In late 1914, the conflict in Europe had fallen into the pattern of trench warfare that was to characterise it for a further four years. From the allied viewpoint, politically and militarily, a new front was needed.
Russia was a largely dormant ally, but the hope was that it might be drawn in if a route for its resources could be opened up. The Ottoman Empire, referred to here as the ‘Turkish’, was in terminal decline, but Turkey had been alienated from the western allies and had sided diplomatically with Germany.
A plan to force through the Dardanelles using warships and to take Istanbul, championed by Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, was tabled, and after a great deal of political wrangling, it was finally agreed in early 1915. The vision was to open the sea route to Russia via the Black Sea, and it was popularly imagined that any Turkish resistance would collapse if a show of force was made.
From the outset, security was poor. Ships gathered in the eastern Aegean, supplies were purchased openly in the markets of Cairo and Alexandria, and it was clear to all that a ‘big show’ was being planned.
On 19th February, British and French warships gathered close to the mouth of the Dardanelles and two destroyers were sent forward on a ‘probing’ mission. It was known that there were forts along both shores, and that the narrows at Canakkale, only a few kilometres wide, were particularly well defended. Mines sown by the Turkish, some tethered and some simply floated down on the current, were also a concern.
Lack of minesweepers, difficulties in ‘silencing’ the guns of the forts and political and military wrangling quickly turned the assumed quick passage of ships into the Sea of Marmara into frustration. Already, there was discussion about landing troops to overrun the forts, and indeed groups of marines had made a few limited landings unopposed, but the assumption of naval superiority still ruled the day, and in mid-March it was decided to make a further major attempt to break through the narrows.
The decisive day of the naval battle and one which stands tall in the Turkish national psyche was March 18th 1915, but in fact the key factor was that ten days earlier the Turkish mine layer ‘Nusret’ had sown a field of mines in Eren Koy bay, a few miles inside the mouth of the Dardenelles on the southern side. According to post-war research, the Turkish had noticed that the capital ships used this bay to turn in when withdrawing.
Twelve British and French battleships attacked, with a reserve and support line behind. For the first few hours, despite hits on several ships, the plan seemed be working. With fire from the forts significantly reduced, Admiral De Robeck, commanding, then decided to bring forward the British second line. The French ship Bouvet, turning in Eren Koy bay, hit a mine, capsized and sank. Soon afterwards Inflexible was also struck and withdrew, eventually beaching on Tenedos.
The third victim was Irresistible, which having struck a mine, was damaged and disabled. Ocean was ordered to take her under tow, but she too struck a mine and was left in the same condition. Late in the day, when an attempt was made to located and tow the two vessels to safety, they were both found to have sunk.
This disastrous day for the allies effectively ended the naval campaign. Ships remained in the Gallipoli area, but the threat of German U-boats caused a recall of some of the modern capital ships.
March 18th remains a great day of victory for the Turkish. The date is quite literally engraved on the cliffs above the town on Eceabat on the narrows, and a seagoing replica of the Nusret is on public display in Canakkale.
For the allies, attention turned in earnest to a land invasion. It is evident that there were quite different expectations between the navy and the army as to the aim and extent of this. The former saw it as support for a further naval assault on the narrows, with the land troops neutralising the forts, but the army, once mobilised, appeared to have made an assumption about marching on Istanbul itself. There was a ominous sense of ‘let’s see how far we can get’ present.
General Sir Ian Hamilton was in overall command of the joint British, French, Commonwealth and ANZAC forces, and the island of Imbros, then under Greek control, was used as a forward mustering point. The landings were scheduled for April 25th, with two main locations on the peninsula and a diversionary attack at Kum Kale on the southern shore and futher up the gulf of Saros at Bulair.
The ANZAC forces were tasked with landing at Ari Burnu (Bee Point) some 20 km north east of the mouth of the Dardanelles. The British and commonwealth forces were given Cape Helles, on the toe of the peninsula, with the French landing just to the east of this at Morto Bay.
Landing craft were a thing of the future, and almost all the assaults were undertaken in open wooden boats which were towed close to shore and then rowed for the remaining distance.
An exception at ‘V’ beach at Cape Helles was the use of a ‘trojan horse’ in the shape of the old collier, The River Clyde. The ship was converted to carry some 2000 men, and hinged ‘sally ports’ were cut in to her sides with suspended gang planks running down to her bows. Captained by Commander Unwin, who won a VC that day, River Clyde beached gently at Seddul Bahir at 0630 on April 25th.
Although the individual actions at the landing beaches deserve deeper detailed study, it is accurate to say that they had in common a general under-estimation of the commitment and preparedness of the Turkish troops opposing them, a lack of good intelligence and mapping, and shortcomings at command level that made local decisions uncoordinated and often ineffective. Valorous actions by the forces on both sides were numerous, but within a few weeks, the familiar entrenchment and stalemate that characterised the Western Front was the norm at Gallipoli. The allies eventually pushed a few kilometres inland at places, but at others, such as in the ANZAC area, the steep gullies and cliffs made progress virtually impossible, and the bridgehead such as it was, extended no more than 500 metres into the hinterland.
