Saturday, March 21, 2009

Lieutenant Keith A. Borthwick, 8 L.H.R., A.I.F.





The charge of the First and Third Australian Light Horse Brigades (on foot) in Gallipoli on August 7th [1915] was one of the most superbly devoted deeds it is possible to conceive. The object was to hold the Turks at Anzac where they were, while a landing was being made elsewhere, and this object was attained—at cost of the life of nearly every man who took part in the charge. The story here given is told by Captain C. E. W. Bean, official Press representative with the Australians in the Dardanelles.

Before daybreak the attacking parties filed into the trenches from which they were to make the rush. They were in their shirts, with their sleeves rolled up and the brown forearm muscles showing. Their knees were bare and sunburnt. Each man carried his full kit, with 200 rounds of ammunition. Water-bottles were full; they carried food for a day or two. Each man had stowed carefully into his pack such little mementoes as he especially prized—a fragment of Turkish shell, some Turkish coins bought off a prisoner, a home letter and a photograph or two. They were saying goodbye to their own trenches—that night they would sleep in the scrub.

The attack on the left-hand side of the apex was to be made by the 8th Light Horse, with the 10th Light Horse following. Four lines would start of a hundred and fifty each, the first and second lines being from the 8th Light Horse—that is, Victorians—and the third and fourth lines being 10th. Light Horse—Western Australians. The first line was to carry, among other things, two scaling ladders made for the occasion. The fourth line would carry picks, shovels, and a dozen sorts of engineering supplies, but it was to fight like the others if necessary.


In order to help the men to get out of the trench like a flash, pegs had been driven into the side of the trench and the footholds cut. As the moment for the charge came near the first line got its foothold on these, and the second stood in the trench behind it ready to give it a leg up. And then at four o’clock to the moment the bombardment by our guns began. For half an hour the slope in front of our trenches was an inferno, and then the uproar ceased as suddenly as it had begun—ceased as if cut off short by the stroke of a knife. And that same instant the Light Horse attack was launched.

The men were standing there in the trench without the least sign of excitement hitching up their packs, getting a firm foothold below the parapet. The colonel of the 8th, Lieut.-Col. A. H. White, insisted on leading his regiment. Ten minutes before the start he walked into the brigade office and held out his hand to the brigade-major. “Good-bye, Antill!” he said. A couple of minutes later he was at his place on the parapet with his men.


Colonel White stood by the parapet with his watch in his hand. He and two other officers [one of whom was Keith Borthwick] had carefully set and compared their watches, and the three now stood under the parapet at three points in the line watching the second hand fidget its way round. “Three minutes to go,” said the Colonel. Then simply, “Go!”

They were over the parapet like a flash, the colonel among them, the officers in line with the men. I shall never forget that moment. I was passing not very far away when that tremendous fusillade broke out. It rose from a fierce crackle into a roar in which you could distinguish neither rifle nor machine-gun, but just one continuous roaring tempest. One could not help an involuntary shiver—God help anyone that was out in that tornado. But one knew very well that men were out in it—the time put the meaning of it beyond all possible doubt. Exactly 4.30—the Light Horse were making their charge. There were no British rifles in all that fire—it was the greeting of the Turkish rifles and machine-guns as the Light Horse cleared the Australian parapet.


One knew that nobody could live in it. Many fell back into the trench wounded before they had cleared even the parapet. Others wounded just outside managed to crawl back and tumble in before they were hit a second and third time and killed as they certainly would be if they remained lying out there. Practically all those that were wounded were hit in this way on our own parapet. Colonel White managed to run eight or ten yards before he was killed. The scaling ladders are lying out there about the same distance out. Exactly two minutes after the first line had cleared the parapet the second one jumped out without the slightest hesitation and followed them.

No one knows how it happened. And probably no one will ever know. But some either of that first line or of the second line managed to get into the extreme right hand corner of the enemy’s trench. They carried with them a small flag to put up in the enemy’s trench if they captured it, and the appearance of this flag was to be the signal for a party of Royal Welsh Fusiliers to attack up the gully to the right. Two men were put in the head of one of our foremost saps with periscopes to watch for the first sign of this flag in the enemy’s trench. By this time a French “75”—a gun captured by the Turks from the Serbians in the Balkan war—was pouring her shell at the rate of about one in ten seconds to the neck. Machine-guns, far too many to count by their noise, were whipping up the dust, and it was next to impossible to distinguish anything in the haze. But in the extreme south-eastern corner of the Turkish trench there did appear just for two minutes the small flag which our men had taken.


