Thursday 30 April 2015

The Landing

THE following grim and characteristic story of the landing on the Gallipoli Peninsula — five days of hell, as he himself calls it — is told by a New Zealander who took part in the fighting. In a covering letter the writer says I have had my second turn with the 'unspeakable Turk' and as a result am in hospital with a wrecked spine and rather a badly tangled set of nerves, caused through concussion from a shell and a fall. The enclosed is perhaps crude, but I made rather an effort to write it, and Nurse says 'never again' — for a while anyhow."

The "enclosed" is probably the most vivid personal narrative of the Gallipoli fighting which has yet reached this country. — The TIMES.


May 5. 

A glass flat sea covered with a shallow mist, and beyond, the tops of green hills peering through the vapour, dim shapes of warboats and transports, and a fleeting glimpse of a seaplane as it winged over the Turkish positions: this was the scene that met our eyes on the morning of April 25 when we approached the peninsula of Gallipoli. Drowning the noise of the winches in our transport there rose and fell the thunderous arpeggio of the heavy guns, ceaseless in its monotonous roar, but, as we drew nearer, relieved by the staccato crack of the bursting Turkish shrapnel and the plunge of the heavier shell in the water amongst the transports.

As we approached the shore there came to our ears the continuous rattle of musketry, first scarcely perceptible, but at last growing to an ear-racking roll as of giant kettle-drums beaten without reason. Through glasses I could see one of our skirmishing lines advancing from the boats on the beach. It was as though one watched a cinematograph screen. The white boats on the beach and some brown figures sadly still on the grey sand, the green grass, and a tilled field across which advanced lines of our attacking force formed the foreground. Steep hills, clay faced and covered with dense scrub and dwarf ilex, over which the cottonwool puffs of shrapnel appeared and disappeared, made the background.

Troops of the Essex Regiment going ashore at 'W' Beach, Cape Helles, Gallipoli, 25 April 1915. (c) IWM Q70723
Business-like and brisk a destroyer glided alongside our transport towing strings of heavy barges.

"What's it like over there?" we asked.

"Pretty warm, boy," answered a smiling gunner, "but they're on the run."

Straight to the beach we ran, to the foot of the hill, but the destroyer necessarily could not take us right in to the sand, and we lay smiling sickly smiles at each other as the bullets purred and whistled over and round us. The sharp-pointed bullet "meows" like a motherless kitten as it passes you, but it enters the water with a "phut" that suggests something more unpleasant.

At last the barges were taken as far in as possible and we jumped into water up to our armpits and half swam, half waded ashore. I had often wondered how one would feel going into a tight corner for the first time, and then I knew. It was as if some one had given me a smack below the chest with the flat of a heavy spade. Later came a sense of elation.

Formed up we marched along the beach past dressing-stations already hemmed in with stretchers and wounded men. An Australian and a sailor lay beneath an oil sheet, their feet in the little waves.

"Reinforcements at the double on the left," roared an officer through a megaphone, and then added as a shell burst overhead, "Keep in under the bank — shrapnel's unhealthy."

Then came a toilsome, tiresome scramble over the high bluffs to the firing line. On the top of the first ridge we came through a Turkish trench. In it were a dead Turk, bayoneted, a box of ammunition, and many flies. Stooping low we doubled to the brow, ever with the purring bullets overhead. Wounded on the way to the beach passed us cheerfully, saying, "It's hot as hell up there!" And it was. When we had crossed a gully and gained another ridge, half an hour's scrambling and sliding, we were scarce 200 yards from the last, so steep is the ground.

Snipers were everywhere, and as we made one descent of about 100 feet, at an angle of about 10 degrees past 90, bullets spattered about on the stones and in the bushes round us. I struck a shingle slide and my downfall was expedited.

At the bottom I saw a wounded man bleeding badly over one shoulder. He grinned hideously with his shattered mouth. "Got it where the chicken got the axe," he wheezed, and fainted as the stretcher-bearers came up for him.

British official photograph. A Turkish sniper photographed immediately after capture,
and while he was being brought under guard. He was ingeniously screened
by a Jack-in-the-Green arrangement of foliage attached to his clothing. (c) IWM Q 109176.
And so on, up to the firing line, where I got separated from my own unit and found ranges, that being my job, for an Australian regiment. Through the powerful telescope of the range-finder I could see the Turkish retirement and then an embryo bayonet charge by some of our men. Still the wounded came back in apparently endless procession. They were wonderful, cheerful, and full of information and profanity.

Then in our trench things began to happen. Personally I think a sniper spotted the range-finder, for two bullets lobbed into the trench parapet and then the man next to me stood straight up and fell back over my legs. "Mafeesh," he said quaintly, the Arabic for finished, and then more slowly, "Money-belt — missus and kids — dirty swine, dirty ----"

Then a strange thing happened. Dying, shattered beyond recognition, he rose to his knees and dragged his rifle to the parapet. With a weak finger he took shaky aim at the sky and fired his last shot, to collapse finally in the bottom of the trench.

Obviously the Turks had our range, for things began to get too hot for comfort. Those who were left of us changed position about a hundred yards along the trench, one of the Australians first resting a dead man's hat on a bush on the trench parapet. "Got our range," he said laconically, "better let 'em have a little target practice." They did, for the hat only stayed there five minutes.

Then we spotted our sniper. Have you ever gone stalking in open country with only dry watercourses or stone slides as cover and a Royal smelling danger on the slope opposite? It was rather like that.

