Extract from Gallipoli by John Masfield
(this book in ebook form is available from www.ozebook.com)
THIS early fighting, which lasted from dawn on the 25th April till noon on the following day, won us a footing, not more than that, on the Peninsula; it settled the German brag that we should never be able to land. We had landed upon, had taken, and were holding the whole of the south-western extremity of the Peninsula and a strip of the Aegean coast, in the face of an army never less than twice our strength, strongly entrenched and well supplied. We had lost very heavily in the attack, our men were weary from the exceedingly severe service of the landing, but the morrow began the second passage in the campaign, the advance from the sea, before the Turks should have recovered.
Many have said to me, with a naiveté that would be touching if it were not so plainly inspired by our enemies: "Why did not the troops press on at once, the day they landed? The Japanese pressed on the day they landed, so did the Americans in Cuba. If you had pressed on at once, you would have won the whole Peninsula. The Turks were at their last cartridge, and would have surrendered."
It is quite true that the Japanese moved inland immediately from their transports at Chemulpho and Chinampo. Those ports were seized before the Russians knew that war was declared: they were not defended by Russian soldiers, and the two small Russian cruisers caught there by the Japanese fleet were put out of action before the transports discharged. The Japanese were free to land as they chose on beaches prepared, not with machine guns and mines, but with cranes, gangways and good roads. Even so, they did not press on. The Japanese do not press on unless they are attacking: they are as prudent as they are brave: they waited till they were ready and then marched on. The Americans landed at Daiquiri and at Guanica unopposed and in neither case engaged the enemy till next day.
In the preceding chapter I have tried to show why we did not press on at once, after landing. We did not, because we could not, because two fresh men strongly entrenched, with machine guns, will stop one tired man with a rifle in nine cases out of ten. Our men had done the unimaginable in getting ashore at all, they could not do the impossible on the same day. I used to say this, to draw the answer, " Well, other troops would have done it," so that I might say, what I know to be the truth, that no other men on this earth either would have or could have made good the landing; and that the men have not yet been born who could have advanced after such a feat of arms. The efforts of men are limited by their strength: the strength of men, always easily exhausted, is the only strength at the disposal of a general, it is the money to be spent by him in the purchase of victory, whether by hours of marching in the mud, digging in the field, or in attack. Losses in attack are great, though occasional, losses from other causes are great and constant. All armies in the field have to be supplied constantly with fresh drafts to make good the losses from attack and exhaustion. No armies can move without these replenishments, just as no individual men can go on working, after excessive labour, without rest and food. Our losses in the landings were severe, even for modern war, even for the Dardanelles. The bloodiest battle of modern times is said to have been Antietam or Sharpsburg, in the American Civil War, where the losses were perhaps nearly one-third of the men engaged. At V Beach the Munsters lost more than one-third, and the Dublins more than three-fifths of their total strength. The Lancashires at W Beach lost nearly as heavily as the Dublins. At Anzac, one Australian battalion lost 422 out of 900. At X Beach, the Royals lost 487 out of 979. All these battalions had lost more than half their officers, indeed by the 28th April the Dublins had only one officer left. How could these dwindled battalions press on?
[Then for the individual exhaustion. Those engaged in the first landing were clambering and fighting in great heat, without proper food, and in many cases without water, for the first 24 or 36 hours, varying the fighting with hurried but deep digging in marl or clay, getting no sleep, nor any moment's respite from the peril of death. Then, at the end of the first phase, when the fact that they had won the landing was plain, some of these same men, unrested, improperly fed, and wet through with rain, sweat and the sea, had to hold what they had won, while the others went down to the beach to make piers, quarry roads, dig shelters, and wade out to carry or drag on shore food, drink, munitions and heavy guns, and to do this without appliances, by the strength of their arms. Then when these things had been done almost to the limit of human endurance, they carried water, food and ammunition to the trenches, not in carts but on their backs, and then relieved their fellows in the trenches and withstood the Turk attacks and replied to the Turks' fire for hours on end. At Anzac the A. N. ZrArmy Corps had " 96 hours' continuous fighting in the trenches with little or no sleep " and " at no time during the 96 hours did the Turks' firing cease, although it varied in volume; at times the fusillade was simply deafening." Men worked like this, to the limit of physical endurance, under every possible exposure to wet, heat, cold, death, hunger, thirst and want of rest, become exhausted, and their nerves shattered, not from fear, which was a thing those men did not understand, but because the machine breaks. On the top of the misery, exhaustion and nerve-ceasing peril, is " the dreadful anxiety of not knowing how the battle is progressing," and the still worse anxiety of vigilance. To the strain of keeping awake, when dead-beat, is added the strain of watching men, peering for spies, stalking for snipers and listening for bombing-parties. Under all these strains the minds of strong men give way. They are the intensest strains ever put upon intelligences. Men subjected to them for many hours at a time cannot at once " press on," however brave their hearts may be. Those who are unjust enough to think that they can, or could, should work for a summer's day, without food or drink, at digging, then work for a night in the rain carrying heavy boxes, then dig for some hours longer, and at the end ask me to fire a machine gun at them while they " press on," across barbed wire, in what they presume to be the proper manner.
