Seven Silent Minutes
As part of the August offensive, the 3rd Australian Light Horse Brigade was to attack a network of trenches across a strategically important narrow bridge of land (the Nek) between Malone's Gully and Monash Valley connecting Russell's Top to the lower part of the feature known as Baby 700. The Turks defending Baby 700, the southernmost summit of Second Ridge, had fortified their position with more than half a dozen tiers of trenches and it was reckoned by certain senior Anzac officers to be the key to the Anzac breakout.
The charge of the 3rd Light Horse Brigade at the Nek, 7 August 1915 AWM ART07965
Shortly after the initial landing, this hade been the scene of heavy attacks and counter attacks and in preparation for future attacks here, the Turks had sited their machine guns very well and packed their trenches with men in order to make it impossible to attack across the Nek without massive artillery support.
On the morning of 7 August, a bombardment using all available artillery as well as the guns from a number of ships was to commence a half hour before Zero and culminate in intense fire from 4.27 until 4.30 a.m.
The regiments of the 3rd Light Horse Brigade were to cross the Nek by making four successive charges, each with a line of 150 men. Two lines of 150 men from the 8th Light Horse Regiment following each other at two minute intervals were to conduct the initial charges followed shortly thereafter by two lines from the 10th Light Horse Regiment also at two minute intervals; the 9th Light Horse Regiment in reserve was to provide supporting fire.
From 11 p.m., until 4 a.m., two Australian field batteries, a New Zealand howitzer battery and a British howitzer battery fired a single round each every five minutes on the Turkish trenches at the Nek and the Chessboard; B Battery, 69th Howitzer Brigade concentrated only on the trenches at the Nek.
At 4 a.m., the batteries increased the rate of fire to four shells a minute, and at that time, two mountain guns as well as those of the supporting ships joined in.
When writing about this incident in 1924 Charles Bean wrote... at 4.27 for three minutes, the batteries increased their fire to an ‘intensive’ rate. Since the night of May 2nd no such bombardment had been seen at Anzac. [i]
Bean described how he thought the enemy’s forward trenches probably escaped much of the shelling since they were dangerously close to the Anzac line, and then further down the page wrote the following interesting paragraph.
For some reason, which will probably never be explained, the bombardment which was then thundering upon the enemy ended—according to one account, ‘cut short as if by a knife’— seven minutes before the watches on Russell’s Top pointed to 4.30. [ii]
In 1946 when writing about this costly error in timing again, Bean wrote, the shelling suddenly ceased when the watches of the Light Horse officers showed only 4.23 - that is seven minutes before the time of the attack. [iii]
The 10th Light Horse Regiment records state the enemy machine guns and trenches were not smashed as planned but there is no mention of the seven minutes of silence from the guns, nor is it recorded in any of the 3rd Australian Light Horse Brigade War Diaries.
If Bean’s comment, ‘cut short as if by a knife’ is accurate, then the Australian, New Zealand and British artillery batteries along with Naval gunners had to be all working off the same time. For all of them to cease firing at precisely the same time their watches had to have been synchronised.
The only way this error in timing could have occurred is if the ‘watches of the Light Horse officers’ on Russel’s Top had been synchronised only with the inaccurate watch of a senior officer in the 3rd Light Horse Brigade HQ.
The Light Horse officers, confused by the sudden cessation of shelling, held their men back until their watches showed 4.30 a.m. During the seven silent minutes that passed between the end of the bombardment and the first men stepping up and over the parapet, the Turks had emerged from their shelter, prepared their weapons and waited for the Australians to charge. The first line of the 8th Light Horse Regiment led by their CO, Lieutenant Colonel White were shredded by machine-gun and rifle fire with a number of men being killed even before they got over the parapet. When the second line leapt up they also met with a hail of fire and in addition to this had to contend with shrapnel fired from two field guns bursting low over the ground.
Some years after the war an officer, who was with the 9th Light Horse Regiment at the time, wrote that he thought it was doubtful if any man, either before or since, has known such a dense volume of fire. [iv]
In a desperate effort to continue the momentum, brave men clambered across their dead and wounded comrades only to be killed or fall wounded on top of those dead and dying beneath them.
Lieutenant Colonel Brazier, CO 10th Light Horse Regiment suggested halting the madness but the Brigade Major, Colonel Antill claimed he had received reports of a red and yellow flag fluttering in the enemy’s trench, indicating some of the 8th Light Horse Regiment had made it into the enemy’s line and were in need of support.
When Antill ordered the 10th to provide that support, Brazier moved back to his regiment, apologised to his men and ordered them to charge into the same curtain of fire that had already destroyed their sister regiment.
