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New Zealand Artillery in the Field, 1914-18

The Fighting in Midsummer

The Fighting in Midsummer.

The varied activities of the artillery, both offensive and defensive, during the three weeks that had elapsed since the landing, culminating in the big Turkish attack in the middle of May, made such serious inroads on the slender ammunition supplies that a drastic curtailment of the normal daily expenditure became an imperative necessity. After the fighting of May 19th and the two following days had simmered down, an order was issued cutting down the allowance for 18prs., 4.5in., and 6in. howitzers to two rounds per gun per day. Two rounds per gun did not even suffice for the checking of registrations. Observing officers in their posts had to content themselves with gazing at targets which they could not engage, however tempting they might be. This was galling enough, but it was even harder for battery commanders to refuse, as they must, the frequent requests from the front line for support from the guns. Their cruel necessities forced them to deny to the infantry the support they expected and so sorely needed. The gunners employed much of this enforced leisure in further improving the gun positions, and their own accommodation. Here again they were faced with the almost absolute lack of materials. A few sandbags could be had, but nearly all the timber and sandbags that were landed went to meet the prior claims of the front line. So for the artillery there ensued a long period of irksome and enforced inactivity, which was broken in real earnest only when the guns were called on to help in countering a Turkish attack, as on May 29th, or in supporting some local operation by their own troops.

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It had become apparent that the Army Corps could not hope to make any decisive move forward without first receiving strong reinforcements and a more liberal supply of ammunition. Although the enemy had been unable to accomplish his avowed purpose of sweeping the invaders into the sea, he had succeeded in confining them to the circumscribed area on which they had established themselves on the day of landing. Week by week the fighting began more closely to approximate to siege warfare. The failure of the series of attacks in which the New Zealand Infantry Brigade had been engaged at the southern end of the Peninsula early in May had similarly made it equally plain that no decisive step towards victory was likely to be achieved with the forces which Sir Ian Hamilton then had at his command in that theatre of operations. The situation was summed up in a Force Order issued by the General Officer Commanding the M.E.F. on May 11th, in which it was stated that "Owing to the numerous and well-planned entrenchments now held by the enemy in the vicinity of Achi Baba, and also at Gaba Tepe, the operations in the immediate future will approximate more to semi-siege warfare than to open operations in the field. Further progress must now be made by continuous and systematic attack on certain portions of the hostile line rather than by a general action involving the advance of the whole line at once…."

The fact that trench warfare had set in and that no operations on a large scale appeared to be contemplated, did not diminish the aggressive alertness of the colonial troops at Anzac, nor did it mean any lessening of the constant struggle between the two opposing forces; a struggle which became more bitter and intense in those places where the front line trenches ran close together, and grave issues hung on the loss or gain of a few yards, or even of a few feet. At Quinn's Post, that vulnerable point in the defences where the defenders dare not yield one inch, so close to their backs was the edge of the cliff, the fighting assumed a character which invested it with new and fearful dangers. Despairing, doubtless, of ever advancing over the open against the devastating fire which his assaults always encountered from the trenches page 48and the guns of the 2nd Battery, the Turk commenced mining operations in an endeavour to blow the Post and its defenders into the gully behind them. There was only one way to meet such a threat, and that was by prompt counter-mining. Experienced miners in plenty were to be had from the ranks of both Australians and New Zealanders, and to these men was entrusted the task of outwitting the Turkish miners who were secretly sapping into the vitals of the defences at the head of Monash Gully. Work went on unceasingly; cramped in the narrow confines of sap or tunnel the miners toiled and sweated, advancing their underground ways as cautiously as they might. Listening at intervals to the dim and muffled noises of the Turkish miners, they endeavoured to calculate, by sense and instinct, how far off they might be, and the direction of their drive. It was an uncanny game, in which skill and chance were mingled; and there was the ever-present possibility, despite the miners' untiring watchfulness and untrained judgment, that the Turk might advance his gallery undetected, and at any moment strike a surprise blow. And from surprises of that nature escape was difficult, if not impossible. Several Turkish galleries were discovered and destroyed by counter-mining in front of Quinn's; but about 3.30 a.m. on May 29th, the enemy succeeded in springing a mine which almost wrecked No. 3 Sub-section of the Post. The explosion was followed by a heavy bomb attack by a storming party of Turks, who succeeded in penetrating the front trenches, and isolating the sub-section of the left from the other two on the right. Some inevitable confusion resulted and for a few moments the situation was dangerous and obscure; but the garrison on each flank of No. 3 Sub-section desperately resisted all enemy attempts to extend their gains. Meanwhile reinforcements were clambering up the slopes, and the 2nd Battery and the 4th Battery's section of howitzers on the beach at once opened fire on the enemy's trenches and his reserves in front of Quinn's Post and at the head of Bloody Angle. About dawn a counter-attack succeeded in re-taking the lost trenches, and the attack was thus finally and decisively defeated. The batteries of the New Zealand Artillery engaged did good work in assisting to beat off the attack, and in addi- page break
The "Water-Queue" on the Beach at Anzac [Photo by the Author

The "Water-Queue" on the Beach at Anzac [Photo by the Author

page break page 49tion
to keeping the enemy's trenches under constant fire and shelling his reserves in the open, several enemy batteries were engaged and silenced.

