The Gallipoli Campaign took place during the First World War on the Gallipoli Peninsula. During the course of the campaign, France and Britain launched a naval attack against the Ottoman Empire, followed by an amphibious landing. The intention of the Entente powers was to capture the Turkish capital, Constantinople, modern-day Istanbul. After heavy fighting the attack was defeated, and the invasion force had to withdraw to Egypt. Gallipoli was the only major Ottoman victory during the war, and in Turkey it is seen as a defining moment in the nation’s history.
Although the Ottoman Empire had shrunk and its military forces seemed weakened in the years before World War I, the country had been modernizing fairly rapidly. In a seizure of power, a group of military men and political leaders known as the Young Turks took over in 1908, retaining the sultan in name, but working to reduce the influence of Islamic clergy. In their efforts to westernize the country, they brought in military advisers from Europe and built up the armed forces. Several factors pushed Turkey in the direction of an alliance with Austria-Hungary and Germany.
After the Ottoman declaration of war, the focus of attention was on the Dardanelles, the narrow strip of water between Europe and Asia, one of the great maritime sea lanes, acting as the gateway to Constantinople, the Black Sea and Russia. The Entente were ordered into immediate action and bombarded the forts at the entrance of the Dardanelles, thereby drawing attention to the paucity of the existing Turkish defences covering that vital waterway. While the Turks subsequently put much effort into improving their fortifications, the Royal Navy bided its time. Early bombardments of the Turkish forts achieved little.
The Entente fleet made a major effort to force open the Dardanelles. Under the command of Vice Admiral John de Robeck the fleet sailed into the Straits. The naval guns blazed out, pounding the forts, but the effects were minimal. When under fire the forts fell silent, but the moment the ships moved closer the Turkish guns burst back into life. From this total defeat the Gallipoli land campaign would be born.
Failure on the 18th of March triggered the decision to attempt a landing on the Gallipoli Peninsula with the aim of seizing the Kilid Bahr Plateau which dominated the narrows of the Dardanelles. The gathering forces were placed under the command of General Sir Ian Hamilton, who had arrived the day before the abortive naval attempt in the narrows of the Dardanelles. The challenge ahead of Hamilton should not be underestimated. This would be the first opposed landing in the era of modern weapons; not only that, but it would have to be conducted on a narrow peninsula in terrain that greatly favored the defenders.
No less than five separate landings were to be made by the 29th Division around the Helles tip of the Peninsula. The ANZAC Corps was to land on the beaches just north of Gaba Tepe further up the Peninsula and opposite Kilid Bahr, while the French would land at Kum Kale on the Asiatic coast in order to protect the rear of the 29th Division. Just to complicate matters further, diversionary operations would be launched by the French at Besika Bay and the RND at the Bulair neck of the Peninsula.
The Turkish Fifth Army charged with defending Gallipoli was under the command of German General Otto Liman von Sanders. His plans revolved around light coastal screens charged with causing the maximum possible delay while the reserves would march to the point of danger and launch counterattacks designed to sweep the invaders into the sea. As such, by accident or design, he happened on the perfect counter to Hamilton’s scattergun approach.
The ANZAC Corps was landed at night, the men being towed in strings of naval cutters behind steam boats. As they approached the shore stealthily there was a tremendous amount of confusion, with the end result being that the boats landed bunched together around the Ari Burnu promontory at the northern end of a small sheltered beach which would soon become known as Anzac Cove. The initial landing was all but unopposed, but a combination of the tortuous terrain and cautious leadership restricted the Australian advance to about quarter of a mile inland. The Anzacs were pinned back and here they would remain.
