Gallipoli was the most ancient and, to a classical scholar, the most romantic of battle-fields. More than six centuries before the birth of Christ the Greeks had colonised the peninsula and founded a city on the site of the modern town of Gallipoli and christened it Heliopolis. The Turks called it ‘Gelibolu’ and it lay on the eastern coast of the peninsula looking towards the coast of Asia across the Dardanelles – the narrow seaway that reached north towards Constantinople on the Sea of Marmara, and flowed south to meet the waters of the Aegean. Long ago the ancient city of Troy had stood guard at the mouth of the Dardanelles, controlled its seaborne trade and grown rich and powerful on the proceeds. For this was the Hellespont of history and legend.
It was across the Hellespont that Leander swam each night for a lovers’ tryst with Hero, priestess of Aphrodite, who flung herself into its waters when he drowned. The legendary Helen of Troy, heroine of Homer’s Iliad, might have looked across these straits from those fabled ‘topless towers of Ilium’. Five hundred years before the dawn of Christian history Xerxes built a bridge of three hundred boats to carry his army across the Hellespont and up the peninsula on a march that ended at Thermopylae, and a century later Alexander the Great crossed to Asia on his way to conquer an empire. The Dardanelles had witnessed the passage of scores of armies and over the centuries, and as recently as the Balkan Wars a mere twelve months before, the peninsula had been lit by the campfires of soldiers and echoed to their curses and the tramping of their feet.
Few of the modern soldiers were classical scholars, but looking out from the western shores of the peninsula to the islands floating beneath a turquoise sky on the blue Aegean Sea, they were impressed by its timeless beauty.
On the small island of Bozcaada near the toe of the peninsula, British warships were anchored in the harbour of Tenedos where, according to legend, the thousand black-prowed vessels of Agamemnon’s fleet had sheltered long millennia before. Bozcaada just ten miles to the south was easily visible to the naked eye. Away to the west Samothrace, once home of the sea-god Poseidon, was hard to pinpoint in the glaring daylight, but it could be seen on the evening horizon when the peaks of its hills were lit by the setting sun and the glorious sunsets were balm to the red-rimmed eyes of soldiers wearied by the heat and dust of an ugly day.
Now and again they caught a fleeting glimpse of Lemnos in the distance, and this was familiar ground, for it was there in Mudros harbour that the soldiers left the troopships that brought them from Egypt and boarded destroyers for the last leg of the voyage to Gallipoli. No one had troubled to tell them that Lemnos, like Imbros, was immortalised by Homer in the Iliad and when a soldier recognised the faint outlines of these islands on the horizon, if he thought anything at all it was merely to hope he would soon have a closer view on the first leg of the voyage home.
Even the minority who had enjoyed a classical education found that Hellenic travel, even at the Government’s expense, soon palled and during a brief rest period in a miserable fly-ridden dug-out Captain Clement Attlee amused himself by putting the general feeling into verse.
Many a time I’ve longed these ways to go,
To wander where each little rugged isle
Lifts from the blue Aegean’s sparkling smile
Its golden rocks or peaks of silent snow,
The land of magic tales of long ago,
Ulysses’ wanderings and Circe’s wile,
Achilles and his armour, Helen’s smile,
Dear-won delight that set tall Troy aglow.
Happy the traveller whose eye may range
O’er Lemnos, Samothrace and Helles’ strait,
Who smells the sweet thyme-scented breezes. Nay,
How willingly all these I would exchange
To see the buses throng by Mile End Gate
And smell the fried fish shops down Limehouse way.*
Not a single man at Gallipoli would have disagreed, although most would have put it in robust and less elegant terms. By mid-June they had all had more than enough of it. The Gallipoli adventure was not going according to plan and it had gone wrong from the beginning.
The unsuccessful attempt by the Royal Navy to force the straits in March had put the Turks on their guard, and the long lapse of time before the landings gave them ample time to take precautions, to send a strong force to the peninsula and to build and strengthen its defences. They had no doubt that they would be needed, and needed soon, for the plan to invade Gallipoli was the worst-kept secret of the war.
