Gallipoli August 6-9, 1915

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Major General Sir Andrew Hamilton Russell KCB, KCMG (23 February 1868 – 29 November 1960) was a New Zealand General during the First World War. A senior officer in the New Zealand Territorial Force and a veteran of the British Army, Russell was appointed to command the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade upon the outbreak of war, and rose swiftly to high command during the Gallipoli Campaign, principally for his role in the short-lived capture of Chunuk Bair. He commanded the ANZAC evacuation from Gallipoli, and went on to achieve further distinction as the commander of the New Zealand Division on the Western Front in 1917 and 1918. Sir Ian Hamilton identified Russell as “the outstanding New Zealander on the Gallipoli peninsula.”

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Battle of Sari Bair, showing the British attack, 6–8 August 1915.

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Assault on Chunuk Bair, 8 August 1915.

At Anzac on August 6 1915 there was no confusion over the plans; the commanders knew exactly what they had to do. During the afternoon the Australians were to attack at Lone Pine in the south of the bridgehead, so as to give the Turks the impression that the main assault was coming from that direction, and then, after nightfall, the bulk of Birdwood’s forces were to march up the ravines towards Sari Bair. They hoped to take the crest of the ridge by morning.

The charge at Lone Pine was a particularly desperate adventure, since it was to take place in broad daylight and on a narrow front of only 220 yards where the Turks could concentrate their fire. Yet the soldiers believed in the plan. They believed in it so well and were so eager to fight that guards had to be posted in the rear trenches to prevent unauthorized men from attempting to take part. This was a wise precaution, because when the fighting did begin it created a frenzy that was not far from madness, and men were to be seen offering sums of five pounds or more for the privilege of getting a place in the front line.

Through the midday hours the soldiers committed to the first assault filed quietly into the secret underground tunnel which had been dug about fifty yards in advance of the front line and parallel to it through no-man’s-land. The sandbags plugging the holes from which they were to emerge were loosened, and they lay waiting there in darkness and in fearful heat, while the artillery barrage thundered over their heads. At 5.30 p.m. whistles sounded the attack along the line. It was the strangest of battles; soldiers erupting from the ground into the bright sunlight, others leaping up from the trenches behind them, and all of them with shouts and yells running forward into the scrub. They had about a hundred yards to go, and when they arrived at the Turkish line they found that the trenches had been roofed over with heavy pine logs. Some of the men dropped their rifles and started to claw these logs aside with their hands, others simply fired down through the chinks into the Turks below, others again went running on to the open communication trenches and there they sprang down to take the enemy in the rear. In the semi-darkness under the pine logs there was very little space to shoot; on both sides they fought with bayonets and sometimes without any weapons at all, kicking and struggling on the ground, trying to throttle one another with their hands.

Although in after years the action at Lone Pine was very carefully chronicled—the attacks and counter-attacks that followed one another through the day and night for a week on end—it is not really possible to comprehend what happened. All dissolves into the confused impression of a riot, of a vicious street-fight in the back alleys of a city, and the metaphor of the stirred-up ant-heap persists; it was the same frantic movement to and fro, the agitated jerking and rushing and the apparent absence of all meaning except that contained in the idea of mutual destruction. It was the kind of fighting which General Stopford could hardly have understood.

Seven Victoria Crosses were won at Lone Pine, and in the first few days’ fighting alone something like 4,000 men were killed there. On this first evening, however, the important thing was that by 6 p.m. the Australians had captured the Turkish front line and were resisting every effort to turn them out. If they did not altogether deceive Essad Pasha as to the true direction of Birdwood’s main attack, at least they made it impossible for him to obtain reinforcements from this part of his line. By nightfall the way was clear for the main assault on Sari Bair ridge to begin.

Mustafa Kemal made one error in his anticipation of Birdwood’s plan; he did not believe that the British would ever have attempted to climb these hills by night. Yet here again the commanders were very confident. A New Zealand major named Overton had been secretly reconnoitring the ground through the latter part of July and early August, and he had organized a troop of guides who were to lead the soldiers over the fantastically broken country to their objectives. They had an excellent map of the area which had been taken from the dead body of a Turkish officer after the May 19 assault. Twenty thousand men, under the command of Major-General Godley, were to be engaged, and they were divided into two columns. The first of these, made up chiefly of New Zealanders, was to advance up Sazlidere and a neighbouring ravine to the top of Chunuk Bair. The second, comprising British, Australian and Indian troops, was to march on a roundabout course to the north of the bridgehead, where it was to split into two halves for the assault of Hill Q and Koja Chemen Tepe.

