Fatal Charge at Gallipoli: August 1915

Posted on Wednesday 12th August 2015

High above Anzac Cove on the Gallipoli Peninsula is a tiny war cemetery called The Nek at Russell’s Top, up Walker’s Ridge. Today you don’t have to climb the ridge to get to The Nek. The Nek was a narrow track leading from Russell's Top to Baby 700 which was reached and passed by the 12th Australian Battalion early on 25 April, but not held. You can drive there, taking a small turn-off from the road that now snakes its way along the front lines between the battle fields halfway up the Sari Bair Range.
Here on top of Sari Bair the distance between the Allied and Turkish trenches was little more than today’s two-lane stretch of winding bitumen. The cemetery at The Nek is built over this short corridor – No Man’s Land, as it was 100 years ago. There are only ten raised grave markers in its springy turf, set in two clumps of five, separated by the grass where a few small wild mauve anemones glow in the spring sunshine. The cemetery stands as a reminder of one of the most futile actions of the Gallipoli Campaign.
It was at The Nek that an infantry attack was planned for 04.30 hours on 7 August 1915. It was to be a diversionary action aimed at tying down Turkish troops whilst Allied units to the north (Australians, British, New Zealanders, Gurkhas and Indians) tried to storm the heights of Chunuk Bair and Hill 971.

The Charge of the 3rd Light Horse Brigade at the Nek, 7 August 1915, a painting by George Lambert. (Courtesy of the Australian War Memorial; ART07965)

Things went awry from the outset when the preceding artillery bombardment ended early, allowing the Turkish defenders time to prepare their positions. Despite this error, armed only with rifles, bayonets and raw courage, the first wave of 150 men from the Australian 8th Light Horse Regiment, led by their commander, Lieutenant Colonel A.H. White, ‘hopped the bags’ and went over the top.
They were immediately met with a hail of machine-gun and rifle fire. Within thirty seconds, Colonel White and nearly all of his men were gunned down. A few reached the enemy trenches, and marker flags were reportedly seen flying, but these men were quickly overwhelmed and shot or bayoneted by the Ottoman defenders.
Trooper Dave McGarvie was one of the few who survived being part of the first wave: ‘Out we went – no sooner were we out than they opened fire on us. Our orders were not to fire but to rush up to within 2 yards of the trench, then wait till the bomb throwers cleared the trench with bombs, then go to work and finish the job with the bayonet.
‘I hadn’t gone 10 yards when head over heels I went amongst some wire – rifle one way, helmet the other, the sling was hooked in the wire. I extracted it, put on my helmet and raced on through a hail of bullets. We were under a cross fire from machine guns.
‘About 20 yards from their trench was a gully about 20 feet deep with fairly thick scrub. Down this I went and got up to the Turks’ trench on the other side. The trench was bristling with bayonets and another trench behind the first was full of Turks. I did not happen to be a bomb thrower so I got my rifle ready.
‘The only thing I could see worth shooting at was a Turk bayonet, 2 yards in front, so I fired and snapped it clean in two. Then the second row of Turks stood up showing heads and shoulders. I got some splendid shots – altogether I fired about 10 shots and I am certain of four or five Turks. Heads and shoulders at 10 or 12 yards was just easy shooting. Every time I fired a man went down. Then I felt a terrible crack on the foot.’

This extraordinary photograph is believed to show two surviving unwounded officers of the 8th Light Horse after the charge at the Nek sitting with the regiment’s new medical officer, Captain Frank Beamish (centre) in his dugout. Major Arthur Deeble is identified as being on the right, Captain Mervyn Higgins on the left. (Photo J. Campbell in collection Mr Greg Gillespie)

