The Short War of Private William Arthur White

Helles Memorial
Helles Memorial

It stands at the southernmost tip of the Gallipoli peninsular, a 30-metre tall gleaming white limestone monument to 20,905 British Empire servicemen who died in the Gallipoli campaign during the First World War and have no known graves. Standing at the highest point of the cape, amidst rolling fields that were themselves the scene of some of the bloodiest fighting of the campaign, it dominates the nearby Mehmetçik lighthouse, rivalling it as a beacon to guide ships into the entrance to the Dardanelles, the ancient crossroads between Europe and Asia.

From the monument, it is easy to see why the cape is of such historic significance. Just across the strait lies the old fort of Kum Kale and the site of ancient Troy. To the north-west are the islands of Imbros and Samothrace. Between them lay the Palace of Thetis, home to the mother of Achilles the greatest Greek hero of the Trojan War. Towering Samothrace was also the site of an ancient temple complex known as the Sanctuary of the Great Gods. In 1884, a magnificent marble statue of Winged Victory (Nike in Greek) was discovered there. Sadly, and perhaps prophetically she was headless.

Northwards beyond the flat fields rise the hills that form the backbone of the cape, whose heights were the goal of the soldiers pinned beneath them by stubborn Turkish resistance. To the north-east the glittering waters of the Dardanelles were the prize; seize the peninsular and the strait unlocked the sea route to Constantinople, promising the surrender of Turkey and the fatal weakening of the Central Powers.

So at least thought Churchill, the architect of the Gallipoli campaign.

 Among the names carved in the memorial’s panels is that of William Arthur White a private in the 9th (Service) Battalion of the West Yorkshire Regiment. A farmworker from Kirk Deighton, near Wetherby, William probably had little appreciation of either the ancient history of the place he was fighting for, or its strategic importance to the generals who sent him there. It was his blood that was spilt though, not theirs, and I am proud to remember him. He was my grandmother’s cousin, so some of that blood still flows in my veins.

 It was the end of August 1914 when, in answer to Kitchener’s call for volunteers, William presented himself before Colour Sergeant McEvitt, formerly of the Connaught Rangers and a veteran of the Boer war, who was the Acting Recruiting Sergeant at Wetherby Town Hall. The call for volunteers had stipulated men between the ages of 19 and 30. William was 32, having been born in August 1882, but his attestation records indicate birth circa 1883, so he may have bent the truth a little. After attestation and a preliminary medical examination, he was deemed fit and enlisted for Short Service of three years or the duration of hostilities.

Together with about 50 other local volunteers he joined the ranks of the newly forming 9th (Service) Battalion, West Yorkshire Regiment, the first of its service battalions raised in response to the war’s outbreak.

Badge of West Yorkshire Regiment
 

In the first week of September, prior to leaving for the Regimental Depot in York, William and his new comrades were entertained to a farewell dinner hosted by the richer townsfolk of Wetherby. Following the dinner, the men travelled to York in a cavalcade of motor-cars amidst what a local witness described as, ‘much scenes of jubilation and enthusiasm.’

The 9th (Service) Battalion (hereafter the 9th Battalion), West Yorkshire Regiment was officially formed at York on 25 August 1914 as part of the creation of the KI Army Group comprising six new army Divisions, the 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th and 13th.

The 9th Battalion, was attached to the 32nd Infantry Brigade of the new 11th (Northern) Division. The Brigade also included the following infantry battalions:

6th (Service) Battalion, Yorkshire Regiment (Green Howards)

6th (Service) Battalion, Yorks & Lancs Regiment

8th (Service) Battalion, West Riding Regiment (Duke of Wellington's)

Shoulder Patch of 11th (Northern) Division

The 9th Battalion was initially commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel George Frend, the 32nd Brigade by Brigadier-General Henry Haggard and 11th Division by Major-General Frederick Hammersley. Basic training began at the Regimental Depot (later renamed Imphal Barracks) on Fulford Street in York.

