In early May 1915 James Durrant
found himself at the centre of one the more bloody engagements on the Gallipoli Peninsula.
His actions as a part of the 13th Battalion were to see him acknowledged for his bravery and cool and calm head while under fire. One of the most dangerous locations for the ANZAC’s was around a narrow stretch of land at the head of the Monash Valley known as ‘The Nek’. During the engagement described the Durrant’s 13th Battalion was to follow the 16th to the head of the Bloody Angle, then wheel to the left, cross the slope of ‘Baby 700’ and in a single file, rout any Turkish soldiers they met there. Once this was accomplished they were then expected to keep on until they found the Otago Battalion on the summit.
Colonel Burridge, with his adjutant, Captain Durrant, and six scouts, headed the battalion, following the tail of the 16th.As the 16th scaled the heights to the right the 13th held on behind, and while here the men of the 16th began sliding back killed or wounded.Undeterred they continued their ascent and at the foot of ‘Dead Man’s Ridge’ led his men up the slope opposite to the one climbed by the 16th. At head of their slope the 16th had turned simultaneously to the right so they could move abreast up the hill. In contrast the 13th wheeled, each man following the one in front, still in single file. It was in this formation they finally exited the steep valley onto the gentle slope of the ‘Chessboard’ (a region of scrub land) leading up to ‘Baby 700’. At this point Burridge and Durrant stood counting the men as they filed past.
Burridge knew that there was a Turkish trench ahead from an earlier action when the 13th were stationed at ‘Pope’s’.At this time Sergeant Cotterill and a few scouts had crawled out onto ‘Dead Man’s Ridge’ and the ‘Chessboard’, which was not then definitely held by either side and here in the bush two groups of snipers (Turkish and Australian) had stalked one another. Two of the scouts Cotterill and another returned, both wounded and while they reported the scrub was “crawling with Turks,” a further report form Lieutenant Marks meant Burridge knew the position of this trench. When 250 men had passed him, he gave the order to turn to the right, and, with Captain J. W. A. Simpson leading, the line advanced upon it.
According to Charles bean the, “… Turks bolted from the scrub like startled game”. As a result the trench was taken but fire andhand thrown bomb were coming in from everywhere. These missiles were still unfamiliar to these new Australian troops, so much so that according to Charles Bean Durrant, himself an officer in the regular service, picked up one which fell at his feet smoking and fizzing. “Look, Colonel,” he said to Burridge, Chinese stink-pot!” The Colonel cried to him to throw it away, which he did before it exploded. Fortunately the Turks had yet to perfect cutting the length of their fuses and many were still too long which allowed them to be thrown back.
Movement of Durrant and the 13th battalion as well as the other allied forces on 2 May
Once the remaining platoons of the 13th which were filing up the slope arrived at the Chessboard men from the 16th called from the opposite side of the valley for reinforcements. Lieutenant Crowl took his platoon to them and was there killed. The next platoon, filing up the valley, found no one directing it and as a result it headed straight on up the valley head under its commander, Lieutenant K. A. MacLeod. None of them returned.
The rest of the column might have met the same fate, but Durrant, noticing the gap, ran down the hill and turned the tail of the battalion again into the proper course. The 13th now took up a position astride the high land in the fork of the gully, from where it could link the left of the 16th with the right of the Otago Battalion. Across the head of the ‘Bloody Angle’ could be seen flashes of the rifles of the 16th but on the left there was no sign of the Otago Battalion.Unfortunately the plans for the Otago Battalion had miscarried terribly.This group was to have moved at the same time as the 16th from the foot of move up to the western branch and the 13th was ordered to let is pass. But when the hour of the attack arrived, Otago was not at the starting-point.
From the New Zealand position on Walker’s Ridge and the beach north of Anzac, where the battalion had been concentrated, there were two possible routes to Monash Valley. The battalion wisely had taken the longer, and more protected, of these and moved southwards along the the Beach into Shrapnel Gully, and back up the whole length of Monash Valley, a journey of a mile and a half. The shorter route, over Russell’s Top, was unknown, not reconnoitered, and exposed to deadly fire from the enemy.The Otago troops left Walker’s Ridge at 5:15 am and allowed two hours for the march to the starting-point.
