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Gallipoli - Operations 12th - 18th July 1915

British Isles Genealogy | The Fifth Battalion, Highland Light Infantry

GALLIPOLI (contd.)—OPERATIONS 12th-18th JULY, 1915.

In the afternoon of July 11th the firing and support lines were cleared for another bombardment, and later we were relieved by the 7th H.L.I., who took over our right sector, and the 5th Argylls who took over our left. Enemy artillery gave us unpleasant attention, causing some casualties before we had installed ourselves in reserve trenches immediately behind.

In accordance with orders for the battle which was to be fought the next day, "A" Company was moved into Plymouth Avenue in support of the 6th H.L.I. on the extreme left.

There were to be two attacks against strong Turkish positions which had already defied capture; the first in the morning by the 155th (South Scottish) Brigade, from the right of the sector of trenches held by the Lowland Division; the second in the afternoon by our own Brigade. French troops were to push forward simultaneously with the first attack. The 156th Brigade—Royal Scots and Scottish Rifles, who had been so badly cut up in the attack of 28th June—was to be Divisional Reserve.

Both attacks were to be preceded by a bombardment, and in each case three lines of trenches were to be captured and the furthest line held.

Fortunately the eve of the battle was quiet, and the exhausting ration, water and ammunition fatigues, which only those can appreciate who have taken part in such preparations, were pushed through in the dark without serious interruption from the enemy. At length it dawned and the sun rose in a cloudless sky.

It is well-nigh impossible for one who has played but a small part in a big engagement to give a coherent description of the whole. He can tell only of such happenings as came under his own observation. Of the broader issues and general trend of the action, as well as of the minor local incidents away from his own little corner of the field, he can but repeat what he has learned from others, reconciling as best he can the conflicting versions of the same episode as it is narrated by those who have seen it from different points of view or taken part in it.

The preliminary bombardment of the enemy's lines commenced punctually at 4.30 a.m. The Turkish guns replied almost at once, and the volume of fire on both sides rapidly increased until the din and vibration became almost unendurable. From our Headquarters at the junction of Oxford Street and the Old French Road little could be seen of what was going on. Our artillery was mainly concentrated on the trenches away on the right which were to be assaulted by the 155th Brigade, only a few guns being directed at the position on our immediate front; its turn was to come later.

At 7.30 our artillery fire ceased with startling suddenness. The hour for the attack had arrived, and the guns were now to be switched on to the Turkish artillery and reserves to prevent these giving any effective assistance to the troops defending the trenches. A minute or two later distant cheering and the sharp rattle of musketry were heard mingling with the roar of the Turkish guns. The 155th had gone in.

An hour or two elapsed before any news of their fortunes reached us; an hour or two during which the guns thundered almost as vigorously as ever and the rifle-fire came and went in bursts. Then things began to quieten down and tidings sped along the lines that the attack had succeeded: the French had gained some ground on their extreme right, and the 155th had secured their objective.

Soon, however, this good news was robbed of some of its gladness by a rumour that at least one of the K.O.S.B. battalions had been badly cut up—that they had gone too far and had been unable to return; what had become of them no one seemed to know. It was several days before we heard what had actually happened. The 4th K.O.S.B. had been ordered to take three lines of trenches which were shown on the maps issued for the attack. Two lines were rushed without much difficulty; but there was no third line to take!—at least not where the third line appeared on the maps. The map had been prepared from photographs taken from aeroplanes, and in these photographs there appeared as a trench what proved to be, in reality, only a shallow ditch or sunken pathway. Photography, we are told, cannot lie; evidently it may at times mislead.

When the attacking battalion reached this ditch they did not recognise it as their furthest objective and went right on, seeking the non-existent third trench, until they came into the area which the French artillery were shelling to prevent the forward movement of the Turkish reserves. It was long hours before they were able to fall back on the captured trenches, and then only after terrible losses.

Towards 2.30 p.m. a message reached us that the attack by our Brigade might be delivered earlier than the appointed time and that we were to be prepared to move. Orders had previously been received that companies were not to go into action with more than four officers and that each was to leave twenty-five men with Battalion Headquarters.

