Gallipoli: The Dardanelles Campaign

The Dardanelles Campaign, better known as Gallipoli, was an audacious attempt by the Allied powers to change the course of the First World War by forcing a way through the Dardanelles Straits to the Black Sea, isolating and then capturing the capital of the Ottoman Empire at Constantinople effectively knocking Turkey out of the war, opening up a sea-route to Russia for reinforcement and supply, releasing the Russian Fleet into the Mediterranean, and opening up a second front in the Balkans.

The Ottoman Empire finally declared for the Central Powers, Germany and Austria-Hungary, on 29 October 1914, though she had been receiving German arms and military training for many months prior to this.

Her entry into the war posed a direct threat to British Imperial possessions in the Middle-East in particular her oil reserves and the security of the Suez Canal her vital lifeline to India and the Far East. As such she had made frantic diplomatic efforts in the preceding months to at the very least maintain Turkish neutrality, even resorting to outright bribery but as it transpired the Germans were to offer more.

Turkey’s ambitious Prime Minister Enver Pasha was eager to regain those European territories that had been lost during the Balkan Wars and restore Turkish pride following its humiliating defeat. He also greedily eyed those British possessions which he believed would see the Ottoman Empire once again resume its position as the pre-eminent power in the region.

Enver Pasha also saw Turkey as leading a general Muslim uprising against the Imperial powers in the Middle-East and so he had Sultan Mehmed V declare Jihad, or Holy War.

The German’s had also been eager for the declaration of Jihad believing that it would sufficiently undermine British power in the Middle-East to threaten their hold on the Empire and force them to either withdraw substantial forces from the Western Front or sue for a separate peace and they had been pressurising the Sultan for some time.

But the corrupt and hedonistic Ottoman Court was not a place that could easily call upon the sacrifices required of Jihad with any sincerity and neither had centuries of Ottoman rule endeared them to many of their fellow Muslims.

The British were also quick to crush any rumblings of discontent in the regions under their control.

But as it turned out the call to Jihad was to have little impact outside of Turkey itself.

By the spring of 1915, the war on the Western Front had become a stalemate with both sides dug into ever more elaborate trench systems protected by machine guns and barbed wire and the prospect of any swift breakthrough seemed unlikely. Other alternatives were being looked at but the Military High Command of both Britain and France were reluctant to weaken their forces in the West to facilitate operations elsewhere.

The Dardanelles Campaign was the brainchild of the First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill who fought vigorously for its adoption in Cabinet where he was often opposed by his own First Sea Lord John “Jackie” Fisher who advocated instead a naval landing on the north coast of Germany.

It was Churchill who won the argument but their always tempestuous relationship was to turn decidedly frosty thereafter. It did not help with preparations.

The attraction of Churchill’s plan was that he had originally conceived it as an almost entirely naval operation and if land forces were needed at all then they would be strictly limited.

The Dardanelles Straits were defended by a series of forts which as the Straits narrowed to just a few hundred yards could unleash a deadly rain of fire but Churchill aware that the Royal Navy possessed a number of obsolete battleships that could not be used in any direct confrontation with the German High Seas Fleet could be used to destroy the Turkish guns. Once the guns had been silenced Royal Marines could be landed to take possession of the forts themselves.

Earlier on 19 February, an Anglo-French Fleet had bombarded the coastal defences of Constantinople and the response of the forts had been sporadic at best and largely ineffective leading some to believe they were short of ammunition. They had also struggled to find their range which cast doubt on the quality of training received by the Turkish gunners.

The early reports home augured well for the campaign to come.

Throughout February operations continued to clear the Straits of mines which were carried out by un-armoured trawlers still manned by their civilian crews who were understandably reluctant to work under fire and as a result the waters close to either shore were never effectively cleared with tragic results.

Earlier some of the outer-forts had been stormed by Royal Marines who had met little resistance but it was also discovered that the naval bombardment itself had done little to destroy the Turkish guns.

