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The Silent Division: New Zealanders at the Front, 1914-1919

Chapter X Of the Great Battle for the Crests of Sari Bair

page 87

Chapter X Of the Great Battle for the Crests of Sari Bair

So all day long the noise of battle roll'd
Among the mountains by the … sea:
Until King Arthur's table, man by man,
Had fall'n in Lyonnesse about their Lord.

The desperate fighting of the first few weeks had fairly established the British in their positions at Helles and Anzac. But so strong and resolute was the defence of the Turks, and so heavy the losses that further attacks could not be made without heavy reinforcements. On the other hand the Turks had been unable to drive the invaders back into the sea. All their attempts had broken down with terrible slaughter among their attacking troops. Their morale was for a time broken. If a steady stream of reinforcements could have been poured in during June and July there is little doubt that the resistance of the enemy would have been broken and the campaign carried through to a victorious conclusion. Unfortunately however there were divided counsels in England and those who throughout had opposed the Dardanelles adventure, fought very hard to prevent the diversion of men and guns to the theatre page 88of, what they regarded, a wasteful struggle. In consequence there was a break in offensive operations extending over the greater part of July and even when reinforcements were at last sent out they were sufficient only for one great fight and if that failed there were no others. This respite gave the enemy time to withdraw his shaken troops, to replace them with fresh men and to strengthen his defences in front of Krithia and Hill 971 with row after row of trenches, and belt upon belt of wire.

In planning the battle one advantage only lay with Sir Ian Hamilton. At no point could the Turks mass an absolutely overwhelming force although they had more men on the Peninsula itself than the British, and they were able to reinforce with a speed impossible to their opponents. They were able to keep half a million men within easy reach of the fighting zone, but they could not keep this number within the zone itself. In consequence, if Sir Ian was able to deceive the Turkish Higher Command as to the disposition of his troops and as to what was his real objective, it was just possible that for a few hours he might be able to muster sufficient troops at the critical point to give him the opportunity of attacking without being hopelessly outnumbered. His plan was to seize Chunuk Bair, one of the higher spurs of Hill 971, and by so doing dominate Maidos, the Narrows and the road to Helles. If this ridge could be seized and held victory was certain.

To distract the enemy's attention holding attacks were to be made at Helles, and at Lone Pine on the page 89right of the Anzac position with demonstrations at Bulair and on the Asian coast. Then, in the midst of these separated battles which it was hoped would cause a wide dispersal of the enemy forces, the New Zealanders were to break out from the old Anzac Ring and move upwards through the tangle of valleys to the storm of Chunuk itself. At the same time 27,000 new troops were to be landed at Suvla Bay, and moving rapidly inland, were to sweep in on the flank of the New Zealanders and so complete the victory.

The most careful preparations were made. Water was brought from great distances, filled into thousands and thousands of petrol tins and concealed in dead valleys or under overhead cover. Stores of shells were accumulated and quietly piled away. Food was landed and hidden away in dumps, invisible to the Turkish airmen. Fresh men came on shore and were concealed in bends and corners and old saps and among the prickly scrub. And nearly all these preparations were carried out under cover of darkness because if the enemy once realized that the main attack was to come from the left of Anzac —then that attack was foredoomed to failure.

In the late afternoon of 6 August the English attacked with fury at Helles. They stormed the Vineyard, and for a week this little patch of ground was the centre of an unceasing struggle, so fiercely contested that no Turk was sent from Achi Baba; instead reserves were called in to beat off the menace. At Lone Pine the Australians stormed trenches that were veritable fortresses, loopholed and roofed page 90over with heavy timber, and commenced a fight that swayed bloodily back and forth for four days, and so tied down more of the Turkish reserves. At midnight fresh battalions of Australians went forward against German Officer's trench. From Quinn's, and Pope's, and Russell's Top, forlorn hopes of Light Horse dashed across No Man's Land in heroic ventures. They were for the most part shot down but the Turks feared that they were but the first wave and so called their supports nearer. At the "Nek" the Light Horsemen went over 450 strong in three waves. The first was shot down when they had scarcely crossed the parapet, but the second rose up and went over and through them and then likewise perished. The third, having seen all their comrades fall, rose up and went forward into the zone of death. They also fell. Of all those who crossed the parapet when the whistles blew there were fifteen who were unhit. To the Turks it must have seemed that the battle was now fully joined—or if a fresh blow was to fall they knew not from where it was to come.

