Before the First World War most Australians were eager to fight if necessary die for the sake of their country and their British heritage (my grandfather among them). In The broken years, Australian soldiers in the Great War (Penguin Books, 1975), Bill Gammage uses the diaries and letters of a thousand Australian soldiers to reconstruct the valour and the tragedy of their experience. He shows how and why the 1914-18 war was to have profound effects on the attitudes and ideals of Australia as a nation. The horror and tragedy of conflict brought fundamental changes in outlook and initiated the bittersweet Anzac tradition. We have been in several wars, but since the Gallipoli campaign of 1915, it has been impossible for us to be a war-loving nation. The movie Gallipoli (1981) directed by Peter Weir, tells the story of two athletic young Australian men who joined the Australian Light Horse in World War I, only to be sent to Gallipoli as infantry canon fodder in the campaign against the Turks.
I saw the movie in the 1980s, soon after it was released. I remember watching its portrayal of lines of beautiful, proud young men running futilely into the enemy fire, for no cause but poor generalship. And I remember leaving the cinema shaking with shame and anger at the horror and waste. I am still angry.
The final scene in the movie is based on these events described by Gammage (p.74) and in the longer quote below from C.E.W. Bean’s history:
At four on the afternoon of 6 August the artillery began a gentle bombardment. It intensified early on the 7th , but a four twenty three am, seven minutes before time, it ceased. The light horsemen stood still in the silence. In the enemy trenches soldiers cautiously emerged from shelter, lined their front two deep, fired short bursts to clear their machine guns, levelled their rifles, and waited.
At four thirty precisely the first line of the 8th Light Horse leapt from their trenches. As their helmets appeared above the parapet, an awful fire broke upon them. Many were shot, but a line started forward. It crumpled and vanished within five yards. One or two men on the flanks dashed to the enemy’s parapet before being killed, the rest lay still in the open. … The second line saw the fate of their friends. Over their heads the Turk fire thundered undiminished, drowning out any verbal order. In front the slope was shot bare of foliage. Beside them lay dead and wounded of the first line, hit before they cleared the trench. But they waited two minutes as ordered, then sprang forward. They were shot down. The 10th Light Horse filed into the vacant places in the trench. They could hardly have doubted their fate. They knew they would die, and they determined to die bravely, by running swiftly at the enemy.
This is the account by C.E.W. Bean, former Australian Official War Historian, in his shortened account of the war, Anzac to Amiens 4th ed. (Canberr Australian War Memorial, 1968), pp. 154-157. Simply to take the time read this is a fitting remembrance of those who gallantly gave so much for so little.
Men of the two Australian Light Horse Brigades on Russell’s Top and Pope’s Hill had during the previous afternoon watched with enthusiasm the 1st Infantry Brigade, far to their right and below, seize the Turkish trench network at Lone Pine, and were full of confidence that they would similarly seize the network ahead of them. They were to be helped by half-an-hour’s previous bombardment by all available land guns, as well as by those of destroyers, culminating three minutes’ intense bombardment from 4.27 to 4.30; at 4.30 the Light Horse would charge.
At The Nek this shelling was terrific; it largely missed the front Turkish trench, only twenty to sixty yards from the Australian, but it covered Baby 700 with a cloud of smoke and dust slowly drifting across the low, pale streak of dawn. The attack was to be made by four lines, each of 150 men (there was no room for more on The Nek), following each other at several minutes’ intervals.
The first line stood with its feet on pegs in the trench walls, ready to leap out. But for some reason that may now never be discovered—probably an error in timing watches—this shelling suddenly ceased when the watches of the Light Horse officers showed only 4.23 – that is, seven minutes before the time for the attack; and when, at 4.30, Lieut.-Colonel A. H. White of the 8th Light Horse gave the word “Go”, and, followed eagerly by the 150 men of the first line, scrambled from the deep trenches, there burst out within three or four seconds from the Turkish trenches, packed with men, such a torrent of rifle fire, growing quickly to a continuous roar, as soldiers can seldom have faced. The Australian line, now charging, was seen suddenly to go limp, and then sink to the earth, as though (said an eye-witness) “the men’s limbs had become string”. Except those wounded whom bullets had knocked back into the trench, or who managed to crawl a few yards and drop into it, almost the whole line fell dead or dying within the first ten yards. White and every other officer was killed. Three or four men reached the Turkish parapet and the burst of their bombs was heard above the uproar.
The second line, waiting in the trench to start, listening to the tempest that swept its parapet, and helping the wounded, now knew what it must face, but knew also that the moment was a supreme one of the campaign, and that the fate of other troops in that vital effort might also depend on it. When, at 4.33, the whistle was blown, the second line leapt out instantly.
The fusillade, which had slightly abated, instantly rose again to a roar as if some player had opened the swell-box of an organ. The second line, running hard, got a little beyond the first before being mown down. On the right some men reached the Turkish trench. Bombs were again heard, and amid the dust of machine-gun fire one of the small red and yellow flags, carried by the light horsemen to mark their position, was seen on the Turkish parapet.
Both lines of the 8th Light Horse having now charged, the 10th, from Western Australia, filed into the trench which the 8th had left. Its commander questioned the wisdom of continuing the attack—Colonel White, who could have added his advice, alas lay dead. The brigade major, having heard that men had entered the Turkish line, ruled that they must be supported. Accordingly, at a signal at 4.45, the third line leapt out. A survivor said afterwards he knew death was almost certain but had determined to race with all his speed to meet it. The roar which had died into silence immediately rose again, and this line too was mown down. The fourth line was held for half an hour, while a further decision was sought. But at that stage apparently there reached the waiting troops on the right an officer who knew nothing of this and asked why the men had not gone forward. Believing that the charge had been ordered to continue, the men there clambered out. The tempest broke out again. With a call “By God! the right has gone!” other leaders leapt out with their men, and the fourth line went, and most of it was swept away like the others. [These are the moments portrayed in the movie Gallipoli.]
Probably the attack on The Nek effected its purpose of holding temporarily near Baby 700 at least part of the Turkish reinforcements which were just then streaming northward towards Chunuk Bair. In any case the light horsemen were not men to hesitate at what was certainly one of the crucial moments of the whole war; if in that decisive hour any advantage was to be gained by their effort they would make it whatever the cost. The flower of the youth of Victoria and Western Australia fell in that attempt. The cost to the smaller population of the West was especially severe – hardly a pioneer family but mourned its one or more dead.
There were to be several more bloody battles, but this was a turning point. By the end of August, it was evident that the allied attack on the Dardanelles was broken.