AN EXCERPT FROM DENIS WINTER’S BOOK,
25 APRIL 1915 – THE INEVITABLE TRAGEDY,
UNIVERSITY OF QUEENSLAND PRESS, 1994.
The landing scheme was a simple one, in outline at least. The 3rd Brigade’s 4000 men would land as a covering force to secure a beachhead for two Australasian divisions made up of six brigades. Those 4000 would go in two waves. The first, consisting of 1500 men, were to start from three battleships – Queen, Prince of Wales and London – then be distributed between twelve tows, each made up of a steamboat, a cutter (30 men), a lifeboat (28 men) and either a launch (98 men) or a pinnace (60 men). The remaining 2500, the second wave, were to land from seven destroyers shortly afterwards. Those destroyers would wait near the island of Imbros and join the battleships, one and a half miles (about 2 km) from the mainland, at 4.15 am. The first wave was scheduled to land a few minutes earlier, and the destroyers would then sail in, full speed ahead, adding a number of lifeboats borrowed from transport vessels to the tows that had been used by the first wave. Once the whole 3rd Brigade was ashore, the rest of the 1st Division would arrive on transports, grouped in fours and coming in at regular intervals.
Such, at least, was the plan, and its first stage was negotiated without difficulty. Troops on the battleships were woken at 1 am, given a hot meal and a drink while the tows were being got ready, and by 1.30 am were ready for mustering into companies. This operation was carried out with impressive efficiency: no one spoke; orders were given in whispers. The only sounds were shuffling boots and muttered curses as men slipped on the ladders leading down to the boats. But for many, the tension of that still night magnified the sounds.
To Lieutenant Charles Fortescue it seemed “the noise of the pinnaces being filled, in the stillness of the night, was enough to make the whole world vibrate”. Rear-Admiral Thursby, who had to supervise the whole operation, was equally fraught. “It was a still night,” he recalled many years later. “There was hardly a breath of wind. Every sound seemed magnified tenfold and it seemed impossible that the noise of our boat hoists could escape being heard by the enemy a few miles away. We eagerly scanned the direction of the shore, the loom of which could just be seen, to see if we could detect any movement, but all was still.”
The filling, which took about forty minutes, was supervised by adolescent midshipmen dressed in khaki-stained white duck and carrying revolvers almost as big as themselves. They checked the numbers and quietly called out, “Full up, sir!” at the right time. Naval officers then gave the order to “Cast off and drift astern” where the tows gathered, two on each side of a battleship.
The first wave was slowly gathered together in this way, enveloped by a sea mist which clung to the water like a shallow blanket. Orders required the men to keep greatcoats stowed in packs and wear tunics with sleeves rolled to the elbow so that flashes of white skin could give easier identification during the dawn assault. Dressed so lightly, men were soon chilled to the bone; nor could they move to restore circulation. The little boats varied in length from just nine paces for the lifeboats to fourteen for the launches and what little space was left by the men was filled by two boxes of ammunition, twelve picks, eighteen shovels, a hundred sandbags, three jars of water, three days’ rations and a quorum of wirecutters.
10th Battalion in formation on the deck>of HMS Prince of Wales
The 10th Battalion in formation on the deck of HMS Prince of Wales, 24 April 1915. The battleship is leaving Mudros Harbour on its way to the Gallipoli landings. (AMW A01829)
The order to set off was given by Admiral Thursby using the Queen’s wireless. Corporal James Bell (9th Battalion) later recalled the final stage. An officer on the battleship towering above his tow immediately called out, “Get away and land!” There was an immediate tug on the painter and the tow moved off at a brisk six knots. On the battleship, sailors lined the side of the ship, giving the service’s “silent cheer” by waving caps in a circle and “uttering a subdued whisper, barely audible to those on the boats”. How far offshore the battleships were by then remains uncertain. In his report of 8 May, Birdwood put the distance at four miles (about 6 km); Thursby’s report agreed with the London’s log on two miles; Callwell (Kitchener’s Director of Operations) preferred one and a half; and the 1st Division’s war diary recorded one. Whatever the actual distance, the journey took just forty minutes but with nerves wound up to such a pitch, few had any sense of time. To Cheney with the 10th, the journey seemed “like days”, and to Lieutenant Aubrey Darnell with the 11th, “to go on for ever”; the last hundred yards were for George Mitchell “a lifetime”.