Ferocious battles took place in the British Helles sector in May and June, with the allies’ objective being Achi Baba hill and the small town of Krithia (modern Alcitepe). On the British right, the French had an immense task in holding their hard-gained strip of land in the face of complex geography and poor resources.
At ANZAC on May 19th, the Turkish launched a massive counter-offensive against the Australian and New Zealand forces, determined to push them back into the sea. Commanding was Mustapha Kemal, who less than ten years later would become Ataturk, the leader of the new Turkey. Some 4000 Turkish soldiers fell in this action, and a truce was necessary for each side to retrieve and bury their dead.
By the end of June, the final lines had been drawn, apart from very small adjustments over the next few months. The Turkish had presented a dogged defence, and the British, Commonwealth and Anzac forces, whilst unbowed, recognized that the expected rapid progress towards Constantinople was now very unlikely.
Behind the scenes, General Hamilton and his staff, pressed by the UK government, began to plan a further landing. Various locations were considered, including the Asian shore and at Bulair, but eventually the focus fell on Suvla Bay, north of the Anzac area and virtually continuous with it.
At this stage, an extraordinary decision was made. Instead of seasoned troops, it was decided that elements of Lord Kitchener’s ‘new army’, mainly untested recruits, would form the vanguard force for the Suvla landings, being designated the 9th Corp. In addition, due to the demand for experienced senior leadership on the Western Front, oversight of the new assault was given to Lieutenant General Sir Frederick Stopford, drawn out of retirement and renown as a military historian, but with no actual experience of commanding troops in battle.
Major diversionary attacks were scheduled at Cape Helles and at Anzac, and on the night of August 6th 1915, two full divisions were landed on beaches in and around Suvla Bay. Turkish opposition was minimal, and in fact, at the time of the landings, there were only about 1500 Turkish troops available to defend the whole area.
Incredibly, having landed a large assault force with almost no casualties, Stopford and his immediate staff remained physically and tactically detached from the operation and it is clear that the senior command was convinced that the landing was the objective rather than the taking of the hills just a few miles inland. The estimate was that it would take the Turkish reinforcements some 36 hours to arrive. Despite this, lethargy ruled and General Hamilton, when he finally arrived to survey the beaches on 8th August, was astonished to see thousands of troops cooking and bathing on the shoreline. On Hamilton’s orders, a major advance was finally made on the Tekke Teppe ridge at 6.30pm on 8th. It took the troops until the early hours of 9th August to reach the hills and by then Turkish forces had been in place for a few hours and the attack was repulsed.
By 15th August Stopford had been removed, and Suvla became yet another example of costly actions taken to gain small amounts of ground. The Irish 10th Division had given a superb account of themselves on the northern Kireche Teppe ridge, but the last really significant battle and the largest in terms of troops engaged in the campaign, took place at Scimitar Hill on 21st August.
The Suvla Landings were hugely costly for the Anzac and Cape Helles troops. At Anzac, the infamous attack of the Australian 3rd Light Horse Brigade left over half the 600 who went ‘over the top’ killed or wounded, and attacks at Quinn’s post and Lone Pine took a dreadful toll of casualties on both sides.
And now the political and military tide began to turn. From its position as the new front that might have brought bring quick and decisive results, Gallipoli began to be seen as an expensive drain on scarce war resources. Unofficial reports on the Dardenelles situation, notably one smuggled to Britain by Australian journalist Keith Murdoch, painted a highly critical picture of the generalship and overall staffing of the theatre. In addition, in September 1915 Bulgaria entered the war on the side of the central powers, allowing Germany to supply Turkey by rail to Istanbul. Greece and Serbia called for assistance to defend their borders, and in late September a British and French division from Gallipoli was released to them. By October, Gallipoli and the Salonika front, as it was known, were being seen as mutually exclusive options, and a significant point was reached in the middle of the month when General Hamilton was ‘recalled’, a gentlemanly mechanism for removing him in the face of waning confidence and mounting criticism. General Sir Charles Monro was his replacement and it took him only a few days to conclude that evacuation was the only sensible option. Lord Kitchener was at first strongly opposed, believing that a large percentage of troops would be lost in this, but by the time he visited Gallipoli himself in mid-November, he was reluctantly coming to the conclusion that a withdrawal was necessary, and on 22nd November he formally recommended it. As if to seal the decision, a huge storm ravaged the peninsula 5 days later and Gallipoli entered the grip of winter.
Things now moved swiftly. Ironically, the evacuation of Gallipoli was by all measures a stunning ‘success’ for the allies, with, allegedly, only two soldiers being wounded as a direct result of the withdrawal. Troop numbers began to be reduced from 7th December, and various mechanisms were used to present an illusion of continued full occupation. William Scurry, an Anzac private, developed the self-firing rifle by rigging the weapon with a tin can that slowly filled with water until it activated the trigger, and this was widely used. On the last night at Anzac, boots were removed and flour was laid along paths to indicate the route to the beach. At Helles, similar scenes were enacted, although this area was retained for a few more weeks. The last troops left W beach on 9th January 1916.
Over half a million men became casualties at Gallipoli in the official sense, meaning dead, wounded or missing, with 44,000 allied dead and 87,000 or more Turkish.
145 Bellingham Rd,
Tel: (+44) 7956 188 826