Gallipoli and the Anzacs

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An artist at the Landing – Signaller Silas

Signaller Silas of the 16th Battalion

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Studio portrait of Private Ellis Silas, ex-16th Battalion AIF, taken about 1919 in London. The portrait was annotated with the word 'Swank'. [AWM P02801.001] ... Enlarge photo

For the men of the Anzac Corps, the ‘Anzacs’ – Australians and New Zealanders assisted by Indian Army troops and the British Royal Naval Division – the Battle of the Landing at Gallipoli lasted from 25 April to 3 May. During that period, they drove back a number of strong Turkish counter-attacks aimed at driving them into the sea, as well as launching attacks to secure their own positions. By 3 May, a defensible line had been established inland from the landing beaches along what was known as ‘Second Ridge’, and this small area of Gallipoli was soon known as Anzac. According to the official historian, Charles Bean, the Battle of the Landing cost Australia and New Zealand 8000 casualties, of whom 2300 were killed. Bean summed up this loss in these words:

They were men their countries could ill afford to lose. But with their lives they purchased a tradition beyond all human power to appraise, and set for all time the standard of conduct for the Australian and New Zealand soldier. A brilliant despatch from Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett, published a few days after the Landing, brought the effort of these young nations before the world in a manner that some speak of to this day as if the landings were an affair of Australasian troops alone …

[Charles Bean, The Story of Anzac, Vol 1, Sydney, 1941, p 605]

Crusading at Anzac – Silas' Book

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Inside cover of Crusading at Anzac, A.D. 1915

Among the original Australian infantry units at the Battle of the Landing from the evening of 25 April to 3 May was the 16th Battalion. Something of the battalion’s story from its raising in Western Australia in 1914 to the end of the battle was subsequently told by one of their own, the artist Signaller Ellis Silas, in his book Crusading at Anzac, A.D. 1915.

Lieutenant General Sir William Birdwood, the commander of the Anzac Corps during most of its period on Gallipoli, and General Sir Ian Hamilton, the commander in chief of the so-called Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, both provided the book with a brief foreword. Silas’ combination of words and images, extracted from the diary and sketchbook he kept during his time at Gallipoli, provides a dramatic insight into the dangers, hardships and loss which accompanied the Anzac Corps’ attempt to establish a foothold on the Gallipoli peninsula.

The 16th Battalion AIF at Anzac, Gallipoli

The 16th Battalion AIF (Australian Imperial Force) was composed of South Australians and Western Australians under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Harold Pope. The unit was a cross-section of the 1914 rural and urban environments of both states. The battalion trained first at Blackboy Hill near Perth, and on 21 November 1914 left Fremantle for Melbourne. There they joined the other three battalions of the 4th Australian Infantry Brigade AIF under Colonel John Monash at Broadmeadows Camp to complete their organisation and training.

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Lieutenant Colonel Howard Pope, the first commanding officer of the 16th Battalion and after whom Pope's Hill on Anzac, Gallipoli, was named. Pope served with the battalion right through the campaign but left to command the 14th Brigade in Egypt in May 1916. In his farewell letter to the 'Old Sixteenth' he wrote: And so my dear old comrades all of Gallipoli, I wish you all farewell. No one could have hoped to have seen greater bravery and endurance in human nature than I have seen in the officers and men of the 16th, and many times that bravery saved us and many others from disaster. [Captain C Longmore, The Old Sixteenth, Perth, 1929, p 109]

On 22 December 1914, the 16th Battalion embarked 32 officers and 979 other ranks on the transport A40 Ceramic at Port Melbourne. The men had left Broadmeadows after two days of continuous rain, and they and their equipment were saturated and muddy:

All ranks embarked thoroughly wet and with symptoms of a great prevalence of influenza

[16th Battalion War Diary, Unit War Diaries 1914-18 War, item 23/33/1-5, AWM 4]

They sailed for Egypt at 2.30 pm that afternoon.

The ship reached Albany, Western Australia, on 27 December, and Aden in the Persian Gulf on 20 January 1915. The unit diary noted that Private Robinson in ‘F’ Company had died from pleurisy and measles. On 21 January, a band and ‘F’ Company went ashore for his funeral. Private Harold Robinson, the battalion’s first casualty of the war, age 18, son of  James and Lila Robinson of Noarlunga, South Australia, was buried in the Maala Cemetery, Yemen.