The first column’s offensive opened brilliantly soon after night had fallen. Faithfully at 9 p.m. the British destroyer shelled the Turks at Old Post 3 in the usual way, and at 9.30 the New Zealanders rushing alongside the searchlight beam occupied the position before the enemy could get back to it. There developed almost at once some of the most brutal fighting of the campaign along the side of Sazlidere, but the Turks, as Kemal had predicted, were not strong enough to hold. They fell back along a ridge known to the British as Rhododendron Spur,26 and for a time the New Zealanders found themselves advancing through unoccupied country behind the enemy lines. ‘It was a curious sensation,’ one of their officers related later, ‘to be marching along that valley in bright moonlight, far within the Turkish lines, without opposition of any kind. One Turk, who rushed out ahead of the advanced guard, I shot dead with my pistol. He was the only Turk seen that night.’

Soon after midnight, however, things began to go wrong. The guides faltered, stopped, and finally admitted they were lost. One part of the column having marched—or rather climbed and descended—all through the night found itself back at its starting point. The part which did succeed in finding its way to the top of Rhododendron Spur sat down to wait for the lost battalions, and when dawn broke the assault of the final summit of Chunuk Bair had still not begun.

But this was nothing to the difficulties in which the second column on the left found itself almost from the outset. The men had been set to march a distance of about three and a half miles in three hours, and no doubt it might have been done if they had been on a walking expedition in peacetime, and if they had travelled in daylight with good maps and without baggage of any kind. But many of them were weakened by months of dysentery, they were heavily burdened, it was very dark and they had to fight the Turks on the way. Moreover, the guides were so confident that at the last minute they chose to take a short cut. Instead of following the easy roundabout route on the low ground to the north, they led the column into a ravine at Aghyldere, and here the Turks poured down their fire upon them. At once the whole column came to a halt, and it was not very helpful that the men had been ordered to march with unloaded rifles so as to confine their fighting to the silent bayonet. In this wilderness there was now no silence, and there was no one whom they could see to bayonet. When the commanding officer was wounded panic began to spread along the line. Some of the men, believing the opposition to be far worse than it was, started to scatter and retreat; others pressed on in broken groups into dark valleys that led nowhere, and every ridge was the beginning of another ridge beyond. They were soon exhausted. Many of the men dropped in their tracks and fell asleep, and it was difficult for the officers to harry them on since they themselves were without orders, and were bewildered by the unaccountable delays in the movement of the column. It was like a caterpillar, undulating at the centre, but without forward motion, its head and tail rooted to the ground. Daylight on August 7 found them still groping about in the ravines; and the crests of Hill Q and Koja Chemen Tepe, which they had hoped to rush at 3 a.m., were a mile or more away.

There was still one more forfeit to pay for the folly of attempting this night march. In the expectation that the Sari Bair ridge would have fallen by dawn it had been arranged that the Australian Light Horse should carry out a frontal attack just below Kemal’s headquarters on Battleship Hill, so as to prevent the enemy from enfilading on that flank. The Light Horsemen were an aggressive lot, and Birdwood at one stage had even contemplated putting them back on their horses so that they could make a cavalry charge into the rear of the Turkish lines, somewhat in the manner of the Light Brigade in the Crimean campaign. That colourful idea, however, had been dismissed, and the Light Horsemen now found themselves dismounted in the trenches below Battleship Hill. The Sari Bair ridge had not been taken but they decided to charge just the same. ‘You have ten minutes to live,’ one of the officers said to his men while they waited, and this proved to be very nearly accurate, for it did not take the Turks long to destroy 650 out of the 1,250 who came over the top, one wave following another, the living stumbling for a few seconds over the bodies of the dead until they too were dead. Only a handful reached the Turkish trenches and there they fired their green and red rockets as the signal for the others to come on. But there were none to follow them.