As the weeks passed however and the Allies did little to force the Straits, Turkish resolve stiffened and on the night of 8 March the Turkish minelayer Nusret laid a line of 26 mines along the Asiatic shoreline which was to remain undiscovered.

At last on 18 March the main operation to force the Straits began despite the Admiral in command, John de Robeck, having already expressed his doubts that a naval bombardment alone could silence the guns and force the Straits.

As the fleet advanced down the Straits it almost immediately came under heavy fire with the French battleships Suffren and Gaulois and the British Inflexible and Agamemnon taking numerous hits.

At around 1.45 pm the French battleship Bouvet struck one of the mines that had earlier been laid by the Nusret, sinking in just two minutes and taking 650 of her crew with her. At 4 pm the Inflexible also struck a mine killing 30 of her crew, and things weren’t about to get any better as a little later HMS Irresistible was also struck by a mine and began to drift towards the shoreline where she came under intense bombardment from the forts nearby and attempts to tow her to safety had to be abandoned as she began to sink. Most of her crew had been successfully evacuated but even so 150 men had been lost.

The battleship Ocean that had come alongside the Irresistible to help evacuate the surviving crew members then also struck a mine and sank, and she wasn’t to be the last victim as HMS Inflexible then also struck a mine and had to be beached.

It had been a terrible day for the Allies with three battleships sunk, one abandoned, and more than 800 men lost.

The first concerted effort to force the Dardanelles Straits had been a catastrophe.

Churchill remained determined to resume the assault the following day but Admiral de Robeck, distraught at the losses and fearing only more to come reported back to London that the defences could not be overcome, the guns silenced, or the Straits forced by naval power alone, a land campaign would be required.

Yet the Allied Fleet had in fact come close to achieving its mission, the naval bombardment had brought down telegraph wires severely disrupting communications, the forts themselves had been severely damaged, many of the guns destroyed, and ammunition was perilously low. But of this de Robeck was either unaware or didn’t care, the loss of so many capital ships in just a few hours had shaken him to the core.

The demands of the Western Front and of protecting the Empire meant that troops were scarce and the Secretary of State for War Lord Kitchener was disinclined to weaken in any way the effort against Germany in the West but there were Australian and New Zealand volunteers training in nearby Egypt. These were now hastily formed into the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, or Anzac, and were to be supported by the British 29th Infantry Division and a contingent of French troops largely made up of Colonial African soldiers from Senegal – the invasion force would number around 70,000 men.

The commander of the so-called Mediterranean Expeditionary Force was to be the 62 year old Sir Ian Hamilton, an experienced and highly decorated soldier who had fought in conflicts throughout the British Empire but had never previously commanded such a large army in the field. Indeed, he hadn’t been trusted enough to be given a command on the Western Front at all, but he was well-connected politically and there were those willing to lobby on his behalf. He was delighted to be given the opportunity but it wasn’t long before he came to doubt whether the campaign could succeed and his instructions would often be vague and indecisive creating an air of despondency.

The earlier bombardment had alerted the Turks to the Allies intentions so they expected the landings but they did not know exactly where.

The overall commander of Turkish forces was the German General Liman von Sanders, while one of the most prominent commanders on the ground Colonel Mustapha Kemal, the future Kemal Ataturk and the father of modern Turkey. They disagreed over the most likely landing spots.

Kemal, who knew the terrain well, predicted the landings would come at Cape Helles and Gaba Tepe and he was to be proved right but much to his frustration that these areas still remained only thinly defended.

The Allies had little knowledge of the topography of the designated landing areas and the few maps they had were inaccurate and out of date so they attempted to supplement the available information they had by sending specially trained Officers to draw maps of the coastline from ships moored offshore. They were to prove surprisingly accurate in their outline of the terrain but they lacked detail and did not show gun emplacements, trench lines, and barbed wire.

Although the area of the landing was thinly defended the Turks had used the contours of the land well to dig their trenches, place their machine guns and set up their barbed wire in a manner which allowed them to funnel the invading troops into deadly accurate lines of fire.

The landings began at 06.00 on the morning of 25 April 1915, following a short naval bombardment.

