After over three months of fruitless and costly attacks on the Turkish positions defending Krithia and Achi Baba, living conditions in the Helles beach-head were almost unendurable; thousands of unburied corpses lay between the opposing lines, giving rise to plagues of rats and millions upon millions of ‘corpse flies’ which, feeding voraciously on decomposing bodies, led to widespread outbreaks of disease, notably dysentery, greatly aided by poor trench hygiene. At Helles, following the debacle of the First Battle of 28 April and several fierce Turkish counter attacks, the Second and Third Battles of 6 May and 4 June respectively, had produced no better results. The arrival of the two territorial divisions to augment the 29th and the Royal Naval Divisions at Helles led to the formation of VIII Corps and Hunter-Weston was promoted to its command. He did not enjoy this post for long, being evacuated with sunstroke. A chronic shortage of high explosive shell for the field artillery (due to the dismal performance of the ordnance industry in the UK) meant that shrapnel – effective against troops in the open but useless against well wired trench systems - was totally ineffective in support of frontal infantry attacks. The Turkish soldier, formerly regarded with amused contempt following the Ottoman army’s defeats in the Balkans, proved to be brave, enduring and deeply patriotic when well led and fighting on his home ground. The VIII Corps front line, however, slowly edged forward and following the bloody battle of Gully Ravine at the end of June had reached a point at which the line’s left flank rested on top of cliffs at what was known as Fusilier Bluff. Further to the right, opposite Krithia village and less than a mile from it, the Turks had blocked further advance. The right of VIII Corps’ sector was held by the Royal Naval Division beyond which the line was held by the French Corps. The entire allied line, from the Aegean on the left to the Dardanelles on the French right, was barely four miles in length.
At Anzac, living conditions were if anything more fraught as the front line was never more than a thousand yards from the beach . Due to the tumbled terrain there could be no continuous front line, especially on the left or northern flank where the ground was (and still is) broken by dried watercourses susceptible to flash flooding in rainstorms. Where no continuous line existed the Anzacs relied on defended posts and on their patrolling skills to dominate the enemy. The high summits of the Sari Bair ridge, rising 971 feet above sea level at Koja Kemen Tepe - the objective for 25 April - remained firmly in Turkish hands following the initial battles of April.
Encouraged by the promise of the territorial and New Army divisions of IX Corps, Hamilton's staff embarked on plans for what it was hoped would be the decisive battle for the heights. A diversionary attack was ordered at Helles to coincide with the offensive, timed to start after dark on 6 August, when IX Corps would start to come ashore in Suvla Bay. This landing was given what was thought the modest objective of seizing the Tekke Tepe high ground some four miles from the landing beaches by last light on 7 August, thus turning the Turkish flank on the Sari Bair ridge. As the Suvla Plain was known to be held only by a small garrison of Turkish Gendarmerie under a German commander it was hoped that IX Corps, despite the inexperience of its troops, would be up to its task.
The main assault on the Sari Bair feature was to be a much more ambitious operation. Whilst strong attacks were to be made from several points along the Anzac line - notably at Lone Pine on the right and The Nek on the left, with diversions at several points in the centre, notably Quinn's Post - three strong columns were to march round the Turkish northern flank and assault the Sari Bair ridge uphill using a series of dried-up watercourses. Everything depended on precise timekeeping if the attacks were to fall in deadly succession on the Turkish defence. Several thousand men of IX Corps and the 29th Indian brigade were smuggled into the Anzac beach-head in the days immediately before the attack and hidden in bunkers; it does not seem to have occurred to the staff that the unproven British troops were facing a most difficult operation of war, a night advance over totally unknown terrain, with inexperienced junior leaders, almost no maps and unreliable guides; the very nature of the ground and its steep contours demanded a degree of fitness absent in men who had but recently disembarked from troopships. Almost none had seen action and their junior officers, whilst courageous to the point of rashness, were equally unschooled in war. The Anzac garrison had endured much since April and many were exhausted and sick, but refused to leave their comrades in the line. Brigadier General Monash , commanding the 4th Australian Brigade charged with the challenging task of leading the attack on Koja Kemen Tepe, was as exhausted as his men Major General Walker , a seconded British office who had succeeded Bridges in command of the 1st Australian Division, was so appalled on reading the original operational instruction that he demanded, and got, a significant change of plan for his division's attack at Lone Pine. As a result of his insistence this attack succeeded beyond expectation, albeit at great cost, to become another focal point of the Australian tradition.