But in the darkness of the night the sea was full of ships gliding in toward Suvla Bay and the New Zealanders were moving toward the fatal slope of Sari Bair across a tangle of valleys and slopes and precipices that in any ordinary way would have been regarded as impossible.

Hill 971 is deeply indented by great watercourses that bend and wind toward the upper slopes. Of these, three—the Sazli Beit, the Chailak and Aghyl Dere ran out to the level of the sea not far from page 91the left of the Anzac position. Chailak was the central and most important one, and if the covering positions were seized it would make a difficult but still a possible way of approach by which attacking troops could come within reach of the slopes of Chunuk Bair. The first task of the New Zealanders was to clear the approaches to the Dere. This was the task of General Russell and the New Zealand Mounted Rifles.

For some nights before the attack the destroyer Colne had stood close in to the shore. At 9 p.m. exactly she had switched her searchlight on to Old No. 3 Outpost and bombarded for half an hour. Then the light was switched off. On the night of the attack the Auckland Mounteds with bayonets fixed and magazines empty crept silently up the Sazli Beit. A Turkish outpost was rushed silently, and then, while the beam of the searchlight was still intensifying the darkness and the noise of the guns drowning the sound of the movement, the troopers crept up to within twenty-five yards of the trench. Suddenly the light was switched off and the men rushed the trenches, dropped into the darkness beneath the overhead cover and fighting hand to hand quickly overcame the garrison and cleared the position.

The Wellington Mounteds following hard upon their heels, went up an almost impossible knife-edge ridge to take Destroyer Hill, and then after half an hour's hard climbing, during which they ascended by steps cut with bayonets in the hard clay, they closed page 92in on the undefended side of Table Top and quickly overran the Turkish system there.

In the meantime the Otago and Canterbury Mounteds with the Maoris, had crossed from No. 2 Outpost and swept round toward the entrance to Chailak and Bauchop's Hill which guarded it on the left. The first obstacle was a great entanglement enfiladed by rifle and machine-gun fire. This was torn out by a party of Engineers. A machine-gun caused many casualties but it was rushed by a brave subaltern who was killed in the taking of it. In small groups the men pressed on upward and after stiff fighting the whole of the hill was carried and a burst of cheering proclaimed their success. By sheer boldness and precision and rapidity of movement the New Zealand Mounted Rifles had opened the road for the main advance. "Neither Turks nor angles of ascent were destined to stop Russell or his New Zealanders that night."

The night before the commencement of the battle the New Zealand Infantry Brigade had been taken from the line about Quinn's Post and swung over towards the left. Throughout the blazing heat of the day they had been concealed in the prickly scrub of Happy Valley where little rest was possible. As so many were to die it was a fitting thing that a large letter mail should be distributed there, and that before they went out into the awful storm of battle men should see again the writing of their mothers and sweethearts and wives.

As night fell the battalions mustered and moved in file toward the entrance of the Dere. Little page 93more than three months before they had landed each more than a thousand strong, the men magnificently trained athletes capable of performing any feat of endurance that lay within the limits of human capacity. Now, despite two considerable reinforcements, they could muster scarcely five hundred to each and the men were but shadows of their former selves. Nearly all were suffering from diarrhoea or dysentery. Not a few were on the verge of collapse, and most of them were greatly weakened. And yet these sick and weary men were going out to attempt one of the most difficult feats ever planned in the history of the war.

As soon as the work of the covering parties was done, Canterbury commenced to move up Sazli Beit, and Otago, Wellington and Auckland up Chailak. Progress was very slow. The ground was new and strange beside being exceedingly rough and difficult. Sometimes the leaders mistook small blind ravines for the main valley. When the mistake was discovered there was much confusion because of the lack of space and the consequent difficulty in disentangling the jumbled files. For a mile behind the column came to a halt. Tired men leaned upon their rifles waiting for a move that might come at any second. They waited for what seemed an interminable period. At last they sat down—not a very easy thing for men loaded up with equipment, rations, water, ammunition and weapons. But scarcely were they down than from in front came a movement and a clattering of equipment and the line was moving once more to be halted again after it had page 94gone another fifty yards. This time the delay was a short one and so was the next. But then came a halt of half an hour during which the majority stood because, as a move might come at any moment, it scarcely seemed worthwhile to sit or lie.

