In honour of the day, we bring you a detailed account of ‘The Landing of the Australians and New Zealanders at Gallipoli Peninsula in the Great Crusade’, extracted from the Great War by H.M.Wilson, part 45, page 337, and donated to our Historic Documents Archive. It was part of a collection outlining the career of Pt. Gordon James Alford, 1073, 10th Battalion Australian Imperial Force, who died at Gallipoli on Friday 7th May 1915. It’s long, but one of the most detailed accounts of the landing we’ve ever seen, so well worth a read. For those who want to find out more about the campaign, we also have a scrapbook of original newspaper cuttings following Private Alford’s progress, plus ‘The Gallipoli Diary of Sergeant W.J. Cawthorn of Melbourne Victoria, Aug 28th 1915-Dec 15 1915’, as well as lots of other accounts and related documents. For now, though, it’s over to H.M. Wilson:
For three days the huge fleet of transports and warships in Mudros Bay waited for the period of calm, settled weather that was needed to make a landing. General Sir Ian Hamilton followed Sir Ralph Ambercromby’s example, and while the fleet waited at Mudros Bay every soldier was taken from the transports and trained at embarking and disembarking from warships and transports to the shore and from the shore to the ships.
By general consent the Australian and New Zealand troops were the finest body of men ever sent forth by any country to the field of battle. The average height of some of the battalions was close on six feet, and every man looked like a trained athlete. Many of the privates had better positions in civil life than their officers. This led to an intensely democratic spirit in the Australasian Army, with excellent discipline, however, and a keenness for battle which was quite extraordinary. The attack on the Suez Canal had been a disappointment to the men of the Southern Cross. They were eager for as tough a job as the regular British Army had undertaken at the Aisne, at Ypres, and at Neuve Chapelle. In the Dardanelles they obtained what they wanted. For in the new Plevna the stubborn courage and magnificent endurance of the Turks and the powerful armament and super organising skills of the German staff gave our Second Expeditionary Force, consisting of about a hundred and fifty thousand men, one of the most arduous and terrible combats in the annals of warfare.
To speak quite plainly, we were faced in the Dardanelles with a task that verged on the impossible. Half a million men at least were needed to carry it through. Even with half a million men it would have been a hard, long and costly operation. The Turks and Germans had good reason to suppose that they could drive every landing party back into the sea, as in the first weeks of the battle they announced they had done. Only men of British stock, exalted to a height of heroism surpassing that of their forefathers, could have accomplished what our Second Expeditionary Force achieved. For they accomplished the seemingly impossible.
The beaches were very few in numbers, the rampart of steep cliff being practically continuous, especially on the side where the Australasians proposed to land. Above the cliffs were hostile positions on the inland hills commanding every line of approach. The demonstration against Sulva Bay was similarly intended to move Turkish (troops) away from Gaba Tepe. It was successful in achieving this end, and it prepared the way for the splendidly audacious feat of the Australian troops.
On Friday morning, April 23rd, the stormy weather subsided, and at five o’clock in the afternoon the first transport steamed out of Mudros Bay, followed by other huge liners, all their decks yellow with khaki battalions. The bands of the fleet played them out, and the crews of the warships cheered them on to victory. The last salutation from the fleet was answered by deafening cheers from the soldiers on the troopships. Then the Australasian division of liners, with its assistant battleships, steamed towards Gallipoli, which was made about one o’clock a.m. on Sunday April 25th. It was a beautiful, calm night, with the sea lit by a brilliant crescent moon; the soldiers rested in preparation for their tremendous exertion, and were afterwards served with a last hot meal. At twenty minutes past one the boats were lowered, and the troops fell in on deck and embarked in the boats, in complete silence and with great rapidity, without a hitch or accident of any kind.
The steam pinnacles towed the boats towards the shore, the great battleships also steaming towards the land. By ten minutes past four the three battleships arrived two hundred and fifty yards from the coast, which was just discernible in the starry darkness, the moon having sunk. The boats, which had just been towed behind the great warships, now went ahead, in snake lines of twelve, each boat being crowded with troops so the gunwhale was almost flooded with the water. The operation was timed so as to allow the boats to reach the beach in darkness before daybreak. Every eye was fixed on the grim sombre sweep of cliff and hill just in front, which was so dark and silent.
