Continuing the Southampton historians’ series of articles on World War anniversaries that have Saints connections, David Bull commemorates (with photo research by Dave Adlem) the 105th anniversary of a calamitous setback at Gallipoli…
Having landed on the Gallipoli peninsula on April 25th 1915, the invading Allied army had soon made two unsuccessful assaults on the village of Krythia and the commanding height that lay beyond it – Achi Baba, from which the occupying Turkish army had a panoramic view of the Allies’ beachhead at the tip of the peninsula.
For the next attempt on June 4th 1915 – what would become known as the Third Battle of Krithia – the Allies had been considerably reinforced, not least by several battalions of the Royal Naval Division.
If that sounds like an army unit within the navy, that’s pretty much what it was. One of the consequences of recruitment to the Royal Navy in 1914 was that the service had more reservists, never mind new volunteers, than it could accommodate on its ships.
So it created a Division of eight infantry battalions, each named after a past naval commander, and let it be known what the position entailed: a sailor with a gun.
Our interest here, on the 105th anniversary of this calamitous battle, is in the Collingwood Battalion – and, in particular, in Charles Bedder. The above photo, known to be of a Naval Division at Gallipoli in 1915, could well be of that battalion at Krythia.
A footballer from the Midland League, Bedder had been a stoker in the Royal Fleet Reserve, but had transferred to the Collingwoods in time to be part of the 700-strong battalion that was wiped out at Antwerp in October 1914. He had been “reported missing” but had made it home.
The survivors were merged into a new Collingwood and now here he was, six days after arriving in Gallipoli, taking part in an Anglo-French venture involving 20,000 British soldiers, flanked by 10,000 French.
The first Turkish trenches having been taken, the Collingwoods now led the second wave of attack. But the French had gone missing, after their artillery had dropped their shells short of their Turkish targets, while their Senegalese troops had proved, in the reported officialese, “unreliable”.
The hopelessly-exposed battalion was wiped out within 30 minutes. As one eye-witness put it, “their bodies looked like dead leaves in the autumn.”
We can’t be sure whether Bedder was in an exposed position, or even in the line, but he again survived. The next we know of him is as a guest centre-forward for the Saints in February 1918, in their only away win – 1-0 at Cowes – in an embarrassing first season in the South Hants War League. Cowes signed him, three weeks later.
The Gallipoli campaign now went into a stalemate phase. Among the men sent to break it was George Chalke, whose battalion, the 5th Wiltshires, sailed from Avonmouth in the SS Franconia on July 1st 1915.
After a three-week breather, culminating in a weekend on the Greek island of Lemnos in the Aegean Sea, the battalion sailed on HMT Sarnia, a cross-channel steamer that had been requisitioned by the Admiralty in 1914, for Anzac Cove. They landed there on the night of August 4-5th 1915, as part of a diversion from the main invasion scheduled for the 6-7th, five miles north at Suvla Bay.
The Australian film director, Peter Weir, would have film-goers believe that the brave, but foolhardy, Australian assault on the Nek, atop a cliff inland from the Cove, had the same intent: we are told repeatedly in his film, Gallipoli, that the object of the exercise was to divert attention from the landing at Suvla Bay: the British troops needed this sacrifice by the hapless soldiers of the Australian Light Horse.
L.A Carlyon, a leading Australian journalist, has challenged Weir’s anti-British propaganda with its false connection to the Suvla landings. There was, indeed, diversionary action, but it involved the 5th Wilts, not the Australian Light Horse.
Thus landed, the battalion would now be involved in an attack on the Sari Bair Ridge, the heights above Anzac Cove, that has been described by Field Marshal Lord Carver as “one of the worst fiascos in the history of the British army.”
The 13th Division, which included the 5th Wilts, was beaten back with the loss of 10 of its 13 commanding officers and 6,000 or so out of 10,500 other ranks. Chalke was among the survivors who retreated to the beach. They now dug in at Lala Baba.
Shelling by the enemy was still a danger, but casualties were minimal. Chalke was wounded, however. Even so, he remained with the battalion until the mass-withdrawal on January 8th 1916. He would now transfer to the 15th Somerset Light Infantry, with whom he went to France in May 1918.
Discharged in mid-April 1919, he guested for the Saints at the end of that month. Their 2-1 home win vs Thornycrofts was their final war-time match. The three inside-forwards had all been all casualties of this war: Albert Windust of the 1/4th Hants, returning from a brutal Turkish prison; Charles Leigh, who’d been severely wounded in France; and Chalke, a survivor of the disastrous Gallipoli campaign.
The above account has been excerpted from two chapters in SAINTS AT WAR. To register an interest, with no obligation, in this forthcoming book, please visit hagiologists.com.