For generations the Australian public has associated Gallipoli with a beach and a dawn landing. In recent years, books, documentaries and television series have repeated a story that leap-frogs over the campaign’s stereotypical events and images: the Landing, the 24 May armistice, Lone Pine, the Nek and the evacuation.
Few of those who fought in the campaign landed before dawn on 25 April 1915; those that did so didn’t take Lone Pine nor charge the Nek. Men’s experiences varied greatly. The main dictator of a man’s fate, apart from luck, was his unit.
The 11th Battalion, Australian Imperial Force, was raised in Western Australia but included many men from the United Kingdom, Victoria and elsewhere. As part of the Third Brigade, they were one of four covering force battalions who fought their way ashore before dawn on 25 April. Only 350 out of a thousand initially answered their names when they re-assembled several days later.
Soon after, the battalion was called upon to make what would become known as the ‘first raid’ by the AIF: volunteers were asked to assault the well-defended promontory of Gabe Tepe. Having survived one pre-dawn landing in darkness, the men were asked to repeat the performance in daylight. Captain Ray Leane, who was to command the raid, asked for volunteers:
The men…knew exactly [what they] would have to face…[They] were…keen as mustard, the pick of Australia’s manhood, men who did not understand the word failure.
Leane gave the command for volunteers to take two paces forward: ‘Every man present immediately stepped forward. I felt a proud man indeed to have command of such men’.
It proved impossible to get off the beach, and the survivors were forced to extract themselves while under heavy enemy fire.
In the pre-dawn darkness of 19 May, the men standing-to in the firing line glimpsed movement—Turks appeared to be crawling through the scrub in front. The outposts came in and word passed quietly from mouth to mouth, ‘as though we were afraid to speak … “Jacko” was on the move’. Firing erupted ‘the length and breadth of Anzac’, as 30–40,000 Turks hurled themselves at the invaders’ lines. The attack failed, and a few days later members of the 11th Battalion emerged warily from their trenches to bury the dead and fraternise with their enemy, in the now famous ‘armistice’.
Another unpleasant episode followed. The spur before their lines, Silt Spur, was to be captured by tunnelling, and each night an 11th Battalion covering party was to lie out on the bald spur to protect the tunnellers. The covering party were helplessly exposed to enemy bullets from nearby trenches; and bombs and attacks by Turkish patrols.
Then, on 28 June, the battalion was ordered to participate in a feint to assist the British at Cape Helles. In a remarkable demonstration of courage and discipline, the men lay out for hours in broad daylight, helplessly exposed to enemy shrapnel and bullets. It’s barely conceivable that any survived; 21 didn’t, and 42 were wounded.
In July, Turks were discovered digging-in on a ridge occupied by the 12th Battalion. They had to be evicted. Once again, the job was given to the 11th Battalion.
This would be more than a blind charge. Four tunnels were driven towards the Turkish position and four mines set to blow out the garrison. At 10pm on 31 July, four parties of 50 men waited in their jumping off positions in the darkness of Tasmania Post. Many suffered from dysentery and other complaints, but summoned their strength and resolve for the charge.
Two showers of earth and sparks erupted with a roar into the night. The other two mines remained silent. The Turks opened a heavy fire on the area, their fire building rapidly in intensity. Should Leane, who had been given command of this assault also, wait for the final explosions, or descend on the Turks before they recovered? He gave the order to charge. Without hesitation the Western Australians ‘scrambled from the trenches and flung themselves into the darkness’.
One mine exploded as they charged, its debris falling about them. Then followed a brutal night of fighting in a dark and smoke, dust and body-filled trench. In some places the Turks fought to the death, in others, they withdrew to counter-attack behind showers of bombs. At dawn the exhausted 11th Battalion survivors still held position, but with the light came the enemy barrage. A few days later the Turks counter-attacked, annihilated sections of the garrison and occupied a portion of the position. Once again the 11th Battalion charged. The fighting was so brutal that Lieutenant E.W. Morris, who had arrived on the peninsula only two days previously, wrote two accounts of it in his diary—one for his family, should he be killed and the diary sent to them, the other hidden.
The assault and capture of the position had cost 36 killed and 73 wounded. The fighting in August claimed the lives of 55 and left about 100 wounded.
The 11th Battalion had fought six actions in about 100 days of war—surely an unrivalled record for the ANZAC forces at the time. But the campaign still had many months to run. By the end, very few men who had been at the Landing were still with the battalion and had not been away sick or wounded. The battalion had received roughly a thousand reinforcements since arriving in Egypt.
Soon after the campaign, the existing veteran battalions were split in half to create two nuclei of experienced men from which to build new battalions. Men who had lived, survived and fought together, faced separation from each other and the battalion. On 29 February 1916, the 3rd Brigade battalions were paraded. ‘Goodbyes were said out there in the desert, the while many a strong man’s eyes grew moist’. The final order was bellowed across the parade ground, and the halves of the old battalion separated. ‘And then with the cheers and good wishes of all who remained’, the nucleus of the new battalion, the 51st, marched out. The Gallipoli Campaign was over, many of the originals gone. The veterans would soon prove to be the backbone that weathered the worst the Germans could throw at them. One night in France in 1916, the troops somehow worked out that the 51st and 11th Battalions were billeted near each other. Their commanders seemed not to begrudge the somewhat ragged route march the following day.