Rotting Flesh. Its fetid perfume corrupts the Turkish air. It is August 1915, and British, French and Dominion troops have been hanging on at Gallipoli for over three months. Conceived as a swift, decisive blow against an enfeebled adversary, the campaign has ground to a halt. In the stifling heat, both sides shelter in trenches and tunnels, sniping and shelling. Deadlock exerts its murderous grip. Tormented by thirst, racked with dysentery and plagued by flies and lice, good keen men are wasting away.
But something is afoot at Anzac. Fresh troops are coming ashore under cover of dark. There are rumours of a new offensive to the north of the perimeter, with feints to the south and in the British sector at Cape Helles. A new force is to land at Suvla Bay.
Troops are issued with ammunition, rations and field dressings and ordered to rest. Rifles and bayonets are checked, bombing parties organised. On the afternoon of the 5th, every man sews three pieces of white calico to his uniform for identification at night.
Destiny beckons. Names that will echo down the years are on men’s lips: Lone Pine, The Nek, Rhododendron Ridge, Chunuk Bair. In the company of his mates, but alone with his thoughts, each man prepares for what lies ahead.
A sinister Shadow falls unexpectedly over the preparations for my own assault on Gallipoli. On the morning of my departure, I awake to the news that pro-Chechen gunmen have seized a luxury hotel in the centre of Istanbul, not far from where I’m staying.
Chastened by this timely reminder of war’s recurring blight, I set off on foot towards the towering domes and buttresses of the giant cathedral church Aya Sofya (Saint Sophia) to join my Anzac Day tour party. From the gleaming minarets of the Blue Mosque nearby, loudspeakers broadcast the call to prayer across the old city, known until 1926 as Constantinople.
My place is seat 13, bus no. 1. The sense of embarking on a kind of Antipodean hajj is inescapable: the company I’ve booked with is running no fewer than 23 coaches, and everyone on board is from down under. Australians outnumber New Zealanders roughly two to one. It is an expectant gathering of mostly twenty- or thirty-somethings, many on the southeast-Mediterranean backpacker trail, others taking a break from temporary jobs in London. For the Turkish tourist industry, Anzac Day is big business.
We set off towards the waterfront, overlooking the Sea of Marmara, where the road runs beside what still stands of ancient city walls. Rauf, our guide, rises from his seat at the front of the bus and turns to face us, microphone in hand.
“Er…dear guests,” he begins, softly spoken and slightly hesitant. “We are watching now Four Corner documentaree, and later feelm Galleepolee with Mel Geebson…”
The on-board TV screens flicker into life. Could the Anzacs of 86 years ago have imagined it? Their hellish exploits so conveniently dished up as part of a package tour. Not that the convenience and packaging in any way lessen the impact of the award-winning documentary The Fatal Shore or Australian director Peter Weir’s cinematic depiction of the pity of war. In fact, had our forefathers been fortunate enough to watch a similar few hours of war reportage and dramatisation, I suspect they wouldn’t have taken up arms with such alacrity.
As it was, when the immediate prospect of war burst upon Britain’s most distant colony in the last days of July 1914, New Zealanders were galvanised into near jubilation, flying flags, singing patriotic songs and cheering soldiers in uniform as they passed down the street. Young men flocked to join the fray.
Although the principle of service to King, Empire and Country was generally taken for granted in New Zealand society, for most young men, war offered adventure, a chance to see the world. Few entertained the notion of never returning. Their only fear was that it would all be over before they got there.
During the Sobering scenes of slaughter at the conclusion of Gallipoli we drive onto the peninsula. In that slightly dazed state in which one emerges from a matinee screening into daylight, I see for the first time the famous stretch of water Britain sought to control when she launched her ill-fated Dardanelles campaign. Stretching 50 km southwest–northeast from the Aegean Sea to the Sea of Marmara, the Dardanelles strait was of immense strategic value in the days when the Great Powers imposed their will by dint of naval power.
From the waterside strip of Eçeabat we take the small roll-on roll-off ferry to our accommodation across the strait in the regional capital, Çannakale. In so doing, we cross from Europe to Asia near where the waterway constricts into a bottleneck just 1750 metres wide known as the Narrows. Events here formed the prelude to the land campaign for which Gallipoli is best remembered.
To relieve the deadly stalemate on the Western Front, bring pressure to bear on the enemy’s flank and rescue Russia from desperate isolation, Britain examined the opportunities offered by her superior sea power. The eyes of the War Council came to rest on the tottering Ottoman Empire—an ally of Germany—and the waterway, under its control, on which I am now afloat. Take charge of that and a beguiling prospect would open up.
Even today the headlines that might have been cast a potent spell. Constantinople besieged by warships: Turkey capitulates. Italy and Balkan neutrals join allies: new front against Austria-Hungary hastens end of war. sea route to black sea secured: Britain and France supply Russian ports. to the victor the spoils: ottoman oilfields in the near east are Britain’s black gold.
Little wonder, then, that in 1915 the War Council and the Royal Navy resolved to force the strait. Prime inspiration of this visionary plan was Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty.
Facing directly across the Narrows is a reminder of what the Turks and their German masters had in store for the enemy armada. Set among white-fronted houses is an imposing fortress, dating from 1452, when the Ottoman Turks were themselves the invaders. More than 450 years later, a series of such castles along both sides of the strait between here and its Aegean entrance, 21 km to the southwest, still formed the backbone of a formidable line of defence. Numerous field batteries and mobile howitzers provided additional fire-power. In the water itself, mines presented a further danger.
It was these that eventually told. While attempting to blast its way through the Narrows—in what Churchill described as a spectacle of “terrible magnificence”—the fleet lost several ships in rapid succession to mines. The navy broke off the engagement and withdrew temporarily as all concerned thought at the time, but, as it turned out, permanently. The Turks, at first perplexed but soon jubilant, were left to celebrate what is popularly considered the country’s finest hour of the whole war.