As darkness fell on 6 August the fleet of ships carrying IX Corps arrived in Suvla Bay and began to disembark the already baffled troops of Major General Hammersley's 11th (Northern) Division. Some were landed on the wrong beach, others, given the initial task of clearing the Turks off the low hill of Lala Baba, advanced enthusiastically to the attack, their baptism of fire. Before they retired in good order across the dried-up Salt Lake below Lala Baba the small Turkish garrison exacted a terrible price on the gallant but raw volunteers of the Yorkshire Regiment. Elsewhere in the bay, as landing craft ran aground and further landings were made on the wrong beaches, chaos reigned. When daylight came its extent was revealed. Leaderless men were already milling around on the shore, water was running out, and the divisional commanders had lost control of the battle; not that there was much of one as the Turks, having inflicted heavy losses on their attackers had pulled back to the higher ground overlooking the plain, from which they could view the confusion on and around the beaches. General Stopford remained afloat, incommunicado except by word of runners and lamp signals which remained incomprehensible to the troops ashore. On the island of Imbros, where he had earlier set up his General Headquarters, Hamilton awaited news from Suvla in growing frustration. From the Heights of Sari Bair, five miles distant, the Anzacs watched in fascinated disbelief as IX Corps, instead of advancing rapidly to take its allotted objectives, stayed close to the shore; fires were lit, meals were cooked, swimming parades and football followed. Several commanding officers declined to advance as they had received no orders to do so. By now, on the heights of Anzac, terrible things had happened, making the comparison with the inertia at Suvla all the more damning.
At dawn on 7 August the troopers of the Australian Light Horse, who had fought as infantry since landing at Anzac, leapt from their trenches at The Nek. Their orders had been to charge sixty yards uphill to the Turkish trenches the moment the preliminary artillery barrage ceased. Tragically their brigade headquarters had failed to ensure that watches had been synchronised with the artillery and the ships offshore which were also providing support. There was a silence of seven minutes before the men were ordered over the top, during which the Turks had time to set up their machine guns and man their trenches. The result was inevitable. Few if any of the Light Horse reached the enemy trench and the defenders suffered no casualties. At Lone Pine, however, where the Australians had sapped half way across no-man's land, undetected by the Turks, prior to the attack, total surprise was achieved. The attackers sprang from their saps and dashed for the Turkish line a hundred yards ahead. Once there they found that the enemy trenches had been covered by heavy baulks of timber; these were wrenched off and a savage hand-to-hand battle raged underground for 48 hours before Lone Pine was firmly in Australian hands, where it remained until the final evacuation.
At Helles, where a significant diversionary attack had been planned in the belief that it would divert Turkish attention from the main assault at Sari Bair, there was yet another disaster and whilst very heavy casualties were inflicted on the attackers, no gains were made, nor were any Turkish troops diverted from the Anzac and Suvla fronts. The Hampshires, who had gone into battle near their war strength of just under a thousand, came out of the line under a second lieutenant (who had already won the VC) and with barely two hundred men.
