The Gallipoli campaign in the Dardanelles region of modern day Turkey was a landmark battle of World War One. It is counted as perhaps the greatest Ottoman Turkish victory in the war and set about creating a Turkish nationalism that went on to create a modern country out of the ashes of defeat at the end of the Great War. Gallipoli is also pivotal in the creation of a modern national consciousness for Australia and New Zealand, separate to that with its historic links with the United Kingdom but for altogether more tragic reasons.
Gallipoli sits on the Dardanelles Straits which linked the Mediterranean to the Black Sea and which could have linked the Royal Navy with the Russian Navy if only the Dardanelles were not just controlled by the Ottomans but only a short distance from their capital, Istanbul. By the end of 1914, the Western Front was already at stalemate and there was no overland trade route between western Europe and Russia and so a plan was drawn up to capture the Dardanelle Straits which would not just open up the seaways for the Allies but possibly lead to a quick capture Istanbul, putting the Ottoman Empire out of the war before it had almost began.
The plan for the attack was largely at the behest of Winston Churchill who at the time was the heading up the Admiralty in the Royal Navy. Though today we know it ended in disaster, its original goals were laudable and if they had worked might have saved millions of lives. The fact that the Turkish capital at Istanbul was so close to the sea made it theoretically possible to knock out one of the Axis powers very quickly and the Ottomans were the weak link. However the Ottomans well knew that this was their achilles heel and so made the already difficult terrain and cliffs of the Dardanelles possibly the most fortified coastal region in the world. The 17th February 1915 saw a British seaplane from HMS Ark Royal followed by a huge bombardment two days later by a powerful joint British-French force headed up by the Battleship HMS Queen Elizabeth which began bombarding and ultimately destroying many of the outlying forts and a detachment of Royal Marines even landed to blow up Ottoman artillery. However bad weather and a mobile Ottoman military, frustrated the Allies from being able to complete their task. The 18th March saw a large attack composed of no less than 18 Battleships and aided by a number of destroyers and cruisers bombarded the coasts as mine-sweepers attempted to clear the straits but a number of important ships were damaged by a new and unknown minefield which had only been laid a few days earlier. Despite many British officers believing they were close to victory on account that the few remaining Ottoman artillery posts were low on ammunition, the order was given to withdraw and instead attempts to secure the straits fell to the land forces. At this point 78,000 Australian and New Zealand soldiers were undergoing training in Egypt in preparation for deployment to the Western Front but with the focus on Gallipoli, these men were put in the newly created Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC). The men had not trained for making a landing under fire and it was not thought that the Ottoman defenders would put up much of a fight but both turned out to be terrible mistakes. The Ottomans under Kemal Attaturk and with the assistance of German officers had prepared a robust defence especially as the Allies invasion of the 23rd April was pushed back two days due to bad conditions. Six beaches were chosen for the landings composed of British, French and Anzac groups followed shortly afterwards by Indian troops. Only 10% of the British soldiers at ‘V’ beach made it ashore due to heavy machine-gun fire and similar events took place at what would be known as Anzac Cove where Ottoman defenders stopped any potential invasion either on or just above the beach and who held fortified positions with good vantage points on the Allied soldiers below.
On W Beach the Lancashires lost 600 of their 1,000 men but still managed to take the Ottoman positions whilst of over 1,000 Irish troops only 11 were to get through the campaign unscathed. The Allied attack stalled because of the slaughter on the beaches and the fact that those positions that managed to get off the beach didn’t push onwards and maximise their advantages which allowed ample time for the Ottomans to rush in re-enforcements although an Australian submarine did manage to get through the minefield and cause panic amongst Ottoman shipping. April 27th saw 12 Ottoman battalion reinforcements arrive but still the Allies pushed forward, assisted greatly by the naval bombardment but eventually the advance was halted and like elsewhere the landings turned into a long drawn out war of attrition. Allied ships were successful at the nearby Sea of Marmara and several Ottoman ships were lost including the Gul Djemal which was carrying 6,000 men and a field battery in reinforcements. The 5th May saw the Allies launch a major attack and they made a few hundred metres before heavy fire from the Ottomans eventually caused the whole plan to be abandoned on the 7th May and both sides consolidated their positions with the Ottomans using their superior position to pick off men and officers with sniper fire.
On May 19th the Ottomans launched a 42,000 strong counter-attack with the aim of driving the Anzacs into the sea, their surprise attack ruined when they were spotted by British reconnaissance aircraft resulting in them suffering 3,000 men killed and more than 4 times that injured. Only 160 Anzacs were killed but one of them was British born stretcher bearer named John Simpson Kirkpatrick who barely known in his birth country came to prominence in his adopted country of Australia for his repeated evacuation of wounded men on the back of a donkey. His story quickly became the stuff of legends amongst the Australian forces and in Australia generally. Such were the heavy Ottoman losses that the Anzacs agreed to a truce to allow the Ottomans to recover their dead which allowed men from both sides to mingle in a similar manner to the famous Christmas truce on the Western Front. Though the British ship HMS Goliath was torpedoed which greatly affected their ability to launch effective onshore bombardments, HMS E11 managed to pass through the Dardanelles and disabled or sank 11 enemy vessels and even reached Constantinople harbour itself where it damaged a gunboat and the harbour side which saw its Captain Martin Nasmith awarded a Victoria Cross, just one of many in the Gallipoli campaign. Due to the lack of heavy artillery and an unwillingness to repeat the slaughter of their last major attack against the Anzacs, the Ottomans became unwilling to mount further frontal assaults and instead saw increased use of tunnelling. June and July saw more of the same with the both sides seeing casualty rates of around 25%. The Allies seemed unable to make inroads whilst the Ottomans couldn’t push them back into the sea with the Divisional strength of both sides increasing from 5 and 6 to 15 and 16 respectively. The stalemate forced the Allies to come up with a new plan to capture the high ground with 2 new divisions landing 5 miles north of Anzac Cove at Suvla Bay on August 6th whilst a renewed attempt on the high ground at Sari Blair would be made by existing troops. The landing was successful but the Ottomans on high ground stopped the Allied force really getting off the beach despite successful Australian diversion attacks nearby.
