Wartime 47 - Feature Article: A chain of disasters

The battle at Lone Pine was only part of a series of attacks in August 1915.

By Peter Burness

British amphibious landings on Turkey’s shores in April 1915 had only succeeded in providing toe-holds at a few places on the Gallipoli peninsula. On the western side, the Australian and New Zealand troops, the “Anzacs”, held a beach area enclosed by high cliffs. In the earliest days they had got a grip on the rim of ridges protecting their beach-head, but in the following months of fighting there had been no more progress. The Turks had contained their efforts and stalemate set in.

In August the British endeavoured to revitalise the campaign by again taking the initiative. The main effort was directed towards capturing the high ground at Chunuk Bair and Hill 971, which crowned the hills and gullies of the Sari Bair range rising up to the north of the Anzac positions. At the same time there would be landings by British troops further to the north at Suvla with the separate intention of developing a base there for future operations.

The Anzac breakout would involve Australian, New Zealand, Indian, and British troops approaching the heights of the hills from a range of twisted and folded gullies thinly held by the enemy. If the Turks felt that there was little need to defend such terrible ground, they were soon to be proved right, as the terrain provided a formidable obstacle to any attackers. These assaults were to be accompanied by more direct attacks along the Anzac perimeter at the Nek, Pope’s Hill and Quinn’s Post, to be undertaken mostly by dismounted light horsemen. In a single day, on 7 August 1915, together with earlier adjoining attacks by the Australian infantry at Lone Pine and against German Officers’ Trench, these assaults would form a chain of disasters.

The ANZAC commander, Lieutenant General Sir William Birdwood, had ambitious plans. However, he failed to fully appreciate the ground and to understand the poor physical condition of his troops. Disease spread by flies feeding on the dead had necessitated large-scale evacuations, and those who remained were mostly in a weakened state. The reinforcements arriving lacked experience. Birdwood also had come up with a scheme that required precise timings – something that would prove impossible. The grand plan was to have British troops at Helles on the tip of the peninsula attack first, at 3.50 pm on 6 August. This was a feint to draw the Turks’ attention away from what would shortly commence at Anzac.

The main operations at Anzac began with another diversionary attack later that day, this time by the 1st Australian Brigade at Lone Pine at 5.30 pm. It was felt that a heavy blow here should draw in the Turks’ reserves and prevent them from reinforcing the places where the next attacks were to be made.

About three hours later columns of troops would begin their left-hook movement, a long approach to the dominating hills to the north whose capture would link up in a pincer with the Light Horse’s assaults around dawn the next morning.

The attack at Lone Pine was an important but costly success. It has become the best known of the Anzac August battles, largely because it was successful and seven Victoria Crosses were won there. Ground was taken from the enemy, but this would have little effect on the overall plan. Losses were heavy on both sides, with the Australian casualties reaching over 2,000. Surprise, dash and raw courage had prevailed. However, it is possible
that in covering most of their front trenches with logs, the Turks had unwittingly made a trap for themselves.

A short way to the left of Lone Pine, further Australian infantry made another lesser known assault about midnight. Here the Victorians of the depleted 6th Battalion were set against a position known as German Officers’ Trench. Germans had been seen there early in the campaign. Now it was a strong-point from which enemy machineguns could enfilade any Australian attempt to reach Quinn’s Post or the Nek. It was vital for the success of the dawn attacks that this threat be removed. An audacious and ill-conceived plan was put into effect. Just as at Lone Pine, tunnels had been driven towards the enemy and the troops were to attack from these. There were three main approach tunnels, deep enough to stand in and just wide enough for two kitted men to pass. These fed into a long shallow tunnel, running parallel to the front line, from which numerous crawl holes extended, each able to take three or four men. In the darkness before the attack was launched, the roofs of the tunnels would be brought down so that the troops could emerge to make their dash across no man’s land.

The assault was to be preceded by the detonation of three underground mines which had been set at the end of other tunnels. It was expected that these would blow some of the enemy’s line sky high, leaving only a few demoralised defenders to be dealt with. While waiting, the attackers were kept clear of the main tunnels in case the explosion of the mines caused some collapses. When the mines did go off their impact was minimal and the Turkish trenches remained intact. Worse still, the Turks responded to the muffled explosions by bringing down artillery fire which soon damaged some of the Australians’ tunnels and trenches. The element of surprise had been lost, and now earth and debris were hampering any forward movement. One tunnel was found to be blocked, causing a crush and confusion in the underground darkness.

