This coming Sunday marks the centenary of one of WWI’s most infamous campaigns: Gallipoli. It was an audacious attempt by the Entente to break the European deadlock with a master stroke. Instead, it quickly turned into a hellish ordeal and a resounding defeat. Here’s why Gallipoli seemed like a good idea at the time – and why it was doomed to fail.
The 10th Battalion in formation on the deck of HMS Prince of Wales, 24 April 1915. The battleship is leaving Mudros Harbour on its way to the Gallipoli landings (image and caption credit: anzacsite.org(CC))
With the war along the Western Front at a standstill in early 1915, allied leaders were looking for ways to break the stalemate. Many were worried that the deadlock might be permanent. Lord Kitchener, the British secretary of state for war, reluctantly conceded that operations needed to be established elsewhere.
That “elsewhere,” argued Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty, should be far away from Europe. He, along with many of his colleagues, became enamored with the idea that a strike at the heart of the Ottoman Empire through the Aegean Sea could dramatically alter the complexion of the war, if not win it outright.
Hindsight being what it is, it’s easy to dismiss Churchill’s grand plan as fanciful thinking. But at this stage in the war, many military thinkers were reluctant to acknowledge the supremacy of the defense and the resulting onset of attritional warfare, and remained convinced that a single, decisive battle could win the war.
But the idea of using the British fleet to force the Dardanelles and take Constantinople — the seat of the Ottoman Empire — was a prospect too enticing to ignore. It was a strategy that, if successful, would reap a trove of benefits.
First and foremost, a strike on the Dardanelles would open a new theatre of operations for the Turks to deal with. In early 1915, at the height of the Sarikamish crisis (an Ottoman offensive in the Caucasus), the Russians were pleading with its Entente allies for a diversionary operation against the Turks. Indeed, by launching an attack force directly at Constantinople, the allies would force the Turks to dispatch troops that were badly needed elsewhere.
Conceivably, the Turks would be thrown into such a crisis that its leadership would either surrender or be overthrown in a coup. With the port secured, the Entente could open a warm-water shipping lane for its eastern ally, the Russian Empire. By controlling the Sea of Marmara and the entrance to the Black Sea, Russia would have access to the entire Mediterranean world — and vice-versa; arms could be shipped to Russia by its allies and the United States, while allowing Russia to export precious grains to regions in need.
At the same time, an allied victory at the Dardanelles would secure Egypt and the Suez canal. It might even bring some wavering neutrals into the war, including Greece, Bulgaria, and Romania. Such a dramatic development would significantly upset the balance of power in the Balkans.
With all this in mind, it should come as little surprise that many Germans perceived the ensuing attack on the Dardanelles and Gallipoli as the most important military campaign of 1915.
But not everyone on the allied side perceived the creation of a new front as a good idea; within the British War Council itself, both Lord Kitchener and First Sea Lord Jackie Fisher harbored concerns. The French, headed by a very skeptical General Joseph Joffre, worried about what an entirely new front would mean. To them, the Western Front was the primary — if not the exclusive — theatre of operations; anything else would serve as a distraction and a drain on precious resources. But after the British War Council finally agreed to go with the plan, the French decided to tag along as well for fear of being left behind on such a potentially important and prestigious campaign.
This air of uncertainty and lack of resolve would go on to plague the campaign and contribute in no small way to its ultimate failure.
Geographically, the Dardanelles served as the gateway to Constantinople, which resided at Turkey’s northwestern tip. Over 170 miles (275 miles) long, and only a few miles wide at its narrowest parts, the channel was protected by an array of forts, guns, and sea mines, the beneficiary of German assistance that made it well prepared for an anticipated attack.
According to the plan, a large contingent of battleships would literally blast their way through the straits all the way to Constantinople. Once there, the fleet would lay siege to the city and gain control of the port.
But things did not go according to plan. On March 18, 1915, three ships were sunk — two British and one French — by sea mines. Out of fear than more ships would be lost, the attack was called off.
This episode of the war could have ended right there, but it did not. The consequences of this were tragic. The British War Council agreed that the plan to take the straits should continue, albeit by different means. A supplemental land campaign was to be launched at Gallipoli. If Constantinople was to fall, it would have to be done with the help of soldiers.
