“I am not exaggerating one iota when I say that our men feel antagonized towards the Imperial officers. I have heard so many express their fierce resentment.”
… The Western front of 1915 had seen, however, only one half of the British war commitment. A Turkish attack on the Suez Canal, the main artery of British eastern commerce and naval deployment, was mounted from Palestine southward on January 14, 1915. In early February, the Ottomans’ attempt to cross the canal in boats failed in face of the fire of a British and Imperial force under General John Maxwell. The Turks retired to Palestine and were never seen again at the canal.
A small British detachment had been sent at the war’s beginning to protect the English oil interests in Persia and had taken to the Turkish declaration of war in October 1914 by invading Mesopotamia and capturing Basra, the important harbour town. Eventually, the British HQ set its eyes on Baghdad, and one division was sent from Basra up the Tigris River and another one up the Euphrates. The Tigris force met a Turkish detachment, about 10,000 heads strong, at Kut-el-Amara, two-thirds the way to Baghdad and won the subsequent encounter on September 27-28. When the commander,
General Townshend, was ordered to proceed in direction of Baghdad, he demurred, citing supply lines far too long and the loss of over 1,000 casualties in the earlier battle, but obeyed. Outside the ancient town of Ctesiphon, he ran into a superior Turkish force blocking his way and had to retreat after four days of combat. He was back in Kut a week later. The Turks followed and laid siege to the town which was to last until 1916.
But these were sideshows. The main British and Allied offensive against the Turks was to take place at one of history’s famous spots – the Dardanelles or Hellespont. The Dardanelles is the narrow sea lane, fifty kilometres long and at its closest point only a kilometre wide, which connects the Aegean Sea with the Sea of Marmara, which itself joins the Black Sea at the Bosporus strait. The strategic importance of the Dardanelles respectively the Bosporus is obvious: these two points control all traffic between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea, and hence access to the oceans. It has always been the object of the powers controlling the Black Sea to command these spots and their hinterland, for they are the bottleneck constraining their ambitions. The Bosporus was, and is, dominated by Byzantium [Constantinople, Istanbul], whose conquest was a Russian dream for centuries; only escalating when the religious component of removing the Muslims from the former seat of the Christian Empire became a secondary motive.
The Battle of Troy had taken place on the southern, Asian shore of the Dardanelles; on the European side of the straits, near the ancient town of Adrianople [now Edirne, ¶] “fifteen recorded battles had been fought; at the first, in AD 378, Emperor Valens was killed by the Goths, a disaster that caused the collapse of Rome’s empire in the west; at the most recent, in 1913, the Turks had repelled a Bulgarian attempt on Istanbul itself.” (10)
The strategic importance of the straits in 1914 lay in the Allies’ plans to provide war supplies to Russia, but since no land route existed sea lanes had to suffice. There was one, the North Sea-Arctic Sea passage, to the Russian ports of Murmansk or Archangel in the Arctic Ocean respectively the White Sea. But this was a difficult route, prone to adverse weather conditions, with the additional disadvantage that the goods would arrive in a veritable no man’s land, arctic Russia, and would have to be transported over yet another two or three thousand miles to their eventual destinations.
There was a second route, however, through the pleasant Mediterranean Sea to the Black Sea, to Sevastopol, on the Crimean Chersonnese, whence the goods would have a short and convenient rail trip to the Eastern front. The Royal Navy was confident to defend convoys of merchantmen on their way to Sevastopol, with the exception of the Dardanelles and the Bosporus, which were in Turkish hands and considered fortified, armed, and dangerous. A sneak attack of a British naval squadron in November 1914, however, found little resistance and was able to damage the defences on the mouth of the straits. Although the squadron failed to penetrate further, the success of the attack much impressed Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty.
After the initial freeze-up of the entrenched front lines in the Western theatre in late 1914, the British government sought other points suitable to attack. Churchill was able to convince Lloyd George, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lord Kitchener, then-Secretary of State for War, and finally First Sea Lord, Admiral Fisher, of the merits of an invasion of the Dardanelles.
Churchill’s ministrations resulted in a two-tiered operational miscellany, a plan, like its inventor’s character, designed to gain the greatest show from the least of assets: naval gunfire, from a squadron of old battleships, would neutralize the Turkish forts at and around the Dardanelles, giving the Allies control of the seaway. The second stage would be a landing of mostly Imperial, i.e. non-English, infantry at the Gallipoli Peninsula itself, the northern pillar of the Dardanelles, whence the land forces were to proceed to capture Constantinople.
The naval bombardment began on February 19 but ran into difficulties soon. After the British raid of the preceding November, the Turks had brought in mobile artillery, heavy howitzers, which completely eluded the British gunners and, with well-aimed fire, frustrated the attempts of the Allied minesweepers to clear the way for the heavy ships. These ships were the new dreadnought “Queen Elizabeth”, the new British battle cruiser “Inflexible” and two older ones, plus twelve British and four French pre-dreadnoughts. After preliminary manoeuvres, the great fleet attack was set for March 18.
