It was now broad daylight and the situation in Suvla Bay was verging on chaos.” (Captain Cecil Aspinall-Oglander)
If any question why we died
Tell them, because our fathers lied.
I guess everyone is aware of the horrendous debacle and needless loss of life that was the Gallipoli campaign in 1915. Here I’d like to tell the story, as best I can, of the trip that one young Keswick man called Norman Atkinson Grisdale made to Gallipoli, never to return.
Here dead we lie
Because we did not choose
To live and shame the land
From which we sprung.
Life, to be sure,
Is nothing much to lose,
But young men think it is,
And we were young.
(A. E. Housman)
Norman Grisdale was born in Grasmere in Westmorland in 1895, the second child of Joseph Grisdale and Jane Atkinson. Joseph had been working in Grasmere as a shepherd and later gardener, but in 1899 his young wife Jane suddenly died, leaving four year-old Norman and his older brother Joseph without a mother. Joseph soon took the family back to Keswick, where this part of the Grisdale clan had been living and working, mostly as pencil makers, since the 1770s. Before that of course the family had been in Matterdale. Joseph married Eleanor Mumberson in Keswick in early 1901 and a baby daughter christened Mabel soon arrived. Norman went to school in Keswick, but in his early teens he started work as an apprentice with Mr Postlethwaite, a grocer in the Brigham part of Keswick.
Just after the Great War started Norman and his brother Joseph, like so many other Cumberland Grisdales, joined the Border Regiment. Norman’s battalion was the newly-formed 6th (Service) Battalion. Just before the Keswick brothers left for war they posed with their parents and sister for a photograph. See here.
In what follows I would like to credit Richard Overton whose work on the 6th Battalion at Gallipoli I have rather extensively quoted.
In early 1915 things were going badly for the French and British in France and Belgium while the Russians were doing even worse on the Eastern Front. If Russia collapsed many German divisions would be freed to fight in the West. ‘A Gallipoli expedition remained the only feasible method of directly assisting Russia by means of opening up the Dardanelles.’ A first British division reached Gallipoli in June, but General Sir Ian Hamilton asked for more. ‘At successive meetings of the War Council on 6th and 17th June Kitchener was authorised to offer Hamilton, firstly, the three remaining divisions of the New Army not yet detailed for use on the Western Front, namely the 10th, 11th and 13th and, secondly, urged by Churchill, two Territorial divisions, the 53rd and 54th. To speed up the transportation of these divisions three of the biggest passenger liners were chartered, this despite the scale of the loss that would result if they were sunk by submarines.’
Norman Grisdale’s 6th Battalion of the Border Regiment were part of the 11th Division, so rather than heading for France they were set for Turkey. One of the passenger liners chartered was the Empress of Britain. ‘Thus it came about that 33 Brigade of 11 Div, with 6th Borders in it, sailed from Liverpool on the Empress of Britain escorted by two destroyers on 1st July and reached the base in Alexandria on the 12th. Here it was necessary to carry out reorganisation of stores and equipment – involving much physical work for soldiers unused to the heat.’ The Empress of Britain reached Mudros harbour on the Greek island of Lemnos on 18 July 1915.
Here is a poem written by Lt. Nowell Oxland of the 6th Border Regiment while aboard the Empress of Britain (with Norman) bound for Egypt and Greece, and ultimately Gallipoli.
There’s a waterfall I’m leaving
Running down the rocks in foam,
There’s a pool for which I’m grieving
Near the water-ouzel’s home,
And it’s there that I’d be lying
With the heather close at hand,
And the Curlew’s faintly crying
‘Mid the wastes of Cumberland.
While the midnight watch is winging
Thoughts of other days arise.
I can hear the river singing
Like the Saints in Paradise;
I can see the water winking
Like the merry eyes of Pan,
And the slow half-pounders sinking
By the bridges’ granite span.
Ah! To win them back and clamber
Braced anew with winds I love,
From the rivers’ stainless amber
To the morning mist above,
See through clouds-rifts rent asunder
Like a painted scroll unfurled,
Ridge and hollow rolling under
To the fringes of the world.
Now the weary guard are sleeping,
Now the great propellers churn,
Now the harbour lights are creeping
Into emptiness astern,
While the sentry wakes and watches
Plunging triangles of light
Where the water leaps and catches
At our escort in the night.
Great their happiness who seeing
Still with unbenighted eyes
Kin of theirs who gave them being,
Sun and earth that made them wise,
Die and feel their embers quicken
Year by year in summer time,
When the cotton grasses thicken
On the hills they used to climb.
Shall we also be as they be,
Mingled with our mother clay,
Or return no more it may be?
Who has knowledge, who shall say?