Two of our men crept from the trench and crawled out of sight through the bushes. All unconscious the Turk continued his rifle practice until a double report rang out and our two men appeared on our left waving the sniper's hat — their equivalent of a scalp. After that we had comparative peace.

Away to the right a machine gun, like a motorcycle, purred incessantly, and then one started nearer and to our front. A seaplane from the Ark Royal, anchored in the bay behind, soared overhead, and twice white puffs of shrapnel appeared below her, where the Turks lobbed two shells. It is rather like shooting at a rocketing pheasant, this aeroplane-potting, and has about the same result. Then she turned and went back to report.

Something was due to arrive and it did, suddenly, in the shape of a naval shell. First came the ear-and-nerve-shattering roar of the gun, then the shriek of the shell overhead, and away in front a cloud of smoke and earth rose slowly and drifted away, showing a gap in the skyline and a few Turks, who obviously recollected that it was about time to start for the last train to Gallipoli. Away they went out of sight, and then the naval guns started in earnest.

From the bay below came one continuous thunder, and the screech of the heavy projectiles was incessant. No sooner had one burst than another was on its way.

A French battleship firing at Turkish shore positions in the preliminary bombardment.
(c) IWM Q 13336
Presently the 15-inchers started and we tore up some "pull-through" rag to put in our ears. Commands, unless shouted, were unintelligible now, and one felt ridiculous yelling against such thunderous voices. Below in the bay a warship was firing salvoes from her 6-inch battery. Puffs of brown smoke would jet from the bulwarks, and then, a long while afterwards, the roll of reports would shake the hills.

Then the enemy's guns joined in the argument. Shrapnel began to burst above us, and the whistle of the flying bullets was everywhere. The brass nose of a howitzer shell struck from nowhere upon a mound in front and rolled into the trench. I burned my fingers picking it up. For three hours this violent cannonading lasted and then it gave place to a more desultory, but still severe, bombardment.

We had gained our footing, at heavy cost it is true, but at least a mile square of the Gallipoli Peninsula was ours, and Von der Goltz Pasha was proved a liar. Back on the beach stores were beginning to come in. Horses, donkeys, and mules were landed and ammunition reserves grew as one watched. Men were carrying water to the firing line, ammunition and oil for the machine guns. On every path the stretcher-bearers toiled with their sad loads, and wounded waited patiently in little knots by the dressing-stations, laughing, chatting, and cheering each other. Sweating under the hot sun the doctors worked like machines, probing, washing, bandaging. Often the hurts were beyond aid, and a handkerchief covered the face of one man I had known as a cheery optimist on board the transport. The Brigadier-General in khaki shirt and neat riding breeches was sending off innumerable messages — cool, ubiquitous, and business-like, he inspired others to emulate him.

Wonder of wonders ! We had been ashore only six hours when three wireless stations sprang up mushroom-like on the beach, and their buzzing sparks told the warships just how and where to send their screaming missiles. Troops continued to land, and as soon as they were landed were rushed to the firing line, usually to the left, for the right was well held and safe for the time.

At nightfall the bombardment ceased, but Turkish shrapnel burst over the beach and the wounded in the boats were submitted to a hot shell fire. The rifle fire continued, nerve-racking and noisy. Sleep was out of the question, and trench digging, to consolidate the position we had won, commenced almost immediately.

(c) IWM CHR 30
On our left along the beach about half a mile, a boat, sunk in the surf, rocked uneasily. With the aid of a glass I could see its freight. Sitting upright were at least eight dead men, and on the beach another twenty. A sailor, distinguishable by his white cap cover, lay in an attitude strangely lifelike, his chin resting on his hand, his face turned to our position. The next afternoon I casually turned my glasses on the pathetic group, and saw that the sailor was now lying on his back with his face to the sky. There was no mistake: he had been alive, and perhaps even now, after lying there nearly thirty-six hours, he was still alive. I was destined to get yet another thrill. In the centre of the heap on the beach there was some movement.

And then I saw distinctly a khaki cap waving weakly, and presently a man detached himself from the group and hobbled slowly towards us along the beach. Immediately the snipers started afresh.

Four other men and myself made off along the beach to meet the sad figure, which by this time had collapsed. Ten yards out from our trench we drew fire, and the bullets whispered confidingly "Duck," and as they entered the water or hit the stones by our feet, "Run like the devil!" I personally cut out the first hundred yards in well under eleven seconds, and although my style might have been ragged, it was good enough and got me to a small sandy knoll where I was able to talk to the man. There were four others still alive out there, he said, and "last night there were eight, but it was cold, and they'd had no water or food, and couldn't last it out." That was all.

We got him in slowly, and afterwards the others, but not until one of the warships had dealt with the snipers. Later we buried all the others. One of the men we brought in had been out there half in the water and half out, shot through both knees, but he was cheery and bright, and asked first about his brother in another company, and then explained where the Turks were sniping from.

At night the rifle fire waved backwards and forwards in fluctuating bursts, and we expected an attack at dawn. It came, but not against our position. More in the centre the enemy made a desperate effort They approached our trenches — came through the lines, and were certainly brave and venturesome. Once an unmistakably foreign bugle blew the "Cease fire," but an order was passed down our line to take no notice, it was a ruse. At one time, as darkness came down a voice in English called out "Retire! Retire!" but as there was no immediate reason why we should retire, we waited, and again Brigade Headquarters informed us it was not a British command.

It will be hard to forget those first days, and even now I wake at night with the patter of musketry in my ears, only to find some cart is rumbling past the hospital on uneasy wheels.

From Light and Shade in War by Captain Malcolm Ross and Noel Ross, 1916.

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