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Gallipoli to 11th July, 1915

British Isles Genealogy | The Fifth Battalion, Highland Light Infantry

The main objects the Allies had in view in their operations at Gallipoli may be briefly stated:

  1. To relieve the pressure on the Russians in the Caucasus by forcing the Turks to withdraw troops to the new front.
  2. To open the Black Sea to allied shipping by forcing the passage of the Dardanelles.
  3. By striking a blow towards Constantinople to compel the Turks to abandon their attacks on Egypt.

In Southern Russia there were immense stocks of wheat of which Western Europe was in need. If the operations were successful this wheat could be shipped from Odessa, and in exchange the Russians would receive munitions for the heroic fight they were putting up against Germany and Austria between the Baltic and the Carpathians.

Those of us who served at Gallipoli had not always these great issues before us. We were content to know that we were fighting the Turk who had basely sold himself to the Central Powers, and were upholding the Cross, like Crusaders of old, in its long struggle with the Crescent.

The evening of 2nd July was fine, with a fresh easterly breeze, and though the troops on the deck of the Racoon were packed like sardines the passage was a pleasant one. As we neared our destination artillery were at work on Achi Baba, and the flashes of the explosion followed by the dull boom of the guns were—to most of us—our first glimpse of actual warfare.

Cape Helles, Gallipoli

Arriving off Cape Helles in semi-darkness about 8 p.m., the Racoon slowed down and felt her way cautiously to the landing place at Sedd-el-Bahr, better known as "V" Beach, where she brought up alongside the River Clyde. The pontoons connecting that historic hulk with the shore had been much damaged the previous day by the enemy's big shells from Asia.

In disembarking we had to clamber up an accommodation ladder to the River Clyde, follow a devious path through her battered interior, descend a gangway from the bow, and pick our way ashore over a miscellaneous assortment of half-sunken pontoons, boats and planks—no easy task in the dark for a man laden with rifle, pick or shovel, pack, blanket, ground-sheet, and 150 rounds of ammunition.

About 9.30 p.m. as the first men were quitting the Racoon, a message was passed back that the O.C. troops was urgently wanted on shore. When he had triumphed over the difficulties of the obstacle course and reached the roadway at the pier-head, the C.O. found an officer of the Divisional Staff awaiting him.

The S.O. was a little excited and the instructions he gave were not so clear as one could have desired. The patch on which we were forming up was a favorite target for the enemy's shells from Asia. They were in the habit of devoting special attention to it on nights when they thought troops were being landed. We were to proceed to No. 1 area—wherever that might be. A guide would accompany each party and an officer of the Divisional Staff would be with the first party. We must move in absolute silence; no lights or smoking. We would be exposed to shell-fire whenever we passed the crest of the rise from the beach, where we ought to adopt an extended formation. At our destination we would find some trenches, but not sufficient to accommodate the whole Battalion, and it was up to us to lose no time in digging ourselves in.

The C.O. was hustled off with two platoons of "A" Company before these were properly landed. Where we were bound for and exactly what we were to do when we got there, none of us knew, except presumably the Staff Officer who accompanied us and perhaps the N.C.O. who acted as guide. But subsequent happenings proved that they were almost as ignorant on these points as ourselves.

Winding up a steepish rise through a region which seemed crowded with dug-outs and piles of stores, we gained the crest where we had been urged to extend. It was pitch dark, with a steadily increasing drizzle of rain and an occasional rumble of thunder. In front there were as yet no indications of shell-fire, only an intermittent crackle of distant musketry.

So far as we could judge we were moving on a fairly defined road or path, of uncertain surface, much cut up by traffic, and at many places pitted with shell craters. To estimate the distance traversed was impossible, but we must have been descending the gradual slope for over half an hour when our guides began to exhibit symptoms of indecision. The truth was soon out—they did not know where they were.

We ought before this to have struck the trenches allotted to us: possibly we had passed them in the dark. It transpired that neither Staff Officer nor N.C.O. had even been near the spot except in daylight, but both still professed confidence in their ability to locate the trenches. It was explained to us that these lay between the Pink Farm Road on which we had been moving, and the Krithia Road, which was some distance to our right. So we turned off the road towards the right and commenced our search.

After wandering in the rain for half an hour, we came upon what appeared to be a wide ditch sheltered by some straggling trees. Our guides decided that this must be a section of the elusive trenches, and at their suggestion Major Downie and his half-company were bestowed in it temporarily while the rest of us continued our quest for the remaining trenches.

