Showcase-Sunday: Goodbye cobber...
At 4:30am on August 7th 1915 the Australian 3rd Light Horse Brigade sent two regiments on a futile bayonet charge against Turkish trenches in Gallipoli.
The battlefield was called The Nek; A narrow ridge high on the Gallipoli Peninsula about the size of four tennis courts in total. That's a front of about 80 metes long and only 27 meters from the enemy lines which were defended by multiple rows of trench-systems lined with a determined defender armed with rifles and machine guns.
The attack was to take place together with an attack by New Zealand troops from Chunuk Bair during the night and was intended to capture a “knoll” called Baby 700 where the New Zealanders and Australian’s would link up and push further inland. It wasn't to be the triumphant success the commanders envisaged though...
The Australian forces comprised 600 men of the Light Horse. These troops were mounted troops originally destined for the Western Front in France and Belgium however due to the incredible losses in the Gallipoli Theatre were re-diverted there as infantry reinforcements.
They were loath to leave their treasured mounts behind however were also keen for battle. They had heard their comrades were getting pummelled over there and so we keen to get at the enemy. They were to find the fight they were looking for on the Gallipoli Peninsular.
The attack was to commence at 4:30am, after a naval bombardment of the Ottoman positions; An attack of four waves of 150 men each over two minute intervals. The 8th and 10th Light Horse regiments were selected for that duty, so two waves per Regiment.
Just for some perspective, the distance to the first Turkish trench was 27 meters. (just under 30 yards). That’s the length of a tennis court, end to end. They were close enough to hear each other talking. Ranging back up the hill were cut six more trenches all bristling with Ottoman's defending their territory.
Unfortunately for the Diggers (Aussies) the naval bombardment ended at 4:23am, a full seven minutes prior to the attack jumping off leaving the defenders time to re-enter their trenches from their deep holes and prepare for the assault that they now knew was imminent.
The Australian troops were not sure if the bombardment would recommence and so were ordered to wait until the appointed hour to commence the attack; A fatal mistake, just like the mistake of ending the bombardment seven minutes early.
In the Australian trenches the men waited quietly. They knew they would probably die or at the very least be injured and each dealt with it in their own way.
Many pulled their knives and punched them into the sand bags t for others to collect later: Watches, necklaces and letters home to their loved ones for their mates to send home on their behalf. Some muttered prayers and others words of encouragement. Most were silent, lost in their own thoughts.
The sound of the Turkish defenders could be heard, guns being loaded and racked, the clinking of machine gun belts being laid out and the harsh words in their own language; Probably words of encouragement for the fight to come.
To go over the top meant climbing the trench wall, often by a crude ladder and breaching the parapet (the mound of dirt and sand bags that faces the enemy. The walls were often higher than a man and so some assistance was required. Typically ladders were used however in this case they were deemed as too slow; Command wanted the attack to be rapid.
The first wave were to be hoisted up by the second wave, and so on. They would place a booted foot into the clasped hands of their cobber, rifle in one hand and the other grasping the trench above to assist in the hoist. They would get over the top and simply charge the enemy trenches 27 meters away…
Wait…Wait…Steady boys...The Sergeants would call with all the resolve they could muster...
4:30am…The shrill whistle blew and men half pulled themselves, and were half boosted, upwards and over the parapet. Immediately the shouts and yells of the men were drowned out by gunfire as the Turkish defenders opened up with machine gun and rifle fire concentrated upon the 80m front cutting the men down to a man.
In the 30 seconds it took for the action to play out the first wave of the 8th Light Horse Regiment including their commanding officer Lieutenant Colonel Alexander White were destroyed. It is said a couple of the men reached the Ottoman lines but were shot or bayonetted in short order to die amongst the enemy.
The second wave were splattered with the blood and gore of their mates as soon as they hoisted them over the top and they watched in horror as their mutilated bodies fell backwards into the trench or slumped over the parapet. The macabre, brutal sight accompanied by screams, the thud of bullets into bodies and the repetitive bang bang bang of the machine guns, the zip of bullets flying by and of bodies falling back into the trench dead. They knew they were next to go over.
4:32am…The second wave, without a word of question, were hoisted over the top in the same fashion as the first. 150 men left the relative safety of the trench and entered the maelstrom of hot lead that was The Nek and charged towards the enemy. Before they reached halfway to the Ottoman trenches they were also cut down, almost to a man. The entire 8th Light Horse regiment had been decimated in a few short minutes.
The third wave prepared themselves even as their commander desperately tried to contact his superior in an attempt to call off the, obviously, futile attack. They had seen their mates slaughtered and knew that they were next unless their commander was successful in gaining orders to cease the attack. He was not.
