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New Zealand Artillery in the Field, 1914-18

Chapter VII. Nearing the End

page 90

Chapter VII. Nearing the End.

Although the second attack on Kaiajik Aghala had been in a large measure successful, the success was of purely local importance. It could not in any way affect the fortunes of the campaign, which had been already finally decided by the failure of the attack on the Sari Bair Ridge, and the tragic fiasco at Suvla Bay. But though all chances of success were thus irretrievably lost, the campaign dragged wearily on for another four months. During this lengthy period of stalemate the action of the artillery was of necessity largely routine, though the routine was never devoid of hazards and hardships, and its activities continued to be severely limited by the inadequate supplies of ammunition. The spirit of all ranks and arms in the Division was unaltered. The great battle had brought victory no nearer; there had been no amelioration in the conditions of living, and the rigours of a stormy winter were close at hand; but at Anzac confidence remained firm and faith unshaken. The condition of some of the units in the line was such, however, that a rest of some sort became imperative. During September the worn-out and sadly thinned infantry brigades and mounted rifle regiments of the Division were withdrawn for a brief period of rest at Lemnos. The Divisional troops, including of course the artillery, remained at their posts without relief until the evacuation.

The New Zealand batteries, together with the other attached batteries under the command of the C.R.A., covered during this period the fronts of the N.Z. and A. Division and the 54th Division. The strength of the artillery had grown considerably since the beginning of August, and the big area of country gained to the north of the original Anzac position gave scope for the employment of more heavy guns. The New Zealand Artillery itself had been strengthened by the arrival of the 3rd Battery from Helles, and the 5th Battery from Egypt. The 1st Battery was still on Walker's Ridge. The page 912nd Battery had one section on Bauchop Hill, and the other on Damakjelik Bair, to which latter position the section from Bauchop'a Hill moved on September 28th. The 3rd Battery was in emplacements built on the edge of the beach, some distance north of the Chailak Dere. The guns of the 5th Battery were near the road that ran behind Taylor's Hollow, and of the 4th Battery's howitzers two were in Taylor's Hollow, and two in their permanent positions in Ari Burnu Point. Of the three 5in. howitzer batteries of the 69th Brigade, which were attached to the Division, two were in the neighbourhood of Taylor's Hollow and the third was in the bed of the Aghyl Dere. The 24th Siege Brigade, R.G.A., had landed part of its strength, sending one 6in. howitzer battery (17th Siege Battery) out on to the flat north of the Chailak Dere, and mounting two 4in. naval guns on the beach half-way along to Suvla Bay. Finally, there were the 6in. howitzer which had been landed in the middle of May, two batteries of Indian Mounted Artillery, and a battery of 60pr. guns also situated on the flats out on the left. The 4in. guns, which did not open fire until the middle of October, were very old, and in very bad condition, and possessed only one dial sight between them. Very early they were out of action owing to buffer trouble, and when that was remedied they continued constantly to go out of action from various causes. Both these two guns and a 60pr. battery drew a great deal of hostile fire. On several occasions the 4in. were put out of action, and the 60prs. were so badly damaged that eventually they were sent away about a month before the evacuation.

At the end of August it became necessary to decide as to the disposal of some heavy artillery, including one 15in. howitzer, which had been held in readiness for use in the event of a successful issue to the battle of Sari Bair. Regarding the 15in. howitzer the C.R.A., G.H.Q., gave it as his opinion that as matters stood the army had no use for this weapon, and that it was inexpedient to land it on the Peninsula. The employment of heavy guns on the Peninsula had been depending for some weeks on the outcome of the recent operations, and if those operations had resulted in putting the army astride the Peninsula heavy guns landed at Suvla and page 92suitably sited could have commanded all the country between the Anzac position and the Dardanelles. In confirming the opinion that there was no room for the 15in. howitzer, the Commander-in-Chief stated that there was a battery of Mark VII. 6in. guns, another of 9.2in. howitzers, and much field artillery then in Egypt because there were no positions for them on the Peninsula.