Our progress was frequently interrupted by flares sent up from the trenches somewhere in front. To our inexperienced eyes it seemed that the lights were very near us, for they showed up vividly the whole ground over which we were moving, every little clump of scrub standing out sharp and distinct as in the glare of a powerful searchlight. From repeated study of Notes on Trench Warfare in France, we had become permeated with the theory that where one's presence is revealed by a flare, safety from rifle or machine gun fire is only to be attained by lying down and remaining perfectly motionless. So to the first few flares we made profound obeisance, groveling on the wet ground or behind the nearest patch of scrub as long as the stars illuminated the landscape. But familiarity breeds contempt, and as we gradually realized that the flares were much further to our front than we had thought, the necessity for this uncomfortable performance became less and less obvious until we discarded it altogether.

After ages of fruitless wandering we stumbled against a landmark which our guides recognized as within a hundred yards of the long sought trenches—a large tree marking the sight of an Artillery Ammunition Dump known, inappropriately enough, as Trafalgar Square. Here were one or two dug-outs in which the party in charge of the Dump slumbered peacefully. After we had circled the tree several times without result, the gunner N.C.O. in charge of the station was roused and questioned. Yes, he knew where the trenches were—quite close at hand.

With great good nature he rolled out of his blankets, and clambered out of his subterranean shelter to find them for us. The prospect brightened considerably, but only to become darker than ever when after a quarter of an hour's further walking he, too, proved at fault. Then suddenly it occurred to him that he had turned to the left on leaving his dug-out instead of to the right, and had been leading us away from our goal.

Wearily we retraced our steps, and then finally we found the trenches. The manner of the discovery was simplicity itself. As a matter of fact the C.O. fell into one of them, getting rather wet and clayey in the process.

In the meantime the second half of "A" Company had arrived on the scene, but we now found ourselves faced by another problem—the locating of the trench (or ditch) in which we had left Major Downie with his half-company. This threatened to prove as hard a task as that which we had just accomplished, and the C.O. remarked he would keep an eye on the trench he had found lest it should attempt to disappear again, and a party was sent off to find Major Downie.

And, after all, Major Downie found himself for us. His arrival was almost dramatic. He, too, fell into the trench. He had heard the search party calling for him and had come out to meet them. Missing them in the dark he had chanced upon the trench from the front and tripped over the parapet. With his assistance it did not take long to retrieve the missing half-company.

Installments of "B" Company began to arrive. Casting about to the front, rear and flanks of our original discovery, traces of other less finished trenches were found, and parties were set to work to complete and extend them with the object of having some apology for cover ready for the whole Battalion, before daylight could reveal our presence to the enemy.

As the night wore on additional parties joined up from the beach.

The Whitby Abbey had now arrived and was disembarking the left half-Battalion. The first party of "C" Company reached the trenches about 5 a.m. The enemy must have spotted us soon after daylight, for they saluted us with a few rounds of shrapnel at irregular intervals. These did little damage, but served to stimulate the flagging energies of the digging parties, encouraging them to special effort to get the trenches completed.

It was 8.30 a.m. before Major Jowitt appeared with the last party landed. By this time sufficient trenches of sorts to accommodate the Battalion had been completed.

While getting "D" Company into our most advanced trench, Capt. Findlay was slightly wounded by shrapnel. He was sent back to Mudros on the Whitby Abbey which had brought him across a few hours before. His first visit to Gallipoli had not been a prolonged one.

Throughout the day the enemy sprayed our trenches with occasional bursts of shrapnel. By this time we had discovered that they were officially described as "rest" trenches, and were some considerable distance behind the firing-line. So we "rested" as best we could, each man effecting such improvements to his own personal bit of cover as could be carried out unostentatiously behind the shelter of the parapet.

That afternoon Colonel Morrison and Major Jowitt, with other senior officers of the Brigade, were shown round some of the forward communication and support trenches, and had the general situation explained to them.

The night was devoted by all ranks to the improvement of our trenches and to sleep when we were satisfied with our handiwork. More rain fell, and we got very wet and smeared with that remarkably tenacious mud which only Gallipoli can produce.

The following day (4th June) parties of officers were sent forward to be shown the Eski Lines, others going up to spend an instructive night in the firing line in the Centre Sector held by the 42nd Division.