Our men could not " press on " at once. They had not enough unwounded men to do more than hold the hordes of fresh Turks continually brought up against them. They had no guns ashore to prepare an advance, nor enough rifle ammunition to stand a siege. [They had the rations in their packs and the water in their bottles, and no other supplies but the seven days' food, water and rifle ammunition put into each boat at the landing. To get men, stores, water and guns ashore, under fire, on beaches without wharves, cranes or derricks of any kind, takes time, and until men and goods were landed no advance was possible. Until then, our task was not to press on, but to hang on, like grim death. It was for the enemy to press on, to beat our tired troops before their supports could be landed, and this the Turks very well understood, as their captured orders show, and as their behaviour showed only too clearly. During the days which followed the landing, the Turks, far from being at their last cartridge, and eager to surrender, prevented our pressing on, by pressing on themselves, in immense force and with a great artillery, till our men were dying of fatigue in driving back their attacks.
One point more may be discussed, before resuming the story. The legend, " that the Turks were at their last cartridge and would have surrendered had we advanced," is very widely spread abroad by German emissaries. It appears in many forms, in print, in the lecture and in conversation. Sometimes place and date are given, sometimes the authority, all confidently, but always differently. It is well to state here the truth so that the lie may be known. The Turks were never at the end of their supplies. They were always better and more certainly supplied with shells and cartridges than we were. If they were ever (as perhaps they sometimes were) rather short of big gun ammunition, so were we. If they were sometimes rather short of rifles and rifle ammunition, so were we. If they were often short of food and all-precious water, so were we, and more so, and doubly more so. For all our supplies came over hundreds of miles of stormy water infested by submarines and were landed on open beaches under shell fire, and their supplies came along the Asiatic coast and by ferry across the Hellespont, and thence, in comparative safety, by road to the trenches. The Turkish army was well supplied, well equipped, more numerous and in better positions than our own. There was neither talk nor thought among them at any time of surrender, nor could there have been, in an army so placed and so valiant. There was some little disaffection among them. [They hated their German officers and the German methods of discipline so much that many prisoners when taken expressed pleasure at being taken, spat at the name of German, and said " English good, German bad." Some of this, however, may have been Levantine tact.
