22-28 May 2015 #759

Gallipoli and the Gurkhas

The second in a series the Nepali Times is running in memory of the Nepalis who fought and died in Gallipoli
David Seddon

Timeline by Ayesha Shakya

Exactly a hundred years ago in May 1915 the allied forces, stiffened by reinforcements from the Indian 29th Brigade, which included three Nepali Gurkha battalions, clustered on the beaches of Gallipoli in Turkey and launched an assault on the heights above. This is the second in a series the Nepali Times is running in memory of the Nepalis who fought and died in this disastrous campaign. It is part of David Seddon’s forthcoming book, Nepal, the Gurkhas and the Great War.

Reinforcements Arrive – Early May 1915

After the initial landings and encounters with the defending Ottoman forces towards the end of April 1915, the Allies on the beaches at Gallipoli were significantly strengthened by the arrival of the HQ and five battalions of the Royal Naval Division under Major General Archibald Paris, and the French Brigade Coloniale from Kum Kale, commanded by Major General Masnou. 

These were shortly followed by other reinforcements, including the 29th Indian Infantry Brigade with its three Gurkha battalions (1/5th, 1/6th and 2/10th) and one Sikh battalion (14th Sikhs) under Brigadier General Cox. The Indian Army was barely 5,000 men in a campaign that involved a deployment that grew from an initial 25,000 to nearly half a million Allied troops engaged by the end of the campaign. Yet it had a significant impact on the course of operations.  

The Indian Army was also represented by the 7th Indian Mountain Artillery Brigade, the Indian mule corps and a medical establishment. The first Gurkhas ashore were of the 1/6th commanded by the Honourable Charles Bruce, and were placed in the immediate reserve. But within a few hours suffered their first casualties: one Gurkha rifleman killed and 21 others wounded. They were moved into the frontline on 9 May, relieving the British 87th Brigade on the extreme left of the line. It came immediately under fire. 

With the arrival of the one brigade of the 42nd Division, the Indian Brigade, and two further ANZAC brigades the Allied forces at Gallipoli now numbered around 75,000 men – a combination of English, Scots and Irish, Australians and New Zealanders, French, Algerians and Senegalese, Sikhs, Punjabis and Nepalis and the Zionist Mule Corps. Many of these were already exhausted. 

However, General Ian Hamilton and his force were now significantly better prepared than they had been at the outset for the next phase of the assault on the Ottoman positions. These, under the overall command of the German General Liman von Sanders, with several other Turkish generals, including Mustapha Kemal (later to become Kemal Ataturk) supporting him, had also been reinforced in the interim and posed a formidable threat to the invading Allies. An attempt was now made by the Allies, however, to move off the beach and into the hills. 

The Second Battle of Krithia 11-17th May 1915

On 12 May 1915, the first battalion of the 6th Queen Elizabeth's own Gurkha Rifles, having landed at Cape Helles only a week or so before, led the assault. This was their first major operation on Krithia, a bluff overlooking the beach which had been converted into a stronghold by the Ottoman forces whose machine gunners were doing untold damage to the invasion attempts. Two previous attempts to capture it by the 1st Dublin Fusiliers and the Royal Marines had already failed. 

The rocks were sheer and 300m high, but, with support from the Royal Navy which bombarded the defenders, the Gurkhas managed to scale the cliffs, and after a hard fight in which 12 Ottoman soldiers were decapitated as well as a number shot and 18 Gurkhas were killed and 42 wounded, the 1/6th managed to advance 200m and capture a prominent feature, which was later renamed ‘Gurkha Bluff’ in an order signed by General Hamilton himself. They then dug in.

