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The beginning of the assault on Chunuk Bair

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The beginning of the assault on Chunuk Bair

Some historians argue that 8 August is more significant to New Zealanders than Anzac Day, because it was the New Zealand troops' worst and most outstanding day on Gallipoli. Worst because they suffered their most casualties in one day; outstanding because of their magnificent fight to the death on the crest of Chunuk Bair.​

Dr Monty Soutar, Auckland Museum's WWI Historian in Residence, takes us through the events of the Battle of Chunuk Bair - a defining stand in the Gallipoli Campaign, one that included Kiwis from all parts of New Zealand.

Preparations for the attack on Chunuk Bair - one of the highest peaks of the Sari Bair range - began at the start of August.

Preparing for battle

The Māori Contingent, made up of almost 500 troops, arrived at Anzac cove in July.

The Māori Contingent, made up of almost 500 troops, arrived at Anzac cove in July.

Unknown (1915).Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. PH-ALB-382-p16-1.

On 5 August, orders were issued for the attack. The right covering force was made up of the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade, the Field Engineers and the Māori Contingent. As the strongest and freshest regiment, the Māori Contigent was broken up to reinforce the four New Zealand Mounted Rifles regiments that were below half strength.

Although intensely excited, the Māori lads were all quietly pleased to finally have arrived at the front and any immediate fear was suppressed, as Captain Peter Buck put it, by the opportunity before them "of vindicating the honour of our race".

The day of the attack, 6 August, was another hot one. The Anzacs sewed white calico squares onto the back of their shirts and white armlets, 6 inches wide, were worn on the sleeves so they would not "in mistake, be bayonetting each other".

It was 5.30pm when the men began to move off. Private Kohi Hemana of Kaipara recalled that as each platoon departed they cheered each other with the war-cry 'Ka mate, ka mate, ka ora, ka ora'. "[We] all felt and thought of our great-grandfathers' times when they prepared to go into battle."

Taking Old No. 3 Outpost

No. 3 Outpost.

No. 3 Outpost.

Sydney Webb (1915).Auckland War Memorial Museum – Tāmaki Paenga Hira. PH-ALB-212-p16-1.

The Mounted Rifles Brigade and the Māori Contingent had to gain control of the Sazli Beit Dere and the Chailak Dere ravine, allowing the right assaulting column to arrive within striking distance of the Chunuk Bair ridge.

The Auckland Mounted Rifles and reinforcements from the Māori Contingent crept to within 25 yards of the Old No. 3 Outpost. When the shelling ceased they scrambled up the remaining slope to the east of the barbed wire, pouring over the trenches and quickly taking the position.

Only some 40 of the enemy were in the trenches, and most of the squadron ran jumping over the saps till they reached the rear slopes. Here they came upon most of the Turkish garrison who had been encamped behind the hill on the slopes of Chailak Dere.

Trooper Garland of the Auckland Mounted Rifles said the Turks were taken by surprise "and in a few minutes we had all their trenches, except a small one on the back of the ridge". He described how two groups of Māori "followed us up and they charged across and took this trench".

He is referring to Captain Pirini Tahiwi and Captain Roger Dansey and their men, who diverted north making their way up a steep ridge leading to Old No. 3. Before long they came under Turkish shell fire which was so heavy that it was impossible to make any further headway. They eventually made it to the top of No. 3 and rested in the scrub-covered trenches.

Ka mate, ka mate!

It soon became clear, however, that the Auckland Mounted Rifles had not cleaned out all the Turkish positions. Unable to secure more men from the Auckland Mounted Rifles, they decided to attack on their own. Captain Tahiwi recounted: "Well, we thought a good way to frighten the enemy as well was to repeat this Māori haka 'Ka mate, ka mate!' - perhaps that may have put the fear of God into them and cleared the trench for us. As far as I can remember we didn’t have to put any bayonet through any of them at all. I suppose the haka was enough for them and they wondered who on earth these savages were."

Private Waitford, a member of the attacking platoon, believed that 'Ka mate' helped to a very great extent in ousting the Turks from the several positions they captured that night. "The Turks," he said, "when they heard the Māori war cry, believed that Satan had opened the gates of Hell and that their day was at an end". For the performers, themselves, the haka rid themselves of any nerves.

Advancing on Table Top

The Wellington Mounted Rifles climbing the hills.

The Wellington Mounted Rifles climbing the hills.

Williams Album (1915). Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. PH-ALB-212-p26-1.

At 10pm, Captain Dansey, his men and the Wellington Mounted Rifles headed further up the Sazli Beit Dere, capturing a long communication trench, before storming up the almost sheer sides of Table Top.

As day broke on 7 August the signs of the previous night's attack became plainly evident.

Private Teihoka, who was with Captain Dansey, described the scene from Table Top: "Awful sight this morning. Dead lying on all roads. New Zealand still advancing. Rifle fire was awful. Everybody was mixed up both A and B Companies by this morning, advanced about two and a half miles into the Turk's territory on the left flank ... not safe to put one's head above the parapets for fear of getting a bullet through it. Advanced onto flat [Table] top this morning. There was some narrow squeaks. Made dugouts and had a rest."

Rest ... for now

Despite Turkish bombardments starting up and the Allied warships and field artillery returning fire, the work of the Mounteds was over, at least for now. The members of the Māori Contingent, though exhausted, were quietly pleased with their night's work. "It has been the joy of every one of us to make good," said one private.

The Mounted Brigade had taken all its objectives and so could only be satisfied with their efforts. They now had only to wait and see whether the successes of the night would be equalled by the columns assaulting the high features along the Sari Bair range.

Next article: The battle for Chunuk Bair

Cite this article

Soutar, Monty. The beginning of the assault on Chunuk Bair. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 16 February 2016. Updated: 20 June 2016.

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