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New Zealand Artillery in the Field, 1914-18

[preamble]

For nearly a fortnight after the landing the C.R.A., Lieut.-Colonel Johnston, had his headquarters at the foot of Howitzer Gully, close by the headquarters of the Division, on the northern end of the Cove. But these quarters were cramped and inconvenient, and it was soon discovered that the congested and exposed beach front was unsuitable for the location of the headquarters of the Division. Shelters were accordingly prepared on a terrace at the head of a small gully which ran almost to the foot of the precipitous slopes of Plugge's Plateau, where Headquarters remained from May 7th until the eve of the August offensive. Army Corps Headquarters was in a central and accessible position at the very foot of a gully running off the centre of the Cove, where General Birdwood, living as unpretentiously as the most junior member of his staff, directed the ceaseless activities of his soldiers. From the very day of the landing the Cove became the hub or centre from which radiated everything that was vital to the life of the Corps. There were located the Supply Depôts of the Army Service Corps, the Army Ordnance Stores, and the Field Ambulance stations. The Cove was protected from direct fire by the steep sides of Plugge's Plateau, from which two long shoulders ran down to the sea, terminating in the two points that marked the northern and southern extremities of the little strip of beach—Ari Burnu on the north, and Hell Spit on the south. Never was a force so precariously placed, clinging by virtue only of its tenacious courage to a strip of broken and barren coast-line three thousand yards in length, and a bare thousand yards in depth at the centre, with the sea at its back, and hemmed in on three sides by a foe superior in numbers and guns, and lacking little in courage and leadership. But no one ever doubted its ability to hold what had been seized. Who could have doubted in face of such bold confidence and intrepidity?

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The difficulties of supplying the troops with ammunition and the bare necessaries of existence were enormous and never-ceasing. Consider for a moment that the country they held yielded nothing, not even a sufficient water-supply, and that all supplies had to be brought by sea from the base at Alexandria, 800 miles distant, and landed on the open beaches at Anzac. The ordinary methods of supplying an army's needs could not be employed; there was no precedent which might be referred to for guidance, the position being unexampled in military history. Only the intelligent and skilful co-operation of the Navy made the task practicable. Between the base at Alexandria and Anzac there were but two harbours, Mudros Bay, distant 60 miles, and Kephalos, over at Imbros; and neither of these harbours possessed any piers or facilities for the transhipment of stores. The position became further complicated when enemy submarines began to make the Ægean Sea dangerous to shipping, and it became necessary to prohibit the big transports and store ships from proceeding north of Mudros. Up to that time the transports had stood off the coast at Anzac, and discharged their supplies or disembarked their reinforcements into lighters, which were towed into the beach; but the advent of the submarines made another transhipment necessary. At Mudros supplies were loaded into steam trawlers and mine sweepers, which discharged them into lighters and barges off Anzac or across at Kephalos. At Anzac the Turkish guns commanded all the landing places, so that everything had to be landed under cover of darkness.

The working of the whole system was dependent on the vagaries of the weather. Even during the summer months the broad surface of the bay at Mudros was sometimes swept by a northerly or southerly wind, which seriously impeded or delayed transhipment, but in the autumn and winter Anzac was often isolated for days at a time by gales which swept the open bay at Kephalos, and made the exposed beaches at Anzac quite unapproachable. The establishment of a reserve supply of stores at Anzac was the only measure which could be taken to minimise the dangers of isolation incurred by these breaks in the lines of communication. Within the first week after the landing of the force, the little mounds of stores on page 43the beach began to grow and expand, until the shelving beach flanking the landing piers was piled high with great pyramids of supplies of all descriptions, but chiefly bully-beef and biscuits.

The bulk of the water supply also came from overseas. A certain quantity of water was to be had at Anzac, and by seeking for water in likely places, and improving existing wells, the local supply was considerable increased. At the end of June it was estimated that there was a natural supply at Anzac of eighteen thousand gallons per day, a further thirty per day coming from Alexandria by transports and store ships. These vessels pumped their supplies into a water ship, from which it was taken to Anzac in water-barges which were moored to the shore, the water being finally pumped into tanks on the beach, where it was jealously guarded and doled out to the thirsty troops.

