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Our Land of Palestine

Our Land of Palestine

Book excerpt


Gully Ravine, Gallipoli
28 June 1915

It was hot. Major Andrew Selkirk of the Royal Borderers smoothed a hand over his forehead and ducked as the movement brought an instant response from a Turkish sniper. The bullet smacked into the sandbag behind his head, so a small trickle of sand eased out.

'I thought our artillery would keep Jacko's heads down,' Lieutenant Turnbull sounded nervous.

Selkirk looked at him. 'It seems that Jacko Turk has other ideas.'

The British guns fired non-stop, pounding the Turkish positions on either side of the ridge. Dust, smoke and the stink of lyddite filled the air. Selkirk narrowed his eyes at the evil orange petals of explosions and the occasional chunk of rock thrown high above the ground.

'There shouldn't be anything left after that,' Turnbull sounded impressed. 'And look!' He gestured out to the calm waters of the Mediterranean where the ships of the Royal Navy were giving support. Every few moments the lean grey vessels were obscured by smoke as they unleashed a broadside. The rip of heavy artillery overhead should have been reassuring, but Selkirk doubted that it was effective. He had been in too many battles to expect everything to go well.

'They are firing hard enough,' Turnbull grabbed his pith helmet as another bullet zipped overhead.

'Aye, but not on our front,' Selkirk pointed out. He crouched low behind the sandbags and indicated the ground ahead. 'The guns are plastering the Turks everywhere else. Our divisional artillery is still sitting in some quayside back home.'

'The Navy boys will change targets soon,' Turnbull shouted above the constant roar of the guns, 'then Jacko will know all about it.'

Selkirk grunted and said nothing. He looked along Fir Tree Spur, the broken ground along which 156 Brigade, including his Royal Borderers, was to advance. There was a succession of ravines which might give cover to his men if the Turkish machine guns opened up, but conversely, the Turks could be lurking inside them, waiting. Knowing the high calibre of Turkish infantry, and very aware that his men were untried weekend territorials, that thought was unsettling.

The sun was high, bursting the sweat from his forehead and dampened his armpits and the back of his shirt. Selkirk checked his watch. It was coming up to 10.30 on 28th June 1915. The attack was scheduled for 10.45, fifteen minutes ahead, but so far the guns had not dented the Turks positions on the spur. He cautiously raised a trench periscope above the line of sandbags and peered forward. There was hardly a single shell-burst on the Turkish positions, yet his men had to advance fifteen hundred yards and capture them.

Over there is the Asakr –I Shahaneh, he thought, the Ottoman Army, once the most feared military force in the world. Over there sits Jacko Turk, representatives of the same army which had held Christian Europe in fear for centuries, which had conquered the Middle East, North Africa and much of Eastern Europe. Over there, in well-dug trenches and behind rows of sandbags, crouched over machine guns and grasping modern German Mauser rifles, the Asakr –I Shahaneh waited for his few hundred Territorials, his part time soldiers who had never fired a shot in anger or seen the face of the enemy.

'We're giving them Hell, sir,' a high-pitched voice said, and Selkirk saw a very young boy crouched low in the bottom of the trench. His uniform was at least two sizes too large while his rifle looked taller than he was.

'I hope so … Semple isn't it?'

'Yes, sir.' The boy looked very pleased to be recognised. When he smiled, the adolescent spots on his face merged.

'So what did you do before the war started, Semple?'

'I was an office boy, sir, in a mill in Galashiels.' He looked about fifteen and probably was.

'Well, you take care, Semple, and keep your head down.' Selkirk nearly patted him on the shoulder but knew that was not what majors in the Royal Borderers did. He crawled along behind the sandbagged trench wall, talking to the men, checking their equipment, encouraging the nervous and smiling at the crude jokes of those who pretended they were not scared.

'Pringle!' Selkirk saw Captain Pringle standing upright to face the enemy positions, 'get down!'

Pringle did not move. 'It is an officer's duty to set an example to the men.' He looked down his long nose at the crouching Selkirk. 'It is undignified and un-British to cower before the enemy.'

Selkirk dragged him behind the sandbags. 'It's an officer's first duty to look after his men. You are no good to your men when you are dead!' He saw the expression of near contempt on Pringle's face. 'What were you before the war started, Pringle?'

Pringle frowned, 'I am the Honourable Walter Pringle of Westriggs …'

Selkirk interrupted him, 'and how long have you been in the Army?'

'I was in the Officers' Training Corps at Fettes College and joined the Territorial Army immediately I left school.' Pringle flicked slender hands at Selkirk, 'I have been training twelve weekends a year for just this opportunity, plus annual camps.'

