The Attack on Chunuk Bair – Highwater of Gallipoli

A painting by WETA Workshop of the ferocious fighting along the top of Chunuk Bair

The battle for Gallipoli between Ottoman defenders and British and Commonwealth invaders is one of the most popular theaters of conflict for players getting into ‘Blood & Valor‘. The 11 month campaign was being mythologized before the smell of blood and cordite had even faded from the cliffs over the Dardanelles. For this reason, I decided to tackle Gallipoli for a custom made demo table to use at events. There were many famous battles that I could have chosen for my demo game – the infamous attacks at the Nek or Scimitar Hill, or the assualts on Lone Pine and Krithia Vineyard. However, I chose the battle which not only connected all of these offensives, but was the entire reason that those battles were fought.

By August of 1915, the British and Commonwealth forces were clinging to the craggy beaches of Gallipoli by their fingernails. After failing to capture Krithia, the British front at Helles was stalled. Both the British ‘Mediterranean Expeditionary Forces’ (MEF) and the Ottoamns had both poured reinforcements into the fighting; 10 fresh divisions each left the sides at 15 and 16 respectively. Many of the MEF’s troops came from Kitchener’s freshly trained ‘New Army’, and now general Ian Hamilton wanted to use those men to support a breakout assault in the ANZAC sector. This breakthrough was intended to link with the troops of IX Corps landing at Suvla.

The attack began at night. Troops of the New Zealand, Wellington, Otago and Canterbury Mounted Rifles attacked up the length of a ridge known as the Rhododendron Spur. Many of the close assaults were led by Maori troops among the Auckland Rifles. The attacks carryied critical positions like ‘Tabletop’ and ‘The Apex’ below the crest of Chunuk Bair. However, the rough terrain of Gallipoli was already playing havoc with the operation’s timetable; the attackers were delayed by 2 hours.

Well, we thought a good way to frighten the enemy as well was to repeat this Maori haka, ‘Ka mate, ka mate!’ – perhaps that may have put the fear of God into them and cleared the trench for us. As far as I can remember, we didn’t have to put any bayonet through any of them at all. I suppose the haka was enough for them, and they wondered who on earth these savages were.

Capt. Tahiwi, Auckland Mounted Rifles

By 04:30, 3 New Zealand battalions occupied a small knoll called ‘The Apex’, 500 yards below the summit. Unbeknownst to the troopers waiting in the early morning, their objective was only held by two-dozen sleeping Ottomans. However, a fourth battalion advancing to support the assault was hopelessly lost in the rough terrain, and fatefully, Colonel Johnston postponed the attack. For the Australian Light Horse at the Nek, this delay was disastrous. Instead of coordinating their attack with men streaming down from Chunuk Bair, three waves of Australian troopers charged headlong into Ottoman machineguns without support.

With the destruction of the Australians at the Nek, the element of surprise was wholly lost. By 10am, Mustafa Kemal had rushed an additional 500 defenders to the crest of Chunuk Bair. Colonel Johnston ordered the Aukland Battalion to advance, carrying through the Apex. Within minutes, 300 Aucklanders were dead or wounded – only 100 of them made it to shelter at the Apex. A further attack was made, with the same result. The New Zealanders dug in at the Apex, and a forward position known as the Pinnacle, to lick their wounds. The Ottomans dug a shallow slit trench a few feet below the ridge of Chunuk Bair.

Another WETA painting of the carnage during the Aucklanders’ failed attack

August 8th, opened with a 45 minute artillery barrage of the peak by Commonwealth guns, followed by an attack supported by a dozen machineguns. The artillery had driven the Ottomans from the hill; the Wellingtons and Gloucester Infantry Battalions reached the peak without any casualties. For the briefest moment, Commonwealth troops could see the campaign’s whole objective from the summit – the Dardanelle Strait was a shimmering haze on the far side of the peninsula. Then, the killing began in earnest.