The British 29th Division would land at Cape Helles on 5 separate beaches designated S, V, W, X and Y on the tip of the Gallipoli Peninsular. Their first day objective was to silence the guns at the fort of Kilitbahir, capture Achi Baba and then advance up the peninsular.

The Anzac troops were to land further up the coast at Gaba Tepe, secure the high ground at Mal Tepe and then sweep across the peninsular cutting off the retreating Turks.

Some of the landings were virtually unopposed, on Y Beach for example the British troops were to get within a few hundred yards of the village of Kirithia their first day objective, but then inexplicably stopped and dug in.
They were never to get so close again.

It was a different story on W Beach where 900 Lancashire Fusiliers were towed to the beach in open boats which as they neared their destination had to be rowed and so progress was slow.

Despite being sitting targets the Turkish machine gunners held their fire until the boats were almost on the beach but when they did at last open fire mayhem ensued as some of the boats were set alight, others were holed and sunk, men weighed down with equipment drowned, and the Fusiliers were to suffer more than 400 casualties on that first morning.

The largest landing, 3,000 men of the Royal Munster and Royal Hampshire Regiments took place at V Beach.

Again the men were towed to the beach in open boats but they were also landed from a collier, the River Clyde, which beached itself and then lowered gangplanks for the men to run out one at a time. Of the first 200 men to leave the River Clyde only 21 made it safely onto the beach. Indeed, such was the intensity of fire that a massacre at V Beach was only averted by a small sandbank three feet high behind which the men could shelter and dig in.

The Anzacs to the north had landed virtually unopposed but in the wrong place and now had to try and advance across some of the most difficult terrain imaginable. This they proceeded to do meeting little opposition until they encountered a plateau that had not appeared on any map. From the edge of the plateau was a cliffs edge with a sheer drop to a valley clogged by deep undergrowth below. A similar cliff faced them on the other side. It was impassable and soon became known as the Razor’s Edge. The Anzacs went no further.

The landings at Gallipoli had almost been a catastrophe for the Allies, casualties had been high, none of the first day objectives had been taken, and some of the beaches had even had to be abandoned. The Turkish defenders had been slight in number but they had fought both bravely and with intelligence. At V Beach for example just two well-placed machine guns had caused havoc.

As the Anzacs had advanced from the beachhead they had faced stiffer resistance from the Turkish 57th Regiment but as they ran low on ammunition they began to abandon the field. Colonel Mustapha Kemal ordered them to stop, if they had no bullets they still had their bayonets, they would lie down and await the Australians.

On 27 April, having been reinforced Mustapha Kemal made a concerted effort to force the Anzacs back to their beachhead and into the sea but the Anzacs with artillery support from ships moored offshore managed to repulse the attack inflicting heavy casualties.

Before the attack Kemal had told his men: “I do not order you not to fight, but to die.”

His words summed up the spirit of the Turkish soldier at Gallipoli who was not just fighting an enemy but for his country, his home, and his God.

With the failure of the landings on 25 April the element of surprise had been lost and with it any chance of a swift victory. A series of targeted assaults over the next few weeks were to widen the beachheads and make further inroads into the peninsular but the British were never to advance more than 4 miles inland, still 3 miles short of their first day objective, and the Turks still held the high ground.

Both sides now dug in and prepared for what they knew was going to be a drawn-out conflict and what Gallipoli had been intended to avoid it had become – the mirror-image of the stalemate of the trench warfare on the Western Front.

Allied losses at sea also continued.

At 01.00 on the morning of the 13 May, off Cape Helles, the Turkish torpedo boat Muavenet i Hilliye eluded the destroyer screen that was protecting the battleship Goliath and released three torpedoes, all three hit and following a series of massive explosions the Goliath sank and capsized in minutes drowning 570 of her 700 strong crew.

On 25 May, the battleship Triumph was torpedoed by the German submarine U-21 and sank killing 78 of her crew.

Just two days later on 27 May yet another battleship HMS Majestic fell victim to U-Boat attack and sunk with the loss of 49 men.

After these setbacks the battleship squadron was effectively withdrawn from the Dardanelles.