Selkirk nodded. 'You call me sir.' He held Pringle's eyes and waited for him to acknowledge the fact.

'Sir,' Pringle seemed to force out the word.  Selkirk knew that Pringle was from an old Berwickshire landed family, a man who considered himself born to lead and a man desperate to prove his mettle in battle, no doubt incredibly brave, but inexperienced. 'Have you been in action before, Pringle?'

'No, sir, but I am ready…'

Selkirk pointed over the lip of the trench toward the Turkish positions. 'Well, you will be in action soon, Pringle. These are the Asakr-I Shahaneh, veterans of Balkan wars, Greek wars and Russian wars; top quality soldiers with far more experience than we have. I know you will set an example of bravery and duty when we go into action, but it would be a waste to have some Turkish peasant sniper kill a man like you before you show how to do it.' He leaned closer to the young officer. 'So keep your bloody head down!'

Selkirk glanced along the shallow trench where his Royal Borderers were sheltering, waiting for the artillery to stop so they could go forward. 'Bayonets, lads,' he shouted, 'it won't be long now!'

One man was shaking; some looked at him with red-rimmed eyes. All were tired and most very young. Selkirk mentally compared these Territorials to the long service men he had fought alongside in the South African War and wondered how these children, mill workers and office clerks would cope with the horrors of combat. A sergeant, one of the few veterans who had been transferred to stiffen the ranks, snicked his bayonet in place. His long face was tanned nut brown with the sun.

'Sergeant Crosier isn't it?'

'Sir,' Crosier nodded.

'You were a regular once,' Selkirk accused.

'Aye, sir.' Crosier did not flinch as a shell scattered a red-hot patter of shrapnel a few yards in front of their trench. He gave a faint smile. 'I did ten years in the Gordons, sir; the Frontier and South Africa.'

'You look after these men, Sergeant,' Selkirk felt some reassurance that there was a man such as Crosier to help his weekend soldiers.

Selkirk ducked as a British shell fell short to explode no more than twenty yards in front of them in a great orange ball of flame that clouds of brown dust and fragments or rock instantly obscured. One of his men yelled and clutched a hand to his forehead. Blood eased between his fingers. 'I'm hit!' he shouted. 'Mother help me; I'm hit!'

Moving in a crouch, Selkirk approached the man. He was about eighteen years old, with wide, terrified eyes and a face as smooth as a baby. 'Let me see… Hunnam isn't it?'

'Yes, sir,' the boy kept his hand over his wound. Flies already sought the fresh blood.

Selkirk pulled the hand away. 'It's only a wee scratch' he tried to sound cheerful. Taking a field dressing from Hunnam's pouch, he applied it to the wound. 'It's nothing at all to worry about, but you'd best get back to base and have an orderly see to it.' In this heat, any injury could fester. He watched as the boy limped to a communication trench that led back toward the beach and relative safety.

The ships fired another salvo, with the shells screaming overhead to explode in tall columns of smoke and dust on either side of Fir Tree Spur. Selkirk swore; he remembered the carnage of Magersfontein when Boer riflemen had decimated the Highland Brigade in that earlier South African war. Here, with machine guns, the Turks could do even greater damage unless the artillery softened them up first.

He checked his watch: 10.37. Seven minutes to go. He looked behind him where the few guns of 52 Division fired a desultory barrage that barely scratched the surface of the ridge. He had no desire to attack the Turks in their prepared positions. What in God's name was Hunter- Bunter thinking? Where was the artillery support for this brigade?

Pringle pointed to the great hill of Achi Baba that dominated this southern tip of the Gallipoli peninsula. 'I want to plant the British flag on top of that before nightfall.'

Selkirk nodded. 'Very commendable.' Achi Baba had been their objective since the landings on 29 April when the 1st KOSB had lost nearly 300 men in eighteen hours of non- stop fighting. The hill rose only a few miles ahead, but in this campaign where an advance of a hundred yards was a good day's work, Pringle's plan was very ambitious.

Selkirk heard a change in the pattern of bombardment. The Navy had altered their range. It was 10.42; there were three minutes until the attack.

'The guns are preparing to stop,' he told Turnbull and pushed one of his men back down. 'Keep your bloody head down, Fraser' he ordered. 'I'll tell you when you can move!'