As they closed on the peninsula, men whispered jests, and on the surface there was a sense of calm. “I am quite sure few of us realised that at last we were actually bound for our baptism of fire for it seemed as though we were just out on one of our night manoeuvres in Mudros harbour,” Margetts was later to recall. But beneath the calm, all sensed an excitement that was tense and electric. Set as they were on a flat surface without a shred of cover and incapable of evasive action, all knew that Turkish shrapnel – even a single machine gun – could scupper the first wave. All they could do was sit silent, still, frozen, and let silence and darkness magnify their fears. Mitchell tried to analyse his own feelings at the time but failed: “I think every emotion was mixed but with exhilaration predominant.” One 9th Battalion veteran later described how he had shivered and trembled uncontrollably throughout the journey, nervousness and excitement equally mixed. Blackburn, one of the scouts that day (and a future winner of the Victoria Cross), expressed it more simply: “The 30 or 45 minutes to the shore were the most trying of the lot.”
What of the Turkish garrison meanwhile?
As the tows approached the cove, Lieutenant Colonel Sefik Aker of the Turkish 27th Regiment was looking out to sea from the Ari Burnu headland at the northern end of Anzac Cove. Later he described the scene:
At 2 am the moon was still shining. The patrols on duty from my reserve platoon were Idris from Biga and Cennil from Gallipoli. They reported having sighted many enemy ships in the open sea. I got up and looked through my binoculars. I saw, straight in front of us but rather a long way off, a large number of ships the size of which could not be distinguished. It was not clear whether or not they were moving.
I reported immediately to the battalion commander, Major Izmet, first by telephone, then by written report. He said to me: “There is no cause for alarm. At most, the landing will be at Gaba Tepe” – and told me to continue watching these ships. I went to a new observation point and kept watching. This time I saw them as a great mass which, I decided, seemed to be moving straight towards us. In the customary manner, I went to the phone to inform divisional headquarters. That was about 2.30 am I got through to the second in command, Lieutenant Nori, and told him of it. He replied, “Hold the line. I will inform the Chief of Staff”. He came back a little later and said, “How many of these ships are warships and how many transports?” I replied, “It is impossible to distinguish them in the dark but the quantity of ships is very large.” With that the conversation closed.
A little while later, the moon sank below the horizon and the ships became invisible in the dark. The reserve platoon was alerted and ordered to stand by. I watched and waited.
Australians were meanwhile peering anxiously in the direction of an unseen Colonel Aker. The night had been pitch black when the tows set off at 3.30 am, “so dark,” wrote Bean, “that one tow could scarcely see a sign of the next one to it”. An occasional scatter of sparks from a steamboat’s funnel or the dim phosphorescence in bow waves was the only sign that each tow wasn’t alone. At 4 am, with landfall ten minutes away, the first glow of dawn allowed men to distinguish between hills and sky. Bean spoke in 1919 of there having been “a brightening sky and a silken, lemon-coloured dawn breaking smooth grey behind the hills” when he briefed the artist Lambert on the monumental painting of the landing he was commissioned to produce, while Norris described the sea, in that first glow, as glistening “like a sheet of oil”.
That same dawn allowed Colonel Aker and his men to see the tows clearly for the first time. In his words:
In a little while, the sound of gunfire broke out. I saw a machine gun firing from a small boat in front of Ari Burnu. Some of the shots were passing over us. I immediately ordered the platoon to occupy the trenches on the high ridge which dominated Ari Burnu and sent only two sections under Sergeant Ahmed to the trenches on the central ridge overlooking the beach. At the same time, I wrote a report to the battalion commander stating that the enemy was about to begin landing and I was going to a position on the far side with a reserve platoon. I ordered the withdrawal by telephone and set off immediately. On the way, we came under fire from the ships.
Aker was severely wounded in the thigh during this action and his command passed to Muharrem, the senior sergeant.