On 3 February 1915, the battalion disembarked at Alexandria, Egypt. They travelled by train to camp at Heliopolis and remained there, undergoing training, until early April. On 4 April, the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) received orders to hold itself in readiness to leave Egypt.  The 16th Battalion left by train for Alexandria on 11 April where they boarded the troopship Hyda Pasha and on the afternoon of 25 April off the Gallipoli peninsula the battalion assembled in the ship’s hold:

There, for the last time in this world, many of us stood shoulder to shoulder. As I looked down the ranks of my comrades, I wondered much which of us were marked for the Land Beyond. We were transferred from the transport to the destroyer, which took us close into the shore, and then we were transferred into the ship’s boats and rowed to the shore, amidst a hail of shells.

[Ellis Silas, drawing, ‘The Last Assembly’, Gallipoli, April 251915, Crusading at Anzac, AD 1915, London, 1916]

At about 6 pm, the 16th Battalion went ashore at Anzac Cove and made their way into the hills. The column occupied a sharp edge of spur that afterwards bore their commanding officer’s name, Pope’s Hill. They spent the night digging in along the edge under intense rifle fire. For the next five days they stayed there, holding the hill, with Turkish troops to their front and rear.

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The 16th Battalion marching through Melbourne in 1914. [Captain C Longmore, The Old Sixteenth, Perth, 1929] ... Enlarge photo

During the darkness of their first night on Gallipoli, there was confusion about Indian troops who were supposedly in the same area, when in fact they were Turkish soldiers. A small party led by Colonel Pope went forward to speak to their commanding officer. Pope, discovering the mistake, jumped over a ridge and escaped but three other men with him were captured and became prisoners of war. Now that they knew that they were surrounded by Turks, not Indians, defences were improved and fighting was fierce. Snipers, who had penetrated the nearby ridge at Russell’s Top and were at the rear of the battalion’s trenches, caused many casualties.

At dawn on 26 April, the warships shelled Russell’s Top, breaking up the Turkish ranks, but there were still many accurate snipers. All that day, the battalion’s two machine-guns sniped back at the Turks on Russell’s Top and many of the original gun crew were killed or wounded. During the next two days, there were attempts to reinforce the battalion, and on 27 April the 2nd Battalion took Russell’s Top and, together with a reinforcement of New Zealanders, manned it strongly. At about 2.30 that afternoon, the Turks organised a six-line attack, advancing on Walker’s Ridge, Russell’s Top and Pope’s Hill. Shells from the navy ships stopped the attack but they continued to snipe. Later that night, there was another determined attack, but the Turks were practically annihilated by machine-gun and rifle fire.

On the evening of Friday 30 April, after being in action for five days, the 16th was relieved by the 15th Battalion. They moved down one of the gullies to a spot called ‘rest camp’ where they rested until Sunday 2 May. However, during those 2 days they lost 50 more men from enemy sniper fire.

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Private TH Taylor, 16th Battalion AIF, who was wounded at Gallipoli in May 1915. This is most likely Private Thomas Taylor, who joined the 16th Battalion AIF on 25 October 1914. Taylor's wounds were sustained on 2 May 1915 at the Battle of the Landing, during night operations at the Bloody Angle and Quinn's Post in which the 16th Battalion suffered 338 casualties. By the time this photograph was taken, Taylor had endured ten operations. [AWM H03509]

At nightfall on 2 May, the 16th went into attack again up a hill called the Bloody Angle towards Quinn’s Post, and throughout the night they continued to fight and dig trenches. The battalion’s exposure to continual firing made it very dangerous to carry ammunition to them:

Again and again volunteers were shot as they scrambled up with heavy cases; others took their places only to fall dead across the boxes they were dragging, or to roll down the steep side of the hill.

[Captain C Longmore, The Old Sixteenth: being a record of the 16th Battalion, AIF, during the Great War 1914-1918, Perth, 1929, p 47]

Near dawn on 3 May, the 16th rose out of their trenches to attack the Turkish position about 100 metres away but were seen and met with heavy fire. Their attempt failed and when dawn came their dead ‘lay thickly on the slopes’.

