Chapter 25

image

Three weeks and one day after the rail crash that wiped out half the battalion, the two remaining companies of the 7th Royal Scots landed on the shores of Gallipoli. For some of them, and particularly for the Commanding Officer, the voyage to the Mediterranean had hardly been a rest cure. The signal section had been wiped out at Gretna, so Captain Wightman, no expert himself, took on the job of training a new one, and the men who volunteered to replace the dead signallers had spent long hours training, swotting up morse code, practising semaphore on deck, and attempting to master the art of flashing by signal lamp. They were still far from expert, but they would have to do. The machine-gunners had gone too and Alex Elliott, co-opted as machine-gun officer in place of Lieutenant Christian Salveson who died in the Gretna crash, had spent every waking hour training new machine-gunners as best he could in the confines of a ship at sea and, he fervently hoped, keeping one step ahead of them, poring over instruction manuals through night after wakeful night, doing his utmost to prepare for the day when his cursory knowledge would be put to the test.

In the early hours of 13 June they came ashore at V beach at Cape Helles. It was Sunday morning, and it was five weeks and all but a few hours since the 29th Division had landed at the same spot on the first day of the Gallipoli campaign. The trawlers that brought the Royal Scots to the shore tied up alongside the River Clyde, a beat-up old collier grounded near the beach to act as a pier that would carry the troops across the deep water to dry land. At the landings five weeks ago the River Clyde had been a vital part of the plan, for the main thrust of the attack was to be launched at Cape Helles at the toe of the peninsula from the beaches that were code-named V, W and X, and it was vital that the largest possible number of troops should be landed in the shortest possible time. As at Anzac the spearhead of the covering force would be carried in strings of open boats, ships’ cutters or lifeboats, towed by trawlers or steam-driven hoppers to the shore, where the tows would turn about to return to the waiting transports to fetch the second wave.Each tow could carry perhaps three hundred men – but not nearly enough to ensure success in the first vital hour of the assault, and it was at V beach that the situation would be critical.

V beach at the foot of a natural amphitheatre of gently sloping land looked deceptively innocent – a narrow strip of sand, perhaps three hundred yards long with low cliffs on the left, and a ruined fort above the village of Sedd-el-Bahr on the right, on the headland where the peninsula turned back towards the mouth of the Dardanelles. It was here that the River Clyde was to play a part not unlike the part played by the legendary wooden horse at the siege of Troy in Agamemnon’s war. The shabby old tub, sailing in towing a hopper and with three lighters in her wake, carried two thousand soldiers who were to storm the beach in the first vital stage of the attack. The plan was to ground the River Clyde close to the beach, the hopper moving ahead of her to act as floating bridge. As soon as it was in position beneath the prow the men would pour out through wide sally-ports newly cut in her sides, along broad gang-planks to a platform beneath her bows, on to the hopper and off again, splashing through shallow water to dry land to secure the beach and open the road to Krithia. The final objective for that first day’s fighting was Achi Baba. The Staff were by no means unduly optimistic in supposing that the doughty regular soldiers of the 29th Division would easily reach it.

Because of the strong currents that dragged at the sea where the Aegean met the Dardanelles, the Royal Navy was fearful that the tows might lose direction and could only guarantee to land them safely by daylight. It was a perfect spring morning. As the flotilla set off for the shore just after six o’clock the peninsula still seemed to be slumbering under a pale cloudless sky. Lieutenant-Colonel Williams, of the General Headquarters Staff, had his eyes fixed on the quiet coastline ahead and he could hardly believe their good fortune. There was no sign of life. As the first Staff Officer ashore it was part of his job to make a record of events as they happened. Standing on the bridge of the River Clyde with a grandstand view of the tows as they bobbed towards the bay, he made hasty minute-by-minute jottings in his notebook.

6.10 a.m. Within 1/2 mile of the shore. We are far ahead of the tows. No O.C. troops on board. It must cause a mix-up if we, 2nd line, arrive before the 1st line. With difficulty I get Unwin (Captain of the River Clyde) to swerve off and await the tows.

6.22 a.m. Ran smoothly ashore without a tremor. No opposition. We shall land unopposed.

But the Turks were holding their fire and in their trenches well hidden

by folds in the rising ground they too were blessing their luck. They had stayed cool under the thundering of the thirty-minute bombardment by the battleships standing off on the horizon. It had not touched their trenches. It had not touched the barriers of wire that ran behind the beach. They had suffered no casualties, and they could ill have spared them for there were only two companies to defend the beach. Their defences were rudimentary, but they had machine-guns commanding the beach from the high ground and cunningly placed to fire in enfilade from the old fort. Even so, it took nerve to wait, to watch the River Clyde steaming towards the shore and the armada of small boats drawing ever nearer. They waited until they were within yards of the beach. And then the machine-guns opened up. At that distance, with such a target, they could hardly miss. It was sickening carnage.

