Isle of Wight Rifles - History - The Sacrifice of the Isle of Wight Rifles

History

This story is © Isle of Wight Beacon October 2005, and is used with permission.

Written by John Medland

The Sacrifice of the Isle of Wight Rifles

At 4.45pm on the 12th of August 1915, with bugles sounding, British infantry of the 163rd Brigade advanced from the beachheads of Gallipoli towards the Anafarta hills. Among them were 800 men of the Island’s own Battalion, the Prince Beatrice Isle of Wight Rifles.

They advanced under a hot sun through a parched flat countryside into one of the Islands greatest human disasters in modern history. Within a thousand yards the Battalion had suffered 50% casualties and over 300 of the Island’s best lay scattered dead. Two years later this death toll would be topped by even greater casualties in the Battle of Gaza.

It is one of the ironies of the First World War that most of the Island’s men who joined the colours so enthusiastically to defend the honour of Belgium would be sent to conquer the Turkish Ottoman Empire, with consequences that we are still living with to this day.

The Gallipoli Campaign, in which Islanders played such a large part is now being remembered in an exhibition at the Museum of Island History at the Guildhall in Newport. To date it is now ninety years since the battle, which raged on land and sea from March to December 1915.

The plan was to capture the Gallipoli Peninsular at the south-eastern extremity of European Turkey. If the landings were successful the Allied fleet of battleships would have been able to capture Istanbul.

Istanbul, capital of the Turkish Ottoman Empire was strategically vital in the first year of the First World War (1914-1918). The British, French and Russian empires were at war with the German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires. The British, French and Germans were already locked into a military stalemate on the “Western Front”. If the British and French took Istanbul the Ottoman Empire would be knocked out of the war. The Allies could create a new Balkan front against Austria Hungary and supplies of munitions would equip the Russian Empire’s vast but largely unarmed armies on the “Eastern Front”.

Had the brilliant plan worked the First World War would have ended with a quick Allied victory and the Russian Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 would probably have never happened. The failure of the British Empire to capture Gallipoli was one of the tipping points of world history.

The stakes could not have been higher. In the desperate nine month Gallipoli campaign around one hundred thousand soldiers and sailors fought to the death. At the very climax of the battle the fresh Island troops were thrown in straight from England. They had never seen combat before.

Map of the Dardenelles 1915

The Isle of Wight Rifles were formed in 1859. It was a part-time volunteer unit, echoing the centuries old tradition of the Island militia. From 1885 to 1896 their enthusiastic Colonel was Prince Henry of Battenburg who had married Queen Victoria’s youngest, Princess Beatrice, which is how the unit came to be named after her. They practiced on the rifle ranges at Newtown and Gurnard and held overnight camps, notably at Yaverland.

At the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914 they were the Eighth Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment. However on mobilisation they were sent for training at Bury St Edmunds where they were combined with the 163rd Brigade of the ‘East Anglian’ 54th division. They were trained for action on the Western Front, but at the end of July 1915 found themselves setting sail from Liverpool aboard the Aquitania for Turkey. On the 6th August they disembarked at the Greek port of Mudros on the Isle of Lemnos, a short distance from the roaring battle of Gallipoli.

‘Water red with blood for fifty yards out to sea’

Many other Islanders were already serving in the campaign, either in the navy or the various regiments drawn from Britain, Australia and New Zealand. Fighting around the Straights of the Dardanelles had started with Turkey’s entry into the war in November 1914. In March a large fleet of British and French battleships attempted to force their way up the Dardanelles blasting the Turkish forts into rubble. On the 18th the Allies lost three battleships and the Admirals decided further progress could only be achieved with a military invasion of the Gallipoli Peninsular.

The Allies responded with the creation of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force under General Sir Ian Hamilton. Like many commanders of the war Hamilton was to prove woefully inadequate for such a complex task as a suddenly improvised invasion on the other side of Europe. His predominantly British Empire force consisted of British, Australian, New Zealand, Indian, French and Senegalese troops including 25,000 British fresh out of training camps.

On April 25th, under the deafening bombardment of the battleships the British, including the main part of the Hampshires, stumbled ashore at Cape Helles while the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) landed on a wrong beach further west. The Turks fought bitterly, slaughtering the attackers with machine gun and rifle fire.

A British seaplane commander looked down on “a bullet lashed water... red with blood for fifty yards out to sea... boats were drifting helplessly off the beach with grisly cargoes of dead and dying.” (Gallipoli: Hickey) Ashore a pattern began of entire units like the Turkish 57th Regiment fighting to the last, finally attacking with the bayonet when all ammunition was exhausted.

The ferocity of the Turkish defence and massed counter-attacks left the Allies under siege in tiny steep beachheads. The fighting was savage and continuous with only brief truces to bury the piled stinking corpses. The French alone lost 12,610 of 22,450 men in the first sixteen days’ fighting. In just one hour of June 4th during the Third battle of Krithia the II Naval Brigade lost 1,000 of 1,700 men.

It became clear to the Allied command that a new effort was required to break the stalemate. Just north of “ANZAC Cove” was the flat, open and lightly defended Sulva Bay. This was chosen as the landing for the British IX Corps under General Stopford.

Unfortunately Stopford “had never commanded in combat in his life” and proved to be completely incompetent for this massive task.

“My God. We will all be killed!”