The Gallioli Peninsula is a strip of land situated at the opening of the Dardanelles. The area is arid, hilly, and full of steep ridges. As a place to launch an amphibious landing, it’s far from ideal. But from its highest peaks virtually everything below is visible; its elevated perspective offered a tantalizing and invaluable position from which attacks could be launched. British War planners assumed that an amphibious landing here would be relatively easy. Once established at Gallipoli, the plan was to have the troops continue along the straits and make their way to the Ottoman capital.
The man in charge of the Gallipoli invasion was Sir Ian Hamilton, a 62-year-old protege and friend of Kitchener, an experienced general who had served in colonial wars for Britain. His adversary was General Otto Liman von Sanders, a German general appointed by the Ottoman Minister of War Enver Pasha.
The Turks were fully expecting an attack, but they weren’t sure where or when it would commence. Already short of men, this forced Sanders to spread his 84,000 men thinly along the 100-mile long peninsula. To compensate, he allocated a sizeable portion of his troops — an entire division out of the six — as reinforcements. In charge of this force was Mustafa Kemal, who would go on to become the future Ataturk after the war. Once it was known where the invasion was happening, these back-up troops would be quickly dispatched to help.
The British plan was ambitious, to say the least. It would be the largest and most powerful amphibious landing in the face of an armed enemy to date. Nothing quite like it would be attempted again, until the D-Day landings at Normandy some three decades later.
The invading force consisted of 200 transport ships, 18 battleships, 12 cruisers, 29 destroyers, and eight submarines. On the transports were 27,000 British soldiers (including the elite 29th Division), 30,000 Anzac troops consisting of Australians and New Zealanders, and 16,000 Frenchmen. In addition to the flotilla guns, there was a generous supply of artillery. On the downside, however, and in addition to facing an uphill battle (both literally and figuratively), the troops were short on grenades and trench mortars — a deficiency that, given the landscape, would prove disasterous. Once the invasion started, it quickly became apparent that the hills were impossibly steep and the lines of fire terribly inadequate.
Hamilton’s plan would see his force divided and sent to three different locations. The French were sent to Kum Kale as a diversion, while the British were dispatched to five separate beaches at Cape Helles — the “toe” of the peninsula. The Anzac troops were set ashore in the north at a point called Gaba Tepe.
The invasion started in the early hours of April 25, 1915. Masses of soldiers poured into tiny boats pulled by oarsmen. The attack was staged at night, making it exceptionally difficult for the officers to see the darkened beaches. The first Anzac boats became bunched and arrived a mile north of the designated landing points. Bedlam ensued as the Turks caught sight of the incoming soldiers; in at least one instance, a Turkish flare was shot high into the sky followed by ceaseless gunfire.
Most of the British, French, and Commonwealth troops were bogged down almost immediately. Some beaches were practically empty, but others were fiercely defended. At one British landing beach, 700 of the first 1,000 troops were dropped by machine gun fire. A pilot surveying the area said the ocean had turned red with blood.
Poor communications and squandered opportunities contributed to the mounting chaos. Young officers had difficulty reading their maps — many of which were inaccurate — leading to even more confusion.
Over at Gabe Tepe, the Anzacs managed to get 12,000 troops ashore in less than 12 hours. These soldiers got remarkably close to their objective, the strategic peaks overlooking the Aegean. But just as they were ready to claim their prize, Mustafa Kemal arrived with a single battalion. He commanded his troops:
I don’t order you to attack. I order you to die. In the time which passes until we die, other troops and commanders can take our place.
In response, his men proceeded to force the Anzacs back down the hill toward their starting positions. For fear that they would be thrown back into the sea, the general commanding the landing force asked for permission to retreat. Hamilton, after agonizing over the decision, sent back the following message:
… there is nothing for it but to dig yourselves right in and stick it out. It would take at least two days to re-embark you as Admiral Thursby will explain to you. Meanwhile, the Australian submarine has got up through the Narrows and has torpedoed a gun boat … you have got through the difficult business, now you have only to dig, dig, dig, until you are safe.
The Anzacs, along with everyone else, had no choice but to dig, dig, dig (whatever that was supposed to mean) and confront the seemingly endless onslaught of Turks who would attack in large numbers and suffer terrible casualties in the process.
