The Battle for Sari Bair

By MSW Add a Comment 19 Min Read
The Battle for Sari Bair

30 May

Birdwood first unveiled plans to capture the initial
objectives, including the Sari Bair Range

6 August

Birdwood’s plans for a final assault are launched with
diversion at the Vineyard and Lone Pine


Artillery bombardment commences for 2½ hours in area known
as the Vineyard to create a diversion from main assault


Allied troops move to attack at the Vineyard sector; the
attack achieved nothing and dragged on to 13 August


Attack at Lone Pine launched by Australian 1st Division,
following lifting artillery bombardment; battle raged for three days, Ottoman
trenches captured but ultimately failed to distract Ottomans from main assault


Main assault commences: Monash’s troops get into
difficulties and 4th Brigade halts for the night


1/6th Gurkha Rifles halt within 200ft of their objective,
Hill Q

7 August

Dawn: New Zealanders reach Rhododendron Ridge on the path to
Chunuk Bair, other units are lost; Johnston waits for reinforcements


The Light Horse move to attack the Nek, despite not having
the support of the waiting New Zealanders; the Ottomans inflict severe


Gurkhas assault Hill Q, but falter due to lack of support

8 August


New Zealanders are reinforced; Wellington and the Glosters
take peak of Chunuk Bair


Ottomans counterattack at Chunuk Bair, inflicting heavy
losses on the New Zealanders and New Army units

9 August

Allied troops under Baldwin assault Hill Q, but are driven
off by their own naval bombardment

10 August, 4.30am

Kemal leads a fresh Ottoman counterattack on Chunuk Bair,
overwhelming the Allied forces; the Ottomans regain Hill Q and Chunuk Bair,
symbolising the end of the campaign

There was little hope that the plans to capture Achi Baba
could be re-ignited, and with the loss of both Generals Hunter-Weston and
Gourard, there was no stomach for limited objective offensives. Instead,
attention turned back to the Anzac sector, held on the defensive since the
Ottoman counteroffensives had been repelled, with great loss of life.

Priorities changed when General Birdwood, commanding the
Australian and New Zealand Army Corps came up with a plan that he hoped would
break the deadlock at Anzac. The plan went through several iterations – each
time revising its objectives in the light of a more realistic assessment of
success. On 30 May Birdwood came up with a new plan that presented the view
that he could achieve the objectives that had been set on the very first day of
the landings, just over a month before: the capture of the heights of the Sair
Bair Range, namely, Chunuk Bair, Hill Q and Hill 971 (Koçacmintepe). Using the
Anzac Corps and the Indian 29th Brigade, Birdwood planned an assault from the
eastwards facing slopes of the range, with two columns advancing in darkness to
assault the hilltops. These troops would be commanded by Major General Godley
and would initially comprise the 4th Australian Brigade, the New Zealand
Brigade and the 29th Indian Brigade.

In addition to the columns attacking up the lower slopes of
Sari Bair, an attack at the apex of the current line (at the top of Walker’s
Ridge on the saddleback feature known as the Nek) would, if it succeeded, allow
the Anzacs to trap the Ottoman defenders in a pincer movement. All was to be
expended in this great push, and Birdwood was confident that the attack could
work; from here the Allies would command the heights. He hoped that this would
offer the chance of siting heavy artillery pieces at this prime location,
artillery that would be in a position to shell the Narrows and once more open
the possibility of letting the fleet through. A vision that had literally faded
from view in all the recent failed Allied offensives, as the objectives

There were also to be feints that were intended to draw
Ottoman attention away from the main assault on the peaks at dawn the next day.
The first of these was in the south at Helles, once more the focus of the 88th
Brigade of the unfortunate 29th Division, committed to battle at Fir Tree Spur,
across the patch of ground known as ‘The Vineyard’. As was customary at Helles,
the attack was in broad daylight in the late afternoon of 6 August, the assault
at 5pm following a 2½ hour bombardment. Like others before it, it was a
failure; trenches were taken and lost to the seasoned Ottoman troops.
Inexplicably, the battle was rejoined with another bombardment the following
day, the 42nd Division taking the brunt. It too was to achieve nothing. The
diversion would drag on until 13 August; the Ottomans were aware of both the
feint and the likely British intent, and, unconcerned, committed two divisions
from Helles to the battlegrounds of Anzac.

