New Zealand Artillery in the Field, 1914-18
Chapter V. The 3rd Battery at Helles
Chapter V. The 3rd Battery at Helles.
When Sir Ian Hamilton decided at the beginning of May to make a supreme effort to capture Achi Baba, the big hill that dominated the southern extremity of the Peninsula, he drew upon the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps for two brigades of infantry and five batteries of artillery. Included in the latter was the 3rd Battery, N.Z.F.A., which still lay off-shore from Anzac in the transport Californian. The Battery received orders to disembark at Helles on May 4th; Major Standish, who had been ashore at Anzac with an observing party, rejoined his command, and the transport sailed for Helles at midnight on May 3rd. The battery, complete with guns, horses, and wagons, went ashore in two big pontoons, and disembarkation was complete at midnight on the 4th. A position for the guns having been reconnoitred on the left flank of the line, was occupied by the evening of the 5th, and wagon lines were established near the landing beach. The Battery was attached to the 147th Brigade, R.F.A., commanded by Lieut.-Colonel F. A. Wynter, D.S.O., and covered portion of the line held by the 29th Division.
The British and French troops, which had made good a landing at Helles, were in somewhat better case than the Colonials at Anzac. With each flank resting on the sea, they held a line running across the base of the Peninsula, and the nature of the country, together with the extent of ground occupied, afforded more freedom of movement in rear of the line. The Turks had fallen back some distance on a prepared, though not continuous, line of entrenchments and redoubts, protected by wire and skilfully disposed machine-guns. Behind them rose the shoulders of Achi Baba, which their industry and valour was to convert into a stronghold so formidable as to be described some months later by the Commander-in-Chief as "the strongest fortress in Europe."page 62
The 3rd Battery opened fire for the first time at 11 a.m. on May 6th, on the commencement of the big attack which, at the close of three days' fighting, left the Allied forces relatively no better off than it had been at the commencement. The close of a day's desperate fighting on May 6th found the attacking brigades virtually in the positions which they had occupied in the morning. At most an advance of a few hundred yards had been made at certain points, but at great cost. A long day's fighting on the 7th was equally without results, but it was decided to make one further effort on the following day. Accordingly, orders were issued for the renewal of the attack on the 8th, at 10.30 a.m. The New Zealand Infantry Brigade, which, as part of a composite Division had hitherto remained in reserve, was now attached to the 29th Division, in place of the Lancashire Fusilier Brigade, withdrawn into reserve. The attack was preceded by a heavy bombardment from the Navy and shore batteries, which plastered the Turkish trenches and the slopes of Achi Baba with shrapnel and high explosive; but the moment the attacking infantry moved forward from their trenches they were greeted with a roar of rifles, machine-guns, and field-guns, which the altogether insufficient bombardment had failed utterly to silence. The New Zealand Infantry Brigade, advancing towards Krithia, over "The Daisy Patch," a perfectly smooth stretch of ground swept by rifle and machine-gun fire, suffered terrible casualties, but still pressed doggedly on until very flesh and blood could go no further. An advance of a few hundred yards had been made, and to this dearly-won strip of ground the New Zealanders clung with desperate tenacity. It was impossible to go further, but they refused to go back. At no other point in the advance were the gains more appreciable, and by nightfall the attack had definitely failed.
It had become evident that victory by open movement on the surface could hardly be hoped for. Barbed wire entanglements and scientifically disposed machine guns had so strengthened the enemy's power of defence that open assault must be terribly costly in lives, and barren in results, unless it was accompanied by an intense artillery preparation and support, such as the Dardanelles Force was incapable of page 63affording. Orders were issued that the line held was to be consolidated; and it was decided that further progress must be by continuous and systematic attacks on selected portions of the enemy's line.
During the three days' battle the 3rd Battery assisted in the preparatory bombardments, and lent valuable supporting fire to the infantry on its front. The battery fired a total of 420 rounds during these three days—more than half of them on the first day of the attack. A few Turkish shells fell round the position on the 7th; but the pits gave some shelter, and a trench dug in rear of the Battery afforded cover for personnel when not engaged on the guns. On the day following the conclusion of the attack, a new position was chosen for the Battery on the cliff-edge overlooking the western shore of the Peninsula, the guns covering the extreme left of the line. This position was occupied by the evening of May 10th, and there the guns remained until their departure for Anzac in the middle of August. The wagon lines remained in the position they had first occupied near the landing beach. All ranks worked very hard to improve the gun and ammunition pits and to create as much shelter as possible from the flying shrapnel. The guns were connected by trenches, deep and narrow, and dug-outs were cut on the face of the cliff overlooking the blue and sparkling waters of the Ægean Sea. A sheltered track ran along the cliff-side from the Battery to the Observing Station, situated some five hundred yards forward of the guns. The position was overlooked by the enemy, but the gun emplacements were concealed by scrub, which was always kept freshly cut, and in the hot weather the dust was kept down by sprinkling sea water in front of the pits. All the trenches and communication ways on the front covered by the Battery were carefully registered, as well as enemy redoubts and salient points along the front. These targets afforded good shooting within the limits imposed by the ammunition supply, but it was a matter of more difficulty to locate and successfully engage the Turkish machineguns, which were invariably cleverly concealed, and the field batteries, which, as at Anzac, certainly had all the advantages of position.page 64
Except on the occasions when the guns were called on to provide covering fire for some local operation, or assist the infantry against a counter-attack, the daily expenditure of ammunition was small; often it was insignificant, and there were days when the guns did not fire at all. A supply of ammunition had always to be carefully accumulated for a pending operation, and if stocks were depleted by any sudden call or emergency a lean period must follow until a reserve had been once more established. Over two hundred rounds were fired on the evening of May 12th in supporting a successful surprise attack by a party of Ghurkas, who scaled the cliffs on the extreme left and carried the formidable work known as "Ghurka Bluff," situated to the north-east of Y. Beach. By this operation the left flank, which a succession of costly efforts had been unable to advance, was moved forward nearly 500 yards.