Late on the 26th April, the French corps landed men at V Beach and took the trenches on the right of the ground won, i.e., towards the Straits. At noon the next day the whole force advanced inland without much opposition, for rather more than a mile. At nightfall on the 27th, they held a line across the Peninsula from the mouth of the Sighir watercourse (on the Aegean) to Eski Hissarlik (on the Straits). The men were very weary from the incessant digging of trenches, fighting, and dragging up of stores from the beach. They dug themselves in under shell and rifle fire, stood to their arms to repel Turk attacks for most of the night, and at eight next morning began the battle of the 28th of April. The French corps was on the right. The 29th Division (with one battalion of the R. N. Division), on the left. They advanced across rough moorland and little cultivated patches to attack the Turk town of Krithia. All the ground over which they advanced gave cover of the best kind to the defence. All through the morning, at odd times, the creeping companies going over that broken country came suddenly under the fire of machine guns, and lost men before they could fling themselves down. In the heather and torrent-beds of the Scotch-looking moorland the Turk had only to wait in cover till his targets appeared, climbing a wall or getting out of a gulley, then he could turn on his machine guns, at six hundred shots a minute each, and hold up the advance. From time to time the Turks attacked in great numbers. Early in the afternoon our advance reached its furthest point, about three quarters of a mile from Krithia. Our artillery, short of ammunition at the best of times, and in these early days short of guns, too, did what it could, though it had only shrapnel, which is of small service against an entrenched enemy. [Those who were there have said that nothing depressed them more than the occasional shells from our guns in answer to the continual fire from the Turk artillery. They felt themselves outgunned and without support. Rifle cartridges were running short, for, in spite of desperate efforts, in that roadless wild land with the beaches jammed with dead, wounded, stores, the wrecks of boats, and parties trying to build piers under shell-fire, it was not possible to land or to send up cartridges in the quantity needed. There were not yet enough mules ashore to take the cartridge-boxes and men could not be spared; there were too few men to hold the line. Gradually our men fell back a little from the ground they had won. The Turks brought up more men, charged us, and drove us back a little more, and were then themselves held. Our men dug themselves in as best they could and passed another anxious night, in bitter cold and driving rain, staving off a Turk attack, which was pressed with resolute courage against our centre and the French corps to the right of it. There were very heavy losses on both sides, but the Turks were killed in companies at every point of attack and failed to drive us further.
The next two days were passed in comparative quiet, in strengthening the lines, landing men, guns and stores and preparing for the next advance. This war has shown what an immense reserve of shell is needed to prepare a modern advance. Our men never had that immense reserve, nor, indeed a large reserve, and in those early days they had no reserve at all, but a day to day allowance, and before a reserve was formed the Turks came down upon us with every man and gun they had, in the desperate night attack of the 1st of May. This began with shell-fire at ten p. M., and was followed half-an-hour later by a succession of charges in close order. The Turk front ranks crept up on hands and knees without firing (their cartridges had been taken from them) and charged our trenches with the bayonet. They got into our trenches in the dark, bayoneted the men in them, broke our line, got through to the second line and were there mixed up in the night in a welter of killing and firing beyond description. The moon had not risen when the attack came home. The fighting took place in the dark: men fired and stabbed in all directions, at flashes, at shouts, by the burning of the flares, by the coloured lights of the Turk officers, and by the gleams of the shells on our right. There were 9,000 Turks in the first line, 12,000 more behind them. They advanced yelling for God and Enver Pasha, amid the roar of every gun and rifle in range. They broke through the French, were held, then driven back, then came again, bore everything before them, and then met the British supports and went no further. Our supports charged the Turks and beat them back; at dawn our entire line advanced and beat them back in a rout, till their machine guns stopped us.
Upon many of the dead Turks in front of the French and English trenches were copies of an address issued by a German officer, one Von Zowenstern, calling on the Turks to destroy the enemy, since their only hope of salvation was to win the battle or die in the attempt. On some bodies were other orders, for the Mahometan priests to encourage the men to advance, for officers to shoot those soldiers who hung back, and for prisoners to be left with the reserves, not taken to the rear. In this early part of the campaign there were many German officers in the Turkish army. In these early night attacks they endeavoured to confuse our men by shouting orders to them in English. One, on the day of the landing, walked up to one of the trenches of the 29th Division and cried out, " Surrender, you English, we ten to one." " He was thereupon hit on the head with a spade by a man who was improving his trench with it."
This battle never ceased for five days. The artillery was never silent. Our men were shelled, sniped and shrapnelled every day and all day long, and at night the Turks attacked with the bayonet. By the evening of the 5th May the 29th Division, which had won the end of the Peninsula, had been reduced by onehalf and its officers by two-thirds. The proportion of officers to men in a British battalion is as one to thirty-seven, but in the list of killed the proportion was as one to eleven. The officers of that wonderful company poured out their lives like water; they brought their weary men forward hour after hour in all that sleepless ten days, and at the end led them on once more in the great attack of the 6th-8th of May.
