The Telegram (St. John's)
In search of Caribou Hill
Pilgrims comb Gallipoli, Turkey, for elusive battlefield
I was fortunate to be among the pilgrimage group to the rugged landscape of Gallipoli, Turkey, as their guide to the Newfoundland battlefields and sights of interest 100 years after the First Newfoundland Regiment landed on Kangaroo Beach.
Joined by today’s Royal Newfoundland Regiment, these pilgrims shared a centennial journey to the graves, battlefields and embarkation beaches of the brave young soldiers who served in the Gallipoli Campaign.
It was my second trip, having visited the peninsula previously in April 2012 to research the Newfoundland trenches in Suvla Bay, as well as pay respects to our fallen soldiers. I, along with another historian, Anthony McAllister, artist Morgan MacDonald and Ronald Penney, chairman of the Regimental Advisory Council, went there on a research and fact-finding mission to determine a suitable location for a Bronze caribou to finish the Trail of the Caribou first envisioned by Padre Thomas Nangle.
One of my personal goals was to find the elusive Caribou Hill. At that time, little was known of the location of Caribou Hill, the sight of one of the few successes on the Suvla Bay battlefields in the fall of 1915.
On Nov. 4, 1915, a section from C Company of the Newfoundland Regiment, under the command of Lt. James Donnelly occupied the hill in No Man’s Land to wrest a troublesome sniper outpost from Turkish hands and incorporate it within the British frontline. After an allnight firefight between Donnelly’s party and a determined Turkish counter attack, the hill remained with the Newfoundland Regiment. The next day 11 outposts were joined together along the Newfoundland Ridge which also included Caribou Hill to extend the British line 150 yards in front and another 150200 yards along the length, making it the largest territorial gain for any regiment since the initial invasion of Suvla Bay. There is little wonder why Caribou Hill was granted to Newfoundland by the British Battle Exploits Committee to place a memorial there.
Earlier in 2011, I paired up with David Mercer, a cartographer and a library assistant who works in the map room of the QEII Library at MUN. David and I share a common passion and the chance to work together on finding Caribou Hill was too good for us to pass up.
For David and I, our main intention was to find the Newfoundland frontlines at Suvla Bay, and more specifically, Caribou Hill, based upon known historical anecdotes and the few sparse battlefield maps that existed of the Gallipoli Peninsula. Caribou Hill had been an obscure piece of ground to the few Newfoundlanders to have searched for this uniquely Newfoundland battleground since the end of the First World War. In April 2012, we had managed to come within 100-square-metre area of the Hill and plant a Newfoundland flag nearby. We were also the first to have walked on a nondescript hill that would over the next few years reveal itself to be the object of our obsession.
More than three years would pass before fortune enabled a return to the front lines of Suvla Bay. This time I came armed with accurate maps created through many sessions with David, as well as more information collected from our continuous research. I guided two buses of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, including 25 members of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment to the exact location of Caribou Hill. They became the first Newfoundland pilgrimage group to stand on the very spot that Donnelly and his men had fought so valiantly.
The next day an opportunity arose, as the pilgrimage took a day off to visit the opposite side of the Dardanelles, when ex-pat Newfoundlander Keith Sherren and his son Nicolai, along with his father Nelson, offered to take me back to Caribou Hill for further scouring of the grounds. It was an offer that I could not refuse. We were joined by Ken Gatehouse, a grandson of one of the soldiers in the main line that night, and a former British sailor Kevin Regan, a Newfoundlander by marriage. We were also later joined by three more researchers from Newfoundland on their own pilgrimage. Using the map, we were able follow the newly incorporated firing line from the grassy plain, to the rising rocky terrain and prickly bushes covering Caribou Hill and Newfoundland Ridge. Broken supply reserve depot jugs marked the British front line in this area which neatly corresponded to our map. Four years of picking away and mapping the area had finally paid off in a big way. David and I managed to unravel the mysteries of Caribou Hill, of that there was no question.
We took a short break in the little village of Büyükanafarta in the Teke Tepe hills for lunch after which our expedition returned to the Suvla Plain. With the story of the deadly November Storm of 1915 in our minds, the skies above us darkened as lightning lit up the sky and thunder claps shuddered through the heavy air, making us question the sanity of our next endeavour, which was to find the Blockhouse, an old stone house in the southernmost part of the firing line that the Newfoundlanders occupied during their time in Suvla Bay. Using the map created by David to positively identify Caribou Hill, the blockhouse was found exactly where it should have been. We were now two for two with a solid confirmation on the accuracy of the map that we had worked on for the last three and half years.
Excited by the discovery, myself, Ken and Keith jumped onto a muddy farmer’s road, and an increasingly soggy fallow sunflower field in the pouring rain, to investigate the stone house, which was hidden behind a century of old growth, tangled vines and trees. A well that was mentioned in the same accounts and shown on hand drawn maps, was also found nearby.
Our visit however, was rushed, with the famous November Storm still looming large in our minds, we knew that any more delays would require a rescue party to extricate us from the surging water, deteriorating muddy road and a seemingly angry Turkish farmer gestating wildly to get off his land (he was actually trying to warn us of the hazards of getting stuck in the middle of nowhere). We were not long moving when the van slipped off the farmer’s track, sending two wheels deep into the mud on one side. With the help of the van’s two stoutest passengers (myself and Ken), we managed to escape the wet Suvla Plain and drove through the hills to the village of Küçükanafarta just in time.
With this discovery, we have now demarcated the Newfoundland firing line in Suvla Bay. Overall, the day was one to remember for myself, David and the rest of the group, having traced the line and confirming the placement of the most elusive battleground of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment in the Great War.
It was a thrill to walk over the ground of such a historically significant event to Newfoundland and know that our hard work not only paid off, but we were able to share this with other Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, especially the young Royal Newfoundland Regiment soldiers that came to the peninsula to pay respect to their fallen comrades during the 100th anniversary of the regiment first entering into active service in the Great War.
The first person I called after the discovery was David, who had stayed behind in Newfoundland, He was almost speechless when I gave him the news.
“I almost don’t know what to say. … Having had the chance to work with great people who put so much into this, for so long, pulling together all of the bits and pieces to finally hear someone confirm the location is truly overwhelming. It’s amazing!” said David.
Ken Gatehouse summed up the day.
“Walking on Caribou Hill with Frank, who’s done an incredible amount of research, years trying to find out where all these places were because you know the ground is not like it was, unlike France, things aren’t as defined as they were,” he said. “But to be with him and walk around … was just an incredible experience. You can really see firsthand where they were and what they had done and to find that block house that Frank was looking for … it was a rainy, muddy day when we found it and he was over the moon and he just felt it was such a positive thing for the future and for the other Newfoundlanders who would come.”
As for all the group that made the trek that day, you couldn’t wipe the smiles from our faces as we dragged our weary, wet and muddy selves into our hotel that evening. It was… truly amazing.