Finally the attack was launched. At the blast of a whistle, men leapt from the line of open forward saps. But the Turks were alert and ready and quickly shot them down. Some men fell back into the saps while others who had been wounded tried to scramble back, blocking the way of those coming behind. The battalion was under Lieutenant Colonel Gordon Bennett, who in the next war would command the 8th Australian Division in Malaya and arouse great controversy by his decision to leave the troops when Singapore fell. But for the moment he was a young and bold commander, who reported to his brigade headquarters the folly of continuing the attack. However, the order came back that he should try again as soon as possible. It took a long time to clear the tunnels of debris and the dead and dying.

A second attack was launched and the result was the same. Machine-gun fire tore through the men as they emerged. Once again the tunnels were choked with casualties. Again headquarters was informed and once more Bennett was told to get ready for another attempt. This time a staff officer from the brigade added weight to Bennett’s pleas and the attack was cancelled. Bennett later wrote:
Not all the attacks made by the Australians met with success. This was not due to any weakness on the part of the men launching the attacks, for their spirit and determination never flagged. The attack on German Officers’ Trench at Anzac ... was one in which our efforts were not rewarded with the success they deserved.

The attacks at Lone Pine and German Officers’ Trench were the prelude to a more important one by two regiments of the 3rd Light Horse Brigade at the Nek on the left, to take place at 4.30 the next morning, 7 August. It would be coordinated with smaller attacks by two regiments from the 1st Light Horse Brigade at Quinn’s and Pope’s. All three were originally supposed to connect with the efforts against the heights to the north, which remained the main purpose of the offensive. However, things had gone poorly in the dark ravines and steep slopes leading onto the main range, and no linking support for the light horsemen could possibly come from there. But still the attacks along the Anzac perimeter were allowed to proceed in the hope that they would take pressure off the New Zealanders trying to take Chunuk Bair. The launch of the attack at the Nek was to be the signal for the 1st Light Horse regiment from New South Wales to attack at Pope’s Hill and for the Queenslanders of the 2nd Light Horse regiment to move against Quinn’s.

The 3rd Light Horse Brigade was on Russell’s Top facing the Sari Bair range leading up to Chunuk Bair. Joining these was a bridge of land, with steep slopes either side, known as the Nek. Here the Turks had their trenches extending back in rows. Two regiments, the Victorians of the 8th Light Horse and the Western Australians of the 10th Light Horse, would make the assault in four waves. At 4 am the artillery began to concentrate fire on the slopes of the hill. It was the heaviest bombardment the light horsemen had seen and they were reassured to see shells bursting on the enemy as smoke drifted over their own lines. The shelling lasted for half an hour. Then, as it was expected to reach a crescendo, it stopped.

After a 7-minute pause, at 4.30 according to the watch of Lieutenant Colonel Alexander White, who commanded the 8th Light Horse regiment, came the order “Go!” But here too the Turks were ready. Several machine-guns turned the Nek into a killing zone through which lines of light horsemen had to pass. Only a few in the first wave even reached the enemy’s trench and they were soon killed. Lieutenant Colonel White was among the very first to fall.

The two waves of Victorians were to be followed by two lines of the 10th Light Horse. When the time came for the Western Australians to go, their commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Noel Brazier, pressed the brigade headquarters to have the charge stopped. But he was bluntly told, “Push on.” The third line went and was swept away. Once again Brazier tried for a halt, but in the confusion part of the final line charged, and it too was shot down.

At the Nek, Birdwood had devised a plan that had little chance of success and placed its conduct in the hands of a brigade commander in whom he had little confidence. The confusion over timings, seemingly caused by a failure to synchronise watches, had only made things worse. After the war the War Graves Commission found and buried more than 300 Australians, mostly light horsemen, at the Nek “in that strip the size of three tennis courts”.

Charles Bean, the official war historian, later wrote:
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 machine-gun fire, the second, third, and fourth lines each charged after its interval of time, at the signal of its leaders, to certain destruction.

