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

Chapter V Of What Befell during the First Week

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Chapter V Of What Befell during the First Week

Dig! dig! dig! until you are safe.

Throughout the whole of the second day the Turkish fire slackened very little and they maintained the desperate attempts to break through. But the organization of the night had made the position more secure; one after another the batteries of fieldguns were coming into action, machine-guns were pushed up to the front, the trenches were dug deeper and in consequence the flow of casualties slackened. Units that had been scattered and broken commenced to draw together again. Generals of brigades and commanding officers of battalions were able to make their authority felt and the lack of co-ordination that had been inevitable at first gradually gave place to co-operation and action systematically planned. The New Zealanders were concentrated toward the right of the position from Courtney's Post to Walker's Ridge with the reserve battalion concentrated on Plugge's Plateau. For two or three days the men who in the fierce rush of the first day's fighting had scattered along the whole front came trooping back to their units. On the whole it was page 51rather a joyful reunion for although there were many who were gone there were still a surprising number who remained.

No great movement was any longer possible at Anzac until the whole force was reorganized and the position consolidated. The Turks apparently realized this for they temporarily withdrew men and guns to Helles. Their great counter attacks ceased and they were content to hold their line. Digging and carrying were now the order of the day for all those who were not actually in the front line. In modern war the spade is more important than the rifle and almost as important as the machine-gun. Safety consists in burrowing well below the surface and having a solid wall of earth bayed every few yards or bending and twisting in such a fashion that enfilade is impossible. Although the winter storms were exceedingly fierce with torrential rains the clay surface and the steep slopes threw the water off with such speed that the sub-soil remained parched and dry and in the course of ages had hardened almost to the consistency of rock. Spades by themselves made no impression. Every inch had first to be picked and then shovelled and it required the most laborious effort to make the necessary depth.

Fortunately everyone was extremely fit and so the picks thudded and the shovels swung with a vigour that was in no wise abated by shrapnel bursts and snipers' bullets.

"Pit-pot! pit-pot!" and a bullet wheens overhead. "Crack!" and another smashes a shrub. "Phut! phut! phut! crack!" and the diggers subside page 52ungracefully on their stomachs or dive behind a sheltering bank with the utmost expedition. The sniper picks up another mark and the work goes on with noticeably increased effort. "Whang" a bullet goes through a spade and the wag wielding it waves back a "miss" in the general direction of the Turkish line. "Phut! phut! phut!" and the genial one is unable to signal a hit because he has stopped the last bullet with his upflung arm. He is rushed behind the bank and bandaged up with his first field dressing. His section farewell him facetiously and give him all manner of impossible commissions to perform for them when he comes within smell of the fleshpots of Egypt. His best pal picks up his equipment, and they go off to the nearest First Aid Post. Here they part with a lurid jest. (It is the end of an old happy friendship, for the man who goes back is shot through the heart a week later.)

The work goes on again. Those at the exposed point have got a very naked feeling and listen with carefully disguised tensity for the distant report and speculate inwardly as to what it will feel like if Johnny Turk scores a direct hit with his next. The busy one high up on the hillside smashes a shovel handle, but now they are getting down to depth at last; the danger has passed and under cover the work goes on peacefully and pleasantly. The main topics of conversation now being by a natural association of ideas the men on board hospital ships and the charm or otherwise of the nurses. On the whole however the departed casualty is not envied. The war is yet too young and the men far too eager for page 53closer acquaintance with the rifleman on the hill. So the digging goes on—until the walls of the sap are perhaps a sheer twelve feet. The task is now complete. With no slipping and no water to contend with, the sandbagging, revetting, duckboarding and draining (so large a part of trench making in France afterwards) were quite unnecessary.

During the first few days especially, carrying parties were very busy. Wheeled transport was impossible and not very many pack mules had as yet been landed. In consequence everything had to be carried. Anzac Cove itself was the centre of A.S.C. activities and to this point came queues of men to obtain the supplies of ammunition, biscuits, bully beef and water with which and on which the army fought.

The Cove was subject to double enfilade fire from enemy guns on the ridges round Anafarta and from the Olive Grove at Gaba Tepe. It was often anxious work waiting round this dump. A short fierce "whizz," a sharp "bang" and then again "whizzbang! whizz-bang!" Everyone dived for the nearest cover. "Whizz-bang!" and there was a spatter and clatter of shrapnel pellets striking the pebbles on the beach or rattling into the ration boxes. "Whizz-bang! whizz-bang! whizz-bang!" and after each the whining scream of the flying nose-cap. Then all was quiet again save for the low moaning of a man lying bleeding and unconscious with a ghastly wound in his head. He is carried off to the dressing station—a few yards away—while his mates line up for the day's rations.

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One man receives a fifty-six pound box of Huntley and Palmer's biscuits, another an equally heavy but not quite so unwieldy box of Fray Bentos bully beef, another again sandbags containing jam tins and other oddments. The remainder pick up precious tins of water. They stagger away under the blazing sun panting and sweating. In a big sap they meet a down coming party and there is a jam while they squeeze past.

Then they commence to wind up an open valley. A man with a very strong and steadfast face approaches leading a donkey with a Red Cross brassard tied round its nose. A wounded man is seated astride, his arm flung round the other's neck for support. All make way, for in three days "Murphy" and his mule have become famous and they have yet nearly three weeks to walk in Shrapnel Valley before they pass to become a deathless story.

