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Tales of Three Campaigns

 

 

by

 

Major Cyprian Bridge Brereton

 

12th (Nelson) Company N. Z. E. F.

 

 

Preface

 

 

 

Much of this book simply relates the part taken by the 12th (Nelson) Company, which I had the honour and pleasure of commanding. I regret I cannot give an adequate idea of my comrades' splendid service and devotion, or an impression of the hardship and suffering they cheerfully endured. Infantry N.C.O.s and privates bore the brunt of the war—physically and mentally—living in an extreme of discomfort, often facing the enemy at a few yards' distance, expecting no recognition of their services and satisfied to fight and often die in obscurity. Among the millions of allied soldiers similarly placed the 12th (Nelson) men played their part, cheerful, steady in action, and gallant to recklessness when necessity arose ; the admiration and pride of their officers.

 

 

Brave men and brave acts were too numerous to mention, but one man may be taken as typical of the rest. He was no braver than others, where so many were perfectly fearless, but his long service, serene temper, and unselfish good nature gave him a host of friends.

 

 

He always seemed curiously unaware of danger and I never saw him duck for a shell. If one arrived when he was in the middle of a sentence, it made no difference, he just continued as if unconscious of it. Sergt.-Major Guy preferred it " when things were moving," and " we mustn't make a hard war of it " was a very frequent remark of his ; to the last he was smiling and serene as he climbed into that fatal trench, swinging his tin hat in his hand. He met an old friend a few minutes earlier and told him, " When you hear of me next, I will be pushing up the daisies," so he had received his warning. His remark had reference to the soldier's common expression when a man made a trivial complaint—" You will want flowers on your grave next."

 

 

He was wounded at Quinns and killed at Passchendaele. His great friend, Captain Jim Barton, found him still standing, gazing steadily over at the Huns, unconquered in death. His full water-bottle was taken to quench his friend's thirst, which would have given 'Old Hec ' great pleasure had he known.

 

 

Little mention is made of casualties, but it may be understood that they occurred constantly. In my regiment, which did not average two battalions throughout the war, very nearly 10,000 men were killed or wounded.

 

 

No attempt is made to point a moral, so I venture to stress one point.

 

 

Some day the Empire will again be at war, and the Dominions will send their men to fight. The crisis may come earlier than it did in the Great War, leaving little time for training after it begins.

 

 

New Zealand men require one condition to become first-class fighting troops. This condition is training —a reasonable training in peace time. No one can count on there being sufficient time after war begins.

 

 

Great wars have been lost and won in two months. In modern war a man must have a stout heart, a strong body, and sufficient training. With training, the New Zealander may cheerfully face any enemy, confident that with his brave heart and strength he will bear himself manfully and effectively. Without it he would not flinch, but it would be a useless sacrifice.

 

 

Our men play football and they know that to play it effectively requires training and discipline. Just the same is required in an army, but to a greater extent, because the numbers are many thousand times greater, the risks are greater, the goal is greater, and the game infinitely more intricate.

 

 

C. B. B.

 

 

 

Helles - Battle of Krithia

 

 

 

. . . We reached the front trench a few minutes after ten, and I had time to see the officers and gain a little information. They were fine, cool fellows. At one place enemy bullets were coming in fast with an angry buzz, and when I alluded to it an officer remarked casually and disparagingly, " Oh, yes, they keep popping off at us here." They pointed out the locality of the enemy, but not a sign of him could be seen. The main position was supposed to be about 1100 yards away. I made up my mind we would attack straight for Krithia, which was in full view, in lines of platoons extending up to ten yards, with 150 yards between platoons. This would give us a chance against the storm of machine-gun bullets we were likely to meet when we started.

 

 

For about 200 yards the ground sloped down to a slight hollow. The surface was smooth and bare of cover, having little grass on it. It looked as if there might be some shelter in the hollow, and the only thing to do was to cover the intervening space as quickly as possible in one rush, and then try to make a line. ^ Our scouts had reached the place and were making signs as if it were found a suitable halting-place. They were not able to signal a message, and it was not to be expected that they would send back a runner. Nothing more could be done to help our attack, as the officers of the 88th Brigade, through which we were passing, had promised to give us all the support they could with their machine-guns. No doubt they did so, but the firing was so intense when the advance began that it was not possible to distinguish any particular sound. Artillery support was what we needed, and it would have saved most of the loss ; but no guns were firing at the enemy position, nor was a single shot fired to help us during the attack of my company.

 

 

 

The " Dubsters " showed plainly the effect of the terrible mauling they had received during the previous fourteen days by repeating without ceasing, " It's no good advancing, sir, you'll all be killed. It's no good, sir." We knew they were not far out, and it was not .it all encouraging to hear them, but the poor fellows who were not going to advance just then could hardly bear to see us go into it. However, we had no choice, or we certainly would not have gone.