The Australian experience of Turkish fire varied. The tows of the 9th Battalion formed the southern flank, landing the men along the south flank of the Ari Burnu peninsula. Salisbury, who was among the forces, later gave Bean a detailed account: “It was not quite light but getting very close to it. A very bright light appeared to the north. The first we heard when we were about twenty yards off the beach was a single shot – then two or three. It sounded like a sentry group. Then it began very fast. There was an exclamation, ‘Hello! Now we’re spotted.’ It was a relief to hear the thing go. Here we are. Now we are in it.” Loutit and Feint landed with the 10th Battalion on the tip of the Ari Burnu peninsula. Just like the 9th, they came under fire about thirty yards out, although some of the battalion were more fortunate. Stanley’s boat was fired on only when the noise of its keel grounding drew fire. The 11th Battalion of the flotilla’s northern flank landed along the northern face of Ari Burnu and had a hotter reception. Turkish firing began when they were about four hundred yards out – or so Darnell and Johnstone thought. Hedley Howe put it at two hundred and Everett at eight hundred. Tension obviously distorted the perception of men suddenly coming under heavy fire, but the fact remains that the 11th had the stiffest reception.
Opinion was less divided on how much firing there had been and where it had come from. Milne told Bean that the Turks were shooting “from the whole face of the hill” and Mills agreed with him, likening the effect to “a monster firework display”. After many interviews, Bean’s despatch eventually stated: “The Turks in trenches facing the Landing had run but those on either flank and on the ridges above and in the gullies kept up fire on the boats coming inshore.” Bean, however, didn’t go along with men like Major Fortescue, who spoke of a solid mass of Turkish bullets and a cacophany of bugle calls. “Neither then nor at any time later,” Bean concluded, “was the beach the inferno of bursting shells and barbed-wire entanglements and falling men that has sometimes been described or painted.” Turkish artillery, in particular, didn’t start to fire shrapnel until 5.10am (some reports said 4.45 am), or about an hour after the first Australians landed.
Odd memories from that first period under fire remained clear in some men’s minds. Hedley Howe’s is of a naval officer in the tow to his right shouting out, “Bear away more to the north. You’re spoiling the whole bloody show.” A few seconds later, a shower of sparks came from the funnel of that steamboat. “Then Abdul opened up with his machine guns.” Darnell remembered seeing a light on the tip of Ari Burnu: “It just flashed for a moment. Then we heard voices and what appeared to be a sentry. The call came from that point. The adjutant whispered to Captain Leane that they had seen us.”
When the firing began, Darnell heard men singing snatches from “This little bit of the world belongs to us”, while officers shouted, “Make a landing where you can, lads, and hold on!” They were using leather megaphones attached to their wrists because the sound of firing, reflected from the steep amphitheatre of Anzac Cove, was loud and seemed even louder against the hush of the previous silence.
Men’s responses to being shot at for the first time varied, as described by Mitchell: “Some men crouch[ed] in the crowded boat while others sat up nonchalantly. Some laughed and joked while others cursed. I tried to scan the dim faces of our platoon and my section in particular. Fear was not at home.” One of Bean’s anecdotes highlights the unexpected cheerfulness of men in a time of extremity: “The 11th Battalion had been told by someone that bullets would sound like birds flying overhead. The Turkish bullets, at short range, were anything but that, and one of the battalion’s hard cases, Private ‘Combo’ Smith, set the whole boat laughing by remarking to his neighbour, ‘Snowy’ Howe ‘Just like little birds, ain’t they, Snow?'” As for the cursing, Stanley thought it worth mentioning that “the language was awful”. “Bloody”, at this time, was the limit prescribed by custom for the majority of Australians, and Tom Louch endorsed this point when writing of Mena: “What really staggered us about the Tommies was their vocabulary. One four-letter word with variations provided nouns, verbs and adjectives – the staple of their conversation. The men in my section were not particularly straight-laced but they only swore in a mild way when exasperated.” During those last minutes into Anzac Cove, the Australians were exasperated indeed.
There were calm men too, and their example was priceless. Margetts told Bean: “A young midshipman in our cutter stood up. It did one the world of good to see him standing up. He had a great effect on our men. Four seamen had their heads well down in the boat and our men would have taken their cue from them.”
