43. August 1915

Eight men from the Shire of Alberton died on active service at Gallipoli in August 1915, most in the period 6-8 August: Frederick Bird 559, 4 LHR, died of wounds 6 August; James Moysey 138, 8 LHR, killed in action 7 August; James Pickett 232, 8 LHR, killed in action 7 August; Patrick Sweeney 451, 8 LHR, killed in action 7 August; John Adams 31, 15 B, missing from 7 August then killed in action same date; George Tyler 2194, 7 B, missing then killed in action 8 or 9 August; Alexander John McLeod 1709, 7 B, killed in action 16 August and William Dewell 1153, 14 B, missing then killed in action 21 August. Only two of the men – Frederick Bird and Alexander McLeod – have known graves, the rest feature on the Lone Pine Memorial. Another soldier from the Shire of Alberton – David Geoffrey Willis – died of meningitis in camp in Melbourne on 26 August 1915.

The men will be covered in separate posts. This particular post looks at the 2 distinctive actions of the time – Lone Pine and the Nek – in an attempt to give some sort of context to the deaths. At the time, one hundred years ago, people in Australia needed to be reassured that the increasing sacrifice associated with the campaign in the Dardanelles was warranted. Newspaper reports continued to conceal and misrepresent the real military situation. The primary focus for the stories was the heroism and the fighting qualities of the Anzacs. The Gallipoli campaign was reported as a military adventure.

Lone(some) Pine

Despite the high level of Australian casualties – over 2,000 Australians in 4 days of hand-to-hand fighting in covered trenches – the action at Lone Pine (Lonesome Pine) was intended as yet another feint. It was designed to hold Turkish troops in place immediately prior to the major assault in the north on Chunuk Bair and Hill 971. The overall strategy in the north was to secure the high ground of Sari Bair and achieve the breakthrough that had eluded the allied troops from the very first day of the Dardanelles campaign. The action in the north was to be supported by a series of feints in the south and there was also to be a major, concurrent, British action based on Suvla Bay. The actions in the north – Suvla and Chunuk Bair – failed. In fact, the action at Suvla Bay is generally regarded as one the low points in British military history.

In Australia, the misreporting of the Gallipoli campaign continued. Heroism remained the dominant theme.The news about Lone Pine reached Australia by early September. On 4 September 1915, The Age (p. 11) published an extensive account, again by Ashmead-Bartlett – special representative of the British press at Gallipoli – which led with the heroic headlines: Gallipoli Battle.   Fight For Main Crest.   Position Taken And Lost.   Australia’s Glorious Part   Amazing Dash Shown    “Attack With Fury Of Fanatics.”

In the article Ashmead-Bartlett expressed some frustration with the failure of the main attack on Sari Bair. According to him, victory had been so close. He was setting down what was to become the conventional wisdom of how the attack had so nearly succeeded. The failure of the British action at Suvla was even written into the record, albeit discretely:

“There was bitter disappointment in relinquishing the crest [of Sari Bair] when it was almost in our grasp after so many months, but there was no alternative. The Anzac Army Corps fought like lions, and accomplished a feat of arms almost without parallel in climbing those heights, although handicapped by the failure of another army corps to make good its position on the Anfarta hills further north for the purpose of checking the enemy’s shell fire.

The article also presented the background to the specific action at Lone Pine and gave a vivid account of the savagery of the fighting:

“In order to enable the forces detailed for the main movement, which had for its ultimate object the occupation of Sari Bair, from Chanak Bair to Kojachemen [Hill 971], it was necessary to attract the enemy’s attention towards the south and force him to keep his troops in front of our lines while our main forces debouched from Anzac. This was the reason for the Australian advance on 6th August, and the desperate attack on the Lonesome Pine plateau…

“The Turks have fortified the place carefully, and it was a veritable fortress. The trenches were roofed with huge pine logs, railway sleepers and immense teak planks, and were covered with earth, making the trenches impervious to shells except from heavy howitzers.

EXTRAORDINARY STRUGGLE UNDERGROUND.

…The Australians rushed forward to the assault with the fury of fanatics, little heeding the tremendous shrapnel and the enfilading rifle fire. Great difficulty was experienced in forcing a way into the trenches. Mighty physical effort was required to remove the obstructions. …The Turks were caught in a trap. Some surrendered, but the majority chose to die fighting. There was a desperate hand to hand fight in every trench and dugout. Four lines of trenches were captured in succession, additional infantry pouring in as the advancing lines thinned. …

“The Turks massed their forces, and counter-attacked desperately for three days and nights. They frequently retook sections of the trenches, only to be again driven out. The extraordinary struggle was almost entirely underground. Both sides showed an utter disregard of life. The wounded and dead chocked the trenches almost to the top, and the survivors carried on the fight over heaps of corpses. Despite the most determined courage shown by the reinforced Turks, the Australians held their ground finally, and the Turks wearied of the struggle. The trenches are now merely battered shambles. The removal of the dead and wounded occupied days. The bodies of 1000 Turks and colonials were removed from the trenches, and hundreds more corpses lay outside.

