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A glimpse of the sea
‘… a glimpse of the sea – we knew perfectly well that this hill was the key to victory or defeat.’
‘Not one had dreamed of leaving his post. Their uniforms were torn, their knees broken. They had had no water …. they could talk only in whispers; their eyes were sunken; their knees trembled; some broke down and cried’
After witnessing the Light Horse attack at The Nek on 7 August, the New Zealanders struggled on up Rhododendron Ridge. At dawn on August 8, the Wellington Battalion, led by Colonel William Malone, seized the summit of Chunuk Bair. From there they gazed down on the objective of the whole campaign – the straits of the Dardanelles at the Narrows.
Sergeant Daniel Curham of the Wellingtons was aware of the significance of this peak on Gallipoli: Some chaps had a glimpse of the sea and all the country in between and we knew perfectly well that this hill was the key to victory or defeat on the Peninsula. Curham, quoted in C Pugsley, Gallipoli – The New Zealand Story.
For a day the Wellington Infantry Battalion held the two trenches at the summit – one on the reverse and one on the forward slope – defending the ‘hill’ in what is regarded as one of the epics of New Zealand military history. Continual determined Turkish assaults were beaten off from the New Zealand trenches.
Late in the day, Colonel Malone (pictured) was killed in his headquarters trench by a shell fired from either a British naval vessel or from the Anzac artillery. Around him died many men of the 7th Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment. Charles Bean reported that Gloucester losses were so heavy they were ‘placed singly among the New Zealanders’. The Auckland Infantry Battalion also suffered heavy casualties trying to send reinforcements.
At 10.30 pm on August 8 what was left of the Wellingtons was relieved. Charles Bean described this moment: Of the 760 of the Wellington Battalion who had captured the height that morning, there came out only 70 unwounded or slightly wounded men. Throughout that day not one had dreamed of leaving his post. Their uniforms were torn, their knees broken. They had had no water since the morning; they could talk only in whispers; their eyes were sunken; their knees trembled; some broke down and cried.
– C E W Bean, The Story of Anzac.
Private Reginald Davis of the Wellingtons, who was taken prisoner that morning, recalled the intensity of the fighting: Private Surgenor was hit in the head somewhere, but kept on firing with his face streaming with blood, until he got another hit in the head, which dazed him for a while, and knocked him back in the trench. This time I thought he was killed, but he partly came to after, and loaded rifles for me to fire. At that time I was using three rifles and each was burning hot … On the right of my position I was able to see about thirty yards of trench in which all our men were wounded or dead. Davis, quoted in C Pugsley, Gallipoli – The New Zealand Story.
As the New Zealand and British troops fought on August 8 at Chunuk Bair, General Monash’s 4th Australian Brigade met with disaster. Unable to find their way to the Koja Chemen Tepe peak (Hill 971) and exposed to Turkish artillery fire, they had dug in on the morning of August 7. Casualties mounted during the day.
As darkness fell, Monash was ordered to send his men forward take Hill 971 the next day. In the words of General Alexander Godley, the officer in charge of the Chunuk Bair operation, ‘the assault should be carried out with loud cheering’.
The 14th, 15th and 16th battalions of the 4th Brigade set out in the dark but by dawn were nowhere near the approach to Hill 971. As they advanced over an exposed slope, Turkish machine guns opened up. By 7 am Monash was told his troops had been shattered. All hope to taking Koja Chemen Tepe was lost.
The 15th Battalion, which had left North Beach 36 hours earlier with 850 men, had been reduced to 280. In the 15th was cheery and courageous Bert Back from Granville, who had written to his mother from hospital on May 20 that he was having the time of his life. He had returned to his unit and now lay among the slaughtered on the slopes.
Sgt Bob Hunter: Dear Mrs Back, I heard in Malta about poor Bert’s death. Well, I will give you my opinion of him as a soldier – an opinion of which any mother ought to be proud. He was one of the gamest men that ever left Australia’s shores (which is saying a lot) and I can prove it. Take May 9th, when he was wounded in the shoulder and his arm useless. I bandaged him up and he was determined to go back into the firing line. I had to take his rifle away from him to prevent him doing so. He was a magnificent shot and I saw him and Ben Byrnes (who is also gone) with a NSW officer put over 60 Turks out of action, but I must say they had luck in not getting killed that day. Well, I have lost a good pal who always stuck to me, and I tried to do the same to him and I think I succeeded. You have lost a fine son and Australia a great soldier. I don’t think that Australia knows the value of her sons. Please excuse the pencil. I don’t think I have done wrong in writing as I am on my back with pneumonia. PS. I only hope Maryborough does not forget, after it is over, that she has lost some fine men. M.C., Maryborough WBB Historical Society, Letters from the Front Line.
As a halt was called to the Australian advance, the machine gun sections of the 4th Brigade appeared and covered the retreat. Never again would the Allies try to capture Koja Chemen Tepe, the hill they knew as 971.
On August 9, a mixed garrison of New Zealander Wellington Mounted Rifles and Otago Infantry clung to Chunuk Bair, repelling continual fierce Turkish counter-attacks. Below them, on the seaward side of the range, British and Indian reinforcements struggled through the valleys. At 5.35am the 6th Gurkha Battalion burst over a crest to the left of the New Zealanders on Chunuk Bair and saw the Dardanelles in the distance. Their commander, Major C J L Allanson, described the moment:
“Then off we dashed, all hand in hand, most perfect and a wonderful sight. At the top we met the Turks … [and for] ten minutes we fought hand to hand, we hit 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 to the whole peninsula was ours… . We dashed down towards Maidos but only got about 200 feet when suddenly our Navy put twelve-inch monitor shells into us and all was terrible confusion. It was a deplorable disaster … and we had to go back.”