During that night, men of the Royal Naval Division had been brought in to reinforce the battalion, but confusion prevailed and communication with the 16th became impossible. Attempts to dig a communication trench through the hill failed and throughout the morning the 16th gradually fell back in twos and threes.  At 6 pm the remnants of the battalion were withdrawn.

At the landing on 25 April, the 16th had been about 1000 strong. Overnight on 2 May, they had lost 8 officers and 330 men. At roll call on 3 May, only nine officers and 290 men answered their names.

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Souvenir from the Ceramic, the troopship that took the 16th Battalion from Melbourne to Egypt in 1914. [Captain C Longmore, The Old Sixteenth, Perth, 1929] ... Enlarge photo

After a short rest, the 16th was reorganised and moved to Quinns Post. Constant enemy fire and the fear of attack made Quinn’s Post a highly stressful place. To cope with this, battalions were rotated in and out of the post for two days at a time. On 9 May, an organised Turkish attack was unsuccessful and there were casualties when some of the 16th charged in support of the 15th. As the battalions were recalled, a group of 40 men under Captain Samuel Townshend of the 16th Battalion were ordered to charge one of the sections re-occupied by the Turks. They were met with murderous fire. On 12 May, the battalion was relieved and they proceeded once more to the rest camp, where the men received a tot of rum. On 18 May, the 16th Battalion went back into the front line once again at Quinn’s Post.

Signaller Ellis Silas, 16th Battalion, was evacuated from Gallipoli on 17 May 1915 – consequently this account describes the battle experience of his battalion until that point.

Signallers at Anzac

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Private William McIntosh, 4th Field Ambulance AIF, with his semaphore signalling flag on Gallipoli. [AWM P01116.066] ... Enlarge photo

During warfare, a commander needs to know not only where his troops are, but also what they are doing and whether they have sufficient supplies. Signallers are responsible for these military communications.

Before 1925, signals were part of the responsibility of the Royal Australian Engineers. In 1914, a syllabus for the grading of signallers was announced. Signallers were required to be proficient in morse signalling on flag, lamp and heliograph, as well as in map reading. Successful candidates were classified as first-class signallers and wore crossed flags with a star on their right forearm; those with slower speeds qualified as second-class signallers and wore the flags without the star. Signallers were also dispatch riders and they usually supplied their own bicycles or motorbikes.

With the outbreak of World War I, signallers had to be found for each new division that was raised as well as within individual battalions. The assembly area for the 1st Division Signal Company was Broadmeadows, Victoria, and the sappers (signallers) who arrived there came from every state. Most of them had been chosen after passing a morse reading test, so there was some basic proficiency in the unit.

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Two members of the 1st Division Signals AIF laying cable along a trench at Anzac, 1915. [AWM H05440] ... Enlarge photo

As soon as they landed at Gallipoli on 25 April, they established a divisional signal office and laid wires between the divisional headquarters and the advanced brigades. By midnight, the Headquarters’ signallers sat with telephones and message-forms, constantly in touch with the brigades.

The sappers were constantly exposed to danger as they repaired telephone lines or were forced to show themselves as they relayed messages manually. This manual signalling was vital when the army moved too quickly to establish a telephone network. They were also dispatch messengers and had to ride or run with messages throughout the trenches:

It was across this exposed spot that many times I had to run despatches. The ridge on the right, where shrapnel can be seen bursting, was thick with snipers, who had this patch so well set that they rarely missed their mark.  The poor chaps seen in the drawing all got caught when trying to get across. I wondered if I was to join them.

[Ellis Silas, ‘Dead Man’s Patch’, Anzac, May, 1915, drawing, Crusading at Anzac, A.D. 1915, London. 1916]

Sources:

  • Captain C Longmore, The Old Sixteenth: being a record of the 16th Battalion, AIF, during the Great War 1914-1918, Perth, 1929.
  • Julie Russell, ‘Ellis Silas’, Geoffrey Serle (ed), Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, Melbourne, 1988, pp 451–453.
  • Ellis Silas, Crusading at Anzac, AD 1915, London, 1916.
  • 16th Battalion War Diary, Unit War Diaries 1914-18 War, item no 23/33/1-5, AWM 4.
  • Theo Barker, Signals: A History of the Royal Australian Corps of Signals 1788-1947, Canberra, 1987.