New Zealand forces managed to get within 500 metres of their objective without actually making it and nearby Australian and Indian groups actually got lost in the dark and were easily seen off by the Ottoman defenders. Back in Europe Lord Kitchener decided it was time to make a big push in France which meant there were only limited men left to reinforce the troops at Gallipoli and with Bulgaria now entering the war it meant the Ottomans could more easily get substantial German reinforcements. On 25th September Kitchener ordered that 3 Divisions leave the Dardanelles for Salonika in Greece. The summer heat affected both sides with many succumbing to outbreaks of disease and both sides suffering from supply problems leading to ordinary men to strike up conversation and bartering with their opponents. In the autumn it was a different story with the Allied troops in their poor positions being deluged by 3 days of rain and then snow and so it was decided that the Allies withdraw from Gallipoli, leaving their flooded trenches and unburied dead where they were. Most troops were recovered in an orderly fashion throughout December with the last men leaving on 8th January 1916. Allied vehicles were sabotaged and over 500 mules were killed to prevent them falling into Ottoman hands. The Gallipoli campaign is often looked at as an unmitigated disaster and while the Allies didn’t come close to meeting their objectives they did succeed in using up vast amount of Ottoman resources. The Allies suffered from bad planning, poor logistics, inaccurate maps and intelligence and undefined goals whilst the Turks held onto all the high and most defensive positions. Additionally, Allied submarines had all but stopped the Ottoman navy from venturing out to sea with all the supply problems this created. Some of the Anzac officers were promoted after the campaign whilst Gallipoli was at last the undoing of Lord Kitchener with the new coalition government quickly losing faith in him. Meanwhile the Ottoman successes inspired their men in future actions against the British in the Middle-East, notably in Iraq. However there can be no doubt that the Gallipoli campaign was a disaster for Allied morale and the mistakes made went on to influence much more successful amphibious landings at D-Day, the American Pacific WW2 campaign and more recently the incredible British landings at the Falklands in 1982. It seemed that those in charge of the Gallipoli campaign forgot one of the basic tenants of both the military and human nature in that soldiers are likely going to resist all the harder when their homeland is under attack regardless of what side of the war they are on. Turkey went on to lose the war and her empire and one day after the Armistice, French, British and Italian forces occupied Istanbul, the first time western forces had occupied the great city since the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453.
The successful defence of Gallipoli went on to shape the future of modern Turkey which rallied around the man who had led the Turkish defences, Ataturk who ordered and urged his men not just to fight but to die. Following the end of the war, Ataturk successfully repelled a Greek invasion of western Anatolia and when the Ottoman Empire ended, he because the first President of the modern, western orientated, secular state a tradition that has been strongly followed until the last few years. President Kemal himself once said
“You, the mothers who sent their sons from faraway countries wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.”
For Winston Churchill, the disaster weighed on him severely although in fairness what scuppered the invasion was largely due to the military forces in the area often planning badly and acting indecisively.
He was still be taunted by Gallipoli right up until WW2 and perhaps his experience allowed him to become the strong and inspirational leader when his own nation was threatened with invasion.
Anzac Day is now remembered in Australia and New Zealand annually on the 25th April to commemorate the over 11,000 dead out of their force of 35,000. It was a pivotal moment in the history of both countries and their first major actions as independent nations and they desperately wanted to stand by their mother country. Almost their entire armed forces at the time were involved in the campaign and it was the focus of everyone back home so when it went badly it became a rallying point due to the devastating effect it had on the male population in the fledgling nations.
However it wasn’t just the Anzacs that suffered as the Ottomans lost over 56,000, the British 34,000 and France nearly 10,000. British Indian and Newfoundland forces also suffered high casualty rates. Gallipoli is not widely remembered in the U.K. most likely as even the great number of deaths here are overshadowed by the even bigger battles that were to come. Only in the county of Lancashire and city of Manchester does it hold a status similar to in Australia and New Zealand where men from Lancashire alone suffered more deaths than their Kiwi comrades. However generally Gallipoli is always primarily remembered by the ANZAC nations.
The Gallipoli campaign is being remembered in Istanbul with representatives from Turkey, Britain, Australia, New Zealand and France on April 24th, one day before the 100th anniversary, possibly due to Turkish plans to divert attention from the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide which occurs on this day.
Other big commemorative events are taking place in Gallipoli itself as well as in London, Sydney and New Zealand.
If you’d like to read more about WW1 and other often forgotten but important subjects that occurred 100 years ago then check out my concise history book Lest We Forget published by Endeavour Press of London and available in Kindle and Paperback formats.