Yet we hope that from the bosom
Of our shaggy father Pan,
When the earth breaks into blossom
Richer from the dust of man,
Though the high Gods smith and slay us,
Though we come not whence we go,
As the host of Menelaus
Came there many years ago;
Yet the self-same wind shall bear us
From the same departing place
Out across the Gulf of Saros
And the peaks of Samothrace;
We shall pass in summer weather,
We shall come at eventide,
When the fells stand up together
And all quiet things abide;
Mixed with cloud and wind and river,
Sun-distilled in dew and rain,
One with Cumberland for ever
We shall go not forth again.
The plan was, as it evolved, to enable a breakout from Anzac, ‘where the Australians and New Zealanders had been hanging on since April encircled and overlooked by the Turks’. ‘With this force substantially increased a breakout might be achieved but the beachhead at Anzac was so cramped that there was a strict limit to the number of additional troops that could be brought in, particularly as they would have to be landed secretly and hidden out of sight. Hence it was decided to make a landing at Suvla simultaneously with the breakout so that the operation could be launched on a broad front and the Turks could be attacked from outside as well as from within the circle.’
On the island of Mudros Grisdale’s 33 Brigade ‘was singled out from the other two brigades of 11 Div to proceed to Helles and relieve the Royal Naval Division in the line for ten days from 20th July’ where the 6th Borders did ‘good work done in improving trenches’.
On 2 August the Battalion rejoined the Division on the island of Imbros, their jumping off point for the Suvla landing, which was scheduled for the night of 6/7 August. (Sooner would have been better but this was the first night for a month to offer suitable conditions, when the attacking troops could approach the coast in the dark but have the advantage of moonlight after getting ashore.) The night attack would be made by 11 Div and would be followed up at dawn by 10 Div who would be leaving from the island of Mitylene.
The few days spent on Imbros by 6th Borders in hot and dusty camps proved to be very trying and debilitating. Dysentery was rife, reducing the strength of the Battalion for the forthcoming landing, and many of those who stuck it out were weakened by diarrhoea. The men were kept hard at it until the last minute but even as late as the day of departure, 6th August, junior officers were in ignorance of the plans and their part in them beyond the landing itself, so insistent were Hamilton and his staff at GHQ on secrecy. For the same reason, maps were issued too late to be studied properly. It was not until midday of the 6 August that the men were told the landing was to take place that night. Secrecy was important but Hamilton and his staff at GHQ seem to have overdone it.
Soon after 3 pm the troops fell in on their battalion parade grounds and an hour later the Division began to embark, some (including 6th Borders) on to destroyers with lighters in tow, some straight on to lighters. These were motor lighters specially designed for landing troops. Capable of carrying 500 men they had armoured sides, drew only seven feet of water, and had a ramp to allow quick, dry exit under enemy fire.
As part of the 33rd Brigade the 6th Border Regiment were set to land at Suvla bay an action that was to turn into chaos. Here is a full report by Richard Overton of the landing at Suvla Bay in which Norman Grisdale and his battalion took part:
The fleet set off from Kephalos Bay, Imbros for Suvla an hour after sunset which was 7.15. Apparently confident and in good heart – trusting in its commanders. This trust, as the Official History show only too clearly, was sadly misplaced. The trouble started at the top with the appointment of a wildly unsuitable person to command IX Corps in Lieutenant General Sir Frederick Stopford. Hamilton had asked for a General who had proved himself on the Western Front, perhaps Byng or Rawlinson, but Kitchener ruled this out. Instead by an argument which had everything to do with seniority and nothing to do with fitness for the post, he settled on General Stopford who was 61 years old, in semi-retirement, and had never commanded large bodies of troops in the field. This combination of disqualifications was evident at the time of the appointment but what was not evident was that he was a weak man who would be dominated by his chief of staff, Brigadier General Reid VC. The latter had a fixation about the importance of artillery in offensive operations, a sound principle on the Western Front against an organised system of trenches but one which did not apply at Suvla where the Turks were few and their trenches negligible. Want of adequate artillery support would become a regular excuse for inaction.
One rung lower down, Major General Frederick Hammersley commanding 11 Div would also prove to be inadequate, at age 57 having lost the resilience of youth. In the letter to Kitchener leading to the superseding of these two officers (when it was too late) Hamilton compared the combination of new troops and old generals to putting new wine into old bottles with results that turned out equally unfortunate.
The voyage from Imbros took less than two hours and the leading battalions of 32 and 33 Brigades were safely on shore at B beach by 10 pm. The troops on the destroyers had to wait for the return of the lighters to the ship and this applied to 6th Borders who landed about midnight with 6th Lincolns. These two battalions were initially in divisional reserve. The landing had achieved complete strategic surprise. The local Turkish forces only amounted to three battalions and their nearest reserves were known to be 30 marching miles away at Bulair.
Turkish posts had been located at the two horns of the bay at Lala Baba and Ghazi Baba, also at Hill 10 midway between the two. A battalion of 32 Brigade dealt with the former (though at considerable cost) and the latter was soon knocked out as well, but there was difficulty and delay in dealing with Hill 10, the specific responsibility of 34 Brigade whose landing had gone disastrously wrong. Unlike the other two brigades, 34 Brigade had landed within the bay itself, the lighters struck hidden reefs and could not be got to land, and the troops had to wade ashore through deepish water. Furthermore, by a navigational error, the destroyers had anchored south of the Cut and about 1,000 yards south of their intended station. The battalion charged with the task of dealing with Hill 10 was misled by the wrong landing place and could not even locate the hill.
