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

Chapter IV Of the Battle of the Landing

page 37

Chapter IV Of the Battle of the Landing

The herdman wandering by the lonely rills,
Marks where they lie on the scarred mountain flanks
Remembering that mild morning when the hills
Shook to the roar of guns, and those wild Franks
Surged upward from the sea.

The task of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force at the Dardanelles was in outline simple enough. Possession had to be obtained of the hills that overlooked the Narrows on the European side. If this could be done the British fleet would be able to pass into the Sea of Marmora and so without check to Constantinople, the fall of which city would have immense effects both moral and strategical.

The Turkish position was buttressed by two hills, Achi Baba in the south to the summit of which the land rose in a gentle slope; and Sari Bair (Hill 971) in the north. The latter was a huge rugged mass of clay in which the torrential rains of centuries had worn innumerable valleys which radiated towards the margin of the sea. The sloping sides of these valleys had themselves been intersected again and again by the torrents and the whole area was thus a maze of knife-edged ridges running in a bewilder-page 38ing confusion of broken ground. In the rainy season the clay must have been in many places a moving quagmire, while under the fierce heat of the summer sun it was baked to the consistency of brick. The whole was covered by patches of rough and prickly scrub. The Australians and New Zealanders were to land just to the south of Sari Bair and were to fight their way across its foothills in the direction of Maidos, the township on the Narrows in which was established Turkish Headquarters and the capture of which would be decisive. The English and French troops were to attempt Achi Baba and from thence to move towards the same goal. The Turks were fully aware of the coming attack and had six divisions at least on the Peninsula itself with heavy reinforcements within easy call. Moreover they had fortified all likely landing positions.

The ships with the Australians and New Zealanders on board, assembled at a rendezvous some miles off Gaba Tepe. The first landing parties were transferred to boats and destroyers and crept silently in toward the shore. In the grey light of dawn they were perceived by the enemy and with a crackle of musketry the Battle of the Landing commenced. The Australians dashed in and quickly routed the battalion of Turks who had rushed along the beach to intercept them. They went straight up in fierce pursuit, and carried ridge after ridge. Sir Ian had counted rightly that the difficult country about Gaba Tepe would not be strongly held. The first thrust therefore, was rapidly successful, especially as the page 39Australians moved forward with the greatest resolution.

And now the day had fully dawned! The sea was covered with vessels of every kind. Battleships, cruisers and destroyers glided slowly up and down, every gun that could be brought to bear belching flame and smoke as they sent broadside after broadside crashing into the Turkish positions; transports had closed in as close as they dared to the shore and were rapidly disembarking their men; long lines of boats were creeping into the shore drawn by tugs and launches from the men-of-war. On the beach itself men who had landed were flinging off their packs and then clashing away out of sight as they moved up at all speed to join the fighting line.

From the extreme right, Chatham's Post, came a ceaseless roll and rattle of rifle fire, for there the Turks were in great force and were containing the flank of the advance, and threatening to roll it up. Here the destroyers stood close in, and careless of safety raked the enemy lines with bursts of high explosive shell while the infantry forming a front fired and fired till the barrels of the rifles were almost red hot. Up in the centre and on the left the noise of battle was fainter and rolled away across the ridges, for the first desperate rush was still unstayed.

The Turkish reserves commenced to come into the fight. From observation posts high on the mountain their commanders were able to judge the limits of the landing and, knowing all the country, were able to send succour with speed and to contain page 40the whole area. By eight o'clock, perhaps, they had ringed the advance and their men coming down from the high places in great numbers were commencing to drive back those whose greater strength or natural impetuosity had caused them to penetrate most deeply in toward Maidos. As these fell stubbornly back before overwhelming numbers, they met their reinforcements streaming upward from the beach and when enough could come together they formed in line and fought back against the host of their enemies. And now the Turkish field-guns had been rushed into action and the beach and the gullies and the firing line were slashed with shrapnel.

It was in the midst of this desperate soldier's battle in which colonels fought as privates, and privates led charges and organized positions, that the first New Zealanders landed. They were ordered to move out towards the left and support the Australians who were in desperate case. But even as they moved word came down that the storm raged most fiercely in the centre and so they swung across Plugge's Plateau and came down the slope toward Shrapnel Valley. The long line came under rifle fire and men commenced to fall. They entered the dry watercourse and here the units commenced to disintegrate rapidly.

A Captain might be leading his company in file. A vicious spatter of machine-gun fire, a nest of snipers concentrating on an exposed corner, a burst of shrapnel shell and without his knowledge the line was broken. He pressed on with perhaps a dozen men at his heels and turned up a gully which page 41appeared to lead toward the battle and losing a man or two on the way, finally flung himself breathlessly into a line of Australians who, under the command of a private were firing, firing, firing at wisps of smoke and almost invisible flashes that burst from the scrub to the front. Without their leader and being continually broken into smaller and smaller groups by the enemy fire and by the stream of wounded, the remainder continued upward and losing touch with their comrades each group, guided by the rise and fall of the incessant firing, went forward until they too joined the thin line that was striving to hold back the rush of the Turks who were counter attacking with overpowering numbers, resolute to drive the invaders back into the sea.

