Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Sunday, September 20, 2015

The Wellingtons at Chunuk Bair

Contributed by Jim Patton

New Zealand Expeditionary Force Cap Badge

Some chaps had a glimpse of the sea and all the country in between and we knew perfectly well that this hill was the key to victory or defeat on the Peninsula.
Sergeant Daniel Curham, the Wellington Battalion

This action was perhaps the greatest "what if" of the Gallipoli campaign. In the early morning of 8 August 1915 the Wellington Battalion of the NZ Infantry Brigade captured this key hilltop and with scant reinforcements held off counterattacks all day long. When relieved, the Wellingtons counted only 49 effectives. The toehold was lost on 10 August.

Who were the Wellingtons? In 1914 the NZ Territorial Forces (NZTF) had 16 infantry and 12 mounted rifles regiments, most of which didn’t have a full-strength battalion, although the 5th (Wellington Rifles) and the 9th (Wellington East Coast Rifles) each had two under-strength battalions. The 1/5th was brought to strength and sent off  to capture and occupy German Samoa, and the 1/9th  was renamed the  9th (Hawkes Bay Rifles) and the 2/9th , plus "leftovers" from the 2/5th, became the 17th (Ruahine Rifles). 

New Zealand Troops Preparing for the Assault on Chunuk Bair

At first the New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF, later 1NZEF) had two brigades, one each of infantry and mounted rifles. Each of the NZTF regiments (except for the 5th) contributed one full-strength company and these were assigned to regional battalions. Thus the Wellington Battalion had four companies, one each from the 7th (Wellington West Coast Rifles), the new 9th, the 11th (Taranaki Rifles), and the new 17th.

The Wellingtons were commanded by Lt. Col. W.G. Malone of the 11th, a landowner and lawyer who had previously formed a volunteer battalion for the South African War. He was 55 years old and a character — for example, in 1911 (at his expense) he equipped his men with the
"lemon-squeezer" hat, rather than the Aussie-style, because "it looked like Mt. Egmont."

Subsequently this hat was adopted by the NZEF, and is still the dress headgear of NZ soldiers. At Gallipoli he was thought fussy for complaining about poor supply and HQ’s unconcern for the soldiers. But, in spite of HQ, he built solid positions at Courtney’s Post and Quinn’s Post.

Lt. Col. Malone at Quinn's Post Before the Attack

On 6 August Col. FE Johnston, the British officer commanding the NZ Infantry Brigade, lost his best chance to capture Chunuk Bair by waiting all day for more troops that never came. Before dawn on 7 August the lead battalions, with the Wellingtons second in the van, moved to a spot called the Apex, where Johnston halted them. Later, prodded by HQ to attack, he ordered a sort of banzai charge. First in line, the Auckland Battalion went off and was cut to pieces, and the Wellingtons were next, but Malone refused to attack until dark, reportedly telling Johnston: "We are not taking orders from you people…My men are not going to commit suicide."

Johnston, who was not making good decisions (and may have been drinking), would surely have court-martialed Malone, but Malone was killed later that day by friendly artillery fire (probably naval). According to a Wellingtons survivor the telephones worked but Johnston’s HQ ignored most of what they were told and ordered Malone to do senseless things.

New Zealand Memorial, Chunuk Bair
Both Malone and, incredibly, Johnston received a Mention in Dispatches for the action, but a subsequent British report blamed Malone; it was said that he had dug trenches in the wrong place. Malone had four sons who served in the NZEF, two were at Gallipoli and one was killed in 1918. Johnston was promoted to Brigadier and made a CB in 1916. He was killed by sniper fire in 1917, one of 78 British general officers killed in action. 

The first of 13 VCs awarded to NZEF soldiers was won at Chunuk Bair by Signals Cpl Cyril Bassett for laying and repairing those telephone lines that might have made such a difference. New Zealand now has its own awards scheme, and in 2003 an unsuccessful effort was made to get a retroactive VC (NZ) for Lt. Col. Malone. Instead, a plaque bearing the proposed citation text was placed in the Parliament building.

The Wellington Battalion, NZEF, was disbanded after the war. Heritage of some of the units continues in the Wellington West Coast and Taranaki regiment, NZTF.

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