This was a severe setback no doubt. Yet the best part of two brigades (32 and 33) were standing by at or near Lala Baba, and had either brigade commander taken the initiative an attack on Hill 10 could have been mounted from this direction. The failure to do so may be attributed partly to lack of impetus from above – Stopford had not come ashore and so did not even know what was going on – and partly to poor briefing due to excessive secrecy.
As it was, by dawn the only success achieved was the capture of the two horns of the bay, and the situation was verging on chaos. The beach was under persistent rifle fire and two or three Turkish guns were dividing their attention between the troops ashore and the numerous vessels in the bay. The confusion was if anything increased by the arrival at daybreak from Mitylene of the two brigades of 10 Div.
Hill 10 was finally taken about 8 am, its hundred defenders retiring eastwards, and with the bay safe at last it should have been possible to move against objectives further inland, initially Chocolate Hills. But lack of leadership at the top was again evident. By mid-morning a stream of contradictory orders and reports was being passed between Hammersley and his brigade commanders as he strove to organise the attack on Chocolate Hills. Stopford, nursing an injured knee, was still ineffectually on board the sloop Jonquil, IX Corps HQ to date.
When eventually Chocolate Hills were assaulted that evening 6th Borders was in on the action. They and 6th Lincolns were brought out of reserve at Lala Baba to lead a general attack. To save time as daylight was already fading they wisely ignored orders to skirt the Salt Lake and marched boldly across it and assaulted the west end of the hill, Lincolns leading and Borders in close support, while two Irish battalions from 10 Div attacked the east end. At last Chocolate Hills were captured, not before daybreak on the 7th as intended, but after nightfall.
The Battalion got off relatively lightly in the matter of casualties with two officers wounded, four other ranks killed, three missing and 51 wounded. Next morning it was ordered back into divisional reserve at Lala Baba.
Norman Atkinson Grisdale was one of the 6th’s battalion’s 51 wounded, probably on the assault on Chocolate Hills as the light was fading on 7th August. Norman would have been taken down to the beach for evacuation. While waiting there he wrote back to his parents at 13 Wordsworth St, Keswick, saying that, as the local newspaper, the Carlisle Journal, reported on 31 August:
Pte Norman Grisdale of the 6th Border, who left the employment of Mr Postlethwaite, Grocer, Keswick to enlist soon after the war started, has written to say he is wounded in the shoulder, but does not think his condition is at all dangerous. He was wounded on the 7th at the Dardanelles and is expected to proceed to a Cairo Hospital.
Norman was indeed evacuated to a hospital in Cairo, but whether from an infection of his shoulder wound or from other causes he died there on 16th August 1915, before his letter had reached his parents and the Carlisle Journal. Norman’s brother Joseph also served with the Border Regiment in France but survived the war and went on to marry. Norman is buried in the Cairo War Cemetery at Al Qahirah, Plt: D.33.
The Landing at Suvla Bay
You may talk of Balaclava,
Or of Trafalgar Bay,
But what of the 11th Division,
Who landed at Suvla Bay?
They were part of Kitchener’s Army,
Some had left children and wives,
But they fought for England’s freedom,
And fought for their very lives.
It was on the 6th of August,
We made that terrible dash,
And the Turks along the hillside,
Our boats they tried to smash.
The order came, “Fix bayonets!”
And out of the boats we got,
Every man there was a hero,
As he faced the Turkish shot.
Funnels of the ships got smashed,
Whilst the sea in some parts was red,
But we fought our way through the ocean,
To the beach that was covered with dead.
Creeping, at last, up the hillside,
Whilst shot and shell fell all around,
We made one last desperate effort,
And charged o’er the Turkish ground.
The Turks at last gave it up,
When our bayonets began to play,
For they turned their backs to the British,
And retired from Suvla Bay.
There were the Lincolns, Dorsets, and Staffords.
Notts and Derbys too,
The Border Regiment was there,
The rough and ready crew.
Then we had the Manchesters,
With the Lancashire Fusiliers by their side,
The lads who come from Lancashire,
Who fill your hearts with pride.
The Yorks, East Yorks, and West Yorks,
The Yorks and Lancs as well,
Who fought for good old Yorkshire,
Were amongst the lads who fell.
The fighting fifth were fighting,
The Northumberland lads you know,
Whilst the good old Duke of Wellington’s,
Were keeping back the foe.
And far away o’er the hillside,
Beneath the bloody clay,
Are some of the 8th Battalion,
Who tried to win the day.
So remember the 11th Division,
Who were all volunteers you know,
But they fought and died like heroes,
Going to face the Turkish foe.