The New Zealanders at Gallipoli
Part IV. The Battle of Sari Bair
Part IV. The Battle of Sari Bair.
The Suvla Landing.
We know that the thrust towards Koja Chemen Tepe from Suvla Bay failed. Let us examine the causes of the failure. For of what use is history if we do not seek to understand its lessons?
The story of the failure at Suvla Bay is not only the story of the misfortune of war. It ranks with the tragedy of Kut-el-Amara as an illustration of what must happen to a nation which accepts world-wide responsibilities and does not keep itself in a state of preparedness for possibilities.
The people of the British Empire did not realize that an efficient army was the complement to a powerful navy. For battleships cannot cross deserts or climb mountains. Indeed, battleships, as every soldier who was on Gallipoli Peninsula knows, are of incalculable value for moral effect, but for supporting troops ashore in mountainous country they are almost useless. Their guns cannot get at the enemy behind the crest. Only on rare occasions can ships' guns search reverse slopes. Ships are built to fight ships—not to act as army corps artillery.
No regular soldiers were available for these subsidiary operations in the East, but the next best—an army corps of the New Army—was available for this advance over broken, unreconnoitred country.
The 10th (Irish) Division (Lieut.-General Sir B. Mahon) was composed of the 29th Brigade (detached for service at Anzac), the 30th Brigade, and the 31st Brigade.
The 11th (Northern) Division (Major-General F. Hammersley), consisted of the 32nd, the 33rd, and the 34th Brigades.page 230
The 13th (Western) Division (Major-General F. C. Shaw), was also taken from the Suvla Army to act at Anzac. The three brigades were the 38th, 39th, and the 40th.
In that four of his brigades were landed at Anzac, General Stopford did not have anything like an army corps. His divisional artillery was lamentably weak, and his corps artillery almost non-existent. True, he had the support of some warships, but as we know, this support is not so much material as moral.
It was estimated that a force of 20,000 rifles would overpower a thin screen of Turks, which was reckoned at about 4000.
The 53rd and 54th Territorial Division (of infantry only) were to arrive later and be used as a general reserve.
The Hill Features of the Suvla Plain.
The country was not so hilly as at Anzac. From Lala Baba, looking due east, one saw the high ground running from the Gulf of Saros round towards the two Anafartas and so to the underfeatures of Sari Bair near Abdel Rahman Bair.
The plan of campaign was to land during the night of August 6/7 at three beaches to the north and south of Nibrunesi Point, push back the screen of enemy scouts holding the sparsely-wooded plain and rolling country, and occupy the hills about Anafarta, and so take a measure of the strain off the direct push for Koja Chemen Tepe. Having got astride the high ground near Anafarta the Turkish communications from Bulair to their Ari Burnu front would be imperilled.
A reference to the map will show that the conception was a reasonable one if the country was not strongly held. Resolute troops, vigorously led, might have reasonably achieved a success. But Chance did not smile upon our efforts, and instead of closely examining the structure of this high ground inland, we must look at the tactical features much nearer the coast line.
Sketch Map of The Suvla Area Showing the landing beaches.
The landing place most used in the later stages was near Cape Suvla, just inside Suvla Bay.
About a mile in a south-easterly direction from Lala Baba was the tactical feature christened “Chocolate Hill.” The gorse and grass on this hill caught fire during the fighting, and one part of it became a more pronounced reddish-brown than ever. The southern portion was not burnt, and is distinguished on the map as Green Hill. Standing on Chocolate Hill and looking towards the west, one saw, half left, the high ground called Scimitar Hill, and half right, the ill starred Ismail Oglu Tepe, known to our men as “W” Hills. The “W” Hills looked down on to the valley of the Asmak Dere, which ran into the sea about two miles south of Lala Baba, and running generally in a westerly direction towards Biyuk Anafarta, threw out two forks, one to the foot of Abdel Rahman Bair, the other towards Kaiajik Aghala (Hill 60). The latter fork was the Asma Dere, which running up past Hill 60, drained the watershed of Abdel Rahman Bair. Just to the south of the Azmak Dere, and between Kaiajik Aghala and the sea, was the high ground of Damakjelik Bair.
So it was intended that the Suvla Army, pushing on across the flat plains of Suvla in the early morning, should get in touch with their New Army comrades on Damakjelik and prolong the right of the new Anzac line held by General Travers's and the 4th Australian Brigades.
The Landing Beaches.
The day before the battle the component parts of the Army Corps were widely scattered. Part was at Mitylene, 120 miles away; part was at Mudros, 50 miles away; the remainder at Kephalos, on Imbros, about 16 miles away. As soon as it was fully dark, these three bodies of troops were speeding on their way to Suvla. Three beaches were page 233 to be used. Beach A was in the centre of Suvla Bay. Beaches B and C were to the south of Nibrunesi—B for infantry and C for the disembarkation of artillery.
At 8 o'clock on the night of the 6th, the force sailed from Kephalos with its collection of water boats, barges and lighters. At 9.30 p.m., the flotilla silently crept towards Nibrunesi, and the disembarkation commenced. The 32nd and 33rd Brigades got ashore expeditiously at Beach B and rushed Lala Baba.
Then occurred the first disaster. Beach A was not reconnoitred, and the barges containing the 34th Brigade ran aground. Men jumped into the water and waded ashore. A few Turkish snipers on Hill 10 and Lala Baba crept among the troops, who were new to war. In the dark, confusion reigned. When daylight came the troops were ashore, but that was about all. There was no pressing on. The men were shaken by their experience of the night. The line ran round from Lala Baba across the flat ground to Hill 10.