Thus when the campaign had almost reached its closing stages the artillery had grown so considerably in strength as to present an almost imposing array when compared with the few batteries which the Division possessed in the first months at Anzac. The increase in gun-power, however, was almost purely nominal, because guns are of no use without shells, and the supply of ammunition never showed any increase that was worth the name. The War Office informed Sir Ian Hamilton at the end of September that all available ammunition was needed for France, and so to the very end the artillery was always grievously hampered and handicapped by this never-ending dearth of shells. That the New Zealand batteries achieved so much and stood so high in the estimation of their own front line troops speaks volumes for the service at the guns and the careful skill of the observers, who had to see to it that the maximum results were obtained with each day's quota. There was never any lack of good targets; and requests were constantly being received from the infantry for fire to be directed on to some particularly troublesome enemy machinegun, or perhaps a redoubt or strong point. Such requests were seldom declined, and generally the shooting was satisfactory in its results. But more difficulty was experienced in dealing with enemy batteries, which neglected none of the advantages of position. Almost all the battery positions at Anzac were overlooked by the enemy, and some of them, such as the 3rd Battery's position down near the beach, lay in full view of the enemy on the commanding height. On the other hand, most of the Turkish batteries were situated on their own side of the high ridges beyond observation. Possessing ample supplies of timber and abundance of labour, both scarce commodities at Anzac, they built innumerable covered emplacements which served as alternative positions to which they page 93could move their guns whenever they were located and shelled. Aeroplane observers reported the existence of these emplacements, but could never indicate which of them were occupied. Several of the New Zealand batteries engaged hostile guns with aeroplane observation, but these shoots were seldom justified by results. Obviously incorrect "corrections" were sometimes sent down from the air, and on one occasion, after twenty odd precious rounds had been fruitlessly expended on an aeroplane shoot, the battery commander observed in his report;—"I conclude the aeroplane found a number of targets or the estimation of distance was poor."

Generally the activity of the enemy guns was most successfully countered by neutralising fire where the positions were known, or by prompt retaliation on to registered points in his lines. The enemy guns seemed to be liberally enough supplied with shells, and in addition to subjecting battery positions to periodic bouts of shelling, engaged in some destructive shoots round about the headquarters area near Nos. 2 and 3 Posts. The mules of the Indian Transport Columns suffered badly on one or two occasions, and some losses were also experienced amongst the New Zealand artillery horses which were picketed in Waterfall Gully. The 5th Battery had landed with all teams and waggons, but most of them had been sent back to Egypt, and there were kept on the Peninsula only a few horses per battery—sufficient merely for moving the guns when required.

The 1st Battery remained always up on the heights at Russell's Top, although application had been made to Army Corps Headquarters for its relief by an Australian Battery so that it might be employed on the left flank. About the end of September, however, one gun was taken out to the left to be used in an ingenious effort to obtain close range enfilade fire on some trenches on Hill 60. The plan adopted was to drive a tunnel through to the face of the cliff, which commanded these particular trenches, and bring the gun through the tunnel to a chamber from which an embrasure or port could be broken out in the cliff-side when it was desired to open fire. The gun, piece by piece, was taken through the tunnelway, and reassembled in the pit, but for some reason the page 94position was never disclosed and the gun never used. There were few further moves of batteries or guns in the remaining month or two of the campaign. Practically the only one was the move of a section of the 5th Battery on October 2nd to a position on the lower north-western slopes of Damajelik Bair.

The 6th (How.) Battery, which had been despatched from New Zealand in June, arrived at Anzac from Egypt on the night of October 12th, and was parked for the night in Reserve Gully. On the night of the 15th-16th the Battery got into action on the left of Walden's Point. Though the artillery of the Division was relatively strong in howitzers, there was always plenty of work for modern weapons like those possessed by the 4th and 6th New Zealand Batteries, and the 6th Battery, which was commanded by Captain G. E. Daniell, established its usefulness from the very day of going into action. An unfortunate and tragic mishap occurred in this battery a few days before the evacuation, a premature, which burst immediately in front of the muzzle, destroying the piece and killing two and wounding three of the crew. About the same time one of the 2nd Battery guns also had a premature, the force of the explosion tearing the piece into strips, but the crew escaped without injury.

On the whole the batteries got off well in the matter of casualties, despite the fact that none of them escaped a share of the liberal attentions of the Turkish batteries. The low casualty rate was attributable in some measure to the industry which the gunners displayed in strengthening their positions and digging shelters. The skilful placing of batteries, so far as the limits of the terrain permitted, and their concealment where possible, also served to reduce casualties, although naturally the howitzers had more freedom of choice in selecting their positions than the 18pr. batteries. Dysentery, however, claimed an increasing toll, and at times the small drafts of reinforcements coming forward were barely sufficient to keep the gunners up to strength.