York Regimental Depot

So many men answered the call that the depot was soon unable to accommodate them all, and later in the month the battalion moved to new and larger training facilities at Belton Park, near Grantham in Lincolnshire. There they were joined by the other newly forming battalions of the Brigade.

Belton Park Camp Under Construction

Belton Park was an estate owned by Adelbert Brownlow-Cust, the 3rd Earl Brownlow. He donated the estate for use by the War Office soon after war was declared, and from September 1914 bell tents were erected to provide temporary accommodation for thousands of soldiers. By April 1915 the camp had turned into a small town housing around 20,000, with electricity, water and sewerage services. Each regiment was accommodated in separate barracks with their own mess huts, washroom and latrines. Other facilities included a cinema, churches, a hospital and a dedicated railway line. 

The winter weather of 1914/15 was very wet turning the ground at Belton into a quagmire. One consolation for the men was the issue, in February, of their full regulation service kit, and training continued despite the unfavourable weather.

In late March, orders were received to move the entire 11th Division to another new camp established on Witley Common near Godalming, Surrey. The 32nd Brigade left Belton Park on 5 April 1915 and proceed to route march to Rugby via Scalford, Thrussington and Whetstone. It reached Rugby on 8 April and on the following day entrained for Godalming.

11th Division Leaving Grantham


The new camp lay astride the Portsmouth and Haslemere roads bounded by the villages of Milford, Witley Park and Bowlhead Green. It too, initially consisted of tents and a few huts. Later in the war, it came to resemble a small town with shops, stables, billeting and entertainments. Its proximity to Aldershot enabled the army to incorporate the camp into its training regimen. The surrounding heathland and commons being suitable for practising military field manoeuvres.

Witley Camp

As spring turned into early summer, two occasions broke the monotony of training. The first, the arrival of a new battalion commander, Lieutenant-Colonel John O'Brien Minogue, would have been of only passing interest to men in the ranks such as William White. The second would have had far greater impact. On 31 May, King George V accompanied by Lord Kitchener inspected the paraded division on Hankley Common. Following the inspection, a Divisional Order announced: ‘His Majesty the King has desired the G.O.C. to convey to the troops his appreciation of the splendid appearance and steadiness of the men on parade yesterday. His Majesty also remarked on the good condition of the horses. Finally, His Majesty said to the G.O.C., It has been a very great pleasure to me to see such a splendid body of men, and I desire you to so inform the troops.’

I expect William White and most of the men were thrilled by the King’s visit. They were probably equally thrilled by the news in late June that they were shortly to be leaving on active service, reinforced by the issue of Foreign Service drill and helmets. At 3pm on the afternoon of 31 June 1915 the 9th Battalion received orders to entrain on the following day, final destination unknown.

At 2.15pm the following afternoon, the 9th Battalion marched out of camp and boarded trains departing Milford Station bound for the Alexandra Docks, Liverpool. The Battalion arrived in Liverpool in the early hours of 2 July and boarded Cunard’s SS Aquitania, that had been converted to a troopship. Over the course of the day the 9th Battalion was joined by the other battalions making up 32nd Brigade, as well the 11th Division Headquarters, two battalions from the 34th Infantry Brigade of the Division, and various other units. According to the Brigade’s War diary a total of 6389 soldiers embarked aboard the Aquitania.

Aquitania

Aquitania departed Alexandra Docks at 3am on the morning of 3 July 1915. Any excitement the men may have felt watching Liverpool recede was probably quelled when the ship anchored in the mouth of the Mersey. She waited there until the afternoon arrival of her destroyer escort, and proceeded to zig-zag her way down the Irish Sea.

By this time William White and his comrades would probably have known that their destination was the island of Lemnos in the northern Aegean, south-west of Gallipoli. What he would not have known was the purpose for which they were being sent there. The original landings on the peninsular had taken place at Anzac Cove and Cape Helles on 25 April. Since then the fighting had turned into a stalemate and a plan to reinforce the British and ANZAC troops and resume the offensive, had been developed. Three new British Divisions, 10th Irish, 11th Northern and 13th Western had been combined into the new IX Army Corps to be commanded by General Sir Frederick Stopford.

