“Thousands have lived without love, not one without water” – W. H. Auden
World War I’s Gallipoli campaign pretty much sucked for everybody involved. The initial point was to secure the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkish Thrace, allowing Allied navies access to the Black Sea, hopefully opening a pathway for the capture of the Ottoman Empire’s capital in Constantinople. In what was initially a bold series of amphibious landings, the Allied forces quickly bogged down under tenacious Ottoman defenses and counterattacks, and the campaign dragged on for eight months of nasty trench warfare, dwindling ammunition, supply and logistics nightmares, and an astonishing numbers of casualties. Gallipoli was considered one of the worst fighting fronts where British and Commonwealth forces were deployed during World War I due to the fierce battles, plague of flies (due to all the putrefying corpses), rations that consisted purely of unappetizing biscuits, jam and tinned bully beef, weather that alternated between blisteringly hot and dangerously cold (punctuated by torrential rain), lice infestations, dysentery epidemics, inhospitable rocky terrain, and the near complete absence of available fresh water.
Of all the obvious health code violations, the lack of water in the dusty, dry Gallipoli peninsula, particularly at Anzac Cove, was the most dangerous (apart from all the bullets and artillery whizzing about). The situation was so dire that fresh water was shipped in by boat and stored in large tanks, but this was an iffy proposition given all the submarines lurking about torpedoing other vessels. The relatively newly formed (1914) Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) was a First World War army corps of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force and was first deployed at Gallipoli and immediately started to run out of water (it had to be imported from Malta and moved up mountainous terrain by donkey to the front line trenches). The Allied engineers tried to dig wells, but repeatedly came up dry. This is the sort of nonsense you don’t want to have to deal with while you’re trying to wage a respectable war. Thirsty soldiers are very quickly dead soldiers. And just as there are no atheists in foxholes, generals throughout history have never been excessively reluctant to give an occult remedy a good, old-fashioned college try. Your traditional “sapper” (the standard designation for a combat engineer, tasked with those meddlesome battlefield tasks such as bridge-building, laying or clearing minefields, demolitions, field defenses, general construction, and sometimes finding water and digging wells) had failed rather miserably, which made perfect sense as even the Turks thought the Allies were a bit daft for trying.
The absence of water was one of the greatest difficulties in connection with the holding of the position on the Gallipoli Peninsula. The Turks, in fact, boasted that it was untenable by a large body of troops for this very reason. The arrangements accordingly made by the authorities for water distribution were on a vast scale. It was actually brought from Malta, being towed in huge barges to the improvised piers at Anzac. On the beach a large steam-pumping plant was erected, which pumped the water from the barges to large tanks on both the right and the left of the Anzac position. The difficulties of supplying water under these conditions were grave in the extreme, especially as the heat was intense, and the least hitch in the organization led to a shortage of the supply (Carrington, 1919, p132-133).
As the situation worsened Sapper Stephen Kelly, of the 3rd Light Horse Brigade, Australian Expeditionary Force, in his unofficial capacity as a water-diviner, came to the attention of the General Staff. While they no doubt regarded themselves as rational men, “any port in a storm” as they say
Sapper Kelly was a Kent man, born in Maidstone. He went out to Queensland when a small boy. At that time an old water-diviner arrived in the neighborhood and tried his art in that locality. The boy trotted after the old man in his twistings and turnings about the paddock with a divining twig in his hand and when the old man found water, the boy “felt his nerves twitch and a thrill go through him that wasn’t just excitement.” He thought he would try too, and he did. From that moment he had practiced his powers. At Suvla, he said, he got better results with a copper rod instead of the divining twig (Masani, 1918, p105).
As it turned out, Sapper Kelly had a real talent for the ancient art of dowsing, and as a patriot Australian didn’t hesitate to set about unearthing a source of water as efficiently and effectively as possible under the circumstances.
Matters had become very serious, and a complete breakdown was threatened, when the attention of the generals in command was drawn to Sapper Kelly’s reputation as a dowser. He was sent to headquarters, and asked to endeavor to discover if there were any indications of underground water in the area. Early next morning Kelly started on his investigations, and very soon located water within a hundred yards of Divisional Headquarters. On being opened up by the engineers, the well was found to give a volume of over 2,000 gallons of pure cold artesian water per hour. Two other wells were subsequently opened-up in the immediate vicinity. By six o’clock that evening every man in the section had his water-bottle filled, and within a week Kelly had located the positions of over thirty-two wells, on which pumps were subsequently erected. The water supply obtained in consequence was calculated to be sufficient for 100,000 men with one gallon per day per man. It must be remembered that not only did the troops require water, but there were also thousands of mules which also required watering, and that one mule will drink as much water as twenty men. The instrument used by Sapper Kelly was a small piece of copper which he held in his hands and by which he ascertained the depths at which the water was to be found and also whether it was a “pocket” of water, a spring, or an underground river. Previous to these experiments the engineers in their endeavours to find water had sunk shafts within fifty yards of the spot indicated by Kelly and had gone considerably lower in the earth than he found necessary, but without success” (Carrington, 1919, p132-133).