Unfortunately the Beach was so crowded with men, so troublesome were the snipers at its head, so constant was the stream of stretcher-bearers and wounded that it was 8.45, an hour and a half after the advance of the 16th Battalion, before the Otago Battalion cleared the starting-point at the foot of Pope’s Hill. It hurried forward up the western branch of Monash Valley and at a certain point it turned and scaled the height on its right, beyond the left of Pope’s Post, as the 16th had done. But by this time the Turks were aware of the movement and a tremendous fire was opened from ‘Baby 700’ on the New Zelanders. ‘Baby 700’ was never reached but a rough line was organised at the foot of the Chessboard, a short distance in from the valley’s edge towards which the line gradually converged as it neared ‘The Nek’.On this line the Otago Battalion attempted to dig in.Officers from the 13th sent out by Burridge at length discovered its flank and towards midnight a company of the 15th Battalion was sent to Colonel Moore to fill the gap between his right flank and that of the 13th.
This line was not the one which had been the sole object of the whole operation to attain. The 16th held very nearly the position intended for it, and the right of the 13th was opposite the left of the 16th, but the head of the valley was still between them, and they were not connected as the plan had meant them to be. The left of the 13th was, in accordance with its orders, in touch with the Otago Battalion. But the Otago Battalion had barely been able to cover any portion of the 500 yards of slope from the edge of the valley to the hilltop which was its objective. The whole of ‘Baby 700’, ‘The Nek’, and the extreme ends of both branches of Monash Valley were still in Turkish hands and the 16th and the Otago battalions both had their flanks exposed and were under heavy fire.In fact this fire was so concentrated that some of those who had left their rifles in the bushes on the rear slope while they dug their trenches found them cut to splinters by machine-gun fire.
The 13th Battalion, though it lost 200 men during the night, managed to dig a system of support and communication trenches on the summit and slope of ‘Dead Man’s Ridge’. Although the front line trench was only two or three feet deep. By the morning it had dug a communication trench, through which, by crawling, the front line could be reached in daylight. But the chances of the New Zealander’s taking ‘Baby 700’ were fading as time wore on. The only prospect of a successful attack was to somehow subdue the fire from ‘Baby 700’ and ‘The Nek’ and this was virtually impossible. Even so at 11pm the Canterbury Battalion was ordered to send forward its leading company which had been waiting behind the trenches at the top of ‘Walker’s Ridge’. It was reported that around 9.30 they had heard a tremendous cheering which they presumed came from the successful Otago Battalion.When the word came to advance, the company moved out towards The Nek and as they reached the summit of the ‘Top’ where the company commander felt only four men would be able to advance abreast (although the ‘The Nek’ was in reality wider).
As they moved forward a deluge of fire poured down on them and after suffering heavy losses in their first approach they were ordered by the brigadier ordered it to make a second attempt with the whole of the Canterbury Battalion following. This also failed and the plan to move over The Nek was abandoned. Instead the battalion was ordered to stand fast on ‘Russell’s Top’ and await further orders. At 3 am they moved from Russell’s Top to Colonel Monash’s headquarters in Monash Valley, taking with it tools to help the Otago Battalion to retain its gains by digging communication trenches before dawn. But there were delays collecting tools, and it was 4 a.m. before Captain Critchley-Salmonson with part of the leading company reached Colonel Moore of the Otago battalion near ‘Pope’s Hill’. Moore was worried abouthis left flank on the summit north of Pope’s, and not far from the edge of Monash Valley.