But at ten minutes to five, as the landing boats approached the beach, an alarm light flashed on the hill for ten minutes. It was followed by a burst of fire from the beach, where the Turks were entrenched. Soon a British cheer rang out as the dawn broke in a haze on this historical Sabbath morn. When the Australians were about two hundred yards from the shore the enemy opened a hellish fire with rifles and machine guns. In grim silence they rowed with all their might till they reached the five foot water mark. Then the troops leaped into the sea and waded to the beach, and forming up roughly they charged at the line of flame marking the first Turkish trench. The men of the landing party had been warned not to fill their magazine rifles until daybreak. Therefore these Australians only used their bayonets. In about a minute they took the trench on the beach, capturing a machine gun and killing or dispersing all the defenders.
Facing the small victorious force was a steep perpendicular cliff, covered with thick undergrowth and about half way up it was a second trench, from which the enemy directed a terrible fire on the beach and boats. Three boat loads of men were wiped out before they could land, and the troops of the first landing party dropped in large numbers from bullets poured at them from all three sides. The Australians flung down their packs and climbed up the cliff, lifting themselves from foothold to foothold by clutching at the shrubs. In less than a quarter of an hour the Turks holding the cliff trenches were killed by the bayonet or put to flight. The Australians cut through the wire entanglements just before the sky whitened at daybreak. After they had stormed the cliff their situation was the best throughout the Expeditionary Force; Turkish sharpshooters directed a deadly fusillade upon every target. Some boats, having broken away from their tows, drifted down the coast under fire. One came near the shore with only two unwounded Australians in it. The two men jumped into the water and dashed furiously into the light.
It is said that some of the sailors were unable to resist the temptation to join in the fight. Taking rifles from the wounded troops they left their boats and fought with the soldiers. One party of seven sailors attacked a band of two hundred and fifty Turks. The Colonials were delighted with the helpers and induced them to stay with them. That is why so many small boats were abandoned on the Gallipoli coast. The admiration felt by the seamen for the soldiers was high and intense. The two Services were soldered together by that manly love of comrades which is the supreme source of the fighting spirit of heroic peoples. There were times when our men melted like women and moped above their dead, kissed them and then went out in white, Berserker like fury to fall in their turn upon the foe. Heroism is contagious. It was an epidemic of heroism that kept our men going at Gallipoli as it had kept them going at Ypres. The Australians were quite a new type of Britons. They were made of fire and granite – volcanic lava – and the fight they put up was a thing of epic quality.
The speed, violence and drive of the first attack were unparalleled in British warfare. The ground they worked over was a confused triangle of cliffs, ravines, bluffs, dales and long slopes, stretching across the Peninsula on a point above the Narrows. The surface was either bare, crumbly yellow stone, or a dense undergrowth of shrub about six feet in height. It was thus that Turkish snipers were able to work a few yards in front of our line without being spotted. No movement on a large scale could be regularly organised, for as soon as the men moved forward in open order they were lost to the view of their officers in the thick scrub. It was the most remarkable of all soldiers’ battles, for the winning qualities were the initiative and resource of the leading men of each section, clambering over cliffs, working their way up and down ridges, much of the work being done even without directions from the corporals.
By the time the sun had risen the Australians had gained the first ridge of Sari Bair, and by a quarter past nine the first landing battle was won; for the covering force of Australians (3rd Brigade) held such a firm footing on the crest that the disembarkation of the remainder of the force proceeded without interruption, save for the shrapnel shells. The position of the various battalions was, however, very difficult. The ground was so broken and scrubby that it was hard to find a good entrenching line. When the troops thought that they had cleared a space they were still subjected to a continual and punishing fire from snipers.
Then as the light became good the German gunners on the heights brought their artillery into action. There were first two guns at Gaba Tepe which enfiladed the landing beach with shrapnel. One of our cruisers moved in close to the shore and battered the rocks with high explosive shell so that the enemy guns were silenced. In the meantime the Australians on the crest, smitten on both flanks and worried all along the line, began to move out in search of their foes. They worked northward and eastward in a series of fierce bayonet charges. Then, encouraged by their success they went ahead in a burst of charges down the ravines and up the ridges. The Turks and Germans played every possible trick. They had machine guns in the scrub, the men working the guns having their hands and faces stained green, with boughs and bushes tied about them. There were dug-outs everywhere, each with its sniper, a German or Macedonian marksman, with several days’ food, and ammunition up to two thousand rounds. Some of them would fire til the Australians were five yards off and then ask for quarter. Naturally they did not get it.
Others tried the stretcher game on the raw recruits from overseas. A stretcher party dressed in a uniform of khaki came to a trench crying “Make way for the stretcher!” However, the Australians had been doing a good deal of newspaper reading in Egypt and something made them suspicious. They opened fire, killing a German and a dozen Turks, and found in one stretcher a machine gun and in the others three boxes of ammunition. When the Australians in turn found an enemy trench they did not make the trouble to capture it by ruse. One of the first works on the heights was stormed by a man famous for his reach and great strength. He jumped into the trench and lifted the Turks out of it with his bayonet, driving the steel through their bodies, and then flinging them over his shoulder in a movement that released the blade for the next stroke. He killed five men in this way, but could do no more, because his comrades had finished the other Ottomans.
