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The Story of Two Campaigns: Official War History of the Auckland Mounted Rifles Regiment, 1914-1919

Chapter VI. Defence of Walker's Ridge

page 42

Chapter VI. Defence of Walker's Ridge.

It was in the early hours of May 19 that the Regiment fought its first fight, and was able to justify the confidence that had been placed in it. It had been known that the Turks had been heavily reinforced at Anzac, and that an attempt was to be made to "push the British into the sea." Accordingly every precaution was taken by the mounted rifles, but it was a most inopportune time to meet an attack owing to the fact that the "dead ground" in the centre of the line was in the process of being "brought in." A sap, about two chains long, had been driven out from the left of the centre at right angles to the fire trench, and another had been started at the right of the centre to junction with the other and form a new line. Between the heads of these two works there was a gap through which the enemy might pour down on the original front line.

On the night of May 18, the 3rd squadron occupied the left, including the new sap which ran out inconclusively at right angles into No Man, s Land. Major Schofield was in command of this section. On their right and in the other new sap, was the 4th squadron, the 11th squadron being in support behind the two squadrons in the maze of communication trenches that gave no observation and no field of fire. Further to the right was the W.M.R. About midnight a tremendous fusillade broke out from the Turkish line opposite. It was mainly machine-gun and rifle fire, but it was so intense that it killed any observation that might have been made. The night was pitch black, page 43however, and in any case little could have been seen. Everyone was called to arms when the enemy tuned up, and the troops which had been lying in immediate support, filed into the front saps, filling them to their fullest capacity. There was probably a bayonet to every yard. For three long hours they crouched in the narrow saps, which were still without fire steps in many places. The strain of waiting for action is always trying, even to seasoned troops, and it was something of an ordeal for men who were about to fight their first action. But confidence and good humour saw them through.

Finally, at 3.30 a.m., the Turkish fire slackened, and then, after an ominous silence, the enemy sprang to the attack. Cries of "Allah, Allah, Allah," from thousands of throats rent the air—a really fearsome battle-cry, until one gets used to it. Closer and closer came the charge, but still fire was withheld. The squadron officers being scattered among the men made this possible. It was a supreme test of discipline. Not until the first line of Turks was 20 yards away was the order for rapid fire given. The troopers sprang to the parapet like greyhounds, and in a second they were pouring a devastating fire into the approaching ranks. In many cases men were able to remain in position only by bracing one foot against the back wall of the trench. It was not a modern fight. There were no flares to throw out in front and not even any jam tin bombs. It was a battle of bullet and steel.

With the first blaze of fire that pierced the darkness of the mounted rifles line, the first line of Turks seemed to disappear, but other lines came on to meet the same fate. Before long numbers of page 44the enemy were throwing themselves flat to escape from the flying sheet of metal, but at the very place where they should have made the last rush.

Our men began to drop, but even their immediate neighbours were hardly conscious of the fact. The thrill of battle possessed them. Rifle barrels grew too hot to touch and bolts began to get stiff. The imprecations that penetrated the din when bolts jammed, through the heat and grit, were ferocious. The men in trouble were possessed of the healthy belief that if their particular rifles were out of action everything was lost. The end of the left sap became a very warm corner. Here Lieutenant Weir and some of his troop put up a desperate struggle, in which bayonets were used, and drove off three rushes.

On the left, where the old line ran to within a few yards of the gully, matters were in doubt for a time, but Sergeant Thompson, who was killed in August, displayed fine leadership, and the Turks were driven off. It was a small section of the fight, but had it not been for this small body of the 3rd squadron the Turks might have been able to work round the end of the line and penetrate the rear.

The Turks did not appear to have a knowledge of our position and its weaknesses. This became palpably apparent when they failed to concentrate upon the gap between the head of the left sap and the position held by the 4th squadron, to the right. They seemed to lose direction, confused, perhaps, by the angles of the line. The greatest stand of the night was made by a part of the 4th squadron, and it should be described in detail.

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Lieutenant J. M. Roberts was in command of the squadron. Captain Bluck, who had been in command of the Waikatos after Major Tattersall had taken the place of Major Chapman as second in command of the Regiment when it left Zeitoun, had been killed by a sniper that morning. Lieutenant Roberts had had only two hours of daylight in which to familiarise himself with the position and make his dispositions. He decided to put Lieutenant C. James, with his troop (the Whaka-tane Troop), into the new front line, on the right, which, it was obvious, would have to bear the force of the attack. The rest of the 4th squadron occupied the old line, to the right, overlooking Monash Gully, with the exception of Lieutenant Milliken's troop, which was held in reserve. The Whakatane Troop was practically isolated owing to the presence of a small gap between their right and the old line, but this gap was not the menace of the gap on their left, although it made reinforcement and communication difficult. Lieutenant James' orders were to hold the little line for 20 minutes at all costs—and he and his men well knew what the cost would be. They knew that they would have to leave their sap and fight in the open, owing to the fact that in its present state it was merely a deep, narrow ditch, from which they could not fight. It had no fire steps, and it was so narrow that two men could not pass in it. As soon as the attack was launched, Lieutenant James and his men sprang over the parapet, and, lying down in the open, poured their fire into the Turks. Soon they were at point-blank range, and dozens of Turks were shot down at a distance of 10 feet. The miracle was how the little band of heroes was not overwhelmed. The Turks had men enough to sweep through them like a hurri-page 46cane, but their fire was so well directed, and their demeanour so stubborn, that every rush was crushed, the Turks doing the fatal thing of lying down at the very time their final resolute rush should have been made. It was probably their fear of resolute steel that stopped them. Within a few minutes two-thirds of the troop had become casualties, Lieutenant James being among the killed, but the line held. Then Lieutenant Milliken was ordered to reinforce with the reserve troop, and after him were sent two troops of the 11th squadron, commanded by Lieutenant Finlay-son and Lieutenant Logan, Captain Mackesy, of the 11th, accompanying them.