Before he could play his appointed role, however, William White had first to get to Lemnos, and the voyage there in Aquitania was not without hazards. Despite zig-zagging and the destroyer escort, a torpedo attack occurred at 5.45am on the morning of 4 July off the Scilly Isles. The emergency alarm sounded upon the sighting of a U-boat, sending the men to their lifeboat stations. The U-boat managed to fire a torpedo which, according to the Brigade War Diary, thankfully missed close astern of the Aquitania. Gibraltar was passed on 6 July, and then early on the morning of 7 July another U-boat was sighted refuelling on the surface from a supply ship. She was too far off to mount an attack and Aquitania steamed on unmolested.

The remainder of the voyage was incident free and the ship finally dropped anchor in Mudros Bay on Lemnos Island at 7am on the morning of 10 July 1915. Disembarkation commenced on the morning of 11 July; the men being ferried ashore in towed boats. The 9th Battalion were ashore by noon and marched off to West Camp and their allotted lines. Having arrived in an overseas theatre of war prior to 31 December 1915, setting foot on Lemnos earned William White the 1914-15 Star Medal.

Mudros Bay

The next few days were spent acclimatising and familiarising before, on 16 July, 9th Battalion together with the other units of 32nd Brigade were paid the compliment of an inspection by General Stopford 

By mid-July plans were advancing for a large-scale attack by the ANZACs which was to be supported by two divisions of Stopford’s IX Corps (10th and 11th) landing at Suvla Bay while the third (13th) would reinforce the ANZAC attacks above Anzac Cove. A smaller, diversionary attack by the British at Cape Helles was also planned, and initially 9th Battalion was earmarked for that task. On 20 July, orders were received to be ready at short notice to proceed to Cape Helles. Two days later that was rescinded and 9th Battalion was ordered to Imbros island where the 10th and 11th Divisions were concentrating for the attack on Suvla Bay.

Starting at 1pm on 22 July, the 9th Battalion was ferried from Lemnos to Imbros aboard the destroyers Mosquito and Racoon. They arrived at 8pm the same evening and marched to the tented camp at Kephalos. Two days later Sir Ian Hamilton, the supreme British commander in the theatre, inspected the newly arrived divisions, later remarking in a despatch that "the spirit and physique of the 11th Division had impressed me very favourably."

The remainder of the month was spent training in night-time manoeuvres, embarking and disembarking in small boats and in seizing an enemy position.

On 22 July, the details of the planned attacks were finally provided to General Stopford. The 11th and 10th Divisions under his command were to land at Suvla Bay, 6m miles north of Anzac Cove. The 11th Division was to land after dark on 6 August and then advance and capture the surrounding hills. The nearest hills to the landing beaches (named by British as Chocolate and W Hills) were to be captured by daybreak and the Division was then to continue to advance and seize the 900 feet high ridge of Tekke Tepe three miles further inland. The 10th Division would land at dawn on 7 July and advance south-west about four miles to the village of Big Anafarta. While these operations were in progress, other British, Indian, Australian and New Zealand troops were to seize and hold Sari Bair the high ground above Anzac Cove, below which the ANZACs had been pinned since April. With Sari Bair in Allied hands, the 10th and 11th Divisions would join hands with the rest of the force and advance across the peninsular, thus seizing the entrance to the Dardanelles.


The area around Suvla Bay was known to be only lightly defended, however General Stopford was 61, had been retired since 1909 and had never commanded men in battle. He was hesitant about the plan presented to him and concerned, rightly in the event, that his two divisions were too inexperienced to accomplish the tasks demanded of them. He requested a less ambitious timetable for the advance off the beaches. Moreover, the commander of 11th Division, Major-General Hammersley had suffered a nervous breakdown before the war and Kitchener had warned: ‘He will have to be watched to see that the strain of trench warfare is not too much for him.’