From the bridge of the grounded River Clyde Colonel Williams watched appalled, and his hand shook as he scrawled:

6.25 a.m. Tows within a few yards of shore. Hell burst loose on them. One boat drifting to north, all killed. Others almost equally helpless. Our hopper gone away.

The men on board the River Clyde were standing at the open sally-ports ready to double up the gangways, but the hopper that should have run forward beneath the bows of the collier to form the floating bridge had swung broadside and was wallowing helpless in the water frothing in a lash of bullets streaming from the machine-gun in the fort. The lighters on the starboard side of the River Clyde were higher and less manoeuvrable than the tiny hopper and they had only been brought in as a failsafe to help to bridge the gap if the collier chanced to ground too far from the shallow water for the smaller vessel to do the job. In the hail of bullets, and with little time to spare, it was not easy to inch two lighters into position in front of the big ship’s bow, to connect them precariously with gang-planks, and even when this had been managed they still yawed and wavered treacherously in the current. It was the Captain himself, Commander Unwin, who dived into the sea to steer them towards the shore and drag them into position. An able seaman dived in after him to help and there the two men stood, up to their waists in water, pulling on a rope to hold the lighters steady so that the troops could disembark. Bullets from two machine-guns mounted on the bows of the River Clyde sprayed over their heads.* Apart from the rifles carried by the infantry they were the only weapons there were to answer the lethal fire and the rifles, in the circumstances, were useless. Not many soldiers survived to fire them.

Few of them even reached the shore. They were shot down almost to a man as they ran down the gang-ways. In minutes the lighters were piled deep with dead and dying men and the water turned red with the blood of the wounded staggering off the gangways to sink and drown beneath the weight of their equipment. The handful of men who reached the beach dashed to the shelter of a low sandy bank and watched in horror as line after line of their comrades were struck down and the tows of open boats bobbed aimless and adrift on the water.

Somehow, despite his own horror, Colonel Williams managed to carry on recording the calamity.

6.35 a.m. Connection with shore very bad. Only single file possible and not one man in ten gets across. Lighters blocked with dead and wounded. Maxims in bows firing full blast, but nothing to be seen excepting a Maxim firing through a hole in the fort and a pom-pom near the sky-line on our left front.

9.0 a.m. Very little directed fire against us on the ship, but fire immediately concentrates on any attempt to land. The Turks’ fire discipline is really wonderful. Fear we’ll not land today.

When almost a thousand men had been lost attempting to disembark from the River Clyde, realising that no more could be done until nightfall they called a halt. It was nine o’clock in the morning and, as the sun climbed higher, conditions in the dark hold of the ship where nine hundred more men were waiting were already uncomfortably hot and cramped. For the moment they had been reprieved, but settling down restlessly in the stuffy gloom, lit only by a few hanging lamps hastily rigged up, they could hear the muffled sound of firing from the land, the spatter of machine-guns from the deck above, the thud of big guns firing from the Asiatic shore and the crump of shells exploding on the beach. They could only guess what was happening.

Waiting on the deck of a small transport that had seen civilian service as a cross-channel steamer, Brigadier-General Napier waited impatiently for the return of the tows that would take him and the second wave of his 88th Brigade to the shore. They were a long time coming and some of them never arrived at all for, like the soldiers in the open boats, many of the sailors manning them had been killed within yards of dry land. The tow that did eventually arrive had landed some of its men but the boats were crowded with dead and wounded. It was several minutes before they were unloaded and the General with his Staff and the second wave of soldiers were able to clamber down to take their places. They sat down gingerly, for the seats were still wet and slippery with blood but in his frustration at the delay, assuming with some irritation that his tow had been used to transport all the casualties, Napier made no inquiry. It was not the sailors’ job to decide that a landing was hopeless or to volunteer any such opinion to a Senior Army Officer. Their job was to convey the Army to the shore and whatever their trepidation they did not intend to shirk it. Stoically, trailing the little boats behind them, they headed back to the beach and back into the maelstrom.

On board the collier the Commanding Officer of the 2nd Hampshires had just seen one of his own companies wiped out in a vain attempt to land and watched incredulously as Napier’s tow neared the open beach. Snatching up a megaphone he called to it to come alongside and the naval officer in charge obediently changed course. But General Napier was on his mettle. From his position in the leading boat, just a foot or so above the surface of the water, he could see that the lighters were full of men and he poised himself to spring on board and lead them ashore. But the men were all dead. Carington-Smith bellowed from the River Clyde,’ You can’t possibly land!’ But Napier yelled back, ‘I’ll have a damned good try!’ And then the machine-guns started up. General Napier and his staff reached the hopper, but they could get no further. Soon their own bodies were lying dead among the rest.*

When night fell many hours later, although the Turks continued to fire haphazardly, the troops in the River Clyde were at last able to land and with only a small number of casualties. Under cover of darkness a makeshift jetty was flung out to link the ship to the shore. It was built from the piled-up packs of dead men. Even by morning the water lapping the beach was still red with blood. Exactly two months earlier, on 26 February, after the bombardment of the fort at Sedd-el-Bahr, while the Royal Navy was engaged in its attempt to secure the Dardanelles, a party of Royal Marines had landed on this very beach and reconnoitred it unchallenged and at their leisure.

