This is the fourth installment of a series of flashbacks of the involvement of Gurkhas in the First World War
In 1914, Nepali Gurkha battalions (‘Gurks’) and Allied forces were deployed in what would prove to be a disastrous campaign to take control of the high ground of the Gallipoli peninsula in order to threaten Constantinople, the capital of the Ottoman Empire. This is the fourth installment of a series of flashbacks of the involvement of Gurkhas in the First World War.
Interactive timeline by Ayesha Shakya
The casualties suffered at Gallipoli by both sides at the end of the first week of June 1914 were appalling. After the failure of the assaults mounted in late May and early June by the Allies, they were exhausted. The Ottoman forces, which had attempted to take advantage of this by launching a counter-attack, had found resistance greater than they anticipated.
In the bloody fighting that ensued, all three Gurkha battalions (1/6th, 1/5th and 2/10th) were engaged, often using their khukuris to good effect. The Ottomans lost an estimated 10,000 men in a week, but the casualties on the British side were also terrible, around 7,000.
With both sides badly punished, only a few small-scale attacks were launched by the warring sides during the rest of June and Allied progress was slow. Towards the end of the month, however, the right flank had been pushed forward and Hunter Weston decided now to take the left flank forward as well. Three brigades, including 29th Indian Brigade, were ordered to drive the enemy back 1,000m from their position northwest of Gurkha Bluff. They would advance along Gully Spur and Gully Ravine.
The first assault of the Battle of Gully Ravine began on the morning of 28 June 1915. The battle went well on the left but very badly on the right. The 2nd/10th Gurkhas followed up the heavy bombardment which the British guns had maintained for about two hours and moved under a cliff, then, using all the cover available, climbed to the top of the cliff and routed the defenders. It was, perhaps, the most successful set-piece attack of the whole campaign, for the battalion took five lines of Ottoman trenches.
The 1/6 Gurkhas on Gurkha Bluff were heavily involved, as were other Gurkha units. The battalion moved over and extended the line, by which time the Ottoman troops had been pushed back half a mile. Then the enemy counter-attacked. These counter-attacks hit each Gurkha battalion in turn, and for eight days and nights the struggle continued, with hand-to-hand fighting, in which the Gurkhas again used their khukuris to deadly effect.
But the Ottoman soldiers countered with their knives and bayonets. Carlyon describes how ‘the Turks bombed the Gurkhas out of their trenches, then the Gurkhas took them back’. Hamilton seemed pleased that the Gurkhas ‘got into the enemy with their khukris and sliced off a number of their heads’.
During the short period between 28 June-5 July, the Ottomans lost 16,000 troops, most of them around Gully Ravine during their counter-attacks on 3rd and 5th July. But the British and allied casualties were also heavy.
General Hamilton expressed himself well pleased with the result of the Gully Ravine battle, but the repulse of the Ottoman attacks on 5 July marked the end of serious fighting for the 29th Indian Brigade in the Helles area, and after a few days spent in bivouac on the coast, it was moved on 9 and 10 July to the island of Imbros for rest and recuperation. By then it had been reduced to a skeleton. The three Gurkha battalions were badly affected but so were the other units of the Brigade, particularly the Sikhs. But it was the shortage of British officers that was the primary reason for withdrawing the brigade from the front.
The 2nd/10th had lost 40 per cent of their force, and by 1 July, only three officers, all subalterns, remained with the unit. Under the command of these young men and the surviving Gurkha officers, the battalion held on to all its territorial gains but was effectively decimated by 5 July. It was only five weeks since their arrival at Gallipoli. The 1/5th and 1/6th Gurkhas had to be temporarily amalgamated because of their losses, and the 14th Sikhs were by now so depleted in numbers (they had only one British officer, 1 VCO and 117 other ranks) that they were attached to the 2/10th Gurkhas for rations and maintenance. Like the 14th Sikhs, the 1/5th Gurkhas had only one surviving British officer, with only eight in the 5th Gurkhas as a whole, including the staff officers, and every unit was severely reduced in numbers.
The three big battles of June and July together cost 12,300 Allied casualties, the equivalent of a division, while the Turks had lost some 30,000 men. As Carlyon comments: ‘Hunter Weston had butchered every division he had been given’. Rest and recuperation was desperately needed by the survivors.
Gurks vs. Turks, David Seddon
Gallipoli and the Gurkhas, David Seddon
The Gurkhas at Gallipoli, David Seddon