At Helles the British landed confident that once they got their troops ashore the Turks would cut and run. The main landings were to be made by the 86th Brigade at V and W Beaches at the tip of the Peninsula, with subsidiary landings at S, X and Y Beaches to try and threaten the Turks’ flanks, with the French landing at Kum Kale on the other side of the Straits. The troops came ashore almost unopposed at S, X and Y Beaches, but then failed to advance in a purposeful manner. Indeed, the Y Beach force soon found itself battling to survive as Turkish reinforcements forced a somewhat panicked evacuation. The story of the assaults of W and V Beach are a mixture of horror, heroism and gross British exaggeration of the odds they faced.
The next couple of days were marked by a period of reorganization and consolidation. The French were brought back from their covering landing at Kum Kale and given the position on the right of Helles adjoining the Dardanelles, ironically rendering themselves cruelly vulnerable to fire into their rear by Turkish batteries across the Straits. Once they were finally sorted out, the Entente began to press forward on Achi Baba during the First Battle of Krithia, only to find progress stalled and then to face utter defeat, during Turkish night counterattacks launched by fresh reserves.
Desperate to get his stalled campaign moving, Hamilton brought in his reserves and sanctioned a series of attacks which together are known as the Second Battle of Krithia. There was no tactical subtlety here. Every time the Entente troops felt their way forward they came under scything fire. It was a disaster. Over the three days they suffered some 6,500 casualties for the gain of at most 600 yards.
By the start of June 1915 there was a fully fledged trench system crisscrossing the Helles Peninsula. The British response was to use some of the new assault tactics already being employed on the Western Front in their next attack, the Third Battle of Krithia. Essentially this was intended as a ‘bite and hold’ to break the deadlock by seizing the three defensive lines held by the Turks, which would then allow the next assault to be made on Achi Baba directly. For all the slaughter, only a meager few hundred yards of British gains were retained. It was evident that, as on the Western Front, neither side could break through at Helles.
Their failure at the Third Battle of Krithia caused Hunter-Weston and the French CEO commander, General Henri Gouraud, to introduce a more refined version of ‘bite and hold’ by attacking on a very small frontage to allow the maximum concentration of guns. The French attacked first, at the head of Kereves Dere, while the British followed up with an attack on Gully Ravine. They were encouraged by their partial success, but hampered by the dreadful shortage of guns and shells. When they tried to launch a two-staged attack by the recently arrived 52nd Division, some limited progress was made but it did not justify the casualties incurred. Helles was becoming a hopeless nightmare.
The second chapter in the campaign began after Hamilton requested substantial reinforcements. But the advent of the Coalition Government and the subsequent reconstitution of the War Council as the Dardanelles Committee caused a considerable delay in the decision-making process. When the committee finally met, the decisive voice proved to be that of Winston Churchill, who, although deposed as First Lord of the Admiralty, was still an influential member of the committee. In consequence it was agreed that Hamilton needed reinforcements.
Hamilton had many options before him in deciding where to deploy his new forces. After due consideration he decided to use one division in bolstering an ANZAC Corps plan to launch a left hook from that diminutive bridgehead. This plan for a night attack across some of the most tortuous terrain in the Peninsula by a combination of exhausted veterans and untried new troops was spectacularly optimistic. At the same time Hamilton had fixed upon a new landing in the Suvla Bay area.
The campaign would start with one more sacrifice made by the men of the VIII Corps at Helles, who were required to throw themselves against the Turkish trenches to ‘pin down’ the garrison and prevent the Turks from marching to Anzac. Any temporary successes were soon negated as the Turkish counterattacks threw the British back across No Man’s Land. The Turks not only held them back with ease but were able to deploy forces to assist at Anzac. Then it was the turn of the Australian 1st Division which launched a assault across the bare No Man’s Land between the trenches at Lone Pine. The ground gained was negligible and as a diversion the attack had been only partially successful.
The main assault forces began to creep out of Anzac that night. At first, things went well as the Turkish outposts were easily overrun. Then everything went wrong: the 4th Australian Brigade and 29th Indian Brigade became lost, stumbling around harassed by Turkish snipers. Dawn found them still in the foothills, and nowhere near Hill 971; they never would be. The New Zealand Brigade was also soon lost in the tortuous valleys and complex ridges on the approach to Rhododendron Ridge. They fell hopelessly behind schedule, failing to reach Chunuk Bair in time to launch the attack in concert with the Australian Light Horse Brigade.