V beach and some ground beyond it had long ago been secured, but the beaches were still in full view from the high ground and HMS Carron which brought the 7th Royal Scots from Lemnos prudently cruised just over the horizon until after dark. The tows of open boats were a thing of the past now, but in the dark and in a choppy sea it was not entirely easy to transfer the men and their brigade stores to the three trawlers that were to take them across the last few sea-miles to land on the peninsula. In the early hours of the morning the Royal Scots filed off the trawlers, up the gangways of the River Clyde alongside and on to the platform beneath her bows. Now it was linked to the beach by a proper jetty but, even so, it was hard work to man-handle the stores ashore and it was daylight before fatigue parties had finished stacking them on the beach.

Compared to the bloody Sunday morning of 25 April, V beach was peaceful. The village of Sedd-el-Bahr was reduced to ruins, but the belts of wire had been cleared away. The rising ground was criss-crossed with new tracks, with freshly dug trenches, and there were sandbagged bivouacs burrowed into the slopes and dumps of supplies in the shelter of the cliffs and the old fort. During the night a procession of ration parties and pack-mules had come and gone laden with food and water and ammunition for the men in the line. A Red Cross flag flew above a cluster of tents and shelters near the beach and, not far from the dressing station, a crop of white crosses marked the graves of the soldiers who had died of their wounds.

They were just a few of the casualties. In the five weeks since the landings, the small Gallipoli force had spent most of its strength. Two pushes towards Krithia had advanced them a mile or so up the peninsula but Krithia itself was still in Turkish hands, Achi Baba remained inviolable and the losses, by comparison with the strength of the force, had been staggering. For every hundred yards gained a thousand men were lost. Not all of them were killed or wounded in battle. Many were falling sick with dysentery. Conditions were worsening and although it was still early summer the heat was already trying and the men were plagued by flies that swarmed and thrived by the million in trenches and dug-outs, and preyed on the bodies of the dead lying unburied between the lines. The spring flowers that carpeted the peninsula in April had withered away and so had the sweet-scented blooms on the thorny scrub that was now so brittle and tinder-dry that it could be snapped off and used as firewood. The burst of a shell, even the scorch of a flying bullet, could set it alight. Everywhere the ground was arid and the nullahs and trenches were thick with dust that rose in clouds at every step, inflamed every eye, filled every nostril and rasped mercilessly at the back of every throat parched for lack of water. Later, as the summer drew on, it would be worse. Even now it was no picnic.

Sgt. H. Keighley, 29th Div., Royal Artillery.

The food was bully beef and biscuits with apple jam and cheese, and you had dried vegetables which had to be soaked overnight in the dixie to boil next day. It were like eating rubber! The potatoes were the same. The food was almost nil. If we did get any bread, which later on we did perhaps once a month, we got just one loaf between eight men for a day’s ration. We’d no fresh water. The water that we drank was brought by boat to W beach and water-carts collected it and brought it up so far. We were on the west side of Y ravine and it was a very high cliff. You had to climb a winding path to the top and we had to carry dixies full of water from water-carts up to this gun position.

I was put on as latrine orderly and we had to dig a trench for the latrine and you had to stand astride to do your business, and then you had to cover it with soil because the flies were, oh, dreadful! The latrine was like a hole in the ground. I had to cover it with a ground sheet pegged above the hole and at night if I struck a match to light a candle in the dark the ground sheet was just black with big flies, and when you were eating jam or biscuits you had to knock flies off to get them to your mouth. Most of us got dysentery. That was the biggest scourge we had on Gallipoli, dysentery and ill-health from lack of fresh water and lack of proper food. I got dysentery very badly. I hadn’t the strength to go up and down the cliff, across the ravine and up the hill to get to the Medical Officer (he was on the other side) and in the end I lost two or three stones. I was dreadful! I practically had to sleep alongside the latrines, my tummy had so much trouble.

I used to go with an officer on observation post duty. We hadn’t trenches, we only had parapets built up with sandbags, and we were going up one day to the front line to do OP duty and he stopped to talk to somebody. We stopped about two minutes and that saved us from being blown to bits, because the Turks blew a mine just at the top of the ravine and when we got up there, there were infantrymen laying dead and badly wounded all over the place. A proper mess – and we should have been there if the officer hadn’t stopped. He was a ranker officer, and he seemed to sense that I was fed up with not being one of the gun crew and being sent on mucky jobs all the time, and he used to take me up to the OP when it was his turn to go. I loved it for all it was dangerous, because No Man’s Land was very short and you daren’t put your head above the sandbagged parapet, but to me it was what I joined up for – and that was to see action.

