The August offensive: the last gasp
Located on the Ground Level
Speech delivered by Dr Brendan Nelson, Director of the Australian War Memorial, at the National Press Club in Canberra on 6 August 2015.
With a sense of awkward humility, abiding reverence and infused with overwhelming pride, 128,000 Australians paused at the Australian War Memorial in the pre-dawn darkness of Anzac Day this year. So too did several million others at the cenotaphs, memorials and places of commemoration throughout the nation and places throughout the world.
We did so as free and confident heirs to a legacy born of idealism, forged in bloody self-sacrifice and passed now to our generation.
Though not said in so many words, we came together in renewed commitment to one another, our nation and the ideals of mankind.
Charles Bean was Australia’s First World War historian.
Bean landed at Gallipoli with the troops on the 25th of April and stayed with them at the front through the entire war. He was witness to it all. Wounded at Gallipoli during the August offensive, he refused to be evacuated.
It was said of Bean that no-one risked death more often than him.
He would then, over almost a quarter of a century write and edit the twelve volumes of the official history.
Finally, in searching for the words to type onto the blank page before him, to summarise it all, he wrote this:
What these men did, nothing can alter now. The good and the bad,
the greatness and the smallness of their story….it rises, it always rises…
above the mists of ages, a monument to great hearted men
and for their nation – a possession forever.
The great 19th century English philosopher, John Stuart Mill concluded two essential pre-requisites for the existence and sustenance of a nation.
The first he said is that a people would want to be governed as one, as a single nation.
And so it was over a generation and a half in the late 19th century, our forebears resolved we would become a nation. The legal architecture for the Commonwealth of Australia was born in 1901 and two years later we got a flag.
Mill’s second essential precondition was what he regarded as a ‘common fellow feeling’, one he said deeply rooted in language, literature and history.
Beyond the nation’s millennia of rich indigenous history, the devastating impact upon it of the arrival of the first fleet in 1788, but from it and the pioneers who joined them through the 19th century the origins of the Australia we now are, it was not until the cataclysm that unfolded in late 1914, that we got our ‘story’.
Australia had to form the Australian Imperial Force (AIF), for which General Sir William Throsby Bridges is owed a great debt. We sent Australians overseas in an Australian uniform with an Australian flag.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders living in a desperately unequal Australia and though prohibited from doing so, only four to five generations after the arrival of the First Fleet, enlisted to fight for the young nation. In doing so they found equality in the AIF. There was no ‘black or white’, only ‘shades of grey’.
A series of largely catastrophic military battles ensued until the stunning leadership of General John Monash of the Australian Corps in 1918.
Australia has never been more divided than it was during the period of the First World War, principally but not only around the conscription referenda. Whether Tasmanians, Victorians or Queenslanders, people looked to the federal government for answers to increasingly difficult questions.
From a nation of 4.5 million in 1914, I million men were of an age that could volunteer. Of those, 417,000 did and 330,000 were deployed overseas. Four years later would be almost 62,000 dead. Another 60,000 would die within a decade of returning to Australia.
Such was the impact on our young nation.
We emerged from the war proud of what had been achieved but a generation inconsolably mourning its dead and dying.
Though public discourse was deeply embittered, we remained true to our democratic principles.
Every nation has its story. This is our story.
There is no more powerful or poignant chapter to that story than the ‘August Offensive’ one hundred years ago.
By early August, three months after the landing, a stalemate enveloped the Gallipoli peninsula. The Anzacs were contained within a 160 hectare beachhead.
British commander, General Ian Hamilton wanted an all-out attempt to break the deadlock. A ‘last throw of the dice’ was conceived and planned to seize the high ground north of the ANZAC sector.
It would be the largest and most costly of the Gallipoli campaign.
A complex series of offensive attacks requiring precise timings were planned involving British, Australian, New Zealand and Indian troops. All would end in heartbreaking failure.
Success depended on the Allies seizing three high points – Hill 971, Hill Q and Chanuk Bair.
Birdwood failed to appreciate the rugged, twisted folded terrain. He ignored the poor physical condition of troops worn down by constant artillery fire and fly-borne diseases spread from dead corpses.
Even had the Allied Commanders’ actions and questionable tactics succeeded, there would still many more ridges before reaching the Kilid Bahr plateau overlooking the Dardanelles.
