The attack on Chunuk Bair in August 1915 was one of New Zealand's key events on Gallipoli. Here, on one of the three peaks in the Sari Bair range, the New Zealanders fought hard to win the summit. The victory was short-lived and costly, like so much of this August offensive.
As the futile attacks continued at Helles, General Sir Ian Hamilton, who was in charge of the entire campaign on the Gallipoli Peninsula, began preparing an offensive at Anzac. His aim was to take the high positions on the Sari Bair range and drive the Turkish defenders from the slopes.
Timing and speed were vital to prevent the Turks regrouping. Two columns of men, right and left, would advance up the Sari Bair range and capture the key high points of Chunuk Bair, Hill Q and Hill 971 (Koja Chemen Tepe) during the night of 6 and 7 August. A diversionary attack by the Australians would distract Turkish attention from the assault. At dawn on 7 August an attack launched by the New Zealanders from Chunuk Bair in conjunction with an Australian attack from Russell's Top against the heavily fortified position at the Nek would complete the capture of the whole ridge as far as Hill 971. Down in Suvla Bay, to the north of Anzac, additional troops would land and support the assault on the range. That plan was later changed to one of securing a base.
The offensive opened on 6 August with diversionary attacks at both Helles and Anzac's Lone Pine. Helles was a costly failure, but Lone Pine was one of the rare victories for the British forces. Four days of intense fighting secured the area for the Australians; 7000 Turks and 2000 Australians lost their lives. Turkish troops moved out of the area but only to appear on the Sari Bair range.
As soon as night fell on 6 August, two covering forces set out to capture the foothills through which the columns would move. New Zealand Mounted Rifles units and the Maori Contingent cleared the way by taking key points.
Then the plan came unstuck. The left assaulting column – British and Indian troops – got lost in the darkness and rugged terrain. The right assaulting column never formed. Its two parts, which included the New Zealand Infantry Brigade, were to meet on Rhododendron Spur (or Ridge), about 500 metres short of the summit, before moving to the top of Chunuk Bair. At dawn on 7 August the brigade was still waiting at the spur for part of the column to arrive. The attack went ahead, anyway, at mid-morning. The Auckland Battalion managed to reach within 200 metres of the summit, but casualties were heavy. The Wellington Battalion was ordered to follow suit. Its commander, Lieutenant Colonel William Malone, refused to sacrifice his men and argued that the attack should take place at night.
Under the cover of early morning darkness on 8 August, the Wellington Battalion raced to the summit. It was abandoned. Some of the Auckland mounted rifles, as well as British troops, also reached the top, but the Turks had only moved to other high points to fire on the summit. Reinforcements – the Otago Battalion and Wellington Mounted Rifles – could not arrive until the evening to relieve the exhausted men from the Wellington Battalion – those who were still standing: perhaps 70 of the battalion's 760 men remained. Malone was among those killed.
Turks to our left and to our right now, too, their shots started getting us. I heard thump, thump, thump and it was fellows falling around me. Nine or ten of them, suddenly wounded or dead, all the jokers I'd been playing poker with just a minute or two before.
Charlie Clark in Maurice Shadbolt, Voices of Gallipoli, 1988
The New Zealanders held the summit for two days during searing heat and under constant fire. But on 10 August a massive Turkish counter-attack settled the issue. The British battalions that had relieved the New Zealanders on Chunuk Bair the previous night were swept away.
It was not quite the end of the offensive for the New Zealanders. Less than two weeks later, men of the Canterbury and Otago Mounted Rifles tried to dislodge the Turkish defenders from Hill 60. The New Zealanders took some of the trenches, but eventually the British forces withdrew, leaving the Turks in control of the hill.
Delays fatally compromised the whole plan. Even when the British had taken their targets such as Chunuk Bair or Hill Q, captured for a time by Gurkha soldiers, sufficient reinforcements could not arrive to secure things. Had the positions been held, it is by no means certain that the Allies could then have pushed on towards the Narrows.
The failure to secure the Sari Bair heights on the first night had clinched the outcome. Events at Suvla Bay did not help either. There, two divisions, ashore by midday on 7 August, could not seize the heights. When they finally tried to, hastily deployed Turkish reserves stopped them in their tracks.