This attack was designed to push the Allied lines further forward into the Peninsula, so as to win a little more ground, and ease the growing congestion on the beaches near Cape Helles. The main Turkish position lay on and about the hump of Achi Baba, and on the high ground stretching down from it. It was hoped that even if Achi Baba could not be carried, the ground below him, including the village of Krithia, might be taken. The movement was to be a general advance, with the French on the right attacking the high ground nearer to the Straits, the 29th Division on the left, between the French and the sea, attacking the slowly sloping ground which leads past Krithia up to Achi Baba. Krithia stands high upon the slope, among orchards and gardens, and makes a good artillery target, but the slope on which it stands, being much broken, covered with dense scrub (some of it thorny) and with clumps of trees, is excellent for defence. The Turks had protected that square mile of ground with many machine guns and trenches so skilfully concealed that they could not be seen either from close in front or from aeroplanes. The French line of attack was over ground equally difficult, but steeper, and therefore giving more " dead ground," or patches upon which no direct fire can be turned by the defence. The line of battle from the French right to the English left stretched right across the Peninsula with a front (owing to bends and salients) of about five miles. It was nearly everywhere commanded by the guns of Achi Baba, and in certain places the enemy batteries on the Turk left, near the Straits, could enfilade it. Our men were weary but the Turks were expecting strong reinforcements; the attack could not be delayed.
Few people who have not seen modern war can understand what it is like. They look at a map, which is a small flat surface, and find it difficult to believe that a body of men could have had difficulty in passing from one point upon it to another. They think that they themselves would have found no difficulty, that they would not have been weary nor thirsty, the distance demanded of them being only a mile, possibly a mile and a quarter, and the reward a very great one. They think that troops who failed to pass across that mile must have been in some way wanting, and that had they been there, either in command or in the attack, the results would have been different.
One can only answer, that in modern war it is not easy to carry a well-defended site by direct attack. In modern war, you may not know, till fire breaks out upon you, where the defence, which you have to attack, is hidden. You may not know (in darkness, in a strange land) more than vaguely which is your " front," and you may pass by your enemy, or over him, or under him without seeing him. You may not see your enemy at all. You may fight for days and never see an enemy. In modern war troops see no enemy till he attacks them; then, in most cases if they are well entrenched with many guns behind them, they can destroy him.
The Allied officers, looking through their field glasses at the ground to be attacked, could see only rough, sloping ground, much gullied, much overgrown, with a few clumps of trees, a few walls, orchards and houses, but no guns, no trenches, no enemy. Aeroplanes scouting over the Turks could see men but not the trenches nor the guns, they could only report that they suspected them to be in such a place. Sometimes in the mornings men would notice that the earth was turned newly on some bare patch on the hill, but none could be sure that this digging was not a ruse to draw fire. The trenches were hidden cunningly, often with a head-cover of planks so strewn with earth and planted with scrub as to be indistinguishable from the ground about. [The big guns were coloured cunningly, like a bird or snake upon the ground. From above in an aeroplane an observer could not pick them out so as to be certain, if they were not in action at the time. Brave men scouting forward at night to reconnoitre brought back some information, but not more than enough to show that the Turks were there in force. No man in the Allied Army expected less than a desperate battle; no officer in the world could have made it anything but that, with all the odds against us. Nothing could be done but cover the Turk position with the fire of every gun on shore or in the ships and then send the men forward, to creep or dash as far as they could, and then dig themselves in.
Let the reader imagine himself to be facing three miles of any very rough broken sloping ground known to him, ground for the most part gorse-thyme-and-scrub-covered, being poor soil, but in some places beautiful with flowers (especially " a spiked yellow flower with a whitish leaf") and on others green from cultivation. Let him say to himself that he and an army of his friends are about to advance up the slope towards the top, and that as they will be advancing in a line, along the whole length of the three miles, he will only see the advance of those comparatively near to him, since folds or dips in the ground will hide the others. Let him, before he advances, look earnestly along the line of the hill, as it shows up clear, in blazing sunlight only a mile from him, to see his tactical objective, one little clump of pines, three hundred yards away, across what seem to be fields. Let him see in the whole length of the hill no single human being, nothing but scrub, earth, a few scattered buildings, of the Levantine type (dirty white with roofs of dirty red) and some patches of dark Scotch pine, growing as the pine loves, on bleak crests. Let him imagine himself to be more weary than he has ever been in his life before, and dirtier than he has ever believed it possible to be, and parched with thirst, nervous, wild-eyed and rather lousy. Let him think that he has not slept for more than a few minutes together for eleven days and nights, and that in all his waking hours he has been fighting for his life, often hand to hand in the dark with a fierce enemy, and that after each fight he has had to dig himself a hole in the ground, often with his hands, and then walk three or four roadless miles to bring up heavy boxes under fire. Let him think, too, that in all those eleven days he has never for an instant been out of the thunder of cannon, that waking or sleeping their devastating crash has been blasting the air across within a mile or two, and this from an artillery so terrible that each discharge beats as it were a wedge of shock between the skull-bone and the brain.