Approaching the Çannakale wharf we see the date of this famous victory—March 18, 1915—emblazoned on a hillside above the city. The consequences of such ready capitulation by the strongest naval power in the world were to prove sombre indeed.
If the Anzac House Hostel is in fact just another backpackers’, at least it has the name. They’ve been “doing” Anzac Day for years, and the small crew behind the reception desk retain a cheerful calm amid the modern invasion. At the rear of the cramped foyer-cum-sitting area, above a tumbled heap of packs, a video machine replays The Fatal Shore and Gallipoli in endless succession. Towards the front, the tables are gathering bottles and tongues are yarning.
The day after our arrival—April 24—we are to tour the Anzac battlefield. Forgoing the hostel’s breakfast special—Vegemite and toast—I purchase a selection of honey-oozing pastries from a backstreet patisserie before piling back onto the ferry with the crowd.
Further hillside displays gleam in the morning sunshine. Above the fort, painted in white on a green slope, a soldier with raised arm exhorts the traveller, in the words of a famous Turkish poem, to remember the blood spilt here, site of both the passing of an age and the birth of a nation.
The age was that of the Ottoman Empire, swept away by the Great War. The nation is the modern republic of Turkey, raised from the rubble of her sprawling predecessor under the leadership of a man whose name today dominates the Turkish telling of the fighting at Gallipoli, the one theatre of the Great War in which the Ottomans triumphed. In April 1915 Mustafa Kemal was a relatively unknown divisional commander on the peninsula. Eight-and-a-half years later, having successfully led his countrymen in revolt against the armies of occupation that moved in following the Armistice, he was elected president. In 1934 he adopted the surname Atatürk—“father of the Turks.”
Atatürk died in 1938, but his image—in statue, bust, painting and photograph—is omnipresent in Turkey. Likewise the national flag—a white crescent moon and star on a red background—painted on the brow of a hill just behind Eçeabat.
We drive across the peninsula, past open strip fields and via a small war museum seething with tour parties, to an unremarkable indentation in the shoreline familiar from aging photographs—Anzac Cove. In those grainy images the beach is a hive of activity—lighters off-loading stores at the makeshift piers, soldiers down from the front line bathing in the sea, wounded being stretchered past busy fatigue parties to the dressing stations—while the bare slopes above are a chaos of earthworks, tents and huts reminiscent of a Coromandel hillside at the height of the gold-rush era. Today the beach is narrower, the embankment that carries the road having covered its upper reaches, while the hillside is thick with shrubs and undergrowth.
We disembark at the little Ari Burnu cemetery, on the northern headland, one of more than 30 war cemeteries the Commonwealth War Graves Commission maintains on the peninsula. A Turkish memorial to the Anzacs, inscribed, in English, with one of Atatürk’s most famous pronouncements, greets arrivals:
Throat tight and eyes stinging, I walk on to the tidy rows of pedestal grave-markers set in the lawn with flowers growing in between, then scramble down onto the beach itself.
This is It. Mecca Central. Anzac Ground Zero. Here, at 4.30 A.M. on Sunday April 25, 1915, the first Anzacs members of the 3rd Australian Infantry Brigade jumped from their boats and splashed ashore in the face of Turkish gunfire. The New Zealanders followed four-and-a-half hours later. Their ghosts whisper past me as the gentle curve of the beach beckons. I don’t have long—Rauf’s watch is ticking—but I won’t be denied my moment of reflection.
British troops had been gathering on the island of Lemnos, almost 100 km distant, since early March, in preparation for the occupation of the Gallipoli peninsula once the Royal Navy had done its job. Following the events of the 18th, however, and influenced by the commanders on the spot—Vice-Admiral John de Robeck and General Sir Ian Hamilton—London decided, to Churchill’s dismay, that a major land offensive was required to secure the fleet’s passage through the Dardanelles strait. The soldiers on Lemnos, plus, among others, the newly constituted Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, or ANZAC, currently training in Egypt, would now spearhead the attack rather than follow up.
Under Hamilton and de Robeck’s dual command—a chronic weakness of the campaign—preparations were made in a mood of unwarranted enthusiasm and amid a blaze of publicity. Letters addressed “c/o The Constantinople Expeditionary Force” were delivered to the administrative headquarters in Alexandria by ordinary post, while Egyptian newspapers reported the arrival of troop units and speculated on the outcome of the impending offensive.
The fighting ability of the Turk was contemptuously underestimated, so much so that all manner of shortages and logistical deficiencies were dismissed as unimportant. A dire lack of artillery and shells; the provision of drinking water; facilities for the wounded; how to turn beachheads into serviceable harbours—such matters were glossed over or entrusted to improvisation.
The plan of attack was elaborate and came in two parts, to be executed simultaneously. The main thrust was to be made at the southern end of the peninsula, near Cape Helles, by the British. Following the smashing of Turkish defences by the Navy’s guns, troops of the 29th Division were to be set ashore at five mostly tiny beaches code-named S, V, W, X and Y. Once established, the various detachments were to link up and sweep north towards the village of Krithia and the low but dominating brow of Achi Baba just beyond. Meanwhile, French troops would conduct a major feint on the Asiatic mainland.
What was considered the easier part of the attack was to be carried out at Z Beach by the ANZAC, almost 20 km up the west coast near Gaba Tepe. Here a cultivated plain offered an easy route across the peninsula. After seizing high ground at Gaba Tepe itself and in the Sari Bair range to the north, the corps was to advance east towards the Narrows, thus cutting off the enemy’s anticipated retreat from the south and preventing reinforcements getting through from the north. Surprise and speed would be of the essence. At an isthmus yet further to the north, the Royal Naval Division would carry out a second feint.
Hamilton’s opposite was General Liman von Sanders, head of a German military mission in Constantinople. Given command of the Turkish Fifth Army, he had the good judgement to deploy his forces in an arrangement that mirrored the British plan of attack, feints included. The 19th Division, under the 34-year-old Colonel Kemal, he posted to cover Gaba Tepe and the plain.