Neither general seemed of the calibre necessary for such an operation, which boded ill for the fortunes of William and the men of 9th Battalion. They, on the other hand, were probably too caught up in the excitement of the impending action for which they had trained for so many months.


The plan finally agreed by Stopford called for the 32nd and 33rd Brigades to land on Nibrunesi beach just outside and to the south of Suvla Bay. To land them the navy provided specially designed motor lighters, each capable of carrying five hundred men under a bullet‑proof deck. They could run up the beach under their own power and were fitted with a ramp forward over which the men could step straight on to the sand (a precursor to the landing craft of World War 2).

Motor-Lighter 1915

The landings were timed to coincide with a period of moonless nights, and at first all went well. At Kephalos on the evening of 6 August, the leading troops of the two brigades were embarked without a hitch, five hundred in each motor lighter and five hundred in the destroyer that was to tow it. Seven destroyers and seven lighters carried the first wave. The remainder, three thousand men, followed in the supporting ships and their tows. The weather was perfect, the sea like glass, and with a destroyer anchored close to the beach as a guide, the first wave arrived on time at about 10pm. The lighters were cast off and motored in.

The beaches were undefended, the landings faced minimal opposition and the men moved off to seize their first objectives. For 32nd and 33rd Brigades these were Nibrunesi Point and Lala Baba, a small hill between the beach and the salt lagoon beyond. The few Turkish defenders on Lala Baba were outnumbered ten to one but still managed to inflict heavy casualties on the men of 32nd Brigade, principally among officers and NCOs. Fortunately for William, 9th Battalion appears to have escaped the worst of the initial fighting.

The landings of 34th Brigade, inside the bay, did not go so well. Half the men were landed in the wrong place and the other half delayed when the lighters carrying them ran aground. Nevertheless, the 34th Brigade managed to capture the low ridge of Kiretch Tepe to the north of the bay. Unfortunately, difficulties soon compounded. The men were poorly briefed, had been on their feet for 17 hours, some had sore arms from a cholera inoculation the previous day and the night was very dark. Apart from the capture of Lala Baba and Kiretch Tepe, none of the initial objectives had been attained.

The situation demanded leadership, but even the arrival of General Hammersley at 12.45am failed to provide it. By the time dawn broke the situation all along the landing beaches had deteriorated into chaos. Groups of men wandered about lost and leaderless. The Turks, meanwhile, had been alerted to the danger and were rushing reinforcements forward.


The morning of 7 August also saw the arrival of the 10th Division’s battalions, to add to the confusion ashore. Troops remained huddled around the beaches waiting for orders, the temperature climbed to over 30 degrees Celsius and many men suffered badly from thirst. Turkish guns were firing at the beaches and snipers were busy. The only gains made during the day were the capture of the isolated low hills just to the east of the beaches and a further advance along Kiretch Tepe ridge to the north. All the high ground further east, including the crucial ridge of Tekke Tepe, remained in Turkish hands. These gains, less than half of what had been expected for the first 24 hours, had already cost the lives of 1700 British soldiers, more than the entire Turkish garrison facing them 

Little changed on the following day, 8 August. During the morning, General Stopford remained afloat on the command sloop Jonquil while sending messages to his divisional commanders congratulating them on getting their troops ashore. Instead of pushing forward, however, the battalions remained largely where they were, holding a line about a mile east of the coast. The bay was peaceful, there were even men bathing on its beaches. For the offensive to succeed, Stopford’s IX Corp had to seize the initiative, take the high ground further east and put pressure on the Turkish flank to drain defenders away from the attacks on Sari Bair.

By the afternoon of the 8th even General Stopford was concerned and went ashore intending to order a general advance. Stopford met Hammersley. The latter told him the men of 11th Division were thirsty and tired and that he wanted to postpone the battle to the following day. Stopford dilly dallied, but finally agreed to leave the timing of the advance to Hammersley. While the two generals were dithering, the Turks continued to hold the high ground and to rush reinforcements forward.