Let him think too that never, for an instant, in all that time, has he been free or even partly free from the peril of death in its most sudden and savage forms, and that hourly in all that time he has seen his friends blown to pieces at his side, or dismembered, or drowned, or driven mad, or stabbed, or sniped by some unseen stalker, or bombed in the dark sap with a handful of dynamite in a beef-tin, till their blood is caked upon his clothes and thick upon his face, and that he knows, as he stares at the hill, that in a few moments, more of that dwindling band, already too few, God knows how many too few, for the task to be done, will be gone the same way, and that he himself may reckon that he has done with life, tasted and spoken and loved his last, and that in a few minutes more may be blasted dead, or lying bleeding in the scrub, with perhaps his face gone and a leg and an arm broken, unable to move but still alive, unable to drive away the flies or screen the ever-dropping rain, in a place where none will find him, or be able to help him, a place where he will die and rot and shrivel, till nothing is left of him but a few rags and a few remnants and a little identification-disc flapping on his bones in the wind. Then let him hear the intermittent crash and rattle of the fire augment suddenly and awfully in a roaring, blasting roll, unspeakable and unthinkable, while the air above, that has long been whining and whistling, becomes filled with the scream of shells passing like great cats of death in the air; let him see the slope of the hill vanish in a few moments into the white, yellow and black smokes of great explosions shot with fire, and watch the lines of white puffs marking the hill in streaks where the shrapnel searches a suspected trench; and then, in the height of the tumult, when his brain is shaking in his head, let him pull himself together with his friends, and clamber up out of the trench, to go forward against an invisible enemy, safe in some unseen trench expecting him.
The Twenty-ninth Division went forward under these conditions on the 6th of May. They dashed on, or crawled, for a few yards at a time, then dropped for a few instants before squirming on again. In such an advance men do not see the battlefield. They see the world as the rabbit sees it, crouching on the ground, just their own little patch. On broken ground like that, full of dips and rises, men may be able to see nothing but perhaps the ridge of a bank ten feet ahead, with the dust flying in spouts all along it, as bullets hit it, some thousand a minute, and looking back or to their flanks they may see no one but perhaps a few men of their own platoon lying tense but expectant, ready for the sign to advance while the bullets pipe over them in a never-ending birdlike croon. They may be shut off by some all-important foot of ground from seeing how they are fronting, from all knowledge of what the next platoon is doing or suffering. It may be quite certain death to peep over that foot of ground in order to find out, and while they wait for a few instants shells may burst in their midst and destroy a half of them. Then the rest, nerving themselves, rush up the ridge, and fall in a line dead under machine-gun fire. The supports come up, creeping over their corpses, get past the ridge, into scrub which some shell has set on fire. Men fall wounded in the fire, and the cartridges in their bandoliers explode and slowly kill them. The survivors crawl through the scrub, half-choked, and come out on a field full of flowers tangled three feet high with strong barbed wire. They wait for a while, to .try to make out where the enemy is. They may see nothing but the slope of the field running up to a sky line, and a flash of distant sea on a flank, but no sign of any enemy, only the crash of guns and the pipe and croon and spurt of bullets. Gathering themselves together their brave men dash out to cut the wire and are killed; others take their places and are killed; others step out with too great a pride even to stoop, and pull up the supports of the wires and fling them down, and fall dead on top of them, having perhaps cleared a couple of yards. Then a couple of machine guns open on the survivors and kill them all in thirty seconds, with the concentrated fire of a battalion. The supports come up, and hear about the wire from some wounded man who has crawled back through the scrub. They send back word, " Held up by wire," and in time the message comes to the telephone which has just been blown to pieces by a shell. Presently when the telephone is repaired, the message reaches the gunners, who fire high explosive shells on to the wire, and on to the slopes where the machine guns may be hidden. Then the supports go on over the flowers and are met midway by a concentrated fire of shells, shrapnel, machine guns and rifles. Those who are not killed lie down among the flowers and begin to scrape little heaps of earth with their hands to give protection to their heads. In the light sandy marl this does not take long, though many are blown to pieces or hit in the back as they scrape. As before, they cannot see how the rest of the attack is faring, nor even where the other platoons of the battalion are; they lie scraping in the roots of daffodils and lilies, while bullets sing and shriek a foot or two over their heads. A man peering from his place in the flowers may make out that the man next to him, some three yards away, is dead, and that the man beyond is praying, the man beyond him cursing, and the man beyond him out of his mind from nerves or thirst.
