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The evolution of an AIF battalion: the 7th Battalion at the Battles of Krithia (8 May 1915) and Lihons (10 August 1918).

To describe the battalions that landed at Anzac Cove on 25 April 1915, as enthusiastic amateurs, led by a few veterans of the Boer War and by citizen soldiers inexperienced in the art of modern war, is probably an apt description. After some two years on the Western Front, it is equally clear that the AIF units that fought at Gallipoli, had developed into a professional fighting battalions; the earlier costly tactical lessons had been absorbed, and the AIF battalions were now demonstrably superior to their enemies.

It is my intention, to highlight the enormous changes that took place from April/May 1915 to August 1918, by comparing two battles that the 7th Battalion fought, at Krithia on 8 May 1915, and at Lihons on 23 August 1918. It is fortunate that the circumstances are similar in both battles, i.e., it was an advance by the 2nd Australian Infantry Brigade across open ground, lacking significant artillery support, and attacking an entrenched enemy who was supported by artillery and machine-guns.

The 7th Battalion had been raised by Lieutenant Colonel H.E. 'Pompey' Elliott, a DCM winner of the Boer war, and recruited mainly from Western and Central Victoria. Only four officers had seen action in the Boer War, Elliott, Major Blezard, Captains Mason and Hopkinson. When the battalion landed at Gallipoli, its B Company which had landed at Fisherman's Hut, to the north of the main landing beaches, was decimated. The remaining companies of the battalion after landing at Anzac Cove were ushered up to 400 Plateau and took up defensive positions near Lone Pine. By early morning Elliott and Blezard were wounded. By mid-morning the 7th Battalion had ceased to exist as an effective unit due to the heavy casualties, and was taken under command of its former 21C, Lieutenant Colonel W.R. McNicoll, now commanding the 6th Battalion.

On the night of 6 May, Colonel J.W. McCay's 2nd Brigade (5th, 6th 7th & 8th Battalions) along with the New Zealand Infantry Brigade, sailed from Anzac, south 20 km to Cape Helles, to assist the British in the Second Battle of Krithia that was about to commence. Command of the 7th Battalion now rested with Lieutenant Colonel Robert Gartside, a Boer war veteran who had fought at Elands River. The Victorians were amazed at the different terrain they now encountered; after a week or so clambering up thorny, scrub-covered, steep hills, and down gullies, the scene at Cape Helles was that of rolling open fields, studded with a few olive trees, and fresh running water in the nearby streams.

The battle commenced on the morning of 6 May, with Major-General Hunter-Weston's 29th Division attacking toward the Turkish positions south of the abandoned village of Krithia. The capture of Krithia and the dominant hill of Achi Baba to the east, were objectives of the landing on 25 April. Like so many objectives given to troops on that fateful day, Krithia, Achi Baba, Chunuk Bair and Hill 971, remained in Turkish hands for the entire duration of the campaign.

Although the battle commenced in a promising fashion, as the day went on the British losses mounted. Similar attacks were launched on the 7 May, and the New Zealand Brigade suffered heavily when committed to the attack, with only slight gains in terms of ground taken. Charles Bean, the official Australian war correspondent, had accompanied the 2nd Brigade down to Helles, and he was amazed that the attack was to be made in bright sunshine, rather than at dawn: "The usual order came along today. 'Operations begin at 10 o'clock.' It was almost like a circus." On the afternoon of 8 May, the 2nd Brigade now placed under command of Major-General Paris, GOC of the Composite Division, moved up closer to the front and established a bivouac in a dry creek-bed [Krithia Nullah] to the left of Krithia Spur, less than two km south of the firing line. The troops of the 6th and 7th Battalions had earlier been issued with picks and shovels. By late afternoon, it appeared that the Victorians, who had been mere onlookers to the earlier British and Kiwi attacks, would not be required that day, and the men of the 7th Battalion settled down to their evening meal. However, the GOC of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, General Sir Ian Hamilton, had earlier that day decided to make one final attempt at reaching Krithia and Achi Baba. He gave orders that the entire Allied line consisting of British, New Zealand, Australian and French battalions, would advance on the beckoning Turkish positions at 5.30 pm that day.

