Disaster at the Nek: The Massacre of the Australian 3rd Light Horse;
7th August 1915 “Goodbye and God Bless”
By Lieutenant Colonel Alistair Pope, psc, CM (Australian Army, Retired)
In Peter Weir’s film “Gallipoli” when Mel Gibson screamed an anguished “No!” everyone in the audience was horrified as they knew that 600 men were being sent to their death. In the film Gibson failed to reach the Command Post in time to prevent the charge of the 8th & 10th Light Horse Regiments at the Nek. Weir’s film was good cinema, but bad history. In the film indolent and uncaring tea-drinking British officers were blamed for the Australian disaster at the Nek, when in fact it was an entirely Australian affair. The destruction of the 8th and part of the 10th Light Horse became something that everyone in Australia knew about, but nobody mentioned. As a result incompetent officers continued their careers uninterrupted by blame or guilt – while their heroic soldiers died needless deaths. One question that continues to intrigue historians, sociologists and psychologists today is: why did they do it? There are some indisputable facts about the disaster that befell the 8th and 10th Light Horse Regiments; the rest is myth, legend and truly heroic sacrifice.
The ‘plan’ to capture the Turkish position at “The Nek” was as simple as any attack plan can be. Bombard the enemy for thirty minutes then charge them head-on and capture or kill them with the bayonet.
The Reasons for the Attack
After the amphibious landings on 25th April 1915 at ANZAC cove any chance of advancing across the peninsula had petered out. By May the initiative was lost and a ‘Western Front’ stalemate among the hills and gullies of the peninsula was solidly in place. Both sides were now well-entrenched and any attack to gain a few metres could only be made at an extraordinary price in lives. In August just such an attack was planned by the Allies to break the deadlock by capturing the high ground of a feature called Sari Bair then held by the Turks. This advance was eventually designed to link up with a new landing taking place further up the peninsula at Suvla Bay.
To reach the Turkish entrenchments on “Baby 700” required crossing ‘The Nek’, an area about the size of three tennis courts, and no more than 30 yards wide. The attack by the Australian 3rd Light Horse Brigade was planned as a diversion, supported by an attack by the New Zealanders from the rear of the position, from Chunuk Bair, a position they were due to capture during the night of 6th August 915.
The attack was due to commence at 04.30 am of 7th August, preceded by a 30 minute naval bombardment. However, as the watches of the naval gunners and the troops had not been synchronized the guns fell silent seven minutes early. The Light Horsemen waited while the Turkish soldiers re-occupied their positions and set up interlocking machine guns. At the due time the first wave of 150 men of the 8th Light Horse ‘went over the top’, led by their commander, Lt Col A. H. White. They were mown down in seconds, but it was reported
(almost certainly incorrectly) that some made it to the Turkish trenches. Based on this report the second wave attacked two minutes later and were also massacred.
The Commander of the Western Australian 10th Light Horse, Lt Col N. M. Brazier appealed to the Brigade Major, Colonel J. M. Antill to call off the slaughter, but Antill (who thoroughly disliked Brazier) simply replied “Push on.”
Brazier returned to his regiment and ordered the third wave to charge. The ‘battle’ had become nothing less than plain murder. The Turks were now thoroughly ready and killed or wounded all 150 men within thirty seconds of leaving their own parapet! Brazier again appealed to Antill to stop the slaughter – and received the same reply to “Push on.” However, this time Brazier found the Brigade Commander, Brigadier Hughes who lamely suggested trying a different angle of attack. Finally Hughes agreed to call off the attack, but before Brazier could return to the trenches the left flank of the fourth line rose from their trench and charged without orders in the absolute certainty that they would be killed. Their attack went no further than their predecessors.
It would be remiss to honour these warriors without mentioning some other equally brave actions on the same day. At Quinn’s Post, in another diversionary attack 2nd Light Horse Regiment of the 1st Light Horse Brigade sent 50 men in the first of four waves to attack a Turkish trench less than 20 yards (18 metres) away. The follow up attack was called off when
49 of the 50 troops were killed without crossing even this short space. In a supporting attack two companies of the Royal Welch Fusiliers launched an attack against a strong position called the “Chessboard” (because of its interlocking trenches). That attack was also abandoned after 65 casualties were incurred for no gain.
It is often said that as WW1 was a war of attrition in which the measure of success is the number of enemy casualties inflicted compared to one’s own. By any measure August 7th,
1915 was a disaster for the Australians. Of the 500 or so men from the 3rd Light Horse Brigade who charged at the Nek that day 372 were killed or wounded. The cemetery at the Nek contains the remains of 316 Australians. A further 49 died from 1st Light Horse Brigade and 65 from the Royal Welch Fusiliers. It is possible that the Turks may have suffered a few casualties.
Trooper Harold Rush died in the third wave. His headstone in the Walker’s Ridge Cemetery records his last words to friend nearby:
“Goodbye Cobber; God Bless You”
As the Author, Les Carlyon writes after visiting the scene of such heroism – and such a waste of heroes, “… visitors to the peninsula stare at the words and wonder why, when they open their mouths, no words come out.”
The question of ‘why’ remains unanswered and forever unanswerable. The Australians of that era felt a need to prove they had the grit and fortitude to be the equal of any in the British Empire. But those were also the days when supporting your ‘cobbers’ (friends and colleagues) was the most important part of the ethos of a pioneering, frontier nation. They died for each other as that counted for more to them than life itself or anything else.
They truly embodied the Spartan epitaph at Thermopylae: