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New Zealand Artillery in the Field, 1914-18

The Turkish Attacks in May

page 34

The Turkish Attacks in May.

Three days later the New Zealand Infantry Brigade, with the 2nd Australian Infantry Brigade, left Anzac for Helles. The temporary withdrawal of these two brigades so weakened the line that the gravest anxiety prevailed, until the tension was relieved by the arrival on May 12th of the New Zealand Mounted Rifles and the men of the Australian Light Hone. On the arrival of these fresh troops the battalions of the Royal Naval Division, who had been assisting to hold the line, were embarked for Helles. While the line had been so thinly held the New Zealand batteries in action played a very responsible part in the defence of the position. The 2nd Battery, tirelessly vigilant in following every movement of the enemy in front of Quinn's and the neighbouring posts, lent invaluable aid to the infantry on the morning of May 10th, during a strong enemy counter-attack. On the previous night troops of the Royal Marine Brigade had made a sortie and captured some trenches, the possession of which would materially have improved the position at that point. The assaulting troops had succeeded in establishing themselves in the captured trenches, and reinforcements had been sent up, but at dawn the Turks heavily counter-attacked, and recaptured the trenches. The direct fire of the 2nd Battery's 18prs. on Plugge's Plateau, and the high explosive of the 4.5in. howitzers inflicted very heavy casualties on the enemy, who paid dearly for their success. Later in the morning the 2nd Battery so effectually shelled the trenches in front of Quinn's Post that the shooting drew warm praise and a message of thanks from Brigadier-General Trotman, R.M.L.I., commanding No. 3 Section of the line. Further evidence of the deadly effectiveness of the fire of these two batteries on this occasion was had some time later, when an entry was found in the diary of a Turkish officer to the effect that two Turkish regiments on May 10th lost 600 killed and 2,000 wounded.

Despite the fact that they were few in number and so ill supplied with ammunition, the three New Zealand batteries shot so well and so consistently on every emergency, and at every critical period, that invariably they received the warm page 35thanks of the Infantry Commanders in the line. The gunner's regret was that his activities should be so drastically limited by the unkind circumstance that every round he expended had almost to be begged for. But by accurate service on the guns, and careful skill at the observation post, as much was done with the meagre supply as was humanly possible. The 4th Howitzer Battery suffered more by the shortage than did any of the 18pr. batteries. The only howitzer battery at Anzac for many months, there fell to it the multitude of tasks which the flat-trajectoried 18prs. were not able to undertake in a country so unsuited for anything else but howitzers. Not a day passed but requests were sent in to the howitzers for fire to be brought to bear on some particular target which the other guns could not reach, and very often the Battery Commander found himself without ammunition, and unable to accede to the request. A reserve had always to be kept on hand lest some critical emergency should suddenly arise; and to make inroads on it for the purposes of normal daily fire was out of the question.

On May 16th, the day before the 1st Battery guns were got up to Walker's Ridge, Major-General Sir A. J. Godley sent to the C.R.A. a message referring in appreciative terms to the shooting of the batteries then in action. "Please convey," the message ran, "to all your batteries now here my high appreciation of the excellent shooting they have made while in action here. All commanders of posts are loud in their praises of the support they have had from the, howitzers and No. 2 Battery, and on behalf of the whole Division I wish to express to them our thanks for the good work which has led to such substantial results."

When the Turks made their big attack on May 19th, the shore artillery supporting the Division consisted of the 4th Howitzer Battery, the 1st and 2nd Batteries, and one 6in. howitzer manned by men of the Royal Garrison Artillery. This gun had been landed on the night of May 16th, and on the following day hauled up Walker's Ridge to an excellent position which gave a good field of fire, but its value was rather discounted by the fact that only one hundred and fifty page 36rounds of ammunition had been sent with it. At the time of this attack the troops holding the line were disposed as follows:—

  • No. 1 Section—3rd Australian Infantry Brigade, 6 guns A.F.A., 6 guns Indian Mountain Battery.
  • No. 2 Section—1st Australian Infantry Brigade, 5 guns Australian F.A., one 6in. howitzer.
  • No. 3 Section—1st Light Horse Brigade and 4th Australian Infantry Brigade, 3 guns Indian Mountain Artillery, 2 howitzers 4th Battery, N.Z.F.A., 2nd Battery, N.Z.F.A.
  • No. 4 Section—N.Z. Mounted Rifles Brigade, 4 guns 1st Battery, N.Z.F.A., 3 guns Indian Mountain Artillery, 2 howitzers 4th Battery, N.Z.F.A., one 6in. howitzer.

The attack was expected and prepared for. Word had been received of considerable movement of enemy troops along the roads on the Peninsula, and reinforcements had been seen marching to Anzac from the southern zone at Helles. The Navy vigorously shelled these roads and communication ways; the Turkish response at Anzac making it clear at once that his artillery had received an accession of strength, including some guns of very heavy calibre, which had not previously opened fire. The attack opened suddenly at midnight on May 18th, when rifle and machine-gun fire more violent than anything that had previously been experienced, broke out along the whole Anzac front. All ranks had been warned of the imminence of the attack, both the riflemen in the trenches, and the gunners by their pieces, calmly awaiting the moment of assault. The crash of the Turkish shells punctuated this prolonged roar from rifle and machine gun. Towards 3 a.m. the fire slackened somewhat, but increased in intensity again when the Turkish infantry at last advanced to the attack. The first effort, which was directed against the left of No. 2 Section, was repulsed with rifle, machine-gun, and artillery fire; but it was only a foretaste of what was to follow. The Turks came on four times, always to be repulsed with loss. At the same time a heavy attack was delivered on the north-east salient of No. 4 page 37Section; and between 4.30 and 5 a.m. fighting became general along almost the whole line. At Quinn's and Courtney's, and in front of the trenches held by the New Zealand Mounted Rifles, the Turks came on in masses, dimly seen in the smoke of battle, and the half light of the coming dawn. There was little doubt about their courage, and there was less doubt about their numbers. Concentrated rifle fire, and the terrible stream of lead from machine-guns, swept great gaps in their ranks, but there was no wavering; they faced death bravely.

The growing light gave the artillery observers a better chance, and while the 2nd Battery was pouring its short range murderous fire into the trenches opposite Quinn's and Courtney's, the 1st Battery and the Howitzers were making good practice on large bodies of the enemy assembling in Johnston's Jolly. Employing an increased number of guns, the enemy shelled the trenches, interior positions and the beach. The 2nd Battery in particular was subjected to a fairly steady fire from light calibre guns, but little damage was sustained. This Battery, whose left section was getting most of the targets, got some splendid shooting about ten o'clock; a large force of the enemy which had been unable to make any headway in an attack directed against the left of Courtney's Post and the right of Quinn's, swung round to the left of Quinn's, where they were so severely handled by the guns that their attack was completely broken up. By that time the impetus of the attack was spent, but the enemy was further harassed by gun-fire in the valley east of Plateau 400, where they were endeavouring to reorganise their shattered ranks.

For the not inconsiderable part which it had played in thus definitely checking this great attack, which it was later discovered was ambitiously designed by the Turks to drive the invaders back into the sea, the 2nd Battery received the thanks of Colonel Chauvel, commanding the 1st Australian Light Horse Brigade, and Brigadier-General Monash, commanding the 4th Australian Infantry Brigade, both of whom stated that the Battery saved Quinn's Post, as they could not have held the position without its support. When the enemy was page 38attacking with such determination in front of the Post, the shells of the Battery were bursting a few feet beyond the front line trenches and covering the enemy with a hail of shrapnel. The expenditure of ammunition was of course considerable, but amply justified by the results. The 18prs. fired 1,360 rounds, the Howitzer battery 143 rounds, and the Mountain Guns 1,400 rounds, while the expenditure of small arms ammunition was estimated at little short of a million rounds.