Salmonson, with fifty men, was ordered to take the men he had with him, find the left of Otago on the crest, and extend it.After moving up the western branch of the valley they by some miracle hit upon the left of the Otago line digging in the dark at the foot of the Chessboard. The Otago Battalion had dug a good trench, but Salmonson’s party had with them only their entrenching tools. They strung out–only six of them at first on the Otago’s left, working might and main to entrench themselves.Their left was entirely open towards The Nek; as they scraped their shallow pits, they could hear the Turks talking not far away. A deadly fire from the flank was certain as soon as the light broke.Salmonson was joined by Lieutenant Shepherd with his platoon, and together they extended their trench until it rested on the edge of the gully. As the light grew shot began to find their mark.
The man next to Salmonson was shot from the front and fell across him. Another man shot from the rear, fell beside him. In the growing daylight some fifteen men of the Otago Battalion were seen running back over the crest. Salmonson called out to Otago, but could hear no answer from their trench; fire was coming from everywhere; he therefore gave the order to retire by ones and twos. With Otago having retired the 15th, which was next to it, also came back leaving the 13th, laying upon the Chessboard. On the right, the 16th Battalion had held from ‘Quinn’s’ along the edge of the ‘Bloody Angle’ in the face of Turkish assaults. Unfortunately although the 13th knew where the 16th was the same was not true of the 16th. Rather than forming a solid line the left of the trench remained a straggling series of rifle pits around which were littered the bodies of the dead. At about 5 am five shells struck the rear of the crest the 16th was holding and the soldiers knew almost straight away that these must have been fired by their own guns.This was too much for some of the men who jumped back over the edge and ran down into the valley.To add to the confusion two “resting” battalions of Marines were at 1.35 am told by General Godley to Colonel Monash, to make supporting and communicating trenches for his battalions, and act as his reserve. At this late hour it was clear the whole attack had gone terribly astray but Monash was informed that he would be responsible for the task of completing the night’s operations by thoroughly connecting the line of trenches from the left of Otago to the right of the 4tsasah Brigade.
The Marines were also hampered by the crowds of wounded men in the valley and did not reach the head of it until the dawn was almost breaking. There followed a scene of pitiable confusion. The time chosen by the Marines to make their way to the front coincided with the explosion of the shells fired by their own side, and the return of part of the 16th. The Marines retired with them. Sometime later when Major festing … brigade-major and Major Tilney rallied them their attempt to climb the eastern slope of the valley to reinforce the 16th was done in full daylight. As they neared the top, they came under view of Turkish machine gunners on ‘The Nek’ or ‘Baby 700’making it impossible for them to join the 16th. Their only option was to dig a communication trench through to them. Captain Jess and an officer of the Marines endeavoured to start the Marines upon this work, but the fire of the same machine-gun followed them and defeated the attempt. The men of the 16th who were still in the trench on the crest had watched the Marines struggling to reach them, and realised that the effort had failed.
Throughout the morning the 16th gradually fell back in twos and threes, the men jumping over the top and rolling down the hill. A few still stayed in their trenches.
Lance-Corporal Percy Black. twice wounded earlier in the week, held on with his machine-gun until he had fired away all the ammunition, and then brought the gun back. Sergeant-Major Harvey lay in the trench till the Turks reached it. They kicked him, bayoneted him across the chest, and flung him on to the parapet for dead. He eventually rolled down the hillside, and three days later reached the lines of his battalion dazed and mortally wounded. Another man. named Troy, when the Turks attacked in the morning, was knocked senseless by a bomb. He woke to find his mates, Privates White and Gray dead beside him, and others all dead or wounded. He attempted to crawl away after dark, but was captured. Of those Australians who fought this action, he was the only one who survived it in the hands of the Turks.
While the 16th was gradually falling back from its trenches the bottom of the Bloody Angle was crowded with troops and officers, Australians, Marines, wounded men, fighting men, stretcher-bearers. But above them on the Chessboard the 13th Battalion still held out. During the early hours of the morning half of the Nelson Battalion of the Royal Naval Division, which was in reserve to the New Zealanders, had come up, apparently by mistake, to the support line of the 13th. Imagining that it was the front line, the newcomers opened fire upon the line of the 13th, who were digging. Durrant, rushed back to find an officer to stop the fire but the first man he found fell dead as he reached him; the second fell mortally wounded. But eventually he was able to stop the firing and the Nelson Battalion took its place on the right of the 13th above the edge of Monash Valley.
