Posted by Ancestry Australia and New Zealand on October 4, 2011 in Australia

You may have seen Ancestry’s Brad Argent on the Kerri-Anne show last week with Peter Harvey telling the story of Charles Snodgrass Ryan. Here is some more information on the Gallipoli hero.


Charles Snodgrass Ryan was born on the 20th of September 1853 at Longwood, about 100 miles north of Melbourne, in the fledgling colony of Victoria.  His family was part of the Squattocracy and Charles was educated accordingly, attending Melbourne Grammar, Melbourne University and then finishing at the University of Edinburgh where he received his qualifications in medicine in 1875.

After studying in Europe, Charles took up a post with the Turkish Government who was looking for military surgeons. In a short space of time he found himself ensconced in the final phase of the Turkish-Serbian war of 1876-1877.  At the end of this campaign he went straight on to serve in the Russian-Turkish war of 1877-1878 and it was here, at the siege of Plevna that he, literally, made a name for himself (from this period on he was known to the Turks as “Plevna” Ryan) running to the front line to treat the fallen. During the remainder of his time in the Turkish Army, Charles became a Russian Prisoner of War and received the Order of the Osmanieh and the Order of the  Medjidie for aiding Turkish Interests. In 1878 he returned to Melbourne and took up an active life in the medical community.

A few years after his return to Melbourne, he was responsible for the care of a recently captured criminal, the legendary Ned Kelly. Charles had the job of ensuring Kelly recovered enough to stand trial and then be executed. However, this isn’t the only run in with bushrangers that befell the Ryan family. Charles’ father was once briefly held prisoner by Captain Gepp and his gang. During his capture Gepp stole a knife from Charles senior and placed it in his coat pocket. Hours later Gepp was saved by the knife when a bullet intended for his heart ricocheted off the purloined blade and saved his life!  He was later executed.

In 1883, Charles married Alice Elfrida Sumner in Christ Church, Brunswick, and they had two children Rupert Sumner (1884) and Ethel Marian (1891). 

At the outbreak of WW1 and having already turned 60, Charles was appointed Assistant Director of Medical Services in the AIF.  He took off for Egypt just after his 61st birthday and eventually landed at Gallipoli with William Birdwood, commander of the ANZAC forces.  

A fierce battle broke out between the Australian and Turkish forces on May 19th, and within a few short hours over 10000 men were wounded and almost 4000 dead.  On May 24th a 9 hour truce was called and the medical teams of the Turks and Australians ventured into no man’s land to treat the injured and to book and bury the dead. Charles was a keen photographer and his photographs show the burials (shown below).

With hostilities on hold the soldiers became just men for a time and exchanged rations with the ‘enemy’. Walking through this suspended scene of war came a distinguished looking older man, giving orders and directing the activity of the medical troops. He carried with him a camera, pausing occasionally to record the scene.  Upon his chest were the medals he received fighting alongside those same men who were now his ‘enemy’.  Turkish offices noticed the medals and, after some questioning, greeted Charles as something of a hero and he conversed with them in an accented Turkish about the siege of Plevna. His WW1 Service record (page 8 ) shows he was in the area at the time. 

He was apparently reported dead shortly after the temporary truce of May 25th, but he was only suffering a severe case of dysentery and was to serve the rest of the war providing his service to the AIF in London. He was officially retired from the Army in 1919 with the rank of Major General.

Charles died on board a costal ship in October of 1926 as he was making his way home from Adelaide.  He was heard to remark that his condition was not good and that he would soon be dead.

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