Seasoned campaigners as they were, the men did not wait for the onset of the winter weather before endeavouring to make their dug-outs as nearly weatherproof as possible. The page 95impossibility of obtaining by ordinary means any timber or other material was a serious handicap, but the wreck and destruction in a sudden storm of a timber-laden barque provided a harvest for the needy. Some effort was being made by General Headquarters to alleviate the conditions of, the soldiers on the Peninsula during the winter months, but in everything that counted the men had to rely on their own initiative and their own individual effort. General Headquarters experienced difficulty in procuring materials, and consequent difficulty in giving effect to their schemes. For instance, on August 21st, 15,000 tons of corrugated iron were ordered by cable from England, but the shipment of the first consignment did not commence until the last week in September.

The bad weather set in in good earnest on November 27th, when the Peninsula was swept by a violent gale, accompanied by heavy rain. The storm caused a tremendous amount of damage on the landing beaches, and for the time completely isolated the troops at Anzac. Snow fell heavily during the night to complete the discomfiture, and by the morning of the 28th the whole countryside was completely enveloped. The cold was intense, and the traffic on the roads and tracks up to the forward areas turned the snow to slush, and so churned up the clay that locomotion became almost an impossibility. The artillerymen were more fortunately circumstanced than the units in the line or in their scanty bivouacs in reserve, and by comparison they suffered little. Observing officers rapidly discovered the effect of the altered conditions on their shooting, and the necessity for making all calculations for the atmospheric conditions was fully demonstrated. Such tempting targets had not offered since the fighting in August. The first morning after the blizzard large numbers of the enemy freely exposed themselves outside their trenches, which seemingly were bad enough to make them think the risk worth while. The guns soon taught them to keep under cover, but before the lesson was fully learnt it had been dearly bought. Across the flat country towards Anafarta the labouring mule trains, silhouetted against the white expanse, also afforded some good shooting for several of the batteries.

page 96

The Evacuation.

On October 16th Sir Ian Hamilton was recalled to London, in order, as he was informed on his arrival, that the Government might have the opportunity of obtaining a "fresh, unbiassed opinion, from a responsible commander, upon the question of early evacuation." This was the first of the series of events which led to the evacuation of the Peninsula; but at the time its significance was not understood by the soldiers, to whom nothing was made known of the reason which lay behind the Commander-in-Chief's recall. His successor, General Sir Charles Munro, did not arrive at Gallipoli until the end of the month, and during the interval command of the Forces was temporarily held by General Birdwood. The visit to Anzac on November 13th of Lord Kitchener created a sensation in the trenches through which the famous soldier passed, and raised a perfect welter of picturesque conjecture, and set many rumours afloat, regarding his visit and its probable consequences. Lord Kitchener proceeded to the observing station of the 2nd Battery, from where he was afforded a comprehensive view of the Anzac country. Within a few hours he had left Anzac, and was proceeding up the coast to Suvla.

Before the decision to evacuate had been actually taken, preparations towards that end were quietly begun, and so successfully was the real aim hidden that for a long while it was completely unknown to the soldiers themselves. In order to accustom the enemy to such a thing, and so lessen the risk of raising his suspicions, a period of silence of forty-eight hours was ordered at the end of November. Not a shot was fired during this period, and all work that would be apparent to the enemy ceased. Whatever he may have thought the Turk made no move, but his trenches were seen to be strongly manned on the first morning that normal activity was resumed, and they were accordingly treated to a brisk bombardment from six batteries, shooting being good and effective in its results. That evening the 54th Division, whose front had been covered by the New Zealand Artillery since the close of the August fighting, was withdrawn. Before leaving the page break
The Tragedy of Ypres The ruins of the Cloth Hall and the Cathedral

The Tragedy of Ypres The ruins of the Cloth Hall and the Cathedral

page break page 97Peninsula, the Divisional Commander, General Inglefield, sent the following message to Colonel Johnston:—"On leaving Anzac I wish to thank you very heartily for your cordial cooperation and assistance, and for the effective help your guns have always afforded us." On December 8th, General Birdwood, now commanding the Dardanelles army, was directed to proceed with the evacuation of Anzac and Suvla at once. Detailed plans for such a step had already been perfected, and immediately the whole prepared machinery was set in motion. The decision to evacuate could not long be withheld from the soldiers. The rapid embarkation, night after night, of surplus stores and animals, and the gradual reduction of the force to the bare limits of safety could suggest only one conclusion. Consequently the order issued on December 16th announcing the impending event did not create any sudden surprise in the minds of the majority, but came rather as a confirmation of strong suspicion. The decision was received with mingled feelings in which it would be difficult to say whether regret or relief was uppermost. Everyone felt bitterly the relinquishment of the hallowed ground on which so many of their comrades had sacrificed their lives, and lay, many of them, still unburied; but they viewed with relief the close of a struggle whose continuance under existing conditions could only result in useless sacrifice.

