New Zealand Artillery in the Field, 1914-18
The Battle of Sari Bair
The Battle of Sari Bair.
As night began to fall, and while the Turkish reserves were gravitating towards the bitter struggle at Lone Pine, the attacking columns of General Godley's force were silently assembling for the master stroke—the night assault on the heights of Sari Bair. Now had arrived the most momentous phase of the whole campaign, for upon the issue of the struggle upon which the veterans of Gallipoli were about to embark side by side with the untried soldiers of the New Army, depended the success or failure of the whole great undertaking. The Sari Bair Ridge, the objective of the assaulting columns, ran roughly parallel to the coast line, and was flanked on the coastward side by a number of long broken spurs which ran down to within a few hundred yards of the beach. The gullies, or deres, in between were steep, broken, and scored with the rushing waters of many a winter's storm. In parts they were choked with a tangle of scrub and close undergrowth, which would add enormously to the difficulties and dangers of a night march up their unreconnoitred ways, yet through them lay the only road to the goal on which all hopes were set. It was manifestly impossible for an attacking force to break the Turkish line, seize the lower heights, and then fight a way up the gullies in the darkness and arrive at the top intact and in condition for an assault on the ridge. The attack must be made in two stages, the first of which must be devoted to the capture of the positions which commanded the entrances to the deres and the clearance of the lower portion of the deres themselves. Accordingly the force was divided into four columns, two of which, designated covering columns, were to open up a path for the two assaulting columns.
The total force available comprised the New Zealand and Australian Division (less the Australian Light Horse), the 13th Division (less five battalions), and the 29th Indian Infantry Brigade. The four columns into which they were divided were:—
Right Covering Force (Brig.-General A. H. Russell):—New Zealand Mounted Rifle Brigade, Otago Mounted Rifles Regiment, Maori Contingent, Field Troops, N.Z.E.page 76
Left Covering Force (Brig.-General A. H. Travers):—4th Battalion South Wales Borderers, 5th Battalion Wiltshire Regiment, half 72nd Field Company.
Right Assaulting Column (Brig.-General F. E. Johnston):—New Zealand Infantry Brigade, Indian Mountain Battery (less one section), 1st Field Company, N.Z. Engineers.
Left Assaulting Column (Brig.-General H. V. Cox):—29th Indian Infantry Brigade, 4th Australian Infantry Brigade, Indian Mountain Battery (less one section), 2nd Field Company, N.Z. Engineers.
Divisional Reserve:—6th Battalion South Lancashire Regiment, 8th Battalion Welsh Regiment (Pioneers), 39th Infantry Brigade, half 72nd Field Company.
The Right Covering Force was to move out from No. 2 and No. 3 Posts at 9 p.m., and seize the enemy positions on Old No. 3 Post, Table Top, and Bauchop's Hill. The accomplishment of this task would open up the Chailak Dere and the Sazli Beit Dere for the passage of the Right Assaulting Column, which was to commence to move up these gullies at 10.30 p.m. The Chailak Dere and the Sazli Beit Dere both led up to Chunuk Bair, which the Column was to attack, after having cleared Rhododendron Spur on its way up to the Ridge. The Left Covering Force was to march northwards along the flat, and then turn inland and seize Damakjelik Bair, a hill which lay some 1,400 yards north of Table Top. The seizure of this position would protect the left flank of the Left Assaulting Column during its climb up the Aghyl Dere. The Left Assaulting Column, moving off at 10.30 p.m., was to cross the Chailak Dere and march northwards until it rounded Walden's Point, when it was to work up the Aghyl Dere and assault Koja Chemen Tepe or Hill 971, joining up with the left of the Right Assaulting Column at the head of Kur Dere, behind Hill Q.
Of the Divisional Reserve, portion was to be assembled in readiness at the foot of the Chailak Dere, and the remainder at the foot of the Aghyl Dere.page 77
The total weight of artillery which was available to support the attack, was so small as to be almost insignificant, especially in view of the magnitude of the operations and the issues at stake. In addition to the three New Zealand Batteries there were available three 5in. batteries of the 69th Brigade, R.F.A., and the solitary 6-in howitzer on Walker's Ridge. To make matters worse, none of the New Zealand Batteries could lend their full strength to the support of General Godley's force, as they could not be spared from the areas which they covered on the centre and left of the Anzac line. Thus one section of the 1st Battery faced north from Russell's Top; the other section still watched Lone Pine, where its support was essential in face of the prodigious efforts being made by the Turks to redeem the loss. The 2nd Battery on Plugge's Plateau could not be spared from the defence of Quinn's Post, and so could direct only a very limited amount of fire on the Sari Bair Ridge, and that by map only. Only half of the 4th Howitzer Battery could be counted upon, as the section in Anzac Cove continued to cover the area from the Chessboard southwards to the sea. Thus of the artillery emplaced at Anzac before the opening of the battle there were actually available only two 18prs., two 4.5in. howitzers, three batteries of 5in. howitzers, and one 6in. howitzer. In addition, there were the ably-handled but obsolete 10pr. guns of the Indian Mountain Artillery, which went forward with the attacking infantry. A force, equal almost to an Army Corps, was to be supported in a major operation against a skilful, well-led, and more numerous enemy by two 18prs., little more than a dozen howitzers, and the fire of some ships of war. The value of the naval guns was greatly lessened by the fact that they could engage only the forward slopes of the hills, and that they could not be used for the close support of advancing infantry.
