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Battle of Chunuk Bair
The Battle of Chunuk Bair was a World War I battle fought between the Turkish defenders and troops of New Zealand and Britain on Turkey's Gallipoli peninsula in August 1915. The capture of Chunuk Bair, "Conk Slope" in Turkish, the secondary peak of the Sari Bair range, was one of the two objectives of the Allied August Offensive that was launched at Anzac and Suvla to try and break the stalemate that the campaign had become.
The capture of Chunuk Bair was the only success for the Allies of the campaign. However, the success was fleeting as the position proved untenable. The Turks recaptured the peak after a few days and were never to relinquished it again.
On the night of August 6, at the same time as the British IX Corps began landing at Suvla to the north, the breakout from the Anzac sector was made by units of the New Zealand and Australian Division under the command of General Alexander Godley, a man whose callous indifference to the plight of his troops made him a caricature worthy of Blackadder Goes Forth. Two columns of troops were directed at two peaks of the dominating ridge which were expected to be captured by dawn on August 7. Both columns were preceded by a covering force to clear the Turkish outposts and protect the flanks of the main assaulting force.
The left, or northern, column of the Australian 4th Infantry Brigade and the 29th Indian Brigade, were heading for Hill 971, the highest point on the Sari Bair range. They had the furthest to travel over completely unfamiliar terrain and never got close to their objective. A battalion of Gurkhas from the Indian Brigade, commanded by Major Cecil Allanson, reached a secondary objective, the neighbouring summit of Hill Q, on August 9 but were forced to retreat shortly afterwards.
The right, or southern, column was heading for Chunuk Bair. Though lower than Hill 971, this peak overlooked the north of the Anzac perimeter and was used as a base for an artillery battery. The main Sari Bair ridge extended from Chunuk Bair down into the Anzac sector via Battleship Hill and Baby 700. From Baby 700 the ridge branched towards the beach via the Nek and south to Lone Pine via the line of tenuous Anzac positions known as Quinn's, Courtney's and Steele's Posts. The capture of Chunuk Bair would provide considerable relief to the Anzac sector.
The approach to the peak was made along Rhododendron Spur which ran from the beach to the peak of Chunuk Bair. The Turks had outposts along the spur at the Table Top, Destroyer Hill and nearest the beach at Old No. 3 Outpost. There was also a Turkish outpost on Bauchop's Hill to the north. All these outposts had to be cleared by the covering force, the four regiments of the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade , before the main assault column could proceed up the spur to the summit. The Auckland regiment cleared Old No. 3 Outpost and the Wellington regiment took Destroyer Hill and the Table Top. The Otago and Canterbury regiments captured Bauchop's Hill, which was named after the Otago regiment's commander, Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Bauchop who was killed the attack. In all the New Zealanders lost about 100 men in clearing the outposts and while their efforts were successful, the plan was now running two hours behind schedule, making it difficult to reach the summit before first light.
The main force of the right column was the New Zealand Infantry Brigade under the command of Brigadier General Francis Johnston. Polite accounts claim Johnston was 'ill' on the night of the attack. Other less euphemistic versions maintain that he was 'fighting drunk'. The brigade's four battalions, reduced by sickness and battle, mustered about 2800 men. The advance was initially made up the valleys, or deres, on either side of Rhododendron Spur and once past the Table Top, the New Zealanders climbed on to the ridge, leaving about 1000 yards to travel to the summit.
The three battalions travelling along the north side of the spur were in position by 4.30 am, shortly before dawn. They advanced to a knoll dubbed "The Apex" which was only about 500 yards from the summit where at the time there were only a handful of Turkish infantry. The Canterbury battalion on the south side of the spur was lost and delayed. Johnston made the fatal decision to wait for the last battalion to arrive before making the attack.
The attack on Chunuk Bair was a main element in a wider offensive. At 4.30 am a supporting attack was planned at the Nek against Baby 700, intended to coincide with the New Zealanders attacking from Chunuk Bair down onto the rear of the Turkish trenches on Battleship Hill. The Battle of the Nek went ahead nonetheless, with tragic consequences.
The opportunity for a swift victory at Chunuk Bair had been lost. By 8 am the Turks had started firing on the New Zealanders on the spur. The commander of the Turkish 9th Division, German Colonel Hans Kannengeiser, had reached the summit and was preparing its defence. In broad daylight, after an exhausting climb and faced by stiffening opposition, the prospects for an New Zealand assault against the peak looked slim. Nevertheless General Godley ordered Johnston to attack.
Two hundred yards beyond where the New Zealanders were positioned on the Apex was another knoll called "The Pinnacle" from which it was a straight climb to the summit. Off the side of the spur to the north was a small, sheltered plateau known as "The Farm".
Johnston told the Auckland battalion to attack. About 100 made it as far as the Pinnacle where they desperately tried to dig in. Around 300 fell as casualties between there and the Apex. Johnston told the Wellington battalion to continue the attack. The battalion's commander, Colonel William George Malone refused. A citizen soldier rather than a regular army man, Malone was one of the few competent officers and was not willing to lead his men in a hopeless attack. He said his battalion would take Chunuk Bair at night.
During the day the New Zealanders were reinforced by two battalions from the British 13th (Western) Division; the 7th Battalion of the Gloucestershire Regiment and the pioneers of 8th Battalion, the Welch Regiment.
