The Battle of Scimitar Hill

We acknowledge with grateful thanks that much of the text below has come from the Gallipoli Association Website which can be reached by clicking HERE

Click Here to see a map of the area from Suvla Bay to Hill 60

By August 1915 the Gallipoli campaign was going badly and more men were needed. The British opened another ‘front’ with landings at Suvla Bay to the north of Anzac Cove held by the Australians and New Zealanders. As optimism at the initial momentum gave way to dismay at the eventual deadlock on this sector too, Potts and his 350 strong Berkshire Yeomanry were sent in to reinforce a final ‘push’ to wrest control of the high ground some three to four miles inland from Suvla and thus aid a planned breakout from Anzac.

On 21 August, after the 29th Division had been committed unsuccessfully the Berkshire Yeomen were ordered to advance to within 100 metres of the Turkish trenches on the crest of a low knoll known to the Ottoman Turks as Yusufçuk Tepe but better known as Scimitar Hill, Burnt Hill or simply Hill 70 to the British. The battlefield was already strewn with the 29th Division’s dead from previous failed assaults and wreathed in smoke and flame from fiercely burning thickets of dry brush set alight by shellfire, nevertheless the Berkshire Yeomen were given the order to make the final charge. With a full-throated cry of, ‘Come on the Berks’ the Lord Longford, father of the well-known prison reformer, led the charge from the front. Also joining Potts that day was 37-year-old Lieutenant William Niven, the father of 1960s British matinee idol David Niven.

As the Yeomen rose as one man and raced towards the summit of Scimitar Hill they were hit by a murderous machine-gun fire from their front and flanks which tore through the ranks. Fred Potts had made about twenty yards before he was hit in the upper thigh and went down.

This is the story of that battle.

The Objective
General Sir Ian Hamilton, the commander of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, 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.

Problems with Command
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 on Tekke Tepe Ridge
The attack of 21 August was 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).

21st August 1915 - Scimitar Hill
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 beach-head 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’.

Kitchener 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.

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