As the attack from the left flank was essentially a surprise attack in which much depended on the rapid exploiting of the strategical opportunities so created, there was no attempt at an artillery preparation of the initial objectives. A limited programme of artillery fire had been drawn up, however, under which fire was brought to bear at fixed times on the Nek, the page 78Chessboard, Big Table Top, and Rhododendron Spur. The trenches in front of Quinn's Post were also kept under fairly constant fire by the 2nd Battery from 9.30 p.m. onwards through the night. Commencing at 9 p.m., the guns of three Australian 18pr. batteries directed a slow rate of fire on to the Nek and the Chessboard, and maintained it until 4 a.m. on the 7th. At 9.30 p.m. C. Battery 69th Brigade R.F.A. joined in the shelling of the Nek, and continued in action until the Australian guns ceased fire. A group of guns consisting of one section of the 4th Battery, one 6in. howitzer, and a section of B. Battery 69th Brigade shelled Big Table Top from 9.30 till 10 p.m., and Rhododendron Spur from 10 till 10.30 p.m., at which hour they switched their fire on to the Nek, which they continued to shell until 4 o'clock next morning. Fire throughout was at a very slow rate, each battery or section firing only one round every two and a half minutes.
Stripped of all encumbering gear, in light fighting trim, the covering columns moved quietly out with bayonets fixed. Distinguishing patches of white calico were worn on the back of each man, so that there might be no fatal mistaking friend for foe in the confusion of close fighting in the darkness.
The Right Covering Force opened the fighting, advancing from Nos. 2 and 3 Posts shortly after 9 p.m. Its task of carving a path for the passage of the assaulting Brigades of infantry was all-important, as any failure to seize its objectives and fulfil its mission would imperil the whole undertaking. But imbued with the spirit of invincible resolution which animated the whole force this night, the mounted riflemen or the men of the Maori Contingent were not in the mood to be stayed by ordinary obstacles. No. 3 Post, which had been recaptured from the Mounted Rifle Brigade at the end of May, and which the enemy had since made very strong, was captured by stratagem, thus obviating the loss of life which would have resulted in an attempt to take the Post by open assault. For some considerable time prior to the attack the destroyer Colne had made it a nightly practice to shell the Post, illumined by the glare of her searchlight, from 9 o'clock till 10 minutes past, and again from 9.20 till 9.30 p.m. As each of these brief bombardments always began and ended at precisely the same time page 79each night, the Turks in the Post had adopted the practice of temporarily seeking safer quarters in some dug-outs in their rear. Thus the garrison became practised in the part which unconsciously they were to play in the capture of their own stronghold. The stratagem succeeded admirably. The attackers crept out close to the Post under cover of the shelling, and the moment the guns were silent and the searchlight disappeared, they rushed straight for the enemy trenches. The surprise was complete; and although the garrison made an attempt to save the situation, the Post and the surrounding entrenchments were completely cleared in a very short time.
While the Auckland Mounted Rifles were carrying the fortress of Old Number Three Post by an admixture of boldness and strategy, the remaining sections of the Right Covering Force were advancing to their allotted tasks. The Wellington Mounted Rifles were stealing on Destroyer Hill and Table Top, and the Canterburys and Otagos were advancing on Bauchop Hill from the flat ground to the north of Number Three Post. In both attacks the enemy was met in force, and stood his ground, the attackers suffering severely from machine-gun and rifle fire as they closed in in the darkness on the entrenched positions. But the determination with which the attack on Bauchop Hill was pressed home, despite the loss of gallant officers and men, and the very audacity of the frontal assault against the forbidding face of Table Top, brought their deserved reward. By midnight the task of the column was virtually accomplished; the Sazli Beit Dere, the Chailak Dere, and part of the Aghyl Dere were open to the passage of the assaulting columns, and the New Zealand Infantry Brigade was making its way up to the assault on Chunuk Bair. The Otago, Auckland, and Wellington Battalions were to proceed by way of Chailak Dere, and the Canterbury Battalion by the Sazli Beit Dere.