Clearly, the fighting was brutal and both sides fought with incredible bravery. But the high losses for the Australians had to seen against the military objective of the action. Lone Pine was a feint. As Ashmead-Bartlett told his readers:

“Although the capture of the Lonesome Pine plateau was the most desperate hand to hand fight yet on the peninsula, it was merely a diversion and preliminary to the main movement northwards, which commenced the same evening under darkness.

However, as indicated, the main movement was itself a failure. Moreover, 100 years on, Prior (2009, p.171) only rates the military success of Lone Pine as ‘ambiguous’. By any standard, Lone Pine was an incredible loss of men for such qualified military outcomes. As for Gallipoli in general, Lone Pine demonstrated that the relationship between heroism and sacrifice on one hand and military success on the other was very tenuous.

The Nek

The futility of the action at the the Nek very early in the morning on 7 August was even more striking. Perhaps it was more the orchestration or performance of the famous charge that was its most distinctive feature. This is the action that was immortalised in the Peter Weir film, Gallipoli. It was essentially another diversionary action timed to support similar operations at Quinn’s Post and Pope’s Post. Critically, it depended on the success of other actions, particularly the New Zealanders’ push to Chunuk Bair. But the New Zealanders were well behind and, in fact, Prior (p. 176) argues that Birdwood ordered the doomed attack at the Nek to proceed because he wanted it as a diversion to support the New Zealanders. The military plan was in effect turned on its head at the last minute. In the event, 4 waves – 150 men in each – of the 8 and 10 Light Horse Regiments rushed to their deaths. Of the 600 men involved more than 300 were killed or wounded and the bodies lay on the battlefield for weeks after. The 8 Light Horse Regiment, the first to attack, suffered most, with 234 from its 300 strength either killed or wounded.

The war diary for the 8 Light Horse Regiment is a very concise and sobering read:

At 4.40 we led the attack on the TURKISH trenches on the NEK. The C.O. led the first line which consisted of about 9 officers and 150 other ranks and the second line of equal strength by 2nd in command. Moving into a deadly machine gun fire, the attack failed to get home.

The Commanding Officer was 33yo Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander Henry White and he was killed in the first few seconds. Bean (1941, p. 614) claimed he made 10 paces.

At least at Lone Pine some military objective had been achieved – whether it was worth the casualty level is another issue altogether – but the Nek achieved no military outcome. Against this background, the reporting of the episode in Australia posed a significant challenge. Not surprisingly, the tactic was to talk up the heroism and sacrifice.

The story was reported some 6 weeks after it occurred, appearing in The Age (p. 6) on 30 September 1915, although the date for the copy was earlier – Gaba Tepe, 16th August.  The headlines proclaimed: A Victorian Charge.   Light Horse Storm Trenches   Terrific Hail of Bullets Faced.   Imperishable Glory Won.  It was sourced:  [From the Special representative of “The Age”]

The article featured a description of the Nek itself and gave a picture of the task facing the men:

The nek [sic] is 150 yards wide, and the space between our and the enemy’s trenches is 80 yards. In some places it is less. On the right hand is a sheer drop over the cliffs into the valleys, now captured by us. Out towards the left flank, on the left of the position, is the head of Monash Gully. The plateau is crossed and re-crossed by enemy works. The nek is on the left, and on the right is the famous Pope’s Post. Between Pope’s and our next trenches is a ravine, and then comes Quinn’s Post. Opposite these points the Turkish trenches are sometimes only a few yards distant – they are scarcely ever more than 80 yards apart.

The work before the Light Horse was to charge over the enemy parapets, up a slight incline, against row after row of gradually rising trenches.

The heroic style of writing is intended to put the reader there at the Nek, to make them part of the action. The obstacles are insurmountable. This is a glorious but doomed attack.  Then came the charge:

The Victorians [8 LHR] on the sound of a whistle scrambled over the parapets into the face of a fearful fire. I cannot describe the volume and intensity of the waves of lead that swept across the tops of the parapets. The Turks had never before disclosed the positions of many of their machine guns, but now ten or more were sending a rain of bullets thudding against the parapets or skimming over the top.

Against this “hell fire” the Light Horse leaped out, led by their officers. Lieutenant-Colonel White, a more gallant leader than whom never faced fire, insisted on leading his squadron, and he had gone but a few yards when he was riddled with bullets. Still our men went on, only to be shot down, crippled or killed outright. The second and third lines had come out at intervals of a few minutes…

… The parapets were covered with the wounded and dying. Stretcher bearers rescued men where they could, dragging them down into the trenches, while over the parapets went other men, doomed like their brave comrades. Many only reached the parapet.

Bean (1941, p. 622) summed up the challenge facing the Light Horse at the Nek: On no other occasion during the war did Australians have to face fire approaching in volume that which concentrated on The Nek.