On the whole ridge were only two machineguns, one of the W.M.R. being at the angle of the left sap and the old line, where it had a wide field of fire, and it did tremendous execution. The other, belonging to the Regiment, was on the right of the Waikatos, but owing to the angles of the new sap and the presence of the steep face of Monash Gully, on its right front, its field of fire was very restricted, and the support it gave was more moral than actual.

As the first streaks of dawn rose above the hills which overlook the field of Troy, the Turks retired at the run. Some, who had been feigning dead, darted back through the scrub, amid showers of bullets. Among the snipers was the colonel, who had been watching the movement from the highest point of the parados. It was the most exposed position of the line, and why he was not shot down is a mystery.

Flushed as they were with success, the mounted rifles did not relax their vigilance. Wearing smiles, and heaven-sent cigarettes in their page 47countenances, they waited for the next attack which was fully expected, knowing that this time the Turk would get it worse than before. But the attack never came. A C.M.R. machine-gun that had been posted on a clay peak in the gorge, on the left, was able to get on to a group of German officers who were conferring in what they had believed to be a safe hollow, and this seemed to end the hopes of the Turks for the time being.

The area of the action was on back yard scale and on our side it was manned accordingly, but the little line had to face a concentration of the enemy that might have been used over a front double the length of the ridge position. Further, the nature of the position had the effect of throwing the whole weight of the attack upon about half our front, in which there was room for less than half the number of bayonets necessary. Yet the attack was utterly crushed, and in about four acres the Turks left nearly 500 dead. The position was held against the principles of war. The whole attack did not extend beyond Quinn's Post, where a very desperate onslaught was beaten off by the 4th Australian Brigade, but nowhere did a Turk enter the colonial line and live two seconds. The total Turkish casualties for the night were estimated at 7,000. The losses of the Regiment were 23 killed, and about the same amount wounded.

A splendid example was set to the men by Colonel Mackesy during the fight. He first appeared, with rifle and bayonet, in the advanced sap on the right. After firing for a time he made his way to the left sap, and finding no room on the parapet, climbed to the parados, which was the highest and most exposed point in the vicinity, and from there emptied several magazines. When the page 48attack was at its height, an "order"—"Cease fire, Australians advancing on your right" was passed down the advanced sap held by the 3rd squadron. In Egypt the men had been thoroughly trained in the passing of orders down a line by word of mouth. On one occasion, General Godley had questioned the Regiment's ability in this direction, and he accepted the colonel's permission to test them. A galloper was started down the line as the verbal order was given to the first man, and the verbal order reached the end before the galloper. Almost automatically, therefore, the order to cease fire was shouted from man to man, and automatically some men took the pressure off their triggers, but the colonel instantly passed back, "Australians be damned! Ask where the order came from?" Back went this order, and no reply was returned.

It was probably the first time in history that a Maori war cry mingled with that of the Mohammedan. The mounted men fought in comparative silence as far as vocal sounds were concerned, but once the Maori haka, "Komate, komate," resounded down the mounted rifle line.

The following morning the regiment received a tribute which made them very proud. It was not from a general but from a squadron sergeant-major who belonged to the old school of the Imperial Cavalry. He was a perfect soldier, but all through the training days he had expressed grave doubts about a regiment that did not worry about its buttons and the brilliancy of its spurs, and which could not see the importance of saluting, and so on. Coming to a group of men with battle stains all over them, he said, "I take it all page 49back. First time in action and steady as rocks. You'll do me." Praise from Sir Ian Hamilton himself could not have pleased the men more.

A staff officer of the brigade related how he had met a party of unofficial reinforcements coming up the track from the beach during the fight. He said he had never seen such a mixture. There were a few A.S.C. men, a couple of Indians, three or four Medical Corps men, and a doctor, all carrying rifles, a sailor, who like many others on the beach proudly sported a pair of riding, pants and a wide-awake hat, and finally a midshipman carrying a rifle almost as long as himself. They all wanted to "see the fun," as the middy expressed it. Such was the spirit of Anzac.