On the evening of the 6th of August, two columns of allied troops headed for key features on the Sari Bair Range – Hill Q and Hill 971. The objective was to advance to the hills to the north and link in a pincer with the Light Horse assaults at dawn the next day. The Australian attack on Lone Pine was to be a distraction for the Ottoman forces.
At the same time, 20,000 British troops in five divisions started landing at Suvla Bay, eight kilometres to the north.
Simultaneously the New Zealand and mounted brigades began their advance to Chanuk Bair, one of the highest points of the Sari Bair ridge. They were to capture it in support of the dawn attack by the Australian light horse at the Nek.
The depleted 6th Battalion was to take out the enfilading machine guns at German Officers Trench at midnight, essential to the success of attacks the following morning. They failed.
The 1st Light Horse attacked at Pope’s Post. Of the 200 in the attack, 154 were killed and wounded.
At Quinn’s Post, Major George Bourne stopped the attack when most of his men of the 2nd Light Horse were killed in the first wave.
New Zealand’s finest moment at Gallipoli was also its most costly - 900 men died at Chanuk Bair.
The undermanned New Zealand mounted brigades suffered 100 casualties capturing the outposts. By 4.30 am, three of the four battalions had reached the apex, 400 metres below the summit. The Canterburys were lost on the southern side of the spur.
Brigadier General Francis Johnson who was described as ill but ‘fighting drunk’ that day, made the fateful decision to halt the attack at the apex and wait for the Canterburys. In doing so, he further sealed the fate of the Australian 3rd Light Horse who were about to attack at the Nek into withering Turkish machine gunfire.
Johnson’s delay gave the Turks time to be reinforced. Johnson ordered the Auckland battalion to attack into fierce rifle and machine gun fire. Of the 400 who attacked only 100 reached the pinnacle.
Finally, after a naval bombardment and followed by two British battalions, the Wellingtons reached the summit almost unopposed at 3 am on the 8th of August. The Turks counterattacked and fought desperately all day. The dead New Zealanders clogged the trenches.
By evening when the British relieved the Kiwis, only 49 of the 760 Wellingtons who attacked that morning were able to walk off the hill unaided. Corporal Cyril Bassett was awarded the Victoria Cross for keeping communication and phone lines open under intense fire.
On the 10th of August, Ataturk launched a heavy counterattack, annihilating Chanuk Bair’s British defenders. As the British fled the pinnacle pursued by the Turks, the New Zealand machine gunners restored order at the apex firing into the surging humanity.
Almost 100 years ago to the hour, the Australians attacked at Lone Pine in a battle of epic, senseless savagery. At its end four days later would be 2,300 Australian casualties, 7,000 Turkish casualties and seven Australians would be awarded the Victoria Cross – two posthumously.
Lone Pine was a frontal assault over 100 metres, but the fighting and dying was by bayonet and bombs in the Turkish trenches, galleries and tunnels.
The network of Turkish trenches at Lone Pine constituted the strongest part of the Turkish front line in the Anzac area. At the southern edge of the feature known as 400 Plateau (from its height above sea level), the ground was bitterly contested and changed hands repeatedly shortly after the Landing.
A single stunted pine tree grew there, so the Australians called the area ‘Lonesome Pine’ from a popular show song of the day. To the Turks, it was simply Kanlisirt (or ‘Bloody Ridge’) after their heavy losses from the 19 May attacks.
By early August the Turkish trenches at Lone Pine were protected by barbed wire and a heavy overhead cover of pine logs and earth.
No man’s land between the Turkish and Australian front lines was relatively wide and the Australian line formed a salient around the feature known as the Pimple.
The original Lone Pine tree had long since been destroyed.
Brigadier General Howard (‘Hookey') Walker commanded the 1st Australian Division. He had serious reservations about a frontal assault in broad daylight over open ground. The Turks held the hill which dominated Lone Pine – baby 700, and as such ‘Hookey’ Walker wanted it taken out first with a full division.
Birdwood would not hear of it, insisting that the continuous pressure on the Turks of fighting at Lone Pine ‘must help the attack elsewhere’.
The 2nd, 3rd and 4th battalions took their position in the trenches. They had sewn white patches on their backs and wore white armbands.