In case the reader questioned why the pointless killing was allowed to continue for so long, the article already had an answer. It was the claim that some men had made it to the Turkish trenches and therefore they had to be supported. In his Official History, Bean (p. 615) also featured the report of the pre-arranged small red and yellow flag that people claimed to have seen in the enemy trenches. Bean stated that reports had it there for 10 minutes before it was torn down. He surmised that it was almost certain that a few men from the first wave managed to get into the first Turkish trench on the extreme right. Flags or not, it was clear to those directly involved at the Nek that morning, that the military objective was not attainable. Several attempts were made to call the action off. Presumably, after the carnage, people sought to rationalise what had happened.

The Age described the flag incident and employed it to exonerate the military commanders:

A handful of men from the second line reached the first line of the Turkish trenches… They flung themselves into those trenches somehow but there is scarcely a soul alive to tell the tale. According to a prearranged signal, the Turks having been driven back along the communication trenches, our men raised a red and yellow flag about a foot square. Ten minutes had scarcely gone by when this, as wonderful a feat as any in the campaign, was accomplished. Each minute had rendered the position more desperate; each minute ten, twenty or thirty men had gone down, yet the general had no option, when those heroic men of the Eighth reached and captured the first trench, but to send support. And so the third line went forth to death and glory.

The article does not acknowledge it but, In the confusion, a large number of the fourth wave also charged. The second 2 waves of the attack were made up of men from 10 Light Horse regiment.

More than anything else, the article focussed on the heroism of the men involved. And, of course, there was strong provenance for doomed but heroic attacks like this. The image of the resolute British soldier, following his officers’ orders to certain death was a staple in British and Imperial culture at the time, and the The Age exploited it forcefully:

There is a parallel between this charge and the famous charge at Balaclava. The Light Horse knew that to leave their trenches was to charge into valley after valley of death. They never questioned those orders, but went at the word of command, and their deed stands on that same glorious pedestal. “Was there a man dismayed?” I venture to think that after one engagement, with the knowledge of all that trench warfare meant, the troops never presented a braver front. “Theirs not to reason why; theirs but to do – and die.” Words never conveyed a fuller meaning than did these for the men who left the trenches at 4.30 a.m. on 7th August.

We might want to dismiss this style of newspaper reporting as mawkish claptrap and an unconscionable cover-up for gross incompetence on the part of military commanders, both British and Australian, but the historical reality is that such sentiments would have comforted many families at the time. This was a picture of the Empire at its greatest. Moreover, stripping out all the jingoism, there is no doubting the bravery shown by the men who did literally run to their deaths.

This particular report on the charge at the Nek is arguably one of the lowest pieces of military propaganda ever published in WW1. The last paragraph reads more like a sermon than a piece of reporting. It exploits the heroism shown by the men to insist that no one should ask any hard questions about what had happened; and its claims about the overall success of the charge at the Nek and the wider great flanking movement are grossly inaccurate:

The Glory of the Dead
In this way in a brief few minutes did a regiment perish, but it left behind an imperishable name. Yet the regiment did no more than its duty, but the men did it against fearful odds, in the face of certain death, because their leaders led them. No one may ask if the price was not too great. The main object had been achieved. The Turks were held not only here, but right along the line – tied to their trenches, crowded together, waiting to be bayoneted where they stood, as they had been at Lone Pine. Above all, the way had been kept clear for the great flanking movement, which the New Zealand and Australian infantry, British, Indian and Maories [sic] carried out, ending with the linking of hands with the new army flung ashore at Suvla bay. Victorians, and indeed all Australians, will “honor the charge they made – honor the Light Brigade.”

Even before Lone Pine and the Nek there was an established pattern of newspaper reporting that minimised military failure and extolled the fighting quality and bravery of the AIF. Lone Pine and the Nek took the practice to new levels. However, the extent of the military failure, and the shocking level of casualties meant that the seemingly unchecked pursuit of sacrifice and heroism would eventually be questioned. For those in Australia reading the mainstream press the doubts began to appear not very long after the disasters of early August. Ashmead-Bartlett was one the most important Imperial war correspondent at the time – certainly he was the most popular one in Australia, where he was famous for his depiction of the heroic AIF – yet in the Argus (p. 9) on 18 October 1915 he questioned the worth of the entire Gallipoli campaign. Under headlines including, Blunders At Gallipoli.   Ashmead Bartlett’s Warning  and  Some Plain Speaking, he was quoted as questioning whether the appalling slaughter at Gallipoli had been worth it. It was a nuanced report but the gist was that while Australian soldiers had made a name for themselves for their fighting qualities, the overall campaign had been a litany of military blunders. The enormous sacrifice had achieved no significant military outcomes.

References

The Age

Argus

Prior, R  2009, Gallipoli: The End of the Myth, University of New South Wales Press, Sydney

Bean, CEW 1941, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918, Volume II – The Story of ANZAC from 4 May, 1915, to the evacuation of the Gallipoli Peninsula, Chapter XXI – The Feints of August 7th., 11th Edition 1941

War Diary of 8 Light Horse Regiment, August 1915

 

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