Though the maintenance of the army from a distant base over sea routes frequented by enemy submarines was certainly an arduous, and often a hazardous, undertaking, it was in the landing and distribution on shore that danger showed itself grim and in deadly earnest. From his vantage point to the south, on the bold headland of Gaba Tepe, the enemy could see almost everything that went on in the Cove, while his guns covered not only the beach but the sea for some distance off-shore. The beach was occasionally shelled by light guns firing from the direction of Anafarta; but the guns so cleverly concealed near the Olive Groves beyond Gaba Tepe commanded a perfect enfilade of the water-front, the accuracy and frequency of their fire making them a constant and deadly menace. So effective was their fire that an attempt to land anything during the hours of daylight was a flouting of death that received a quick and final answer. So during the long day the beach was quiet enough except for the frolicking of the bathers, who, making the most of their opportunity, disported themselves in the sparkling waters of the bay between the bursts of shelling.

With the coming of night the narrow water-front began to swarm with the activities of beach fatigues, carrying parties and the chattering muleteers of the Indian Supply Column.

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The pinnaces brought the unwieldy and heavily-freighted barges in to the piers, and the sweating fatigues filed in ghostly procession from the piers with their burdens of food supplies, ammunition and stores. From this advanced depôt on the beach the supply columns loaded up their pack mules and handy little transport carts, and filed off in the darkness on their various routes to the forward dumps.

Reinforcements for the Division were usually landed an hour or two before daylight. Full of curious questions, and marvelling at the seeming animated confusion on shore, the newcomers were promptly led into the comparative safety of one of the gullies running off the beach, and thence taken by guides away to their respective units. By the time the stars had begun to pale before the first roseate flush of dawn, the tumult had subsided; the last lighters had been emptied, the Supply Depôt had sent out its last load of stores, the Ordnance Depôt its final consignment of ammunition, and the transport drivers were commencing to filter back and arrange their little carts in orderly rows on the beach. With the rising of the sun the water's edge and the piers were given over to the morning bathers, who came trooping down, lightly or not at all clad, from their burrows and shelters on the slopes overlooking the bay.

For an army so disadvantageously situated the daily ration was a liberal one, and the occasions on which there was anything approaching a shortage were very rare. But there was an appalling lack of variety about the ration, and this circumstance was a contributory cause of much of the sickness which so grievously weakened the force during the summer months. Tinned beef—"Bully-beef"—and the square white granite army biscuit formed the foundation of the ration, and a very firm foundation too. These two articles of diet were never in short supply; great quantities of them were always kept stacked on the beach, and they were perfectly secure from the attentions of acquisitive souls who visited the Supply Depôt under cover of night in hopes of agreeably supplementing their ration. The biscuits were impervious to climatic influences or change of temperature, but the beef was often found to be par-boiled when brought straight from the page 45stacks standing in the blazing sun. But that was a minor affliction. Supplementary items were jam, always of a constant brand and variety, "Machonachies"—a meat and vegetable ration much appreciated as a variant from the tinned beef, and, as a matter of course, tea. Fresh vegetables would have been worth their weight in gold, but unfortunately they were almost unknown.

When the summer was advanced, and almost every soldier was weakened by the ravages of dysentery and kindred troubles, some efforts were made to alleviate the distress by introducing some variety into the ration, but they did not go far, and achieved little. There was no one who would not willingly have given a portion of his pay each week if thereby he could have secured an occasional change from a diet so monotonous that it became nauseating to a sick stomach. But the Gallipoli campaign was nearing its conclusion before any active steps were taken to provide canteens over at Imbros, and by the time the canteens had become well established, and the system of purchase by unit representatives was in running order, preliminary steps were being taken for the evacuation.

Obviously it is impossible for an army in the field to carry into practice all the laws of sanitation that ordinarily govern a civilised community. The soldiers are too busy fighting for one thing; too busy at times even to bury their dead; and for a host of other reasons the sanitation of a fighting army must always be a matter of difficulty, and, especially in a warm climate, a source of anxiety. At Anzac these difficulties were intensified a hundred-fold by the circumstance that for many months the force was confined to the narrow strip of country on which it first established itself. From the outset nothing was left undone to keep the area as clean as possible, and so minimise the risks of an outbreak of disease; but inevitably much of the ground became foul, and formed breeding places for myriads of flies, which swarmed everywhere, and seriously aggravated the already prevalent dysentery. The colonials had experienced the fly plague in Egypt, which was a natural breeding-ground for anything that had its origin in filth; but the flies in Egypt were a pleasant and soothing companionship page 46compared to the voracious hosts that from dawn to dusk tormented the very souls of these unfortunate campaigners at Anzac. No efforts could keep them out of the food. They came from the unburied dead in No Man's Land, and from the gaping latrines, and buzzed about the supply depôts, and swarmed even on the very food as the soldier conveyed it to his mouth. Small wonder that the great majority of the force suffered from dysentery and diarrhœa as the season advanced.