There was now little plan about the battle. The conflicting pressures had formed a rough line which the Australians and New Zealanders could by no effort advance and which the Turks could by no striving quite manage to break. There was no possibility of control, and each man on his own initiative held the patch of ground on which he lay. The Higher Command down on the beach could do little more than send reinforcements up toward the firing and with them what ammunition and water were available. As the morning hours wore on the pressure became more intense as fresh masses of the enemy welled up against the Anzac lines. These were held by rifle fire and bayonet charge.

All through the afternoon the Turks pressed on the thinning line. A company of Turks which had come up under cover of some dry watercourse or page 42projecting spur, would suddenly be launched upon some exposed spot. They came with suddenness from some patch of scrub and rushed with hoarse cries upon the handful of men who lay not far below them. But these, not knowing that they should surrender or run, shot and shot and shot into the advancing mass while one brown figure after another crashed among the bushes and the remainder took cover. The firce fusillade swelled up in violence and the glens echoed and rolled with the sound until both sides from sheer exhaustion ceased firing. Sometimes the Turkish wave swept over an isolated group and opened a gap toward the sea, but others from the flank at the orders of some natural leader of men—private, or corporal, subaltern or colonel—charged in with the bayonet and closed the gap.

At times the rush carried a spur or gave observation or enfilade upon some ridge that had formed a not impossible firing line. In a few minutes the enemy machine-guns were in position on the flank. Rat-a-tat-tat-tat! Rat-a-tat-tat-tat! Rat-a-tat-tat-tat! The vicious bursts tore through the scrub, and thudded into the banks and smashed the bodies and brains of men. And word went back to the enemy field batteries and soon the fleecy puffs of shrapnel were bursting white against the perfect sky, and a rain of death descended upon the helpless men. They could do nothing but go back, taking with them what wounded they could while the enemy rose up out of the scrub and attempted to rush in upon them. But the retreating men turned upon the enemy and the threat was stayed.

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Here and there amidst the tangle of unknown valleys, obscure men did deeds as valiant as those of Leonidas or Roland. Cut off and surrounded by overwhelming numbers with no chance of retreat and no hope of life except in surrender, they fought on with marvellous courage until all were dead. In the line itself men fell on the right hand and on the left. Sometimes a man as far as he could see was the only one still fighting. Around him were the dead and wounded, and from in front came the unending blaze and crash of fire. Yet still he fired and loaded again, and fired and loaded, and fired and loaded, taking ammunition from the dead, until after a space, men coming up from the beach straggled in beside him and so the line was held.

All day the Turks had been rushing reinforcements from Maidos and the Asian shore, all day they had been marching with speed from Bulair and late in the afternoon they massed in thousands on the high ground and swept down upon the reeling line to make an end before darkness fell. The firing crashed out with a new fury. The droning of the rifle bullets was like the passing of angry bees; machine-gun bursts flailed in men's faces; the hellish shrapnel rattled down from above. Man after man dropped in the scrub. The silent crumpled figures of the dead were hit again and again. Every man who could hold a rifle was firing, firing, firing. It was the crisis of the battle. If they could hold until darkness the line might be saved, but if the mass of Turks could drive home their thrust then all was lost. Nine battleships opened up on the page 44slopes with their great guns. On the darkening sea the thunder rolled and the long flashes pierced the clouds of cordite fumes. Far up on the hillside the heather, purple in the rays of the setting sun, was splashed with the vivid explosions of the tremendous shells as the Queen Elizabeth and her consorts ploughed the slope with high explosive. The short twilight deepened and the attack was still held. Night fell over the battlefield and for a while the fury of the fighting died down. The brilliant stars came out and shone coldly and peacefully down on valleys of torment and fear.

For a short space there was a little respite for the fighting men. Under cover of the welcome darkness they moved back from impossible places, straightened out the line and chose positions that gave a better field of fire. Picks and shovels were coming up from the beach and the first rough trench lines were hurriedly constructed. But there was no rest for stretcher-bearers. All day long the neverending stream of walking wounded came stumbling down toward the sea from the crest of Walker's Ridge, from Russell's Top and Pope's, from Quinn's, and Courtney's down Monash Gulley and Shrapnel Valley, from the Pimple and Shell Green and Ryrie's Post and Chatham's. They were roughly bandaged and packed off to the hospital ships and transports on launches and lighters.

For those who could not walk the ordeal was far more terrible. Their mates could often do nothing for them except to apply roughly the first field dressing before passing on. They lay out under the page 45blazing sun parched with the fearful thirst of the battlefield that comes from the acrid fumes of burning powder, and from loss of blood. The flies gathered. The wounded could not move to an easier position; for many a man the pain of hell was that he could not move a single yard to a patch of shade. The stretcher-bearers toiled heroically, but they were few and the wounded were so many. From some parts of the line it took two and a half hours to reach the beach, so that, even if the stretcher squads were only two instead of the regulation four, and if they worked without rest for twelve hours each squad would barely be able to succour on an average more than half a dozen men in that time.