In a second attempt to stop this insane waste of life, Brazier spoke to Brigadier Hughes who suggested attacking from a new direction. While the officers were debating their next course of action, the men in the fourth line, then assembled on the fire-step awaiting the signal to charge, somehow became confused, and without orders suddenly leapt over the top.
Two of the regiments had suffered horrendous casualties and of the three hundred men who started out with the 8th Regiment 151 were killed outright; almost all of the remainder were wounded and 11 died of wounds within days. The 10th Regiment suffered 138 casualties of whom 78 were killed that morning with another five dying of wounds soon after.
The 9th Regiment who were in support did not entirely escape and suffered a number of casualties including their commanding officer Lieutenant Colonel Albert Miell and three others killed.
When Charles Bean and others returned to Gallipoli in 1919, they found the Nek strewn with the bones of the light horsemen as well as those of the enemy killed during the earlier Turkish attacks on the same ground.
When shortly after our visit Hughes (Imperial War Museum) came to bury the missing in this area, he found and buried more than three hundred Australians in that strip the size of three tennis courts. Their graves today mark the site of one of the bravest actions in the history of war. [v]
Among the members of the 10th Light Horse Regiment killed at the Nek were 31-year-old Gresley Harper (OS) and his 25-year-old brother Wilfred.
Gresley Tatlock Harper was born at Guildford, Western Australia in 1884 and gained his early education at the Guildford Grammar School, before then coming to South Australia to attend the Collegiate School of St Peter.
Gresley later studied law at Melbourne University and in 1910 served his articles in Melbourne with Messrs Wiegall and Crowther, and read in the chambers of Mr. H Bryant, of Melbourne. [vi]
He enlisted at Guildford, Western Australia in early October 1914 and with his brother Wilfred, was posted to A Squadron 10th Light Horse Regiment and sailed from Fremantle with the 10th Light Horse Regiment aboard HMAT Mashobra on 8 February 1915.
The 10th Light Horse Regiment was the only light horse regiment raised in Western Australia for service during the Great War and after joining, the remainder of the 3rd Light Horse Brigade in Egypt sailed for Gallipoli in May 1915.
In 1924 when writing about the bloody slaughter at the Nek, Charles Bean specifically mentioned Gresley and Wilfred Harper and wrote that Wilfred ‘was last seen running forward like a schoolboy in a footrace, with all the speed he could compass.’ [vii]
In order to report on the fate of the 37 officers, NCOs and men reported missing from his Regiment, Lieutenant Colonel Brazier assembled a Board of Inquiry at Russell’s Top two days after the events. During the Inquiry Brazier reported how after referring the matter to the 3rd Light Horse Brigade Headquarters, he ordered his regiment to assault the enemy trenches in two lines. He told the board how they had attacked in an easterly direction into a murderous hail of shrapnel, machine gun and rifle fire, and said he felt certain ‘few if any would return.’ He said after sighting through a periscope ‘a great number of dead’ outside the regiment’s trenches, he ordered the recovery of all bodies to cease for he considered it unwise at the time ‘to risk further loss of life’ as in his opinion that all the missing were dead.
The two senior members of the board, both of whom who took part in the assault, stated there was no further evidence required and were of the opinion all those missing were killed in action; Brazier concurred with the findings of the board. [viii]
In a letter written by Mrs Clara Robertson dated 5 April 1967, it is clear the terrible grief of losing both of her brothers more than 50 years earlier had not abated. In her letter she mentions how Gresley and Wilfred ‘were not buried’ and how she had read many accounts of the ‘horrible business’ each of which she said made it plain to her ‘what little care was taken of them.’ [ix]
Their younger brother, Prescott Henry Harper who had enlisted in March 1917 returned to Australia as a Lieutenant in June 1919.
[i] Bean, C E W, Official History of Australia In the War of 1914-18, Volume II, Angus and Robertson, Sydney 1924, p. 612-613
[iii] Bean, C E W, Anzac to Amiens, Australian War Memorial, 1946, p. 155
[iv] Darley, T H, With the Ninth Light Horse in the Great War, Adelaide, 1924, p. 15
[v] Bean, C E W, Gallipoli Mission, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 1948, p. 109
[vi] The West Australian (Perth, WA) 5 November 1911, p. 8
[vii] Bean, C E W, Official History of Australia In the War of 1914-18, Volume II, Angus and Robertson, Sydney 1924, p. 618
[viii] National Archives of Australia: B 2455, Harper, W L / 4420283, viewed 16 December 2005
[ix] ibid, Harper, G / 4420040, viewed 10 August 2006
Copyright Robert S Kearney 2013