Closer to the point of conflict was another diversion at
Lone Pine, the distinctive single-pine ridge across from 400 Plateau, along
Second Ridge. The intention here was an all-out assault to distract the
Ottomans, while the British were similarly engaged in the south. Yet, at Lone
Pine, trench warfare had been developed to a high science. The Ottomans had
created a formidable fortification, their trenches reinforced and roofed with
timber baulks to prevent losses by shell and grenade. Like the battles at the
Vineyard, Lone Pine has become a microcosm of the whole Gallipoli campaign at
Anzac; hard-fought, but ultimately futile. So, on 6 August, at 5.30pm the
attack was launched by the Australian 1st Division, following an artillery
bombardment in ‘lifts’, the line of exploding shells moving progressively
inland. Attacking over open ground, they found their route blocked by barbed
wire, the roofed trenches with loopholes almost impossible to assault from the
front. Not to be outdone, the Australians found their way into the underground
maze from the rear, along communication trenches; the resulting hand-to-hand
fighting below ground bitter and bloody, its aftermath, a charnel house.

Our casualties in this fighting amounted to 2,000 men,
but the Turks themselves acknowledge losses totalling 6,930 in their 16th
Division, and of some 5,000 were sustained in a small sector of the Lone Pine
trenches. God forbid that I should ever see again such a sight as that which
met my eyes when I went up there: Turks and Australians piled four and five
deep on one another.

Lieutenant General W. Birdwood, ANZAC

Like the diversion at Helles, this battle was to rage for
three days, and though capturing the Ottoman trenches, it failed in its prime
purpose. Rather than diverting the attention of the Ottomans at Anzac away from
the main assault, it was to attract reinforcement of two regiments from the 9th
Division in Helles, and this at a cost of 2,200 Australian casualties, and
goodness knows how many Ottomans.

The assault against the peaks of Sari Bair was to be
commanded by Major General Godley of the Australian and New Zealand Division.
On the night of 6 August, as the two feints were being fought out, the two
assaulting columns were to leave the Anzac perimeter, striking out to the west
to circle around the westwards facing foothills of the Sari Bair Range. The
left-hand column was composed of the Australian 4th Brigade and the 29th Indian
Brigade; closer to its target the two brigades would separate to form three
assaulting columns, the Australians targeting Hill 971 (Koçacmintepe), the
Indians Hill Q. The right-hand column was composed of the men of the New
Zealand Infantry Brigade, its main focus was to be Chunuk Bair. However, both
columns were understrength and included men weakened by dysentery, an
inevitable by-product of the summer months’ campaigning in Gallipoli.

The two columns moved to the margins of the Anzac perimeter,
in the hands of guides who had knowledge of the intricate mass of gullies and
ridges caused by the action of wind and water over centuries. Any Ottoman
defences soon evaporated, but the left-hand column, commanded by Brigadier
General Monash, got into difficulties. Fighting its way through the scrub to a
watercourse, the Aghyl Dere, Ottoman resistance stiffened. Exhausted, the 4th
Brigade would go no further that night: Hill 971 would have to wait. In fact,
the left-hand column would never get close to Hill 971; though resuming the
attack approach on the morning of 8 August, there was still confusion about
which direction to take. Hill 971 would remain unassaulted. Behind them was the
Indian Brigade; slowed up by the tortuous terrain, they too would be dispersed,
a long way off their objective.

Only the 1/6th Gurkha Rifles got anywhere near Hill Q,
within 200ft of their objective by 6pm. They would make their assault the next
morning at 5am, following a naval bombardment. With no other battalions in
support – all the others were lost in the gullies – they made a heroic assault
on the hill that drove off the Ottomans. Tragically, they would become victims
of their own naval support, and with no reserves, they lost their tenuous grip
on Hill Q.

The right-hand column of New Zealanders, operating within
the more familiar Anzac perimeter, fared a little better – but were still held
up by Ottoman resistance. By dawn on 7 August some had reached Rhododendron
Ridge, a spur that leads right up to Chunuk Bair; while others were lost in the
complex terrain of ridges and gullies. Brigadier General Johnston, commanding
the column, waited until he had sufficient men to continue the assault against
what was still an unknown level of resistance. This was to prove a costly
decision; it was to deeply influence the outcome of the attack by the Light
Horse Brigade at the Nek, which was to take place at 4.30am on the 7th.

As the Light Horse were pushing to Baby 700 – the hill that
had been the focus of so much attention during the landings – it had been intended
that the New Zealanders would be pressing on from their newly captured
positions at Chunuk Bair, thereby crushing the Ottoman defenders between them.
It was not to be. In the absence of the New Zealanders, the attack at the Nek
went ahead on the orders of Godley. Rising out of their trenches, the attackers
were armed only with unloaded rifles and bayonets. The Ottomans wrought havoc
with their withering fire, and the three successive waves of light horsemen
were mown down – 378 casualties out of 600, 230 of them killed. Their bodies
would remain on the battlefield, only to be gathered in after the war was
finally ended.