Desultory firing continued until the afternoon of May 20th, when there came a marked lull, and about six o'clock Red Crescent and white flags appeared at various points in the enemy's line. The Turks appeared at first desirous of an armistice to get in wounded and bury their dead; but it soon became apparent that the flags were part of a ruse to gain time and cover the massing of troops for another attack after dark. Those of the enemy who had left their trenches were warned to go back, the 1st and 2nd Batteries were ordered to open fire, and troops in the line were warned against a possible attack. The enemy did actually attack during the night in the direction of Courtney's Post, but the attack lacked vigour, and was broken up. An hour and a half after midnight, however, the whole line was shelled, and a determined attack was made on Quinn's Post; but the attackers again fared badly at the hands of the 2nd Battery, whose fire drove them to the shelter of their trenches, and beat back all other attempts to assault. Slow fire was kept up on the enemy's trenches in this locality until 4 a.m., when all guns opened up in a general bombardment which extended over half an hour.

The following day negotiations of a formal character were opened by the enemy with a view to arranging a suspension of arms. A Turkish officer made his way along the shore from Gaba Tepe, under cover of a white flag, and was met and escorted, blindfolded, through the lines and along the beach to Army Corps Headquarters. The negotiations extended over some two or three days, but a suspension of arms was finally arranged for May 24th, to commence at 7.30 a.m., and to terminate at 4.30 p.m. At the appointed hour the armistice parties from each force met on the right flank of the Anzac page 39position, and proceeded to mark out with, small white flags a dividing line down the centre of No Man's Land. By ten o'clock this preliminary disposition had been completed, and the burial parties, Turkish and Colonial, set to work each on their own side of the dividing line. It had been agreed that in addition to burying its own dead, each side should carry to the centre line and hand over all the enemy dead for identification and burial. This was not found practicable when the task came to be faced, and it was therefore agreed that each side should bury where they lay all the dead within its zone. The burying was completed about 3 p.m., by which time it was estimated some 3,000 Turkish dead, killed on or since the 18th May, had been buried in the area between the opposing lines.

The day following the Armistice was marked by a tragic and dramatic happening, which for the time, at any rate, left an even more marked impression on the minds of everyone than had the grim business of the previous day. This was the sinking by a submarine of H.M.S. Triumph, in the light of broad day, and almost at the very feet of the watchers on the slopes of Anzac. A hostile submarine had been reported off Gaba Tepe on May 22nd, and in consequence all transports lying off shore had been ordered to Mudros, although this meant the dislocation of the supply arrangements for the force on shore. Extra precautions had also been taken by ships of the navy, which were kept under way as much as possible. The Triumph was standing about a mile off shore, a little south of Anzac Cove, when a great column of smoke and water rose up from her side, and she quickly commenced to heel over. The big ship must have flashed the news abroad that she was hit and in her death agony, for from every quarter came racing destroyers and naval small craft. From away down south in the direction of Cape Helles black shapes on the skyline, each of them a torpedo-boat destroyer, began to increase in size, and presently into plain view they came, spreading out fan-shape, with the foam rising to their decks almost, and the smoke spreading out in a black mottled wake overhead. One or two destroyers cruising nearer at hand had page 40raced at once to the Triumph, and were busy taking off the crew, while picquet boats and pinnaces had put off from the shore with a like despatch. Slowly the Triumph heeled over until her decks were almost perpendicular and her port guns were tilted skywards, and within twelve minutes of being struck she had turned completely over, the great length of her red keel glistening in the sun. While the questing destroyers circled round, hungry for a sight of the submarine, the vessel gradually sank deeper in the waters, until with a little swirl she disappeared completely from view. The old ship had become familiar to everyone at Anzac, and the spectacle made a profound impression on the thousands who stood on the hills and watched her tragic end. At midday she rode trim and strong, the sun beating on her clean bare decks, and the smooth, shining length of her big guns; but within the hour she had been stricken to the vitals, and found her last resting place in the blue waters of the Ægean.