Eric Bush described the quiet courage of a fellow midshipman:
Midshipman Longley-Cook was in charge of the Prince of Wales number five tow. “Go for’ard and get both bowmen up out of their forepeak and tell them to feel for the bottom with their boathooks,” he told his coxswain Leading Seaman Albert Balsom, when the boats were nearing the shore. Balsom had served with Captain Scott in the Antarctic and was a fabulously strong, brave man. “Why only one?” Longley-Cook asked a minute or two later. “I couldn’t get the other able seaman up, sir. He’s too frightened to move,” Balsom replied. And while they were speaking, a rifle bullet entered the compartment and struck Balsom in the spine, killing him instantly. A few minutes later, an Australian officer in one of the boats started to issue some orders, whereupon he was interrupted by Longley-Cook who, in a clear authoritative voice with a polished English accent (so I was told by an Australian who was there) said to the officer, “I beg your pardon, sir. I am in charge of this tow.” The officer subsided into silence immediately and the troops in his boat were heard to mutter, “Good on yer, kid!”.
By this time most tows were about a hundred metres from the shore and the steamboats cast them off. “Those at the oars rowed like men possessed,” Darnell told his father. “Some were shot and others took their place at once and not a word was uttered. Presently we grounded and, in an instant, were in the water up to our waists and wading ashore with bullets pinging all around us.” Private Gordon’s landing was less accomplished. Responding to a sailor’s exhortation to “Hop out and after ’em, lads”, he promptly lost his footing on the slippery stones of the seabed, then fell a second time as he stepped ashore because of the weight of his saturated uniform. Meanwhile, Turkish bullets were killing and maiming in such a gratuitous manner that many men were deeply disconcerted. Arthur Butler, the 9th Battalion’s medical officer, recalled a calm midshipman handing him his satchel, “as if he were landing a pleasure party” when he fell back into the boat, shot through the head. Colonel Hawley, a Tasmanian, was shot through the spine and paralysed just as he was getting out of his boat.
The sea bed, though, seems to have posed the most pressing problem, as men leaving the boats got into difficulties. Bean put this down to the difference in size between small cutters which could get in close and large lifeboats which grounded in deep water but the facts are against him. The difference in draught between the biggest and smallest boats used was only a matter of 7 to 8 inches (18–20 cm). As Salisbury put it to Bean: “Nobody was hit in our boat but some were drowned. Some jumped out up to their chests. Some to their feet only.” Even where the depth was favourable, men could still have problems. Boulders on the seabed could easily trip a man, while small pebbles and metal-shod army boots were a slippery match for top-heavy soldiers in full marching order – as Sergeant Douglas Baker found to his cost when he slipped and got a ducking. Nor were stones and boulders the only hazards. “Looking down at the bottom of the sea, Nicholas wrote later, “you could see a carpet of dead men who had been shot getting out of the boats”. Private Eric Moorhead stepped on one of those bodies “in the wash of the water’s edge” when he came ashore.
The actual time of that first landing remains unclear. When he was briefing Lambert in 1919, Bean gave it at 4.53 am (but he had been well back on the transport Minnewaska and had had to rely on secondhand information). Corps headquarters recorded 4.32 am as the time they heard the first rifle shots through the mist. Vice-Admiral De Robeck’s report put it at 4.20 am. The 3rd Brigade’s war diary and the report of the London agreed on 4.15 am. The 12th Battalion’s war diary (they were reserve battalion to the first wave) states 4.10 am.
The early times best fit what we know of the destroyer flotilla’s arrival but the matter is unlikely to be resolved. The circulation of synchronised watches, together with an appreciation of the need for absolute precision in battle planning only came in 1917. Before that clockwork watches recorded events with their usual approximation. When the corps timepiece stood at 4.32 am for example, the saloon clock on the Minnewaska read 4.28 am and Bean’s own watch 4.23 am.