Understandably, “The army’s engineers were astonished by Sapper Kelly’s Success, especially as he was without paper plans. When they asked him about it, he replied that it would take him about half the time to get the wells going that it would to draw up the plans” (Masani, 1918, p105). Nothing succeeds like success. Kelly was “personally congratulated by the General in command, and was mentioned in dispatches” (Occult Review, 1917, p73). No muss, no fuss. They needed to get on with the business of slaughtering and being slaughtered, eventually evacuating the Gallipoli Peninsula after eight months of insurmountable nastiness and over 100,000 casualties between the Allied and Ottoman Forces. Numerous accounts of eyewitnesses to the debacle at Gallipoli mention the invaluable services of Sapper Kelly. For example, a staff officer was recorded by Corporal O. Rhodes, 20th Battalion, A.I.F. at Otago Gully, Gallipoli on September 14, 2015 as saying, “By the way, water was our great difficulty here when we first started on this new venture and at one period it threatened to be quite critical, but thanks to a wonderful Australian water diviner, Sapper Kelly of the Australian Engineers, who found us 200,000 gallons a day, we were saved”. People don’t tend to forget the guy who saves them all from death by dehydration. Even more telling is that official transcripts from the British House of Commons include references to the exploits of Sapper Kelly. Of course, they noted his skills and thought about sending him to Palestine to help with water shortages there. That’s the army for you.
MAJOR HUNT: “Asked the Under-Secretary of State for War whether, in view of the fact that Sapper Stephen Kelly, an Australian soldier, was mentioned in dispatches for finding water in Gallipoli without which thousands of men must have died or left their positions, he can say why this man cannot get employment in the Army?”
MR. MACPHERSON: “I have ascertained from the headquarters of the Australian Imperial Force that Sapper Kelly was found to be permanently unfit for any Army service by a board of consultants on 24th May owing to a disability which is not due to service, and that he was discharged accordingly. I understand that there is no record of any application for re-enlistment”.
MAJOR HUNT: As this man was the only man who could find water in Gallipoli, could he not be employed by the Government in Palestine, where they are badly off for water, as he is known to be the best water-finder in Australia?”
MR. MACPHERSON: “The information in the answer to this question does not come from the War Office. I had to apply to the Australian Imperial Forces for it. I will convey there my honorable Friend’s suggestion.”
(HC Deb 13 November 1917 vol 99 c202)
I have been unable to ascertain the nature of Sapper Kelly’s eventual disability, but I comfort myself with the notion that it was probably just an overabundance of awesomeness that is not totally compatible with the more modest military lifestyle. That, and his spooky, occult powers. Perhaps he simply retired to a well-deserved, quiet life of basking in his superhero status. Die-hard believers in dowsing sometimes point to Sapper Kelly as a prime example of the effectiveness of the technique, given that failure or an attempt at a con job would have seen thousands upon thousands of additional men die needlessly. Or, more needlessly, that is. And no bonzo bloke from Queensland would do his mates that way. Skeptics often moan about the repeatability of results in regards to strange phenomena, and will construct complicated chains of logic (often requiring preternatural levels of coincidence, luck, and acting ability), to explain away even the most empirical of evidence, and dowsing has been a favorite target over the years, with occasional begrudging whispers about hypersensitivity to electromagnetic fields. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to sell anyone on dowsing, for as Charles Fort wisely observed, “Peasants have believed in dowsing, and scientists used to believe that dowsing was only a belief of peasants. Now there are so many scientists who believe in dowsing that the suspicion comes to me that it may only be a myth after all”.
Carrington, Hereward, 1880-1959. Psychical Phenomena And the War. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1919.
Masani, Rustom Pestonji, Sir, 1876-1966. Folklore of Wells: Being a Study of Water-worship In East And West. Bombay: D. B. Taraporevala Sons, 1918.
Still, Alfred, 1869-. Borderlands of Science. New York: Philosophical Library, 1950.
Walker, Kenneth, 1882-1966. The Extra-sensory Mind. New York: Emerson Books, 1961.
“Notes of the Month”. Occult Review v26: [a Monthly Magazine Devoted to the Investigation of Supernormal Phenomena And the Study of Psychological Problems]. London: W. Rider and Son, limited [etc.], 1917.
I grew up knowing that my grandfather ran the water system in the small town where I was born, but not much more. When I was in my 20s my grandmother died, and exploring her house I found two right-angle rods with loose tube handles shoved up into the floor joists above the basement. My parents casually explained: Oh, yes, when my grandfather couldn’t find a pipe, he’d send for my grandmother and her dowsing rods, and she always quickly would find it. My family was otherwise completely normal, and no one had ever thought to mention this before I found the evidence.
I have since had other similar revelations from people I knew, of things that skeptics would sneer at that were so normal in their families that no one ever thought to mention outside the family. There must be many such secrets tucked away in family histories.