The Story of Two Campaigns: Official War History of the Auckland Mounted Rifles Regiment, 1914-1919
Chapter V. Gallipoli
Chapter V. Gallipoli.
Soon the destroyer Colne came alongside, and the Regiment, with those ridiculous brown packs up, and all manner of things from shovels to pannikins appended, tumbled down the gangway on to her deck. Most of the men had acquired small bundles of firewood. These had been prepared by some details of the Royal Marine Light Infantry for their comrades ashore, who had taken the place of the New Zealand Infantry, now at Helles, for the Daisy Patch attack. It was a veteran who suggested that the wood ought to be taken, and it was taken, and no one was much disturbed by the wrath of a R.M.L.I. petty officer who had something to say about colonial thieves who would steal the gold out of a tooth. As the destroyer drew shoreward the real nature of the torn, tumbled country became evident, and everyone was prepared to echo the verdict of a tired sailor who said the men who stormed those heights had "done a miracle." Suddenly a few shells burst on the beach, the first evidence of war so far. The next minute Trooper Taylor gained the distinction of being the first man in the Regiment to be wounded. When he was struck no one was aware that spent Turkish bullets, which had missed the trenches on the crest, had been dropping into the sea in the vicinity of the destroyer. Taylor did not know himself that he had been wounded. He thought that some energetic person had brought his rifle barrel into violent contact with his arm, and he turned round smartly to deal with the offender. His surprise at finding that a bullet had penetrated his arm was great.page 33
From the destroyer the men transferred to a barge, which was towed to the beach by a man-o'-war pinnace, commanded by a midshipman who looked as if he should not yet be out of the nursery, but he was a very confident young gentleman. The A.M.R. poured ashore in high spirits. A few worn, bearded men, whose sunken eyes and deeply-lined faces told of the ordeal they had been through, drifted down to the beach, where the troopers were rejoicing as fresh troops usually do. Their cheerful greetings to the men with the sunken eyes brought forth only monosyllabic responses, and one of the weary men was heard to remark to a mate, "You'd think it was our — birthday." Afterwards the troopers were to know how offensive the bounding, superabundant animal spirits of fresh troops can be to men who are tired beyond all telling.
That night the Regiment bivouacked in the scrub on the steep face of one of the gullies that made a dead end in the cliff face, and all night long the rifle fire on the crest overhead rose and swelled and died away, only to break out afresh more vicious still. At last the Regiment was at war. The brink of the great adventure had been reached, and the peace of mind that comes of sacrifice and of striving in a great cause, the calm that comes in strife to all good soldiers and gives them the power to die cheerfully, began to steal upon them. Next day the Regiment left the gully just before the. Turks by means of shrapnel informed them that they had chosen the wrong side if they wanted to bivouack in safety, and relieved the Nelson and Deal Battalions of the Royal Marine Light Infantry in the trenches on Walker's Ridge, the left section of the first crest, the R.M.L.I. leaving Anzac immediately to rejoin thepage 34
Royal Naval Division at Cape Helles. The Regiment wound up the steep track leading to Walker's Ridge, looking like a human baggage train.