While Sir Ian Hamilton and his staff were still in Egypt letters were arriving from the War Office by the regular mail openly addressed to ‘The Constantinople Expeditionary Force’ to the horror and fury of its Commander-in-Chief who, before leaving London, had specifically requested that it should be known as ‘The Mediterranean Expeditionary Force’. Well before the end of March Egyptian newspapers were not merely reporting the arrival of troopships, but were making no bones about the fact that the troops were bound for the Dardanelles. The Army had money to spend and officers of the advance guard were buying up mules and donkeys by the score and scouring the bazaars for milk-cans, canisters, and any other containers that could possibly be used to carry water. In Port Said they were even purchasing vessels by the dozen – the flat-bottomed lighters that sailed out to unload big ships and bring their cargoes to the shore, and the lowly hoppers that worked alongside dredgers and carried away the silt or gravel. No matter how old or slow or decrepit the boats were, so long as they were reasonably seaworthy the Army was willing to pay a good price. Their owners drove excellent bargains and the word spread. It did not require a high degree of inquisitiveness to guess that something big was underway, nor a high degree of intelligence to guess what it was.
The Greek government was not yet fully committed to the cause of the allies but it was common knowledge that Greece had been glad to allow them to use the islands of Imbros, Lemnos and Bozcaada as forward bases in the interest of wresting Constantinople from the hands of their old enemies the Turks. Destroyers and battleships were concentrating in the harbour of Tenedos on Bozcaada and at Mudros on the island of Lemnos. The lighters and hoppers that would take the troops from the ships through shallow water to the shore were towed across the Mediterranean to cluster in swarms round the island of Lemnos. Hospital ships steamed into position. The preparations could not possibly be concealed, and with small boats scudding between the islands on their everyday business of fishing and trading there was very little that did not reach the ears and even the eyes of the Turks. Looking out to sea from vantage points on the peninsula they watched British warships diligently patrolling a few miles from the coast, guessing perhaps that Staff Officers on their decks had their eyes fixed on Gallipoli, peering through powerful binoculars and trying to form an impression of the lie of the land. It was the closest they could get to reconnoitring.
From the sea the Gallipoli Peninsula was a sight of remarkable beauty. Beyond the narrow bays and escarpments at the toe of the promontory, at Cape Helles where the Dardanelles met the Aegean Sea, a low plain rose behind the seashore village of Sedd-el-Bahr, cupped in a saucer between low cliffs, and stretched north to the inland village of Krithia. Beyond it crouched Achi Baba, a deceptively unimposing hill with a broad-breasted summit just high enough to command a view of the Aegean across its western shoulder and the narrows of the Dardanelles to the east. Further north on the western coastline, the land took on a wilder aspect. Sheer cliffs scarred with deep gullies and ravines swept down almost to the water’s edge and towered up to rugged heights of formidable grandeur. To the officers planning the campaign it was obvious that they also constituted a formidable obstacle which could not be tackled head on. They would have to be outflanked. The ideal landing place was far further north on the Gulf of Saros, near Bulair at the neck of the peninsula, where the waters of the Dardanelles began to open into the Sea of Marmara and where an isthmus of land only a few miles wide divided them from the Aegean shore. If the Army could seize the isthmus the Turks in the peninsula would be cut off and trapped, the Army would be in command of the Dardanelles, and long before Turkish reinforcements could possibly arrive from the north, the Navy would be in Constantinople and Turkey would have thrown in the towel. It was obvious. It would be equally obvious to the Turks – and it was precisely because they would be ready to meet an attack that the idea of landing at Bulair was rejected.