The main assault at Sari Bair was to be the outflanking march round the Turkish northern flank by three columns of infantry. The planners had been hopelessly optimistic and within hours of the start on the night of 6 August it was clear that the timetable was slipping; although on the extreme left flank the New Zealanders had taken the Turkish outposts in great style with the co-operation of searchlights from offshore destroyers, the dry watercourses up which the approach had to be made onto the high ground were soon jammed with intermixed units, some retracing their paths, others immobile and some, demoralised, retiring in confusion in the dark. The column with the hardest task, Monash's 4th Australian Brigade , was exhausted even before it set out for the ascent to Koja Kemen Tepe. Sickness had ravaged its ranks and many of the men were concealing wounds sustained earlier in the campaign, so strong was the bond between them and their comrades. Led astray by incompetent guides the column became lost in the maze of gullies. When daylight came on the 8th it was still on the lower foothills of the central massif and fatally exposed to Turkish fire from well dug-in Turkish positions which scattered the exhausted troops. This reverse was seen ever after as the Australians' black day at Gallipoli.
Although the attempt on Koja Kemen Tepe had been foiled, the saddle between it and Chunuk Bair, known as Hill 'Q' was still attainable and would fall, briefly, to the 1/6th Gurkhas. Elsewhere on the summits and their approaches the outnumbered Turks were holding on desperately and the battle was in the balance; however, by evening on 7 August it was clear that the great attack had stalled. As units attempted to regain some form of order plans were made to resume the attack on the 8th when the Australians came to grief. Elsewhere some success was achieved and early on the 9th the Gurkhas briefly gained the summit of Hill 'Q' before friendly artillery fire drove them back with heavy loss. The New Zealanders had already reached the summit of Chunuk Bair where they dug in to meet successive Turkish attacks. At dawn on the 9th they were still there, but were relieved that evening by a Kitchener battalion from the 13th Division whilst another battalion from that division was posted just below the crest as reserve. Little did these troops know that MustafaI Kemal had arrived on the scene to command the inevitable counter attack. When it came, early on the 10th, massed Turkish infantry bore down on the inexperienced and now exhausted troops on Chunuk Bair, swept them off the summit, and like an avalanche continued down the steep slope beyond until stopped by accurate fire from the fleet. Hamilton's great bid for the Sari Bair ridge had failed.
Whilst the fight on the ridge raged, almost nothing was happening at Suvla. Hamilton was appalled, on visiting Stopford, to discover that nothing was being done to expedite the advance onto the Tekke Tepe ridge and that units were sitting around, still close to the beach, apparently without orders to advance. Eventually a degree of urgency was imposed but it was not until dawn on the 9th that British troops reached what should have been in their hands 36 hours earlier. It was too late; on learning of the Suvla landings., Liman von Sanders had ordered his reserves forward from Bulair and by dint of forced marches they arrived on top of Tekke Tepe just before the British, who were swept off. This ground remained thereafter in Turkish hands; the Suvla campaign was thus lost by a matter of minutes.
Hamilton resolved to launch one final decisive attack. Its aim was to dislodge the Turks from the saddle of ground linking Tekke Tepe with the main Sari Bair ridge, thus clearing the way for a general advance cross country to the Maidos plain and the ultimate goal of the Narrows. More troops were introduced to the Suvla beach-head; the 2nd Mounted Division, Yeomanry regiments whose horses remained in Egypt. They were shipped over to the peninsula and held, out of sight of the Turks, behind the Lala Baba hill to await the attack, timed for 21 August. To stiffen the attack, part of the 29th Division was sent round from Helles.
