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‘As they rose Turkish machine guns just poured out lead and our fellows went down like corn before a scythe.’
Only the New Zealanders ended the night march somewhere near their objective at dawn on August 7. As they climbed to the top of Rhododendron Ridge, they could see Chunuk Bair about a kilometre ahead.
Below to the right lay the Australian trenches at The Nek, the narrow strip of flat land about the size of a football field. With sheer sides dropping away on each side, it linked the Russell’s Top plateau with the strategic knoll of Baby 700. Turkish defenders were entrenched with rifles and machine guns covering the exposed 27m of land.
The Nek was an easily defended bottleneck, as shown in the May 19 offensive when a carpet of Turkish corpses rotted in no man’s land until the truce to bury the dead. The Allies August plan to capture it was flimsily based on the New Zealanders capturing Chunuk Bair, allowing the Turks on Baby 700 to be attacked from the rear while two regiments of the Australian Light Horse charged across the Nek in four waves.
The plan had only a slim chance of success even if the New Zealanders had been in their planned position. Without that, even General Birdwood believed an attack was “almost hopeless”. Major General Alexander Godley, commander of the New Zealand and Australian Division, ordered it to go ahead.
The preliminary naval bombardment of Baby 700 was ineffective and ended early, allowing the Turks to slip back into the trenches and wait for the charge they knew was coming. The Light Horsemen had been ordered to charge with bayonets fixed and no bullets.
At 4.30 am the first of 150 Victorians from the 8th Light Horse Regiment rose at the whistle and raced forward. Within half a minute they were mown down. Among the corpses was their commander Lt Col. Alexander White. No one questioned the senseless sacrifice: the second wave of 150 ‘hopped the bags’ two minutes later to join dead and wounded comrades.
(NOTE: The compass and case carried by Lt.Col. White when he was killed is held in the Maryborough Military and Colonial Museum.)
Lieutenant William Cameron, 9th Light Horse (South Australia and Victoria), watched in horror: We saw them climb out and move forward about ten yards [nine metres] and lie flat. The second wave did likewise … As they rose to charge, the Turkish Machine Guns just poured out lead and our fellows went down like corn before a scythe.
(A simultaneous attack by the 2nd Light Horse Regiment (1st Light Horse Brigade) at Quinn’s Post against the Ottoman trench system known as ‘The Chessboard’ was abandoned after 49 out of the 50 men in the first wave became casualties. The regiment’s commander had not gone in the first wave and cancelled the order.)
Charles Bean painstaking recorded details that would appear in his official histories: The Australian line started forward towards the skyline then suddenly grew limp and sank to the earth ‘as though,’ said one eyewitness, ‘ the men’s limbs had become string. Many had fallen back into the trench wounded. Others hit managed to crawl back and tumble over the parapet, avoiding being hit again and killed. Practically all the rest lay dead five or six yards from the parapet.
As the 10th Light Horse from Western Australia lined up to form the next two waves, their horrified commander Lt Col. Noel Brazier raced to find superior officers who could halt the carnage. Brigadier General Frederick Hughes could not be found; Lieutenant Colonel John Antill ordered he ‘push on’ despite Lt Col. Brazier yelling the ‘whole thing is nothing but bloody murder’.
Minutes later another 150 Light Horsemen, who had silently stood aside on their way into the trench to allow bodies of the Victorians to be carried out, said goodbye to each other, wrote farewell notes, and rose to face certain death in the maelstrom of rifle and machinegun bullets.
Trooper Harold Rush turned to his mate with the words that were to appear on his tombstone: ‘Goodbye Cobber, God bless you.’ Some escaped mindless suicide by obeying the order to attack but flinging themselves on the open ground.
An order finally was given to halt but came through too late to prevent more than 80 men being sent over in the fourth wave.
Charles Bean wrote of this dire loss: With that regiment went the flower of the youth of Western Australia, sons of the old pioneering families, youngsters-in some cases two and three from the same home — who had flocked to Perth at the outbreak of war with their own horses and saddlery in order to secure enlistment in a mounted regiment of the AIF.
By 4:45 a.m. the ridge was covered with dead and wounded Australian soldiers. Corpses remained where they fell until after the war: Harold Rush’s body was one of the few identified and buried at the Walker’s Ridge cemetery with his famous last words etched on his gravestone.
Of the 600 Australians from the 3rd Light Horse Brigade who took part in the futile attack, 372 lay dead or wounded. For no gain and negligible Turkish losses, 134 men had been killed.
The battle became known as ‘Godley’s abbatoir’ after the inexplicable order to proceed with the overly ambitious attack when the sliver of hope for success – an attack from the rear – had disappeared. Personality rifts among Australian officers were blamed for the inept leadership that failed to halt the attack.
Col. Antill based his order to continue the attack on reports that Australian marker flags had been seen at the enemy trenches. Turkish defenders later confirmed that a few Australians did cross The Nek and raise the flags but were quickly killed.
On Rhododendron Ridge, Sergeant John Wilder of the Wellington Mounted Rifles watched the destruction of the 8th and 10th Light Horse Regiments: I saw the whole thing … and don’t want to see another sight like it. They were fairly mown down by machine guns. Wilder, quoted in C Pugsley, Gallipoli – The New Zealand Story.
Although his contemporary newspaper reports hailed the sacrifice and heroism, Bean’s official histories lashed the British generals and for the first time severely criticised Australian commanders: ‘For the annihilation of line after line at the Nek the local (Australian) command was, however, chiefly responsible. Although at such crises in a great battle firm action must be taken, sometimes regardless of the cost, there could be no valid reason for flinging away the later lines when the first had utterly failed.’