The artillery preparation for the afternoon attack was a repetition of the morning bombardment, but as fire was now almost entirely concentrated on the trenches in front of our Brigade, we were able to form a better conception of its effects. The destruction was enormous. Parapets and trenches were scattered in clouds of dust which soon became so dense as to blot out the entire landscape from our sight. The impression was that of a huge black cloud resting on the ground, a cloud incessantly rent and illumined by the red flashes of the bursting shells. Nothing, it seemed, could live under such smashing fire. In actual fact, as we saw for ourselves after the position had been taken, the enemy's casualties from it were appalling. The morale of the survivors must have been terribly shaken. The marvel is that, after such an experience, they were able to put up so stout a resistance as they did at many points.

The attack of the 157th Brigade was launched about 5 p.m. Over the parapet of Oxford Street we watched the 6th H.L.I. advancing in successive lines on our left flank. Nothing could have been finer than the steadiness with which line after line pushed on through the enemy's bursting shrapnel, until each in turn was hidden from view in the inferno of smoke and dust which screened the trenches.

Meanwhile the 5th A. & S.H. and the 7th H.L.I. were pressing forward on our front and right respectively, but of their movements practically nothing could be observed by us. "C" Company moved up into Trotman Road as soon as the attack had passed clear of it and—as we learned by a message from Major Downie received two hours later—half of "A" Company had been advanced into Nelson Avenue in close support of the 6th H.L.I.

At 6.20 a message arrived from the Brigade that the 7th H.L.I. had secured their objective and that we were to send fifty men with picks and shovels to assist in consolidating their front line. These we supplied from "D" Company in reserve, with instructions to get the tools from "B" and "C" Companies as they passed through.

After 7 a further order was received to send at once a fatigue party of twenty-five, with tools, to Brigade Headquarters at Port Arthur. Lieut. J.F.C. Clark was despatched on this duty with the twenty-five men left behind by "C" Company. A few minutes later another message arrived, with instructions for "C" Company to move forward and support the 7th H.L.I., whose firing line required reinforcement. This was passed to Captain Neilson. On taking his company forward he found the front trench already so crowded that only a few of his men could be got into it, and he withdrew the remainder again to the support trenches, leaving Captain Brand with one platoon to assist the 7th.

Shortly after 7.30 an officer of the 6th H.L.I. brought a message from the Brigade Major (Major E. Armstrong, H.L.I.) asking us to send a party to take over a number of prisoners from the 7th H.L.I.

Sec.-Lieut. R.E. May was despatched on this duty with the twenty-five men left at Headquarters by "B" Company. We never saw him again. With the two or three leading men he got separated from the remainder of his party in the confusion which prevailed after nightfall in the maze of trenches in front. In his search for them he came upon a small trench held by a mixed party of units of the 155th Brigade. A strong counter-attack was developed against this trench. With the few men he had he took an active part in driving back the enemy but was killed as the attack was finally repelled, and buried where he fell.

Until far into the night every available officer and man left at Battalion Headquarters was kept hard at it bringing ammunition, stores and rations from the Brigade dump at Backhouse Post up to the firing line. The work was exhausting but the men, recognising its vital importance, laboured willingly. When finally we did get settled down for a few hours sleep, it was with the pleasing consciousness that in this, our first big engagement, if the fates had afforded us no opportunity of gaining special distinction, we had at least put in much useful work and contributed indirectly to the success of our comrades' efforts. But in the meantime, although it was not until the following day that any news of it reached us, "A" Company had had an innings and had played the game in a way that must ever be recalled in the Battalion with pride.

It will be remembered that this company had been sent to support the 6th H.L.I. That battalion's task was to seize the Turkish trenches on the west bank of the Achi Baba nullah—trenches officially designated F11, F12 and F12A. Our capture of these would protect the left flank of the E trenches—the objective of the remainder of the attack—which would otherwise be left very open to counter-attack from the west of the nullah. Branching off from F12A, and running back in a long curve into the enemy's next line of defence, was a trench known as F13. It was necessary, if F12A was to be held by us, that the southmost stretch of F13 should be cleared of the enemy.