Other small attacks along the line came to no better end and an unnatural quiet began to spread along the front through the early hours of the morning of August 7. On the Turkish side the commanders had survived the surprise of the first shock of the offensive, but they had had no time as yet to re-group their men to meet the next assault. The British, like the crew of a ship which has barely weathered a bad storm in the night, were still dazed and uncertain. Those New Zealanders who had gained the crest of Rhododendron Spur looked down and saw far below them to the north-west Stopford’s soldiers strolling about in the sunshine at Suvla Bay. From the left-hand Anzac column, still beleaguered in the hills, there was no sound; nor was there any movement in the direction of Battleship Hill, since the Australian attack here had failed and so many were dead. The fight at Lone Pine further to the south was still going on, but apart from this the battle had stopped. Not unnaturally the New Zealanders began to feel isolated in their high perch under Chunuk Bair—they alone seemed to have penetrated into the enemy lines, and there was no knowing whether or not they were about to be entirely cut off. There was still no sign of the other units who were expected to join them there, and the plan was now running many hours behind schedule.

Presently, however, two companies of Gurkhas who had been lost all night came straggling up the spur, and with these reinforcements the New Zealanders made a rush for the summit of Chunuk Bair in the middle of this morning of August 7. It was several hours too late. By now a German Colonel named Kannengiesser had arrived on the hilltop, and although he was wounded he roused the Turkish outpost there and they drove back the attack. This was the last heavy fighting on Anzac on August 7. The rest of the day went by while the left hand column extricated itself from the frightful muddle it had got into during the night, and nothing more could be done on Rhododendron Spur until the New Zealanders were reinforced.

General Godley now decided to reorganize his force for a new attack at dawn on August 8. Through the night five columns were assembled, and their objectives were the same as before—the three main peaks on Sari Bair. It was a confused affair, for the troops were still not properly rested or supplied—most of them had been wandering about half the night in the hopeless maze of gullies and ravines, and had not even reached the start line when the attack began. But there were two encouraging events: a British Major named Allanson, in command of a battalion of Gurkhas, found himself far out in front near the centre of the line, and instead of waiting for support to reach him he elected to go on and see whether he could take Hill Q on his own initiative. He very nearly succeeded. It chanced that he struck a gap in the enemy defences, and he had actually advanced to within 300 feet of the crest before he was fired on. He then scrambled back down the cliffs in search of reinforcements, and having gathered in some British infantry managed to hoist his little force another hundred feet towards his goal: and there they perched all day on ledges and crannies in the rocks under the fire of Turkish snipers, until, at dusk, they clambered on to a better position a little higher up. It was not so much fighting as mountaineering. They were quite cut off, and at Godley’s headquarters that night nothing was known about them.

The other success was on Chunuk Bair, and here too there was another inexplicable gap in the Turkish line. A Lieut.-Colonel Malone made a rush for the summit with two companies of New Zealanders, and they surprised the Turkish outpost there asleep. One does not know why it was that these exhausted Turks had not been relieved or reinforced, but it was so, and Malone and his New Zealanders contrived to dig in just below the crest. But they had very little chance of survival: there was no cover on the open hilltop, and from either side the Turks shot shells and machine-gun bullets into them all through the day. Several times the Gloucestershire regiment and others tried to get through to them without success, and when night fell Malone and nearly all his men were dead.

Thus on the evening of August 8, forty-eight hours after the offensive had begun, the Allies had reached none of their main objectives. The Suvla plan, which was a good plan, had failed because the wrong commanders and soldiers had been employed, and at Anzac the best officers and men were employed upon a plan that would not work. And both attacks had been bedevilled at the outset by the difficulties of advancing through a strange country in the night. Even at Helles the battle had gone wrong, for the British there had launched their diversionary attack against Krithia at the very moment when the Turks were also massing for an assault. And so the Allies were thrown back to their own trenches with heavy casualties and apparently nothing gained.

It was the nadir of the campaign. And yet in a perverse way, when everything seemed to have gone wrong, when the vital element of surprise had been lost, a change was taking place at this instant and hope began again. It came chiefly from the commanders. Hamilton was now at Suvla, arguing, persuading, and finally insisting that the new army should march to the hills, and something of the same sort was happening at Anzac. Birdwood and Godley were a long way from abandoning their offensive. Instead they simplified it: they planned still another dawn attack on August 9, but this time they ignored Koja Chemen Tepe and aimed simply for Chunuk Bair and the narrow saddle of land connecting it to Hill Q—the point where Allanson and a little handful of survivors were still clinging to the cliffs. The main assault was entrusted to a General Baldwin, who was in command of four British battalions which had not yet taken part in the battle. At 4.30 a.m. in the first light of the morning every gun at Anzac, at sea or on the shore, was to fire at the crestline, and at 5.15 a.m. the infantry were to get up and charge.

