How Anzac was fought, soldier by soldier
4 Aug 2018|

The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918, volume I, The story of ANZAC from the outbreak of war to the end of the first phase of the Gallipoli campaign, May 4, 1915, was published in 1921—a remarkable feat given that its author, C.E.W. Bean, was still overseas in 1919. Since then, more than a thousand books have been written on the campaign.

It might seem that there’s little more to be said. The problem is that the landing at Beach Z by the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps is shrouded in myth, mystery and confusion. Bean gave us a valuable foundation, but, with a few significant exceptions, the story of the battle is often simply repeated or embellished with the new author’s prose, rather than investigated. An accomplished Gallipoli historian once said to me: ‘I have read the Official History, and I don’t understand what happened at the landing, do you?’

It’s long been argued that the Allied attack turned too quickly into defence, thereby handing the initiative to the enemy. In The Landing in the Dawn, I set out to examine how and why that happened with an approach not available to Bean: I limited the focus to a single battalion over one day. That enabled a much deeper and more detailed study than previous efforts.

The 11th Battalion was raised in Western Australia, but contained many men from the United Kingdom, Victoria and elsewhere. On 25 April 1915, they landed with the covering force, the first wave of the ANZAC landing. Their job was to fight their way ashore, if necessary; push the Ottoman troops away from the landing beaches; and establish a ‘covering position’ to shield the landing of the remainder of the force. As the 11th Battalion’s members fought as far north as Fisherman’s Hut and south as 400 Plateau, inland on Third Ridge and on the high ground of Battleship Hill, this study places much of the battlefield under a microscope.

One of the first steps in reconstructing the history was to determine which officers belonged to which companies and platoons and, if possible, to do the same with the enlisted men. Bizarrely, such a roll for 25 April doesn’t exist, or at least hasn’t been found. This might appear an administrative task of little historical merit, but it became one of the keys that unlocked the history of the battle.

An example of the way this information can change the way we view the battle is examination of the early decisions by commanders and the early movements and dispositions of troops. The Official History tells us that soon after the landing, ‘the two companies of the 11th under Captain Barnes and Major Denton’ were directed to establish themselves on Second Ridge. That was not their planned objective.

Later, as more troops arrived, many were also directed there to occupy ground, but that wasn’t their objective either. The reason for the deviations was concern about an anticipated counterattack from inland on the right. Those decisions in effect converted an offensive battle into a defensive one. The different arguments about how the battle developed are based on varying interpretations of the evidence.

Some arguments are based on troop dispositions. If B and D Companies were sent to Second Ridge, that means up to 500 rifles in eight platoons were available to defend the ridge. Overlaying the reconstructed battalion structure—the roll of who belongs to which companies and platoons—repaints this picture.

B Company’s commander, Captain Charles Barnes, did proceed to Second Ridge. His second-in-command (2ic), Captain Eric Tulloch, famously made his way to Battleship Hill. Second Lieutenant S.H. Jackson, 5 Platoon, found himself fighting near Tulloch. Lieutenant F.P.D. Strickland, 6 Platoon, was ordered to attack Fisherman’s Hut, on the beach on the left flank. Lieutenant A.H. Darnell, 7 Platoon, commanded the battalion scouts and was detached from his platoon, and Lieutenant J. Newman, 8 Platoon, initially fought forward of Second Ridge, and later with the 10th Battalion. In other words, Barnes had not a single officer or intact platoon with him.

D Company’s commander, Major J.S. Denton, proceeded to his designated position, as did his 2ic, Captain A.E.J. Croly. Like Strickland, Lieutenant C.A.P. Gostelow, 13 Platoon, was attacking Fisherman’s Hut, Second Lieutenant H.H. Walker, 14 Platoon, was lying wounded on the beach, and Lieutenant M.L. Reid, 15 Platoon, and Second Lieutenant C.F. Buttle, 16 Platoon, had been dispatched to the high ground and fought with Tulloch. Denton consequently also had not a single intact platoon with him. Ascribing men to platoons, when possible, reveals more. Corporal Tom Louch was a member of 16 Platoon, and was fighting in Wire Gully, on the inland side of Second Ridge, with others of his platoon. Part of Buttle’s platoon was on Battleship Hill—the high ground on the left—and another part was at the southern end of Second Ridge, about a mile away.

Similarly, determining where men were on the battlefield, and when, by cross-referencing as many sources as possible, establishes new frames of reference and chronologies.

When it’s reconstructed from this level and in this type of detail, the battle can be viewed quite differently from previous accounts. There’s a great difference between dispatching a company of six officers, four platoons and over 200 men to a point, and sending a captain with an unknown number of men in unknown formations.

The latter drastically reduces a commander’s ability and confidence to thrust for strategic points, or defend others. One cannot be confident of holding against a counterattack when, instead of dispatching two companies under known and trusted leaders, the ground is held by a mixed collection of men of an unknown number—none of them under command of his platoon officer.

By contrast, the fact that the men fought as hard as they did and endured all that the day could throw at them, despite the breakdown of military structure, explains in part why the men of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps created such a reputation in those first days on the Gallipoli peninsula.