The exact location where the first wave waded ashore is rather more precisely established – but not entirely so. In the draft of his first volume and on most of his working maps, Bean put the 9th Battalion just south of Ari Burnu’s tip and the 11th along about four hundred metres of beach on Ari Burnu’s northern face, with the 1 0th on the tip. But ten years or so after the event Ray Leane, a stalwart of the 11th during the landing, begged to differ:
The boat I was in landed on the point. There were three boats to the left of us containing 9th Battalion men, most of whom were killed or wounded in the boat on the extreme left. If Commander Dix states that he was on the extreme right, he is wrong, because the l0th Battalion and one of the 11th were on the right of my boat. I met Drake-Brockman after attacking and reaching the top of the point and he came up from the right side of the hill. The whole of the boats landed between the point and where afterwards the pier was built. My company was on the extreme left of the attack but the 9th Battalion boats landed to the left of us.
Most of Bean’s other eyewitnesses thought the first wave had landed altogether further northwards with the sequence of battalions 9, 10, 11] from south to north. And yet the 10th Battalion’s war diary gives Leane some backing when it records battalions landing, mixed together. In the course of correspondence sixty years after the event, Metcalfe, a midshipman in 1915, stated that two whole platoons of the 9th had landed five minutes late and in 11th Battalion territory. With such discrepancies still existing two generations after the event, a definitive resolution remains unlikely.
The question of who was first ashore became another contentious issue soon after the landing. The Sydney Mail proposed Joseph Stratford, a New South Wales man who had enlisted in Queensland’s 9th Battalion and died during the first day. Lismore claimed the honour for its son and a school in Queensland was named after him. But Duncan Chapman, another 9th Battalion man, claimed priority in a letter dated 24 June 1915: “My boat was the first to land and, being in the bow, I was the first man to leap ashore.” Bean supported Chapman and mentioned Frank Kemp, a sergeant scout, who corroborated the story. But since the tows landed on both sides of a peninsula with only the dimmest glimmer of dawn to illuminate the scene, it is difficult to discover a solid basis for any claim on this score.
One indisputable fact is that once the tows were well on their way to the shore, Thursby, in charge of the landing, shone a shaded light seawards and called in the destroyers. Major Alexander Steele recalled the engine-room bell of his destroyer clanging, then a 20-knot surge and an abrupt stop within the ship’s length just two hundred yards (183 m) from the shore. That surge of speed presented two problems: the lifeboats got into difficulties and the destroyers themselves became easy targets.
Filled with men and breasting a steep bow wave, the lifeboats moved at a speed their designers had never contemplated, and in at least two cases ended in mishaps. The first involved Foxhound. A boat capsized and the senior NCO aboard was saved only by an airpocket that formed in his uniform. Another man – Ernest Shepardson – seized a rope and was dragged along at high speed, submerged for the most part but drifting to the surface now and again. When the Foxhound finally came to a stop, Shepardson reappeared, “much to the surprise of his comrades who had thought him drowned a mile back”.
The other incident, recounted by Richardson, had a more tragic outcome:
We were doing 18 knots. The man in the second boat didn’t seem to be controlling his boat at all. She was slewing in and out for two minutes. A seaman called out that the pace was too fast but it didn’t slow up. It couldn’t. The boat then swung into the destroyer, slewed out and started to tip. The water simply washed them all out of the stem except a man on the tiller who managed to catch the stern rope and began to crawl back along it into the boat. He [had] got one leg into the boat on the inside beam when she swung in again and crushed him. The men were all lined up, looking at it over the side. Half a dozen naval men put a rope round the poor chap, who was dying, and hauled him aboard.
Corporal John Searcy was in the boat at the time. He tried to reach Private P.V. Smith, one of the drowning men, but was hindered by the weight of his pack. “I’m certain I heard his drowning screams,” Searcy wrote many years later.
Meanwhile the destroyers had come under fire from Turkish snipers. The Beagle on the southern flank was particularly badly placed since it was within the range of Gaba Tepe’s machine guns. On the other flank, too, Turkish machine guns high on Walkers Ridge opened fire at almost point-blank range. Lieutenant Elmer Laing described those bullets hitting the side of the Usk “like hailstones on a tin roof”. Nor did all the bullets waste themselves on armour plating, as Captain Dixon Hearder, second in command on one of the destroyers, could attest:
I noticed a boy standing, more or less appalled at the din. So I walked up to him and said, “Come on, lad. No one is being hit.” He pulled himself together and went on in front of me to the stern of the destroyer where there was a boat room. I followed right behind for another ten yards. I stepped aside to pass him and, just as I did so and got level with him, he just said “Oh!” and pitched forward on the deck. I did feel bad about him.