The party carries on. "Phut! phut! phut!"— the dust flies up from the track and a splinter from the biscuit box. The first man who has been caught well out in the open rushes over the exposed ground; the next loaded with the biscuits shambles over. "Phut! phut! phut!"—and the remainder stop on the safe side of the bank. They wait a few minutes and then one ventures. A bullet whips the dust up under his feet and another sings past his ear. The sniper away up on the hillside will wait all day so there is nothing for it but to take the risk. Man after man nerves himself to it and makes the dash. Their luck is in and all get safely across with only a perforated water tin as casualty.

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Five minutes later, though, the sniper gets a solitary signaller right through the brain as he stoops for a second to fix a wire.

Before dawn on 2 May a party from the Canterbury Battalion carried out the first New Zealand raid. Landing from a destroyer wide out on the left flank they crept up on the Turkish outpost at Nibrunesi Point and were right into the position before the enemy were aware. They destroyed everything possible and then returned without loss and with fifteen prisoners.

On the following day an attempt was made to capture the hill known as Baby 700. The attacking troops were the 13th and 16th Battalions of the A.I.F. and Otago. The latter unit allowed only two and a half hours to move round the three miles to the assembly point. As the long column wound up Shrapnel Valley toward the head of Monash it was delayed by heavy sniping, by the continual passage of stretchers and by a half battalion of the Naval Brigade who had not sufficiently cleared the track, and finally did not arrive until fully an hour after the attack was due to commence.

Through some inexplicable folly the charge was allowed to go forward without them. Why, it is impossible to fathom; the whole position was connected up by telephone and it was known by the Australians that the New Zealanders were not in place.

The 13th and 16th met with fair success; but when the Otago men were in position the supporting artillery was silent and the enemy were aroused: the Australian attack had lost its momentum, and page 56the Turks were free to concentrate on the single battalion that now advanced against them. They held their fire until almost the last moment and then from front and flank smashed the attack with a storm of machine-gun and rifle fire. On the left a lieutenant and five men were all that were left of one company and they maintained the ground gained for hours until all were wounded. On the right another company was reduced to forty men; but these dug in right in face of the enemy, and maintained themselves for two days and part of three nights in spite of unceasing fire; in spite of heavy bombing to which they could make no reply; without food and water except what they had carried with them; without orders and without supports and with every prospect of being surrounded and overwhelmed. Finally on the night of the fifth, the survivors withdrew.

The rush of wounded during these days had been beyond all expectation. The few hospital ships had rapidly filled and were running to Malta, Gibraltar, or England. But the bloody drain went on without ceasing, and so, certain of the empty transports were ordered to take on wounded and run for Alexandria.

The Lutzow made two terrible trips. On the first the only man aboard the ship with any medical knowledge was a veterinary officer who organized a staff out of the grooms and clerks of Echelon B. The men died by twenty and thirty a day.

On the second trip there was certainly the skeleton of a trained staff but the conditions were terrible. page 57A few of the lightly wounded were fortunate as they were able to use the cabins and so could be made properly comfortable. But stretchers could not be manoeuvred round the narrow passage ways and so all seriously wounded men had to go into the great holds which were far from clean, badly lighted, and utterly devoid of all necessary conveniences. There were no beds. Some were still on the stretchers on which they had been carried down from the hills, some on palliasses thrown down on the hard decks. The few Red Cross orderlies were terribly over-worked. For twelve hours on end an orderly would be alone with sixty desperately wounded men in a hold dimly lit by one arc lamp. None of them had been washed and many were still in their torn and blood-stained uniforms. There were bandages that had not been touched for two or three days—and men who lay in an indescribable mess of blood and filth. A New Zealand sergeant, a Rhodes scholar, senior scholar in three subjects, a magnificent figure of a man lay dying with a bullet in his brain. By him was a man with half his face shot away breathing through a rubber tube slipped into the unwounded corner of his mouth. A thickset muscular Australian had his arm amputated close by the shoulder. His eyes were glittering with pain but he lay for the most part very quietly. Two lying together were dying from shot wounds in the head. One of them every now and again arched his back until he was poised on his heels and his hands, and with his distorted face turned upward looked in the flickering light like some grotesque page 58spider. He died as morning came. Another was shot through and through with a rifle bullet, one eye blown out, one leg broken and the other shattered by shrapnel. He had to be tied down for in his delirium he was ceaselessly flinging his tortured body about in such fashion as to menace others. Before morning came he also was dead. Another would not stay on his palliasse but rolled off on to the floor. He was too heavy to lift and so all that could be done was to follow him about and cover him with blankets. Most of them were in great pain, many could get no ease or rest, and all were parched with thirst. Those who slept dreamed troubled dreams and those who waked were in torment:

"Orderly! Orderly! Water! Water!"
"Orderly, for Christ's sake, ease me up a little."
"Orderly! I can't sleep."
"Water! Fetch me a drink."
"Oh God! Oh God! Oh God!"
"Orderly, fetch me a drink."
"I can't sleep! I haven't slept for three nights— give me morphia."
"Oh God! you don't know how this hurts."
"Oh thank you orderly, but can't you give me a whole cupful!"
"Orderly! Orderly! Fetch me a drink!"
"Look out there! They are coming! Take that you bastard!"
"Oh, God! Oh, God!—the pain!"

And so through all the long night it went on, page 59like nothing so much as a scene from the Inferno. At eight o'clock the orderly was relieved, snatched breakfast, and then went on dressing wounds. There was little sleep on the Lutzow until the poor wounded were disembarked. The hospitals in Cairo were like heaven to the men who made this voyage.