The plan was cleverly conceived to deceive the Turkish Army, and it envisaged more than a single landing. Streaming ashore from an armada of shallow-draught lighters and cutters, troops would be punched into the blunt southern nose of the peninsula and advance to capture Krithia village and beyond it Achi Baba. Then forces previously landed on the western beaches north of Cape Helles would link up to widen the advance as it swept across the narrow ankle of the peninsula to the straits beyond. They were under no illusion that it would be easy. All along the coast, in places where the cliffs were lower and the ground beyond was easier to cross, tell-tale streaks of newly turned earth showed that the Turks were busy digging trenches, and banks of new barbed wire shone bright when they caught the sun. After one reconnoitring voyage aboard the battleship Queen Elizabeth Sir Ian Hamilton reported in a letter to Lord Kitchener, ‘Gallipoli looks a much tougher nut to crack than it did over the map in your office.’
The only available maps of the Gallipoli Peninsula were old and rudimentary. They were also inaccurate. They gave no impression of the precipitous terrain, no hint of the deep gullies, the dried-up water-courses, the narrow razor-edged ridges, the deep chasms beyond. And they gave no idea of the thorny, impenetrable scrub that covered the ground and which looked attractively green and lush seen from a distance. It grew thick on the slopes that rose sheer from the sea above a small cove that was nameless before the landings. One day they would call it Anzac – and before long it would be as well known in Australia as the names of Sydney and Melbourne.
The men of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps who went ashore at Anzac Cove were not intended to land there at all and they were never intended to scale the heights that soared up from the beach. They should have been landed on the wide and sandy expanse of a beach, code-named X beach, a mile to the south, where easier country ran north of Achi Baba across the peninsula to the waters of the Dardanelles. But the small boats that carried the soldiers from the big ships were cockleshell-light and no one had realised that once they had cast off and were making for the shore, the undertow of the swift current would carry them well to the north. The moon had set. A faint phosphorescence gleamed on the water. Once or twice, as distant search-lights on the Asian coast routinely searched the Dardanelles, the outline of the land ahead flickered momentarily into view, but the darkness was inky black. With no light to guide them and with the treacherous current dragging at their hulls, it was almost inevitable that the leading boats of the covering force should drift to the wrong beach. And once the men of the covering force had landed and were scrambling up the heights that loomed directly ahead, once they had come to grips with the enemy and the main body had landed to reinforce them and daylight revealed the full measure of the misfortune, it was far too late to bring them back.
Captain Herbert Kenyon was one of the first men ashore. He was not an Australian, but he did belong to the staff, and as Staff Captain of the 7th Indian Mountain Artillery Brigade, he was vital to the success of the operation. These would be the first guns ashore and Kenyon’s task was to find the positions from which they could best support the troops. The Indian Mounted Brigade consisted of two batteries, the 21st and 26th.*
Capt. H. Kenyon, DSO, Royal Artillery, Att. 7th (Indian) Mountain Art. Brig.
It was a perfect night when we started out from Mudros, warm, bright moonlight, not a ripple on the water. I had my greatcoat with me, revolver, haversack, electric lamp, small cap, three days’ rations and two waterbottles full of water and tea. Almost exactly at midnight the destroyer glided off with about two hundred and fifty Australians on board, and Colonel Maclagen, commanding the covering party, with his brigade major and staff captain plus Colonel Parker, Kirby, Thorn and myself.
We sat where we could on deck – not a light – not a sound – no smoking – no talking. I guess we were all thinking too deeply to talk. We had some excellent cocoa, biscuits, cigarettes, and then had quite a good sleep. I was woken by the destroyer stopping about 3 a.m. The moon was nearly down then but I could just make out the dark mass of four battleships which looked enormous in the dark, and behind them were one or two destroyers. About 3.30 a.m. we got the order to go and the four destroyers glided between the battleships in absolute silence. I went down below, and there was a curious feeling in the air, which can only be produced when a party of friends are definitely committed to what all realised might be death in an hour.
We could not sit still and periodically one or other of us went up on deck and could just make out the land. Suddenly the telegraph rang out (which we thought must be heard in Egypt!) and then they ordered ‘full speed astern’, and I don’t think any noise has sounded so noisy before. The boats were immediately lowered and filled and there wasn’t a sound from the shore or from our boat. We were in the second lot to go. It was completely dark and silent, then suddenly there was a lot of firing from the shore.
