Anzac Cove after the landings in 1915, courtesy of Wikipedia

Centenary News examines the role New Zealand troops played at Gallipoli

Posted on on 13 June 2013
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Centenary News contributor Svar Barrington reflects on the role New Zealand troops played in the Dardanelles Campaign of 1915.

At around 9am on 25 April 1915, the first New Zealand divisions of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (Anzac) landed at an area just south of Ari Burnu in the Dardanelles. It would later become known as Anzac Cove.

They struggled ashore under intense fire. Instead of climbable slopes, the heavily laden troops faced sheer cliffs. Confusion reigned as the Australians, who had landed five hours earlier, nearly two miles north of their intended destination, became hopelessly intermingled with the New Zealanders, preventing officers bringing order or coordination to the troops, most of whom were scattered amid the scrub.

It became quickly apparent that the fight was as much with the landscape as with the Turkish defenders as the men battled their way off the beaches, clawed up the cliffs and bashed through the bush. All the while, they were under constant fire from the Turkish 19th Division led by Mustafa Kemal Bey (later Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey).

The combination of obstacles proved insurmountable and one in five New Zealanders became a casualty that day. All the survivors could do was dig into the rocky cliffs to avoid being driven back into the sea.

The Gallipoli Campaign was New Zealand’s baptism of fire in the First World War. No other event is deeper etched into New Zealand’s psyche. ‘As familiar as Timaru or Taranaki’, as the former chief of the NZ Defence Staff, Lieutenant-General Bill Thornton, said.

Nearly 3,000 men were killed for a cause they barely understood. Although Anzac Day is the focal point of New Zealand national mourning for all wars, there is a special association with Gallipoli. Those buried there first earned New Zealanders the right to be seen, and see themselves, as a new and independent nation rather than simply British subjects.

The campaign itself was the brainchild of the then First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, as a means to open the Dardanelle Straits, which led to Constantinople (later Istanbul), and the Black Sea. The idea was that a naval attack would knock the Turks, then part of Ottoman Empire, out of the war, provide relief to Russia and help break the stalemate on the Western Front in Europe.

The Anzac troops, who had been garrisoned in Egypt while preparing to enter the Western Front, were picked to join the 75,000-strong Mediterranean Expeditionary Force with troops from Britain, France and other parts of the British Empire. Together they were transferred to the Greek island of Lemnos in preparation for the April landings.

The aim was to capture the Kilid Bahr plateau. From here the Turkish positions that dominated the sea approaches on both sides of the strait could be destroyed. Once that was done, the naval operation could proceed.

Some 15,000 troops came ashore in the first 24 hours of the initial landings. The Anzacs, clinging to the small strip of beach, were told by General Ian Hamilton to ‘dig, dig and dig until you are safe’. They did just that and Anzac Cove rapidly began to resemble a gold rush town. Casualties soon reached 50 per cent of those who had landed.

The first major attempt to break the deadlock was an attack on a hill called Baby 700 in early May by the Otago Battalion. Unfortunately, the commanders did not realise how long it would take the troops to reach their starting points or how exhausted they would be, having again underestimated the coarse terrain. The men arrived late and missed an opportunity to surprise the Turks. The attack was a failure and cost nearly 1,000 casualties. Said one Anzac of the day: ‘The noise was deafening; you couldn’t hear yourself scream.’

The British, further south at Helles, mounted an assault on the village of Krintha on 6 May. A contingent of New Zealanders joined them two days later, where they made two charges across a notorious piece of ground called the ‘Daisy Patch’.

They hoped to take Achi Baba, a hill overlooking the eastern side of the peninsula. The ill-conceived attack cost New Zealand 800 men (compared to 931 during the first three days’ fighting at Anzac Cove) and gained the Allies only 500 yards. The battle served to increase a sense of disillusionment and frustration among the troops, who began to question their leaders’ abilities.

On 19 May, the Turks attempted to push the allied forces back into the sea. Some 10,000 Anzacs faced more than 40,000 Turks. At the end of the day 3,000 Turkish troops lay dead or dying in no-man’s land while another 7,000 had been wounded. It was the worst defeat for the Turks during the whole campaign.

Summer brought with it prolonged stalemate. Men struggled with the heat, flies, disease and malnutrition. Veterans described the fear as constantly paralysing. The food was abysmal: ‘Tinned beans baked in the sun for days until they resembled something like ‘cat’s meat floating in oil’, as one soldier recalled.

After three months of fighting, living in squalor, with the goal of taking the Dardanelles no closer, many no longer cared if they lived or died. Some succumbed to their misery and deliberately exposed themselves to Turkish snipers.

In August a massive offensive was aimed at taking Chanuk Bair, which would give the Allies the strategic positioning needed to control the Narrows, an area of the strait less than two miles wide. The plan was to swing north to Suvla Bay and ascend a thinly guarded gully.

On 6 August the Maori Battalion and Mounted Rifles launched a midnight attack and took the Turks by surprise. The early gains were in vain, however, as leadership faltered again, when officers agued whether to push on as ordered or to wait for reinforcements. The moment was lost as Turkish reinforcements poured in.

The Auckland Division suffered heavy casualties as they attempted to advance. The Wellington Division, under the leadership of Colonel William Malone was ordered to follow them. Malone refused to send his men to the slaughter, however, and instead waited for the cover of darkness. As they raced to the abandoned summit, the Turks, who had relocated to other high points, opened fire. Malone was killed, along with most of his 780 men. The 70 or so left standing were forced to dig in any way they could.

They were joined by the Wellington Mounted Rifles and the Otago Battalion and together managed to hold out for another 24 hours. The arrival of the British on 9/10 August relieved the New Zealanders, but the Turks attacked again and Chanuk Bair was lost.

Although a few more failed battles dotted the remainder of 1915, the situation through winter was frozen stagnation. General Hamilton was sacked and the High Command declared that evacuation was the only option. In spite of everything, the Anzacs could not fathom the idea of retreat. Many could not bring themselves to accept they would be leaving their ‘mates’ behind.

Ironically the most successful part of the campaign was the evacuation, which was carried out in secret and without any casualties. By 21 December 1915, all the Anzacs were gone. The cost to New Zealand was 2,721 dead and 4,752 injured, out of 8,450 men – an 88 per cent casualty rate.

The tragedy of loss and defeat on New Zealand’s small population would make the experience sacred. The necessary myth evolved that New Zealand’s sacrifice in Gallipoli, and in the First World War in general, had earned her nationhood status, albeit at great cost.

The experience for the Turks, while at an even greater cost, began a process of national revival, centred on their hero, Atatürk. As the first President of modern Turkey, his words of clemency and reconciliation, now eternalised in stone at Ari Burnu, have cemented the cliffs and valleys of Gallipoli in the Anzac consciousness forever.

‘Those heroes who shed their blood and lost their lives! You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours. You, the mothers, who sent their sons from far away countries, wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.’

Atatürk, 1934

© Centenary Digital Ltd & Author