Meanwhile, at Suvla, Hamilton had taken belated steps to remove failed commanders. Stopford was sent away and pending the arrival of a suitably senior Lieutenant General to succeed him, Hamilton placed Major General Beauvoir de Lisle, commanding 29 Division, in temporary command of IX Corps, to the fury of Lieutenant General Sir Bryan Mahon, the fiery commander of the 10th (Irish) division who was not only senior to De lisle but personally loathed him. Rather than serve under him Mahon resigned his post. A courteous note from Hamilton recalled him and he resumed command of his division after De Lisle had returned to Helles some days later. Other senior commanders in IX Corps had been removed; Hammersley of the 11th (Northern) division had suffered a complete mental breakdown some years previously, had been forced to retire, accepted command of the 11th Division, and collapsed once more within days of landing at Suvla, having displayed an alarming failure to impose his will on his brigade commanders. His departure was followed days later by that of Major General Lindley of the 53rd Division who asked to be relieved of his command as he felt that it was no longer capable of performing its operational task. These generals were not the caricatures so beloved by critics of the old regular army. Most had served in various small wars around the empire and in South Africa and their personal courage was attested by the decorations they wore. The problem lay in the fact that they had never served over anything but regular British or Indian troops and had been hauled out of retirement to command men of a type they had never encountered, those of a volunteer citizen army. . The staffs at divisional and brigade level, hurriedly cobbled together from what was available in the United Kingdom after the pressing needs of the western front had been met, were unlikely to be of the highest calibre despite the desperate efforts of the few staff-trained brigade majors who coped as best they could with the maddening incompetence of their superiors and the ignorance of the troops who could not hope to attain victory over professionals like Mustafa Kemal and Liman von Sanders.
The attack of 21 August had been preceded by hesitant attempts to gain the high ground of the Tekke Tepe ridge, in the course of which, on 15 August, a brigade of the 54th (East Anglian) Division had been ordered to advance in the general direction of the enemy. As the advance straggled forward the increasingly baffled troops were met by dense clouds of smoke from burning brush. One battalion, the 5th Norfolks, veered off to the right and was lost from sight. Few of its men ever returned; they included a rifle company recruited mainly on the King's Sandringham estate and commanded by Major Beck the estate manager; (the loss of this unit was the subject of the BBC's curious film 'All the King's Men' of 1999 in which Sir David Jason played the role of Major Beck).
In the event the attack of 21 August, known as the Battle for Scimitar Hill was a catastrophe. The attack was led by regulars from 29 Division who gained the summit of this crucial feature only to be thrown back; successive assaults also failed. Mustafa Kemal had once more frustrated Hamilton's plans, having correctly assessed the situation and taken personal control of the battle after Liman von Sanders had sacked the Turkish corps commander and placed Kemal in the post. As the day wore on and attack after attack broke under the fire of the resolute defence, the brush caught fire and hundreds of wounded lying in the open ground between the lines were cremated alive; the sights and sounds of that day would never be forgotten by the survivors. Towards evening Hamilton watched from the Kiretch Tepe ridge, overlooking the Suvla Plain, as the last reserve, the 2nd Mounted Division, marched steadily across the dried-up Salt Lake , then on into the smoke and fire of Scimitar Hill. They fared no better than the infantry before them, Brigadier General the Earl of Longford dying at the head of his men. In Churchill's words: 'On this dark battlefield of fog and flame, Brigadier-General Lord Longford, Brigadier- General Kenna VC, Colonel Sir John Milbanke VC and other paladins fell…' These men were all old friends of his; Milbanke was a fellow Old Harrovian, and Churchill had ridden with the charge of the 21st Lancers at Omdurman in 1898 when Kenna had won his VC.
Scimitar Hill saw the last attempt to break out of the beachhead and the campaign passed into stalemate. Soon, Hamilton was summoned home, never to return, and General Monro, succeeding him, took one look at the situation and cabled London that evacuation was the only logical solution. In the words of Churchill, now assigned to the powerless sinecure post of the Chancellorship of the Duchy of Lancaster,: '…he came, he saw, he capitulated'. Kitcheners decided to make a personal inspection and came out to Gallipoli to see for himself; he was visibly aghast at what had been asked of Hamilton and his expeditionary force and recommended evacuation. There was one more ordeal to be endured, when a great snowstorm and frost succeeded torrential rains, particularly on the Suvla Plain, causing thousands of casualties through exposure and frostbite. Planning for the evacuation took place in absolute secrecy, resulting in the one really successful operation of the campaign: silent evacuation, first at Suvla-Anzac, then at Helles, under the noses of the Turks.