We filled the boat quickly. Some bullets fell near us and one knocked a hole below the water-line. Then the coxswain said, ‘Shove her off and pull steady together,’ but a sailor said the boat was making water pretty fast. All the boats were provided with a pail and wooden plugs in case of emergency. The pail was at my feet, and I was jolly glad of an excuse to put my head down and look for a plug! Bullets were falling all round us then. All the plugs were too large and a sailor cut one to fit. The whole of this took I suppose one or one and a half minutes. Then we shoved off. The coxswain stood the whole time and it was magnificent the way he worked the crew. ‘Stronger – all together – keep her moving – nearly there. Now let her have it!’ And we bumped on the beach.
The row lasted about three minutes I think, and I had undone the laces of my boots in case we sank. As we grounded a man was knocked over and wounded. Just before we got there we heard a cheer ashore and we all joined in. The moment we touched, the coxswain shouted, ‘Tumble out boys and get at ‘em! We’ll get the boat back. Don’t you wait!’ And out we tumbled – literally! The men were carrying tons of kit. We grounded in about three feet of water, and as they jumped out practically every man went headlong full-length under! It made me really laugh, and the Colonel and I got out more carefully.
It was about eight or ten yards from the water’s edge to the foot of the hills and we all doubled in under the bank and then up we went after the others, shouting, yelling, cursing, tumbling down and tripping over bushes and holes. It was impossible for the men to climb in their kit so they chucked them as they scrambled up.
Even though most of the men had abandoned almost everything but their rifles, the climb would have taxed the agility of a mountain goat, and Norman Scott from Melbourne was not the only man who blessed the weeks of arduous training as much as they had cursed it – slogging with full packs across the desert under the hot Egyptian sun – and he was not the only one to boast that they were ‘so strong and so well trained that we could almost walk up a vertical wall’. It was just as well. In one way a vertical wall might have been easier. At least they would have travelled in a straight line.
Negotiating gullies, edging round sheer overhangs, hauling themselves up the steep crevices of dried-up water-courses, grasping at thorny bushes with bleeding hands, scrabbling through sandy soil that crumbled and slid beneath booted feet, it was literally every man for himself. The possibility of keeping together in sections or platoons, let alone in companies or battalions, was laughable. The wonder was that they managed to reach the top and when they did, they were scattered piecemeal across a wide and hostile landscape. It was daylight now. Looking back, down the long haul to the beach and the sea beyond it, crowded with battleships and destroyers, the men of the vanguard saw string upon string of small boats approaching in long tows to the shore and, far below, an ant-like khaki swarm as the men of the next wave ran up the beach to tackle the climb in their turn. They might also have heard a strangely incongruous sound coming faintly across the water. Now that the fighting had started and there was no need for silence the men in the tows were singing on their way to the shore. They were singing the song some patriot had composed before the war was a month old.
Rally round the banner of your country
Take the field with brother o’er the foam
On land or sea, wherever you be
Keep your eye on Germany!
But England Home and Beauty have no cause to fear
Should auld acquaintance be forgot?
No! No! No! No! No! Australia will be there
Australia will be there.
Even if they were not familiar with all the words, the Anzacs all knew the last few lines – and they seemed singularly appropriate to the occasion.
If they had stopped to think about it the soldiers who had already scaled the heights might have realised that they were facing a dilemma. In front of them was no gentle undulating country, no flatland, no recognisable objectives, no sight of the waters of the Dardanelles. All they could see were more hills, other valleys, deep precipitous slopes thick with scrub and bush. And Turkish snipers and machine-gunners, well hidden in the scrub, were determined to make sure they got no further. The Turkish guns were firing from behind their line and as yet there were no British guns to answer back.
Capt. H. Kenyon, DSO.
