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The attack on The Nek ( 5-7 August 1915) was part of a diversion in support of New Zealand ANZACs and their attack on Chunuk Bair. The Kiwis had heroically secured Rhodedendron Ridge, and were on their way to the heights of Chunuk Bair. Most of the Wellington Regiment had been killed or wounded. But there was the possibility of a stunning victory, opening the way to Constantinople (Istanbul) and southern Europe.
The ANZAC battlefield was by then a warren of swarming trenches, tunnels and saps, set in a craggy landscape of hills, ridges, causeways, valleys and abrupt cliffs. In addition to sometimes reckless rushes against enemy trenches, a steady toll on soldiers of both sides was effected as snipers steadily picked-off unwary stragglers and those who popped up their heads at the wrong moment.
The object of the Australian diversionary attacks in support of the New Zealanders was to storm The Nek and German Officers' Trench. It was necessary to clear Turk positions, consolidate and draw Turkish reinforcements away from the New Zealanders. A secondary objective was to further consolidate these advances by attacking and securing the hill known as Baby 700. To support this, further attacks from Quinn's and Pope's Posts by the 1st Light Horse Brigade were to occur.
Chosen for the attack on The Nek was the as yet untested 3rd Light Horse Brigade. The brigade had no experience of pitched battle, and over eleven weeks since landing, daily life consisted only of trench digging and water carrying. The attacking force was to comprise two regiments of the Brigade, the 8th Light Horse Regiment (Victorians) and the 10th Light Horse Regiment (West Australians). The Nek itself was a narrowing ridge defended by eight lines of Turkish trenches and 60 or more saps. It was wrongly believed at first that this area was lightly defended. Later assessments found Turkish defences were 'not light'.
Perhaps recklessly, in light of the immediate future--but equal in bravery to his men--the CO of 8 L. H. Regiment, Lieut-Colonel A. H. White, decided to lead the attack himself. He should have directed it from the trenches.
Regimental orders for 8th L. H. 1st line: -- First line will consist of troops already in fire trenches and saps. On a given signal, silently and without rifle fire, it will rush The Nek (A1) and with bayonet and bomb engage the enemy, taking possession of the flank, communicating and advanced trenches (A9, A5, A8, A11), paying special attention to the machine-guns, which must be sought for and rushed, and to the trenches overlooking the cliff north of The Nek and to those on the southern flank of same, so as to prevent flank interposition by the enemy -- mine fuses and 'phone wires to be sought for and cut.
There was at that stage no premonition of the appalling disaster that was about to unfold.
A further 3rd Light Horse Brigade order described battle dress for the coming conflict. 'Shirt sleeves, web equipment, helmets, 200 rounds, field dressing pinned right side inside shirt, gas helmet, full waterbottle, 6 biscuits, 2 sandbags, (4 periscopes per each line and gas sprayers to be carried by fourth line), wire cutters, rifle (unloaded and uncharged), bayonet fixed'.
With unloaded rifles, the four lines would be defenceless during the attack until they reached the Turkish trenches where the 'cold steel' of bayonets was to be employed.
Throughout the night of 6-7 August, allied artillery lobbed shells onto the Turkish trenches at The Nek and onto the Chessboard, each battery firing at a rate of one shell every two-and-a-half minutes. At 4am, the batteries increased to four shells a minute, and the naval bombardment began. Nothing like this had been seen at ANZAC since 2 May, and a cloud of dust and smoke covered the Turkish trenches.
The rush from the trenches was timed to begin on the dot of 4.30 am. For an unknown reason the thunderous bombardment was suddenly cut short 'as if by a knife' seven minutes early.
The Turks of the 18th Regiment quickly reoccupied their positions in the trenches and prepared for the attack that obviously was imminent. Their trenches bristled with bayonets, and rifle fire began to crackle at the Australian lines between 20 and 60 metres away. Machine-guns fired off a few bullets to find the range.
Initial puzzlement in the Australian trenches about the silence of the artillery turned to resolve. When Colonel White said 'Go!', the first line of the 8th Light Horse leapt over the parapet. Rifle fire from hundreds of Turk rifles rose from a crackle to a roar. The rush only managed five or six yards, but many had fallen back into the trench dead or wounded. Others, wounded already, dragged themselves back to the parapet and fell in to avoid being shot again.
In 30 seconds it was all over. Exactly two minutes after the first attack, the second line emerged from the trench. This second line which had to dodge the bodies of their dead comrades, got a little further on before it too was halted by gunfire.
Soon someone noticed a small yellow and red flag fluttering in the dust haze at the south-west corner of the Turkish front line trench.. This was a marker to show that, by some miracle, at least one member of the 8th Light Horse had reached his objective. This marker flag was to have tragic consequences.
What became of the officers of the first and second lines: