Battle of Sari Bair
The Battle of Sari Bair is, like the landings at Suvla, going pear-shaped for the attackers; but in a completely different way. The north-marching assaulting columns have all got tangled up and lost. The men heading for Hill Q and Hill 971 are nowhere near being ready to attack. They’re utterly exhausted after the night march, and they stop as soon as they come under fire. They won’t do anything for the rest of the day. The men sent to Chunuk Bair we’ll deal with in a moment.
German Officer’s Trench
In the early morning, as the men at Suvla are trying to find Hill 10, repeated attacks are being made just north of Lone Pine. Whether out of desperation brought on by the knowledge of what awaits the men of the 3rd Light Horse at dawn at the Nek if the attacks fail, or just sheer moustachioed bloody-mindedness, German Officer’s Trench is being assaulted again, by direct order of General White. Captain Jess, a staff officer, tells the story.
[Brigadier] Forsyth informed Divisional Headquarters who I believe nearly went mad [on hearing that yesterday’s attack failed]. Anyway he was ordered to come round and reorganise the Battalion and supervise another attack personally. When he arrived I shall never forget his face. He knew as well as I did that the men were by this time unnerved, had been for about 36 hours without sleep, and that to attempt such an attack in daylight was slaughter.
However, he was ordered to do it and we had to try. We had no idea of our losses and could only withdraw right out of the trench and reorganise. The sight on the terraces in rear of Quinn’s Post would make anyone’s heart bleed to see the weary nerve-strained men moving listlessly into their places. And alongside them, the dressing place, with scores of badly wounded men, two in particular writhing about in the death throes.
German Officer’s Trench will not become Australian Officer’s Trench today. Still, there might just be hope for the Nek if the men coming across Chunuk Bair to take Baby 700 in the rear have arrived on schedule. There is, of course, no way to know for sure. They’ve had reports that the New Zealanders have been held up, but all of them are hours old. The two attacks are mutually dependent. Certainly, if there’s no attack from the rear then the Nek will be a bloody slaughter. But, if the men attack from the rear at the right time and aren’t supported across the Nek, it’ll just be the same result in reverse…
The New Zealanders are, tragically, nowhere near Baby 700. As dawn breaks at 4:30am, they haven’t got close. They haven’t even got up Chunuk Bair yet. They’re a mile away, waiting for an entire missing battalion after the near-farcial night march. The responsible officer has no way of knowing that it got so lost and tired that its colonel has taken it back to ANZAC Cove. (This is in direct opposition to their orders, which are to be ready to attack Baby 700 at 4:30am with whoever’s available, come hell or high water.) They know that there’s a known Ottoman outpost on the Pinnacle, a small rocky blob just in front of them. The traditional English-language story of this then makes the claim that, as the New Zealanders stood and waited, they had no way of knowing that for some hours, they were only opposed by a small Ottoman picket who were all sound asleep.
This idea is based on the memoirs of Colonel Kannengeisser, the German officer who supposedly arrived at the Pinnacle in just enough time to kick the blokes awake and fend off the hapless Kiwis. Edward J Erickson’s conclusion, based on Ottoman archive records, is that this is self-serving cobblers from Kannengeisser. His picture is one where both assaulting columns were spotted soon after midnight as they blundered around trying to find their way, and that the New Zealanders would probably have had a fight on their hands had they attacked when they first arrived.
In any case, what all sides agree on is that the New Zealanders finally went into action at about 7:30am, hopelessly late. Heavy fire meets them. The attack is short and completely hopeless. Without artillery support or pressure from the other side of the hill, the defenders of Baby 700 mow the Kiwis down. Had it not been midsummer, they may well not have broken a sweat.
Battle of the Nek
And so we come to the Battle of the Nek, the ANZACs’ first encounter with being expected by British officers to do what is utterly impossible. (There’ll be a few more of those.) The 3rd Australian Light Horse writes itself into the history books for all time. In terms of pure numbers, the casualties are almost comically light. Certainly compared to what the ANZACs will face at the Battle of the Somme, this is a drop in the bucket. 600 men went over the top at the Nek. There were 372 casualties; 234 dead and 138 wounded. More people die in the BEF on a quiet day on the Western Front.
But the pure numbers aren’t the point. The point is that here we have a highly optimistic plan, difficult to execute, predicated on every mutually dependent part working perfectly. The generals who ordered the men over the top at the Nek knew at the very least that their supporting attack might be delayed. And, just to put the creme de la crap on top of everything, the supporting artillery barrage is poorly timed, stopping at least five minutes before the attack. The Ottomans have all the time in the world to emerge from their shelter and prepare to meet their opponents. Sergeant Cliff Pinnock went over the top with the first wave.
They were waiting ready for us and simply gave us a solid wall of lead. I was in the first line to advance and we did not get 10 yards. Every one fell like lumps of meat. All your pals that had been with you for months and months blown and shot out of all recognition. I got mine shortly after I got over the bank and it felt like a million ton hammer falling on my shoulder. I was really awfully lucky as the bullet went in just below the shoulder blade round by my throat and came out just a tiny way from my spine low down on the back. It was simply murder.
Diversionary attacks are going in at the Chessboard, below the Nek itself, and against German Officer’s Trench once more. They all fail. Many of the survivors were wounded literally as they went up over the parapet, and owe their survival to falling back into the trench. Men who fall in No Man’s Land have only one chance of survival; lie out there until nightfall and then crawl back in. These are not good odds, especially as the Ottomans are liberally dusting No Man’s Land with grenades.
This is failure of the worst kind. And then it’s compounded. Nobody is sure where the report came from, or whether it was accurate, but the fact remains that somebody reported back to headquarters that signal flags were flying in the Ottoman first line at Baby 700. So another wave goes over the top at the Nek few minutes later, and goes right back down. A vast steaming row follows between various brass hats and red tabs, but it doesn’t finish in time to save the third wave. Trooper Charles Williams, having just seen what had happened, is now waiting for his turn.
I was in between the Sergeant and the Sergeant-Major. The Sergeant said to me, being the youngest fellow in the regiment, “Now listen to me lad, there is no hope for us, so as soon as you get over the top, lie down!” I was pushed down, I wasn’t allowed to lie down! Fortunately we got into a groove in the land and we laid there all day until night came and we crawled back into the trench.
It’s now about 5am. More arguing follows, and in the meantime a few men of the fourth wave end up going over, these armed only with picks and shovels, with predictable results. The value of examining the Nek in detail is not to remember some vast slaughter of tens of thousands of men. What it shows most clearly is an absolute bloody-minded unwillingness on the part of higher command to stop when the chances of success go from difficult to impossible. (Eventually there’s an outbreak of sanity, and further operations are called off, just before the New Zealanders finally make their own doomed charge.)
The men, incidentally, will lie where they fell for about six months more. There will be no truce. This is the popular conception of the First World War writ large. Incompetent, overly-optimistic generals, brave-but-hopeless men, massed machine-guns mowing them down for fun as soon as they go over the top.
Against this cavalcade of all-new failure and bungling, the Battle of Krithia Vineyard does pale somewhat. Here it’s no more or less than more of the same. They’ve taken a small amount of ground at vast cost. Now the Ottomans are incurring equal costs trying to take the ground back from them; but they’re so unconcerned about the position that several battalions have left to go to ANZAC Cove.
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