The artillery bombardment stopped at 5.30 pm and the whistles blew. Most charged across open ground, others emerged from the tunnels in no man’s land. It was over in a minute.
The Australians had to fight through the pine logs and earth covering the Turkish trenches. By 6 pm the main trench network was captured and cleared.
In a corner of one trench, eight Turks and six Australians lay enjoined having bayoneted each other.
Eight isolated defensive posts were established in broken trenches at the centre and long Turkish communication trenches were blocked with sandbags.
Sergeant Laurence, a tunnelling engineer, stood atop the captured Turkish trenches looking back to the Australian lines and observed the carnage:All the way across is just one mass of dead bodies.
Beside me I count fourteen of our boys – stone dead. It is a piteous sight.
Men and boys who yesterday were full of joy and life,
now lying there cold, lifeless……glassy eyes, sallow, dusty faces.
Soulless….somebody’s son, somebody’s boy.
The Major standing next to me says, “Well, we have won”.
Won – that means a victory, and all these bodies within arm’s reach.
Then may I never see a defeat.
The worst was yet to come.
The Turks counterattacked the next day.
Bullets, bayonets, bombs, clubs, fists, feet and teeth were the weaponry used in this most intense battle of subterranean anarchy of the entire war.
Private Cecil McAnulty of the 2nd Battalion recorded a diary of sorts:
Frank and I were on the extreme left….there was a clear space of 100 yards to cross without a patch of cover. I can’t realise how I got across it. I seemed to be in a sort of trance, the rifle and machine gun fire was hellish.
I remember dropping down when we reached the trenches, looked around and saw Frank and three more men alongside me…..I yelled out to the other four chaps,
This is only suicide boys. I’m going to make a jump for it
“I thought they said alright we’ll follow. I sprang to my feet in one jump.
The diary stops dead.
McAnulty died at Lone Pine between the 7th and 12th of August.
Private John Gammage of the 1st Battalion wrote:
The moans of our own poor fellows and also Turks as we tramped on their wounded bodies was awful…….the wounded bodies of both our Turks and our own….were piled up three and four deep….the bombs simply poured in, but as fast as our men went down another would take his place.
We had no time to think of our wounded…..their pleas for mercy were not heeded….Some poor fellows lay for 30 hours waiting for help and many died still waiting.
One thousand corpses were dragged from the Australian trenches for burial. Many more were left to rot in the captured Turkish trenches as the Australians prepared to defend against an expected counter-attack.
An incident just before the assault observed by Charles Bean, perhaps says it best.
An Australian soldier leant over the forward trench and to the men in it asked,
A voice rose from the fire step, “Yeah, right here Bill”
“Do chaps mind movin’ up a piece?” asked the first voice,
“Him and me are mates, and we’re goin’ over together”
The first Allies returned to Gallipoli in December 1918 and said of the plateau around Lone Pine:
It (Lone Pine) was covered with a thin scattered whiteness not unlike the sprinkle of melting snow.
Over the former trenches lay the bare white bones, piled or clustered so thickly in places that we had to tread upon them as we passed.
One name inscribed on the Lone Pine Memorial is that of Private Mark Smith of the 4th battalion, killed at Lone Pine. He was 21 years old.
Benjamin Smith had gone into the attack with the 3rd battalion. Having heard of his brother’s death, he spent three days trying to find Mark’s body. He couldn’t, but retrieved a pine cone from a log in the Turkish trenches and sent it back to their mother, Mrs McMullen. From it she grew a seedling which she sent to the Yarralumla nursery in 1929.
Every six months she would write to the Memorial’s director, John Treloar asking of the status of ‘her son’s tree’.
In 1934 when only the foundations of the Australian War Memorial had been laid, the Duke of Gloucester ceremonially planted that sapling. Today it is the magnificent Lone Pine tree honouring one Australian son, but honouring them all.
At The Nek on the 7th of August further extraordinary courage was shown by the men of 8th and 10th regiments of the 3rd Light Horse brigade.
The Nek was a vitally important position on the northern end of the Anzac sector. It was a narrow bridge of land stretching across Russell’s Top and Baby 700. From it the Turks could see military activity on the beach - and for the Australians, it was the key to Chanuk Bair.
The attack was to begin at 4.30 am on 7 August in four waves of 150 men each. The distance to advance was 20 to 60 metres. It would be preceded by a bombardment of the Turkish trenches.