The men of both sides now settled down to a life of trench warfare and it was to be as dangerous and gruelling as anything seen on the Western Front.

The summer months were a particular nightmare with temperatures often soaring to over a 100 degrees Fahrenheit and water was so scarce that the Allies had to import it in large tanks from Egypt which were to become a favourite target of the Turkish artillery.

The Turks also held the high ground all around and falling victim to a sniper, and many did, was a constant fear; the numerous corpses in no-man’s-land and outside the trench works remained unrecovered. In the intense heat these very quickly became rancid and bloated and would be shot again to release the gas that had built up in an attempt to reduce the stench and prevent the spread of disease.

But there was nothing they could do about the flies.

Disease was rife the most commonplace of which was dysentery, a hideous wasting illness that would see those who contracted it quite literally shit out their very life essence and some men unable to walk had to be carried to latrines that had been dug out of the ground and were very quickly filled up to overflowing. Others were so weak that having fallen into the latrine they were unable to extricate themselves and drowned.

With water so scarce personal hygiene was an impossibility and men with excrement covering their bodies and clothes simply had to endure it, rub it in, or wait for it to dry and brush it off.

The war also became a subterranean one as men made camp in caves and holes cut out in the cliffs. They dug wells to find water that invariably turned out to be undrinkable, and built tunnels in an attempt to undermine the enemy entrenchments, and there was to be much vicious hand-to-hand fighting carried out underground.

Sir Ian Hamilton whose inertia and lack of initiative was causing frustration among his superiors in London refused to act until he had been sufficiently reinforced. Reluctant to send further troops into what was fast becoming a quagmire they only relented on the grounds that they would form part of a decisive offensive.

Liman von Sanders was not blind to the build up of forces and he remained confident that any assault could be repulsed. His men were present in numbers, they were well equipped and entrenched, had proved themselves in combat, and he had the terrain on his side. He was nevertheless unaware of where the assault would come and the Allies were careful to keep him guessing with a series of diversionary attacks.

Sir Ian Hamilton planned for a fresh landing to take place at Suvla Bay six miles north of Anzac Cove.

The landings were to coincide with a breakout by Australian and New Zealand troops at Lone Pine, Chunuk Bair and various other places along their front in an attempt to seize the high ground before the troops at Suvla Bay advanced from their beachhead.

Hamilton had earlier requested that London send him a senior commander to lead the operation but most of the senior commanders were already serving on the Western Front and could not be spared and the next in line of seniority was 61 year old Lieutenant-General Sir Frederick Stopford, who had never previously commanded troops in combat and had been retired for five years.

The success of the new offensive was to lie in its secrecy and a series of diversionary landings were to take place at night to confuse the enemy before the main landing at Suvla Bay early in the morning.

Stopford however was a firm believer that no entrenched position could be taken without a preliminary artillery bombardment but because of the secrecy this option was not available to him so fearing that the first day objectives would not be taken without artillery support he took the arbitrary decision to limit them. Indeed, he was to limit them to such an extent that they barely went beyond securing the beachhead itself. When Hamilton learned of his intentions he did nothing.

It was to have disastrous consequences for once more a lack of decisive action was to allow the Turks to seize the high ground of the Anafarta Hills.

The diversionary landings began at 10 pm and a lack of clear planning and failure to synchronise watches soon ensured that chaos ensued as equipment and supplies were lost and misplaced, troops landed on the wrong beaches, and units stumbled into one another in the darkness. As this farce unfolded, Stopford supposedly directing operations from HMS Jonquil moored offshore decided to take a nap.

The British had in fact wrong-footed Liman von Sanders who had deployed substantial reinforcements where he thought the attack most likely but he had never considered a landing at Suvla Bay and so the area where the assault actually came was weekly defended by just three battalions who had no machine guns.

Stopford, however, waited most of the entire next day before ordering any kind of advance and even then it was only an attack to capture the hills immediately surrounding the beachhead.

