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Ray’s Drift

Photo: An artist’s depiction of 1st Battalion, Lancashire Fusiliers, landing on ‘W’ Beach on 25 April 1915.

 

The daring and costly assault on the beaches at the southern tip of the Gallipoli Peninsula began on 25 April 1915. Private Arthur Rayfield survived the surf, bullets and shells to tell his story in a terrifying account he called ‘Ray’s Drift’.

When war was declared in August 1914, Private Arthur Rayfield, a regular soldier, was serving with the 4th Battalion Worcestershire Regiment in Burma. With every trained soldier needed on the Western Front, the 4th Worcesters were recalled, with the battalion leaving Mandalay in December 1914 and eventually reaching Bombay where it embarked on HMT Devana on 1 January 1915. The battalion arrived at Avonmouth docks, Bristol, a month later.

C Company, 4th Worcesters’, football team in 1914. Pte Rayfield is bottom left. [Courtesy of Kate Allen]

The 4th Worcesters were placed in billets at Banbury, being brigaded (as the 88th) with the 2nd Hampshire and 1st Essex battalions. Later these were joined by a Territorial battalion, the 5th Royal Scots. Along with the 86th and 87th brigades, the 88th Brigade made up 29th Division. By early March the division was ready to go to war, but instead of France, the 29th sailed for the Dardanelles.

“We left Leamington on the night of March 20th embarking on ‘HMS Aragon’ early Sunday morn March 21st sailing out under darkness of night the same day,” Arthur Rayfield wrote. “The weather was calm the whole way; we called at Malta for a few hours, then made for Alexandria, Egypt, there we camped on the beach for three days. Then we embarked on the same ship and anchored out in the harbour while the other ships were being got ready. (All this time we had been running down rope ladders and rowing in small boats in full equipment for practice). We eventually left Alexandria and proceeded to Lemnos, where we stayed until all the ships had concentrated.”

‘V’ Beach

The stretch of Gallipoli coast on which 4th Battalion, Worcestershire Regiment, landed on 25 April 1915, as it appears today. This view of ‘W’ Beach was taken looking east in the direction of Cape Helles. [All images Historic Military Press unless otherwise stated.]

The 29th Division was to spearhead the landing on the Turkish held southern part of the Gallipoli Peninsula. A combined Anglo-French Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, led by General Sir Ian Standish Monteith Hamilton, was detailed to capture Gallipoli so that the Allied fleets could pass through the Dardanelles and bombard Constantinople. This, it was hoped, would force the Turks to withdraw from their alliance with Germany, thus relieving pressure on Russia and offering the possibility of opening another front on Germany’s eastern flank.

Hamilton decided to land the 29th Division on five separate beaches, labelled as ‘W’, ‘X’, ‘Y’, ‘V’ and ‘S’. All these beaches were small and, as Hamilton admitted, they appeared to be strongly defended.

“In most of these landing-places the trenches and lines of wire entanglements were plainly visible from on board ship,” he wrote in his report. “What seemed to be gun emplacements and infantry redoubts could also be made out through a telescope, but of the full extent of these defences and of the forces available to man them there was no possibility of judging.”

Therein lay the problem. None on the Allied side really knew how many men the Turks had to defend the Gallipoli coast, or how well prepared they were. It was, in fact, the Turkish Fifth Army which was given responsibility for defending the Dardanelles, under the command of Generalleutnant Otto Liman von Sanders, the head of the German Military Mission to Constantinople. Von Sanders, greatly assisted by Lieutenant Colonel Mustafa Kemal, whose 19th Division occupied the southern part of the peninsula, had examined every likely landing beach and had, as much as time permitted, organised their defensive arrangements.

The remains of Fort Ertuğrul, or Fort No.1, which overlooked the western end of ‘V’ Beach; the old castle (Fort No.3) and Sedd-el-Bahr lie beyond these structures on the opposite side of the beach. It was the general area of Fort Ertuğrul that the 4th Worcesters reached on 25 April 1915.

The 88th Brigade was to form the reserve, to be deployed after the other two brigades had established themselves on their respective beaches. The 4th Worcesters were to land on ‘V’ beach which was approximately 350 yards long and just ten yards wide. It was overlooked by the old castle (known also as Fort No.3) and village of Sedd-el-Bahr at the eastern end, but there was another fort, Fort Ertugrul or Fort No.1, at the opposite end. Despite the fact that both of these two fortifications had been damaged by naval gunfire, their crumbled walls and the ruined outskirts of the village afforded cover for enemy riflemen, snipers and machine guns, while from the terraced slopes the defenders were able to command the open beach.