Even when the dressing stations were reached there was still delay, for there had not been sufficient provision of lighters to make possible speedy evacuation to the hospital ships. The beach was crowded with stricken men who could only be got away very slowly, and even then with great toil by those who had to carry the stretchers into the sea and hoist them on to the swaying boats while bullets moaned and splashed into the dark water about them. They lay waiting with extraordinary fortitude; many a severely wounded man refused to be moved until someone worse than he had first been carried to safety. Many died there on the beach.

Most terrible of all were the sufferings of those who fell beyond the line, and lying in some bullet swept part of No Man's Land could not be reached. Some of them lived for three and four and even page 46five days in unspeakable torment—no man able to give them succour.

Throughout the N.Z.E.F. there were sorrowing hearts that first night and with the sorrow there was anger and hatred and a bitter longing for revenge. Wild rumours flew round that wounded men had been horribly mutilated. It was untrue; but all that was known of the Turks made that to be expected, and so men swore that no Turk who came within reach of the bayonet point should live. This hard mood has been common to many fine armies that have suffered their first losses.

There was a new feeling of brotherhood between the New Zealanders and the Australians. Very strong differences of national temperament exist, and the association in the training camps had not always been a happy one. But now through a long day they had fought side by side, suffered and died inextricably mixed together, and out of the conflict there had been born a new comradeship. They could not fully understand each other, but they learned to trust each other in battle and this faith was not to be broken through four years of war and in battles more terrible than their first.

Deeper than all other feelings, though, was one of profound exultation. They had been tried and not found wanting. Twenty-four hours before they had been untried troops; now they had done a deed of arms that would go down in history. There was a thrill of exalted feeling running through the hearts of all. They had faced fire and they had not flinched. For the New Zealanders it was the page 47beginning of that sense of nationality which was to grow so deep and strong as they marched from one ordeal of terror to another. From Sir Ian Hamilton came an order that was passed from mouth to mouth along the line:

"Comrades, I am proud of you: hold on; reinforcements are coming."

The words of praise from the great fighter were like strong wine to the wearied men.

All night the work of consolidation went on. The transports which had been driven further out to sea by the Turkish shelling during the day now ran close in again and commenced to send on shore odd companies of men who had not previously been landed, and to discharge ammunition and supplies. Field-guns, of which there had been such a tragic lack during the day's fighting were now swung out on to lighters and towed into the shore. The ground was impossible for horses and so they were manhandled into position by teams of men dragging on long ropes while others carried the shells and dumped them ready for the morning light. Anzac Cove itself was the scene of feverish activity. It was imperative that reserve stores of food should be built up with the utmost speed because the weather was still variable and a sudden storm might leave twenty thousand men without food or ammunition, helpless in the face of their enemies. So the boxes of bully beef and of biscuits were slung off and stacked in great heaps. Over all the occupied ground there was a coming and a going of many men carrying supplies up to the front line, bringing wounded page 48down to the Red Cross stations. Some were digging gunpits, others reserve trenches about Plugge's Plateau where, if need me, the last desperate stand was to be made; the Signal Section was running wires in all directions. To make everything more difficult a drizzling rain commenced to fall and the hard clay became greasy and slippery. The situation was desperately precarious. There was some talk of evacuation but Sir Ian Hamilton resolutely refused to countenance the suggestion and ordered the men to:

"Dig! dig! dig! until you are safe."

The hours of darkness were full of wild confusion. In front the Turks could be heard moving heavily in the scrub, and all night long it was expected that they would charge home. At every movement on their part rifle fire crashed out and was taken up by the men on either flank until at last it extended along the whole line while the Turks replied with fury. The rattle and roar of musketry rose and fell and rose again in waves of sound that rolled from flank to flank. Sometimes for a brief space it died almost away, but again burst forth furiously. Mostly it was wild, aimless, misdirected; but it served its purpose, and although the Turk threatened he nowhere pushed home the attack that would have breached the line and led to irreparable loss. Once disaster seemed imminent, for an Australian colonel thinking his position was desperate commenced to lead his men out of a key position. He was met however by an Aucklander who in the darkness pretended that he was General Walker and page 49ordered the colonel back. The Australian obeyed.

Wild rumours flew back and forth. At one moment it was said that the English had stormed Achi Baba and that in the morning all would go on together to Maidos; at the next it was whispered that the Turks were rolling up our flank. And all through the night the rain of bullets pelted into scrub and valley, and upon the open beach, and more men were killed and wounded.

At last the dawn came, and with it the boom of the New Zealand howitzers from Howitzer Gully and the sharper bang of 18-pounders. The line was safe.