Meticulous planning led to a brilliant success.
By Michael Kelly.
The moonlit waters off Gaba Tepe were lit suddenly by a powerful beam of light emanating from the deck of the HMS Rattlesnake lying offshore. The beam stabbed out to the top of Harris Ridge, before slowly traversing south, blinding the Turks in those positions to the danger that crept towards them along the beach below. When the searchlight reached the lower end of the ridge, the destroyer, menacing in its silence, struck, its guns pouring a rapid barrage into a prominent Turkish position.
Patrolling and raiding were features of the early Australian occupation of the Anzac beachhead, as the front line had many gaps which, unless patrolled and protected with wire, would have been easy points for the enemy to exploit. These types of operations also assisted the Australians in learning their surroundings and the locations and strengths of the enemy. One particular raid, a resounding success, was carried out by a small party from the 9th Battalion. It was organised and led by the newly commissioned Second Lieutenant Maurice Wilder-Neligan, who would go on to become the Australian Imperial Force’s premier raider and one of its finest battalion commanders. The raid was also the first low-level combined-arms operation undertaken by British and Australian forces in the First World War.
Lieutenant Colonel Maurice Wilder-Neligan CMG DSO & Bar DCM. Profile portrait to hide scars sustained during another raid, this time in France on 1 July 1916. AWM A03705
During the first month of the Gallipoli campaign, the area to the south of the Anzac positions was still contested and patrolled by both Australians and Turks. On several occasions the Australians were able to reach the Turkish wire at Gaba Tepe, gathering information on Turkish troop strengths and movements before returning to their own positions. Following the May 24 ceasefire to bury the Turkish dead from their disastrous counter-attack five days earlier, Wilder-Neligan noticed new earth works at the bottom of Harris Ridge on a feature known as the Twin Trenches. He brought this to the attention of his superiors and requested the opportunity to investigate the new Turkish works. Initially this was refused, but on 27 May Major General Sir William Birdwood, who was planning an attack to the north of the Anzac positions, ordered that a series of diversionary operations be undertaken to the south. Their aim was to make the Turks believe a major offensive was building there, in the hope that it would draw Turkish reserves to the area.
On the morning of 28 May, Wilder-Neligan again put forward his raid proposal, which was approved for that evening. He immediately began to plan the raid, requesting and receiving fire support from the Royal Navy in the form of Torpedo Boat Destroyer (TBD) HMS Rattlesnake, commanded by Lieutenant Commander Philip George Wodehouse. 9th Battalion’s adjutant, Captain Eric Plant, was stationed on the ship for the evening to inform the crew of the timings of the raid and to direct the ship’s guns onto the target trenches. Planning for the raid would have been meticulous: once it had begun, there was no way of communicating between the raiding party, the Rattlesnake and the 9th Battalion headquarters.
Wilder-Neligan’s reputation for planning and attention to detail was already well established in the 9th Battalion. His rapid rise from private to orderly room sergeant, and then to commissioned rank, was testimony to his skills. Following the briefing, he returned to his company and asked for 50 volunteers. He was swamped with offers from enthusiastic soldiers. In the end, 63 were selected, including two engineers who carried explosives to destroy any hardened emplacements that might be encountered. The remainder of the day would have been spent studying the terrain between the Australian positions and the Twin Trenches, and being instructed on the objectives.
Charles Bean wrote in his diary for 28 May that the night was clear and there was a full moon. He also mentioned a British ship shelling a Turkish position to the south, but did not know at that stage that a raid was underway. Night operations are never easy, and ground observed during the day is always very different when it is actually being traversed at night, even with a full moon. Fortunately for the raiders, among their number was Sergeant John Edward “Darkie” Kenyon, who acquired his nickname for his exceptional night vision. Having already served with the British Army’s Rifle Brigade in India and South Africa, he brought invaluable experience to the raiding party.
May 1915. Captain Eric Plant, Adjutant of the 9th Battalion, working at a table in the orderly room dug-out. AWM C01458
In the early evening, the Rattlesnake moved into position to the north of Gaba Tepe. At 9 pm, the ship’s powerful searchlight was switched on and directed towards the top of Harris Ridge. It then slowly traversed along the ridge towards the Twin Trenches. The light would have blinded the Turks in their positions along the top of the ridge, allowing the raiders to move undetected under their very noses. As the searchlight began to move along the ridge, Wilder-Neligan and his men exited the Australian positions through Sapper’s Post and after navigating the wire entanglements, advanced into no man’s land. The party maintained a 50-metre distance behind the searchlight, so as not to be accidentally illuminated. The raiders advanced the 1,400 yards (1,280 metres) along the base of Harris Ridge before coming to a halt 50 metres from the bottom of the hill where the Twin Trenches were located. At this point, the covering party was detached to cover the assault force and guard against any counter-attack.
When the Rattlesnake’s searchlight reached the Twin Trenches, the ship’s guns opened fire, delivering 20 rounds of high explosive and shrapnel into the position. The searchlight and shell-fire then lifted onto the long communication sap running back from the trench towards Gaba Tepe, and at this moment the raiders struck. During the barrage, Wilder-Neligan led his men up the slope, through the Turkish barbed wire and obstacles; and as the barrage lifted, the raiders entered the Turkish trench.