Close fighting continued in front of Quinn's Post for the next couple of days. The Turks had an apparently unlimited supply of bombs with which they constantly harassed the defenders of the Post, who replied as best they might with the "jam tin" bombs made at Anzac. Two enemy saps were actually pushed forward to within five yards of the front line, and these it became necessary at all hazards to destroy. At 1 p.m. on May 30th two parties of thirty-five men each went forward under covering fire from the 2nd Battery and the guns of two batteries of Indian Mounted Artillery, the operation being preceded by a heavy fire from the 2nd Battery on the enemy trenches, 100 yards in rear of their front line. The storming parties cleared the sap-heads and penetrated into the trenches beyond; but in spite of the supporting fire they were gradually driven back by a series of counter-attacks in which the enemy's lavish supplies of bombs placed the attackers at a grievous disadvantage. Colonel Chauvel, commanding the 3rd Section of Defence, was again warmly appreciative of the 2nd Battery's shooting, and in a message to the Divisional Commander expressed the opinion that the guns had caused great execution amongst the enemy, and fulfilled their task of keeping down hostile fire.

Practically ever since the day of the landing the weather had been consistently fine except for an occasional shower of rain. The days had been bright and warm and the nights fine, but somewhat cool to men who had been tempted by the brilliance of the sun to discard most of their warm clothing. But the hot summer season was advancing, and by June the heat had become oppressive, and combined with the ills and afflictions that it brought in its train, was a grievous burden to men who had already been sorely tried in body and spirit. As the heat increased, the amount of clothing worn by the average individual became less and less, until the absolute minimum was reached by the many, who contented themselves with a very short pair of "shorts," boots, and headgear of the page 50variety that most appealed to their own particular tastes. Clad thus in abbreviated uniforms that were anything but uniform, the rank and file of the army grew bronzed, and some even heightened the suggestion of the primitive by becoming bearded, for the morning shave had become but a memory of another existence. Thoroughly verminous as they were, and often lacking sufficient fresh water even for drinking purposes, the soldiers might almost have been pardoned for ceasing to worry about personal cleanliness; but good habits persist as well as bad, and the desire to wash and be clean never waned. The gunner provided himself with a small pannikin-full of water, when it was to be had, and went about his toilet with the gravity of a man engaged in an absorbing morning ritual. Under such conditions it can be easily conceived what a joy to the soldier were those invigorating swims in the clear, cool, sparkling waters of the Cove.

Every day the guns from the Olive Groves swept the beach with their deadly enfilade, and hardly a day passed when they did not exact a toll in killed and wounded, but none ever thought of foregoing his swim in consequence of these risks. It was certainly a characteristic of Anzac that immunity from constant danger was to be sought nowhere; but there was something infinitely more tragic and terrible in being stricken down while enjoying an hour off duty on the beach, than while in the trenches, or serving the guns in the heat of battle. The guns usually fired in short bursts at uncertain intervals; and as they were firing at a considerable range the shells gave some warning of their approach and enabled the most active to dive for the shelter of the big stacks of boxed provisions or the lee side of the iron barges that usually lay alongside the pier. There they crouched while the shrapnel swept over their heads with that familiar but frightful swishing sound; and the stretcher-bearers rushed the wounded to cover. In a few moments the shelling would cease, men would straighten themselves up with an air of mingled relief and caution; then one, more intrepid than the rest, would lead the way again into the tempting waters, and in a few minutes it would seem as if there had never been anything to disturb their splashing and frolicking.

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The summer dragged on slowly enough. The strength of the force was slowly dwindling through the wastage from sickness and the daily casualties in killed and wounded, and the prospect of making some decisive move without the addition of strong reinforcements became more and more remote. At every point the Army Corps was faced with wire entanglements and deep entrenchments which the enemy, strongly reinforced and enjoying every possible advantage that the position could offer, was daily making more formidable. For the garrison at Anzac there was never any rest. The inactivity of the force was only comparative. Because it was not called upon to make any prodigious effort there was none the less no lessening of the incessant and arduous fatigues, no respite from the constant dangers and alarms, the sniping, night patrols, and the fierce bombing encounters at those places where the opposing lines ran closely together. Before the commencement of the lengthy preparations for the August offensive gave them a heartening indication of big events at hand, the soldiers were inclined sometimes to wonder how much longer the depressing routine of "holding on" was to continue. The monotonous waiting during the hot summer weeks was calculated to do more to lower the morale of the soldier than all the exhausting struggles that had preceded it. In men of another temper it would have produced a fatal lethargy, and a decay in their fighting spirit, but in the Australians and New Zealanders it bred only a restlessness and a growing desire for some decisive action to end the seeming impasse.