A despatch written by General Sir Ian Hamilton, Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, described in detail what happened next.   ‘During the night of the 10th/11th May, the 6th Gurkhas started off to seize this bluff. Their scouts descended to the sea, worked their way for some distance through the broken ground along the shore and crawled hands and knees up the precipitous face of the cliff. On reaching the top they were heavily fired on. As a surprise the enterprise had failed, but as a reconnaissance it proved very useful. On the following day Major-General H. V. Cox, commanding 29th Indian Infantry Brigade, submitted proposals for a concerted attack on this bluff (now called Gurkha Bluff). At 6.30 p.m. on the 12th May, the Manchester Brigade and the 29th Divisional artillery opened fire on the Turkish trenches and, under cover of this fire, a double company of the 1/6th Gurkhas once more crept along the shore and assembled below the bluff. Then, the attention of the Turks being taken up with the bombardment, they swiftly scaled the cliffs and carried the work with a rush. The machine-gun section of the Gurkhas was hurried forward, and at 4.30 am, a second double company was pushed up to join the first.

An hour later these two double companies extended and began to entrench to join up their new advanced left diagonally with the right of the trenches previously held by their battalion. At 6 am, a third double company advanced across the open from their former front line of trenches under a heavy rifle and machine-gun fire, and established themselves on this diagonal line between the main ravine on their right and the newly captured redoubt. The 4th double company moved up as a support, and held the former firing line.

Our left flank, which had been firmly held up against all attempts on the 6th-8th, was now, by stratagem, advanced nearly 500 yards. Purchased as it was with comparatively slight losses (21 killed, 92 wounded) this success was due to careful preparation and organisation by Major-General H. V. Cox, commanding 29th Indian Infantry Brigade, Lieutenant-Colonel Hon. C. G. Bruce, commanding 1/6th Gurkhas, and Major (temporary Lieutenant-Colonel) F. A. Wynter, R.G.A., commanding the Artillery Group supporting the attack. The co-operation of the two cruisers was excellent, and affords another instance of the admirable support by the Navy to our troops.’

On 17 May 1915, the following General Routine Order (16) was published: 

‘In order to mark the good work done by the 1/6th Gurkha Rifles in capturing the Bluff on the coast west of Krithia, the General Officer commanding has ordered that this Bluff will in future be known as “Gurkha Bluff”.

The Krithia battles were most significant as they proved that the original British assumption of a swift victory over an indifferent enemy was grossly mistaken.

Thereafter, Helles would become the scene of numerous attrition battles and success would be measured by an advance of a hundred yards or the capture of a trench.’ This was just the one battalion. Allied casualties for these few days in May alone totalled about 6,500, nearly one-third of the number engaged. Nowhere had the advance achieved been more than 600m. Krithia had never looked like falling. Even more serious than this was the loss of life in the first ten days of the campaign: between the landing on 1 May and 10 May, the 29th Division (now including the Indian Brigade) suffered in total some 10,000 casualties while French losses (including its African contingents) ran to about 12,000. 

The Allies were now little further forward than when they had landed. Pinned to the beaches for the most part, they were exposed to shelling from the Ottoman positions above them, and suffered more casualties. The Ottoman positions, on the other hand, were being constantly shelled from the sea but were also forced to remain vigilant in case of another assault by the Allied forces. A period of relative calm ensued as far as the infantry were concerned.

Back in Britain, the War Council met on 14 May 1915. It considered three possibilities: first, to abandon Gallipoli, second to send massive further reinforcements, third, to replace the losses incurred in the first few weeks, and send out one fresh division. It reached no decision apart from requesting Hamilton to clarify his own view. The next day, the First Sea Lord, Lord Fisher, resigned his post precipitating a political crisis. Asquith’s Liberal government was brittle and Fisher’s resignation broke it apart. 

The Prime Minister decided to form a coalition government. Arthur Balfour took over the Admiralty from Churchill, who was effectively demoted to the position of Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. He kept his position on the War Council, which would now be called the Dardanelles Committee, but had been brought down. Sir Henry Jackson, who was lukewarm about the Gallipoli campaign, replaced Lord Fisher. The new government took three weeks to sort itself out.  

Read also:

Gurks vs Turks, David Seddon

The Pashmina War, Kunda Dixit

Double centennial, Editorial

100 years of platitudes, Sunir Pandey

The Gurkhas: An interactive timeline, Ayesha Shakya