This bayonet work went on all morning, the Australians still advancing by the fury and rapidity of their onset. Their leading troops worked down the Khelia Valley, and by one of the most tremendous and stupendous efforts in history they seemed to have crossed the third ridge and got within a few hundred yard of Maidos, the key to the Narrows. In front of them, across the water, was Nagara Point. Had it been possible to make this attack in force and bring up guns and entrench on the ground won in the extraordinarily impetuous charge, the road to Constantinople would practically have been conquered in a few hours.
But the vehement covering force of Australians had gained more land than it could hold. There were only about two or three thousand troops, without food or guns, and lacking even in Maxims. Most of their work had been done with the bayonet, and in the afternoon the German commander brought his main force against them and almost outflanked them. But at the critical moment the New Zealanders came to the help of the Australians, and after retiring from the third ridge back to their early position on the first ridge, the gallant Colonial troops dug themselves in. Then the Indian troops disembarked, and after the second rush of the Australasians, the combined and strengthened force of Australians, New Zealanders and Indians again advanced to the third ridge, after repulsing some furious counter attacks by the Turks.
As twilight fell the enemy brought up more reinforcements, and his counter attacks were supported by a heavy bombardment of our position from hostile batteries which our naval guns could not reach. So dangerous did the pressure on our lines become that General Birdwood drew the troops back to the first ridge during the night, and his staff devoted all their energies to strengthening the position and getting some field guns ashore to deal with the enemy’s artillery. The Australians had suffered heavily in their first retreat from the point near Maidos. Nearly a half of the force was put out of action, and by a dreadful misfortune the wounded men of their leading companies fell into the hands of the Turks and were brutally tortured and mutilated before being put to death.
In the fighting on Sunday the Colonial contingents probably lost more men than did the enemy through the covering force advancing across the Peninsula without waiting for their supports. Whatever the losses of the Australians were, they and the New Zealanders and Indians had their full revenge when they held the ridge and prevented the Turks from driving them into the sea; for the Turks attacked in dense formations all during Sunday night and Monday morning. Our troops met them in the British way – reserved their fire, and then emptied their magazines at point blank range into the advancing masses. A single Australian platoon, supported by Marines, was charged by half a battalion of Turks. They waited until the Turks were ten yards away, gave them the mad minute of rapid rifle fire, and then leaped forward in turn and smote the remaining upright figures with hand-grenades. No Ottoman who took part in that charge escaped. All along the front on Sunday night the conflict continued with an intensity like that of Le Cateau and Ypres, for Liman Von Sanders had a similar advantage in artillery power, and he used the Turks in shoulder-to-shoulder lines, advancing in human billows against the British front.
When Monday morning dawned the landing battle at Sari Bair was won in spite of the fact that another Turkish army corps was moving up on the north east for the grand assault which was to drive our men into the sea. The German artillerymen had brought all their guns into play and had moved up more batteries for the final bombardment. During the whole of Sunday night the hostile gunners maintained a rain of shrapnel over the landing beach, with a view to hindering our disembarking operations and disabling our troops when they were impotent to defend themselves. Our battleships had tried to support the troops by a heavy fire from their secondary armaments, but as the enemy’s gun positions at this time were not known, our ships could not do much to keep down the enemy’s fire.
But on Monday morning the positions were reversed. The Turks could clearly be seen in large numbers moving along the heights, and the position of their supporting batteries could be spotted by their flames. Moreover, every time they had fired in the darkness of Sunday night naval fire-control officers in the fighting tops of our battleships had been plotting the flashes and comparing notes and measurements. The Queen Elizabeth and seven other warships steamed up to take part in the grand battle. The seven older ships moved close inshore, each of their chief gunnery lieutenants having a marked map of this section of the enemy’s territory. “Lizzie” stood further out to sea, so as to get the howitzer effect with her guns by pitching the shells as high as possible into the dales, where our airmen reported the enemy were gathering for shelter preparatory to the advance.
Then, as the Turkish infantry moved forward to the attack, they were punished for all that they had done to the Australian wounded. Every kind of shell carried by our warships was thrown at them, from the 15 inch shell of the Queen Elizabeth to the little shell of the 12 pounders. The thunder and concussion made by the entire armament of the great naval squadron were beyond description. The hills on which the Turks were collecting were transformed into smoking volcanoes, the common shell forming craters hung with black smoke, while the 15 inch and 12 inch shrapnel burst in white canopies over the exploded rocks and uprooted bushes. An enemy warship tried to reply across the Peninsula, but the Triumph nearly struck her with two 10 inch shells, and she retired to a safer distance, from which she was able to do no damage.