No one ever saw them get there. No one will ever know who they were or how they did it. Only for those two minutes the flag fluttered up behind the parapet, and then someone unseen tore it down.

In the meantime, ten minutes after the second line, the third line had gone over the parapet as straight and as quick as the others. The attack was then stopped, and, fortunately, was stopped in time to prevent a small part of this third line reaching the fire zone. There was one point where our trenches were under the cover of the slope, and the men had to crawl out some ten yards or so before they put up their heads into the torrent of lead. A dozen or so were stopped here before they made their rush.

It was all over within a quarter of an hour. Except for the wild fire which burst out again at intervals there was not a movement in front of the trenches—only the scrub and the tumbled khaki here and there. All day long the brilliant sun of a perfect sky poured down upon them from a cloudless sky. That night after dark one or two maimed figures appeared over our parapet and tumbled home into the trench. They were men who had fallen wounded into some corner where there was a scrap of cover and had waited for this chance to get back. One of them came from below the parapet of the Turkish trench on the right. He had lain there all day, too close to the Turks to see him without exposing themselves. There was another wounded Australian near him. After dark they heard the Turks come out over the parapet of their trench searching for the bodies of the men there for papers and diaries, so they arranged to make as fast as they could for our trenches. The man who arrived back was shot through the ankle. His mate never came.

But from that man we know all that will probably ever be known of what those Light Horse men found facing them as they ran through the dust haze. The nearer trenches were crammed with troops. The bayonets of the front row of Turks could be seen just over the parapet—and behind them were appeared to be two rows of Turks standing waist-high above the parapet emptying their rifles as fast as they could fire them.


There is no question that the charge of the Light Horse pinned down to that position during its continuance and for hours afterwards every available Turkish soldier within call. Our own machine-guns were able to get in some good work among those crowded Turks, and those who know say that their losses must have been an ample set-off to our own.

So ended the attack of the two Light Horse Brigades. The one man who came back from the parapet of the Turkish trenches on the Neck reported that the Turks there had their packs on and were in full marching order—evidently part of a battalion that had been hurried up from the reserves or else which was being hurried off to reinforce further north when this attack in the centre delayed it. The Australian Light Horse in the richest and fullest manner achieved the object for which their help had become necessary at a critical period of a great movement.

And as for the boys—the single-minded loyal Australian country lads—who left their trenches in the grey light of that morning with all their simple treasures on their backs to bivouac in the scrub that evening—the shades of evening found them lying in the scrub with God’s wide sky above them. The green arbutus and the holly of the Peninsula not unlike their native bush will some day claim this Neck in those wild ranges for its own. But the place will always be sacred as the scene of two very brave deeds, the first—let us not forget it—the desperate attack made by the Turks across that same Neck in the dawn of June 30th, and, secondly, of a deed of self-sacrificing bravery which has never been surpassed in military history—the charge of the Australian Light Horse into certain death at the call of their comrades’ need during a crisis in the greatest battle that has ever been fought on Turkish soil.

—C. E. W. Bean, The Daily Graphic, Monday, October 4, 1915.

In the circumstances it is something of a miracle that Bean’s extraordinarily affecting account of this horrific episode passed the military censor, and hardly surprising also that emphasis was laid so heavily on the larger usefulness of the operation. However, in keeping with the general mismanagement of the entire Gallipoli campaign, the British naval bombardment and landings which the Australians were supposed to make possible by this diversionary assault never happened, and, orders being orders, they were permitted simply to go ahead regardless.

Without question the Australians all knew they were certain to die, and the few survivors reported that, like Colonel White, many men in the first and second lines exchanged handshakes and said goodbye to each other in the minutes prior to the launch of the attack. Those who have been to the Nek say that the area of no-man’s-land between the allied and Turkish trenches is not much bigger than a suburban quarter-acre block.

It is hard to know how public opinion at home or, indeed, in Britain would have reacted if the truth had been made known, even if Bean had absorbed and reported it accurately, but this bleak pattern of human sacrifice piled upon human sacrifice ground on and on until the very end of the war.

As First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill devised the Gallipoli campaign, and took responsibility for its failure by resigning from his post in the cabinet. It was the right thing to do, but although the memory of Gallipoli haunted him for the rest of his life, unfortunately it did not extinguish Churchill’s fundamental belief in the tactical potential of “the soft underbelly” of Europe.

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