It was to become the greatest British naval disaster since a single German mine had sunk the brand-new British battleship “Audacious” in October 1914. The fleet attempted to force the straits: the twenty big ships advancing in three lines, ushered in by minesweepers and orbited by cruisers and destroyers.
At first the armada made apparently irresistible progress. Between 11:30 in the morning and two in the afternoon it advanced nearly a mile, overcoming each fixed and mobile battery as it moved forward. “By 2 p.m. the situation had become very critical,” the Turkish General Staff account reports. “All telephone wires were cut … some of the guns were knocked out, others were left buried … in consequence the fire of the defence had slackened considerably.” Then, suddenly, at two o’clock, the balance of the battle swung the other way. The old French battle cruiser BOUVET, falling back to allow the minesweepers to go forward, suddenly suffered an internal explosion and sank with all hands. A torpedo fired from a fixed tube ashore seemed to the worried fleet commander, Admiral de Robeck, to be the cause. Later it became known that, on the night of March 7, a line of mines had been laid by a small Turkish steamer parallel to the shore and had remained undetected. In the confusion that followed, the minesweepers, manned by civilian crews, began to fall back through the fleet and, as it manoeuvred, the old battleship IRRESISTIBLE was damaged also and fell out of the line. Next OCEAN, another old battleship, also suffered an internal explosion and soon afterwards the French pre-Dreadnought SUFFREN was severely damaged by a plunging shell.
As GAULOIS and INFLEXIBLE, the modern battle cruiser, had been damaged earlier, de Robeck now found himself with a third of his battle fleet out of action. By the end of the day, OCEAN and IRRESISTIBLE had, like BOUVET, sunk, INFLEXIBLE, SUFFREN and GAULOIS were out of action and ALBION, AGAMEMNON, LORD NELSON and CHARLEMAGNE had suffered damage. As darkness fell, de Robeck drew his fleet away. The ten lines of mines laid across the Narrows, numbering 373 in all, remained unswept and most of the shore batteries, though they had shot off all their heavy shell, preserved their guns. (11)THE LITTLE DRUMMER BOY, Pages 619 – 620
With the ships sank Churchill’s naval plan, and the army had to take over. The muster of the available forces yielded five divisions: four on the British side, the 29th Infantry Division, the Royal Naval Division, and the ANZAC Corps [1st Australian and the Australia/New Zealand division,¶] and one on the French side, the Corps Expéditionnaire d’Orient. Allied Intelligence regarding the opponent was poor: the Turkish strength was estimated at 170,000 men in ten divisions when reality allowed Liman von Sanders, the German commander of the Turkish troops, less than half of that number. In
addition, nothing was known of where the Turks would be strong or where they would be weak; hence the choice of the landing zones on the Gallipoli Peninsula was a matter of educated guesses.
The British infantry commander, General Hamilton, entertained thoughts of landing his troops on the southern, the Asian shore, where the plain of Troy would provide accessible beaches and level terrain. But Kitchener nixed the idea, pointing out that the available forces would be too thinly spread in the vastness of Anatolia. It had to be a landing on the northern, the European shore, but here the topography was forbidding, rugged mountains rising steeply from the sea. On forty miles of shore, only one suitable beach was found, opposite the Sari Bair Ridge, and reserved for the ANZAC Corps [whence it got its name, “Anzac Cove”]. The 29th Division would try its luck at Cape Helles itself, the northern tip of the peninsula, where there were some small but serviceable beaches. Here they could also be supported, on three sides, by naval artillery. Meanwhile, the remaining troops would undertake feint attacks: the Royal Naval Division at Bulair, in the Gulf of Saros north of the Gallipoli Peninsula, and the French troops on the southern, Asian tip, at Kum Kale and Yeni Shehr. These positions are depicted on the map below, Allied Invasion Points at Gallipoli.
The operation began on April 25 simultaneously at both places. A landing on a defended shore is a most hazardous military manoeuvre at the best of times, and at Gallipoli, unlike at the Allied landings of the Second World War, there existed no proper landing craft, DUWK’s or other special equipment. Neither had simulations nor rehearsals been possible; one had it to get right the first time. It was perhaps asked too much. For reasons still unclear today, the ANZAC troops landed a mile north of their target, in a wilderness of slopes which, if they could not be taken, would allow the enemy an excellent look down at ANZAC Cove and present the most exciting targets for his artillery.
Unless the Australians and New Zealanders could reach the crests before the enemy, all their positions, including the beach, would be overlooked, with calamitous effect on subsequent operations. The ANZACs knew the importance of getting high quickly and, after an almost unopposed landing, began climbing the ridges in front of them as fast as their feet could take them. The reason their landing had been unopposed soon, however, became apparent. The enemy were few because the Turks had dismissed the likelihood of a landing in such an inhospitable spot and the landing parties rapidly found that the terrain was as hostile as any defending force. One crest was succeeded by another even higher, gullies were closed by dead ends and the way to the highest point was lost time and again in the difficulty of route-finding.THE LITTLE DRUMMER BOY, PAGE 622
Organisation dissolved in the thick scrub and steep ravines, which separated group from group and prevented a co-ordinated sweep to the top.