And now bullets were commencing to smash venomously into the scrub and bursts of machine-gun fire hissed fiercely by. A man was hit and fell coughing and bleeding in the path. Those in front went on but there was a delay of a moment or two while he was lifted to one side and roughly bandaged. Only for a few seconds perhaps but the stoppage had opened up a gap of thirty yards, and then all the men behind had to rush to close it, and as soon as by extra effort they had caught up, the whole line stopped for another five minutes. Into the midst of the files the Turkish gunners firing at random put burst after burst and there was a sudden scatter to the right and left—then the leaders went on and there was another break. The walking wounded from Bauchop's Hill and Table Top were coming down and some more seriously hurt on stretchers—not so many but enough to make for confusion in the narrow road. Once past Table Top there was resistance too—not serious but annoying and all making for more delay.

It took the whole night and a little more for the Brigade to traverse the length of the Dere.

In the dim light of dawn Otago and Canterbury approached the slopes of Rhododendron Ridge and as the morning light strengthened they skirmished over the spur and drove the few Turks in possession page 95helplessly before them and so reached the Apex. From the heights the full plan of battle was revealed to friend and foe alike. The little bay of Suvla was full of ships and files of men were moving across the Salt Marshes toward the foothills. The Australians and Gurkhas were fighting their way up the Aghyl Dere toward The Farm. The New Zealanders were just below Chunuk. The Turks were threatened at the heart and they knew it. The whole of their advanced position on the left of Anzac had gone. Their men were badly shaken and they were right back on their last line of defence. With the utmost urgency they lined the ridge of Chunuk with every rifle and machine-gun that could be rushed to the spot.

The weary New Zealanders snatching a breakfast of bully and biscuits in a patch of apparently dead ground were suddenly assailed by bursts of fire. This fire grew hotter moment by moment and the Aucklanders were ordered to advance and take the ridge. There was no artillery support and scarcely any machine-guns were in position. Experienced officers pleaded with Brigade to delay the movement for half an hour, twenty minutes even until the guns could be rushed into position and given a chance to beat down the ever growing volume of fire from Chunuk. The hopelessness of the assault at the moment was emphasized. But no change was made. The battalion was drawn up and informed roughly of the objective. It was clear enough and the vicious stuttering of the enemy guns left no doubt as to where they were.

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Among the Auckland men were many who had survived the Daisy Patch. The majority had been long enough on shore to know something of the effect of machine-guns against advancing troops out in the open. They had a clear realization of what they were being called upon to do. They were all sick and unspeakably weary after the marching and climbing of the night. The moment came. The word was given and the whistles blew. For an instant there was an intaking of the breath, the tension as of one who nerves himself to leap into ice cold water.

What! were the leaders baulking? From the men behind came an indescribable growl and murmur. A major leaped to the front with a waved arm and a shout and then the whole line was moving. There were twenty yards of dead ground and then came a hail of fire, fire from a thousand yards of Chunuk; enfilade fire from Battleship Hill; rifle fire and machine-gun fire from front and flank. Two hundred and fifty yards to go and every yard of it raked and swept by fire. There was no faltering, every man went straight forward running up the hill as fast as he could go. Killed and wounded, they went down in heaps, but the survivors pressed on. They reached a small deserted trench like a narrow drain and flung themselves down, in, or behind it. There was no possibility of going farther. If a man stood upright or even rose on his hands and knees he was a dead man. The only possible movement in that terrible blast of fire was, while page 97lying prone, to scrape a little cover with an entrenching tool.

The remnant dwindled hour by hour. All the way back to the Apex the ground was a tangle of dead and dying and wounded. The cool of the morning was past and the sun blazed pitilessly down on the field of agony. The helpless sufferers were tormented with thirst and then the flies found the victims. Nothing could be done for them until night fell; even then many could not be found in the darkness and confusion and lay out another day and night before the stretcher-bearers came to them.