Unfortunately, by the time the orders passed through the unwieldy chain of command and reached the units, there was no time available for reconnaissance, planning and the issuing of adequate orders. At 4.55 pm, a message from General Paris arrived at Colonel McCay's HQ, ordering the Australians to advance on Krithia at 5.30 pm, a mere 35 minutes hence. Having already sent runners to the battalions with a warning to get ready, at 5.05 pm the Brigade-Major Walter Cass, hastily wrote out orders, which McCay then signed and issued to the four battalions, which advised them that the brigade, with the 6th Battalion on the left, and the 7th on the right, with each battalion occupying a frontage of about 500 yards, would attack Krithia at 5.30 pm. The objective was the Achi Baba ridge beyond the village, and the brigade would have the, New Zealand Infantry Brigade attacking on its left and the Naval Brigade on the right, with the 2rid French Division on the far right.

At 5.15 pm, Colonel Gartside sent for Captain Weddell, and told him that he had two minutes in which to fall in A Company, with the ominous words "You are about to attack the enemy". If ever there was a large-scale attack launched in indecent haste, it was that launched by the 2nd Brigade that fateful May afternoon! Similar orders were hurriedly issued to the other company commanders, and it was remarkable that of all the allied forces ordered to attack at 5.30 pm, only the Australians launched their attack on time! Captain Weddell noted:
 I was told to get a move on and when asked what was expected of me,
 was informed that we were about to attack the enemy, that I was to
 take charge of the firing line. As I did not know the direction in
 which the attack had to be made, I asked and was told to go in a
 northeast direction until I came to a road [the Krithia-Helles
 road] when I must change direction left.

After the men of the 7th Battalion, clad in greatcoats and wearing "marching order", left the sanctuary of the Krithia Nullah, they swung across to the right flank and then advanced toward Krithia, first in column, then in artillery formation (a tactical formation designed to minimise the effects of artillery, where each platoon breaks into sectionsized groups) and finally in open order, the two leading companies spread over a front about 500 yards, with the support companies likewise following to the rear. The troops advanced steadily at a rapid walk, almost ignoring the increasing hail of enemy artillery, rifle and machine-gun fire. The members of A Company passed through the enemy shrapnel fire almost unscathed, and after crossing over the trench held by the 15th Sikhs, they approached Tommies' Trench held by the Drake Battalion, Captain Weddell ordered his men to move into extended line. McCay fearing that the 7th may fall behind in the advance, shouted to Brigade-Major Cass, "Go along and hurry them up, lead them yourself". After several minutes rest, Cass gave the order to advance, crying out "On Australians". The first line of the 7th Battalion led by Cass, now moved forward in a series of 50 metre rushes, after negotiating coils of barbed wire which had been flung out just in front of Tommies' Trench, while Captain Rupert Henderson followed with the second line. As soon as the men went to ground they provided covering fire to the other troops advancing. The proximity to the enemy trenches meant that any forward movement whatsoever came under a blanket of enemy fire.

The men were urged on by Colonel McCay who stood on a trench parapet, crying out "Come on Australians!" The officers and NCOs who were leading their men soon started to fall, with Colonel Gartside an early casualty. Some men attempted to ward off the enemy fire by holding up their spade or entrenching tool as a shield. The impetus of the advance slackened due to the immediate loss of officers, Lieutenant Johnston suffered mortal stomach wounds from the Turkish machine-gun fire during an early rush forward, and Captain Hunter and Lieutenants Fraser and Scanlan were wounded at about the same time.

Major Cass who had led the 7th Battalion forward to ensure that it maintained its dressing on the 6th Battalion to its left, now calmly directed the men forward in small rushes, using fire and movement. But, as he was walking across the Krithia road he was shot in the chest, but although badly wounded, sent another lightly wounded man back to Captain Henderson who was bringing up the second line. After moving his men forward in two more rushes, Henderson rose to his knees, to scan the enemy positions, with his binoculars, but as he did so, he was shot through the head by an enemy sniper. The loss of Henderson, left Weddell and Lieutenant Heron as the only 7th Battalion officers still on the right flank. Upon glancing to his right flank Weddell was concerned that the Naval Brigade and the French were nowhere in sight, which left his right flank up in the air. Weddell now observed that the 6th Battalion had halted and was frantically digging-in. When the verbal order to dig-in came up from Major Gordon Bennett, Weddell immediately gave a similar order to halt, and dig-in. As the 7th Battalion had advanced about 200 yards further than the 6th, Weddell ordered his men to pull back in line with the 6th Battalion, which they did in the diminishing light, then Weddell ordered his supports forward. The early loss of Colonel Gartside left Weddell in command of the battalion, as it started to dig a defensive line in conjunction with that being dug by Bennett's men on the left. The Sixth was now temporarily under the command of its young 2IC, Major Gordon Bennett, as Colonel McNicoll had been badly wounded at Tommies' Trench.