Almost as unnerving as the sound of Turkish small-arms fire was the noise of the Royal Navy’s covering fire. This began at 4.30 am. As Baker put it, “the noise was awful. I have never heard thunder equal to it.”
The casual courage of many of the sailors was crucial in setting an example to the soldiers and helping the men through a difficult phase. Two incidents serve as examples.
As the boats were filling up, wrote Hearder, “talking was heard in one of them and one of the officers called from the deck, ‘Who is in charge of that boat?’ Great was the glee when a very dignified alto voice promptly replied, ‘Naval officer in charge of this boat’. The joke,” Hearder added, “went on in the trenches. ‘Make way for a naval officer’, a private will squeak when he wants to get with water or something to the firing line.” It was Hearder, too, who told of the incident, when a sudden burst of Turkish rifle and machine-gun fire halted disembarkation: “A cheery English voice on the bridge called out, ‘Go on, lads. Get into the boats; these fellers can’t shoot for tawfee.’ ” Hearder smiled to himself when he saw the Australians laughing at incongruity of the upper class English accent. “It was just the right note to strike,” he concluded.
Unlike the first wave in the battleship tows, many of the destroyer men came under fire throughout the whole of the journey ashore, one man speaking of “shrapnel bullets striking the water with a noise like the popping of corks when drawn from champagne bottles”. Private Edward Luders, a 1st Battalion signaller, saw a shrapnel shell kill sixteen men in a single boat.
The tows go in
By the time most of the 3rd Brigade’s four thousand men had landed from the battleships and destroyers (at about 8 am), the main force in the transports had begun to arrive and the destroyers began ferrying them ashore, too. Private Robert Grant, who was aboard one of those transports with other 1st Battalion men, described his own experience graphically:
Before dawn, I was asleep on the lower deck. When the ship’s officer switched off the lights, the horses started to stampede in their stalls. This woke the troops who, in their semi-conscious state, groped about for their equipment which was lying loose at their sides. Being pitch dark, they got in one anothers’ way and this brought out some very impolite remarks. Eventually, they struck matches and, as day dawned, we began to take in the situation. I was near a porthole and put my head out. I could hear the crackling of rifles in the hills about a mile away. The navy opened a terrific bombardment. Huge chunks of the Gaba Tepe fort flew about. The hills reverberated. Steam pinnaces towed laden boats of troops ashore, working with the regularity of the Sydney ferries. The destroyer Scourge came alongside. Her funnel was riddled with bullet holes and her decks were slippery with the blood of the wounded she brought to our ship. I watched them slung aboard. Never did I hate a ship more or want to leave it less than the Minnewaska.
Bean was on the same vessel and was himself unnerved by the sight of the destroyer, her decks awash with blood.
A curious feature of that first morning was the speed with which conditions changed. By mid-morning, the Turks had been pushed back to the 3rd Ridge. The war had moved inland, and it was as if the gunfire from Ari Burnu and shrapnel from Gaba Tepe had never been. “We were surprised how peaceful was our trip ashore,” Colonel Dawson of the Auckland Regiment wrote. “A little shelling. Some dropping rifle fire but only two casualties in our battalion. The landing was peaceful but distinctly wet, particularly for us small ones. It is surprising what a lot of water a ship’s boat draws. The quietness of our narrow strip of beach was also surprising. A few Australians forming up; an Indian mountain battery and some wounded and dying men.” And quiet it remained as the men trudged towards the first range of hills: “We advanced in the cool of the morning through thick undergrowth, heavy with dew and fragrant with the perfume of wild flowers,” wrote Captain Andrew Came, 6th Battalion. “Birds were singing in the bushes and the sun was bright overhead.” With time to look around and take in the scenery, some men must have been surprised at the choice of landing place. Was a pebble beach less than the width of a cricket pitch a suitable site for landing the supplies for two divisions? Was a cliff of crumbling sandstone bush covered and carved up by deep gullies, really the best place to launch an offensive?