The Maoris in the Great War
The Capture and Loss of Chunuk Bair
The Capture and Loss of Chunuk Bair.
Sunday, August 8th, saw the Maoris in the fiercest fighting of all, the desperate attack on Chunuk Bair, as a preliminary to the general assault of Koja Chemen Tepe, the apex of the range held by the Turks. The attacking force was organised in three columns. The Maoris were in the column on the right, under Brigadier-General F. E. Johnston; which was timed to assault Chunuk Bair at dawn. With them in the right column were the 26th Indian Mountain Battery, the New Zealand Infantry Brigade, the Auckland Mounted Rifles, and two British regiments, the 8th Welsh Pioneers, and the 7th Gloucesters (from the 13th Division, in reserve). The centre and left columns, under Major-General H. V. Cox, was comprised of an Indian Mounted Battery, the 4th Australian Infantry Brigade, the 29th Indian Infantry Brigade, and portions of four British regiments, Warwicks, Worcesters, North Staffords and South Lancashires. The troops moved out in the grey dawn, and with splendid dash gained a footing on the ridge and started to dig in. The Maoris were in the thick of it here, and in common with their pakeha comrades lost heavily. It was the most deadly yet the most glorious day of the campaign, glorious because of the countless deeds of valour and self-sacrifice that attended the splendid lost-endeavour. The episode of the Maori machine-gun taken up the ridge is worthy of record on canvas by some great artist; it is a subject for an understanding battle painter like the artist of “Rorke's Drift” and “The Roll Call.” Lieut. Waldren, a pakeha officer of the Contingent, had a machine-gun taken up the hill with great difficulty. When it was set up a heavy fire was concentrated on it by the Turks, higher up the range, and one after another of the crew was shot down. Lieut. Waldren was shot dead while working the gun. Corporal Ferris took his place and he also was shot down. A bullet was the certain fate of any man who attempted to use the gun, and Maori after Maori was hit until seven men were wounded. Then anyone operating the machine-gun had to crawl cautiously up and work it lying down. At last the gun, the only one on this flank, had to be withdrawn.page 47
The troops who gained the top won a deathless name that day. Time and again they repelled Turk assaults. They suffered heavily under artillery, bomb, machine-gun and rifle fire, but they held on, and they repelled repeated attacks with the bayonet. Many a gallant New Zealander fell there; most gallant of them all was that fine soldier from Taranaki, Lieut.-Colonel Malone, who was mortally wounded while he was marking out the line to be entrenched on the crest of the knoll. All that day of terrific fire, suffering from heat, thirst, and the effects of great physical effort, the Maoris (sent out more to the left) and their splendid comrades retained the positions gained, and entrenched themselves as well as they could in the hard, stony soil.
Captain Peter Buck, describing the day's work as he experienced it, wrote in his diary:—
“August 8th (Sunday).—Snatched a few winks of sleep and moved up the valley at 2 a.m. The infantry had passed Table Top and Rhododendron Hill and on to the region of Chunuk Bair. Went up gully and rested for a while at the foot of the hill. A Turkish overcoat came in very handy, as it was very cold. Went up the hill in the early morning. Passed the Otago Aid Post, then an Indian mountain battery, getting busy. We established an aid post in a watercourse at the side of the track. Our men were a little higher up, waiting to go into the firing line. One machine-gun section with us was put on the ridge, and the Turks got on to it. European officer, Waldren, and Ferris were killed and seven were wounded Dressed most of them at our station. Some were wounded by shrapnel. Saw Frank Statham (Major) waiting with Otagos to go into action. Did up several men at our post, including a man hit on the shoulder with a shrapnel case; it only bruised him. Our men were sent into section on the left of Auckland with ammunition for the Gloucesters. Several were shot going across the ridge, including H. Tahiwi, badly in the leg. He was carried in by an Otago man under fire. There was trouble through lack of stretchers, and I sent all who could walk down the hill. Had to make a stretcher for Tahiwi with a Turkish coat and two rifles. R. Morgan came back over the ridge to the left, saying some wounded were there in a gully. Went page 48 up the hill and saw Brigadier-General Johnston, who said the Maoris had gone into the firing line on the left. I left the Chaplain at the dressing station, and guided by Morgan and accompanied by Rangi Otene went over the ridge to the left below our aid post. We ran down the hill into the creek bed and worked up to a little flat at the convergence of two small watercourses. There we found heaps of wounded, who had come down the watercourse to the right—Maoris, pakeha New Zealanders, and Gloucesters. Adjusted bandages, gave them water, and those who could walk were directed over the hill to the left. One New Zealander was very bad, leg shot off by a shell; so with others, wounds severe. Was assisted by Q.M.S. Mete Kingi; he came over to see his brother, but he was dead; also Cpl. Geary, L.-Cpl. Manuel and Pte. Tuite higher up the creek, very bad abdomenal wounds. The Padre and others came over, and after doing what we could and sending word to the F.A., went over the ridge to the left again, to our men; and found them there next to the 10th Ghurkas. We had come too far to the left, evidently, and so as not to interfere with the Ghurkas' lines we had to go on into the next small gully, where we dug out an aid post. We had three wounded, whom we sent off in the evening under stretcher-bearer escort, as they could walk.