With constant grappling between the lines there was plenty of action, but there was little progress and after the costly battles for Krithia the fighting had settled down to trench warfare. The troops were weak and debilitated, ammunition was scarce, and with no real prospect of advancing until more reinforcements arrived there was no alternative but to mark time, knowing that when the chance did come it would be harder than ever to break through. It was plain to see that the Turks were using the respite to dig more trenchsystems, to bring in more troops and to strengthen the defences. Since the guns were strictly forbidden to fire more than two rounds a day unless the Turks attacked, there was precious little that could be done to impede them.

The French contingent, on the other hand, was well-off for ammunition and fresh stocks of high explosive shell were arriving regularly from France. The French had played a vital role. On 25 April their diversionary landing on the Asiatic shore had helped to confuse the Turks and appreciably assisted the landings on the peninsula. Now they had taken over the sector running north of Morto Bay where the toe of the peninsula turned into the Dardanelles and in a series of costly attacks between 21 and 25 June they had advanced their line and gained high ground which would give the allies a head start when the time came to push ahead towards the vital objectives of Krithia and Achi Baba. But there was still a huge stumbling block on the Aegean shore. It was Gully Ravine. And before there could be any thought of going further the situation there had to be resolved.

Like all the soldiers of the 156th Infantry Brigade the Royal Scots were soft after weeks of inactivity on the journey. A few days after their arrival they were pushed into the reserve line to acclimatise, to become accustomed to shell-fire, to tone up flabby muscles and get back into shape. They dug communication trenches until they were sick of it and they were only too happy when the time came to march into action. They marched by a tortuous route over rough country to the high ground above Y beach.

Behind the trenches steep cliffs led down to the beach. Inland, less than half a mile away, was Gully Ravine, a deep declivity two miles long, many metres wide and, in places, as much as a hundred feet deep. The British trenches bisected it half-way up its length and just above Y beach and to the north a network of enemy trenches formed a redoubt on the clifftops, spanned Gully Ravine and stretched away on the inland side as far as Krithia. Staring across at the bristling new defences it was difficult to believe that the landing at Y beach had been unopposed and that Colonel Matthews, commanding the Y beach force, had walked with his ADC to the outskirts of Krithia only a mile away. He had not been asked to capture it alone, though his troops might have easily done so. His orders had been to wait for the troops advancing from V beach and, when they reached him, to join in on the left of their advance and thus widen the front of the attack. Lacking any other orders, in the absence of any news, and with no message of any kind reaching him from higher authority, he dutifully went on waiting while his troops kicked their heels on the clifftops enjoying the pleasant spring sunshine and admiring the view. The Turks had ample time to muster and march to Y beach to oppose them. Much later Matthews was criticised for failing to act with initiative, but his orders had been explicit, and it had apparently occurred to no one to suggest how he should act if the troops at V beach failed to make headway.

Directly across the peninsula at the northern tip of Morto Bay it had been the same story. The South Wales Borderers landed unmolested at S beach and they were waiting too. There were no Turkish troops within miles, and on 25 April the British troops at S beach and Y beach outnumbered by several times the entire Turkish force – only five battalions – in the sector south of Achi Baba. The two British contingents were just five miles apart on either side of the peninsula. They might easily have advanced and spread out to join hands across it, walked into Krithia and pushed on to Achi Baba. By cutting off the few Turkish troops who were so gallantly resisting at the beaches at Cape Helles they might very well have altered the course of the campaign.

The day after the landing, when V beach was finally secured and the village of Sedd-el-Bahr was stormed and captured, a copy of a desperate message fell into British hands. It had been hastily scribbled by a junior Turkish officer and it reeked of panic:

My Captain, either you must send up reinforcements and drive the enemy into the sea or let us evacuate this place because it is absolutely certain that they will land more troops tonight. Send doctors to carry off my wounded. Alas, alas my Captain, for God’s sake send me reinforcements because hundreds of soldiers are landing. Hurry up. What on earth will happen my Captain.

But there were no reinforcements within reach to be sent. The following day, dazed and weakened by casualties, the remnants of the eight Turkish companies at V beach streamed away up the hill. There was no pursuit, for the landing force was too exhausted to do much more than consolidate hard-won positions and steel themselves to meet the counter-attacks they believed would surely be launched. But there were no counter-attacks at V beach or anywhere else, for the south of the peninsula was being evacuated. The night after the landings, under cover of darkness, the weary Turkish soldiers who had fought so hard to thwart the landing pulled back several miles to meet reinforcements from the north and, with Achi Baba behind them, they started digging a line of strong defences in front of Krithia.