The shell fire intensified, landing in a concentration of bursting steel that smothered the Turkish positions facing the left flank of the British at Gully Ravine. Dust and smoke drifted across the lines, all but blocking the once clear sky. It must have been steel and hot hell in the Turkish positions, swamped by heavy and medium artillery, blasting trenches and men with no mercy or compassion.

All at once the bombardment ended. The silence was so sudden that it hurt the ears and for a moment nobody moved. Somewhere in the distance a hopeful bird called.

10.44: a minute until the attack.

Selkirk took a deep breath and pulled out his whistle. The metal was hot against his lips.

The silence continued; somebody gave a hysterical giggle. Somebody was praying, the words soft in the hard hush. 'Our Father, who art in heaven… 'Somebody else was singing a music hall song with lyrics that the composer had not intended for innocent ears. There was the sound of a single shot, then the chilling rattle of a machine gun. A shell exploded above, the smoke acting as a harbinger of the hell to come.

'Come on Royal Borderers!' Pringle shouted and began to rise to the lip of the trench.

10.45: time.

God help us all.

'That's us, lads!' Selkirk's long whistle blast reached along the length of the Royal Borderers lines. 'Up we go!' He would have liked to hear the Border Pipes now, the thin wail from his native green hills combating the dust and heat of this parched land, but instead, there was a grim growling cheer as his young part-time soldiers rose from their trench and began the desperately long advance toward the entrenched Ottoman army.

It was time to be an officer. Selkirk stood tall, fully aware that he would immediately be a target for dozens of Turkish rifles and machine guns on the ridge, but determined to set an example. Regulars would not need such direct leadership, but these youngsters were only part-time soldiers, catapulted into this nightmare by circumstances that nobody completely understood.

He looked around, temporarily enjoying the freedom from the constriction of the trench. He saw the crest of Fir Tree Spur stretching before him until it merged with its parent hill of Achi Baba that rose in threatening dominance to the north. A series of ravines and rugged ridges blocked the Borderers' path, plus the stone walls of the town of Krithia, all defended by some thousands of Ottoman soldiers. Smoke and dust from the bombardment hazed his view so that Selkirk could see little but yellow-brown rocks and scrubby olive green vegetation. He could see nothing of the enemy, but he knew they were there, hiding, waiting behind their rifles and machine guns for the British to present themselves as a target, willing to defend their land with all the courage and skill for which the Turks were famous.

'Move lads!' Selkirk glanced along the trench line as the Royal Borderers emerged, some with their shoulders hunched, others upright with rifle and bayonet at the high port as screaming sergeants had trained them to do, as they had done on weekend exercises at Barry Buddon and among the long green hills of Ettrick. The trembling man was biting his lip but still moving; another had a pipe firmly clenched between his teeth. The praying man was a Corporal Scott, broad and ugly, a Kirk Elder from Selkirk who had joined the Territorials on the urging of his wife. 'The quicker we move, the less chance there is of being killed!'

'You heard the major,' Sergeant Crosier bellowed, 'follow my lead, lads and take the bayonet to Jackie Turk!'

For the first hundred yards, there was no defensive fire, and Selkirk ushered his men onward, hoping to cover as much ground as possible before the Turks realised what was happening. With luck, Jackie might be dazed from the bombardment, or believe that the British would not attack along the spur. He felt the ground hard and stony beneath his boots as he forced himself to walk at a steady pace. If he ran, some of the men might charge, and then their advance would be ragged, uncoordinated and much less effective. He wanted his Borderers to arrive at the Turkish trenches like a solid wall of steel rather than a disorganised rag-bag of individuals. Selkirk knew that the younger men needed encouragement from their more experienced fellows in this first step into war. The dust was clearing now, settling down and there was a spatter of musketry but whether from the British or the Turks he could not tell.

'On to Achi Baba!' Pringle shouted. He drew his revolver and fired wildly in the general direction of the Turkish lines.

'Keep together!' Selkirk shouted. 'Pringle! Look after your men!' He saw Pringle break into a run and surge in front of his company.

There was a new sound now: singing. He did not recognise the tune, but suddenly realised it was coming from the Turkish lines. The men that the bombardment was intended to blast out of existence were singing.

'Follow me, Royals!'

Selkirk stopped and looked around. The entire British line was moving in a general advance to break through the Turkish lines and capture Achi Baba. If they could capture that dominant hill the whole Turkish line might collapse, and the Allies could push up the peninsula to Constantinople and knock Turkey out of the war. That would enable a secure supply line to Russia and free up hundreds of thousands of troops, British, Imperial, French and Russian for the campaigns against Austria and Germany.

'Come on lads: Royal Borderers! On to Constantinople!'

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