Revisiting the Charge at The Nek
A young man, fit and blond, waits nervously in a trench, clenching his bayonet-fixed rifle across his chest. A whistle sounds and he throws himself over the top of the trench into no man’s land, which is already littered with the bodies of his fellow soldiers. Machine-guns chatter, more of his companions are cut down, and the young man drops his bayonet and runs as hard as he can toward the enemy trenches. Chin up, arms outstretched, his chest is riddled with bullets.
Few who have seen Australian director Peter Weir’s film Gallipoli can forget those final poignant scenes as Archy Hamilton and his friends are ripped apart by machine-gun fire in a failed charge toward enemy lines on the Turkish peninsula. But many may not realise that they are based on one particular battle fought at ANZAC: the Charge at the Nek, on 7 August 1915.
“The Nek was such a heroic failure it almost epitomises the First World War,” says Peter Burness, senior historian at the Australian War Memorial. “People connect with it because it’s on a scale we can grasp, and all the folly and valour we can accept.”
The Nek was a strategically important land bridge that connected Russell’s Top, the northern end of the ANZAC front line, to the Turkish-held rise of Baby 700. The charge was a diversionary attack for the August Offensive, the last attempt of the allied forces at Gallipoli to break the stalemate that had persisted since the ANZACs landed on 25 April. It was to be carried out by the 3rd Light Horse Brigade.
The attack began with a bombardment of Turkish positions by artillery and a destroyer steaming offshore, but the bulk of the shells fell beyond their target and the shelling finished seven minutes early. The officers of the light horse held off the charge until the allotted time of 4.30 am, giving the Turks a chance to return to their positions after sheltering further back during the bombardment.
First over the top was the 8th Light Horse Regiment, and immediately they were shot down by Turkish rifle and machine-gun fire. Many were killed just metres out of the trench. The second line, also from the 8th, scrambled over the dead and wounded to make their attack, and suffered the same fate.
The charge had obviously failed, and cancellation of the attack was proposed. But Lieutenant Colonel Jack Antill, who had effective command of the 3rd Brigade, rejected the idea and a third line of soldiers, from the 10th Light Horse, were sent over the top – Archy’s regiment. With the body count climbing higher, cancellation was again suggested, but before a decision was made the right flank of the fourth line charged as a result of a misunderstanding, and the rest of the line followed. They too were mowed down by the Turkish fire. The 8th Light Horse suffered 234 casualties, 154 fatal; and the 10th suffered 138 casualties, 80 fatal.
Burness became fascinated with the story of the Nek via the Official History writings of Charles Bean, the painting by George Lambert and other relics in the Australian War Memorial’s collection. In 1995 his account of the battle, The Nek: the tragic charge of the Light Horse at Gallipoli, was published and – owing to demand – he is now updating it.
“The whole thrust of the book is about the men involved in the charge, who they were and what made them tick,” Burness says. “In 1985 I’d interviewed survivors of the battle, and what they told me was included in the book. But since then I have had more material given to me by families of those who witnessed or were part of the charge. Research now is also easier, and there is much more material available at your fingertips on websites. This has confirmed and corrected information that I had, and gives a fuller picture.”
Burness has delved deeper into the lives of the senior officers overseeing the charge, and made some interesting discoveries.
“The personal relationships between a couple of Australian officers were very poor – I’ve found they were poisonous,” he says. At a time when clear thinking and cooperation were essential, there was no effective communication. “One officer who later gave a clear description of the battle was very deeply affected by the failed attack. I recently found out he committed suicide after the war.”
While today most people connect the story of the Nek with Peter Weir’s film, early generations compared it with the story of the Charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War. Even Charles Bean made the comparison. Burness says: “Behind the glorious charge of the Light Brigade there is a story of inadequacies, incompetence and bitter personal rivalries. The action at the Nek was no different. Yet still we marvel at the courage of those who took part.”
Burness will speak on “The Nek, a battle revisited” at the Narratives of War Symposium at the University of South Australia this Thursday, 29 September. The new edition of The Nek is in production.