The Colonel and I ran with the men to the top of the first hill, and then the Colonel stopped to look round, because of course our job was to reconnoitre for positions for the battery. Eventually he sent me off in one direction whilst he went in another. I rejoined him later and we both decided there was no place for the Battery there. Then Thorn and Kirby joined us and we moved along the beach to our right. By then it was daylight and a gun from Gabe Tepe began enfilading straight down the beach. We walked in that direction keeping as far under the cliff as possible. There were a fair number of dead and wounded on the beach but no one moved the wounded. Everyone was too busy.
We then climbed a little hill or spur, called Hell Spit later, which is where one side of Shrapnel Valley ran down to the beach. We looked round there and then the Colonel sent me off to look at what seemed a possible position while he had a breather. However it was no good, and then he went off and told me to wait till he came back. There was a Turkish trench there and a little sentry dug-out, and as some shells and a good many bullets were coming along I got inside this and was practically hidden. Presently I heard someone coming along, so I looked out and at once a voice shouted ‘Who’s that!’ and pointed his bayonet at me. I didn’t take long to answer him in language which convinced him I was English! And then I realised how foolish I had been, so I left my retreat and sat down in the open. That was a narrow escape!
Presently the Colonel came back and told me which way 26th Battery was to start off when it arrived, and told me that, when I had seen them all off, I was to try and get news of 21st Battery and then bring the Brigade Staff along.
At about 8 a.m. 26th Battery began to land. I told Kirby where to take them and then helped to hurry the mules away as the beach was being badly shelled. Twenty-sixth started about 10 a.m. up the hill, but there was no news or sign of 21st disembarking, so I left word with Thorn to bring them along the same way, and then I collected the Headquarters Staff and telephone mule and started off. I got on a wrong track and found myself at an unhealthy spot marked by some undiscovered snipers in the brushwood. I put the men under cover where some of our infantry were and had a look round and presently I found the track again, so I came back and brought them along. It was a longish steep climb and the whole time bullets were singing everywhere. I was going up the edge of a nullah and the enemy’s shrapnel were fairly well pouring down it. I wasn’t one little bit happy, and all the time was wondering, ‘Shall I get as far as that bush, or that mound?’ It didn’t occur to me that I should get up the whole way!
We had to take one or two breathers where there was any cover. Starting off again was the hardest part, and I wished I didn’t have to give the order! At last we got up to the battery mules, right at the top of the nullah, which ends on a small grassy hill we later called the Razor Back.
I went to the Colonel and found him very much agitated as Bruce had been up for an hour and hadn’t yet brought the Battery into action. At 11.50 he said, ‘If the Battery isn’t in action by 12 I will take command myself.’ Just before 12 however it came into action. Almost at once a Turkish Battery which had been shelling down the nullah switched onto the Battery, and it was pretty nasty.
Even without Turkish marksmen firing from the topmost heights and machine-guns sweeping the slopes it would have been hard going and, although the men clinging to the slopes were still in shadow, as the dawn spread slowly up the sky behind the Dardanelles there were shouts of alarm behind the crackle of the bullets, and the sickening thud of tumbling bodies as a bullet found its mark and a wounded man lost some precarious foothold and crashed back down the hill.
The three guns, dragged and man-handled to a perch well up on high ground, were at least able to give the troops some local help, but it was the big guns on the battleships standing off the peninsula which were meant to fire the artillery barrage that would help the troops to get ahead. It was not their fault that they failed. Signal stations on the landing beaches were to transmit messages to the ships and bring their guns to bear on the places where they were most needed. The difficulty was that the signallers on land had no idea what was happening on the high ground behind them and it was impossible for observers at sea to make anything of the situation for themselves. Even on the clifftops it was hard to see what was happening for the troops were so split up and units so confused that there was little or no cohesive command. Even where officers had managed to keep control, or to gather together a significant number of men, the command broke down. The low, thick scrub, so useful to the enemy in their defence, was of little use to soldiers creeping through it to attack across unfamiliar ground, and the officers leading them were so often obliged to stand up to find direction that snipers were easily able to pick them off as soon as they appeared. Deprived of leadership, with no specific objectives and with no clear idea of what was expected of them, driven on by the simple knowledge that they were there to capture the peninsula and kill any Turks in their path, the men acted on their own initiative and charged ahead into a hundred private battles of their own. The men at their backs followed their lead. They plunged down sheer slopes into clefts and found no way back and no way out on the other side. They clambered into gullies and hauled themselves up slopes, breasted knolls and pressed on, sometimes in groups of as few as a dozen men, and they put the fear of death into the Turks.