He feared coming up against strong fortifications when there were none and a ferocious Turkish counter-attack when he was opposed by barely a thousand men armed only with rifles. The delay meant the element of surprise had been lost and the British were to suffer around 1,500 casualties from sniper fire alone as they scrambled up the hills.

It wasn’t until the following day when Hamilton arrived on the scene to find British troops still resting on the beach that anything was done. He immediately ordered an assault on the Tekke Tepe ridge to the east but no preparation for an attack had been made and it could not fully get underway until the following day by which time Mustafa Kemal had arrived with reinforcements and seized the heights.

The attack was repulsed even so Hamilton ordered them to continue for the next three days but to no avail.

The British failure at Suvla Bay had cost them some 18,000 casualties, the Turks 10,000.

Yet again both sides now entrenched.

In the meantime, the attacks at Anzac Cove and elsewhere went ahead as planned.

At Lone Pine the two opposing trench lines were some 150 yards apart which was quite distant by the standards of Gallipoli but it permitted the Australians to be careful in their preparations and they had dug tunnels out into no-man’s-land from which their men could emerge cutting down the amount of time they would be exposed to enemy fire and three mines had also been detonated to provide craters for the men to shelter in should it be required.

Just prior to the assault they also received support from the guns of HMS Bacchanate moored offshore.

At 5.30 pm on 6 August, the first wave of 1,800 Australians moved forward meeting only minimal resistance the Turks having been slow to recover their positions following the bombardment.

The Turkish trench however had a pine log roof and few easy points of access and as some Australians tore away at the roof others forced a way in and in the semi-darkness and close confines of the trench where it was dangerous to shoot and impossible to use grenades a fierce and desperate hand-to-hand struggle ensued as both Australian and Turk slashed and cut away at one another. There were to be a great many bayonet wounds at Lone Pine.

By nightfall the Turks had been forced out and the Australian’s now reinforced awaited the inevitable counter-attack which soon came one after the other for the next three days, and of mounting intensity and ferocity, but the Australians held out.

The Australians were to suffer close to a thousand men killed, the Turks three times that number, but Lone Pine was to be a rare success for the Allies at Gallipoli.

Likewise, there was a similar success for the Allies at Chunuk Bair, a rocky outcrop of the Sari Bair range of hills, an area that overlooked much of the battlefield and provided the Turks with an excellent position for their artillery, but it was to be a fleeting one.

The attack was led by the New Zealand Wellington Regiment who made good progress and could probably have taken the position on the first day but the delays and uncertainty that had beset the entire Dardanelles campaign dogged them once more and the opportunity for a swift victory had once more been lost and by the following day resistance had stiffened. Nevertheless, by audaciously attacking at night the New Zealander’s had been able to force the Turks from the summit only to find that the rocky terrain made it almost impossible for them to dig in and that they were exposed to enemy gunfire.

The Turks as they were always quick to do, counter attacked, and the dense undergrowth in the valley beneath the summit meant that they were able to get within a few yards of the New Zealander’s before being seen.

It was to prove a brutal and bloody confrontation.

There was an attempt to reinforce the Wellington’s with British and Gurkha troops but they did not arrive in time and the New Zealander’s were forced to withdraw by which the time they had lost 710 of 760 men.

The offensive at Chunuk Bair was also to involve one of the most controversial incidents of the entire campaign.

To support the offensive a diversionary attack was to be undertaken by the Australians at a place known as The Nek where the opposing trenches in places were barely 50 yards apart and the success of any assault would be reliant upon speed.

It had been planned for an artillery bombardment to keep the Turkish defenders pinned down or to force them from their trenches but as soon as the bombardment ceased the Australians were to go over the top. However, there was confusion over the time of the bombardment and how long it was due to last. When it ceased the Australian’s believed it still had seven minutes to go and waited expecting it to resume. It didn’t but the orders were received for the attack to go ahead as planned.

By this time the Turks had re-emerged from their shelters and re-manned their machine guns.

When the first wave of Australians left their trenches they were met with such ferocity of gunfire that they were all dead or wounded on the field within the first minute of the attack commencing.