The second wave followed the first without question two minutes later, no doubt aware they were going to die. Yet they too charged without question, stumbling over the bodies of their fallen comrades before they also fell.
Captain Leslie Fraser Hore, born in India, educated in the UK at Wellington College and Corpus Christi College, Oxford, led the right wing of the second line as it charged. Under him were three subalterns and, he estimated, 175 men.
Captain Hore was one of the very few of the second wave to survive. He wrote to his mother from a hospital ship afterwards, with a bullet wound through the bone of his right foot and another through his right shoulder. He said he had been through ‘the valley of the shadow of death’. As soon as his men had heard the noise that greeted the first line, ‘we knew we were doomed’.
Hore estimated that with the Turkish machine-gunners firing 600 rounds a minute and their riflemen fifteen rounds a minute, there were at least 5,000 rounds a minute being poured into them on this tiny battlefield the size of three tennis courts. As the crackle of fire grew into a roar again, he said he had never heard such an awful sound: ‘We saw our fate in front of us but we were pledged to go and to their eternal credit, the word being given, not a man in the second line stayed in his trench.
‘As I jumped out I looked down the line and they were rising over the parapet. We bent low and ran as hard as we could. Ahead we could see the trench aflame with rifle fire. All round were smoke and dust kicked up by the bullets.
‘[Then] I felt a sting on my shoulder and remember thinking it could not be a hit or it would hurt more. It bled a lot I found afterwards but it was only a flesh wound. I passed our first line all dead or dying it seemed and went on a bit further and flung myself down about forty yards from the Turkish trenches …
‘The trench ahead was a living flame, the roar of musketry not a bit diminished. I was protected by a little, a very little fold in the ground and by a dead Turk, dead about six weeks. I looked around again and reckoned I could get about six men to follow and it would have been murder to take them on …’

Australian troops charging on the Gallipoli Peninsula. (Historic Military Press; coloured by Jon Wilkinson)

Against this backdrop, the commander of the 10th Light Horse Regiment attempted to have the third wave cancelled. Claiming that ‘the whole thing was nothing but bloody murder’, he could not convince the Brigade Major. By 04.45 hours, the ground in front of the Turkish positions at The Nek was covered with dead and wounded Australian soldiers, most of whom remained where they fell for the duration of the campaign.
Using the letters and diaries of those who fought and died in this famously futile action, award-winning journalist and best-selling author, in Fatal Charge at Gallipoli John Hamilton takes the reader on a journey from the rush to recruit in August 1914 when war was declared, through the training camps to the unforgiving terrain of Gallipoli and the unbending Turkish defenders, and finally to that fateful morning and that fatal charge.

The view north from The Nek looking up North Beach and, beyond, Ocean Beach, with Suvla Bay beyond.

The Nek Cemetery on the Gallipoli Peninsula – pictured in May 2006.

Trooper David McGarvie of the 8th Light Horse, a gentle dairy farmer who became a deadly sniper on Gallipoli and had a miraculous escape from death at the Nek. (Mr David Collyer)

'I hadn't gone 10 yards when head over heels I went amongst some wire – rifle one way, helmet the other, the sling was hooked in the wire. I extracted it, put on my helmet and raced on through a hail of bullets. We were under a cross fire from machine guns.'
– Trooper Dave McGarvie

Abover and below: Surviving trenches on The Nek – possibly Australian. (Historic Military Press)


The view looking across The Nek in February 1919 taken by an official Australian photographer, Captain Hubert Wilkins. Wilkins has positioned himself in the old Australian front line of 1915 and in the middle distance, standing where the Turkish front line was, is the memorial known as Sergeant Memhet’s Tomb. Notice the human thigh bone in the foreground. Bean described the area in 1919 as ‘strewn’ with the human remains of the men of the Light Horse who had charged the Turkish lines on 7 August 1915 and of Turkish soldiers. (Courtesy of the Australian War Memorial; P03631.228)

Further Reading

Fatal Charge at Gallipoli
(Hardback - 280 pages)
ISBN: 9781848329027

by John Hamilton
Only £25.00

Armed only with rifles, bayonets and raw courage, the men of the 3rd Light Horse Brigade left the shelter of their rocky trenches to storm The Nek, a narrow stretch of ridge held by the Ottoman Turks. The first wave of attackers were cut down almost as soon as they stood up. Those that followed knew they were going to die. Yet they too charged without question, stumbling over the bodies of their fallen comrades before they also fell.

The commander of the 10th Light Horse Regiment…
Read more at Pen & Sword Books...

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