Our ships were soon hidden from the troops they were protecting by vast rolling clouds of cordite. But the day was so clear that all the coast line was visible, and a similar cloud of cordite could be seen southward of Cape Tekeh, where another division of British battleships was canopying the hill of Achibaba with another continuous burst of shrapnel fumes. Nearer at hand a battleship and a cruiser, close inshore at Gaba Tepe, were covering the low ground with their secondary armament and dropping shells into the Straights on the other side. Then beyond the battleships the great liners, in which the troops had been transported, lay out to sea to avoid the Turkish guns.
On land we still kept the enemy back by rifle and machine gun fire. For two hours the Turks pressed a terrible attack, while our naval guns inflicted heavy losses on them and our infantry smote them down in heaps before our trenches. But in spite of all the scientific instruments of slaughter employed on both sides, the great landing battle ended in a primitive way. It could be seen that the Turks were becoming demoralised by the overwhelming fire of our guns. The German officers found it difficult to bring them up to the attack, and packed them closer than ever in order to keep control over them. General Birdwood at last let them advance through our shrapnel zone, gave a general order for rapid fire, and then after the magazine rifles and machine guns had done their work, there was the flash of steel along the trenches. The Australian troops leaped out with the bayonet and charged the staggered, reeling Turks, who broke and fled before these dashing Colonials. They were bayonetted in the back as far as the shrapnel zone. But here our troops fell back, and, in answer to a wireless message, the battleships all turned their guns on the fugitive enemy and pounded them with shrapnel.
On Monday afternoon our position at Sari Bair was secure. The trenches were deepened, and although the Turks were still in overwhelming numbers in comparison with the troops we had put ashore they were much too demoralised to attempt another attack in full force that day. Snipers continued to harass our lines on Monday night. Some of our field guns were landed, with several Indian mounted batteries, and our entrenchments were firmly established on a wide front, covering the whole of the foreshore on which disembarking operations were still proceeding.
Like General Von Kluck at Maubeuge, who announced to his General Staff that he had got the British Army in a ring of iron, General Von Sanders had been so confident of the success of his plan that he had proclaimed in advance that he had driven our Second Expeditionary Force into the sea. This news was published in Constantinople in the same way Von Kluck’s anticipation of an event that never happened was wirelessed to the world from Berlin. The German General at Gallipoli had expected to find at Sari Bair a line thinly held by Australasian troops exhausted by their enormous losses and labours of the previous day of landing. His aim was to force this thin line into the sea by a great concentration of infantry and an unceasing bombardment by shrapnel shells. But, as of old, thin lines held by men of British stock were not easy to break. The Australians and New Zealanders had from the first been determined to a man to die rather than give up the ground they had won at such heavy cost on Sunday, for they knew it would have been impossible to re-embark the army if the ring of hills commanding the beach had been lost.
Most of the men were volunteers who had only had a few months’ training, and had come under fire for the first time in circumstances calculated to try the nerve of veteran troops. The sixteen thousand Australian infantrymen had suffered enormous losses on Sunday, and should have been, therefore, capable of being demoralised by an attack in overwhelming numbers. But the Australians were not made that way. All they wanted to do was to avenge their dead. No man cared what happened to himself, except that he regretted when he was wounded, and so prevented from killing more Turks. Not since the French Revolution had new recruits fought with such combined impetuosity, stead-fastness, and long-sustained fury as the Australians and New Zealanders displayed when their foes gave them the opportunity of exacting full revenge. For every mutilated, tortured Australian soldier left in the bush in the retreat from the Narrows a hundred Turks died the next day.
On Tuesday morning, April 27th, a fresh Turkish division was brought up to Sari Bair and launched against our trenches after a heavy bombardment by German batteries, but the result was the same as on Monday. The Turks came time after time, and were shot down in multitudes, and by three o’clock in the afternoon all the spirit of the twelve thousand fresh hostile infantrymen was broken. The Australians again advanced with the bayonet and won more ground, enabling them to strengthen their defences. Nothing could budge the Colonial troops, and by all working like frenzied navvies, building roads, making concrete works, dragging guns up the cliffs, constructing bomb proof shelters, and turning their stretch of foreshore into an invisible town, they fortified their position between Sari Bair and Gaba Tepe so that they were able to reduce the garrison and send a considerable force to help the British troops at Seddul Bahr, at the end of the Peninsula.