The lack of communication was an ongoing problem and the same Allied guns which had fired on the 16th in the morning now fired on the Nelson Battalion. Its men were ordered by their officers to withdraw.
Part of the 13th momentarily withdrew with them, but immediately afterwards, hearing the shouts of their comrades in the line, and realising that the order did not apply to them, these Australians separated themselves and climbed back up the hill to their trenches amid the cheers of the men who were there. Shortly after this the Portsmouth Marines, having been caught by machine-guns from their left rear while attempting to climb the eastern slope, were led with great bravery up the western slope on to Dead Man’s Ridge. No sooner had they reached the top than machine-guns from ‘German Officers’ Ridge’ in their right rear were turned upon them and, with much slaughter, they were driven again to the valley.
For many days p.597 afterwards on the ugly bare shoulder at the top of Monash Valley their dead lay like ants shrivelled by a fire, until a marine climbed out at night and pushed them down into the valley, where they were buried. The name of ‘Dead Man’s Ridge’ clung to this shoulder when its origin was almost forgotten.
Thus by the afternoon the 13th in its trenches at the foot of the Chessboard were the last group holding out. The trenches gave good shelter, but their situation was bad as it was low on the side of the hill, overlooked, and outflanked. To make matters worse Burridge could get no word either by telephone or messenger to or from the brigade headquarters. As a result he knew nothing about the situation elsewhere. At 3 p.m. he and Durrant decided that one of them must make the journey to brigade headquarters. After tossing a coin the Colonel went, while Durrant stayed in charge of the battalion. Burridge made his way to Monash, and after a conference it was decided that the 13th could not be usefully maintained in front of Pope’s Hill unsupported. Burnage therefore returned to the trenches at dusk and dictated the order for withdrawal. During the night of May 3rd, under cover of dark, the 13th retired. The wounded were cleared first, the rest of the battalion following.
The system of trenches dug by the 13th was eventually incorporated into the Turkish system known as the ‘Chessboard’. At the ‘Bloody Angle’ the trench of the 16th which was actually continuous with the northern trenches of ‘Quinn’s Post’, was also gradually occupied by the enemy.
The attempt to improve the defective position at Anzac by seizing the heights at the head of Monash Valley had completely failed. The capture of ‘Baby 700’ had been urgently necessary and, so far as Colonel Monash’s arrangements were concerned, had been planned with all that scrupulous care which was to mark his operations throughout the war. But when the Otago Battalion failed to arrive. the battle was hopelessly lost. The Turkish rifles and machine-guns had defeated every effort of the Australians on their flank, and they could not subsequently be silenced by the sheer bravery of the Otago Battalion. The commanding heights had not been taken when the chance offered immediately after the bombardment.
The Turks overlooked every position which had been gained, and only those who had dug then~selves deep trenches before the dawn had a chance of living after daylight.
The throwing in of the Marines at daybreak to retrieve a battle already lost resulted only in the slaughter of many brave officers and men and the disorganization of these already over-strained battalions. The 16th Battalion, upon which the brunt of the fighting fell, had landed on April 25th about 1,000 strong. It had entered the assault with a strength of 17 officers and 620 men. On May 3rd it came out of the fight with 9 officers and 290 men. Of the New Zealand infantry the Otago Battalion lost at least ten officers and 252 men, and Canterbury two officers and forty-six men. Twenty New Zealand engineers, under Sergeant Wallace, a Rhodes Scholar, had been sent with the 4th Brigade to plan roads and other facilities. Only five of these returned. The whole action cost about 1,000men.
Compiled from Charles Bean’s, History of World War One, Volume 1, by Geoff Barker, Collections and Research Services Coordinator, Parramatta Council Heritage Centre, 2015