Recently they had been considerably strengthened and, by late June, a succession of strongly defended redoubts and trenches ran across the spur of land that dominated the beaches on the seaward side of Gully Ravine and across the ground on its inland side barring the road to Krithia. Unless they could be pushed off the cliffs, unless Gully Ravine could be captured, there was little hope of making progress towards Achi Baba, and no hope at all of linking up with the Anzacs, still battling it out on the heights above Anzac Cove. No one was under any illusion that the task would be easy.

A less formidable series of unconnected trench-lines on the Krithia side of Gully Ravine might have presented a lesser problem had it not been for two difficulties. After the battles for Krithia men were scarce and guns and ammunition were scarcer still, and it was evident that the highest proportion of such resources as they had must be concentrated in the vital sector on Gully Spur where the 29th Division were detailed to make the assault. No other troops could easily be spared to attack inland on their right, and if the assault of the 29th Division was widened, if they were thinned out to attack across both sectors on either side of the ravine, it was doubtful if they could possibly succeed.

Sir Ian Hamilton was not anxious to commit the raw Territorials of 156th Brigade, but there was no one else and he was reluctantly forced to attach them to the 29th Division at the urgent request of its Commander. They would attack on the right of Gully Ravine. ‘If necessary’, a brigade of the 29th Division would support them. But, looking over General de Lisle’s dispositions for the battle, the Corps commander was worried. He was particularly unhappy with the arrangements for artillery support, for almost all the guns and ammunition were to be directed on the 29th Division sector. Only four batteries could be spared to assist the Royal Scots and their comrades in their first experience of battle. They could only hope for the best – but the Corps Commander was not alone in fearing the worst.

A third of all the ammunition on the peninsula was allotted to the seventy-seven guns available for the bombardment and the guns of the big ships were to join in. It started at nine o’clock in the morning of 28 June and although most of it was concentrated on the far side of Gully Ravine the noise was thunderous. Huddled at the foot of the Royal Scots’ trench young Willie Begbie had never heard anything like it. When it lifted at eleven o’clock the infantry would go over the top, and he was not looking forward to it. They were all nervous.

2nd Lt. D. Lyell, 7th Bn., Royal Scots (TF), 156 Brig.

I was standing with my eye on my watch, and just on eleven o’clock I was about to give the word to advance when from the right I saw a movement, so I shouted ‘Come on,’ and over the parapet the whole company went like one man. We had about a hundred yards to go to the first trench to take that, and then about two hundred and fifty yards to the next one. As soon as we started the Turkish artillery opened on us – a perfect rain of shrapnel, and some machine-guns turned on us from somewhere. The chief thing I remember about the charge was the awful noise. The first trench took some taking. I know I loosed off all six chambers of my revolver! Then the Turks bolted and then we went to the second trench, still under this awful fire. The Turks didn’t wait for us there at all. They all flew!

Pte. W. Begbie.

On the signal to charge I caught hold of a root and started to pull myself up, but near the top the root came away in my hand and I fell back into the trench. Before the charge order came when I was lying in the bottom of the trench with the noise of the shells bursting and the machine-guns and rifles firing, the only place I did not want to go was over the parapet, but when I fell back the only place I didn’t want to be in was the trench when the rest of the company were shouting and charging over the top. I ran up the trench till I came to a firing step about two feet from the bottom of the trench so it was easier to climb over the parapet. When I got to my feet I remembered our instructions, so I kept yelling, rifle at the ready, and ran like hell into the enemy trench. Before I reached it I could see some Turks retreating to their next lines.

In later years I have to smile when I think of that, a boy of sixteen, making a three-hundred-yard charge, all on his own! A little way to the west, on the seaward side of Gully Ravine where the 87th Brigade of the 29th Division dashed across at zero, there were five lines of well-fortified trenches to capture. Here where the bombardment was heaviest the results were everything they had hoped for. The trenches in places were devastated, there had been many casualties, and when the guns lifted and the 87th Brigade went ahead, the unfortunate Turks were too stupefied to make much of a stand. But the Turkish guns were firing back furiously now, and waiting in the reserve trenches with the Royal Munsters, although Captain Robert Laidlaw had been careful to warn his platoon to keep their heads well down, he set them a bad example. It was impossible to resist the foolhardy temptation to stand up to watch the show as the 87th Brigade dashed across to the first trench. He was still gazing fascinated when they reached the second and then, sweeping all before them, raced on to the third. He could hardly blame his men for doing the same thing. They were cheering like supporters at a football match. It was quite a sight.

Capt. R. F. E. Laidlaw, 1st Bn., Royal Munster Fusiliers, 86th Brig., 29th Div.