Trouble at the Beaches.
Just as it was getting light, six battalions of the 10th Division arrived from far-distant Mitylene. These troops were to go out to the extreme left flank. They should have landed at Beach A, but owing to the shallows and the difficulties already experienced there, the Navy took them to Beach B, south of Nibrunesi! This again upset the prearranged plan. These battalions fell in and marched along the mile and a half of open beach towards the left flank, passing behind and through the men who had earlier experienced the mess caused by inefficient reconnaissance.
By the time the remaining battalions of the 10th Division arrived, the Navy had found a small landing place in one of the little bays on the southern side of Suvla Point, just inside Suvla Bay. These men of the Irish Division scrambled ashore and pushed on to the high ground of Karakol Dagh.
When noon came the sun beat down on those poor citizen soldiers, worn out and tired by their long sea journeys, harassed by daring snipers in the dark, not very resolutely led, not at home in this hot and dusty country, tortured by page 234 thirst, the improvized and intricate machine went to pieces at the first rough jolt. Most of that day the Suvla Army sat down and waited for something to turn up. But during the afternoon some bold spirits led two battalions of the 11th Division across the flat ground and secured a foothold on the Chocolate Hills. So, from a point above Karakol Dagh, the line ran through Hill 10 and past the Salt Lake to the Chocolate Hills, about two miles from the outpost of their New Army comrades on Damakjelik Bair.
The Morning of August 8.
This morning—the morning when Malone stood triumphant on the crest of Chunuk Bair; when the Australians were pluckily attempting to carry Abdel Rahman—passed strangely inactive at Suvla. Following on their exhaustion and the heat of the midday sun, the men undoubtedly suffered agonies from thirst. There was water in the Suvla Plain, but no proper provision was made to take advantage of it. Instead, much effort was directed towards getting the supplies known to be somewhere at hand in ships and lighters. So one thing reacted on another—the bad landing beach at A caused exhaustion in the troops disembarked there, and was the cause of greater confusion when the troops for the left flank were landed on the right. This caused delay, which meant that more of the precious water was consumed than was allowed for. As a matter of fact, such was the lack of ordinary supervision, numbers of men landed without any water in their water-bottles at all! Those who had water consumed it during the waiting of the day. So General Stopford brought off mules to carry water in preference to artillery horses, and created a further excuse for delay—not enough supporting artillery! At the Anzac landing horses could not be landed, but willing men manhandled the guns up precipitous cliffs to their positions. No one seemed to think of this at Suvla. But the Generals in command seemed fairly satisfied with the progress of things. General Hamilton, over at Imbros, from where he could best keep touch of his page 235 widely-scattered army, got so uneasy that he could not resist hurrying to Suvla to see why the advance had been hung up. Nothing was done, but one battalion, the 6th East York Pioneers, occupied Scimitar Hill and dug in for the night. It was decided to make an advance early in the morning. Then an extraordinary incident occurred. The higher command evidently did not know where the battalions were. The 6th East Yorks were considered to be the freshest, and were ordered to the attack on another hill in the morning. This battalion had taken Scimitar Hill, but those in command did not seem to know it. Accordingly, the 6th East Yorks abandoned their position on this valuable hill without an effort and marched back to Sulajik!
The Next Day—August 9.
Early in the morning the 32nd Brigade attacked the hills towards Anafarta, but were repulsed and continued to occupy a line running north and south through Sulajik.
This day the New Zealanders clung to the ridge of Chunuk Bair, the Ghurkas and 6th South Lancashires struggled on to Hill Q, but the Suvla Army, worn out with fatigue and thirst, lay along the low around stretching from the Chocolate Hills towards Kiretch Tepe Sirt.page 236
In this day's attack on Scimitar Hill, serious scrub fires broke out and held the attention of the troops for the rest of the day. At noon the units fell back to a line between Sulajik and Green Hill.
A New Move that Failed.
General Hamilton concluded that on this right flank success would be delayed, and decided to land part of his reserve—the infantry brigades of the 54th Division—up at the new landing place near Cape Suvla, so that they might advance, with the 10th Irish Division, along Kiretch Tepe Sirt, then thrust towards Kavak Tepe and capture the line Ejelmer Bay to Anafarta, thus turning the Turkish flank.
The infantry of the 53rd (Territorial) Division landed during the night of the 8/9th, and were to assist the units on the right flank. The advance of these newly-arrived territorials was a pitiable thing. Crossing the open country from Lala Baba towards the Anafarta Hills, the enemy artillery, now considerably increased, took heavy toll. The enemy again fought his sniping screen with conspicuous ability. The attack could not get on. Realizing that the troops were unequal to the situation, it was decided to dig in on a line from near the Azmak Dere, through the knoll east of the Chocolate Hill, to the ground held by the 10th Division on Kiretch Tepe Sirt.
On August 11, the infantry brigades of the 54th Division were disembarked and placed in reserve. An attack on Kavak Tepe-Tekke Tepe was planned by Sir Ian Hamilton, but after a series of minor disasters the projected night march and attack was abandoned. General Stopford was now thoroughly convinced that his troops could not be expected to do more. Even if they gained the high ground, he considered that the supply of water and food would be too difficult and well-nigh impossible to arrange. There seemed nothing to do but to dig in everywhere and strengthen the line.
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So ended the great battle for the heights of Sari Bair. The Turk still held the higher ground at Helles, Anzac, and Suvla.