After the slaughter of the Aucklanders the machine-guns were got into position. For an hour there was heavy firing and then they swept Chunuk Bair almost clear. If only the attack had been delayed! All that day the infantry endured on the slopes below the crest waiting for the crash of firing from the left that would show that the attack from Suvla was being pushed home. It did not come.

During the night the attacking force was reorganized and in the grey dawn the Wellington battalion and the Gloucesters stormed Chunuk with a fierce sudden rush and scattered the enemy who were holding the crest. Below them, gleaming like a strip of silver in the growing light, lay the Narrows, and as they watched a Turkish transport steamed in to land its troops. But there was little time to enjoy the semblance of victory! The men commenced to dig in, some on the far side of the crest in an old Turk trench, some just below it.

But it was little that they could do. The hill page 98slope up which they had climbed was enfiladed and when the machine-guns were pushed up in support nearly every gunner was hit and even the guns themselves riddled. Fire came from the flanks and from the front. From far off on the left the Turkish artillery picked up the crest and smothered it with bursting shrapnel. A battalion of the enemy mustered on a slope 600 yards away for a counter attack. For a moment the men were visible and then they plunged into the valley and were seen no more until they were within a score of yards and their bombs came hurtling in among the Wellingtons. They surged in with the bayonet but were tumbled roughly back into the scrub. Then again came the shower of bombs. Sometimes these were caught and flung back; sometimes they burst and men fell with shattered limbs, or bleeding from countless little wounds.

Then, at some point the missiles came flying over in showers and with a crackle of rifle fire the enemy burst from the scrub and came desperately in with the bayonet. Again and again they were shot down or gave sullenly back before the close menace of the cold steel. But the hellish rain of bursting missiles never ceased and the Wellington line was thinning fast. The sun blazed down from a cloudless sky, scorchingly hot, the acrid fumes of powder filled the air and parched the throats of the straining men, the air was filled with the splitting reports of exploding bombs, the scream of the flying nose caps and the never ending rattle of the musketry. No page 99man could well move from the scanty cover where he lay or stood to fight.

There was no power of command; in the nature of things there could not be; but every man on that ridge knew that the thin line of New Zealand men was holding wide open the door to victory, and that it must not close—it must not close. So they fought on to hold it wide for the host that should come up from Suvla and as they fought they waited for the crash of firing from the left that would throw off the intolerable pressure of the Turkish attack—but it did not come.

Out in the exposed front trench the drain of men went on through all the morning hours. Not for a moment did the death hail cease. Man by man they fell, until the majority lay still and silent or drew breath in agony which found no tongue lest the sound of their cries should distract those who still fought on. Men with ghastly wounds still loaded and fired, loaded and fired, while the life ebbed out of them. At last they were loading and firing in delirium, their bodies broken and spent but responding still to the stronger impulse of heroic souls. And in the end the rifles slipped from their nerveless fingers and the brave men fell in crumpled heaps. Man by man they fell until it was only here and there that a rifle cracked and solitary figures, grimed with sweat and dust and powder and blood, rose to meet the threatened rush.

At last no shot was fired from that trench because the only men still living lay broken and maimed, unable to lift a rifle or pull a trigger. When page 100the silence had lasted a long time and when they had bombed it and bombed it again the Turks at last took heart and crawled into the shambles they had made. The wounded, spared through the chivalry of a Turkish sergeant, were almost the only prisoners of war lost by the New Zealanders at Anzac.

So the direct observation on the Narrows was lost but the line behind the ridge, though reeling under the tremendous thrust, was still held; and while it was held the battle could still be won.

The Auckland Mounted Rifles and the Maoris were sent up to reinforce. To reach the line they had to pass through a drift of fire. In one patch of what seemed to be dead ground they were suddenly Ishelled. Instead of breaking they obeyed the order to lie quiet under the fire and in a few moments the guns switched off. They went forward again and about eleven o'clock entered the firing line. They endeavoured to dig in, but on that exposed slope movement brought death. They also took what little cover they could find and endured the storm of death.

All through the long hours of the afternoon their numbers lessened, for the attack never stayed and the hellish machine-guns never ceased their traversing, and the snipers picked off those who made any movement, and the crash of the hand grenades merged into one continuous roar. The sky above was brass. The air was full of fumes that choked and blistered the parched throats. They were giddy with fatigue but still they forced themselves to fire page 101at every movement, to hurl back the bombs they caught in flight, to rise up with the bayonet whenever the enemy took courage and tried to thrust his way across the ridge.