For the New Zealanders on Rhododendron Spur, things were
difficult. The Ottoman defenders were stiffening, the commander of the 9th Division,
Colonel Kannengiesser was in position on the hilltop.

Godley issued the terse order: ‘Attack at once’. The
Auckland Battalion took heavy casualties; while Johnston ordered the Wellington
Battalion into position, its commander refused to attack in daylight. Dug in as
best they could, the New Zealanders were reinforced by two newly arrived
battalions of the 13th (Western) Division, the 7th Gloucestershires and the 8th
Welsh. At 3am, the peak of Chunuk Bair was to be taken by the Wellington men,
and the Glosters. The navy had played its supporting role – the Ottomans had no
way of digging down into what was hard and rocky soil, and were hopelessly
exposed. However, this factor would come to count against the Allies.

The new defenders of the peak now found themselves in
Ottoman crossfire, from Battleship Hill to the south and from Hill Q to the
north – both of which would have been taken by now if things had gone to plan.
By 5am, the Ottomans launched a desperate counterattack, reinforced by the 8th
Division recently arrived from the Helles front. As the scale of the assault
unfolded, von Sanders appointed Mustafa Kemal as commander in charge of the
defence of Sari Bair. By that evening, the New Zealanders and New Army men held
on grimly, their casualties mounting – the Wellington Battalion would lose 711
out of 760, the New Army battalions suffering similarly.

With Chunuk Bair holding, Hill Q would be assaulted on 9
August by a mixed force, led by Brigadier Baldwin, of four battalions from the
38th, 39th and 40th brigades of the 13th Division, and two battalions from the
29th Brigade of the 10th (Irish) Division. Climbing to a flat area called ‘The
Farm’, they moved up a feature known as Chailak Dere in order to take the
assault to Hill Q, while New Zealanders from Chunuk Bair and the Indian Brigade
would also attack the hill. Baldwin’s men met with stiff opposition. The only
force to reach Hill Q was a battalion of Gurkhas, but they would be driven off
by their own naval artillery fire, delivered from the newly arrived ‘monitors’
(gunships sent out to replace the capital ships) and the ageing battleship HMS

On the morning of 10 August Mustafa Kemal led an
overwhelming Ottoman counterattack on Chunuk Bair at 4.30am, narrowly avoiding
being wounded. Turkish historian Kenan Çelik has described the action:

When Mustafa Kemal gave the signal, 5,000 men in 22 lines
charged on the New Zealanders and the British at Chunuk Bair. One second later
there was only one sound – ‘Allah … Allah … Allah.’ The British did not have
time to fire and all the men in the front-line trenches were bayoneted. The
British troops were wildly scattered. In four hours’ time, the 23rd and 24th
Regiments regained the lines at Chunuk Bair. The 28th Regiment regained
Pinnacle (the highest point on Rhododendron Ridge). Just after the Turks
regained Chunuk Bair, the Navy and artillery began firing. Hell let loose. Iron
rained from the skies over the Turks. Everybody accepted their fate. All around
people were killed and wounded. While Mustafa Kemal watched the fighting, a
piece of shrapnel hit his pocket watch. The watch was broken but protected his
life. He had a bruise on his chest, but nothing else. He was destined to save
the country.

Kenan Çelik

The exhausted New Zealanders had been relieved by the 6th
Loyal North Lancashires, who had arrived at 10pm (a second battalion, the 10th
Wiltshires, had not yet arrived). The force of the Ottoman attack was to prove
too much; breaking over the British battalions and sweeping them down the slope
into the confusion of gullies below. Baldwin’s men at the Farm would suffer the
impact of the Ottoman charge. Hill Q was no longer occupied and Chunuk Bair, so
fleetingly held by the Allies, was now firmly back in Ottoman hands. The
struggle for the heights was over; the campaign effectively finished, dead in
the dark waters of the Dardanelles Straits.


Peter Weir’s 1981 film Gallipoli famously covered the charge
of the Australian Light Horse at the Nek. Controversially, the film linked the order
for the second and third waves to continue with the charge in the face of
Ottoman machine guns (the artillery barrage having been lifted due to an error
in timing) as a ‘support’ for the British at Suvla Bay – who were famously
described as ‘drinking tea on the beach’. Yet the Suvla Bay landings had
nothing to do with the attack at the Nek.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
Leave a comment

Leave a Reply Cancel reply

Exit mobile version