F11, the portion of F12 running eastwards from F12A down to the nullah, and F12A itself were captured in rapid succession by the 6th H.L.I. For about 100 yards to the east of F12A, F12 had been so knocked about by our artillery that it was no longer a trench—merely an irregular series of shell craters—and it was completely evacuated by the enemy.

But when they had secured F12A the 6th found their impetus exhausted. It is no discredit to them that this was so, for of the three Battalions launched to the attack they had the worst ground to traverse and the heaviest fire to face.

"A" Company during the earlier stage of the attack had been pushed forward, in close support, to a small work known as the Lunette near the head of Nelson and Plymouth Avenues.

About six o'clock, finding that his own battalion had as much as it could do in holding and consolidating F12A, Major Anderson, who was temporarily in command of the 6th, ordered "A" Company to move forward and take F13. On receiving this order Major Downie led Nos. 3 and 4 platoons over the parapet, the right half-company under Captain Morton following them at a short interval. Their route led along the lower end of F12A, which had been almost pounded out of existence by our high explosives. There were several casualties while traversing this zone, including Major Downie himself who received a severe bullet wound in the head.

Reaching F13 the company drove the enemy a considerable distance up the trench until checked at a point 70 or 80 yards beyond its junction with F12A. Here the Turks, possibly reinforced, made a determined stand behind a traverse or interior work of some kind and a comparative deadlock ensued, both sides maintaining a heavy fire at a distance of less than 30 yards, but neither being able to gain any ground.

At this stage, through some misunderstanding, two machine guns arrived from another unit in response to a verbal message passed back through the crowded trenches asking for "a machine gun in a hurry."

The enemy had all along been using grenades freely, and very soon after the arrival of the machine guns a vigorous counter-attack was pushed against our narrow front under cover of a perfect hail of bombs. Sec.-Lieut. J.W. Malcolm, who was with our most advanced party and had been handling his men coolly and steadying them by a splendid example of courage and endurance, was killed.

Simultaneously with his fall one of the machine guns was disabled and put out of action. The men, deprived of their leader, gave back about 20 yards, leaving the machine gun behind, while the Turks pushed on still under cover of a storm of bombs, to which our men could not reply as they had not been issued with grenades.

For a time the situation was critical. It looked as if "A" Company were to be driven back and the trench lost. But they soon steadied down to hold on. The Turkish grenade had a fuse which burns for 8 to 10 seconds; it therefore rarely explodes until some seconds after it has fallen. Recognising this, some of our bolder spirits began to pick up and throw back the enemy's grenades. Pte. J. Melrose and Corporal A.R. Kelly were amongst the first to attempt this and their example was quickly followed by others. It was a deadly dangerous game, for it was impossible to tell how long any fuse had still to burn and the grenade might explode at any moment, but though several men were killed and wounded in this way, the survivors persisted bravely and the Turkish advance was effectually checked. Their bombing slackened off gradually and it became possible to hold on until the R.E. came up and erected a barricade across the trench.

While this was transpiring word of the loss of the machine-guns had gone back. Captain Morton heard of the incident and decided to make an effort to recover them. Having collected a small party of six or eight volunteers, he climbed out of the trench and worked his way along the open ground beside it, making a slight detour apparently with the intention of rushing the guns from the flank. Dusk was now turning to darkness and those who were in the trench were unable to see what actually happened. The little party evidently came under heavy fire before they were in a position to make the rush. One or two got back unhurt; one (Private Cleugh) mortally wounded, staggered into the trench just in front of the barricade which was being erected, and was brought in only to die; of Captain Morton and the others nothing more was seen. One can only hope that their deaths came quickly and that they were mercifully spared the lingering torture of waiting wounded for succour which could not be rendered. It was a splendid plucky effort, which might well have succeeded, and, though it did not succeed, it at least failed gloriously.

Lieuts. W. Beckett and L.G. Aitken with the sadly diminished company held on grimly, and Corpl. C. M'Intosh, who was blinded by a bomb which exploded in his hand, Corpl. R. Holman, Lance-Corpl. W. Miller, Pte. G.B. Langland, who was severely wounded, and Pte. (afterwards Sergt.) A. Paterson specially distinguished themselves. At 1.30 next morning the Company was relieved by the Plymouth R.M.L.I. Before dawn an alarm summoned them to the front again, but nothing untoward happened.

