The Irish at Gallipoli is a six-part podcast series recorded by Dr Jeff Kildea who was Keith Cameron Chair of Australian History at University College Dublin in 2014. Dr Kildea was also the Chief Investigator on the Irish Anzacs Project which has made available to researchers and the public a database of the approximately 6500 Irish-born members of the Australian Imperial Force who served in the First World War. The Irish Anzacs Project was made possible through the generous support of the Global Irish Studies Centre of the University of New South Wales; the invaluable partnership of UCD; and a grant from the Irish government’s Emigrant Support Programme. Click here to access the database.
Episode 4 – The August Offensive (Sari Bair)
In the series of battles for Krithia from April to July 1915 at Cape Helles the Allies and the Turks had fought each other to a standstill at a great cost in lives. The Allied Commander in Chief Sir Ian Hamilton shifted the focus of the campaign to the Anzac sector in an attempt to break out of the positions which the Anzacs had taken on the day of the landing and where they had remained ever since. The principal aim of the August offensive was to seize the high ground of the Sari Bair range. Among the troops sent to reinforce the Anzacs for the offensive were men of the 29th Brigade of the 10th (Irish) Division. This episode looks at a number of the battles in which the Irish fought alongside the Australians and New Zealanders in the struggle for the heights.
In the previous episode we saw how in a series of battles between April and June 1915 the Allies’ frontline at Cape Helles had been pushed a few kilometres north at great cost but without managing to capture the village of Krithia or the high ground of Achi Baba, which had been the objectives for the first day of the campaign.
Consequently, Sir Ian Hamilton decided in July to shift the point of attack from Helles to the northern sector, at Anzac Cove. Here the frontline to the east of the cove extended along the Second Ridge from below Chunuk Bair to Lone Pine on the 400 Plateau. The aim was to capture Chunuk Bair and the summit of the Sari Bair range Hill 971, and to join up with a subsidiary force that would advance from Russell’s Top across the Nek to Baby 700, a knoll just south of Chunuk Bair. A series of feints would be made to deceive the Turks as to the location of the main attack including a ‘demonstration’ at Lone Pine and attacks on the Turkish trenches from positions along the Second Ridge. At the same time, a force would be landed at Suvla Bay to secure a base of operations for all the forces in the northern sector.
The attacks on Chunuk Bair and Hill 971 were to be carried out by men of the New Zealand and Australian Division, commanded by an Irishman, Major General Alexander Godley. The Anzacs would be reinforced for the attack on Sari Bair by the 29th Indian Brigade, comprising regular battalions of Gurkhas and Sikhs, and by four brigades of the British New Army, including the 29th Brigade of the 10th (Irish) Division, comprising the 6th Battalion Royal Irish Rifles, the 6th Battalion Leinster Regiment and the 5th Battalion Connaught Rangers as well as the 10th Battalion Hampshire Regiment. The Lone Pine feint was assigned to the 1st Australian Division, while the Suvla Bay landing was to be carried out by Britain’s IX Army Corps, comprising New Army troops of the 11th (Northern) Division and the two remaining brigades of 10th (Irish) Division, the 30th and 31st.
Between 2 and 6 August, the New Army reinforcements landed at Anzac Cove at night under cover of darkness. In the early hours of 6 August the Irishmen of the 29th Brigade found themselves camped alongside Australians and New Zealanders in Shrapnel Gully. Within a short time they learned why it had been so named, when a few of their number were killed or wounded by exploding shells. These men were citizen soldiers like the Anzacs alongside whom they were about to fight. But unlike the Anzacs, they had not been in battle before.
At 4.00 pm on 6 August, the great offensive began, starting with a feint at Helles to divert Turkish attention. An hour and a half later, the Australian 1st Division commenced its assault on Lone Pine. It was to be one of the bloodiest fights of the whole campaign, resulting in more than 2000 Australian and 5000 Turkish casualties over the next four days. Seven Australians were awarded the Victoria Cross. It was at Lone Pine that the 5th Battalion Connaught Rangers first saw action, supporting the Australians and helping to clear the Turkish trenches of the dead, dragging the bodies to Brown’s Dip for burial.
Meanwhile, two companies of the 6th Battalion Leinster Regiment relieved the Australians holding Courtney’s Post and Quinn’s Post, both precarious positions on the Second Ridge, where throughout the night the Turks kept up a stream of rifle and machine-gun fire. General Godley later wrote to the commander of the 29th Brigade that ‘the work of the Leinster Regiment at Quinn’s Post & Russell’s Top has been excellent throughout’.
Nevertheless, the actions at Lone Pine, Courtney’s and Quinn’s were merely diversions, whose purpose was to draw Turkish reserves to the south of the Anzac position, while the main Allied force under General Godley stealthily climbed the rugged spurs leading to the coveted prizes of Chunuk Bair and Hill 971, the high points of the Sari Bair range.