One Trooper turned to his mate beside him and said, “Goodbye cobber. God bless you” and up they went.
The third wave, of the 10th Light Horse Regiment, went over and were met by the same hail of bullets the 8th had faced. The third wave ultimately suffered slightly less casualties as they decided to seek cover the moment they went over the top having felt their obligation to "attack" had been met. That's the thing with Australian soldiers...They could adapt to the changing battlefield, rather than blindly following orders like the British did, and going to ground seemed quite prudent at that moment.
Finally the commanders realised the futility of the attack and called it off, but a little too late…
Due to confusion getting the orders to the front about 80 men of the fourth wave went over the top and were slaughtered inside of a minute before the order to cease the attack was delivered.
4:45am…The sand and soil of the Nek was soaking up the blood of hundreds of Australian men.
Moans, calls for help, for an end to their misery, their mates and for mother’s far away in Australia echoed on the now silent battlefield. Trenches full of Turkish defenders stayed vigilant for another attack, gun barrels smoking still with the heat of firing so many rounds in the short period of time. The Australian defenders, those that remained, stood in their own trench, tears streaming down dirty faces for their mates lost and in joy that they were spared the horror of going over themselves. It must have been an odd feeling for those who didn't go over the top that day.
600 Australian Light Horse Troopers assembled for that ill-fated attack; Sons, brothers, fathers and husbands. They followed Australian officers who led from the front, and died at the front. These were brave men fighting Britain’s war in a foreign country most had never heard of a year earlier.
Of the 600 men 372 became casualties. Of the 300 8th Light Horse Regiment 234 were casualties with 154 killed. The original 300 men of the 10th had dwindled with 138 casualties and 80 dead. Interestingly the Turkish defenders lost only 8 dead, negligible in the scheme of things. This is partly due to the fact the Australian’s were ordered to charge with rifles unloaded with fixed bayonets. This order was given as their commanders (in all their wisdom) felt that if they were loaded the momentum of the charge could ebb if the Troopers were to expend their magazine and stop to reload. Good old British military thinking of the day right there.
Most of the dead lay where they fell for the duration of the war as it was impossible to recover them. After the end of the war the Australian Commonwealth burial parties arrived to find the bones of the dead blanketed on the small piece of ground at The Nek.
They lay there still, albeit it with more honour, as The Nek Cemetery lies on the ground where they fell in no-mans-land between the two trench systems. It is tragic for them and their families that only five of them could be identified.
One Light Horse Trooper who was identified was from the 10th Light Horse Regiment, a young Aussie bloke called Harold Rush. He died in that third wave. Trooper Rush is buried in the Walker’s Ridge Cemetery and on his grave stone is carved his famous last words to his mate as mentioned above…”Goodbye cobber, God bless you.”
These men, the Australian Light Horse, were supposed to be a mounted unit and were trained for sweeping battles in France and Belgium, the Western Front. They had landed in Cairo, Egypt to stage prior to deploying to the front however the calamity at Gallipoli changed everything.
They left their horses behind and went to reinforce their mates on the Peninsula. Many died, not just at The Nek, but at various other battles and when they withdrew were sent to the Western Front to face yet more horrors. It was a tragic waste of life of course.
The First World war is widely credited to be the crucible...And places like Bullecourt, Messines, Hill 60, Passchendaele, Polygon Wood, Fromelles, Villers Bretonneux, The Somme, Ypres and of course Gallipoli and The Nek the anvil on which this nations sprit was forged.
Many people probably have no idea of what happened in these, and other battlefields around the world and I feel sad about that. It's almost like their sacrifice has been forgotten. Not for me though. I remember, as we all should. I don't glorify war, far from it, but in understanding it we have the chance to learn from the mistakes of the past and maybe change the future.
Here's a poem written during World War One and first published in 1920
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
-Wilfred Owen- (2nd Lt, 5th Bn. Manch. R., T.F., attd. 2nd Bn)
Note: Wilfred Owen was not to survive the war. He was killed in action on the 4th November 1918 only one week before the armistice was signed on the 11th. He was awarded the Military cross and below is his citation:
For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in the attack on the Fonsomme Line on October 1st/2nd, 1918. On the company commander becoming a casualty, he assumed command and showed fine leadership and resisted a heavy counter-attack. He personally manipulated a captured enemy machine gun from an isolated position and inflicted considerable losses on the enemy. Throughout he behaved most gallantly.
Lest We Forget
Tomorrow isn't promised - Design and create your ideal life, don't live it by default
An original post written by a human
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Images taken by me at the Australian War Memorial, Villers Bretonneux, France.