On the morning of 13th July a curious incident happened among certain troops in the firing line. The trouble began, as it so often does, with an indiscreet verbal message. One of the front trenches was over-crowded and the officer in charge wished to relieve the congestion by sending back a section. Without thinking of possible consequences he passed along a message for No. —— Section to retire, and, as this order was not complied with as rapidly as he expected, followed it up with a more peremptory message that the section was to retire at once. Scarcely ever does the simplest verbal message passed along a line of men reach its intended recipient in the form in which it was despatched. The result is sometimes puzzling, sometimes amusing; on this occasion it was nearly tragic, as part of the firing line was left untenanted.

Captain John MacDonald, who had "B" Company in Parsons Road as Permanent Garrison, as soon as he became aware of what was happening telephoned back for instructions. His message was somehow delayed, and receiving no reply to it he took the responsibility of acting on his own initiative. Though the Permanent Garrison was detailed in orders to remain in Parsons Road, he pushed forward at once with his company and occupied the abandoned trenches before the enemy had time to make any move to secure them. This saved the situation.

Early in the forenoon vague and conflicting rumours began to come in about "A" Company and the losses it had sustained. As we were anxious to get definite particulars of what really had happened and as to where the company now was and how it was faring, Major Jowitt set out to find it and obtain the desired information. He had not been long gone when a message arrived from Lieut. Beckett giving particulars of the losses. The hours slipped past without any word from Major Jowitt and we began to fear that some mischance had befallen him. At last, towards three o'clock, word came from the 7th H.L.I. that he was lying wounded in a trench known as E12A a short distance in front of the Horse Shoe. On further enquiry we learned that his wounds did not appear to be serious, but that it would not be possible to get him out of the trench until after dark as all approaches to it were being heavily sniped. Colonel Galbraith, who had found him wounded, had made him as comfortable as was possible in the circumstances, and one of our own men, having heard where he was, had gone up to the trench to remain with him until he could be removed. As soon as it was dark enough to cross the intervening ground, Captains Simson and Neilson with our medical officer, Captain Kennedy, and a stretcher party went up and brought him down to a dressing station, where his wounds were attended to and he was sent down to an hospital ship. The report was that his wounds were not serious, although he was naturally in considerable pain after lying so long in the sun and after his trying passage down from the front through narrow and winding trenches.

At a conference of C.O.'s held at Brigade Headquarters at 3.40, we were informed that a battalion of the Royal Naval Division was arriving to deliver an attack on the right of the 155th Brigade with the object of securing some gaps in the line between that Brigade and the French. This was preceded, at 4.30, by the usual bombardment. There would appear to have been some ghastly blundering in connection with the arrangements for this attack. We heard afterwards that the battalion was quite ignorant of the ground; that it only arrived a few minutes before the attack was timed to commence; and that it had difficulty in finding the trench from which it was to move on its objective. There must have been similar uncertainty about the objective itself, for the troops advanced across the open, suffering severely from shell-fire, into a trench already held by the 155th Brigade, a trench which—had they known it was so held—they might have walked into by a communication sap with little if any loss. Afterwards they pushed on some distance beyond this trench but found no other to take, and when they fell back on the existing front line the position remained exactly as it had been before the attack, except for the terrible casualties they had so unnecessarily sustained. In his published despatch, Sir Ian Hamilton, referring to this attack, explains its necessity by stating that "about 7.30 a.m. the right of the 157th Brigade gave way before a party of bombers, and our grip upon the enemy began to weaken." He must have been entirely misinformed as to the position, unless the "giving way" to which he refers was the mistaken retirement from the trench which Captain John MacDonald had occupied, as previously narrated. If this is so, the officer who issued the orders to the Naval Battalion cannot have been informed that the "giving way" was only temporary and that the 157th Brigade had almost immediately reoccupied its trenches and was actually holding them when this unfortunate attack was launched.