On the morn of battle, fortune bestowed her favours capriciously. At Y, X and S Beaches, resistance was nonexistent or minimal. At W and V, the water boiled red as Turkish machine-guns and musketry mowed down the floundering attackers. The River Clyde, an innocent-looking collier playing the role of Trojan horse at V, disgorged some 2000 men into a blizzard of lead shells.
The Z Beach landing—the day’s first—fared in intermediate fashion. Although Turkish fire took its toll as the Australians hurled themselves from their boats across the shingle, forward momentum was maintained. But where open country should have beckoned, steep slopes of thorny scrub and sheer cliffs blocked the way. The men hacked their way up, before filtering inland across the jumbled terrain beyond, driving the enemy before them. Yet it was clear they had been put ashore at the wrong location, a blunder that condemned the ANZAC campaign from the outset.
During a day of savage fighting under a blazing sun, Kemal threw his entire division into a series of frenzied counter-attacks. Units of the combined New Zealand and Australian (NZ & A) Division—there were too few for a purely New Zealand outfit—flung themselves into the thinning Australian line late in the morning. The battle resolved itself into a bloody struggle along the seaward crest of the second of three ridge systems, roughly parallel to the coast, across which the landing force had become scattered, and over the upper reaches of the first (see map). Strategically important high ground at the junction of First and Second Ridges—a feature named Baby 700—was hotly disputed, the Turks finally prevailing and driving the Anzacs back across a waspwaisted saddle known as The Nek. Exuberant attack had already turned to desperate defence.
Hamilton’s forces were ashore, but at the cost of a severe mauling and with a much tougher fight on their hands than ever imagined.
At best, the advance from Helles proceeded at no more than a stagger. General Sir Aylmer Hunter-Weston, senior commander of the 29th Division, and General d’Amade, whose French contingent soon deployed to the peninsula from the Asiatic mainland, were strict adherents of the depressing military orthodoxy of the day. Their sole modus operandi was to hurl their troops at the Turkish lines en masse, in broad daylight, and watch them being shredded by the Turkish fi restorm. Enemy counterattacks suffered the same fate in reverse. The Allies made incremental gains, but to no material advantage and at horrific cost. The carnage continued throughout May and June and into July. Krithia remained in Turkish hands, Achi Baba an impregnable citadel.
At Anzac, in the days immediately following the landing, the two sides made valiant efforts to overpower one another. Both failed. The Turks, suicidally heroic, attacked in disorder and were repulsed. The ANZAC, reinforced by the Royal Naval Division, adopted plans too elaborate and ambitious, with the same result.
Dispatched south by ship to help force the issue at Helles, the New Zealand and 2nd Australian Infantry Brigades suffered further appalling losses on May 8th. Puzzled and embittered by such incomprehensible waste, the survivors returned north a few days later.
In their absence, the New Zealand Mounted Rifles and Australian Light Horse Brigades had arrived from Egypt—without their steeds—and bolstered the ANZAC defences. The reorganisation this had allowed, and the ceaseless entrenching and tunnelling which was steadily providing cover for positions previously cruelly exposed, meant the force was reasonably well prepared when, on May 19th, Kemal launched a final do-or-die assault with more than 40,000 men. The tables were turned. By the time Kemal called off the attack, an estimated 10,000 Turkish casualties lay head to foot in no-man’s-land.
The stench soon became nauseating. On May 24th, in one of the more surreal episodes of the war, an armistice was agreed so some of the bodies could be buried. Turk and Anzac mingled between the lines, exchanging pleasantries and salaams; but by evening everyone was back below ground, and the crackle of rifle fire once more echoed around the hills.
Before the month was out, the Royal Navy, after losing two warships to a German submarine, withdrew all its larger vessels from around the peninsula to Imbros Island, some 25 km out to sea. A sense of vulnerability and abandonment settled over the troops on shore.
At the ANZAC’s forward-most position, Quinn’s Post, the enemy trenches were almost within spitting distance. Quinn’s was one of three pockets of shelter the others were Courtney’s and Steele’s Posts—clinging to the precipitous slopes of gullies scoured by winter rain in the seaward face of Second Ridge. At one point, an earth palisade less than a metre thick was all that stood between the two sides.
When the Turks detonated a huge mine just short of Quinn’s and broke into its trenches, the fate of the Anzac line hung in the balance. Fierce fighting repelled the Turks, but it was clear the post was in urgent need of strengthening. Colonel William Malone of the Wellington Infantry Battalion instigated an uncompromising regime of home improvements, including building covered terraces for shade and protection from enemy fire, and screens of wire netting to catch Turkish bombs. He ordered every shot and bomb returned at least twofold and saw to the flushing-out of Turkish snipers. Australian miners tunnelled forwards and detonated their own mines under the Turkish front line.
The improvement was dramatic, but while Quinn’s was now defensively secure, this only made absolute the stalemate that had steadily tightened its grip on the entire sector. As the summer wore on, soldier struggled less with soldier than with searing heat, parched throat, poor diet, the carrion stench of the dead, the stink of faeces, swarming flies, ferocious lice and griping dysentery.
Both Gallipoli theatres were deadlocked. But a new plan was being hatched, with Anzac the principal focus and New Zealand troops marked as key players. In the August Offensive, the Allied campaign would reach its zenith and New Zealand’s star shine at its brightest.
Rauf Conducts a Head count while our driver pulls out from the line of coaches beside the verge and bears us back to the southern end of Anzac Cove. The cemetery here, at Hell Spit—a spot bedevilled by Turkish artillery fire from Gaba Tepe—is similar to the one we’ve just left, but a grave-marker positioned apart from the others attracts special attention. Someone has planted a little Australian flag beside it, and a small crowd pays homage.