Shortly after 3am on the morning of August 8, following a naval bombardment of the peak, the Wellingtons, followed by the Gloucesters, reached Chunuk Bair virtually unopposed. The preceding barrage had driven most of the Turkish defenders away as the ground was too hard and rocky for deep entrenchments.
Chunuk Bair would prove hard to defend. It was only possible to scrape shallow trenches amongst the rocks. The peak was exposed to fire from the main Turkish line on Battleship Hill to the south and from Hill Q to the north. If the original plan for the offensive had worked, Hill Q would have been in Allied hands. Allanson's battalion of Gurkhas reached it briefly the following day but were in no position to offer relief to the troops on Chunuk Bair.
By 5 am on August 8 the Turks were counter-attacking against the Wellingtons. The slope of the hill was so steep that the Turks could get within 20 metres of the trenches without being seen. The New Zealander fought desperately to hold off the Turks, firing their rifles and those of their fallen companions until the wood of the stock was too hot to touch. When the Turks got up to the trenches the fighting continued with the bayonet. The Turks overran part of the New Zealand trench and took some prisoners. In full daylight, reinforcements were only reaching the summit at a trickle.
The fight raged all day until the trenches were clogged with the New Zealand dead. Around 5 pm Malone was killed by a misdirected artillery shell, fired from either Anzac or a British ship.
The Turks had reclaimed the east side of the summit and were reinforced by the arrival of the 8th Division from Helles. As the extent of the Allied offensive became apparent, General von Sanders, the commander of the Turkish forces in the Dardanelles, appointed his most competent officer, Colonel Mustafa Kemal, the commander for the defence of Suvla and Sari Bair.
As darkness fell on the evening of August 8, the fighting subsided and the Wellington Battalion was relieved. Out of the 760 men of the battalion who had reached the summit, 711 had become casualties. Malone had resisted sending his men on a suicidal charge when told to follow the Auckland Battalion on August 7. A day later the outcome was the same. The New Army battalions had suffered the same. 417 casualties amongst the Welch pioneers and 350 amongst the Gloucesters including all the officers of the battalion. For the wounded the suffering was only beginning. Some took three days to travel from the higher reaches of Rhododendron Spur to the beach, a little over a kilometre away.
General Godley remained at his headquarters near the beach, largely ignorant of the state of the fighting. His plan for August 9 was to take Hill Q. The main force for the assault was a brigade commanded by Brigadier General Anthony Baldwin. Baldwin commanded the 38th Brigade of the 13th Division but the situation was so confused that the force he led towards Hill Q contained only one of his normal battalions, the 6th East Lancashires. He also had the 9th Worcestershires and 9th Royal Warwicks from the 39th Brigade and the 5th Wiltshires from the 40th Brigade (who would later be redirected to reinforce Chunuk Bair). Plus he led two 10th (Irish) Division battalions; the 10th Hampshires and 6th Royal Irish Rifles from the 29th Brigade. Most of the 10th Division had landed at Suvla on August 7.
This force would climb to Hill Q from the Farm. At the same time the New Zealanders on the right from Chunuk Bair and units of General Vaughn Cox's Indian Brigade on the left would also attack the hill. The plan fell apart when Baldwin's battalions became lost in the dark trying to find the Farm which they did not reach until after dawn, around 6 am. The only force to reach Hill Q was Allanson's battalion of Gurkhas. They suffered the same fate as Colonel Malone, shelled by their own artillery, and their stay on the hill was brief.
With the offensive once again stalled, the New Zealanders on Chunuk Bair had to endure another day of Turkish harassment. As night fell the remaining New Zealanders moved back to the Apex and were replaced by two New Army battalions, the 6th Battalion of the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment and some of the 5th Battalion of the Wiltshire Regiment from Baldwin's force.
On the morning of August 10 Kemal led an overwhelming Turkish counter-attack. If Chunuk Bair, the one Allied success of the August offensive, was recaptured, the battle was effectively over. His plan lacked subtlety but was brutally effective - overrun the defenders by sheer weight of numbers. Unlike Godley though, Kemal led his men from the front. During the fight he was struck in the chest by shrapnel but was saved by his pocket watch which absorbed the blow.
There were about 2000 defenders on or below the summit of Chunuk Bair. Baldwin's brigade at the Farm numbered a further 3000. The Turks swept over the Lancashire battalion on the summit, wiping it out to the last man. The Wiltshires were killed or driven into the steep valleys. The Turks headed down Rhododendron Spur towards the Pinnacle, driving the New Army troops before them. New Zealand machine gunners positioned at the Apex shot down the Turks as they tried to continue down the spur. The gunners could not discriminate friend from foe so they also killed many New Army troops who were amongst the charging Turks. The Turks descended to the small plateau of the Farm and annihilated Baldwin's brigade. About 1000 British were killed, the rest driven off into the surrounding gullies.
One Victoria Cross was awarded at Chunuk Bair to a signaller who repaired phone lines while under fire. Colonel Malone got nothing.
The loss of Chunuk Bair marked the end of the Battle of Sari Bair. Fighting would continue elsewhere until August 21 but there would be no more attempts to capture the heights. The Apex formed the new front line on Rhododendron Spur. Some of the ground the British reached on August 9 was not returned to until 1919. Burial teams found the Farm covered in the bones of the men from Baldwin's brigade.
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