Realising that he had to dig-in and also be prepared to ward off any enemy counterattack, Weddell set half the men digging with the picks, shovels and entrenching tools that they had carried on their backs during the advance, while the other half maintained their fire to the front.

The 2nd Brigade remained in the firing-line busily improving the trenches, frustrated by the quite visible, white, stone houses of Krithia just over a mile away. The costly Krithia battle rankled with some men, and led Lionel Pennefather of D Company, to describe the futile charge in these terms: "It was just plain, useless murder ordering us to attempt so foolhardy a stunt in daylight".

As a result of the gallant attack by the 2nd Brigade, the 7th Battalion sustained heavy casualties in an action that took place in the space of an hour or so. There were seven officer fatalities including Colonel Gartside, while another 10 officers were wounded.

Of the 93 officers and men killed in the advance of the 7th Battalion during the Second Battle of Krithia, 54 were killed beyond the trench line established by the 6th and 7th Battalions after their advance, and their bodies remained in no man's land south of the village of Krithia, until the end of the war. The losses from the Landing at Anzac and the Second Battle of Krithia, meant that in the space of two weeks, the 7th Battalion had lost 277 men killed or died of wounds and over 300 wounded. This fearful toll might have weakened the morale of a lesser battalion, but the officers and men of the Seventh, responded to the challenge.

The Krithia battle had earned the 2nd Brigade many plaudits, the best of which was "The White Gurkhas" title bestowed upon the men by soldiers of several British units, who had watched the Victorians gallant charge. On 17 May, the 7th Battalion along with other units of the 2nd Brigade landed back at Anzac, not realising that another severe test awaited them at Lone Pine. In summary, the 7th Battalion's attack at Krithia, which was the first brigade-size formal attack made by the Australian Army, resulted in the capture of ground but at a heavy cost. The attack highlighted a number of problems:

a. Lack of reconnaissance; no time was allowed for this essential element of any major attack. The battalion was not aware of the location of the enemy trenches.

b. Inadequate time for preparation and giving orders at all levels. This problem resulted from the lengthy and tedious chain of command from GHQ down to formations, which meant that the 7th Battalion HQ had about 25 minutes notice to prepare itself for a battalion attack, while the companies had 15 minutes. What is amazing is that despite these difficulties, the Victorians were able to launch their attack at the designated time of 5.30 pm!

c. Lack of artillery and any machine-gun supporting fire for an attack over open ground. Artillery fire during the Second Battle of Krithia was restricted due to the desperate lack of shells.

d. Failure to gain surprise against an entrenched enemy supported by artillery and machine-guns.

e. Inadequate preparations for the evacuation of casualties; the Australian stretcher-bearers had a carry of about two miles to reach the British dressing station. The fact that the Victorians wore greatcoats, minimised further casualties from those who remained wounded in no man's land during the bitterly cold night of 8 May.

f. Officers were still readily identifiable targets at this early stage of the campaign, hence the high rate of officer casualties, and the loss of impetus to the advance.

LIHONS, France, 9-10 August 1918

'Pompey' Elliott returned to command the 7th Battalion at Lone Pine, during which time the battalion won four VCs, the highest won by any Australian battalion in a single action in any war. By late 1917, the 7th Battalion, now under the command of Lieutenant Colonel E.E. Herrod, had enhanced its battle drills and tactical skills, a fact demonstrated during the attacks at Menin Road and Polygon Wood, when the German defence lines were broken and pill-boxes captured by deliberate, well practised infantry minor tactics using fire and movement closely supported by Lewis guns. The ability to maximise the support given by field, medium and heavy artillery, mortars and massed machine-gun fire, without any restrictions on ammunition use, made the 7th Battalion, like other AIF units, a very formidable weapon in any attack. In addition a new weapon in the form of tanks had emerged, although the Australians had been sceptical since the Bullecourt fiasco in 1917, when many of the British tanks failed to appear or broke down on the battlefield.

After the successful, and speedy push by General John Monash's Australian Corps on 8 August 1918, unforseen problems arose. After years of trench warfare, the switch to open warfare, was temporarily beyond the capacity and experience of the staffs to handle. This was to be demonstrated at Lihons, a small village near Rosieres.

On the eve of the big Allied offensive, General Monash issued a stirring message to all ranks on 7 August, in which he predicted that: "The work. to be done tomorrow will perhaps make heavy demands upon the endurance and staying power of many of you". The general's predictions of heavy demands were within two days, painfully apparent to the 7th Battalion. Few men at that time would have been aware of the telling blows that had been delivered to the Germans by the Australian Corps on 8 August. Described by Ludendorff as a "black day", the years of trench warfare had been at last swept away, with advances that were measured in miles, occurring along a wide front.