Private John Simpson is probably Australia’s most famous war hero. Never mind that he was actually an English seaman who had jumped ship in Australia four years earlier and joined up in the hope of getting home. He and his mate Duffy—a donkey—traipsed their way into legend up and down Shrapnel and Monash Valleys, between First and Second Ridges, braving shot and shell to carry wounded from the front line to the beach. Bets were laid: when’s the man with the donk going to cop it? History doesn’t relate if anyone hit the jackpot on May 19th, when Simmie’s number came up.
All traffic to and from the forward-most positions on Second Ridge had to pass laboriously up and down the route trodden by Simpson—wounded, reinforcements, men coming on or off duty, messengers, supplies, water. To make the journey was to run a gauntlet of Turkish pot shots and sniper fire. Walls of sandbags were erected at intervals along the valley floor for the men to run between.
We reboard the bus and head back towards Gaba Tepe before the road turns inland to climb Second Ridge. The elevation is modest but opens up the view behind us towards the toe of the peninsula, blue with distance, beyond a succession of headlands that finger into the sea. Ahead, a wide, flat area draws near—Plateau 400. Chalky white against a cerulean sky, a stone cenotaph announces the presence of a much larger cemetery than the two we’ve already visited.
The August Offensive opened with two diversions to draw Turkish attention from the main business. The more memorable took place here on what, for Australians, is hallowed ground. A solitary pine tree sighing in the breeze—grown from the seed of another that stood here 86 years ago—is a gentle reminder of this place’s melancholy name: Lone Pine.
As early as the middle of May, Major Percy Overton, of the Canterbury Regiment of the New Zealand Mounted Rifles, was reconnoitring among the dizzy ridges and plunging deres, or valleys, on the northern flank of the Anzac sector. Despite the deeply eroded nature of the terrain, he found there was a passable route to the top of Chunuk Bair, the closest of Sari Bair’s three highest summits. What was more, the whole area, including Chunuk Bair, was virtually undefended.
Possession of Chunk Bair would give the Anzacs a strategic advantage of unimaginable possibilities, and ANZAC commander General Sir William Birdwood drew up a daring plan for a surprise night attack. This came to form the centrepiece of a large-scale and highly elaborate venture aimed at cutting the Gordian knot of trench warfare that was steadily tying up the entire Gallipoli campaign.
During the nights of August 3rd, 4th and 5th, the 13th Division of the so-called New Army, unblooded recruits on their way out from England, was to be smuggled ashore at Anzac. On the afternoon of the 6th, the diversions were to begin: at Helles, the British would go into action in the centre of the line; at Lone Pine, the 1st Australian Division would rush the opposing Turkish trenches in a frontal attack. Come nightfall, two covering forces drawn principally from the New Zealand Mounted Rifles, the independent Otago Mounted Rifles and the New Zealand Maori Contingent would clear the foothills to the north of Anzac of Turkish picquets.
This accomplished, two assaulting columns—one composed principally of the New Zealand Infantry Brigade (NZIB), the other of Indian and Australian troops—would make their way through the deres and ascend the heights. The first, the Right Assaulting Column, would be under the command of Colonel Francis Johnston, a New Zealander who had served with the British Army in India. It would move onto Rhododendron Ridge, a long, ramp-like incline up the side of Chunuk Bair, and march on the summit. The second, the Left Assaulting Column, with Overton as guide, would take a more roundabout route and seize adjoining Hill Q and its even taller neighbour at the head of the range.
At dawn on August 7, from its new, elevated position, the NZIB would engage the Turks below, on Battleship Hill. Synchronised with this, the Australians at The Nek, and adjacent Pope’s Hill and Quinn’s Post, would assault the enemy trenches immediately in front of them, while the Welch Fusiliers would storm up the head of Monash Valley. If the enemy line was also breached at Lone Pine, so much the better. The Turks would be crushed like a nut in a vice and Sari Bair delivered into Anzac hands at last, making the longed for advance across the peninsula a realistic prospect once more.
Meanwhile, on the evening of August 6 and the morning of the 7th, the New Army’s 10th and 11th Divisions would come ashore at Suvla Bay, to the north of Sari Bair, and capture a variety of outlying high points, also only lightly defended.
In all, some 63,000 Allied troops in the Anzac–Suvla area would face only half that number of Turks, many of whom would be several hours’ march away. Allied domination would be complete.
The Turks were aware something big was in the offing, but von Sanders and his senior commanders appear not to have read where the main thrust would come. Kemal alone was concerned at the possibility of attack from the north of Anzac, as he had been of a major attack at Ari Burnu back in April. But now, as then, his protestations fell on deaf ears.
The August Offensive began at 2.20 P.M. on the 6th, under a cloudless sky. The British attack at Helles served its brief but bloody purpose. By the following morning von Sanders was moving reserves north.
At Lone Pine, a slow, three-day artillery and shrapnel barrage had cut the Turkish wire and pummelled the Turks’ trenches. To cross the 80–90 m-wide death trap of no-man’s-land, the Australians had tunnelled under it. At 5.30 P.M. the bombardment stopped and the first wave of assaulting troops erupted from below ground into the sunlight. Reaching the Turkish front trench relatively unscathed, they came to a heart-catching standstill before the unexpected obstacle of protective timber roofing. But delay was momentary. Men were soon yanking logs aside, leaping through holes blasted by the bombardment and swarming into the uncovered communication saps. A ferocious mêlée of point-blank shooting, frenzied bayoneting and desperate hand-to-hand grappling ensued in the dark. The dead and wounded were trampled underfoot.
Behind the Anzac starting line, their blood up and the scent of victory in their nostrils, men bribed and fought each other to get a piece of the action. As the Turks threw in reinforcements, impetuous attack met frenetic counter-attack. The longed-for breakthrough came agonisingly close, but in the end proved as elusive as ever. Yet by dusk the Australians had secured the Turkish front line and two-thirds of the supporting trench system.
The fighting raged for two days. Australian losses amounted to 2000, Turkish to several times as many. I contemplate with awe the number of Victoria Crosses the highest decoration for gallantry in the face of the enemy—awarded to Australian soldiers in this one engagement. Seven!