At 11.30 a.m. our passive role of reserves was finished and we were ordered forward to the lines of trenches already taken by the 87th Brigade. Our whole brigade went across the open in long lines of companies, each battalion in depth, one company following the one ahead as soon as it had gained the enemy trench. By this time the Turkish guns had our range to an inch and men were falling all round as we dashed across to the trenches. As we got into the third trench I lost my platoon and, unthinkingly, ran along the parapet amongst bullets and shells, looking for it. The men in the trench, who were mostly of the 87th Brigade, shouted at me ‘Get down you fool’ and, realising my stupidity, I jumped down and continued my search in the trench itself. What with Turkish dead and British dead and wounded, as well as the men on the firestep, it was pretty full, but I soon found my platoon, which had only had a few casualties.

On the opposite side of Gully Ravine the Territorials were having a more difficult time. Their own sparse bombardment had had little effect on the enemy’s trenches for the few guns had not been allocated a single round of high explosive shell and shrapnel shells were a poor substitute. Although the Turks had abandoned their front line in the first rush, they were fighting back hard and their own guns were pouring fire on the ground between their trenches as the infantry tried to get across. It was their first experience of intense shell-fire and, in their first taste of battle, it was a gruelling ordeal. Only three subalterns and some eighty men of the 7th Royal Scots reached the second trench unwounded. On their right, the 8th Scottish Rifles had fared even worse, for they had been caught in a deadly rain of machine-gun fire. In a matter of minutes twenty-five of their twenty-six officers and four hundred of their men had been knocked out.

Pte. W. Begbie.

From the time we left our trench the enemy bombarded us with everything they had. After a short halt while the supporting waves closed up, we began to advance on the final objective. By this time the Turks had recovered from their panic and they delivered such terrific fire that our company fell in bundles. Halfway across Major Sandeman dropped and Captain Dawson and Lieutenant Thomson were killed as they neared their goal. By now men were falling on my left and right. I then felt as if a horse had kicked my right thigh. I fell and when I got up I had no feeling in my leg, so I fell again. When I felt where the pain was, I saw my hand was covered with blood. When I started to move I heard bullets striking the ground. I lay still. I didn’t feel very much pain, but the sun high in the sky threw down intense heat on the sand which was crawling with insects of every shape and size. The worst thing was the craving for water – mouths were so parched by heat and sand that tongues swelled.

There was not a breath of wind. The heat was fierce and now, in the middle of the day, as the sun burned relentlessly in a cloudless sky and the troops sweated and panted with the heat of the action, it was almost insupportable. In some parts of the battlefield the ground itself took fire. The brittle bushes caught light, flames travelling from one to another crept across the earth, and men, too badly wounded to drag themselves away, panicked and screamed and died.

By mid-afternoon the 29th Division had captured all the Turkish trenches to the west of Gully Ravine, and they were holding on – but only just. The first waves had lost so many, they were so thinly spread that, although they were toiling to consolidate as fast as weary men could in the terrible heat, the most critical hours of the battle were yet to come. The unremitting bombardment gave notice that the Turks had by no means given up. Even now they must be regrouping and, even now, reinforcements must be hurrying to their support. In a matter of hours they would counter-attack, and the attack would inevitably fall at the furthest point the British had reached. The trenches of the final objective were code-named J13 and there the tiny garrison of survivors was too meagre to withstand a determined onslaught. The J13 trenches ran across the cliff-top less than three-quarters of a mile from the starting point, but four rows of captured trenches lay across the rough ground between, and the Turkish guns were assiduously shelling. It would take hours for reinforcements to travel that short distance, and speed was of the essence. They were obliged to look for a short-cut.

Lt. R. F. E. Laidlaw.

We were to get out of the trench, cross Gully Ravine just ahead of us at a run, and then make our way by a path on to the cliffs where we were to turn right along a cliff path and then go on until we received further directions from Colonel Geddes the Commanding Officer. We rushed over the open, down into, then out of a very shallow gully ravine, and found ourselves on a narrow path half-way up the cliff, running along the coast above the beach. Reed’s platoon was winding its way ahead in single file and another platoon followed us close behind. The path was only wide enough to pass one man at a time. It wound its way along the cliffs, going down into ravines and up over humps, I could see the long line of men ahead and behind me and, out at sea and apparently only half a mile from the shore, a large warship moving slowly along the coast firing as she went. Round and round her chased four destroyers, each one firing as her guns were brought to bear on a target a mile or two ahead of us.

Suddenly, as Reed’s platoon was negotiating a ravine just in front of me, a salvo of shells burst in the ravine. I saw Reed, tumbling over and over, go down the face of the bluff and then get caught in some bushes and lie still, while most of his men appeared to be hit. The call for stretcher-bearers went up and just then, another salvo of shells came over and exploded, so I halted my platoon on the edge of the ravine and told the men to lie down. The stretcher-bearers, who had miraculously appeared from nowhere, went by carrying Reed and the other casualties of his platoon, and Reed mustered a smile for me as he passed, though one of the bearers told me that his leg had been blown off at the knee. (I never saw him again, but heard later that he had survived.) The other casualties looked pretty bad.