In this frame of mind everyone turned with anxious interest to the theatre of operations at the southern end of the Peninsula, where the British and French forces were laying siege to the great natural fortress of Achi Baba. Those battles and the possibilities they suggested were a constant topic of discussion in June; and there were always at least one or two rumours in circulation that Achi Baba had fallen or was about to fall. Every time the noise of the guns at Helles rolled up to Anzac in swelling volume, and the shoulders of the big hill were cloaked in the sullen gloom of war, it was freely prophesied that its fall was imminent. So strongly does hope page 52spring up in the heart of the soldier! But the story of those heroic but fruitless struggles is now well known. Achi Baba did not fall, and at last, hope shattered and prediction falsified, those who had long and valiantly persisted in the belief of its ultimate capture, came to regard Achi Baba as some great indestructible barrier which barred the path to victory. And so in a measure it was.

The fighting at Relies, however, had a more immediate material effect on the affairs of the Army Corps, inasmuch as any big attack by the Allied forces in the south always found an echo at Anzac in the shape of a local operation undertaken in the hope of diverting some of the Turkish reserves from the real attack. In rear of his positions on the Peninsula the enemy possessed ample sheltered country in which to dispose his reserves, and with lateral communications was able to move men to either Anzac or Helles at short notice. A diversion at Anzac was liable to be of a costly nature; but at any rate it never failed to attain the dual object of retaining the Turkish forces opposite the colonials and attracting some portion of his reserves.

On the occasion of the big attack at Helles on June 4th, the efforts made at Anzac to distract the attention of the enemy took the form of three distinct enterprises—a demonstration in the direction of Gaba Tepe, and raids on a section of trench opposite Quinn's, and on German Officers' Trench, opposite Courtney's Post. New Zealand infantrymen carried out the raid from Quinn's Post, the assaulting party numbering sixty men. They were to leave their own trenches at 11 p.m., under cover of artillery fire, make a dash across No Man's Land, and capture the selected portion of trench, which was then to be put in a state of defence, and linked up with their own front line. The first phase was accomplished swiftly enough, the trench being successfully seized, and some Turks bayoneted, in addition to twenty-eight who were taken prisoners. The raiders were supported by the 2nd Battery, N.Z.FA, the 4th Australian Battery, and the 21st Indian Mountain Battery, firing on the front and left front of their objective, while a section of the 4th Howitzer Battery page 53accurately shelled the enemy's main communication trench leading to the captured trenches. The 1st Battery engaged the northern face of Johnston's Jolly. When they endeavoured to consolidate their gain the raiders found themselves enfiladed by machine-gun fire as a consequence of the non-success of the attack by the Australians on German Officers' Trench, and all night long the Turk assailed them with bombs. By dawn the two flanks had been driven in to such an extent that the raiders occupied only a narrow strip of trench, which the enemy was doing his best to render untenable. Heavy casualties had been suffered; further endeavours to hold on could be productive of no good, and ultimately the raiders were obliged to relinquish what they had gained, and withdraw to their own front line.

The closing days of June were marked by further heavy fighting, but this time it was the Turk who attacked, and the Turk who suffered heavy losses. Activity commenced with another containing movement to assist the forces at Helles, local attacks being made on the right of the Anzac position by the Australians. Whether or not this diversion simply succeeded beyond expectations, or whether the enemy had been planning an attack upon Anzac is not quite clear, but at any rate the Turk assembled in great force in his trenches during the hours following the attack, and himself advanced to the assault shortly after midnight on June 29th, after a preliminary bombardment of great intensity, and a torrent of rifle and machine-gun fire. On the right of the Anzac sector the enemy's reserves had already been severely handled by guns of the Australian and New Zealand Artillery during the afternoon, the 1st Battery having effectively engaged large parties behind Lone Pine. Again when the enemy determinedly launched several heavy columns against the left and left-centre of the line, shortly after 1 a.m., the guns played havoc with his reserves, and cut gaps in his ranks as they moved forward to the attack. Showing more than usual determination, the attackers still pressed on in face of a murderous machine-gun and rifle fire, and some few even penetrated into the trenches held by the 3rd Australian Light Horse Brigade, where they were promptly bayoneted. A large force then page 54endeavoured to work round the left flank, but advancing with fixed bayonets they blundered against a concealed sap, and, being met with a devastating fire, lost over 250 of their number. Completely beaten everywhere, the enemy retired in some disorder, harassed by the fire of the 18prs. and howitzers. This, the last attack on the Anzac position, was to have been a decisive effort, and it was stated by prisoners that Enver Pasha himself was on the battlefield to share the expected triumph of his soldiery. How little their sanguinary repulse agreed with his great expectations!