We left sharp on time, and at last our ‘Great Adventure’ began, as the day of April 25th dawned. Cape Helles is the southernmost point of Gallipoli peninsula, and it was there and in its vicinity that we of the 29th Division and the men of the Royal Naval Division were to land. The three principal landings were to be made at Cape Helles itself – at Beach V, Beach W, and Beach X. Other landings were to be accomplished at Beaches S and Y and near Gaba Tepe.
The 5th Royal Scots were originally intended to land at V Beach in support of the Dublins, Munsters, and Hampshires. Owing to the attack here being held up, however, the ‘ Royals’ were diverted to Beach W – the ‘Lancashire landing’, as it came to be called – which lay between V and X. Personally I doubt if there was much to choose among the three. None of them was a health-resort or a garden of roses. W was a narrow patch of sand between a diminutive bay and cliffs and strong entrenchments. The Turks had it well watched and warded; machine-guns, barbed wire, and mines defended the cliff and the bay.
After sailing for about an hour and a half we heard a faint boom, and then another. Excitement began to permeate the troops, and even the ship’s company officers (with whom callous calm was an ambition and an obsession) began to show an active interest in things in general, and in the sounds from Gallipoli in particular. Officers young and old began to come on deck quickly, and breakfast was forgotten.
I must have been standing by the side of the bridge watching, listening, thinking, for some time, when Captain John Wilson, my second in command, hailed me. John is a thorough Scotsman. He did not refer to the reverberant action, but remarked, ‘Weel, Mure, I think we micht hae a wee bit bite. It may be some time afore we get anither, and an empty stummic’s no guid for ony mon’. I agreed, and we went down off the bridge and had a ‘rare guid tuck in’.
The booming became more intense and more rapid, and as we returned to the deck we saw a flash. And now flash followed flash, quick upon each other’s heels, and thick as woes in Elsinore.
The end of the peninsula came in sight, gray, uninviting, fringed with a mighty fleet- battleships, transports, and craft of every conceivable kind. As we steamed slowly to our allotted anchorage, well in to the shore, the sight was worth all the fatigue, all the work, all the peril and the misery that came after.
We anchored close to a huge cruiser, and as she belched her broadsides at the Turk our little boat trembled and shook from bow to stern. We were too close, and at dusk had to move a bit farther out. When we had done so, the little craft actually seemed grateful!
But that was after I had spent a wonderful hour on the bridge, and watched the battle. I had a good telescope, its loan one one of the captain’s hundred kindnesses. I saw splendidly.
The fleet was bombarding the Asiatic side, where the French were drawing Turkish fire by making a feint of landing. On that side there was a long cliff with the usual row of Eastern houses on the top. It was extraordinary to see a house crumple and topple down. The Russian battleship, with its five funnels, christened by Tommy the ‘Packet of Woodbines’ did great execution. One felt like cheering every time a house crashed down or a fire started. What looked to be a cottage was built on a small promontory jutting out from the edge of the cliff. For hours the little building defied the gunners, and seemed almost to mock the best marksmanship in Europe, so long did it stand unscathed. At last a shell landed right into it, and down it came at the first touch, exactly like a castle of playing-cards, such as you and I used to build- years ago. The whole ship cheered vociferously. I am afraid the officers had had a ‘wee bit gamble’ on that poor little house; but, we being Scots, nobody made a book. Its end was unmistakable. When it had toppled to its doom, we turned our attention to graver matters of battle. Krithia, well to our north, was ablaze, and Achi Baba, just beyond, was getting a generous share of the ‘heavies’.
We could not tell how the day was going. Indescribable noise we could hear, indescribable flame and confusion we could see, indescribable carnage we could infer, but we could not piece together or interpret the awful confusion of detail. There was a green field to the left on the top of the cliff, and we could see men rushing across it, then coming back, then advancing again, as if a stiff fight were going on. Towards Sedd-el-Bahr there seemed to be no progress, and we, watching and waiting, began to feel nervous, and imagined that all was not well.