“This is Sunday night, and we have had to rely on the food we brought with us on Friday, and we are still in our shirt sleeves. We have had a severe strain on the water supply for the wounded. The Padre took a tin of water from a unit beside our first-aid post; he took it by force and asked them to report him. To-night we got some water, and also a ration of rum, which was very acceptable.
“The Ghurkas keep flitting about in twos, and one cannot but admire their neat appearance and fit condition. They stop or sit down for a moment, and then blend with the scrub and the shadows as they flit away. One smuggled into our first-aid post during the night and had a good sleep.
“The Infantry Brigade at this period of the battle held the trenches on the slopes of Chunuk Bair to the right of the highest point. To the New Zealanders' left were the Gloucester and Warwick regiments and then the 5th Ghurkas page 49 The Maoris were to the left again just under the “Farm,” where they occupied trenches dug with their entrenching tools. The machine-gun and shrapnel fire was very severe all day. The Royal Irish Rifles, the East Lancashire, Wilts, and Hants regiments came up beside us. To the left again was Cox's Indian Brigade.
“August 9th (Monday).—Shifted our aid post about 10yds. lower down in the gully, and dug in a little as it was liable to shrapnel from the left. A whole lot of Tommies were advancing up into the firing line, but owing to taking the wrong gully they arrived three hours late and started their attack in the daytime. It was slaughter. The regiments passing up were the Royal Irish Rifles, East Lancs., Wilts, Hants, and others. The Royal Irish lost heavily and they came scrambling down the gully to our post. We had the place crowded, and plenty of work. I could not locate the aid posts of these regiments, or get hold of their stretcher-bearers. Had East Lancashires, one abdomenal and broken arm and another with a broken thigh, with us all day. All the wounded came down asking for water. Had some of our own wounded, and fortunately they were able to get away down the gully. Sergeant-Major Hill, of A Company Maoris, was carried over by Sergeant Jacob, but was practically dead when he arrived, shot through the spine with shrapnel. Rawhiti, an East Coast man, carried several wounded men down to us on his back. [Rawhiti received the Military Medal for his fine deeds.] My men worked very hard. We had a very bad time with shrapnel, which burst all about our gully. Only the fact that we were dug in saved us. Even then we were afraid of our projecting feet, as the shrapnel bursts were only a few feet beyond us. Once, while I was dressing a wounded Ghurka, I had to lie down beside him as the shrapnel was striking the ground just beyond us. We had half a dozen Ghurkas in our aid post, but they were the only people who had stretcher-bearers constantly moving about, and we never had to keep a Ghurka long. One of them, hit in three places, came up the gully minus putties, hat and equipment but with a naked khukri knife in his hand; evidently looking for anyone in the way. Another, shot through the abdomen, asked for ‘pani’— page 50 water—but on my pointing to the wound and shaking my head he laid his head back with an air of resignation. When I offered him a little to moisten his mouth, he pushed the bottle away, but finally, when I rubbed my lips, he understood, and took just enough to moisten his mouth and voluntarily withdrew his lips from the bottle. The Tommies, through ignorance, drew fire on us several times by exposing themselves. They are strange to this kind of country, and wandered round a good deal. Some of their officers had swords and leather trappings that would delight the snipers. Up here we had a good view of the sea, and could hear the warships sending shells into the hill above us. The roar of bursting shells and the rattle of musketry and machine-guns went on incessantly. The pressure slackened off in the afternoon. A subaltern of the Royal Irish Rifles came into our aid post and had a yarn. He said he was waiting for a cup of tea before going up on duty. Both the Padre and I turned on him simultaneously.—‘What! A cup of tea! We haven't had one since Friday.’