Walker's Ridge, the right extension of which was afterwards named Russell's Top, after Brigadier-General Russell, the commander of the Mounted Rifles Brigade, was the left section of the precipitous eminence that overlooked the beach. It gained its importance from the fact that it guarded the Nek where the Turkish line came nearest to the beach. It was, moreover, the one point on the left of the whole Anzac position where the Turks had only one line of trenches between them and the sea. Here the enemy, with one successful assault, could immediately breach the Anzac defensive system without being first or afterwards hampered by ravines. To the right of Russell's Top lay Plugge's Plateau, but this was no longer a front line position, the infantry having carried and held Pope's Ridge and Quinn's Post on the opposite side of Monash Gully, which was the extension of Shrapnel Gully, a ravine that ran in a north-east direction from Hell Spit, the southern end of the Landing Beach. The Nek was a narrow piece of ground, sloping slightly towards our line, which lay between the head of Monash Gully and the precipitous ravine which formed the left flank of the position, and which made it almost secure from serious attack from that direction. Beyond this ravine there was no definite trench system, but three outposts had been established on positions that commanded the deres, which ran down to the beach from the mass of tumbled, water-torn country on the north, and, hence, it was not necessary to hold the line running from the left ofpage 35
Walker's Ridge to the sea. The Nek was a natural bridge between the two lines in this section. While the right section of the position taken over by the A.M.R., in conjunction with the W.M.R., looked across Monash Gully to the "back yards" of Pope's and Quinn's held by the infantry, the centre and left confronted, at a distance that varied from 50 to 100 yards, one of the strongest points of the Turkish line. It was what might be termed a self-contained position, because there was no definite line of communication across Monash Gully to Pope's and Quinn's. Incidentally, Pope's was similarly situated in respect to Quinn's, Dead Man's Gully, which neither side could hold, intervening. These gaps in our line added to our difficulties, but they were not so dangerous as they would appear, seeing that they could easily become death traps for an advancing enemy. The great difficulty of Walker's Ridge was that the area of ground held by us was so small that a second defensive position could not be established. One point on the right of our line was not more than 30 yards from the cliff face, and the left was not much better for rear defences. The only means of reinforcing the Ridge from the beach was via the one steep track that led up the one possible spur. At this time part of our line had "dead ground" in front, which necessitated the driving of saps to give better observation and field of fire. Towering behind the Nek on the Turkish side was the Chessboard and Baby 700. Summed up it was far from being a comfortable position. Its insecurity was typical of the general insecurity of the whole Anzac position.
It was on this eyrie that the A.M.R. learned to war, and a hard school it was. They could have no support from the navy because the page 36trenches were too close, and because it was impossible to get sufficient elevation on the guns. The only artillery available was one Indian Mountain Battery, the guns of which were hidden in pits almost adjoining the trenches. These guns could not be used with any degree of freedom, however, owing to the shortage of ammunition and the superior observation of the Turks. But the mere presence of the guns and the splendid Sikh gunners was a source of strength. No soldiers had better comrades than were these Sikhs, who worshipped their little guns, and lay round them at night with their long curved swords at their hips. How generous they were! How they loved a fight! and how approvingly they smiled at a man who wore a bandage!
When the mounted rifles took over this position, the trench system had not progressed very far, but the men were amazed at what had been accomplished in so short a time by the infantry. Much more had to be done, however, and it was rather fortunate that the Turks were equally engrossed with the development of their defences, "across the way." Within a few days the troopers realised that to be able to dig is one of the first qualifications of a soldier. The first job was to "bring in" the dead ground, and the next was to develop and deepen the maze of communication trenches between the front line and the face. The track leading to the ridge had to be reduced at the steepest points, and it had to be widened at the top to allow for the passage of guns which never came. The task of the ridge was overwhelming, and it became more and more so as death, wounds, and sickness claimed their daily toll.page 37
When the Regiment first came up, the No Man's Land in front presented a ghastly sight. Lying among the bullet-cut scrub were the bodies of friends and foes. One sap passed by two shallow graves where Turks had been buried, and when the trench passed on two pairs of booted feet stuck out through the wall. The weather was intensely hot by day, and the stench of the whole area was frightful. There was no escape from the smell of death, which clung to the men's clothing, and even seemed to permeate the biscuits which, with bully beef and jam, formed the staple ration. Another horror was the flies, which swarmed in myriads in the trenches, preventing men from snatching a little much-needed sleep when the opportunity offered in the daytime, and making eating a misery. It was impossible to leave food exposed, and the only time that the "billies" of bully and biscuit stew were free from flies was when they were on the little smoky fireplaces in recesses of the communication trenches. There was no regimental cooking, of course, rations being issued to sections (four men), who could eat them when and how they liked. Owing to the annoyance of the flies some sections did not eat anything but a dry biscuit during the daytime. To eat biscuit and jam in the daytime a man had to keep moving the hand that held the food. Shrapnel and sniping were often severe, but they did not drive men to distraction as did the flies.