So all day long they strove to hold wide the door. When the sun went down and the stars shone out it had not closed. But still from the plains below came no irresistible tide of triumph.

Under cover of the darkness the Otago Infantry reinforced the line. Hand grenades, ammunition and a little water were rushed up. But the night brought no rest and there was no cessation of the attack. The bomb explosions changed from puffs of white to vivid tongues of flame. The rifles cracked and flashed as viciously as before. The Turks crept up closer and jabbed savagely through the darkness but still they could not pass.

The great flanking movement from Suvla had now been definitely held. Twenty-seven thousand fresh troops had been baffled by three thousand Turkish gendarmes. In the centre the New Zealanders had stormed Chunuk and while they held the ridge it was still possible to go on down to Maidos. But time was moving on and the Turkish reserves were entering the battle. One last effort might still clear the ridges.

The attempt was made at dawn on the 9th. Three columns thrust upwards. The crest was reached and passed but in the very moment of victory a terrible thing happened. The naval guns played for too long on the ridge and the Gurkhas who were leading were torn to pieces by our own artillery. page 102The Turks saw their opportunity, came back and fell upon the shaken survivors. The supports were a few minutes late. The reeling line was pushed back and the whole of Chunuk with the exception of the south western portion held by the New Zealanders was lost. Fighting went on all day. When night came the broken fragments of the New Zealanders were withdrawn to the slopes of Rhododendron and their place taken by English battalions.

And now the curtain was ready to be lifted on the last act of the tragedy. Four days had passed since the beginning of the struggle and during all this time the Turkish reserves had been coming in. Thousands had crossed from Asia and other thousands had come down from Bulair. All night they had been massing behind Sari Bair and in the morning the whole mass was in motion. The English battalions on Chunuk broke and fled. But the Turks were not satisfied with the crest. They swept on, and over, and rushed on, wave after wave. The whole hillside was brown with their charging battalions. On they came toward The Farm and the Dere and the blue margin of the sea. It was a bold stroke executed with determination and courage. For a moment it seemed that no power on earth could stop the moving mass. They came on three hundred men in a line, and there were twenty-two lines following at a little space one behind the other. They stormed forward crying on the name of God, calling aloud the proclamation of their faith; for them it was victory or the fields of Paradise. They swept down like an avalanche and apparently as page 103irresistible. If fanatical valour, if contempt of death, could win them through then surely the host of the Turks would sweep away all resistance.

But there were cool and steady men on the lower slopes. Ten New Zealand machine-guns were trained across the line of the advance. They set up a zone of death into which the first line of Turks charged and went down to a man. The next line melted away on the same spot. But still they came on, line after line, and the leaden scythe reaped them in swathes. There was no hesitation and no faltering—the last line charged on with the same high courage as the first. They also fell. The artillery picked up the range and the great heap of death and agony was torn and blasted by the bursting shells.

This great Turkish counter attack was the last act in the terrible struggle for Sari Bair. Much territory of tactical importance had been gained. The Turks were shattered and beaten to their knees. Another blow, even a weak one, would have broken them utterly but the effort had been too great and it was impossible to strike again. The high places remained with the Turks. Again he brought up fresh troops and fortified the blood-stained hill, until at last opportunity passed for ever.

The sufferings of the wounded during these days of battle had been very dreadful. A man hit somewhere up on the slopes had as often as not to lie all day in the blazing sun, tormented with thirst and tortured by the swarming flies. To attempt to move him would have meant certain death. At night he might well be missed and so doomed to another day page 104of agony. Many were never found and died amongst the thick scrub or in some tangle of rough and broken country where no man passed once the first charge had gone forward. Even when the stretcher-bearers had found a sufferer and bound up his wounds there was the three mile carry to the seashore. The first stage was down a precipitous slope where a man without a load was hard put to it to keep a footing. Imagine the difficulty of carrying a stretcher! The second was through the long and winding Dere. Here the foothold was better but the path was jammed with traffic. Line after line of mules plodded stolidly backward and forward loaded with ammunition, water tins, rations and all that was urgently needed for consolidation. Shrapnel burst at all times and in all places. Bullets fell like rain. What a journey this was for a poor wretch with a fractured leg or a smashed hip, or a mangled shoulder, to whom every jolt of the stretcher brought a spasm of intolerable agony. The New Zealand wounded were wonderful in their patience and self-restraint. Through all the terrible journey there was no word of complaint usually only expressions of regret "for causing the stretcher-bearers so much bother."