However, the bulk of the shells fell beyond their intended targets and ended seven minutes early. But the light horse officers held their men back until the appointed time for the attack arrived.
In that eerie silence, they could hear the Turks cocking their rifles and testing their machine guns.
Lt Colonel Alexander Henry White was 33 years old, a maltster from Ballarat. He elected to lead the men of the 8th Light Horse whom he loved.
Historian Phillip Schuler observed him making a brief farewell to his brother officers, shaking each by the hand. He then stepped into the trench and stood in the firing-line waiting, watch in hand.
“Men”, he said, “you have ten minutes to live, and I will lead you”.
When the time came, the whole line went. White had not gone ten paces when he fell dead.
The first wave from the 8th Light Horse was shot to pieces as was the second.
Of the 300 officers and men under White’s command 153 died with him, another 80 were wounded.
Officers suggested cancelling the attack, but this was overruled by Major John Antill, of the 3rd Light Horse Brigade who simply shouted, “Push on!”
The Western Australians of the 10th Light Horse Regiment formed the third and fourth assaulting waves. The men filing into the trench for the third wave took a last look at photos of wives and loved ones, removed wedding rings and personal keepsakes, and attached them to the inside of the trench.
Trooper Rush turned and embraced the man next to him with the words that would become the epitaph for his grave at Walker’s Ridge cemetery, “Goodbye, cobber. God bless you”. He was 23 years old.
When the whistle blew, all jumped over the parapet with a cry.
Gresley and Wilfred Harper were from Guilford Western Australia. Both had gone to Perth to enlist immediately after the declaration of war and were given consecutive enlistment numbers into the 10th Light Horse. Their bodies were later seen on the parapet of the front Turkish trench. Gresley was 31 and Wilfred, 25 years old.
Charles Bean wrote:
Wilfred was last seen running forward like a schoolboy in a foot race with all the speed he could compass.
Of the 600 who went ‘over the top’, the 3rd Light Horse suffered 372 casualties. The bodies were piled two and three deep on an area the size of two tennis courts.
Sergeant Cliff St Pinnock miraculously survived the first wave. He wrote to his parents:
“Roll call was the saddest - 47 of 550 men answered the call.
When I heard the result, I cried like a baby.”
Bean summarised the bravery of these men and the cost:
"The 10th [Light Horse Regiment] went forward to meet death instantly, as the 8th had done, the men running as swiftly and as straight as they could at the Turkish rifles. With that regiment went the flower of the youth of Western Australia, sons of the old pioneering families, youngsters--in some cases two or 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 A.I.F….. Men known and popular, the best loved leaders in sport and work in the West, then rushed straight to their death.”
Bean would later write:
In the history of war there is no more signal example of reckless obedience than that given by the dismounted light horsemen at the Nek when, after seeing the whole first attacking line mown down within a few yards by the whirlwind of rifle and machinegun fire, the second, third and fourth lines each charged after its interval of time, at the signal of its leaders, to certain destruction.
Private Victor Nicholson saw his best mate ‘Lofty’ killed at Quinn’s Post, shot through the eye looking through a peep hole:
‘I didn’t cry, unless Gallipoli was one long cry.
If you cried once, you never stopped.
There were friends going every day and sometimes every hour of the day,
You cried inwardly, that’s all you could do.’
Better than anyone, Private Henry Alcock of the 23rd Battalion summed up the entire offensive in late August when he wrote home:
The Turks are only fifteen yards away and in some places only a sandbag separates them from us. We often throw notes over to one another and once the Turk threw a note over saying, “You are too weak to advance and too strong to retire and we are the same, so what the hell are we going to do about it?”
Another one said, “If you don’t surrender in twenty-four hours we will!”
At 11.44 pm last Tuesday night the 4th of August, seven letters a metre high were projected onto the horizontal concrete beam immediately below the dome above the Hall of Memory at the Australian War Memorial. They read one name – WHITE A. H. – Alexander Henry White.
His name along with almost 62,000 others who gave their lives for us and our nation is being projected on thirty occasions for thirty seconds through the centenary of the First World War.
It is being projected for two reasons.
