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Battle of the Nek

The Battle of the Nek was a small World War I battle fought as part of the Gallipoli campaign. "The Nek" was a narrow stretch of ridge in the Anzac battlefield on the Gallipoli peninsula. The name derives from the Afrikaans word for a "mountain pass" but the terrain itself was a perfect bottleneck and easy to defend, as had been proven during a Turkish attack in May. It connected the Anzac trenches on the ridge known as "Russell's Top" to the knoll called "Baby 700" on which the Turkish defenders were entrenched. In total area, the Nek is about the size of three tennis courts.

On 7 August 1915 two regiments of the Australian 3rd Light Horse Brigade mounted a tragic and futile attack on the Turkish trenches on Baby 700.

Prelude

For the three months since the 25 April landings, the Anzac beachhead had been a stalemate. In August an offensive (which later became known as the Battle of Sari Bair) was intended to break the deadlock by capturing the high ground of the Sari Bair range, and linking the Anzac front with a new landing to the north at Suvla. In addition to the main advance north out of the Anzac perimeter, a number of supporting attacks were planned from the existing trench positions.

The attack at the Nek was meant to coincide with an attack by New Zealand troops from Chunuk Bair, which was to be captured during the night. The light horsemen were to attack across the Nek to Baby 700 while the New Zealanders descended from the rear onto Battleship Hill, the next knoll above Baby 700.

The 3rd Light Horse Brigade, which was fast commanded by Colonel F.G. Hughes, comprised the 8th (Victorian), 9th (Victorian & South Australian) and 10th (Western Australian) Light Horse Regiments. Like the other Australian Light Horse and the New Zealand Mounted Rifles regiments, they had been dispatched to Gallipoli in May as infantry reinforcements, leaving their horses in Egypt.

The attack

The attack was scheduled to commence at 4:30 a.m. on 7 August. It was to be preceded by a naval bombardment. The 8th and 10th Light Horse regiments were to advance on a front 80 metres wide in a total of four waves of 150 men each, two waves per regiment. Each wave would advance two minutes apart. The distance they would have to travel to reach the Turkish line was a mere 27 metres. Coloured marker flags were carried, to be shown from the captured trenches to indicate success.

On the morning of the 7th it was clear that the prerequisites for the attack had not been met. The plan drafted by Colonel Skeen required a simultaneous attack from the rear of Baby 700 thereby creating a hammer and anvil effect on the Turkish trenches caught in between this pincer movement. Since the New Zealand advance was held up and failed to reach Chunuk Bair until the morning of 8 August, a day late, it meant that the reason for charging at the Nek evaporated. A further part of the Skeen plan required an attack from Steele's Post against German Officers' Trench by the 6th Battalion, 2nd Infantry Brigade of the Australian 1st Division, which failed. The Turkish machine guns sited there enfiladed the ground in front of Quinn's Post and the Nek. The Turkish machine gunners did not suffer any casualties as a result. Nonetheless, Major General Sir Alexander Godley, commander of the New Zealand and Australian Division of which the 3rd Light Horse Brigade was then a part, declared that the attack was to proceed.

Due to a failure of timing instructions, the artillery preparation ceased as planned at 4.30 a.m. while the attack was not launched until 4.37 a.m.. After the artillery firing ceased, no one knew if the bombardment was to continue so the attack was launched at the scheduled time, giving the Turkish defenders ample time to return to their trenches and prepare for the assault that they now knew was coming. The first wave of 150 men from the 8th Light Horse Regiment, led by their commander, Lieutenant Colonel A.H. White, "hopped the bags" and went over the top. They were met with a hail of machine gun and rifle fire. A few men reached the Turkish trenches, and marker flags were reportedly seen flying, but they were quickly overwhelmed.

The second wave of 150 followed the first without question and met the same fate. This was the ultimate tragedy of the Nek, that the attack was not halted after the first wave when it was clear that it was futile. A simultaneous attack by the 2nd Light Horse Regiment (1st Light Horse Brigade) at Quinn's Post against the Turkish trench system known as "The Chessboard" was abandoned after 49 out of the 50 men in the first wave became casualties. In this case, the regiment's commander had not gone in the first wave and so was able to make the decision to cancel.

Lieutenant Colonel N.M. Brazier, commander of the 10th Light Horse Regiment, attempted to have the third wave cancelled, claiming that "the whole thing was nothing but bloody murder". He was unable to find Colonel Hughes and unable to persuade the Brigade Major, Colonel J.M. Antill, who believed the reports that marker flags had been sighted. This report of marker flags was subsequently confirmed in a Turkish article published after the war where it was stated by author who had been at the Nek that a couple men with a marker flag made it to the Turkish trench before being quickly killed. In that time they were able to raise the flag. Colonel J.M. Antill had not checked the scene to establish if it was of any purpose to send the next wave and issued the order for the third wave to proceed. The third wave "hopped the bags" and the assault came to a quick end. On this assault, many men launched themselves out of the trenches and tried to dive for cover, having performed their duty to attack but having no ambition to commit suicide. This explains the lower casualty rate for the 10th Light Horse Regiment. Finally Hughes called off the attack, but confusion in the fire trench led to some of the fourth wave going over.

Aftermath

A further consequence of the failure to call off the attack at the Nek was that a supporting attack by two companies of the Royal Welch Fusiliers was launched from the head of Monash Valley, between Russell's Top and Pope's Hill, against the "Chessboard" trenches. 65 casualties were incurred before the attack was aborted.

The Australian casualties from the 3rd Light Horse Brigade numbered 372; 234 from the 8th Light Horse Regiment, of which 154 were killed, and 138 from the 10th, of which 80 were killed. The Turkish losses were negligible on this occasion, although there are eight known Turkish dead.

When Commonwealth burial parties returned to the peninsula in 1919, the bones of the dead light horsemen were still lying thickly on the small piece of ground. The Nek Cemetery now covers most of no-man's land of the tiny battlefield, and contains the remains of 316 people of whom only five could be identified.

Trooper Harold Rush of the 10th Light Horse Regiment died in the third wave. His body was one of the few identified and he is buried in Walker's Ridge Cemetery. His epitaph famously reads "His last words, Goodbye Cobber, God bless you".

The battle is depicted in the climax of Peter Weir's 1981 movie, Gallipoli, where it is inaccurately portrayed as simply a diversion to reduce Turkish opposition to the landing at Suvla Bay instead of part of a coordinated plan to capture the Sari Bair ridge.

References

Notes

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