The rows of grave-markers at Lone Pine tell only a fraction of the story. Most who perished at Gallipoli have no known grave, and the names of many Anzacs lost without trace are inscribed in stone at the foot of the Lone Pine cenotaph, listed by rank and battalion.
On the other side of the dusty road, a tiny cemetery marks Johnston’s Jolly, a spot named after an officer who placed field guns there to “jolly-up” the Turks. I linger over the handful of grave-markers. Name, rank, regiment, date of death—plus, for some, a short legend. The by now familiar struggle between cliché and feelings beyond expression: “A mother’s thoughts often wonder to this sad and lonely grave.” “He gave all for his country and bestowed honour on his kin.” “I asked life for him. Thou gavest him life for evermore.”
Bereavement. Country. Honour. God. The leitmotifs of the yearning to make sense of personal loss.
Once More we drive on. The bus toils up the seaward edge of Second Ridge, the road the ribbon that was once no-man’s-land. More cemeteries slip past on our left, perched above Monash Valley with a view of the inland face of the hills above Anzac Cove—Courtney’s and Steele’s Posts, closely followed by Quinn’s. Then a giant black sculpture—a Turkish soldier with rifle and bayonet—in memory of all those who gave their lives in defence of their homeland. On the opposite side of the road, the cemetery and memorial of the Turkish 57th Infantry Regiment, whose troops were the first to resist the Allied landing. The bus slows, judders off tarmac onto rough gravel, and steers left round the head of the valley before pulling up.
We are at The Nek. More bloody Australian soil. As I step off the bus I feel an extra frisson of expectancy, for the events that unfolded here on August 7 provide the agonising climax of the film still no doubt screening for the floods of newcomers back at the hostel.
Following the Mounteds’ seizure, in the early hours of darkness, of Turkish outposts in the foothills—a series of operations brilliantly conducted but almost immediately eclipsed by what happened next—the way was open for the two assaulting columns to make their way to their objectives. But already the operation had fallen behind schedule and valuable time had been lost.
Johnston’s Right Assaulting Column was to occupy the summit of Chunuk Bair by dawn. Its larger part the Otago, Wellington and Auckland Battalions moved up one dere, while the Canterburys followed another. Barbed wire, small parties of Turks missed by the Mounteds, congestion in the rough terrain, the generally poor condition of the men—all served to hinder progress. Nevertheless, as dawn was starting to break, the Wellington Battalion was in position on Rhododendron Ridge less than a thousand metres from the virtually deserted summit.
At this point, however, Johnston, contrary to orders, called a halt to await the arrival of the Canterbury Battalion, which had got hopelessly lost, stumbled up against a near-vertical cliff and become split up while retracing its steps. Johnston was in poor health, and turned to alcohol as a palliative, with unfortunate consequences for his powers of judgement. This was the first of several crucial decisions the Allies would have cause to regret.
The Left Assaulting Column, meanwhile, had also encountered difficulties and fallen disastrously behind schedule. Come daybreak, most units were in disarray and far from their preliminary objectives, while Overton was dead, victim of a sniper’s bullet. Only a party of Gurkhas had made it to within striking distance of the summit of Hill Q.
With the arrival of daylight, the element of surprise was lost, and such was the delay there was now no hope of closing the vice as planned. The Australian 3rd Light Horse Brigade, serving as foot soldiers at The Nek, and their neighbours at Pope’s and Quinn’s, were on their own. As one of the NZIB’s tasks on securing Chunuk Bair was to have been to suppress the Turkish machine-gun fire that controlled the no-man’s-land their fellow soldiers were to cross, the outlook could hardly have been bleaker.
The attack should never have happened. It was pure suicide, or murder, depending how you view it, but Birdwood now reasoned that anything that drew Turkish attention and manpower from Chunuk Bair could only help. A failure to synchronise watches just made matters worse. The naval barrage that pounded the enemy positions for 20 minutes prior to the charge finished seven minutes early, allowing the Turks time to come out from their shelters and reoccupy their trenches. At 4.30, to the shrill of whistles, the first wave of infantry at The Nek, 150 men wide, scrambled over the top. Within thirty seconds it had been exterminated.
At 4.32, the second wave followed suit. The officer in charge of the third appealed wildly to call off the attack, but he and his men perished also. As a result of a misunderstanding, a fourth wave provided a final, wretched encore.
The attack at Quinn’s was halted after the same fate had befallen its first wave. At Pope’s, the little ground gained—at heavy cost—was abandoned after vicious hand-to-hand fighting. The Fusiliers were deterred by Turkish bombs rolled down the slopes into their midst.
The New Zealanders could only look on in dismay.
A square of grass, a memorial wall, five white gravemarkers–the cemetery and a dirt patch for the bus to turn on make up the entire width of The Nek. Forty-seven paces, an abrupt drop to either side. Low trees behind the wall screen a Turkish monument. It’s all so pitifully small. No more than a couple of modest suburban sections.
To the north, rugged foothills give way to level farmland. Suvla Bay and a salt-pan immediately inland cut deep into the patchwork of fields. Low hills line the horizon. As wide as The Nek is narrow, Suvla was to prove equally impassable.
We Resume our upward journey. Across a valley to our left, Rhododendron Ridge is unmistakeable, a track along its crest forming a fi rebreak through the trees and scrub to either side. Hilltops loom ahead. We are approaching the day’s fi nal stop-off.
“So this is where New Zealand won the war, right?” Don, from across the Tasman, has enjoyed taunting his Kiwi co-tourists since Istanbul.
“You said it, mate.”
It’s a hollow rejoinder. Any notion that New Zealand troops won much more at Chunuk Bair than a place in the storybooks is swiftly dispelled. Strolling from the bus, we pass through a copse of pines and behold not one but two proud monuments.