“We had a terrible job to get rid of the Tommy wounded. A R.I.R. man, wounded in the back, whom we had had all the morning, was at last carried off by two of his regiment on a hand seat The only two stretcher-bearers I had seen never came back for the other wounded man of their regiment. I kept asking the officers and men of the Tommy regiments where their stretcher-bearers were, and they all united in cursing them. Finally, I was left with two Lancashire men, and after sending out innumerable men of that regiment to hunt up their stretcher-bearers, I put a Lancs. on guard over them to await arrival of a party to carry the men away. We were without stretchers, and I had sent our own bearers away with our own cases. The one or two who were left were absolutely exhausted after three days' hard work.
“In the evening we got word to move out with B Company, as the Wilts were to take over our trenches. We were to go out and have a spell; and we heard the pakeha New Zealanders were doing likewise. They had been badly cut up. Colonel Malone, Major Statham and others killed. A Company were to remain until the Wilts men took over the trenches. Wepage 51
moved off to the right, and passed Lieut. Hiroti waiting to take the Wilts over to our trenches. Captain Pitt had been very sick, and I had sent him away with one of the men in the early evening. Lieut. Ferris was commanding B Company. We moved down the hill and went down Aghyl Dere (where dead men were lying about in several places) and back to No. 1 Post.”
Chunuk Bair was won but for a short space. Under an awful fire, the troops hung on with desperate tenacity, until the night of August 9th, when it became absolutely necessary to withdraw the defenders for rest and food. Their places were taken by two fresh battalions, the 6th North Lancashires and the 5th Wiltshires; there was only space for these two corps in the limited shallow trench line. The Turks made a tremendous assault on these Englishmen at daybreak on August 10th, and drove them off the ridge, or rather wiped most of them out. So Chunuk Bair was lost, and never again did our troops set foot on it.
General Sir Ian Hamilton's despatch must be quoted here, for its vivid summary of the Chunuk Bair battle. Describing the fighting on the hill on the 9th—after the troops had gained a portion of Chunuk Bair—he wrote:—
“The Turks were now lining the whole crest in overwhelming numbers. The enemy, much encouraged, turned their attention to the New Zealand troops and the other battalions holding the south-west of Chunuk Bair. Their constant attacks, urged with fanatical persistence, were met with sterner resolution, and, although our troops were greatly exhausted, at the end of the day they still kept their footing on the summit, which covered the Narrows themselves and the roads leading to Bulair and Constantinople. Eight hundred men held the crest of Chunuk Bair in slight trenches hastily dug, but the fatigue of the New Zealanders and the fire of the enemy prevented solid work, the trenches being only a few inches deep and unprotected from fire.
“The First Australian Brigade were now reduced from two thousand to one thousand. The total casualties to the evening of the 9th were 8500. The troops, however, were still in extraordinarily good heart, and nothing could damp the keen- page 52 ness of the New Zealanders. The new army of Chunuk Bair was relieved after a night and a half. They were dead with fatigue, and Chunuk Bair, which they had so magnificently held, was handed to the 6th North Lancashires and the 5th Wiltshires.
“The Turks delivered a grand assault at daybreak on the 10th, and the North Lancashires were simply overwhelmed in the shallow trenches by sheer weight of numbers, whilst the Wilts, who fought in the open, were literally almost annihilated. The assaulting column consisted of a full division, plus three battalions, and it swept over the crest and swarmed over General Baldwin's column, which only extricated itself after the heaviest of losses. Now it was our turn. The warships and New Zealand and Australian artillery got the chance of a lifetime, and an iron rain fell on the successive solid lines of the Turks, while ten machine-guns of the New Zealand infantry played on their serried ranks at close range until the barrels were red-hot. Only a handful of the enemy straggled back to their own side of Chunuk Bair. By the evening of the 10th General Birdwood's casualties were twelve thousand, including the largest proportion of his officers. The grand coup had failed to come off, as the Narrows were beyond field-gun range.