A few days after the initial landing, some 19,000 British troops attacked at Cape Helles, temporarily taking some high ground. The ensuing Turkish counter attack resulted in 3,000 casualties. Similar scenes were being played out on many of the other beaches. By the time the first stage of the invasion was over, not one of the main landings had achieved its objectives.
As noted by historian G. J. Meyer in A World Undone, “Gallipoli was turning into something almost worse than outright defeat: a stalemate as tightly locked as the one on the Western Front.” Ironically, the effort to break the European deadlock had resulted in the creation of another. Gallipoli was turning into a siege war.
By early May, the British and French had endured 20,000 casualties, and with no reserves in sight. Adding insult to injury, German submarines sank two ships later that month. In response, Britain recalled all capital ships to port; only destroyers with 4-inch guns remained to support land operations.
The British War Council offered five more divisions by the end of July, but by then 10 new Turkish divisions were dug in and waiting.
Once the deadlock set in, the Gallipoli Peninsula quickly became one of the most miserable places to fight anywhere in the entire war. As noted by historian Michelle Negus Cleary,
Many factors contributed to making the Gallipoli battlefield an almost unendurable place for all soldiers. The constant noise, cramped unsanitary conditions, disease, stenches, daily death of comrades, terrible food, lack of rest and thirst all contributed to the most grueling conditions.
Gallipoli is known for being very hot and arid during the summer months, and 1915 was no exception. With bodies strewn in and around the front-line areas, and with no opportunity to retrieve and bury the dead, a terrible stench set in. Meager water rations made life even more miserable for the troops who baked beneath the sun. Soldiers were forced to bunk-down in cramped shanty towns while living in perpetual dread of being shot by the ever-present enemy snipers. With no leave time allotted, the soldiers treasured opportunities to bathe in the ocean. For food, among the few items offered were bully beef (a kind of corned beef), biscuits, and a much-hated, unspreadable apricot jam that took the form of a liquid.
Anzac troops (anzacsite.gov/CC)
And then came the flies. Millions upon millions of them. So many flies, in fact, that soldiers struggled to eat; the flies quickly enveloped any scrap of food within moments of exposure. They were a constant torment to the soldiers, picking away at their scabs and parched lips. The insects, in addition to being a terrible annoyance, also spread disease, including dysentery, which was practically universal. Disturbingly, only 30% of British casualties in the campaign were sustained in battle.
In one incident reminiscent of the 1914 Christmas Truce, a brief armistice was declared so that troops could collect the dead in No Man’s Land. It offered an opportunity for the soldiers on both sides to exchange words and gifts. Bodies were tossed into mass graves, but because real estate was limited, it was difficult to conceal them all. The remains of dead soldiers were stuffed under the floorboards, and body parts were known to extrude from the trench walls. Newly arrived troops were horrified.
Despite all this, a deep mutual respect emerged between the allies and Ottoman Turks. As a British veteran remarked after the war:
The Turkish soldier was very highly regarded by me and all the men on our side. He was always a clean fighter and one of the most courageous men in the world. When they came there was no beating about it, but they faced up to the heaviest rifle fire that you could put up. And nothing would stop them, they were almost fanatical. We came to the conclusion that he was very good bloke indeed. We had a lot of time for him.
By August each side had lost about 57,000 men, either dead or wounded. Hamilton, short on supplies and men, planned a last desperate attack to take an unclaimed beach at Sulva Bay. But owing to gross mismanagement, lack of experience from the new troops, and exhaustion, the attack failed.
After the failed offensive of August 6, talk of evacuation finally emerged. Hamilton was sacked as commander of the Mediterranean Expeditionary force on October 15, replaced by General Sir Charles Monro who had been serving on the Western Front. After inspecting the beaches, he came to the conclusion that the Peninsula must be evacuated, writing: “The positions occupied by our troops presented a military situation unique in history… The force, in short, held a line possessing every possible military defect.”
Monro’s assessment of the situation prompted this response from Winston Churchill: “He came, he saw — he capitulated.”
In mid-November, Kitchener made a visit to Gallipoli to see for himself what was going on, remarking afterwards: “Well, I’ve seen the place, and it’s an awful place. But you’ll never get through.”