A stone pylon stands in honour of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force, for near this spot, on August 8–9th, 1915, the NZIB acquitted itself with exemplary grit and determination. A simple legend exerts an almost umbilical pull: “From the uttermost ends of the earth.”
Cast in uncompromising black on a pedestal just metres away—a graphic reminder of just who did win this bit of the war—the irrepressible, pith-helmeted figure of Mustafa Kemal presides. Stone panels tell of his glorious deeds, and how the watch over his heart took a piece of shrapnel, saving his life and, by extension, the Dardanelles and the brave new republic over which Kemal subsequently came to rule.
The glorious deeds of Colonel Malone, by comparison, are little celebrated either here or at home. His name takes its place in the cemetery roll of honour a stone’s throw from the summit, but the rest you have to find out for yourself.
At 56 years old, the English-born Taranaki lawyer-farmer showed no sign of being wearied by age. He drove his men hard, driven himself by a fierce interest in their welfare. He would not see them thrown away. “The art of warfare is the cultivation of domestic virtues,” he once wrote, a truth demonstrated by his draconian overhaul of Quinn’s Post. Yet his commonsense opinions were frequently at odds with the views of his superiors, which, coupled with his blunt manner, gave him a reputation for being difficult to deal with. The high standards he achieved were his best counter to criticism, but his central role in a battle eventually won by the Turks made him all too convenient a scapegoat when it came time to apportion blame.
While the New Zealanders continued to vacillate so achingly close to their goal, the Turkish command, belatedly concerned about the undefended Sari Bair, began rushing troops up the slopes. It wasn’t until late morning that Johnston made any serious move towards the summit of Chunuk Bair, by which time the enemy was waiting. Under peremptory orders from General Sir Alexander Godley, British commander of the NZ & A Division, Johnston instructed the Auckland Infantry Battalion to advance. However, intent on making up for his earlier hesitancy, he sent it into action before proper machine-gun cover could be organised. So soon was the folly of The Nek repeated. Advancing 100 metres along Rhododendron Ridge from a knoll known as the Apex to another called the Pinnacle, the battalion lost some 300 dead or wounded. The survivors huddled grimly at either end of this latest killing field, corpses and wounded strewn in between.
If Johnston had had his way, the shocking scene would have been promptly re-enacted, for he ordered the Wellington Battalion to follow up without delay. Malone refused point blank. “But they’ll go over at night time,” he vowed, “and they’ll take that hill.”
Godley agreed to await nightfall before making any further attempt on the summit. Until then, the men sheltered as best they could, unrelenting rifle and machine-gun fire taking a steady toll.
The attack was to begin at 4.15 A.M., this time with machine-guns covering. The Wellingtons would lead, with the 7th Gloucesters hot on their heels and the 8th Welch Pioneers and the Otagos following up. The Auckland Mounteds and the Maori Contingent would be held in reserve.
A concentrated barrage from the warships and Anzac batteries blasted the top of Chunuk Bair as the assaulting column flowed up Rhododendron Ridge. As the bombardment lifted, the Wellingtons charged the remaining distance and the few Turks who hadn’t already withdrawn fled down the far slope. After almost four months’ travail, the first day’s objective had been taken with hardly a shot fired. To the east, the Narrows gleamed in the early light of day.
Simultaneous attempts on Hill Q and beyond had met with less success, although the Gurkas on Hill Q had closed on the summit. Further attacks on both heights were eventually postponed, however, as all eyes focused on the intense conflict soon raging on Chunuk Bair.
The Wellingtons had occupied a trench on the crest line no more than waist deep. Malone ordered new trenches dug on the forward and reverse slopes, with saps between, but Turkish artillery and machine-guns on Hill Q and Battleship Hill began pulverising the summit of Chunuk Bair and the route back to the Apex, and the work had to be abandoned.
The Gloucesters’ leading companies made it safely onto the Wellingtons’ left, but their rear columns, and the Welch behind them, were cut to ribbons. A few Welch joined the right of the line, but for the time being further reinforcement was impossible.
The Anzac artillery and the New Zealand machine-guns on and around the Apex roared their furious response. But the terrain afforded the Turks, now hurrying every available man towards Chunuk Bair, sufficient cover to mass on both flanks, rifles blazing.
The pressure was too much for the Gloucesters, who broke and ran for the support line on the reverse slope. The Wellingtons hung on amid the dust and smoke, their numbers dwindling, before they, too, began falling back. As the crest-line trench was overrun, most of those remaining were bayoneted or clubbed to death.
Some few remnants of the Gloucesters and Welch among them, the Wellingtons took up the defence of the reverse slope. By means of repeated counter-attacks on the crest, now swarming with Turkish infantry, they held on to two lines of shallow trenches. It was a heroic stand. Time and again, under withering fire and the unpitying glare of the sun, Malone’s men rose from the crumbling earthworks, ever more choked with dead and dying, to repulse the Turkish soldiers and hurl back the bombs falling at their feet. Growing numbers of wounded, without hope of succour in the stifling heat, sought shelter in a nearby gully.
Reinforcements sent forward from the Apex could barely move through the lethal rain. The Maori Contingent was driven down the northern slopes, while the Auckland Mounteds took all day to reach the Wellingtons’ right. From there, as one of their number subsequently recorded, “I saw the bravest man I ever saw, Colonel Malone who was doing the jobs from Lance Corporal to Brigadier General.”
Alas, not for much longer. A shell, most likely from a New Zealand howitzer within Anzac, burst above Malone’s trench, and he collapsed into his adjutant’s arms. By the time the bombardment had been called off, Malone was dead—a misfortune omitted from the official histories.
With darkness the fighting abated, allowing the Otagos and Wellington Mounteds to move up in support of their shattered comrades. Charles Bean, the official Australian historian attached to the ANZAC, recorded the pitiful sight that awaited them:
The Gloucesters and Welch were in a similarly parlous state. Yet the Turks, too, had suffered heavy losses, and panic and confusion were rife among officers and men alike. Kemal’s iron resolve was called upon as never before to hold his forces together.
