19-25 June 2015 #763

The Gurkhas at Gallipoli

This is the third part of a series of articles on the Gurkhas at Gallipoli, drawn from what will eventually be a book on Nepal, The Gurkhas and the Great War by David Seddon.
David Seddon

Timeline by Ayesha Shakya

Part 3, June 1915

On 14 May, the 69th Punjabis and 89th Punjabis were withdrawn from the conflict and embarked the next day for Egypt en route to France. This was said to be because they contained a significant proportion of Muslim troops and could not be relied upon not to mutiny in sympathy with the Ottoman army.

In the short time they had been on the peninsula, the 89th Punjabis had suffered over 100 casualties, while the 69th Punjabis, which had not been engaged in the front line, had nevertheless lost 10 killed and 23 wounded. These units were replaced, although not until 2 June, by the 1/5th and 2/10th Gurkha Rifles from Nepal.

For a week or so, the ANZAC sector had been relatively quiet. Even so, casualties in the Cape Helles sector had mounted. The attacking forces and the enemy were by now both in trenches which in the case of the former stretched from short to shore, raids and counter-raids were taking place with increasing intensity.

On 19 May, the enemy made a night attack on the ANZAC forces. Four divisions of up to 40,000 men descended from the heights above the beaches to crush the ANZACs. But the attack went horribly wrong and the intended victims were able to destroy the oncoming Ottoman forces which suffered heavy casualties with some 10,000 killed or injured.

The next day, when they came out under a white flag to collect their dead and wounded, the Allied troops were willing to help and even give the wounded and prisoners cigarettes and chocolates. Charles Bean, a Sydney Morning Herald journalist who became the official historian of the Gallipoli campaign for the Australians, wrote in his diary that ‘the Indians with the mules down here also take the prisoners chocolates – they give our men some also’.

On 24 May, a truce was agreed. Hunter Weston was promoted to lieutenant general and made a corps commander. His VIII Corps consisted of the long-suffering 29th Division, the RND, the 42nd Division and the 29th Indian Infantry Brigade. As for the Gurkhas, by the end of May, all of the original company commanders of the 1st/6th Gurkhas had been killed or wounded, and even the other two battalions which had hardly been engaged as yet had also suffered losses. By this time, the two battles of Krithia had been fought to no avail, so that the beach-head remained pitifully small. As on the Western Front, gains were counted in yards and only under the protection of the overhanging cliffs could the Allied troops seek respite from enemy fire and, to some extent at least, from the heat. For as the summer advanced, the weather became hotter and the major concern became the temperature and the flies, and the putrid, unburied dead. Dysentery spread rapidly and claimed victims by the score, while lice added to the discomfort of the soldiers.

On 2 June 1915, the 1st/5th and 2nd/10th Gurkhas arrived to replace the two withdrawn and re-deployed Punjabi battalions of 29 Indian Brigade. What would come to be known as the Third Battle of Krithia was planned for 4 June, and the new arrivals were soon in action. The objective was the capture of Achi Baba, a feature some 200m high, which commanded both the Helles beach-head and the Narrows. After two barrages from the Allied guns directed at the Ottoman defences with a view to destroying any barbed-wire entanglements, the 1st/6th Gurkhas and 14th Sikhs of the Indian Brigade, together with the Lancashire Fusiliers, went forward at noon, advancing on the extreme left along Gully Spur, with the 29th and 42nd Divisions in the centre, the RND on the right centre, and the French on the right.

The Allies had about 30,000 men and the enemy had up to 28,000, half of them in the front line. The French attack failed quickly, three battalions of the RND went forward, but the fourth, the Collingwood Brigade, which made the second assault was wiped out in less than 30 minutes and the other three battalions took ‘frightful casualties and lost all but ten of their officers’. The Manchester Brigade of the 42nd Division advanced strongly as did the 29th Division on their left, but eventually, the Manchesters were marooned and forced to retreat.

Along Gully Ravine, on the left again, the Indian Brigade was hard hit. One Gurkha battalion lost 23 officers out of 29, and the other lost all of its British officers.The 14th Sikhs, one of the few non-Gurkha pure class battalions of the Indian Army, composed of seasoned Jat Sikh soldiers from the Punjab, launched repeated attacks in the face of murderous gunfire against the Ottoman positions astride Gully Ravine. One section managed to penetrate the barbed wire and to charge the enemy with their bayonets. But the cost was devastating: on that one day, the unit’s casualties amounted to 82 per cent of those engaged in the battle. The Sikhs lost 380 men out of 514. Only three of their British officers were left alive and unwounded.

Writing to the Commander in Chief in India a few weeks after the event, Hamilton paid tribute to the heroism of these men:

‘In the highest sense of the word, extreme gallantry has been shown by this fine Battalion … in spite of these tremendous losses there was not a sign of wavering all day. Not an inch of ground gained was given up and not a single straggler came back. The ends of the enemy’s trenches leading into the Ravine were found to be blocked with the bodies of Sikhs and of the enemy who died fighting at close quarters, and the glacis slope is thickly dotted with the bodies of these fine soldiers all lying on their faces as they fell in their steady advance on the enemy.The history of the Sikhs affords many instances of their value as soldiers, but it may be safely asserted that nothing finer than the grim valour and steady discipline displayed by them on the 4th June has ever been done by soldiers of the Khalsa. Their devotion to duty and their splendid loyalty to their orders and to their leaders makes a record their nation should look back upon with pride for many generations.’

Later in the day, the 1st/5th Gurkhas were called forward in an attempt to seize success where others had not. The battalion was ordered to follow the same route as C Company of the 1st/6th, but the enemy was now prepared for them. Checked by the barbed wire, which had not been destroyed by the Navy’s artillery, they were prime targets for the Ottoman rifles and machine guns. The attack petered out with heavy losses: 129 Gurkhas fell, as did seven of their British officers. Despite these heavy losses, the 1st/5th kept on attacking, but were decimated.

One last gallant attempt was made by no 1 Company under Major M H W Nightingale, who was later awarded the DSO for exceptional gallantry in leading an attack on a strongly defended spur after he had been wounded: ‘He reached the crest and was again wounded but coming back a few yards he rallied his men and again led them on. He was wounded a third time but still endeavoured to advance until he fainted’.

At dusk, the 1st/5thGurkhas was ordered to withdraw, the odds had been too great. Retreat was inevitable. Hunter Watsons’ corps had registered 4,500 casualties, about a quarter of the troops he had sent forward. The French losses were about 200 and the Turks had lost at least 9,000. It was in the course of this battle, according to Farwell, that Naik Dhan Singh Gurung was captured, but escaped. ‘He was being marched away into captivity when he bolted and threw himself over a cliff. He survived his fall but was again captured, this time on the beach. Again, he escaped, on this occasion by diving into the sea. Few Gurkhas could swim, but Dhan Singh was an exception. In spite of the hail of bullets that pursued him, he managed to make his way, still in all his clothes (even his boots), out to sea and then to swim parallel to the shore until at last he could land safely behind the Allied lines’.

Read also:

Gallipoli and the Gurkhas, David Seddon

Gurks vs Turks, David Seddon

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