Although the Australian Corps had made significant gains on 8 August, it was essential that pressure be maintained against the withdrawing enemy. The 1st Division would now take up the offensive. At midnight, General Heane. issued his orders to his battalion commanders regarding the advance from Harbonnieres to positions just west of Lihons. The two objectives set for the 2nd Brigade were named Green and Red Lines. The move to Green Line (a line running roughly north-south from Vauvillers to Rosieres) was up a long, but slight incline to a low ridge, but the ground to be covered before reaching the final Red Line objective was over grass-covered flat fields, with a short climb up to the ridge. The only wooded area was Crepey Wood located just north-east of Lihons village. From this ridge the enemy had a bird's eye view of the advance, and with it ability to direct fire across the battlefield.

Another factor was Knoll 91 on the 7th Battalion's left flank; this feature proved very troublesome during the advance, due to newly established enemy positions in the old stables and huts on the lower slopes of the hill. The enemy had sufficient time to settle into the old trenches that had been dug during late 1916, and skilfully sited machine-guns on the broken ground; furthermore, in a desperate measure designed to halt any Allied advance, several artillery pieces had been sited in the forward defences with the ability to fire at point blank range at the advancing infantry.

As all orders had to be delivered by despatch riders due to the lack of telephone communications, the 7th Battalion only received the orders at 4.05 am. Fortunately the move off was not required until an hour later. Although the attack at Lihons was originally scheduled for 11 am, it was obvious that the troops would not have arrived by that time, so the attack was wisely rescheduled for early in the afternoon. Meanwhile, the 8th and 15th Brigades of the 5th Division, had by noon, advanced and captured Vauvillers, a village just to the east of Harbonnieres. At 8.30 am on 9 August, the battalion marched to Fouilloy, and five hours later, the 2nd Brigade had marched through the areas captured by the Australians on the previous day, and had reached a position just to the south of Harbonnieres ready to begin the attack. The transport limbers brought the battalion's Lewis-guns and the ammunition to this point, thus easing the burden on the already hot and tired troops, who had now marched 17 km.

The 7th Battalion's attack was to be supported by six tanks of the 2nd Tank Battalion, and the battalion was quite happy to attack in conjunction with the close fire support of the tanks. Looking across the rolling fields to the right, the 8th Battalion and its tanks could be clearly seen in their attack formations.

Unfortunately, the planning that had led to the successful attacks on 8 August, was apparently lacking. The attack was to be made with minimal artillery support, a flaw that was to lead to very heavy casualties. The problem of fire support was further compounded by the decision to leave the Stokes mortars behind, as it was considered too difficult to carry the heavy ammunition forward. Although two British field guns were allotted to the battalion, this arrangement was dangerously defective as later events would show.

Unaware of the awesome and formidable nature of the German defences, the 7th Battalion moved off at 1.50 pm on a very hot summer day, accompanied by its tanks. The battalion adopted the usual artillery formation, and advanced, led by the scouts whose task was to identify targets to the six tanks that were following a further 150 yards behind the scouts. Another 150 yards behind the tanks came two companies with BHQ and the other companies, 500 yards further back. Almost as soon as the battalion commenced its move forward, it came under artillery and machine-gun fire directed by the Germans occupying the high ground. To add to its problems, the battalion and the accompanying tanks were briefly strafed and bombed by six German aircraft. The low hill on the left flank of the advancing troops now raked the open ground with enfilade fire from the machine-guns sited on the hill. The 7th was now faced with fire from two directions, the front and the left flank

The move was very slow as the 7th Battalion and its tanks had to pass through the 15th Brigade, which had just taken Vauvillers. The scores of dead Germans lying on the ground were indicative of the costly struggle that had just ended. The battalion moved past the houses, but then came under fierce small arms fire, which came from Germans occupying an old trench used by the French in 1916. The planned rate of advance suddenly changed, as the tanks which were coming under shell fire, accelerated to avoid being an easy target, and in so doing, left the following infantry well behind. One tank on the left flank capsized in a ditch, while the remaining tanks diverged too far to the right. The 8th Battalion which was advancing on the right flank, encountered enemy machine-guns and its tanks were soon smouldering wrecks from the German 77 mm batteries located in Crepey Wood. Despite these setbacks, the 8th Battalion with the Canadian 6th Brigade on its right at Rosieres, pushed forward and established a temporary line while waiting for the 7th Battalion to move up. Colonel Herrod was critical, of the tanks:
 their pace was much too fast, and just when the really difficult
 positions were being approached, tanks not out of action changed
 direction to the right and all the tanks which should have been
 with 7th Bn troops moved over into 8th Bn area with the result that
 the enemy MG opposition had to be overcome by infantry alone.