“On the 24th April we had orders to prepare for action and steamed for the Peninsula in the afternoon,” continued Arthur Rayfield. “Before daybreak on the 25th April we got within sound of the naval guns, which looked very pretty as we could see regular flashes but could not distinguish the ships. As we steamed in closer under cover of the battleships we were transferred to a lighter and steamed in still closer to our goal. Shells were flying round from all directions but only one man on our boat was hit. We were then transferred to small rowing boats and rowed ashore. The casualties of our first boat consisted of the Brigadier General and Brigade Major being killed, two of my company Officers and four privates being wounded. We came under rifle and machine gun fire as soon as we left the lighters. Respective Brigades had certain parts of the beach to land upon. My Brigade were supposed to land on X beach [in fact it was ‘V’ Beach], but after the first boat had suffered so much, as two machine guns were located quite close under the wall of the Fort, the Naval Officers ordered us to be taken to W beach.”

We were under fire all the time, and could see men struggling in the water, their equipment holding them down to eventually drown.

Lancashire Landing

The 1st Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers had already landed on ‘W’ Beach but encountered very stiff opposition from No.12 Company of the Ottoman 3/26 Regiment. The beach itself was about 200 yards long and 10 yards wide, with cliffs on each side, on the left scalable, on the right precipitous with a track accessible beneath them. On the right the ground sloped up to Hill 138, where the Turks had a redoubt well protected by thick barbed wire entanglements. There were Turkish trenches everywhere.

The beach itself was covered with wire down to the water’s edge and beneath it. The Lancashire Fusiliers had cleared the beach but were scattered precariously on the cliff tops above. The task allotted to the 4th Worcesters,  commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Douglas Edward Cayley, was to capture the high ground on the right of the beach, with the objective of then working towards ‘V’ Beach and taking the Turkish defenders there in the flank.

“We were under fire all the time,” continued Private Rayfield, “and could see men struggling in the water, their equipment holding them down to eventually drown. Naval men dived and cut some lose but hundreds perished. I saw many brave deeds done that day. The sea near the beach was red… I landed without being hit and with those that could we fixed bayonets and charged the Turks from the top of the beach, when we got to the top a lot fell as the Turks had another trench about 20 yds in rear and they could hardly miss us as we got over the top, but they did, and we charged them out and occupied their trenches. We held them off until more men were landed, then we advanced a short distance and consolidated ourselves there, night overtaking us at this stage.”

The remains of Allied landing stages and piers at ‘W’ Beach. The incredible effort shown by the men of the Lancashire Fusiliers there on 25 April 1915 resulted in the award of an astonishing six Victoria Crosses for actions that lasted little more than an hour – the famous “Six VCs Before Breakfast”. So moved was General Hamilton, that he ordered ‘W’ Beach be renamed ‘Lancashire Landing’. It is still known by that name today.

The Turkish redoubt with its thick belt of high barbed wire was a formidable obstacle and had hardly been damaged in the preliminary bombardment by the guns of the Royal Navy’s warships. No way round could be found and it became clear that paths must be cut through the entanglement.

The only instruments available were the wire-cutters carried by the troops. Volunteers were called for and many came forward. As they clipped away at the wire, bullets from the redoubt struck all around them. Undeterred, the troops cutting the wire crawled under the fence and continued their work. Many turned on their backs and thus cut away at the wire above them. The enemy fire was intense and one after another those brave men were killed or wounded. However, lanes were gradually cut through the wire and at about 14:00 hours the Worcesters and the 1st Essex, which had also landed, pushed up the slope only to encounter yet more wire and the rifles and machine guns from a second redoubt on another hillock 300 yards beyond. Eventually this position was overcome, at the cost of yet more lives, and by around 16:00 hours the cliff top and the beach were in British hands.

If the enemy had only but known our strength, and had the pluck, they could have driven us to London

The Turks were not going to let the men of the 29th Division rest on their laurels and, as darkness fell, they attacked. “We kept up a rapid fire all night repelling their attacks,” wrote Arthur Rayfield, “and I and others think that that was all that saved us, as, if the enemy had only but known our strength, and had the pluck, they could have driven us to London, but instead of them advancing they retired. At dawn we joined forces with the Fusilier Brigade and attacked a Fort that their infantry was holding and after a stubborn fight we drove them off with the bayonet. We then held the Fort and trenches around reaching to the other side of the Peninsula. We held these trenches all next day repelling a severe night attack. We then advanced about two miles without being checked by a shot and entrenched there for the night.”

Men of 1st Battalion, Essex Regiment, come ashore at ‘W’ Beach on 25 April 1915, after it had been secured by the Lancashire Fusiliers.

The First Battle of Krithia

The first day’s objective had been to secure the village of Krithia and the nearby heights of Achi Baba, the highest point on the southern section of the peninsula. Though this had not been achieved, the 29th Division was now firmly established on Gallipoli and Hamilton ordered Achi Baba to be taken.