Wilson suddenly turned to me and said, ‘There are the stretcher cases going aboard the hospital-ship. Some poor devils have got it in the neck already’. Of course, a great many had – we knew that – but this was seeing it.
We little guessed what was happening on the beaches. A pinnace dashed past us and we yelled to the officer. He shook his head,and that finished us. Anxiety turned into absolute, craven dumps. and that finished us. I suddenly realised that I was very hungry. I looked at my watch. It was very much tea-time, and lunch had been quite forgotten. We made dejectedly for the modest cabin, which the captain’s partiality and our good manners termed ‘the saloon’. There we ate and drank, almost in silence. But, in spite of our long fast, a very little satisfied us, and we filed back on deck as dejectedly as we had filed down.
It was evident by this time that a landing had been effected, though not so successful a landing as had been anticipated. But we had begun. We were doing something – the rattle of musketry told that. It became more pronounced as the evening wore on, sharper, quicker, more distraught, as if thousands of death-dice were being tossed feverishly by the nervous hands of a multitude of desperate gamblers.
I don’t think many slept that night, and sharp at dawn every man of us was up and astir to see – if he could – what was happening. It was then that we got our baptism of fire, and broke together the red communion bread of imminent, deadly peril, as a shell from the Asiatic side squelched into the water near us, and in an instant another, so close that it almost touched us. Scores of them had rocketed over us for the last half-hour, but until then none had come or seemed very near. It is remarkable how soon, in actual battle, one grows to take little or no account of the missiles that scurry over one, no matter how deadly one knows them to be – we learned that war lesson almost at once, in less than an hour; but never can one get inured or indifferent to the grim, reverberating reminder of a great shell bursting close at hand.
An hour later, thralled and breathless, I was watching the first big infantry charge I had ever seen. It was a glorious and a terrible sight, and I felt as it looked – fearful and exultant.
The infantry pushed and tore through the village of Sedd-el-Bahr up to the fort belching fire and death from the cliff The blood danced in our veins, as beyond. we leaned and looked, our souls fighting with those men struggling in the thick of the carnage. Their bayonets flashed in the dancing eastern sunlight, and as the men rattled on, bleeding, dying, yet persisting, conquering, the glittering sheen they threw before them and about them scintillated like a sea of liquid, burnished steel, more alive than the molten sunlight it mocked and outshone, throwing great swathes of terrible searchlight for yards in front of our straining, suffering infantry,and for yards on either side of them. It was a field of the cloth of living silver. And we could hear the men shouting, ‘Go on, lads; go on, you devils! Give them hell!’ and cries much more vitriolic, less episcopal. ‘Go on, lads’ – nothing very Homeric in that! Ah! wait and hear hear it from a thousand British throats when the day runs red and the fight rises and falls in awful sheets and sweeps of torture and slaughter, necks knotted, backs strained, eyes and hearts bursting, breasts heaving and panting, wounds unheeded, death mocked and defied.
The fort was taken. We saw our men stagger and sway with fatigue and the recoil of mighty work done and accomplished. Then they recovered, threw off their brief relaxation (it had been but an instant), shook themselves into position, and re-formed. It was the second of our Gallipoli victories, but the cost was bitter and dear, as the victories of war must almost always be. Lieutenant-Colonel Doughty-Wylie of the General Staff had gone ashore to direct operations. He had to lead the assault, and leading, he fell, just when the fort was as good as taken. And for a monument to a man and a soldier the fort was given his name.
In the afternoon we received a signal that ammunition was needed, and presently a pinnace came along with a lighter in tow. Then there was turmoil. Every officer itched and clamoured to go. But O.C. troops was on board, and he went himself, and took my second in command with him. I silently consigned them both to a place which, after all, was probably cool and comfortable compared with the spot where they landed.
They both came back safely towards sunset, and we gathered about them like schoolboys round a toffee-box. But they wouldn’t talk. I believe they couldn’t. Wilson said that ‘it was indescribable’, and that was every word that I could get out of him.
About 1 A.M. next morning still more ammunition was wanted, and my chance had come.