Chunuk Bair was bracketed by two strong Ottoman positions; their main trench line from the South, and a small redoubt at Hill Q to the north. Machinegun fire poured into the position, only stopping for Ottoman counter attacks. The reverse slope of Chunuk Bair was even steeper than the ANZAC ascent had been, but the sharp drop behind the ridge kept the Ottomans out of sight until they were within just a 20 yards of the shallow trench. The dozen machineguns that had initially supported the ANAC advance were now useless for defending their gains.

The Wellingtons and Gloucesters held fast; firing until their guns were red-hot. The wounded could not be evacuated back down the slopes, and many died where they lay along the floor of the trench.

The wounded in the forward trench were the bravest ever; they are now skeletons on Chunuk Bair. It didn’t matter how badly they were knocked, they still loaded rifles for us. I had four rifles – my own and three others that the chap down below was loading for me. He had one leg nearly shot off and the other leg was just a mangled-up mess – and he was just handing them up.

Vic Nicholson, Wellington Batt.
The Wellingtons hold the line, as wounded men pass loaded rifles up from below

Casualties amongst the New Zealanders were immense. The commanding officer of the Wellingtons, Lt-Col. William Malone, was killed by friendly shellfire while using his field telephone to call in artillery practically on top of the position. New Zealand earned its only Victoria Cross awarded during the campaign when Cpl. Cyril Bassett of the NZ Signals Co. ran up and down the slopes below Chunuk Bair, keeping those field telephone lines functioning. Of the 760 Wellingtons who had attacked that day, 711 were casualties. Most were dead. Almost none were captured. The Gloucesters lost 350 men, and all of their officers.

With the attack on Chunuk Bair stalled by repeated Ottoman counter attacks, Mustafa Kemal was able to turn his attention to IX Corps at Scimitar Hill, above Suvla. On August 9th, the fighting there became so intense that the dry underbrush of the hill was set ablaze. As with the Nek, the attack was a disaster; hundreds of casualties for no gain.

At the end of the day on August 9th, the Wellingtons and Gloucesters were finally “relieved.” In reality, the survivors who had managed to drag themselves back to the relative safety of The Apex were evacuated back to ANCAC Cove – a 3 day march. Two New Army battalions advanced to replace them; the 6th Battalion of the South Lancashires, and some of the 5th Battalion of the Wiltshires. Vic Nicholson described the scene upon leaving Chunuk Bair

If I was asked to give a description of the color of the earth on Chunuk Bair, I would say it was a dull, browny red – and that was blood.

Vic Nicholson, Wellington Batt.

On the morning of August 10th, Mustafa Kemal ordered his troops into a massive human-wave attack to push the British from the hill. The inexperienced Lancashires and Wiltshires broke and fled almost immediately. The men streamed past the Apex, and down the ridge towards Tabletop. Machinegunners raked the attacking Ottomans to break up the charge, heedless of the many fleeing Lacashires and Wiltshires among the khaki tide.

TURKS attack about 06:00, several reaching crest of RHODODENDRON SPUR. A firing line was formed and to the top of RHODODENDRON SPUR where they came under a hot fire. The line was withdrawn about 10 yards from the crest, a machinegun enfiladed the line from the left, inflicting several casualties, a sniper on our left also inflicted losses. Lt Figgi skilled. Lt Col Craske wounded in left arm. Attack withdrew about 07:45 and firing line was retired to the trench

Leinster Btn. diary

The Leinsters held their ground on the Pinnacle above the Apex, but it cost them half their number. With both sides suffering incredible losses, and vast swathes of the British line collapsing, the British forces fell back to positions further down the Spur. The Ottomans would dig in more deeply along the ridge at Chunuk Bair, and positions such as the Apex and the Farm would become No Man’s Land on a new front between the armies. The fighting between the two armies would drag on for another 4 months before the British troops orchestrated a spectacular withdrawal from the peninsula.

For me, representing this battle – the high water mark of the Gallipoli campaign – is the best way to introduce people not just to ‘Blood & Valor’, but to also start the conversation about Gallipoli and the many heroic, tragic battles fought there.

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