The New Zealanders held on to Chunuk Bair during second long day. Trooper Harry Browne of the Wellington Mounted Rifles, who had emotionally listened to the inspirational pre-battle singing of the Maoris two days earlier, described the desolate scene in the trenches: “If only Abdul had known how many were left … but there, he didn’t and possibly he was as exhausted as ourselves for New Zealanders had not died for nothing. In the little neighbouring trench, over which no Turk had come alive, the only sign of life among the many there, was the stump of an arm which now and then waved feebly for help and a voice called ‘New Zealand’ to four listeners who could give or get no aid to him. [Brown, quoted in C Pugsley, Gallipoli – The New Zealand Story, London, 1984, p 311”
Many of the New Zealand and British wounded from the trenches at the summit found their way back to a gully in the rear. Lance Corporal Charles Clark of the Wellingtons wrote: “There were about 300 wounded lying in the gully … we lay there in the sun … each man looked after himself … and you would speak to a man, one of your own men and later on you would get no reply, they were dying, dying out as the day went on.” [Clark, quoted in C Pugsley, Gallipoli – The New Zealand Story, London, 1984, p.299]
At 8 pm on 9 August the New Zealanders, exhausted by incessant attacks, finally left Chunuk Bair. British troops replaced them but the Turks, highly alarmed by the threat at Chunuk Bair and Suvla, were massing for a great attack.
Colonel Mustafa Kemal had been dispatched to take charge. On 9 August, Kemal routed the British as they advanced across the Suvla plain. In the evening he rode up to Chunuk Bair where the Turks were faltering under the British naval bombardment and the strong stand of the New Zealanders. Convinced that the time had come for an all-out counter-attack, Kemal ordered his men forward at dawn on 10 August in a bayonet charge.
The Turks rushed forward and swept the New Zealanders, Gurkhas, Sikhs and British officers from the heights of Chunuk Bair. Kemal’s men dashed on down the seaward slope above Anzac Cove only to be decimated by British naval guns and New Zealand machine guns.
Sergeant Daniel Curham of the Wellington Infantry Battalion was operating one of those machine guns: I knew the gun was in good order and I was still fingering it and looking up the hill and I saw a most amazing sight. A great mass of Turks coming over the hill …. I had my gun trained on the very spot and all I had to do was press the trigger and, of course, they fell all over the place. Curham, quoted in C Pugsley, Gallipoli – The New Zealand Story.
The Turks were held but the battle for the summit was over and with it the August offensive. No British Empire soldier ever again beheld the Dardanelles from that peak.
Throughout the battle, the men of the Australian, New Zealand, and British Army Medical Corps, along with the battalion stretcher-bearers, worked night and day to the point of collapse. Some died as they tried to carry the wounded down from the heights. Corporal William Rusden saw two lots of stretcher-bearers shot within minutes as they worked their way down a valley.
In one of these valleys Private Ormond Burton, New Zealand Medical Corps, witnessed the plight of about 300 wounded: No-one appeared to be responsible for them. Their wounds were uncared for and in the heat, some were in a shocking state. They had no food and no water … Many were hit a second and third time as they lay helplessly … Many died there – some able to see the hospital ships with their green bands and red crosses no distance out to sea. On one trip I gave my water bottle to a Turkish officer with four or five of his men about him. He gave every drop to his men and took not a mouthful himself. I saw nothing more dreadful during the whole war than the suffering of those forgotten men. Burton, quoted in C Pugsley, Gallipoli – The New Zealand Story, London, 1984, p.308
During the four days of battle, thousands of wounded men lay across the ridges, dying in pain before help could reach them. Others walked or crawled back down to aid posts near the beach. Sergeant H M Jackson, 13th Battalion, AIF, described the scene: From the trench down to the beach, about 4 miles, is one long line of grey stiff bodies of men who have died trying to get down to the beach unassisted. Sergeant Harold Jackson, 13th Battalion, AIF, Diary, 26 August 1915, AWM, IDRL/0592
Like the landings of 25 April, the August Offensive was a failure; a sizeable area to the north of the old Anzac position had been captured but no breakthrough had occurred, and the straits of the Dardanelles remained as far away as ever.
On August 21 the last major assaults at Gallipoli were launched by the Allies. North at Suvla Bay the disastrous Scimitar Hill battle led to 5300 casualties out of 14,300 soldiers. The Royal Inniskiling Fusiliers managed to capture the summit of Scimitar Hill but retreated under heavy fire. The undergrowth around them was set ablaze by the shellfire, incinerating the wounded as they lay helpless.
A simultaneous offensive action from Anzac to capture Hill 60 ended with 1100 casualties. The Australian 18th Battalion alone was reduced to one-third of its original strength after less than a fortnight of action. Historian Chris Coulthard-Clark described the battle as a series of ‘…badly handled attacks which resulted in costly and confused fighting’. On 28 August, some trenches at the summit were captured but the Turks clung to the northern face which overlooked Suvla. Attacking and counter-attacking continued until the final assault on Hill 60 ended on August 29.
The front lines after August changed little until the evacuation.