Sergeant Kenyon was the first man into the trench and encountered 20 shaken Turkish soldiers. Acting quickly, he seized the nearest man and, after calling for the men behind to “look after this one”, threw him out of the trench. The men behind him mistook his meaning, and the Turk was bayoneted. Kenyon and others attacked the large party of Turks, killing a further five and capturing one alive in the ensuing melee. The remaining Turks fled into the communication sap, which was still well lit by Rattlesnake’s searchlight and still under fire from the ship’s guns. Before leaving the Turkish trenches, the Australians picked up several rolls of Turkish barbed wire and two rifles. The raiders then retired in good order with their prisoner, and after reuniting with the stay-behind party, made their way back to Australian lines. The engineers who accompanied the raid returned with their explosive charges unused.
The raid was accomplished entirely without small arms fire and with no Australian casualties. The 9th Battalion’s acting commanding officer, Major Alfred George “Sally” Salisbury wrote in his detailed after action report that “the whole plan attempted by Lt Neligan was successfully carried out without a casualty on our own side, and reflects great credit on this officer for his careful organisation followed by skilful and gallant leadership.” Tactically, Wilder-Neligan’s raid was a brilliant success. His use of artillery, in this instance from a Royal Navy destroyer, to support his raiding party, was ahead of the times. It was not until after the fighting on the Somme in 1916 that the wider British Expeditionary Force adopted similar tactics of entering enemy trenches as soon as an artillery barrage had lifted.
In the days following the raid, Turkish activity on the southern end of the battlefield noticeably increased. On 6 June, a patrol from the 5th Light Horse Regiment led by Lieutenant J.M. Hanly was nearly cut off and was forced to retreat by a Turkish patrol, during which Hanly was killed. A second raid by the 9th Battalion occurred on the Twin Trenches in June; in this case, the Turks fled as soon as the Rattlesnake opened fire, leaving only an empty trench to greet the Australians. However Wilder-Neligan’s raid and later patrol activity did not distract the Turks from the overall picture of the battlefield. Shortly after the raid, the Turks were observed strengthening their positions in the northern sector of Anzac, forcing the cancellation of Birdwood’s offensive and proving to the allied commanders that their opponents were not easily fooled.
On 3 June, the leadership of the 9th Battalion was hit hard when a shell fired by 9 Battery, Australian Field Artillery, exploded prematurely over the 9th Battalion positions. Among the wounded were Major Salisbury, Captain Plant and Lieutenant Wilder-Neligan. Evacuated to Malta, he was impatient to return to Gallipoli, and as he neared recovery, discharged himself from hospital and caught a ship back to the peninsula, re-joining his battalion on 4 August. He was immediately promoted to lieutenant, and the following month to temporary captain and battalion adjutant. Wilder-Neligan’s Gallipoli campaign came to an end in November, when the exhausted 9th Battalion was withdrawn to Lemnos for a period of rest and refitting.
Lieutenant Colonel Maurice Wilder-Neligan CMG DSO & Bar DCM
Lieutenant Colonel Maurice Wilder-Neligan, commanding officer of the 10th Battalion, AIF. AWM H01847
Maurice Wilder-Neligan landed on Gallipoli on 25 April, and during the first 48 hours earned the DCM for rallying troops and leading them to the front line and, with another sergeant, for bringing in a wounded man under fire. Only days after the landing, he was commissioned and began a rapid rise through the ranks to an eventual battalion command. He was badly wounded early the following month by shrapnel, when a shell fired by Australian artillery burst over the trench which he and a number of other 9th Battalion officers occupied. He recovered and returned to Gallipoli.
In France, he led another successful raid near the Sugar-loaf salient, where he was badly wounded when a grenade exploded near his head. He was awarded the DSO for his planning and leadership. Following his recovery, he returned to the battalion and was promoted to major. After a period as battalion second in command, he was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and took command of the 10th Battalion. He led this battalion through some of its darkest days in 1917, with the fighting in Belgium causing extensive casualties.
An enigmatic character, he garnered affection and dislike in equal measure among his peers and men. His leadership was such that his men would have followed him anywhere. Nicknames such as “Wily Wilder” and “that mad Neligan” were coined by his men for a leader they admired.
1918 saw Wilder-Neligan’s continued rise to prominence, leading the battalion through many successful battles, in particular the attack on Merris, which was described by a British general who observed it as one of the finest battalion attacks of the war. For this action Wilder-Neligan was awarded a bar to his DSO. Later that year he was created a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George and awarded a French Croix de Guerre.
He returned to Australia in 1919, a highly decorated officer. Always a restless spirit, he signed up for service with the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force and became a patrol officer in New Guinea; after transferring to the civil administration in 1921, he continued to work in the region. Wilder-Neligan died near Rabaul in 1923 from what were believed to be complications arising from his injuries sustained in the war.
Michael Kelly is Objects Assistant Curator for the First World War gallery redevelopment project.