The Regiment remained wonderfully cheerful, however, and even the flies were made the subject of humour. For instance, one man composed the page 38following "verse," which was sung with great gusto to the hymn tune "There is a Happy Land":—
This is our hymn of hate, "Gott strafe the flies, "
Sing it early, sing it late, "Gott strafe the flies."
Where they come from we can't tell,
But they surely give us hell.
We can only sit and yell, "Gott strafe the flies."
Besides flies there were lice, and although most men had the chance of a swim in the sea every few days, no one was quite free of this affliction. But again the humourist found relief in verse, and composed the following to the tune of "The Little Grey Home in the West":—
There's a trench on the slope of the hill, called by the Turk, Chunuk Bair,
That's where we reside in the warm summer-time in a hole that resembles a lair.
And there's plenty of company, too; how they itch, how they tickle and bite!
We would happier be with Turk shrapnel for tea than the little grey boys of the night.
With all these discomforts, the exhaustion of labour, the strain of unceasing vigil and shell fire, the lack of nourishing food, and little sleep, there was always a shortage of water and the possibility of no water at all. One pint of water a day was the usual issue. When the Turkish artillery fire from Anafarta, to the north, or from the Olive Grove to the south, sunk a water barge as it approached the beach, there was likely to be no water issue. There on Walker's Ridge the men learned the art of washing and shaving with about three spoonfuls of water, which was all that could ever page 39be spared out of the pint. Later, a well was sunk beneath the ridge, about 30 yards from the sea, but the water was very brackish. Another well was sunk in Sphinx Gully, where the Regiment went to "rest"—the "rest" consisting of sapping in the front positions above instead of watching for the Turk—but the small flow that was obtained was condemned by the medical officer. For men who had to toil so strenuously with pick and shovel in that summer heat of the Ægean, water was the first need, but they had to survive without it.
These were the conditions of life under which the Regiment settled down to the stationary struggle on the ridge, a regiment still untested.
Walker's Ridge was a post of honour, and it stands to the credit of the A.M.R. that they were entrusted with it. But the higher command did not appear to have any doubts about any of the mounted rifles units. It is recalled that when General Birdwood met the colonel, shortly after the arrival of the mounted brigade, he fervently exclaimed, "Thank God you have come, Mackesy," referring, of course, to the whole brigade. Posts of honour, however, are posts of danger and difficulty, and Walker's Ridge was no exception. Apart from the general difficulties common to the whole of Anzac, Walker's Ridge possessed some peculiar to itself—a statement, by the way, that does not mean that other positions of the line did not possess their own particular troubles.
One of the difficulties that beset Walker's when the mounted rifles arrived there was the fire superiority of the Turks.page 40
Their wild fusillades during the night were of little consequence. They did not succeed even in drawing a return fire, and thereby cause a waste of ammunition. But during the long hours of daylight the Turks had us almost blinded. One reason was that they held higher ground, which not only gave them superior observation, but also made it possible for them to have sniping holes beneath their own parapet, often less than 50 yards away. This was an impossibility on our side. Another reason was that the Turks, who, be it remembered, were filled with the confidence of expert marksmen not yet challenged, had prepared sniping "possies" in unexpected places among the scrub outside their line, and on the higher ground behind. The R.M.L.I. had not been able to remove this dangerous sniping menace. Composed mainly of men who had used firearms from boyhood, the Regiment speedily set about killing the sniping.
Supply Depot In Mule Gully. Below Walker's Ridge. The cases contain tins of biscuits and "bully" beef, the main ration of Gallipoli.
It was evident the Turks were doing a lot of work in front of the A.M.R., and a patrol, under Corporal McDonald, was sent out on May 15th, and returned with valuable information that the enemy were making trenches, etc. On May 16th, a large concentration of the enemy was evident on this front. Lieutenant P. Logan volunteered to reconnoitre the position. Taking Trooper Heays with him, he went out about an hour before dark, and got quite close to the enemy trenches. He came back with the exact positions of the works the enemy were building on the "Nek," information that was very valuable when the attack came.