The second wave attacked two minutes later and met with a similar fate.

It was a massacre and frantic attempts were made to get the third and final attack cancelled and in the chaos and confusion it seemed as if it had been cancelled when the order was received for the attack to go ahead.

Of the 80 men who took part in the final assault two-thirds were killed as were 372 men of the 600 who had participated overall, and almost all were casualties.

It had been a widely held view amongst both the Australian’s and New Zealanders that the British were wasteful of colonial lives, the events at The Nek just seemed to confirm it.

It continues to be a matter of rancour and controversy to this day, though whether or not the order for the final assault to go ahead was given by a British or an Australian Officer remains a matter of debate.

The bodies of the troops killed that day remained where they lay unburied until the end of the campaign by which time few could be identified.

By the end of August the offensive had petered out with little to show for it, the Allies having suffered more than 20,000 casualties, the Ottoman forces around 12,000.

With it the willingness of either side to make any further sacrifice seemed to dissipate and the campaign became one of stagnant trench warfare while General Stopford was recalled to London in disgrace.

On 14 October, the ineffective Sir Ian Hamilton, who though unable to devise any way of advancing the campaign had fiercely resisted withdrawal because of the damage it would do to British prestige was replaced by General Sir Charles Munro.

He assessed the situation and unlike his predecessor advised immediate evacuation.

Lord Kitchener, in London and far away from the conditions on the ground shared Sir Ian Hamilton’s view that the damage done to the British Empire’s reputation in the region negated any possibility of a withdrawal but such was Sir Charles Munro’s bleak assessment that he decided to visit and see Gallipoli for himself. He very quickly realised that there could be no successful conclusion to the campaign and that the only options available were evacuation or the likelihood of humiliating defeat and surrender.

The recent decision on the part of Bulgaria to enter the war on the side of the Central Powers meant that Germany now had an overland route to Turkey and could reinforce and re-supply it at will.

The decision was made to evacuate.

Dire warnings were issued that to evacuate so many men in the depths of winter and under the noses of the Turkish defenders would result in catastrophe. Sir Ian Hamilton had predicted at least 50% casualties.

As it turned out the storms, heavy rainfall, driving blizzards, and freezing temperatures kept the Turks firmly in their trenches and with much of the evacuation carried out at night and with numerous ruses such as fake fires and self-firing rifles the Turks were fooled into believing that the trenches were still manned.

They were only to learn that a withdrawal was taking place at all on 6 January 1916, and launched an impromptu and ill-organised assault that was easily repulsed.

By the 9 January the last of the 105,000 Allied soldiers had left, they had suffered just two men wounded throughout the entire evacuation. It was by far the most successful operation of the entire campaign.

What had initially been an attempt to force the Dardanelles Straits by naval firepower alone had become a brutal and bloody land campaign that had lasted 8 months 2 weeks and 1 day. It had cost the Allies 220,000 casualties, 58,000 of who had been killed.

For Australia and New Zealand, both of whom had only become fully independent sovereign nations at the turn of the century it was to prove a turning point in their short history. They had endured 30,000 casualties with 8,709 Australian and 2,721 New Zealand dead. They had sealed their place among the pantheon of nations with the blood of their young men.

In London the political fall-out from the catastrophe fell firmly upon the head of Winston Churchill.

The Dardanelles campaign had been his idea, it had been launched upon his insistence, and he had botched it at great cost in lives, materiel, and prestige. He was removed from his post as First Lord of the Admiralty but given a nominal position that allowed him to remain in the Cabinet.

In high dudgeon and no doubt a degree of contrition he resigned to command a Brigade on the Western Front.

He was to return to Government but his reputation as a reckless gambler who could not be entirely trusted never left him.

The British withdrawal from the Gallipoli peninsular was a great victory for the Ottoman Empire and emboldened them in their attempt to create a Turkish sphere of influence in the Middle East and they were to follow it up with another victory over a British Army at Kut-al-Amara in Iraq later the same year.

But it had been bought at a terrible price with more than 251,000 men of the 315,000 who fought at Gallipoli becoming casualties.

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