The night again passed in comparative quiet at the front, but with much agitated movement behind the lines. General Baldwin was particularly unlucky. He was given two guides who were supposed to be reliable, but they led him and his column at first in one direction and then in another, until eventually they finished up against the blank wall of a precipice. When the guns opened up at 4.30 a.m. Baldwin was still roaming about some distance from the front, and three quarters of an hour later, when he should have been attacking, he was only beginning to march in the right direction. The rest of the line went into the assault without him, and it was a slow uncertain movement. Perhaps it ought never to have been begun with troops who were so tired and so utterly confused, perhaps Birdwood and his staff were no longer making any sense out of their maps and plans and were guided only by a dull persistence. Yet the crest was very near; so long as there was any hope they had to try again. And in fact, in the most unexpected way, their hope was justified.

Major Allanson, on his eyrie on the ridge, had made contact with the main body of the British during the night and had obtained a reinforcement of Lancashire troops for the new attack—a total of about 450 men in all. He had his orders direct from General Godley: he was to keep his head down until the bombardment was over and then he was to rush the Turkish trenches on the ridge.

‘I had only fifteen minutes left,’ Allanson wrote in the report he made two days later. ‘The roar of the artillery preparation was enormous; the hill, which was almost perpendicular, seemed to leap underneath one. I recognized that if we flew up the hill the moment it stopped, we ought to get to the top. I put the three (Lancashire) companies into the trenches among my men, and said that the moment they saw me go forward carrying a red flag, everyone was to start. I had my watch out, 5.15. I never saw such artillery preparation; the trenches were being torn to pieces; the accuracy was marvellous, as we were only just below. At 5.18 it had not stopped, and I wondered if my watch was wrong. 5.20 silence. I waited three minutes to be certain, great as the risk was. Then off we dashed, all hand in hand, a most perfect advance, and a wonderful sight. . . . At the top we met the Turks; Le Marchand was down, a bayonet through the heart. I got one through the leg, and then for about what appeared to be ten minutes, we fought hand to hand, we bit and fisted, and used rifles and pistols as clubs; and then the Turks turned and fled, and I felt a very proud man; the key of the whole peninsula was ours, and our losses had not been so very great for such a result. Below I saw the straits, motors and wheeled transport on the roads leading to Achi Baba. As I looked round I saw that we were not being supported, and thought I could help best by going after those who had retreated in front of us. We dashed down towards Maidos, but had only got about 100 feet down when suddenly our own Navy put six twelve-inch monitor shells into us, and all was terrible confusion. It was a deplorable disaster; we were obviously mistaken for Turks, and we had to get back. It was an appalling sight: the first hit a Gurkha in the face: the place was a mass of blood and limbs and screams, and we all flew back to the summit and to our old position just below. I remained on the crest with about fifteen men; it was a wonderful view; below were the straits, reinforcements coming over from the Asia Minor side, motor-cars flying. We commanded Kilid Bahr, and the rear of Achi Baba and the communications to all their Army there.’

There is some doubt about the shells that fell on Allanson. The Navy deny that they were theirs, and even those soldiers who, from just below, were observers of the skirmish, were not quite certain what had happened. They saw that Allanson, on reaching the summit, had caught the Turks in the open as they were running back to their trenches after the bombardment. They saw the hand-to-hand fighting with the bayonet, and at the end of it they saw the excited and triumphant figures of the Gurkhas and the British waving on the skyline. Then as they disappeared over the other side the thunderclap occurred, but it was impossible to know the direction from which the shells had come or who had fired them.

Yet the incident was not absolutely disastrous. Allanson was still on the top, and although wounded was prepared to hold on there until reinforcements arrived. And it was indeed a wonderful view, the best that any Allied soldier had ever had on Gallipoli. After three and a half months of the bitterest fighting the Turks were now displaced from the heights, and in effect their army was cut in half. ‘Koja Chemen Tepe not yet,’ Hamilton wrote in his diary. ‘But Chunuk Bair will do: with that, we win.’

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