“It was not General Birdwood's fault or the fault of any of the officers and men under his command. General Birdwood had done all that mortal man could. General Godley also handled his two divisions with conspicuous ability. His troops faced death with joyous alacrity, as if it were some form of exciting recreation, which even astonished an old campaigner like myself.”
The casualties among the Maoris were heavy, and Captain Buck and his lads had their hands literally very full. The following are extracts from the M.O.'s diary:—
“August 10th (Tuesday).—This morning we shifted higher up the hill to where the Wellington M.R. had been. We had two wounded here. Curiously, one was wounded in the cheek with the tip of the bullet sticking out and no other wound. I found he had been hit while asleep with his mouth open! The wound of entrance was on the inside of the cheek. It was a page 53 spent bullet. The arrangements for the despatch of sick and wounded were much better. There were a British staff and R.A.M.C. at No. 2. The jetty in front had been abandoned for shipping wounded, owing to snipers' and machine-gun fire. The wounded were now being taken to No. 4 Supply Depot and shipped from the wharf opposite. Colonel Maunder, A.D.M.S., was killed by a stray bullet while standing outside his dugout.
“On the morning of the 10th the Turks made a vigorous counter-attack with bombs, etc., and drove the Tommies out of the trenches and they fell back, leaving all the country under the Farm clear. The attack on the left, which was to take Hill 971, having failed, the trenches on Chunuk Bair offered too great a salient and the men had to be withdrawn, and the position at the Apex straightened. This was very bitter (to us), as the New Zealand Infantry Brigade had held the slopes of Chunuk Bair for 48 hours. However, the Apex was strengthened with machine-guns, and when the Turks attacked in force they were slaughtered. The warships also got on to them with their big guns. A watercourse down the side of the highest point of Chunuk Bair, just above the Farm, was absolutely choked with Turkish dead.”
The Maori casualties were severe in the four days' fighting—the first battle in Europe in which Maoris were ever engaged. During August 6th-10th, they had 17 killed, 89 wounded, and two missing, out of 400 men, total strength.
“As regards the Maoris, two of the machine-guns under my command were manned by them. On August 8th, one of them lost in less than twenty minutes, nine men out of sixteen, and still they fought on. I have seen them lie in the open at the foot of Chunuk Bair, mixed with Ghurkas, for two days and nights, when at least thirty per cent. were either killed or wounded. On sentry at night, when the safety of the army depended on their vigilance, at general fatigue work, and in the digging of trenches—in fact I have seen them under page 54 all conditions of warfare, except the actual charge, and I am satisfied that better troops do not exist in all the world.”
Captain F. M. Twisleton (of the Legion of Frontiersmen, Gisborne) also wrote from the Front as follows:—
“Twice I had Maoris under me, and in ticklish places. I have also seen a lot of them in action, and I must say they are good stuff. A man need not wish to lead better material into action, no matter how desperate the fighting may be. I should say they are amongst the best bayonet fighters in the world. They are perfect sentries. As trench fighters you cannot beat them. I have not seen them under shellfire in the open, but with a leader they trusted, I am quite sure they would stand anything. As soldiers, officers and men, they are a credit to the race and to their country, and I, for one, hope to see a strong unit kept at fighting strength till the end of the job.”
“General Godley was here and asked how they were getting on. I told him that I was very pleased indeed to have the Maoris in my battalion, as they are always cheerful, keen to be taught, wonderfully alert in the trenches, willing workers when on fatigue (and God knows there are fatigues in plenty), in fact they were an object lesson to us white Maoris. The General said, write and tell them in New Zealand. Sir James, I am glad of the permission, and hope you will let the New Zealand people, particularly their Maori people, know how splendidly these gallant fellows are doing their bit for King and Empire.”