On the night of August 6th 10,000 British troops were ferried ashore where they became hopelessly confused on the dark beaches. The next day the three Turkish battalions withdrew, allowing the British the opportunity to swarm up to the beckoning hills. At the Helles and ANZAC beachheads the 57,000 Allied troops launched suicidal attacks to distract the Turks (The sacrifice of the elite Australian Light Horse is recorded in the film Gallipoli). But the British at Sulva floundered in confusion as thousands more arrived by the hour; all awaiting fresh water, which took all day and clear orders, which took longer.

With the diversionary attacks wasted, the Turks eight reserve divisions closed on the IX Corps. Among the British reinforcements coming ashore were the 54th East Anglian Division which included 163 Brigade. They arrived on the 10th under the booming gunfire of the battleship HMS Swiftsure. Instead of being used as a single unit the division began to be sent piecemeal into the confused fighting. The IW Rifles landed among 2,500 mangled wounded awaiting evacuation to the Aquitania, lying on the open beach. It was a grim introduction to the realities of war.

The position at Sulva was starting to resemble the other two beachheads. The IX Corps had to make one last attempt to break out. On August 12th the 163rd received orders to attack that afternoon. They had no maps and no clear military objectives except for the hazy Anafarta Hills, three miles inland. When Captain Clayton Ratsey was told the orders he exclaimed “My God. We will all be killed!” Both he and his brother died that afternoon.

At 4.45pm Bugle Major Peachey sounded the advance to the IW Rifles and was promptly shot and wounded by the waiting Turks. The Brigade advanced in broad daylight across an open plain of flat scrub and dry pasture scattered with single trees and ditches that provided excellent cover for the waiting Turkish infantry. On the right of the Islanders the 5th Norfolks mistakenly turned right, further confusing the attack. The awaiting Turks were toughened by years of fighting. They were dedicated to die for their country and armed with modern Mauser rifles, machine guns and artillery, which set the dry vegetation alight, adding to the confusion.

By the time they had advanced one thousand yards the battalion was effectively finished. Their casualties were so heavy that they had broken into little groups and these were forced to take cover and pull back as the Turkish attacks began. At the end of the short battle the IW Rifles had lost eight officers and over three hundred men killed and missing. Thirty two residents of Newport were among the dead. Four of them were from tiny Orchard Street.

Neither the IW Rifles nor the 5th Norfolks would become fully operational units again while at Gallipoli”. Nevertheless the Rifles held the line until the 14th when they were relieved by the Essex Regiment.

By the time the fury of the August battles had passed some 40,000 Allied troops had fallen in return from “five hundred acres of bad grazing ground”. The defeat before Anafarta was the end of the Allied dream. From now on it was only a matter of time before they would be forced to withdraw.

By this time another one hundred and fifty men of the Rifles had been killed or succumbed to dysentery and enteric fever in the foul environment in which they were forced to subsist. As summer turned to winter it brought new horrors for the exposed soldiers. Following one November blizzard 200 men of IX Corps were frozen to death and another 5,000 mutilated by frostbite.

On December 3rd the remnant of less than 200 men of the IW Rifles were withdrawn to Mudros. They were thin and weak with dysentery but once there had the ironic joy of finding the food parcels and clothes sent out to them by their families. The Island had suffered disproportionately. Along with about 450 deaths in the Rifles at least another forty-five other Islanders in other units died over the campaign giving an Island total of about 500 dead for this one battle.

Of the half million Allied men committed to the Gallipoli campaign nearly half became casualties. The British Empire lost 36,000 men killed of whom only 9,000 have identified graves. The French Empire lost about 6,000 dead and the Ottoman Empire? Estimates vary between 65,000 and 86,000. Mustapha Kemal, who fought at Gallipoli and became the first President of modern Turkey later said of his enemies:-

“Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives: You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us, where they lie side by side here in this country of ours...”

The war still had three years to run. The first battalion took a year to rebuild in Egypt while a second battalion was sent to follow up the invasion of Iraq, where the Island had suffered its second great tragedy of the war. The surrender of the British V Division at Kut al Amarah following the defeat at the Battle of Ctesiphon included the V Hampshire Howitzer Battery from Freshwater. Only a few would straggle home after the war. Seventy-five names of the dead are recorded at Freshwater’s Memorial Hall.

In January 1917 the first Battalion of the Rifles was again ready and carried out an epic march of 145 miles in twelve days across the Sinai for the invasion of Palestine. On the 19th April they were ordered into the Battle of Gaza, attacking with tanks against powerful Turkish defenses. It was another massacre, on an even greater scale than the slaughter of 1915. “The Isle of Wight Rifles went into battle eight hundred strong, at the roll call on that same evening only two officers and ninety men were there to answer.” (The IW Rifles, DJ Quigley).

By Armistice Day, November 11th 1918 the battalion was eighty miles north of Beirut. The last of them returned from Egypt in 1920. The Island soldiers had played their part in the so called “liberation” of Arabia, Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon and Syria. The European colonies created in the place of the Turkish provinces would be overthrown in less than twenty years and would be followed by decades of violent conflict down to the present day.

The graves of our soldiers remain in the Middle East. Their names are recorded at the Island’s War Memorial, the Chapel of St Nicholas in Carisbrooke Castle. It makes one wonder about the sheer futility of war, now as then. I hope we will remember their bravery and sacrifice on November 11th and Remembrance Sunday this year.