We could not but be surprised at the smallness of this cockpit in which three nations battled. From the cliff at Cape Helles to the top of the impregnable Achi Baba was only 5-1/2 miles. The distance straight across the Peninsula at the firing line was not more than 3-1/2 miles. On our flanks we were shut in by cliffs along the Aegean Sea on the left, and along the Dardanelles on our right. Every acre of ground we held was dominated by the hill in front, about 720 feet high. Our right flank and the vitally important landing places, "V" Beach and "W" Beach (Lancashire Landing), were under observation from Asia, less than three miles away at its nearest point. Somewhere across there on the Plains of Troy the Turks had at least one big gun to harass us, "Asiatic Ann" we called her, probably a gun dismantled from the Goeben. Their 6 in. guns on Achi Baba could reach any part of the Peninsula they choose.

The ground we stood on sloped gently up to the hill, pleasant arable land with here the remains of a farm and the trampled crops around it, there an olive grove and fig-trees or battered vineyard. Elsewhere was scrub and, in those early months, sweet-smelling and aromatic plants and flowers round which bees hummed and butterflies hovered in the heat.

The Peninsula was rent by three great ravines; the Gully with its precipitous banks on our left, and the Krithia and Achi Baba nullahs in the centre. In the dry season only a gentle flow of water trickled down these courses, leaving enough room for a path or even a roadway to be beaten out by which men and rations and stores could be got forward unobserved by the Turk. Their banks were honeycombed with crude dug-outs (mere scrapings in the ground with a waterproof sheet or blanket for covering) in which men sought protection from shell-fire and relief from the pitiless sun.

Monday, 5th July, was a Turkish Holy Day. Under the personal direction of Enver Pasha, or rather Enver Bey as he then was, the enemy marked the occasion by making a most determined attack. The brunt of it fell upon the 29th Division.

We who were in support were awakened before daybreak by continuous artillery and rifle fire which ominously increased in volume. At 4.30 a.m. the Battalion was ordered to hold itself in readiness to proceed in support of the 29th Division. Breakfasts were hurried on and an extra 50 rounds of ammunition was issued to each man.

Our position came under the enemy's shell-fire, and we were heartened by the very spirited reply put up by our artillery, particularly "L" Battery R.H.A., of Mons and Le Cateau fame, firing from our immediate left front.

Walking wounded from the firing-line began to pass through our trenches. From these we learned that the attack was being well held, and that the Turkish infantry coming on with fanatical shouts of "Allah, Allah!" was being mowed down by rifle and machine-gun fire.

The enemy realized his defeat, and about 9 a.m. the firing died away.

During the morning two of our men were wounded, one by a spent bullet, the other by shrapnel. Later on in the day the Battalion was ordered forward for an instructional spell in the front trenches.

Guides from the 29th Division arrived before dusk and at nightfall we set off, moving in column of route as far as Fig Tree Farm. From thence we passed in file up the Eastern Mule Track and through a labyrinth of trenches to a ruined cottage near Twelve Tree Copse. This was the Headquarters of the 87th Brigade, and here the Battalion was split up, "A" Company going to the trenches of the 1st Battalion Dublin Fusiliers, "B" to the 2nd Royal Fusiliers, and "C" to the 1st Munsters.

Battalion Headquarters and "D" Company were stowed away in the reserve trenches. All these battalions had suffered very severely since the historic landing on April 25th. The Munsters, for instance, had not more than a hundred of their original men left.

About this time the Turks were evidently apprehensive of an attack, and made the night hideous by prolonged bursts of rapid musketry fire. Our introduction to the front trenches was therefore a fairly lively one.

Here we first encountered some of the gruesome spectacles incidental to this style of warfare. Such sights as the withered hand of a Turk sticking out from the parapet of a communication trench, or the boots of a hastily buried soldier projecting from his shallow grave, produce on one's first experience of them an emotion of inexpressible horror. It was still more trying to look on the unburied dead lying in groups in front of the parapet; and further away, near the Turkish lines, the bodies of so many of the Scottish Rifles who had been swept down by concealed machine-guns only a week before in their gallant attempt to advance without artillery support.

It is well that this acuteness of feeling soon becomes blunted. One quickly learns to regard such things as an inevitable aspect of one's everyday environment. Thank God for this; life in the trenches would otherwise be unbearable.

Major Fisher, commanding the 2nd Royal Fusiliers, was good enough to let us have a perusal of his Trench Standing Orders. Afterwards he allowed Capt. Simson to make a copy of these, which we always referred to as "Napoleon's Maxims." As a record of practical experience in trench routine they proved invaluable to us later on; when we had to hold trenches of our own we used them as the basis of our organization of duties.