Each one of us needs constant reminder not to settle for the broad brushstrokes of history. It is easy, human beings that we are, to settle for headlines and in neglectful indifference to allow the past to be a distant stranger, to forget individual sacrifices made in our name and devotion to duty.
Second, it is to remind us that in the end, there are some truths by which we live – and they are worth fighting to defend; politically, diplomatically and at times – militarily.
This is our history, but it has much more to do with our future.
We are Australians not only or so much because we have a constitution and the machinery of a democracy given us by the British.
We are defined most by our values and our beliefs, the way we relate to one another and see our place in the world.
We are defined by our triumphs and failures, our heroes and villains; the way as a people we have faced adversity and as a nation how we face the adversities and emerging horizons before us.
As the world moves from one age to another; as the tectonic plates shift with the re-emergence of China and as we face a generational struggle against resurgent totalitarianism in the form of Islamic extremism, we must be clear about who we are and in what we believe.
Until his death leading his men at the Nek, Alexander White carried with him two precious items.
He wore a locket within which was a photo of his wife Myrtle and infant son, ‘young Bill’.
He also carried in his bible a poem he had cut from a newspaper:
Let me be a little braver
When temptation bids me waver
Let me strive a little harder
To be all that I should be
Let me be a little meeker
With the brother that is weaker
Let me think more of my neighbour
And a little less of me.
The Hall of Memory at the Australian War Memorial within which since 1993 has been interred the Unknown Australian Soldier, has standing as silent sentinels above him, fifteen stained glass windows. Each depicts a serviceman or nurse from the First World War.
And at the base of each is a single word.
Charles Bean, John Treloar and the Army historian asked themselves – what were the qualities, the values seen in these men and women which we regard as essential not just for victory in battle, but for depth and breadth of character?
Character derives from the Greek word meaning the impression left in wax by a stone seal ring.
The fifteen virtues they chose are:
RESOURCE CANDOUR DEVOTION CURIOSITY INDEPENDENCE
COMRADESHIP ANCESTRY PATRIOTISM CHIVALRY LOYALTY
COOLNESS CONTROL AUDACITY ENDURANCE DECSISION
A century after the August offensive, young Australians looking for values for the world they want, as distinct from the world they think they are going to get, need look no further than these.
The world loves talent, but it ‘pays off’ on character.
At our invitation, the Scottish archaeologist and historian, Neil Oliver arrived in the spring of 2013 to record a behind the scenes documentary for Foxtel’s History Channel.
In the opening scene of the first episode, walking up the steps of the Memorial he says to camera:
“It is always daunting when you arrive in a new place as an outsider and try and find the locations and stories to tell….well, it’s infinitely more challenging when you arrive at a nation’s emotional and spiritual centre – its beating heart, and while there, try to find the words to do that place justice”.
Sixteen months later, having read the letters and diaries, discovered the stories behind the photographs, relics and artefacts and witnessed the construction of the new First World War galleries, in the final minutes of the very last episode, he stood in the twilight darkness of the commemorative area in front of the Hall of Memory and said this:
“Look closer. There is more here (than war). Between 1914 and 1918, in France and elsewhere, we made for ourselves the worst times and places imaginable. And yet, even in such places, surrounded by horror and fear, some men devoted their last moments not to themselves – but to their friends.
And that’s love.
The love might not survive them but it was the last thing they would lose. The realisation that in such places, love between friends and for friends was there, at its end – is beautiful.
And so as well as all the death, loss and horror, it is friendship and love that will be remembered here, and for all time”.
At Pozieres, France in 1916, Australia sustained 23,000 casualties in just three weeks.
In late July Charles Bean recorded this:
Many a man lying out there at Pozieres and in the low scrub at Gallipoli,
With his poor tired senses barely working through the fever of his brain
Has thought in his last moments, well….well…it’s over.
But in Australia – they will be proud of this.
We are damned proud.
We are proud of what they gave us – belief in ourselves and the gift of knowing that ultimately a life of value is one spent in the service of others and our nation.
That sentiment of Alexander White’s poem, Let me think more of my neighbour
And a little less of me is what most strengthens and sustains the most fragile, yet powerful of human emotions – hope.
Like them, what we need most is one another.
Hon Dr Brendan Nelson
The Australian War Memorial
Thursday 6 August 2015
The Hon Dr Brendan Nelson, Director, Australian War Memorial