While the War Council dithered back home about what to do, a blizzard struck in November, knocking out 15,000 troops with frostbite. Mercifully, Kitchener finally recommended an evacuation. On December 7, the British Cabinet agreed.
The evacuation itself was very well executed, the result of excellent planning and clever feats of deception. In order to prevent the Turks from realizing that an evacuation was taking place, automated rifles were set up with timers — in the form of water catchments — to intermittently fire shots. The final phase of the evacuation was completed within three days, and with minimal loss of life.
But after eight horrible months, the damage was done. In terms of losses, the Turks suffered 86,692 dead, the French about 18,700, the Anzacs 11,430, and the British nearly 40,000.
Churchill took the fall for the disaster at Gallipoli. When Prime Minister H. H. Asquith was putting together an all-party coalition government, the Conservatives insisted that Churchill be fired. He was sacked, and First Sea Lord Fisher resigned.
Writing in his memoirs, Churchill insisted that Gallipoli could have been won. But most historians take great exception to this claim. In its review of Peter Hart’s excellent book, Gallipoli, The Economist writes:
The Gallipoli campaign...was doomed from the start. Planning was a matter of wishful thinking, if not outright fantasy. No serious attempt was made to understand the strength of the Turkish army, the nature of the terrain or the numbers of Allied troops. Nor could anyone conceive of logistical support required to make a success of the operation. “Thanks to political interference, lethally combined with the bullish optimism of generals who saw only opportunities, the Gallipoli campaign was launched into a void that guaranteed failure.” The Western Front was the place where the war would be won; Gallipoli was merely “a futile and costly sideshow”, exacerbated by “lunatic persistence in the face of the obvious”.
Writing in The World’s Greatest War — the first multi-volume account of the conflict — historians reached a similar conclusion:
Wherever right lies the blame for the improvident, halting, blundering, irresolute conduct of the Gallipoli expedition, a large share of responsibility must rest upon the British Cabinet. Either they should have put aside the project entirely, or they should have given it adequate support. From first to last they appear hardly to have known their own minds in the matter and so continued to hesitate and delay that their program throughout was ‘tentative and piecemeal,’ of the sort that Sir Ian Hamilton had indicated “was bound to lead to disaster.
But even in this assessment the authors are being too kind; it’s not immediately obvious that the plan, under any incarnation, could have succeeded. The resource-strapped Entente was pre-occupied with the Western Front, and already dealing with munitions shortages. What’s more, it simply could not compete with the Ottoman Empire’s vastly superior internal lines of communications. And perhaps most scathingly, the Entente grossly underestimated Turkish fighting strength and resolve.
All this being said, the Gallipoli campaign — though a failure for the Entente — sapped Turkish fighting strength. The allies may have lost the battle, but they won the war.
In Australia, the battle of Gallipoli represented its coming of age as a nation, a sentiment fueled by the reporting of C. E. W Bean who witnessed much of the goings on during the campaign. It’s important to point out that the Australians lost far more soldiers at the Battle of the Somme, yet it’s the tragedy of Gallipoli that’s remembered.
But it also defined the identity of another nation: Turkey. As historian Hew Strachan writes in The First World War:
This was a major victory, less for the Ottoman Empire than for the ethnically and geographically more defined state that emerged from the First World War. Moreover, although many of the architects of the defensive battle were German, it produced a Turkish hero who became the founder of that state, Mustafa Kemal.
Gallipoli also drove the point home that the war was not going to be won easily; in 1915, it was starting to become obvious that the conflict was going to last a while.
Lastly, the landings at Gallipoli can also be seen as a precursor to D-Day. The allied forces that landed at Normandy benefitted from many advantages, including the size of the invading armada, the technologies available, exquisite planning and support, and its close proximity to Britain. Gallipoli provided a valuable lesson — a mistake that would not be repeated in 1944.
Sources: G. J. Myers: A World Undone | Hew Strachan: The First World War | BBC: “The Great War” | Gallipoli and the Anzacs | Michelle Negus Cleary: “Flies, filth and bully beef: life at Gallipoli in 1915” | William Philpott: War of Attrition | Australian War Memorial | The World’s Greatest War (Vol 1, 1921)