Gully Ravine, Cape Helles

During this instructional tour "D" Company sweltered in its reserve trench under a blazing sun, vainly seeking shade and refuge from the flies.

Evening brought the report of the Battalion's first "killed in action"—Pte. Wallace of "A" Company, who had been shot through the head while on look-out in the firing-trench.

If possible the heat became more scorching. We all suffered an unquenchable thirst upon which gallons of tea when available made little or no impression.

The drinking water was unpalatable, being heavily chlorinated to sterilize it. Our modest ration of unsweetened lime-juice sufficed to remove the unpleasant flavor from one fill of a water-bottle, but would not stand further dilution. In any case water-bottles could not be refilled at will, and it was a long walk to Gully Ravine from which we drew our water. It may be recorded here that this "trench thirst," as we dubbed it, remained with us for our first few weeks on the Peninsula. Thereafter it gradually disappeared until our craving for liquid became normal.

Meanwhile we were rapidly learning to adapt ourselves to circumstances; to sleep soundly on the fire-step of a trench; to extemporise fuel and cooking appliances; to endure the myriads of flies which swarmed over our food, pursuing it even into our mouths, bathed (and drowned) themselves in our drink, and clustered on our faces, waiting in queues to sip moisture from our eyes or lips; to live with relish on bully-beef, Maconochie, tea, hard biscuits and jam; in short, we were becoming able to fend for ourselves.

After dark on July 8th the Battalion moved back to our rest trenches near Pink Farm and had an excellent night's sleep.

The following day we received orders to relieve the 7th H.L.I. in the firing-line to the right of the Achi Baba nullah.

The move took place in the afternoon, and although we left in very open formation—single file with distances of three yards between individual men and thirty between platoons—the Turk spotted us and turned on his artillery. Seven men of "D" Company were wounded, and more casualties were incurred further on when we reached the communication trenches.

It is easy to write that between 4 and 7 p.m. we took over the firing and support lines, but the relief itself was a difficult matter—those relief's always were, for trenches are narrow things through which a fully-equipped and weary man passes with difficulty. Troops must not leave a trench until the relief's have arrived and taken over the duties. This is absolutely necessary, but it means that until the relief is completed the trenches are usually crowded out and one's passage along them is a painful struggle.

The nomenclature of trenches is always interesting. Those we were now in borrowed their names from battalion commanders in the Royal Naval Division—Parsons Road, Trotman Road, and Mercer and Backhouse Roads. Through this system of trenches ran two communication trenches—Oxford Street and Central Street, in which latter Battalion Headquarters were situated.

Our first night passed uneventfully, but the following day we gathered that something was brewing. Orders were received to clear the western portion of our firing line and support trench to permit of a bombardment by the French artillery. (The French held the right sector at Gallipoli.) Fire opened at 3.45 p.m. and for about two hours the "Seventy-fives" kept at it, doing considerable visible damage to the enemy's wire and trenches. The enemy replied with counter-battery work, and also shelled our communication trenches what time Colonel Morrison and Captain Simson, our Adjutant, had the unpleasant duty of reconnoitering the area in which the bulk of the enemy's fire was falling. They were searching for trenches in which the Battalion would be held in reserve for the attack which was now in preparation.

During the night Lieut. W. Beckett reported some activity in No-man's Land in front of "A" Company and invited the bombers to try their hand. Now the bombers had received their first introduction to their precarious weapons only 24 hours previously, when they took over from the 7th H.L.I. a Garland mortar, a trench catapult and various crude jam-tin and canister bombs of sinister aspect. Selecting the catapult, which Lieut. Leith thought would be less dangerous to his team than the mortar, they aimed as best they could in the dark, applied a canister bomb to the pouch, lit the fuse and pressed the trigger. The shot was a lucky one exceeding their highest expectations. It burst among a party of Turks crouching in the open. Amid shrieks of "Allah!" survivors could be distinguished making for cover. Immediately the Turkish line opened up rapid fire, which was continued for about half an hour before things settled down to normal again.

Our first week on the Peninsula was over. Casualties for this period were: officers, one wounded; other ranks, three killed and twenty-six wounded, of whom three subsequently died of their wounds.

The Fifth Battalion, Highland Light Infantry

The Fifth Battalion, Highland Light Infantry in the War 1914-1918

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