About four o'clock we received the bad news that Captain John MacDonald had been killed—shot through the head by a sniper's bullet—in the front trench which his company was still assisting to hold. This brought the total of our officers' casualties in the two days' fighting to seven; three killed (Captain MacDonald and Lieutenants Malcolm and May) one missing (Captain Morton), and three wounded (Majors Jowitt and Downie and Lieutenant J.G. Milne).

For two days after the battle all units were kept busy gathering up the arms, equipment and loose ammunition with which the terrain was littered, as well as maintaining the defence of the captured positions.

On the afternoon of July 15th, "C" and "D" Companies took over the trenches on the west of the Achi Baba nullah from the Plymouth Battalion, while "A" Company relieved part of the Drake Battalion and the 6th H.L.I. on the east of the nullah. This relief had to be carried out after nightfall, as the position was as yet unsafe from Turkish marksmen who sniped the approaches by day. The sector included the famous Horse Shoe Trench which was then a death trap, although, after much labour had been expended upon it, it was latterly known as the safest position on the Peninsula.

That first night was an eerie one for "A" Company, and for our Signalling Officer, Captain R.H. Morrison, who had to link up Battalion Headquarters in Wigan Road with the isolated company. Selecting a quiet interval about 11 p.m. he slipped out from F12 with a couple of his Headquarters signallers to run the line across. Working over almost unknown ground, with only a general idea of the direction and position of the enemy, their worst anxiety was lest in the dark they should lead their wire into a Turkish trench instead of the Horse Shoe. A few bullets were sweeping down the nullah as they crossed, but fortunately none of the little party was hit. Breasting the slope on the further side they eventually landed safely in the Horse Shoe, much to the surprise of the sentries there. It did not take long to instal the instrument, and, leaving one of the signallers in charge of the new station, the party retraced its steps and got back to Headquarters shortly before midnight to report communication established.

On the 16th we took over from the Manchester a small stretch of trenches on our left, and "C" Company salved fifteen asphyxiating bombs from a pent-house in one of the nullah trenches. A captured Turkish officer, evidently disapproving of these innovations by his German masters, had given information as to where they would be found. Packed in two cases marked RAKATEN, they were long, slender, uncanny-looking projectiles evidently intended for discharge from a trench-mortar.

For the next two days and nights we laboured almost unceasingly, dog-tired and hardly able to keep awake, improving our defences.

The R.E. wired our front across the nullah, and we ourselves extended F12A and F12 down to the bed of the stream as a first step towards joining up with the Horse Shoe.

Over forty Turks were buried at this time between F11 and F12. F11 itself was so densely packed with corpses that it had to be filled in.

After dark on the 17th, "B" Company, now commanded by Lieut. N.R. Campbell, relieved "A" in the Horse Shoe. "A" had several casualties during its tour of duty there, some men having been hit in the trench itself, others while going back for water.

On the west side of the nullah Pte. A. Heron was killed, and the bombers holding the barricade which had been thrown up on the 12th had casualties also. Our snipers gave a good account of themselves, one having seven observed hits to his credit and another five on the same day. There was a well about 400 yards off, round which occasional parties of Turks could be easily observed until they realised that the recent advance had exposed the place to our view.

On July 18th, "A," "C," and "D" Companies were relieved by the 6th East Lancs, and painfully dragged their weary way back to rest. The journey of less than three miles took us fully four hours, for we were all pretty well played out after nine such days and nights as we had just come through, and the scorching heat necessitated many a halt by the way. How we revelled in that drink as we paused at Romano's Well!—the only spot on the Peninsula where we could get a draught of real, cold, unchlorinated water!

About 6 p.m. we reached our destination, a series of holes in the ground lying between the Pink Farm Road and "X" Beach, and about a mile behind the Farm itself. The Quarter-Master, Lieut. T. Clark, and his satellites had a good meal of hot stew and potatoes ready for us, and lots of tea, after which we stretched our blankets on the ground, lay down and fell asleep.

It was not till 5.30 next morning that "B" Company rolled up, absolutely "cooked." They had not been relieved until 2.30 a.m., the Lancashires not having considered it safe to move up their company until a communication trench, on which we had been working for some days, had been completed.

The Fifth Battalion, Highland Light Infantry

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

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