War history: East Anglia paid a heavy price for the ‘sniper drive’
- Credit: Archant
One hundred years ago this week, the 5th Suffolks were safely ashore on the Gallipoli peninsula at Suvla Bay.
Mike Peters, Galloway’s resident military historian and chairman of The Guild of Battlefield Guides, explains what happened next to West Suffolk’s Territorial Force battalion.
It’s been a busy few weeks, although I have to say I know how lucky I am to be a battlefield guide and I am certainly not complaining. I have had quite a lot of time in Turkey, leading groups around the Gallipoli battlefields, and this week I have been looking at Galloway’s tour of the Normandy beachheads in April, 2016.
It fascinates me how history is interlocked or is a series of linked events. This week’s projects in Gallipoli and Normandy have all kinds of historical threads, not least the towering presence of Winston Churchill, who as First Lord of The Admiralty in 1915 was the architect of the Gallipoli campaign and also in 1944, as Prime Minister, had a huge influence over the Normandy landings. The operations ended in very different circumstances, the latter arguably successful because of very hard lessons learned in the Dardanelles.
Last week we left the 5th Suffolks just as they stepped ashore at Suvla Bay. It is worth remembering that most of the West Suffolk men had not walked on solid ground since leaving Liverpool on the Aquitania. The battalion was not involved in the initial landing at Suvla on August 6, 1915; along with the rest of the 54th (East Anglian) Division, it arrived in this inhospitable environment a few days later, on the afternoon of August 10, to reinforce the beachhead.
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The Suffolks ? led by Lieutenant Colonel Armes ? marched two miles inland, where they received orders to move into the front line, alongside the Lancashire Fusiliers. Here they remained, digging trenches, until the afternoon of August 12.
Little did Colonel Armes and his men know but they were involved in one of the most poorly handled phases of the Gallipoli campaign. Historians still debate the Suvla landings and the leadership of the corps commander responsible, General Sir Frederick Stopford. Ineffective leadership, poor intelligence and a lack of drive had combined to squander what may have been the best opportunity to unhinge the Turkish defences and seize the all-important Dardanelles.
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Even before the Suffolks and their sister battalions had landed, Turkish reserves had marched through the night and massed on high ground around Suvla Bay. On the afternoon of August 12, after a haphazard and rushed sequence of orders, the East Anglian Division (including the 5th Suffolks) was ordered to advance inland. There was little time for preparation. A pre-attack issue of water and rum was abandoned and the battalion shook out into formation as the left hand battalion of three.
The Suffolks had the Hampshires on their right and, beyond them, the 5th Norfolks on the right flank of the advance. The 4th Norfolks were behind the lead battalions, in reserve. The orders were simple: advance 1,200 yards and drive back any Turks in the way.
The advance became known as the “Sniper Drive”; well-camouflaged Turkish snipers were plaguing the Suvla beachhead with accurate and deadly fire. At 1600 hours, within 30 minutes of receiving the order, the battalions were formed and ready to advance. Having left its artillery behind in East Anglia, the division was reliant on Royal Navy gunfire from ships offshore. This had a positive psychological effect but was largely ineffective against dispersed snipers.
Very soon after the Suffolks moved forward they began to draw fire from well-concealed Turks, many of whom were local men who knew the ground intimately. Soon after the initial casualties fell, Turkish machine guns opened up on the advancing battalions; then artillery shells began to fall. In spite of this, the Suffolks advanced 1,500 yards and, under fire, established a line.
The fighting during the advance was bloody: snipers were shown no quarter ? many were bayonetted, and few taken prisoner. The newly-established line was vulnerable; after an hour the order was given to withdraw 200 yards to a new line, using the cover of a farmer’s ditch. Here the Suffolks held their position for 72 hours until men of the Essex Regiment relieved them.
East Anglia paid a heavy price for the sniper drive. The Suffolks alone reported 11 officers and 178 men killed, wounded or missing. Lieutenant Colonel Armes, the man who had given so much to the battalion, was listed among the dead officers.
The Suffolk Regimental Journal published in 1916 contains this account. “Our Colonel, whom we all looked up to, for he was a thorough gentleman and a good officer, soon had command although wounded in three places. The Turks seeing our position made a counter-attack and we had all we could do to keep them off. Colonel Armes was again wounded just as he gave the order to retire, and this would prove fatal.”
The Suffolks would remain in Gallipoli for many more months. We return to their story later in the year.
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