In what became known as the First Battle of Krithia, a bombardment of the Turkish positions on the hill began at 08:00 hours by the guns of the fleet. Arthur Rayfield recalled: “Next morning April 28th we advanced to the now well known hill ‘Achi Baba’ the position we had hoped to take up the first day. The enemy opened fire as soon as we started to advance but we still pushed on until we neared the ‘Death Trap’ as we called it. At about a hundred yards from the foot of the hill we were resting taking cover behind a little mound, when we had orders to take up a new position about hundred yards forward across open ground. The ground seemed quite hard, but when we started to run across, our feet gradually sank in lower and lower (it was a freshly planted rice field), and we had only got three parts of the way when all fell down exhausted, we all groaned and crawled as fast as our limbs would take us to the cover. I and all around me were plastered with mud, the rifles also inches thick, [rendering them] all useless for a while.

One of two 24 cm/35 SK L/35 guns that were emplaced at Fort Ertuğrul, which can still be seen today, though it is uncertain if this is the gun knocked out by HMS Queen Elizabeth during a bombardment on 25 February 1915.

“I looked round to see how many had suffered and was glad to find all had got up. I and a chap next to me had a bullet through our packs. We cleaned our rifles as soon as possible as if the enemy had come then we could only have used our fists or the bayonet as a knife. We then advanced another 50 yards and the enemy started to retire but soon noticed that our numbers had lessened and returned over the top of the hill. My Officer said he would not retire from them but would rather die, so we thought all was over as we were weak in men and ammunition but the general order came to retire and they started to retire on our left. We covered their retirement and I thought we had stayed too long as the Turks were coming in hundreds. When we had the order to retire we had to do it as we were taught, ‘at the walk’. Judge the sensation with bullets flying all around you. After some occasional shots at the enemy we retired to our trenches of the previous day.”

The attack of the 29th Division had been defeated as much by the ground as by the enemy. The further up the peninsula the troops advanced, the more difficult the terrain became, as they encountered the four great ravines that ran from the heights around Achi Baba towards Cape Helles. The 88th Brigade, in the centre, had been particularly disadvantaged, having to start its advance from three different locations and in two different directions. It was also noted that the men of the 88th, under constant Turkish fire for two days, were tired before they even tried to cover the tangled, soft and broken ground.

Because of heavy casualties sustained during the landings of the 25th, many officers were also occupying commands that were new to them. The British official history noted: “All three brigades were in the charge of inexperienced brigadiers. Only one of the three brigade-majors was left alive, and of the twelve original battalion commanders only three remained on duty.”

Added to this, only 20 artillery pieces were available for close support. By the end of the day, the British and accompanying French troops were back at their start lines, having suffered a combined loss of around 3,000 men.

God knows how we would have got on that night if they had attacked us

Arthur Rayfield described the precarious situation the 29th Division was in after the battle: “We had suffered heavily and were short of ammunition and God knows how we would have got on that night if they had attacked us, but they didn’t, they delayed it 24 hours and attacked us about 11pm. the following night. We repulsed them two or three times and subsequently when we thought all was lost as we had orders to die with the bayonet. From the rear in sprang some freshly landed troops with plenty of ammunition and turned a near defeat into victory. We started to work again with a will until the enemy wavered, and then we rushed at them and drove them back inflicting heavy losses, ours were slight compared to theirs. We then held the same trenches for four or five days waiting for more reinforcements.”

The wall of Lancashire Landing CWGC Cemetery, a short distance from ‘W’ Beach.

Counter-attack

With no prospect off breaking through the Turkish positions until powerfully reinforced, the 29th Division dug in to consolidate the ground they occupied. The Turks saw the weakness of their enemies and sought to push the Allies back to the beaches.

“The enemy attacked us on May 1st,” recalled Private Rayfield, “but we drove them back inflicting very heavy punishment as we buried over 2,000 Turks the next morning … A couple of nights later they attacked our right. The French and we were sent over to reinforce, but we were not needed we found, as the Ghurkas [sic] were there previous to us, and the Turks had just captured a French 75mm and were dragging it away when the Little Johnnies went after them, slew them all with their knives and brought the gun back.

Due to his injuries, Arthur Rayfield (back left, with his father and siblings) was discharged from the Army, on 21 August 1916. He died in January 1953. [Courtesy of Kate Allen]

“A little later they charged again, and afterwards the French 75s had their own back playing a game of skittles with them as they retired. A couple of days later May 6th we were ordered to advance again toward Achi Baba hill and in so doing I was wounded by shrapnel in the [left] arm rendering it useless, I retired to the beach, ‘The Base Hospital’, and from there I was sent to Cairo, Egypt. There the doctors found my arm would take a long time to heal so sent me home to England to a hospital in Birmingham. There they found an operation was necessary. After a stay of three weeks in the Birmingham Hospital they transferred me to this convalescent home to recuperate.”

Rayfield had been wounded at the Second Battle of Krithia which lasted from 6 to 8 May 1915. It too was a failure, costing the Allies more than 6,000 men – indeed, about a third of the Allied soldiers who fought in the battle became casualties. Though wounded, Arthur was one of the lucky ones who survived.

This article by Martin Mace first appeared inside the January 2014 issue of Britain at War Magazine  To purchase your own digital copy of this, and more of our back issues, please visit our page at Pocketmags: https://pocketmags.com/britain-at-war-magazine/issues

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