On the day on which the first detachments left the Peninsula, there arrived a large quantity of canteen stores, which had been purchased for the artillery by an officer who had been sent to Imbros some time previously. It was a bitter reflection that these stores of provisions, which the batteries had had no opportunity of buying for eight months, should arrive on the eve of their departure. The stores could not be taken away by units, so a certain amount of them were sold by auction, and the remainder were destroyed so that they might be of no use to the enemy.

The evacuation of the New Zealand Field Artillery, and the other batteries attached to the Division, extended over little more than a week. Orders to evacuate the guns were issued on December 10th, and the evacuation began the following night, when one section of guns from each New Zealand page 98Battery was sent away. In many cases the guns had to be manhandled for a considerable distance, across trenches and broken ground, before they could be got on to ground where they could be limbered up and taken to the beach by the teams, but these difficulties were made light of in the determination that the New Zealand Brigades should leave none of their guns behind when Anzac was evacuated. By the 12th seven 18prs. had been embarked, as well as six 5in. howitzers, three 6in. howitzers, and two 4in. guns. On the nights of December 13th and 14th three more 18prs. were evacuated, as well as all the guns of the 6th (howitzer) Battery. On the 15th three 4.5in. howitzers and two 18prs. were evacuated, three more howitzers on the 16th, and one 18pr. on the night of the 17th. By December 18th only two of the New Zealand guns remained—one gun of the 1st Battery and one of the 3rd Battery. These were finally evacuated shortly before midnight on the last night, December 19th. The 1st Battery had only two guns to embark, the others having been knocked out prior to the evacuation.

The number of guns withdrawn from the Peninsula during the evacuation totalled fifty-three, of which number twelve were evacuated during the last two nights. Two guns attached to the Division were destroyed. These were a 5in. howitzer in Australia Valley, and one 3pr. Hotchkiss gun in the Aghyl Dere. Both were blown up an hour or two before the evacuation was completed. Eight ammunition wagons were also left behind, and four horses, which had been ordered to be destroyed, but were turned loose at the last moment. Any ammunition that remained was buried or thrown into the sea.

The final stages of the evacuation were carried out with methodical quietness, and exactly according to the time-table which had been laid down. It was a trying and anxious time for the whole Army Corps, but for none so much as the small garrison which held Anzac during the last twenty-four hours, and whose lives may be literally said to have hung by a thread. Everything possible was done in order to create the appearance of normal activity, and even to encourage the enemy in the belief that fresh troops were being landed by night. The page 99three thousand men who held the Division's sector during the 19th of December were divided into three parties—A., B.. and C., which were to embark in that order. The embarkation of A. and B. parties proceeded without a hitch once night had fallen on the 19th, and by 11.25 p.m. had been completed. There was a considerable interval before the men of C. party began to withdraw, as it was necessary that their movement should synchronise with the withdrawal of the troops of No. 4 Section and of the 9th Corps at Suvla. In the meantime men moved rapidly but quietly up and down the trenches, and fired shots from the various points from which fire was usually delivered. Various devices were also employed by which fixed rifles were discharged after the last men had begun to make their way down to the beach. Exactly at the appointed time the remainder of the rearguard left the trenches and made their way in the darkness down the silent, deserted deres to the pier, where the lighters waited to take them out to the ships in the Bay. By 3.40 a.m. the evacaution had been completed, and the Turk was left in sole possession of Anzac and Suvla. At dawn the enemy commenced shelling the trenches at Anzac, but the men who had lately occupied them were at that time disembarking at Mudros, ninety miles away.

Thus ended the ill-starred Gallipoli campaign, in which the soldiers of New Zealand had tasted at once the thrill of victory and the bitterness of disappointment. They had faced all the changing fortunes of the campaign with determination and unflinching courage, and if final victory had not been theirs they at least had done all that was humanly possible to achieve it. The task of the Artillery had been one of peculiar difficulty; enough has already been said of the terrible nature of the country in which the guns were fought, and of the incessant anxieties caused by the meagre and uncertain ammunition supply. That the New Zealand batteries achieved so much in face of this combination of adverse circumstances, and that they indubitably earned the confidence and gratitude of the soldiers whom they supported must for all time stand to the credit of the men who fought the guns on Gallipoli, and to the honour of the Field Artillery of New Zealand.