The Newfoundland Regiment at Gallipoli
One year of the First World War elapsed before Allied commanders deployed the Newfoundland Regiment to an active front. In mid-August 1915, the unit received word that it was going to Suvla Bay in the Gallipoli Peninsula - a Turkish-controlled landmass in southeastern Europe. There, the Regiment would join the 88th Brigade of the 29th Division of the British Army.
The peninsula was strategically important because of its proximity to a narrow strait of water called the Dardanelles, which provided a sea route to Russia. The Allied powers wanted control of the area, and despatched troops to the region to secure it.
The Newfoundland Regiment embarked from Devonport, England on August 20 and arrived at Alexandria, Egypt on September 1. It then travelled by train to Cairo. The men spent two weeks in Egypt, acclimating to the stifling heat they would encounter at Gallipoli and changing into lighter uniforms.
On September 14, they set sail for Suvla Bay. Most of the men were happy to be finally out of training, but there was also an awareness of the pending danger.
"We have had a very good time all along so far, but we all know that the hardest part has now to come," Lieutenant Owen Steele wrote in his journal on September 18, 1915. "The place where we are to land is shelled all day long, and the last Division which went there lost 1,200 men and 36 officers the first day, and that, without having fired a shot, nor seen a single Turk, so we have heard."
Landing at Suvla Bay
The Regiment's 1,076 men landed on the shores of the Dardanelles at about 3 a.m. on September 20, 1915. They came under immediate fire from Turkish troops. Private Francis Lind wrote about his first day at Gallipoli for the Daily News:
"We have had quite a lively time since landing Monday morning amidst a storm of shot and shell. After reaching the shore we made a rush and getting out our trenching tools began to dig ourselves in. The shells were falling thick about us. ... About twenty-five of our fellows were hit, including the Adjutant, Capt. Rendell ... One shell burst about five feet from our dug-out; we only just "ducked" in time. Another knocked Sergt. Green's helmet off, and it went about twenty feet away. He has never seen it since." (66-67)
B Company in front line, Suvla Bay, 1915.
Capt. Alexander (left) and Capt. Nunns (right).
Courtesy of the Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador (PANL VA-37-1), St. Johns,
Lance-Corporal John Gallishaw also described the heavy enemy fire in his book, Trenching at Gallipoli: "It was the first shell I had ever heard. It came over the hill close to me, screeching through the air like an express train going over a bridge at night. Just over the boat I was watching, it exploded. A few of the soldiers slipped quietly from their seats to the bottom of the boat." (40)
The Newfoundland Regiment lost its first man in battle soon after arriving at Suvla Bay. Private High McWhirter was 21 years old when a Turkish shell killed him on September 22, 1915. The next day, a sniper's bullet killed Private William Hardy. He was 22 years old.
By September 30, the Newfoundland Regiment had taken responsibility for a 1.5-kilometre stretch of the British front line. Its trenches lay just 50 metres from the Turkish lines, and they jutted out at an angle that exposed the men to enemy fire from two sides.
"After the first forty-eight hours we settled down to regular trench warfare," Gallishaw wrote. "The routine was four days in the trenches, eight days in rest dugouts, four days in the trenches again, and so forth, although three or four months later our ranks were so depleted that we stayed in eight days and rested only four." (49-50)
Turkish forces frequently shelled the Regiment. There were other threats as well. The trenches were filthy and overcrowded, and No Man's Land was littered with bodies. Disease and illness soon spread among the men. Gallishaw reported that about 600 Turkish bodies lay on the ground near B Company's trenches, but no one could retrieve and bury the dead without exposing himself to enemy fire.
"We could not get out to bury them, nor could we afford to allow the enemy to do so. There they stayed, and some of the hordes of flies that continually hovered about them, with every change of wind, swept down into our trenches, carrying to our food the germs of dysentery, enteric, and all the foul diseases that threaten men in the tropics." (56)
The weather was another problem, especially after the rainy season began in October. Sudden squalls drenched the men's clothes and flooded their trenches. The days remained hot, but the nights grew bitterly cold. Rheumatism and pneumonia became serious threats. The situation deteriorated on November 26, when a flood struck Suvla Bay and was followed by a deep freeze.
"On the night of the flood, the water in our support trenches and in the firing line was three feet deep nearly everywhere," Steele wrote on December 4. "...Then when the frost came, it tried us all to the limit and all suffered severely ... We have sent about 150 men to hospital, most of them being for frost burnt feet. We have heard that the 86th Brigade lost 200 men by drowning and exposure and nearly 2,000 were sent to hospital."
Despite the dangers and squalor of trench warfare, the Regiment won its first battle honours at Gallipoli. On the night of November 4, Lieutenant James Donnelly led seven men to a ridge held by Turkish snipers. They fought off three snipers and held the area until reinforcements arrived the following morning.
The ridge was renamed Caribou Hill in the Regiment's honour. Donnelly was later awarded the Military Cross, while Lance-Corporal Fred Snow received the Distinguished Conduct Medal.
In the end, the Allied forces could not wrestle control of Suvla Bay from the Turkish Army and evacuated the area betrwwn December 18, 1915 and January 9, 1916. The Newfoundland Regiment lost its final man at Gallipoli one day before the withdrawl was complete.
Cape Helles, Gallipoli.
Photo taken between December 22, 1915 and January 9, 1916.
Courtesy of the Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador (PANL B3-15), St. Johns,
Private Anthony Stacey described the fatality in his memoirs: "The evening of January 8th, the day before the final evacuation, we were having our last meal sitting around the fire just outside the dugouts, which were terraced on the sandbank and built mostly of sandbags. Shell infiltrated from Suvla, struck the dugout just above ours and landed right in the centre of the fire. Sgt. C. Garland was sitting on the outside and the percussion before the shell burst overbalanced him. He turned a somersault and as he was falling, he received a wound in the back. There were two others wounded and Pte. Robert Morris was killed. He was the last Newfoundlander to be buried on the Dardanelles and I helped with the stretcher that took him to the grave already dug." (62)
The Gallipoli Campaign had reduced the Newfoundland Regiment to 17 officers and 470 other ranks. Forty-four of its men had died and hundreds more were recovering from enemy fire or disease in military hospitals. The Regiment withdrew to Egypt for two months of training and recuperation.
In the spring, it was ordered to the River Somme in northern France.
Lieutenant Owen Steele's quotes were transcribed from his diary: Collection 179, Archives and Manuscript Division, QEII Library, Memorial University.