Long hours pass, but the air above them never ceases to cry like a live thing with bullets flying. Men are killed or maimed, and the wounded cry for water. Men get up to give them water and are killed. Shells fall at regular intervals along the field. The waiting men count the seconds between the shells to check the precision of the battery's fire. Some of the bursts fling the blossoms and bulbs of flowers into the bodies of men, where they are found long afterwards by the X-rays. Bursts and roars of fire on either flank tell of some intense moment in other parts of the line. Every feeling of terror and mental anguish and anxiety goes through the mind of each man there, and is put down by resolve.
The supports come up, they rise with a cheer, and get out of the accursed flowers, into a gulley where some men of their regiment are already lying dead. There is a little wood to their front; they make for that, and suddenly come upon a deep and narrow Turk trench full of men. This is their first sight of the enemy. They leap down into the trench and fight hand to hand, kill and are killed, in the long grave already dug. They take the trench, but opening from the trench are saps, which the Turks still hold. Men are shot dead at these saps by Turk sharpshooters cunningly screened within them. Bullets fall in particular places in the trench from snipers hidden in the trees of the wood. The men send back for bombs, others try to find out where the rest of the battalion lies, or send word that from the noise of the fire there must be a battery of machine guns beyond the wood, if the guns would shell it.
Presently, before the bombs come, bombs begin to drop among them from the Turks. Creeping up, the men catch them in their hands before they explode and fling them back so that they burst among the Turks. Some have their hands blown off, other their heads, in doing this, but the bloody game of catch goes on till no Turks are left in the sap, only a few wounded groaning men who slowly bleed to death there. After long hours, the supports come up and a storm of high explosives searches the little wood, and then with a cheer the remnant goes forward out of the trench into the darkness of the pines. Fire opens on them from snipers in the trees and from machine guns everywhere; they drop and die, and the survivors see no enemy, only their friends falling and a place where no living thing can pass. Men find themselves suddenly alone, with all their friends dead, and no enemy in sight, but the rush of bullets filling the air. They go back to the trench, not afraid, but in a kind of maze, and as they take stock and count their strength there comes the roar of the Turkish war cry, the drum-like proclamation of the faith, and the Turks come at them with the bayonet. Then that lonely remnant of a platoon stands to it with rapid fire, and the machine gun rattles like a motor bicycle, and some ribald or silly song goes up, and the Turks fail to get home, but die or waver and retreat and are themselves charged as they turn. It is evening now; the day has passed in long hours of deep experience, and the men have made two hundred yards. They send back for supports and orders, link up, if they are lucky, with some other part of their battalion, whose adventures, fifty yards away, have been as intense, but wholly different, and prepare the Turk trench for the night. Presently word reaches them from some faraway H. Q. (some dug-out five hundred yards back, in what seems, by comparison, like peaceful England) that there are no supports, and that the orders are to hold the line at all costs and prepare for a fresh advance on the morrow. Darkness falls, and ammunition and water come up, and the stretcher-bearers hunt for the wounded by the groans, while the Turks search the entire field with shell to kill the supports which are not there. Some of the men in the trench creep out to their front, and are killed there as they fix a wire entanglement. The survivors make ready for the Turk attack, certain soon to come. There is no thought of sleep-; it is too cold for sleep; the men shiver as they stare into the night; they take the coats of the dead, and try to get a little warmth.