The initial phase of this operation was completed successfully with the New Zealand Mounted Rifles seizing the foothills that left the way open to Chunuk Bair. Unfortunately, the task of actually getting that far had proved more difficult than the plan had envisaged and the assault on the peak was running behind schedule – enough for the Turks to work out what was afoot and to reinforce their flimsy force on top of the hill. As a result, all attempts to seize the summit during the day were beaten back at great expense to the attackers.
In the early hours of the next morning, 8 August, the Wellington Battalion of the New Zealand Infantry Brigade, supported by two New Army battalions of the 13th (Western) Division attacked under cover of darkness. Much to the surprise of the Wellington commander, Lieutenant Colonel Malone, a New Zealander of Irish descent, the crest at the southern shoulder of Chunuk Bair was found to be unoccupied. During the artillery barrage that had preceded the attack, the Turks had abandoned the position. For the first time since 25 April, men of the Anzac force could look out on the Dardanelles – the ultimate prize of the whole campaign. But theirs was a feeble foothold, for once day broke the Turks began to pour a withering fire onto the position and onto Rhododendron Ridge, a spur which ran down from it, forcing the rest of the Allied troops to scatter into the deep gullies on either side of the spur. By 9 am, the companies of the Wellington Battalion clinging to the crest had been wiped out, leaving the support companies holding a trench just below it. For a day and half they held on. On the night of 9–10 August they were relieved by two English battalions. Out of the 760 men of the Wellington Battalion who went into the fight, only 70 were unwounded, with Malone among the dead.
Birdwood still saw the chance to achieve success by bringing up additional troops to attack Chunuk Bair. He ordered his reserves, including the 6th Battalion Royal Irish Rifles, to join Godley’s force. Leaving Anzac Cove at 10 am on 8 August, the reserve force marched north to Chailak Dere, one of the ravines that led inland. But their progress was blocked by a stream of wounded and other traffic coming down the gully from the battlefield above. After a night of scrambling over very rough country they arrived at a small plateau beneath Chunuk Bair called ‘the Farm’, where British and New Zealand troops occupied trenches around its outer edge. In the Australian Official History, Charles Bean wrote that the Farm ‘projected from the hillside like a terraced tennis-court or cricket-field … any attempt to cross the terrace was deadly’. He then described what happened next:
As they lay there, an order came to a company commander of the [Royal Irish] Rifles to advance over the terrace. ‘Surely you won’t do it – it can’t be done,’ said an officer of the Maoris who lay next him. ‘I’m going – I’ve been told to,’ was the reply. He led forward the men round him, and, according to the testimony of the Maori officer, none came back.
Bean recorded in a footnote to his account that bodies of men of the Royal Irish Rifles were found after the war within 20 metres of the crest of Chunuk Bair.
The 6th Battalion Leinster Regiment was also committed to the fight, arriving on the night of 9 August at the Apex, a knoll on Rhododendron Ridge a few hundred metres from the summit. But by then the Turks, under Mustapha Kemal, were assembling on the far side of Chunuk Bair in readiness for a counterattack that was unleashed the next morning. Waves of Turkish infantry swept over the summit killing most of the New Army defenders on the crest and driving the remainder back down the western side. The 6th Battalion Royal Irish Rifles, fighting desperately to hold the Farm, lost almost all its officers before withdrawing from the position.
On Rhododendron Ridge, the advance position at the Pinnacle, occupied by the Loyal North Lancashires, was overwhelmed and the way was open for the Turks to push the British Empire troops off the ridge. In front of them was the Apex held by the remnants of the Wellington Battalion, the Leinsters and the massed machine-guns of the New Zealand Infantry Brigade. Major Bryan Cooper, an officer with the 10th (Irish) Division, described what happened next:
On the right the Leinsters stood their ground. At last the moment had arrived to which they had so anxiously looked forward. Turk and Irishman, face to face, and hand to hand, could try which was the better man. … In spite of the odds, the two companies in the front line succeeded in checking the attack, and at the crucial moment they were reinforced by ‘B’ and ‘C’ Companies from the support line … Shouting, they flung themselves into the fray, and drove the Turks back after a desperate struggle at close quarters.
Holding the Apex was vital as the New Zealand machine-gunners, who had been concentrated there, were able to pour a withering fire into the Turks, stopping their further advance. After the battle Major General Godley sent for the commanding officer of the Leinsters and complimented him on the work of the battalion that morning.
The Connaught Rangers, who were brought up to support the New Zealanders, reoccupied the Farm. But with the Turks in command of the high ground, their position was untenable and they were ordered to withdraw. Thus ended the battle of Chunuk Bair, the last best hope of an Allied victory at Gallipoli.
In the next episode we will look at the landing at Suvla Bay and the battles in the Suvla sector involving the Irish regiments.
Image: Turkish machine gun position with German officers during the fighting at the Dardanelles, Turkey. Source: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-S29571 / CC-BY-SA [CC BY-SA 3.0 de], via Wikimedia Commons