The shelling stopped as suddenly as it had started and I led my platoon forward again. The path descended on to the beach into a sandy cove and there, standing against the cliff, was our CO. Colonel Geddes.

Owing to Reed’s platoon being almost blown out of existence, and to my halting my own platoon until the shelling ceased, a long gap in the line of men plodding along the path had developed, and Geddes gave me a short and very sharp dressing-down. Did I realise that because I had halted, I had stopped the whole advance and that men badly needed up forward might not get there in time? I was not to halt again and was to get up to the front trenches as quickly as I could. I felt like a whipped cur. I realised that Geddes was right, and felt that I had let down the whole side.

Pte. W. Begbie.

When I fell for the second time I must have turned my arm because I found I was lying on my rifle with the butt about a foot from the front of my head. I was wondering what would be the best thing to do when I felt the rifle rocking and when I looked up I saw the butt had a piece of shrapnel embedded in it. I turned round and crawled back passing men of our company, some dead, and some with ghastly wounds who were obviously dying.

When I reached a trench I threw myself into it. As I was struggling to get my equipment off I heard voices, then two first-aid men came. They straightened me out and bound up my thigh. One of the men helped me to stand up, and with his help I was able to hop along the trench to the aid post. The MO said to the orderly, ‘This man’s dressing seems to be OK, so if he thinks he can manage to hop to the wagons he can do so.’

The ambulance wagons were well down the cart track the engineers had gouged in the bed of Gully Ravine and it led to Gully Beach where doctors and orderlies were working flat out to save the wounded who had managed to get so far, and many did not, for no stretcher-bearers could be spared to assist them. They had their hands full on the battle-field where the worst of the wounded lay helpless waiting for rescue, and those who could hop or stagger or crawl had to shift for themselves as best they could to reach the wagons that would take them to safety. It took them a long, long time.

It had taken the Munsters a considerable time to negotiate the cliff path to the newly captured line and it was late in the day before they reached it. The worst of the heat was past. The sun was low in the western sky, lighting the peaks of Samothrace, etched clear and pink on the horizon.

Lt. R. F. E. Laidlaw.

We found ourselves in a circular trench running in a hook from our path, round and down to the sea. It was at least twelve hundred yards behind the original Turkish front line and was only connected with our new front line by a single hastily dug trench running along the top of the cliffs. It was the furthest point ever reached by our troops and, because it was captured and held mostly by the 86th Brigade, it was later known as Fusilier Bluff.

When we got into this trench it was still light enough to see it and its surroundings, as well as the many bodies lying all around. Many were Gurkhas, who had crawled far behind the enemy lines on previous days and dealt out destruction with their kukris before being killed.

I just had time before daylight failed to go round the trench, see that it was properly manned, the NCOs distributed, and a proportion of men in holes behind the parados to take their turn of rest and to act as reserves. Then the Turks made their first attack on us. They came forward out of Gully Ravine, about a hundred yards ahead, literally in masses. The men reacted wonderfully and poured in a terrific fire, rapid, well aimed and low. It was like a threshing machine going through a field of corn. None of the Turks came within twenty yards of us that time, and as they reeled back we saw what appeared to be hundreds of bodies on the ground, many of them burning, and some being blown up by the bombs they carried. Then, and in later attacks, these little fires seemed to be burning all over the landscape and the writhing bodies they lit up did not add to our joy.

At his General Headquarters on the island of Imbros twenty kilometres west of the peninsula Sir Ian Hamilton had passed an anxious day waiting for news from the front. It was sparse and fragmentary and it was five o’clock in the evening before he received definite information and learned with delight and relief that Gully Spur had been captured. But he was soldier enough to know that was not necessarily the end of the story. At ten o’clock he turned in, weary with the strain and tension of the day, but his mind was with the men grappling through the strenuous night on the peninsula, and sleep refused to come.

General Sir Ian Hamilton.

Midnight. When I lay down in my little tent two hours ago, the canvas seemed to make a sort of sounding board. No sooner did I try to sleep than I heard the musketry rolling up and dying away, then rolling up again in volume until I could stick it no longer and simply had to get up and pick a path through the brush and over sandhills, across to the sea on the east coast of our island. There I could hear nothing. Was the firing then an hallucination – a sort of sequel to the battle in my brain? Not so. Far away I could see faint coruscations of sparks, star shells, coloured fireballs from pistols, searchlights playing up and down the coast.

Our fellows were being beset to hold on to what they had won there where the horizon stood out with spectral luminosity. What a contrast! The direct fear, joy and excitement of the fighting men out there in the search-lights and the dull anguish of waiting here in the darkness, imagining horrors, praying the Almighty our men may be vouchsafed valour to stick it through the night, wondering, waiting, until the wire brings its colourless message!