 

 

The order for the company to attack was then riven: " The 12th (Nelson) Company will attack Krithia in lines of platoons, extended as far as possible, platoons at 150 yards' distance ; objective—prominent brown house in front." An officer asked how far the attack was to go, and I told him, " As far as you can get." He did his best to carry out the order, but was killed about 200 yards ahead.

 

 

When 10.30 came I called to Colonel Brown, telling him we were ready, but he replied to wait a few minutes, as the battalion on our left was not yet up. So we waited, not a pleasant time for us, as most of us fully realized that we were about to take part in a mad business that was hardly in the " ordinary way " of war. About 10.35 I again asked the Colonel if we should go, and he replied, " All right," and I passed the word to No. 12 Platoon to prepare to advance, and a moment later, " Advance," and the men jumped at it with their heads down. The poor fellows knew that their only chance lay in speed, and even that is not much use against skilfully laid machine-gun fire.

 

 

There was never any doubt that they would face it well, but one felt a sort of pride at seeing those lines of young soldiers rushing at what was a fair chance of death. It was a terrible sight in that clear bright sunshine, men going down like ninepins everywhere, lulling with a crash with the speed they were going.

 

 

 

Men of supporting companies coming up were being knocked over behind our trench too, and an officer friend fell very heavily just behind me, and rolled over convulsively. I moved about assisting to get the company away, and I have a vivid picture of the upturned Irish faces of the men kneeling in the trenches, the men of the Dubsters. Their short-cropped hair gave them the look of gaolbirds with their round heads and hard, dirty faces. Almost all had their hats off, and it was easy to see from their wondering faces and remarks that they did not like the business. It was the first time they had seen colonial troops in action. Possibly they would have preferred to go themselves.

 

 

I was starting with the last platoon, but I had not gone ten yards before I felt the terrible pain of a bullet through the top of my head, and as I fell I could see in imagination, but very vividly, great flames rushing out of my head. It crossed my mind instantly, " Serve you damned well right for ordering men into such a fire " ; and then I realized that my responsibilities were over, and all I could do was to keep cool and pull through if possible. At the same time I heard friendly Irish voices exclaiming, " Begorra, the Major's down," and " Bedad, we must save him," and though I could not see, I felt them rolling me over. I asked them to take care of my glasses, and a voice replied, " They're all right, sir. The sergeant-major has them." He kept them, too, and it is hoped he is alive to use them. Then I faded into unconsciousness.

 

 

Long afterwards I pieced together something of the day's fighting and my movements. The losses were heavy, but we secured a few hundred yards of ground, and a general advance on the rest of the front at 5.30 in the evening continued the line on either flank.

We had two officers killed. Mr. Forsyth was a  fearless and efficient soldier, and strangely enough had that morning told of a strong presentiment that he would be killed during the day. He was quite cheerful about it, but could not be argued out of the idea. Premonitions were common during the war, and in all cases that I know of, those who received warnings were killed.

 

 

A very curious case was that of a young officer in t he battalion who was told by a fortune-teller in Egypt that he would be killed on his next birthday, which happened to be the 25th of April. On the eve of the landing he said good-bye to each man of his platoon, telling them he would be killed next day, and sure enough the prophecy was fulfilled. Of course this was a pure chance, so far as the fortune-teller was concerned, and this was quite a different thing from the usual warnings.

 

 

The other young officer who was killed had just been appointed, and had only reported for duty that morning. His appointment from another company had caused heartburnings, because we had a senior sergeant who was greatly respected and deserved the position, and I promised to speak to the Colonel about it when things became quieter. However, there was no need ; both the sergeant and the officer were killed.

 

 

Our brigade and the Australian 2nd Brigade received generous praise from the officers of the 29th Division for the work of the 8th May. An officer of the 29th Division informed me that the Brigadier of the 88th Brigade covered his eyes when we attacked, saying he could not bear to see it. It would have helped us more had he been able to arrange artillery assistance, but with no ammunition that was not possible. The fault lay thousands of miles away, with people who do not put in an appearance on battlefields.

 

 

The Australian attack was beautifully executed, but their losses were heavier than ours. When the 13th Company attacked, friend Captain Cribb caused considerable amusement by trotting forward in his characteristically steady fashion, blowing clouds of smoke from his pipe and carrying a long-handled shovel in his hand as his only weapon. He had the gift of leading and the benefit of previous war experience.

 

 

During the afternoon four company stretcher-bearers made up their minds to carry me out, to give me a chance. They placed the stretcher on the ground behind the trench and at a signal threw it on their shoulders, and bolted back as hard as they could run, laughing as they went. They were pelted with bullets for 800 yards before they could slacken down into a walk.

 

 

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