Charge of the 3rd Light Horse at the NEK

The charge of the 3rd Light Horse Brigade at the NEK – 7th August 1915

“…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…” Captain Bean, noted war historian and official observer

The Turkish trenches were found to be densely packed with troops. The Allies, in fact, had anticipated by an hour or two a Turkish attack on the British trenches. News of the sweeping advance of the Germans into Russia had reached the Turkish troops and they had regained their morale.

On the morning of August 7 1915, they attacked the British lines in force, but they were driven back. These operations, despite their partial failure, had the effect,which was intended, of drawing certain Turkish reinforcements to the southern area.

The first twenty-four hours of the Anzac offensive will ever remain a memorable day in Australian history.

In that short period, Australian heroism attained the pinnacle of prowess. History furnishes no finer deed of self-sacrificing heroism than the charge of the First and Third Light Horse Brigades from Walkers Ridge and Quinns Post at dawn on Saturday, August 7, while the successful assault a few hours earlier by the First Australian Infantry Brigade on the formidable system of Turkish entrenchments at Lone Pine, called for a display of tenacious courage and initiative unequalled in the whole campaign. It yielded the record award of seven Victoria Crosses.

Although second in point of time, the charge of the Light Horse may be described first. It differed from the historic charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava only in that it was made by horsemen who had volunteered to fight on foot and that it succeeded in its object, the holding in the trenches of large bodies of Turks, who otherwise would have been used against the British landing at Suvla Bay.

In preparation for the attack, the British guns maintained a half-hours’ bombardment of the Turkish trenches, and when the uproar ceased at 4.30 a.m., the Light Horse attack was instantly launched. Captain Bean (the noted war historian), the official observer, who was present, supplied a thrilling narrative of the the glorious charge.

“The men,” he said, “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 eighth, 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 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 amongst them, the officers in line with the men. I shall never forget that moment. I was making my way along a path from the left of the area, and was passing not very far away when that tremendous fusilade broke out. It rose from a fierce cackle 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 doubt.

Exactly 4:30am – 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 or on the 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 line 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 the second line managed to get into the extreme right-hand corner or the enemy 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 the party of the 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 the 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 Servians in the Balkan War – was pouring her shells at the rate of about one in ten seconds into the Nek. 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. The fight in that corner of the trench, whatever it was, was over; and it can only have ended one way.”

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, 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 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 two 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 day 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 parapet for 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 the bodies of the men there for papers and diaries, so they arranged to make as fast as they could for the trenches.

The man who arrived back was shot through the ankle. His mate never arrived. 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. They bayonets of the front row of Turks could be seen just over the parapet and behind them there appeared to be two rows of Turks standing waist-high above the parapet emptying their rifles as fast as they could fire them. So much for the charge of the Third Light Horse Brigade against the Nek.

The First Light Horse Brigade attacked partly from Quinn’s Post on the opposite side of the gully and partly from the hill in the gully between the two. The second regiment was to attack from Quinn’s in four lines of fifty each. The first line was led by Major T. J. Logan. It scrambled from the trench the instant the signal was given, but more than half were actually knocked back, killed or wounded, into the trench before they were clear of the parapet. The first few out managed to reach a few yards before they were killed. They left our trenches at two points and there were only from 15 to 20 yards to go.

Major Logan, who led one party, is said to have actually reached the Turkish parapet and fallen into it. Lieut Bourne, who led the other, fell about ten yards from our trench. The boy who fell beside him had his leg practically severed by machine gun bullets. The Turkish machine guns drew lines across that narrow space which none could pass and the one man who went out and returned unwounded puts his escape down to the fact that he noticed a point on our sandbags on which the machine gun bullets were hitting and jumped clean over the stream of lead. As the whole of the first line was either killed our wounded within a few seconds, the attack was stopped and the other lines did not start. Four of the finest Anzac regiments were shattered in this glorious charge, but they created an imperishable impression.

“As for the boys,” wrote Captain Bean, “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 shade 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 own native bush, will some day again claim this Nek 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 Nek in the dawn of June 30 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.