On the morning of the 9th, the white-knuckle grip on “the throat of the Turkish empire”—as Brigade Major Arthur Temperley described it—was to be widened and strengthened. The Otagos and Wellington Mounteds would retake the crest before exploiting towards Battleship Hill, while four relatively fresh battalions of British infantry, led by Brigadier General Baldwin, would advance through the New Zealand position on Chunuk Bair and add their weight to a renewed push on Hill Q by the Gurkhas, still sheltering below its summit.
It was now that Johnston ignored Godley’s instructions a second time, not to mention the urgent advice of his own staff officers. Rather than directing the British column towards its target along Rhododendron Ridge—the route all other troops had taken before it he sent it, at the dead of night, into the maze of dead-end ravines down in the deres. From here it was to approach Chunuk Bair via a small plateau about 900 metres short of the summit known as the Farm. Unsurprisingly, the column became lost. At daybreak it was still toiling in a long, ragged line way below the heights.
The show had to go on regardless. Another tremendous bombardment prepared the way, but when this ceased, the Turks poured such heavy fire on the New Zealanders that the latter were hard pressed even to hold their positions, never mind attack.
The Gurkhas, meanwhile, led by Major Allanson, rushed the saddle between Chunuk Bair and Hill Q. “[F]or about ten minutes,” recorded Allanson, “we fought hand to hand, we bit and fisted, and used rifles and pistols as clubs; blood was flying about like spray from a hair-wash bottle.”
Broken, their opponents bolted down the far slope. The Gurkhas followed in hot pursuit—until a volley of shells, probably from an Anzac battery that mistook all the running figures for Turks, exploded among them, scattering body parts in every direction. The survivors hurriedly withdrew back up the hill and dropped into their trenches of the night before, there to wait in vain for support.
No material gains had been made and none was in the offing. The battle raged on, a repeat of the previous day’s butchery. Come evening, the Otagos and Wellington Mounteds, slashed to a fraction of their former numbers, still held the trenches, but by now the New Zealand infantry was spent. New Army units—the 6th Loyal North Lancashires and 5th Wiltshires—took over. Exhausted and inexperienced, these did little during the hours of darkness to improve the positions they inherited.
Kemal, meanwhile, was gathering every last man for yet another mass attack. He was determined to storm over the crest of Chunuk Bair and sweep the invader clear. Given the bitter lessons learnt by both sides concerning the likely fate of a daylight frontal attack, it was a gamble akin to madness. Yet Kemal had decided that waiting would be worse.
In front of his troops, at 4.30 A.M. on the 10th, he raised his riding crop and gave the signal. In a dense mass, the Turkish soldiers surged over the skyline toward the bewildered defenders. Within moments, at the point of the bayonet, they had overwhelmed the trenches on Chunuk Bair and the Pinnacle. Those British troops not despatched on the spot scattered in panic.
The machine-guns at the Apex opened up in the nick of time, and shells screamed in from the warships. The fleeing were fired upon to turn them around, and whatever units were to hand were thrown onto the Apex. The flood down Rhododendron Ridge was stemmed, but on the slopes above the Farm the torrent was unstoppable. Shoulder to shoulder, the rampant Turks fell upon Baldwin’s men. Allanson’s Gurkhas, meanwhile, now dangerously isolated and highly vulnerable, were ordered to retire.
Chunuk Bair was firmly in enemy hands, never to be relinquished. Mission accomplished, its energy expended, the Turkish onslaught petered out and the fighting gradually subsided. The two sides, like a pair of punch-drunk boxers, slumped where they had at last fallen, unable to trade another blow.
While ANZAC had been convulsed by four days of pitched battle, the British offensive at Suvla had been gripped by inertia. Corps commander General Stopford proved a master of procrastination. The unseasoned New Army recruits languished in confusion under the sun awaiting orders. Without drinking water, they were soon mad with thirst. Moves forward were belated and hesitant.
Von Sanders, meanwhile, deployed the few men he had available—some 1500 against ten times that number—and summoned reserves from all quarters of the compass. Snipers picked away at the British where they remained glued to the beaches.
When the opposing armies finally engaged on the morning of the 9th, the British were routed. Intense machine-gun fire ignited the dry scrub, and many wounded were incinerated.
Two days later, at a cost of 8000 casualties, the British were back in positions much the same as those they had occupied on landing. As at Anzac and Helles, the Turks held the high ground—and with it the key to ultimate victory.
Fighting continued for another two weeks, but even with further massive reinforcements, British efforts were terminally infected by what official historian Captain Aspinall-Oglander called the “miasma of defeat” that now seemed to hang above the plain. All realistic hope of success evaporated, and the accusations began to fly.
Stopford was the first to be relieved of his command. Others followed, most notably Hamilton. Within days of his arrival at the end of October, Hamilton’s replacement, General Sir Charles Monro, recommended withdrawal. The political implications were immense. Lord Kitchener, who, as Secretary of State for War, had presided over the drama from the start, visited Gallipoli in November to see for himself how things stood. A few days later he opted for evacuation. Churchill, never an advocate of a land offensive but a champion of the beleaguered armies once they were committed, departed from office to serve in France.
Even so, atrocious weather and last-ditch arguments by those keen to fight on dragged out the campaign’s death throes into December. Flash floods gushed through the trenches, carrying before them corpses, mules, debris and those who failed to leap clear. A blizzard followed, inflicting widespread frostbite and exposure. Some lost limbs to the surgeon’s saw; others froze to death.
But the elements relented and the evacuation of Suvla–Anzac received the final go-ahead. It was all that the landings hadn’t been— “a hitherto unattained masterpiece”, in the words of one German military commentator. Not a man was left behind nor a single life lost.
