Australians in captured Turkish trenches at Lone Pine,Gallipoli, 6 August 1915.
A few weeks ago Sue enquired as to the origin of the phrase “neck of the woods”. The term “neck” in this context originally meant narrow strip of land but came to be applied in the US to a narrow section of woods and eventually to the area of one’s home or settlement. Writing and thinking about necks at that time started me also wondering why the famous or, more appropriately, the infamous, Battle of The Nek was so named. This was a WW1 battle fought by Australian troops as part of the Gallipoli campaign in Turkey. The name had always struck me as strange but I hadn’t looked into it.
The following item was written by me at the time of writing about necks but, because it became lengthier than intended as I found the history more and more fascinating, I thought that I would save it for an Anzac Day post.
The Nek was a narrow strip of ridge with steep drops on either side, on the Gallipoli Peninsula. The word “Nek” is Afrikaans for “narrow pass”.
The Nek connected the Australian trenches on the ridge known as “Russell’s Top” with a knoll known as “Baby 700” held by the Ottoman defenders.
On 7 August 1915, two regiments of the Australian 3rd Light Horse Brigade, their horses left behind in Egypt, attacked the Turkish trenches on Baby 700. The slaughter became known as "Godfrey's abattoir", after Major General Sir Alexander Godley, the commander of the New Zealand and Australian Division of which the 3rd Light Horse was a part.
As part of an offensive aimed at securing the high ground above the Sari Bair range, New Zealanders were to attack Battleship Hill next to Baby 700, descending from the rear, whilst the Australian Light Horse attacked Baby 700 across The Nek.
The attack was to commence at 4.30am after a naval bombardment, to proceed in four waves, each of 150 men. The attack was to have an 80 metre wide front and would advance 27 metres to reach the Ottoman trenches.
Things did not go to plan. The Australian attack was to be simultaneous with the New Zealand attack on Battleship Hill but the New Zealand advance had been delayed by one day. A further attack on a nearby German officers’ trench had also failed, enabling the Ottoman machine gunners there to support the defence of the Nek by the Ottomans. Notwithstanding that there was no longer any reason for the attack, Major General Godley ordered the attack to proceed.
The artillery bombardment finished at 4.30am but the artillery officer in charge of the barrage and the assault officer had not synchronised watches. The result was that the assault did not start until 4.37am, enabling the Ottoman defenders to return to their trenches and prepare for the assault that they knew now was to come.
The first wave went over the top and were gunned down by the Ottoman machine guns. Some men made it to the Ottoman trenches and marker flags were reported as being seen flying but those men were quickly killed by bayonets and rifle fire. It was readily apparent that the attack was futile but it was not discontinued.
The men of the second wave two minutes later were mown down by heavy machine gun and rifle fire before they reached halfway.
The men of the third wave, the 10th Light Horse, also charged to their deaths.
The official Australian war historian, C E W Bean, in his Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918, has recorded that one soldier, Private Wilfred Harper, was seen without rifle or other weapon sprinting at the Turkish trenches “like a schoolboy in a foot-race”. Both Wilfred and his brother Gresley died at the Nek.
The attack was called off before the fourth wave went over the top but, due to an officer not receiving the order in time, eighty men on the flank went over the top. They too were slaughtered.
234 Australians were killed, 138 were wounded.
The Ottomans sustained eight dead, a surprising number in that the Australians had attacked with unloaded rifles with fixed bayonets.
The Australian dead stayed on the ground for the entirety of the campaign.
In 1919, after the war had finished, Commonwealth burial parties found the bones of the dead still lying thickly on the ground. Today The Neck Cemetery covers the area in which they fell with most of the fallen from that battle interred there. The remains of only five were able to be identified, one of those being Trooper Harold Rush of the 10th Light Horse. His epitaph reads “His last words, Goodbye Cobber, God bless you.” The words had been spoken to his friend alongside hime in the trench before commencing the attack. Minutes later he was dead.
John Hamilton in his 2004 book Goodbye Cobber, God Bless You, has written:
If some of this seems familiar, it may be because The Battle of The Nek is the battle depicted at the end of the Australian film Gallipoli.Although it was only one of a number of failed actions at the time, there was nothing sadder or more futile than the charge of the 8th and 10th regiments of the 3rd Australian Light Horse Brigade at The Nek. It was heroic but it could have been stopped. In the words of Lieutenant-Colonel Noel Brazier, commanding officer of the 10th, it was 'sheer bloody murder' as well.
(Click on the image to enlarge).
A view looking across the Nek in February 1919 taken by Charles Bean’s Gallipoli mission photographer, Captain Hubert Wilkins. Wilkins has positioned himself in the old Australian front line of 1915 and in the middle distance, standing where the Turkish front line was, is the memorial known as Sergeant Memhet’s Tomb. Notice the human thigh bone in the foreground. Bean described the area in 1919 as ‘strewn’ with the human remains of the men of the Light Horse who had charged the Turkish lines on 7 August 1915 and of Turkish soldiers.