When after a journey of at least three hours the shore was reached there was still perhaps a night or a day of waiting before the wounded man could be got off to a hospital ship. It took four men three hours to carry from the slopes to the beach, and stretcher-bearing is the hardest work and taxes the most powerful and most courageous men to the utter-page 105most. One trip was enough to tire anyone; the second brought a man to the limit of endurance; after that the bearer staggered on, utterly spent physically and sustained only by that deeper side of human nature that enables a man to triumph over the weariness and weakness of the flesh.

Close to the sea was one sap much travelled by all who passed No. 2 Outpost. For nearly two hundred yards it was crammed with badly wounded men—all stretcher cases. For three nights they lay there without blankets, for three days they were scorched by the merciless sun. They had no food except scraps of hard biscuit and no water except what was given them by passers-by. The majority did not even ask for water because they knew that it must go first to those still fighting in front; but their eyes were eager, and they were touchingly grateful when someone spared a precious mouthful from his own bottle. There was little during the whole battle that was finer than the quiet bravery of these tortured men.

On the 12th Sir Ian Hamilton sent the New Zealand Infantry back to the Apex and Rhododendron with orders to dig in and "hold on for ever." During the battle their enfeebled bodies had been sustained by the high excitement and now came the inevitable reaction. The diarrhoea and dysentery grew ever worse. The men who four months before had "walked and looked like the kings in old poems," were now most miserable in appearance— thin, bent, with lined and haggard faces, scarecrows of men, racked with pain and incapable of any sus-page 106tained effort. The splendid athletes who had swung in from an all day march over the desert with full pack up, fresh and vigorous and keen for a wild night's fun, could now with difficulty stagger half a mile under a light load. Scurvy made its appearance and hands were covered with septic sores which would not yield to treatment. The flies became an ever more fearful torment. Vitality was very low and the hideous monotony induced a form of melancholia in many. And yet, although they had become as weak as little children, great-hearted men refused to go away and endured with a steadfast patience that was beyond all praise.

For the Mounteds there was to be yet another ordeal of fire. When Hamilton realized that he could not get any more reinforcements, he determined at least to carry Scimitar Hill and Hill 60, the pivots of the Turkish line in the Suvla area. The attack along the whole line was a ghastly failure except for the portion which was attacked by the Mounted Rifles under General Russell.

The approach to the enemy line was carefully reconnoitred and the officers and section leaders explained exactly what was to be done. The attack was to be with bayonet and bomb only. Promptly at zero hour the Canterbury and Otago men went forward although for some unaccountable reason there was no artillery barrage. A skilful use of cover brought them to within a hundred yards of the Turkish line. They rushed across losing men and bombed the Turks from the trench and held it against the counter attack that was speedily made page 107by the enemy. This was the only gain along the whole line.

Six days later a further attempt was made to clear the whole hill and again all failed except the New Zealand Mounted Brigade. The men swept forward in a long straight line and without firing a shot, but with bayonet and bomb they cleared the first enemy trench, then rising up they went out into a shrapnel barrage and losing heavily cleared the second and then going forward again they took the third line. The Turks shelled their lost trenches with fury and as the guns had a perfect enfilade they caused very heavy losses. All through the night and well into the next day they attacked, bombing along their old communication saps. The New Zealanders were almost surrounded, exhausted by their efforts, reduced by casualties to a handful, heavily outnumbered and yet they held on with steadfast courage and would not retire. Sir Ian Hamilton said, "Luckily the New Zealand Mounted Rifles refused to recognize that they were worsted. Nothing would shift them. All that night and all the next day, through bombing, bayonet charges, musketry, shrapnel and heavy shells, they hung on to their one hundred and fifty yards of trench."

This was the last pitched battle on the Peninsula.