If even some of the 12,000 ashore could have reached the summits of the Sari Bair ridge, two and a half miles above ANZAC cove, they would have been able to look down on the Narrows, and the beginnings of a victory would have been under their hands. Their maximum depth of penetration by early afternoon, however, was only a mile and a half and, at that precipitous point, they began to come under counter-attack by the assembling Turkish defenders. The ANZACs, clinging lost and leaderless to the hillsides, began, as the hot afternoon gave way to grey drizzle, to experience their martyrdom. (12)
The British troops landing around Cape Helles made sharply diverging experiences. At the flanks of the Cape, on S beach inside the Dardanelles and X and Y beaches, at the Mediterranean side of the peninsula, the invaders came ashore relatively unopposed and had set up shop soon. At V beach, south of the village Sedd-el-Bahr, and W beach, south-west of it, on the Cape itself, however, the Dublin respectively Lancashire Fusiliers ran into a combination of wire and Turkish machine-gun fire and died in the hundreds. By nightfall, casualties suffered on all beaches amounted to 5,000 men.
What should have alarmed the British commanders – Hamilton of the Mediterranean Expeditionary ForceTHE LITTLE DRUMMER BOY, PAGE 622
(MEF), Hunter-Weston of the 29th Division, Birdwood of ANZAC – was that the injuries done to their brave and
determined soldiers had been the work of so few of the enemy. MEF’s estimate of the Turkish strength committed to the defence of the Dardanelles had been a gross exaggeration. The number of troops deployed by Liman von Sanders on the Gallipoli peninsula was only a fraction of his force, the rest being dispersed between Bulair and Kum Kale, between Europe and Asia.
The assault area was held by a single division, the 9th, with its infantry deployed in companies all the way down the coast from ANZAC to Cape Helles and beyond. In places there were single platoons of fifty men, in some places fewer men or none: at Y Beach none, at X twelve men, at S a single platoon. Even at ANZAC there was only one company of 200 men, while V and W Beaches were defended by single platoons. The massacre of the Lancashire, Dublin and Munster Fusiliers and the Hampshires had been inflicted by fewer than a hundred desperate men, survivors of the naval bombardment, and killing so that they should not be killed. (13)
Seldom has the importance of holding the high ground been demonstrated more unequivocally than at Gallipoli. After six weeks of battle, the commanding summits of Achi Baba, near Cape Helles, and Chunuk Bair, opposite ANZAC Cove, remained in the hands of the Turks. The high ground allowed them to survey all Allied moves and aim their artillery accordingly. In addition, small but agile Turkish counterstrokes, directed at the local level by Mustafa Kemal, the eventual founder of the modern Turkish nation, thwarted many Allied attacks. Eventually, both sides dug in. The greatest menace for the Allied Expeditionary Corps, however, as it turned out soon, was their commander who seemed not to realize when he was beaten. Instead of withdrawing from the narrow beaches his troops were hanging on, under mounting losses, Hamilton asked for and received reinforcements – seven, if second-line, British infantry divisions, the 2nd Australian Division, the 2nd Mounted Division and another French division. The plan created by his staff envisioned another, far larger landing, at Suvla Bay, just north of ANZAC Cove. As soon as the Suvla Bay landing had gained a foothold, the Australians and New Zealanders should break out of ANZAC Cove northwards and link up with the new arrivals.
The landings at Suvla Bay, beginning on August 7, were little opposed at first, but the invaders inexplicably failed to occupy the coastal heights as soon as possible. Mustafa Kemal, meanwhile being in charge of the northern front, recognized the fatal failure and immediately dispatched troops and artillery to the heights east of Suvla Bay, to the Sari Bair Ridge and the controlling peaks of Chunuk Bair and Tekke Tepe. The heights and their Turkish defenders withstood all Allied attempts and, eventually, as at Cape Helles and ANZAC Cove, both attackers and defenders dug in, adding a third stalemate to the two preceding ones.
Hamilton was relieved of his command on October 15 and his substitute, General Monro advised the War Office that withdrawal was the only viable solution left. He was given permission for a complete evacuation on December 3 and managed a very orderly and safe withdrawal that only added three casualties to the approximately 275,000 the Gallipoli campaign had cost the Allied armies already. Turkish losses, never properly established, may have been in the neighbourhood of 300,000. The misadventure precipitated Churchill’s resignation and failed to open the supply route for Russia. Turkey remains in control of the Dardanelles until this day.
The New Year brought reorientation to the thoughts and plans of the belligerents’ general staffs. Yet in 1916 the costly nonsense of the Gallipoli campaign was replaced by the gross slaughter of Verdun.
(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/19)