Eighty thousand soldiers, several thousand vehicles and animals, almost 200 big guns and vast quantities of stores—all were spirited from under the enemy’s nose over successive nights. Those who remained kept tents standing and maintained a steady rate of fire to fool the Turks into thinking it was business as usual. Ingeniously devised self-triggering rifles and mines detonated at The Nek covered the backs of the last to depart. By 4.00 A.M. on December 20, Anzac was deserted. Before dawn Suvla, too, had been cleared. Two weeks later Helles was abandoned in similar fashion.
Each side at Gallipoli had thrown almost half a million men into battle. Turkish losses were only loosely recorded, but at least 87,000 were killed out of a casualty toll three or four times that number. Total Allied casualties were in the region of a quarter of a million, of whom roughly a fifth were killed in action or died of wounds or disease. Of the 8556 New Zealanders who served, 7473 became casualties, 2515 dying in action and 206 from wounds, disease and other causes: 2721 deaths in all.
Horrific as these figures are, worse was to come. On just the first day of the Somme offensive the following year, British and Dominion troops would suffer almost 60,000 casualties, a third of them fatal. But at Gallipoli the Anzacs were bloodily deflowered. It was a shocking coming-of-age.
We wend our way down from the hills and return to the ferry at Eçeabat. That evening, Çannakale is in no mood to sleep. Fireworks burst in the night sky; street vendors shout their wares.
We snatch a couple of hours’ sleep in our bunks, then fall in for the Anzac Day crush. Services are to take place at memorials all over the peninsula. Flower-sellers dispense armfuls of carnations to lay as tributes.
The traditional dawn service is held at a purpose-built commemorative site at North Beach, just beyond Ari Burnu. By the time the Last Post dies away over the silent congregation, the sky has flushed lilac and yellow behind the silhouette of First Ridge. Flags hang limp in the breathless air; the sea observes a dead calm.
Later, in the heat of the day, members of the New Zealand faithful round off a more intimate service on Chunuk Bair with an impromptu haka—to rapturous applause. The Australians, noisy in adulation of their war vets, have gathered at Lone Pine. The Turks have hosted an international ceremony overlooking Cape Helles. The dusty roads are clogged with traffic. The verges teem with people on foot.
Waiting for our bus to appear in the endless queue, I can’t help wondering, in a slightly deflated mood, whether there isn’t something a little offensive in all this rush to honour and remember. A kind of mild national hysteria—well meant but essentially superficial. Like flocking to midnight mass on Christmas Eve when you never set foot in a church the rest of the year.
Back in town, it’s time to crash or party. Round the corner from Anzac House, the TNT Bar’s booming. At the Boomerang Bar in Eçeabat, they’re snorting raki and chucking back tequila stuntmen.
The following morning, some of our group are a little muted behind their sunnies. We head south for a whistle-stop tour of the ruins of Troy before joining the exodus back to Istanbul. I remain in Çannakale, grateful the place is emptying out.
At last I have time to explore and linger at will. I visit the empty beaches and deserted cemeteries at Helles, and breathe the airy solitude of Achi Baba.
One day, I hike from Anzac Cove up onto First Ridge and across the plateaus to The Nek. After a detour to Quinn’s Post, where I search in vain among the brush for traces of Malone’s terraces, I trudge up the road, find a path across to Rhododendron Ridge, then descend to the Farm. From there, a steep climb brings me out on the top of Chunuk Bair. “Bloody rough country for infantry,” Billy Williams of the Canterbury Battalion was once heard to complain. Dripping sweat, I have to agree.
Something about Gallipoli arouses passions that subvert the effort to make a sober assessment of what happened there. Attempts both to blacken and to boost reputations, to prove either that it was all worthwhile or that it was a calamitous mistake, or to make it a tale on a par with the epics of the ancient Greeks—together, these efforts have obscured the truth. Bias, national jealousies and a pervasive sentimentality infect personal accounts, historical commentaries and popular perceptions alike.
One could be generous towards Hamilton’s army and allow this much: the battle itself was fought to a draw, in that neither side was routed or overpowered. But for Britain and her allies, nothing short of outright victory was enough. They had failed in their objectives and withdrawn, hence had been dealt a major defeat. All else is vain, if fascinating, conjecture. Had Chunuk Bair been held, would progress to the Narrows have been assured, as so easily assumed? Had Constantinople come under naval attack, would Turkey in fact have capitulated? How realistic was the notion of a Balkan front? Churchill: inspired or delusional?
The Anzac nations tend to romanticise their part in the conflict. Gallipoli, we are told, marked the emergence of a nascent national identity on both sides of the Tasman. In the crucible of war—a war of unprecedented wastefulness, fought at the behest of an imperial power and under imperial command—a rebellious sense of self was awakened in previously acquiescent colonists. No longer content as mere off-shoots of the mother country, New Zealand and Australia took their first steps down the yellow-brick road to adult independence. Buffed up here and there with a touch of Antipodean spin, the story of Gallipoli has become their post-colonial creation myth.
Engaged in the gruelling hardship of the frontline, the ordinary soldier is unlikely to have been aware of any such process. And while notions of incompetent Pommie leadership have come virtually to define Gallipoli for some, on the ground inept command enjoyed common currency.
Nevertheless, it is undeniable that Gallipoli means something to New Zealanders and Australians beyond the simple fact that their men fought and died there. That said, I’m soon through it. What I find myself dwelling on is the sheer courage of men in battle. Despite the gulf of sadness that yawns all around when I contemplate what happened here, I am awed by those—invader and defender alike—who “did their bit.” Untested in war—and hopeful I shall remain so—I can’t imagine I’d have the bottle.
New Zealanders can be proud of their Gallipoli forebears. It was a widely held opinion on the peninsula that, in their combination of Australian flair and British professionalism, they were the elite of the Dominion troops. On Chunuk Bair they set a standard against which their countrymen might measure themselves. For two days they stood unflinching in the dragon’s breath. If they did so to no useful end, how even more astonishing.
The bus is waiting. It’s time to go. I look around me one last time. A hill too far, perhaps, for the boys from the brigade—but for me, one well worth the climb.