Meanwhile, on the left, the 7th Battalion found the going to be extremely slow. The accompanying tanks had manoeuvred too far to the right, and the troops followed them, leaving a gap in the line which was plugged by Colonel Herrod using another company on the left flank.

Although Herrod had been allotted two British field guns to support his advance, the commander of the guns could not be found at BHQ. A similar problem affected Lieutenant Colonel Mitchell of the 8th Battalion, but his problem was solved, albeit briefly, when the two guns supposed to be supporting the 7th Battalion, suddenly appeared at Mitchell's HQ. Mitchell ordered them to engage the enemy guns, but the German batteries immediately responded, and after only three rounds smashed one of the British guns.

Despite heavy casualties, mainly from enemy rifle and machine-gun fire, the men of the 7th Battalion continued to advance, with A Company on the right, capturing two small German field hospitals, and taking 30 prisoners. However, by 3.30 pm, the advance after progressing about 2.5 kms, came to a halt, well short of the main objective. It was further to the right that Private Robert Beatham, of the 8th Battalion, gallantly removed four enemy machine-gun posts that were holding up the advance. Beatham was killed later that day, and was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross.

Colonel Herrod had now moved forward and set up his BHQ in the upper story of a farm house, and thus had a perfect view of the battle unfolding to his front. At 4 pm, the CO despatched Lieutenant John Fowler to command B and D Companies, and he decided that the only way to overcome the enemy resistance was to act decisively. Fowler ordered his grenadiers to fire a volley of rifle grenades into the enemy trenches, and with his two companies, charged and captured the enemy position, taking 20 prisoners and three machine-guns. It was estimated that about 50 Germans were shot down as they attempted to evade the advancing troops. Although still a kilometre from the Red Line objective, the 7th Battalion was at last into the 1916 trenches, which although overgrown and in a dilapidated state, still provided more cover than the flat ground over which the men had just come.

As the battalion gradually overcame the entrenched Germans, the enemy who had surrendered were sent to the rear as prisoners, however, as there were not enough able bodied men left to escort the prisoners, most of the 100 or so Germans gladly made their own way to the rear, for them the war had ended!

The German-held hill (Knoll 91) on the battalion's left flank remained unaccounted for, and posed an even greater threat to the battalion when more Germans reinforced the defenders. The Germans were not willing to concede ground easily, and several determined counter-attacks were launched against companies of the 7th Battalion. It is often isolated acts of individual gallantry during the many small actions which go to make up a battle, that so often determine the final result covered itself with glory.

The Official Historian, Charles Bean, noted that the advance on Lihons was similar to the advance at Krithia: There was the same long approach over bare, grassy plain, with a few enemy batteries bursting shells over the little columns, then the long advance, without effective covering by artillery in face of an enemy firing his hardest with rifles and machine-guns. There were indeed similarities between the two battles, inadequate artillery support and the long advance across the open grassland up to the defended ridge. The absence of mortar and medium machine-gun support, plus the failure of the tanks, merely made a difficult task, so much more dangerous. Although aerial warfare had developed in intensity on the Western Front, the 2nd Brigade was denied its support during this battle, and it is ironic, that the only aircraft to have appeared during the battle, albeit briefly, were those of the enemy. Although physical reconnaissance of the battlefield was precluded, the availability of maps, air photos, and adequate preparation time were not problems on this occasion. However, the difference between Krithia and Lihons was that three years of hard fighting had turned the AIF and the 7th Battalion in particular, into a hardened professional force, sufficiently skilful in infantry minor tactics to overcome the difficulties of the open battlefield, and although tired from the long approach march, still close with and defeat an entrenched, well supported enemy, unlike the gallant, but 19th Century-style advance at Krithia in May 1915.

Ron Austin, For further reading on Krithia and Lihons see Ron Austin's books Our dear old battalion." The story of the 7th Battalion 1914-19, Slouch Hat Publications, 2004 and The white Gurkhas. The Australians at the Second Battle of Krithia, Slouch Hat Publications, 1989.
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Author:Austin, Ron
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Mar 1, 2005
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