Appreciating the danger, supreme commander General Hamilton made a personal visit to Hammersley’s headquarters. Over the latter’s repeated objections, Hamilton persuaded him to order the 32nd Brigade to advance and take the heights of Tekke Tepe. The Brigade’s units were scattered among the low hills west of the ridge. It was near dawn by the time they were organised and ready to advance. By then it was too late. Turkish General Kemal had arrived and behind him followed two Turkish divisions.

For William White and the battalions of 32nd brigade, the early morning of 9 July was a nightmare. Having pushed forward under cover of darkness, they ran straight into the newly arriving Turkish troops commanding the high ground. The generals and their staffs watching from the ships offshore and from the summit of Lala Baba, had a ringside seat for the disaster unfolding in the dawn light. They looked across the shoreline and the salt lagoon and saw hundreds of men pouring back towards the beaches. One described it as like, ‘a crowd streaming away from a football match.’ They were the men of the routed 32nd Brigade.

Worse was to follow. The Turkish guns set fire to the scrub covering the hills. Wounded soldiers tried to crawl ahead of the advancing flames. Willis Ashmead-Bartlett who was covering the landings for the London Daily Telegraph described the horror.

I watched the flames approaching and the crawling figures disappear amidst dense clouds of black smoke. When the fire passed on little mounds of scorched khaki alone marked the spot where another mismanaged soldier of the King had returned to mother earth.

William Arthur White was one of those routed soldiers who fell that morning and whose body was never recovered, his war lasted just three days. One can only hope that his end was swift rather than being agonisingly burnt to death as he tried to crawl to safety. Ashmead Bartlett went on to describe the fleeing stragglers who reached the beaches.

They were completely done, burnt black, begrimed with dirt, with their tongues blackened, shrivelled and lolling out of their mouths, their clothes in shreds and many only in their shirt sleeves. Some, when they reached the sea, rushed into it, even swallowing salt water … Confusion reigned supreme. No-one seemed to know where the headquarters of the different brigades and divisions were to be found. The troops were hunting for water, the staffs were hunting for their troops, and the Turkish snipers hunting for their prey.

Even with the benefit of hindsight it is not possible to conclude that, had 32nd Brigade seized Tekke Tepe before the Turks had time to reinforce it, the overall assaults at Gallipoli in early August 1915 would have succeeded. The Turks successfully repelled all the Allied attacks, apart from the ANZAC success at Lone Pine, and when the fighting was over the stalemate resumed.

One does not want to conclude that William died in vain. He might just as easily have been killed in a successful seizing of Tekke Tepe. It is hard to escape the feeling, however, that his death, and those of the thousands of others who lost their lives at Suvla Bay, was the result of incompetence. Whether it was in the planning, the failure of leadership, the lack of proper provision to provide water or the lack of training of the men themselves, in the words of Tennyson, ‘someone had blundered.’

The 9th Battalion went on to play a distinguished role in the war, seeing action in battles on the Somme, at Ypres and in the final push across the Hindenburg Line. Overall, the West Yorkshire Regiment raised 35 battalions, was awarded 57 battle honours and won 4 Victoria Crosses. The price was the deaths of 12,700 men.

Kirk Deighton Shell War Memorial

I am proud to remember one who fell, Private William Arthur White. His name is inscribed on both the memorial plaque in All Saints Church and the Shell War Memorial in Kirk Deighton. It can also be found on panels 47-51 of the Cape Helles Memorial.

We will remember them.

 

 

With acknowledgements to:

Wetherby Memorial http://wetherbywarmemorial.com/

Gallipoli, Les Carlyon, 2001, Pan Macmillan Australia

History of the Great War, Naval Operations Vol. 3, Sir Julian Corbett

Gallipoli Diary, Sir Ian Hamilton GCB, Vol. 2 


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