The ambitious plans had fallen to pieces under the combined pressure of impossible terrain, tired troops, timid commanders and a robust Turkish defence. For the next few days the fighting raged on. Much is made of the temporary occupation of Chunuk Bair and Hill Q, but these positions were isolated, and the troops were outnumbered in cruelly exposed positions facing superior Turkish forces and living on borrowed time. Colonel Mustafa Kemal led a dawn attack which swept them away. At the end the British were back in the foothills, or perched below the Turkish positions on the dominating heights. The Anzac offensive had been an abject failure.
The Suvla landings started well. The troops got ashore unopposed from their new armored lighters on B and C Beaches south of Nibrunesi Point. At A Beach, which was actually inside the horns of Suvla Bay, the situation was very different: a great deal of time had been lost and the units were disrupted. Instead of capturing the commanding heights of Tekke Tepe, it was only with a last-ditch effort that they managed to capture the lowest of the foothills, Chocolate Hill, before nightfall. Hamilton lifted his eyes from the Anzac debacle to realise that his subsidiary operations were also collapsing into oblivion.
The horizons shrunk to a futile squabble over the foothills that guarded the way to the hills in front of Tekke Tepe, but the battle of 21 August was to be the largest engagement in the whole campaign. After an inadequate bombardment the infantry went over the top. The British troops were slaughtered.
The campaign was now all but over, although its death throes would take another four months. The French began to drift away, scenting defeat and preferring to devote their resources to the campaign building in Salonika. The Turks sat on the hills above the Allied lines at Helles, Anzac and Suvla, from where they could look down in total control of the situation. But still Hamilton refused to accept defeat. When Hamilton refused to even consider evacuation he was summarily dismissed and replaced by Lieutenant General Sir Charles Monro. Arriving at Gallipoli he recommended evacuation, a decision that was supported by Kitchener.
Dozens of diaries, collections of letters, and memoirs of eyewitnesses reported the horror of trench conditions. Entente troops found their diet intensely boring, and later analysis showed it nutritionally quite bad for the weather and the living conditions. Flies that gathered on dead mules and human corpses clouded the air and immediately covered any exposed food before a soldier could eat it. A plague of dysentery resulted, which left its victims almost too exhausted to move. Troops slept curled up in narrow shelves cut into the face of trenches. If they survived they would live for weeks in conditions of intense heat with no shade during the daylight.
The respect that built up between the Entente and the Turks should not be exaggerated. There were armistices to collect the dead. But snipers when captured were regularly shot out of hand, as were other prisoners. Nor could British prisoners necessarily expect any better treatment.
Ironically, the final evacuation was conducted brilliantly. The staff planned with marked attention to detail, exemplary innovation and a realistic approach to what was and wasn’t possible. It was late in the day but at least staff functions were belatedly beginning to improve as they learned their job. First Anzac and Suvla were evacuated, then the much more dangerous task of evacuating Helles was carried out under the very noses of the Turks.
During the war and through the decades after the war, analysts reviewed the Gallipoli campaign. Some argued that the plan reflected serious flaws from the start, with no real understanding of the hazards, with poor security, and with no sense of what would be required to eject or cut off entrenched troops who held the high ground along the peninsula. Others argued that the plan made good sense, but that leadership simply executed it poorly, reflecting incompetent or inexperienced officers, bad communication, and multiple episodes of bad luck and missed opportunities.
Apologists for the Gallipoli Campaign have long tried to boast of what could have been, with a heavy emphasis on ‘if only’. This fails to recognize that the Entente fought the campaign with levels of naval and military support that were considered acceptable until the Turks defeated them. Time and time again Hamilton promised success; again and again he failed.