The attack at Pope’s Hill was made within sight of the Nek. It posed its own particular problems for the two squadrons of the 1st Light Horse detailed to make it. Major Thomas Glasgow from the 2nd Light Horse was commandant at Pope’s and was given command. The Australians were on the hill formed by a spur at the head of Monash Valley. The Turks were on the opposite slope across Waterfall Gully, which was now dry, and in front of rows of trenches composing the formidable “Chessboard” feature. The approach across the head of the gully at its shallow end was direct enough. But over on the right the gully was deep. It was decided that the right-hand squadron would have to get into the gully under cover of darkness and launch its attack from dead ground on its forward slope. “We had to crawl along in single file, up a dry creek bed, to our jumping-off spot,” recalled one officer.

One of the light horsemen, Trooper Augustus Davidson, described the ground. “Between each line of trenches there was a gully, so that though not very far from trench to trench as the crow flies, it was in reality a good way.”

Although the Australian official history of the campaign is quiet on the subject, it appears that the right attacking squadron was forced to make its assault prematurely. It had been spotted by the enemy while trying to get into position and, having shown its hand, had to make its rush early. Meanwhile on the left, the other squadron, under Major James Reid, attacked into rifle and machine-gun fire and despite losses succeeded in getting into the enemy’s lines. The fighting was wild and bloody. “It is said that the gallant Reid, being hit through the right hand, changed his revolver to his left, and ... continued to lead his men. He was last seen amid the bomb-smoke in the enemy trench,” wrote Charles Bean. The Australians fought their way into the third line of trenches, but casualties were heavy.

The Turks soon counter-attacked and the light horsemen had to hold on desperately. With ammunition, particularly bombs, running low, some brave individuals made the dash back to Pope’s for more. However, things only got worse and Glasgow, seeing that the attacks had failed over on the left at the Nek and on the right at Quinn’s, knew that further resistance was futile. After holding on for two hours the Australians withdrew under fire carrying as many of their wounded as they could. The casualty rate was appalling. Of the 200 in the attack, 154 had been killed or wounded. Glasgow was the only officer to come out unscathed. This extraordinary man would later transfer to the infantry and by the end of the war was a major general commanding the 1st Australian Division.

The attack at Quinn’s Post, which was also to coincide with the Nek assault, was just as foolhardy in the conditions that prevailed. There could be no element of surprise and no linking advance from the high ground; the failure at German Officers’ Trench enabled the Turks to turn their machine-guns onto Quinn’s; and the artillery bombardment on the opposing lines had been feeble. The men of the 2nd Light Horse could see their fate before them. They would storm across in four waves on a narrow frontage of 50 men in each. Here too some would attack from an opened tunnel. They were to begin at 4.30 when a mine was exploded.

The officer to lead the attack, Major George Bourne, recalled:
We now found that the attack on German Officers’ Trench had failed. There was no sign of the New Zealanders on Chunuk Bair and certainly no evidence of them even threatening the Chess Board [sic] and Turkish Quinn’s. A few shrapnel burst over our objective – but nothing in the nature of a bombardment. Nevertheless our order to attack still held.

The time for the assault arrived but no big explosion was seen or heard. Bourne gave the order to charge. Once more the Turks were ready. Here too the Australians rushed out into a hailstorm of rifle and machine-gun fire. The majority of those in the first wave were killed or wounded before they had gone five metres. This time, instead of the further lines being signalled forward, Bourne stopped the attack. Many lives were saved by his prompt action. The order was then confirmed by Lieutenant Colonel Robert Stodart, who was in local command. The ill-fated attack at Quinn’s Post was all over in less than a minute.

Even as the fighting still raged on 7 August, the battles had been lost. Along the front held by the light horsemen, no man’s land was littered with the bodies of the dead and dying. The trenches were occupied by wounded and stunned survivors of the short-lived attacks. Streams of casualties were taken to the beaches for treatment, some to die there or on the hospital ships. Most of those still on the battlefields would succumb, out of reach, and remain for years to rot, breed flies, and have their bones scattered by wild dogs.

The British did get ashore at Suvla; the Anzac perimeter was extended; and the 1st Division bravely held on to Lone Pine. The New Zealanders took Chunuk Bair, only to see it lost soon after they were relieved. Despite the brave efforts and a huge loss of life, the results were limited and brought no strategic advantage. The main objectives of the grand plan had failed. In the following weeks the Gallipoli campaign slipped back into stalemate. Nothing more was possible and by December the British commenced evacuations. This sorry state was nowhere more evident than in the chain of actions between the Nek and Lone Pine, where today that line is marked by war cemeteries.