In the big battle of June 4th the Battery fired just under a thousand rounds, a record at that time for one day's shooting or for any single operation. A considerable reserve of ammunition had been built up, and the attack was preceded by a more thorough and careful bombardment than had yet been possible. As on previous occasions, the British 8th Corps, consisting of the remains of the 29th Division, with the Indian Infantry Brigade, the 42nd Division, and the Royal Naval Division, in that order from left to right, held the left and centre of the line, while the two Divisions of the French Corps Expeditionaire held the right. The French, who were relatively stronger in artillery than the British Divisions, and were better supplied with ammunition, lent the British two groups of their 75's for use in the attack. The guns of the fleet with such heavy guns as the Force had on shore, opened a deliberate bombardment at 8 a.m., and continued until 10.30 a.m. At 11 a.m. the bombardment recommenced, and continued until 11.20, when a feint attack drew heavy fire from the enemy's guns. At 11.30 a.m. the bombardment became general, guns of all calibres joining in, and firing with great intensity until 12 noon, when the guns lengthened their range, and protected by their "barrage," the infantry advanced in earnest.page break page break page 65
For the first half hour the advance was rapid, especially in the centre, and hope of decisive victory ran high. But the further advance of the 29th Division was checked through the Sikhs on their left being held up by barbed wire at the first trench remaining undamaged by the bombardment. Reinforcements were hurried up from the reserve, but even the new battalions were unable to advance, and the left of the British line thus found itself kept in check. The French at first made good progress. The formidable Haricot Redoubt, commanding the approach to the southern slope of Achi Baba, which had barred the way almost since the first advance, was rushed and captured. "Within an hour, however, the Turks made an overwhelming counter-attack upon the redoubt, shelling it heavily, and pouring masses of troops down the deep communication trenches. A fatal gap was thus opened between the French and British lines, and the fortune of the battle turned. The Royal Naval Division and the 42nd Division were forced in turn by enfilade fire to fall back from the position they had won, and when night came on and the battle closed the gains at most did not exceed two or three hundred yards in depth. Again the hopes of victory had been dashed by a costly but gallant failure.
So far as the 3rd Battery was concerned a succession of quiet days followed the big effort of June 4th. During the ten days following June 7th, the Battery expended on an average less than ten rounds a day. Then on June 18th the guns were busy again assisting to repel Turkish counter-attacks on the left of the line, and on June 28th they supported a most successful attempt to dislodge the enemy from his hitherto unshakable hold on the western coast. Pivoting upon a point in the line a mile inland from the sea, the assaulting troops took all their objectives, the attack being carried out in two phases. The greatest gains, of course, were on the coast furthest away from the pivotal point. There five lines of Turkish trenches were captured, and the British line was advanced nearly one thousand yards. For several days following this success the Turk made strong counter-attacks, which led to bitter fighting, but he was able to press none of them home. For their close and accurate shooting in page 66support of the infantry on these occasions, and particularly on June 5th, the Battery received the thanks of the Indian Infantry Brigade, and the congratulations of Brigadier-General H. Simpson Baikie, G.O.C., R.A., at Helles.
On the 12th and 13th July an attempt was made to seize the enemy's foremost trench system along the centre and right, and so conform with the advance that had been registered on the left flank. Two days' solid fighting, in which the French again lent the British the support of some of their batteries, achieved only a partial success. The 3rd Battery and two R.F.A. Batteries fired in support of a diversion by troops of the 29th Division on the left, the allotment of ammunition per battery, being 500 rounds. During the preliminary registration the enemy opened fire on the 3rd Battery position, and one or two casualties were incurred. The Battery was again freely shelled during the operation; more casualties were suffered, material damage was done to some of the wagons, and a fire was caused in the thick dry scrub in front of the guns, one of the wagons being burnt, and the position swept clear of cover.
The Battery remained at Helles until the middle of August, taking part in all the operations undertaken by the British troops in that zone, including the containing attacks in August. On August 17th the Battery received orders to proceed to Anzac to join the New Zealand Division, and embarked the same night on the Queen Louise.page break