia to find his three sons who went missing during the 1915 Battle of Gallipoli. The eldest, Art, is located alive, surviving as a Prisoner of War, in a medieval Orthodox church in the city of Akroinos (modern Afyonkarahisar).

The real ‘Art Connor’ was No.1568 Private Patrick O’Connor. Originally from Monbulk in Victoria, he enlisted on 21 December 1914 and embarked for overseas on 19 February 1915. He was part of No. 16 Platoon, D Company 14 Battalion, 4th Brigade when the force was sent to capture the strategic Hill 971, the highest point around the Allied landing site.

About sunset on 6 August, the brigade was moved north along the beach, then inland to the frontline, alongside a body of Ghurkas. While bringing water for his mates who were digging trenches and saps in “virgin soil”, as O’Connor later described it in his 1919 Repatriated Prisoner of War Statement, he was “hit on the left shoulder by a piece of shrapnel. It was nothing very severe; it merely marked the flesh, but bounced off the bone.”

The following morning, the push against Hill 971 began. Having made some headway, O’Connor crouched into position to fire on some Ottoman soldiers who had come into view when a bullet “smashed through the right instep”. Unable to walk and trying to drag himself to safety, O’Connor “was being persistently sniped at” and was struck by a second bullet in “the thick muscle of my leg”. O’Connor carried ten rounds of ammunition in a pocket: “A Turkish sniper’s bullet exploded this ammunition, but I was not injured by the explosion beyond having the skin taken off my right hip.”

The seriously wounded young Australian feigned being dead or asleep as three Ottoman soldiers looted him and the dead and wounded Anzacs around him. A fourth Ottoman soldier approached, drew:

“a bayonet from the scabbard of a wounded Australian and then thrust it into the wounded man’s stomach. I yelled out at him. I could stand it no longer. … He picked up a 4-pound lump of rock that lay nearby, and holding it in his hand, began to pound my head with it. When I raised my hands to fend the blows off my head, he transferred his attentions to my body, about the ribs. Eventually, he battered me till I lost consciousness.”

When raised voices brought O’Connor back to a conscious state, a group of Ottoman troops found him. When he indicated he could not walk, they dragged him towards a gully, but were stopped by a German officer who ordered them to take the wounded Anzac to a hospital. It was 8 August 1915.

Some hours after first being shot, O’Connor’s wounds received their first medical attention from “an Armenian in uniform of the Turkish Red Crescent”. He was taken to a first aid station, by cart across the Gallipoli Peninsula and then ferried by sea to Constantinople. After some time in a number of hospitals in the City, O’Connor was transferred to Akroinos (Afyonkarahisar).

With his wounds becoming worse and being wracked by fever, he was put into the hospital, where he remained until 15 December 1916. The beating and general maltreatment the prisoners received are described in great detail in his Repatriated Prisoner of War Statements, now in the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.

“The Greek orderlies were fair enough, but the Turks were awful. For fever, the patient was placed between wet sheets. One of the Turkish orderlies was tormenting me and I managed to lay him out. … We were lodged in a building which had been an Armenian convent. It was not heated, and was very cold and verminous. There was a tap with enough water to wash yourself. We had our clothes washed by Indians. Sanitary arrangements were very bad.”

Returning to Constantinople, O’Connor was marked to be part of an exchange of invalided prisoners-of-war between the Allies and the Ottoman Empire. He spent his last few days of captivity in the Hellenic community’s Zappeion Hospital. O’Connor departed by rail for Austria on 27 November 1917, arriving in England in February 1918, minus his right leg. O’Connor finally returned home on 10 March 1919.

“When we left Turkey, we were deprived of everything except the Turkish hospital uniform we wore and a change of underclothing.”

The only Australians history records as being in western Anatolia between 1919 and 1922 were Colonel George Devine Treloar and W.A. Lloyd. The former served with the British Army and the later as a correspondent for the Australian media. Neither cooperated with Kemal’s forces nor wrote favourably of the war-era enemy.

Lloyd was scathing in his criticism of the genocidal behaviour of Mustafa Kemal loyalists against indigenous Hellenes and Armenians. One report he sent to Sydney’s The Sunday Times (20 June 1920, page 3) was titled “Red Terror in the Interior”, emphasising the “chaotic situation” that existed beyond the zones around Constantinople and Smyrne where the Allies were in control.

Fact, as the saying goes, is often stranger than fiction. Had Knight and Anastasios taken a more historically accurate approach, a more truthful portrayal of contemporary Australian attitudes to the Ottoman Empire as abusers of their prisoners of war, setting aside prejudicial depictions of Hellenes and omissions of Armenians and Assyrians, a much better film would probably have reached the screen.




Dr Panayiotis Diamadis lectures in Genocide Studies at the University of Technology, Sydney.