Lt. R. F. E. Laidlaw.

The Turks attacked us four or five times that night but only once did a few of them get into the trench. None of these got out – our men were as good with the bayonet as they were with the rifle!

We had plenty of ammunition, brought up earlier, and a few jam tin bombs, but most of the men had drunk their water during the strenuous day and were now very thirsty – and thirst is not a pleasant thing, especially when you are fighting in a sandy and hot country. All along the trench I could hear cries of ‘Water, water’ and water there was none. My own water bottle was empty. There was none even for the wounded men and somehow I had failed to get any message through to the destroyers when their boat came ashore to pick up the wounded. They were only able to do this two or three times during the night and one never knew when or where they would come. No regular arrangements had been made to deal with the wounded as far as I knew. I saw later when our General’s diary was published that he knew that we ‘were being hard beset to hold on to what we had won’. A little more imagination might have suggested that the prayers for ‘valour’ might have included a few for the transport of wounded and for a littlewater. Better still, the necessary arrangements might have been made beforehand!

With every attack the toll of dead and wounded mounted and fewer and fewer men were left to beat them off. All night long they stood at the alert, peering across the parapets of the captured trenches into the shadows where the vicious little fires darted and flickered in the scrub, coughing in the acrid smoke, watching, listening, waiting for the enemy to make a move. Every man was needed and even if any could have been spared it would have been out of the question to carry away the wounded over treacherous country in the dark. They could only bind up their wounds and lay them down in the trench, to wait patiently, parched, suffering, and sometimes dying before the first light of morning.

Willie Begbie was one of the lucky ones. He had got out just before dark, but it had taken him hours to limp back and, lying on Gully Beach, he marvelled that he had made it.

Pte. W. Begbie.

I must have lost my way because when I first saw the wagons I was high on the side of a ravine and the wagons were down below. The ravine was dry and full of stones. I sat on the edge and putting my weight on my left leg, I tried to slide down the side. It was very steep. When I started to slide I dug the heel of my left boot into the sand but I hit some stones and finished up rolling down. Some men who were loading the wagons ran to help me. After they found that my bandage was still in position I was laid on a stretcher and carried to a wagon, which was already half full. The stretchers were laid side by side and the walking wounded sat on any small space available or on the side of the wagon. The side of the wagon and the back were only about two feet high – the wagon was pulled by four mules. We were told to hold on tightly because we could be seen by the enemy. The driver pulled off a long thin branch of a tree, mounted, yelled, and we were off as fast as four galloping mules could go. The enemy front, back and sides but fortunately we had no casualties. This lasted till we reached the beach where we were hidden from view.

As the night wore on, Gully Beach was an eerie sight, lit intermittently by the beams of search-lights reflected from the sky and by the glow of bobbing lanterns as orderlies moved among wounded lying on the sand. There were three Field Ambulances at the mouth of Gully Ravine, but they were soon swamped and the men were moved quickly through as soon as their wounds were dressed and carried to the beach to be evacuated. Some of them had to wait for many hours. Now and again a ship’s signal lamp flashed out of the dark from the open sea, now and again the splash of oars, the low splutter of a motor engine, a call from the shore, warned that a tow had arrived to carry the wounded away, and stretcher-bearers waded through the shallows to load them aboard the flat-bottomed boats that would take them out to the ships. They could carry, at most, twelve stretcher cases apiece and, inevitably, progress was slow. Shortly after dawn more and more wounded began arriving from the line. At nightfall they were coming still. Very early on the hospital ships were swamped and the wounded were loaded, willy-nilly, on troop transports, on ammunition or supply ships, on any rusty bucket in the area that could be guaranteed to keep afloat on the short passage to Mudros. But the camp hospitals at Mudros were soon filled to overflowing and with nowhere to put the wounded there was no alternative but to leave them where they were. Some stayed on board for many days. On the ill-equipped transports, where there were no bunks, no dressings, no bedpans, no medical facilities of any kind, conditions were frightful. Despite the efforts of frantic medical officers rushing from ship to ship in Mudros harbour, many wounds turned putrid. Many men died.

Willie Begbie survived. But back on the peninsula the remnants of his Battalion found, after the battle, that they were a battalion no longer. With their two sister battalions of the 156th Brigade and with little or no support from artillery they had, at least partially, succeeded in capturing and holding their objectives in the Battle of Gully Ravine. It was a considerable feat for the untried Territorials and the Divisional Commander, General de Lisle, had sent them a special message. It simply said, ‘Well done the Royal Scots!’But it was only a small consolation. In the five weeks since they had set out, of eleven hundred officers and men who had boarded the trains at Larbert, only seven officers and two hundred and seventeen men remained. It was crushing to reflect that, of those five weeks, three had been spent at sea.

But they had indeed had a fight for it.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.net. Thank you!