It was half an hour after midnight before the Left Assaulting Column crossed the Chailak Dere and pushed on across the flats to the Aghyl Dere, which it entered hard on the heels of the Left Covering Force. This force, composed entirely of units of the New Army, had moved out from No. 3 Outpost when the attack on Bauchop's Hill had developed, and page 80by 1.30 a.m. had completed the capture of Demajelik Bair and was in a position to protect the left flank of the army operating from Anzac. With the two assaulting columns fairly on their way up the deres, the attack was in full swing, but it had started late, and while the columns were slowly fighting their way forward, overcoming the resistance of the enemy, and struggling against the frightful difficulties of the broken, un-reconnoitred country, the precious hours of darkness were fast slipping away. Though completely surprised, the enemy did not readily give ground, but in places offered a fierce resistance, his familiarity with the country giving him a great advantage over the attacking infantry. In the deep, scrub-covered ravines the darkness became intensified, and the troops were constantly in danger of being led astray from their path by blind alleys or offshoots from the dere. Mistakes of this nature always resulted in a certain amount of confusion, and a loss of valuable time.
The first light of the breaking day revealed the columns still laboriously struggling up the gullies and spurs, and yet beyond striking distance of the coveted crest of the Sari Bair Ridge. It revealed also the bay at Suvla crowded with the transports of the 9th Army Corps, an inspiriting spectacle to troops exhausted with the night's terrible exertions and conflicts with an unseen enemy. All hopes of a surprise attack on the Ridge had vanished, but the New Zealand Brigade pushed on in daylight until it reached a point afterwards known as the Apex, on the top of Rhododendron Spur, only a bare quarter of a mile from Chunuk Bair. Of the Left Assaulting Column, the Indian Brigade, which had advanced up the southern fork of the Aghyl Dere, had gained possession of the ridge west of the Farm below Chunuk Bair, and along the spurs to the north-east. It had succeeded in obtaining touch on the right with the New Zealand Infantry Brigade, and on the left with the 4th Australian Brigade. This brigade had fought its way up to the north of the northern fork of the Aghyl Dere, making for Koja Chemen Tepe, and had succeeded in gaining the ridge overlooking the head of the Asma Dere.
With the three 5in. howitzer batteries of the 69th Brigade, and the guns of the 4th Battery, the Force was comparatively very strong in howitzers; but however ably handled, these unfortunately were not the best weapons with which to support an infantry advance across open country. During this period, however, there were a number of 18prs. lying idle on the beach at Anzac, waiting to be taken over by certain of the batteries which were to land at Suvla Bay. As the 9th Corps had as yet displayed little signs of life, the likelihood of these guns being claimed for a day or two seemed small, so it was decided to man them with such men as could be spared from other batteries and bring them into use. One battery of two of these guns, and two 18prs. borrowed from the Australians was placed under command of Captain G. E. Daniell. It was emplaced on the flat immediately to the north page 82of the old line, whence it shot at Chunuk Bair over open sights, and in return got freely shelled and shot at by enemy snipers to a very uncomfortable extent. A second battery, formed in a similar manner, was commanded by Lieutenant H. J. Daltry, but the guns were taken away very soon after the battery was formed.
For the attack at dawn on August 8th, the whole force was reorganised into three columns, of which the Right Column was to attack Chunuk Bair. This column was commanded by Brig.-General F. E. Johnston, and comprised the New Zealand Infantry Brigade, the Auckland Mounted Rifles, and the Maori Contingent, and two battalions from the reserve. The Centre and Left Columns, commanded by Major-General H. V. Cox, were to attack Hill Q. and Abdel Rahman Bair, and thus converge on Koja Chemen Tepe. The attack began promisingly on the right, where the Wellington Infantry Battalion and the 7th Gloucesters, supported by remaining units of the column, pressed forward with intrepid resolution to the very crest-line of Chunuk Bair. On the centre and left the attack fared badly, being unable to make any headway against the concentrated fire from the heights. But a footing had been gained on the coveted ridge; and it well might be that this would mark the turning point in the bitter and prolonged struggle. It had become obvious by this time that whatever successes were to be achieved must be gained unaided by the force at Anzac. The army at Suvla seemed to be stricken with some paralysing inertia, and the soldiers fighting on the slopes of Sari Bair, exhausted, tortured with thirst, but still of bold spirit, looked in vain for help from that quarter. If the hold on Chunuk Bair was for the valiant soldiers of Anzac a cheering presage of victory, for the Turk it was an ugly omen of defeat, and all day he made desperate efforts to throw the New Zealanders back from Chunuk Bair, and to break the line held by the left and centre columns. All day long and into the night the enemy assailed the shallow, hastily dug trenches on Chunuk Bair with artillery and rifle fire and showers of bombs, and attacked again and again with troops brought fresh from reserve; but the New Zealanders were determined at all costs to cling to their hardly-won footing on the heights.