Three men got further than any others. Lieutenant Loutit and two scouts actually ran three and a half miles across country to the top of a rough hill and reaching the summit, found themselves looking across the waters of the Dardanelles. They were the only soldiers to catch so much as a glimpse of them for many months to come. As they worked their way back, it was plain to see that no one else had managed to make much headway. But it was a magnificent effort and it was not the fault of the troops that it had not wholly succeeded. Later the logs of the signals exchanged between the battleships made tragic reading.
Goliath to Sapphire: ‘What is the position occupied by our troops?’
Sapphire to Goliath: ‘No news from the shore but northern limit appears to be square 176 R3…’
Goliath to Dublin: ‘Are any of our troops dressed in blue?’ Bacchante to Galeka: ‘Have we landed any cavalry?’
Amethyst to Sapphire: ‘Have you any idea how things have been going?’
Sapphire to Amethyst: ‘No news at all!’
All that the gunnery officers could see from the ships was the smoke of Turkish shells exploding along the line of the advance beyond the high escarpments. For fear of hitting their own troops scattered haphazardly behind them, they could do nothing to help them.
Capt. H. Kenyon.
Presently I started off to see what information I could get, but got held up by a big nullah so came back again. It was not a pleasant walk alone. When I got back to the Battery I found Chapman had been wounded so I went to him, helped with the bandaging, and started him off down the hill. Then the Colonel called me and said ammunition was running short, and not coming up quick enough, so I was to go down and get it along. I went down considerably quicker than I came up! I found Rossiter running the ammunition but as he did not know the situation I took it on and hustled it up as fast as it came along. I found the beach packed with wounded, and they were coming down in a steady stream. Chapman arrived when I was there looking jolly bad. All his colour had gone and he could hardly talk. I sat with him while he was being dressed by the doctor and tried to cheer him up, and then saw him carried off to the boat.
I then remembered I was hungry so sat on the beach with General Lotbiniere and some other fellows, took off my belt and revolver and electric lamp and had some lunch. In the middle of it a shell burst all among us, so we bolted back under the bank.
It looked then as if there could hardly be a whole man left in the force, and crowds of the men who came back told all sorts of tales from which one gathered matters were pretty serious.
Serious though the position was at Anzac things might have been worse still had it not been for the feint attack at Bulair the previous evening. Men of the Royal Naval Division had embarked in small boats and rowed towards the shore just before dusk while there was still enough light for the Turkish observers to spot them. After dark they had rowed back again to the big ships and later under cover of the darkness Lieutenant Freyberg had volunteered to swim from a small boat a mile off shore to light flares along the beach. It was a feat worthy of Leander himself, and it rightly won him the Victoria Cross for it did more than anything else to convince the German Commander of the Turkish forces that the main force of the invasion would strike here. Even though there was no sign of them in the morning except for the ominous sight of British battleships standing off the coast, even though there were reports of landings at six other places a good day’s march away, Liman von Sanders was so convinced that they must be feints intended to mislead him that he kept the bulk of his manpower standing by all day at Bulair. It was well after nightfall on 25 April before he realised that he had been duped and sent troops marching south to reinforce the far more thinly defended sectors of the peninsula where the landings had actually taken place. It was von Sanders’s first and only gaffe of the campaign, and it was that little bit of luck, in a day of endless setbacks, that gave the allied troops the chance to dig in and consolidate their hold on the peninsula.
But it was only a toe-hold. And the sea was at their backs.