On the 9th of January 1916, the last remaining Allied troops on the Gallipoli peninsula were evacuated. Despite catastrophic predictions, the withdrawal went off without a hitch and the entire force escaped with only a few casualties. It was the only bright spark in a campaign marked by failure.
After naval attempts to force the Dardanelles straight failed, the amphibious landings had fared even worse. Fierce Ottoman opposition stopped the Allies in their tracks and trench warfare quickly took hold. There were heavy casualties on both sides, not only from the fighting but from the terrible conditions. After a succession of failed attacks, the decision was finally made to withdraw.
A tale of British incompetence
In this episode of IWM Stories, Alan Wakefield explores what went wrong at Gallipoli and why the evacuations were the only success.
On the 9th of January 1916, the final remaining Allied troops on the Gallipoli peninsula withdrew to the sea. Despite catastrophic predictions, the evacuation went off without a hitch and the entire force escaped with only a few casualties. It was the only success in a campaign marked by failure.
After naval attempts to force the Dardanelles strait had failed the amphibious landings fared even worse. Fierce Ottoman opposition stopped the Allies in their tracks and trench warfare quickly took hold. There were heavy casualties on both sides not only from the fighting but from the terrible conditions. After a succession of failed attacks, the decision was finally made to withdraw.
So what went wrong? Why did the Dardanelles campaign fail so badly? And why were the evacuations the only success?
Well to find out we first need to go back to the end of 1914. As stalemate took hold on western and eastern fronts British strategic thinking was increasingly divided.
You've got Westerners and Easterners. Now a Westerner is somebody who wants to concentrate all forces against Germany on the Western Front because Germany is the main enemy. Easterners are looking back to an old tradition in British strategy where you use the navy to go around the periphery of the enemy and look for weak points. It's looking for a cheap victory to avoid big casualties on the Western Front.
The Easterners believe that Germany was being propped up by her Allies Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire. If they could knock either of them out of the war Germany would be deprived of vital manpower and resources. The Ottoman Turks in particular were a tempting target. Defeating them would create a new link from Russia to Britain via the sea and open new routes into Austria-Hungary allowing the Allies to attack via the back door.
In 1911 they lost the Italians in North Africa and in 1912 they lose to a coalition of Balkan states and lose most of their territory in Europe. So Turkey is looking a bit like a busted flush in an easy country to turn over especially by the British and French armies. At the centre of this plan for a quick and easy victory was the Royal Navy. While the army was tied down fighting on the Western Front, the navy had ships to spare. Many outdated battleships which were unfit for service against the Germans could prove very useful against the Ottomans who had almost no navy to speak of. The plan was to send a Royal Navy force through the Dardanelles strait which separates Europe and Asia. They would then threaten to bombard the Ottoman capital of Constantinople, modern-day Istanbul, which would then force the Turks to capitulate essentially knocking them out of the war within a couple of days. The plan sounded great, but it wasn't the first time it had been suggested.
In 1906 the Committee of Imperial Defense in Britain did a study. The fortifications and potential threat of minefields made this a very, very dangerous mission. So it was decided by 1907 that this was not a feasible option.
But by 1915 the study had been forgotten and so despite the warnings an Allied naval force was put together. It primarily consisted of pre-dreadnought battleships, nine British and four French, but also featured two modern vessels the new dreadnought HMS Queen Elizabeth and battlecruiser HMS Inflexible. The all-important task of clearing the minefields however was to be carried out by 35 civilian fishing trawlers.
Now they've got a very dangerous job but they're being crewed by their civilian crews. Men who have really no experience of this job and won't be particularly keen to do it unless it's going to be well covered by the navy.
Facing them were a large number of Turkish fixed fortifications both at the entrance to the strait and at its narrowest point. These housed dangerous shore batteries, but they could be engaged and destroyed by the Allied fleet. There were also a series of minefields which covered the strait plus a ship called Nusret which could come out at night and lay new ones. Worst of all for the Allies though were Turkish mobile howitzer batteries which could hit Allied ships from hidden positions before moving to new locations.
Now the mobile artillery are normally hidden in ravines and a naval gun is absolutely useless to try to knock out something that's hidden in the ravine. You need something that can lob a shell in an arc, not fire a shell in a flat straight line. So they're difficult to knock out and they will probably be the biggest threat facing the naval forces.
Naval operations in the Dardanelles had actually begun in November 1914 before a formal declaration of war had even been made, but these mainly had the effect of alerting the Turks as to where attacks were going to take place.
Those attacks began in earnest in February as Allied ships successfully bombarded the outer forts at the entrance to the strait, allowing the main attack to take place on the 18th of March.
As the allied ships steamed into the Dardanelles the Turkish shore fortifications fell silent under sustained naval fire. But as the minesweepers moved in they too came under fire, this time from those Turkish mobile howitzer batteries, forcing them and their civilian crews to withdraw. In their place the Allied battleships pushed forward.
And at that point, one of the French battleships Gaulois is badly hit by shore battery fire and has to withdraw. The battleship Bouvet blows up and sinks within two minutes. Of around 700 crew only about 10% of them actually survive.
Soon after that two more British ships were hit by Turkish mines and later sunk before the battlecruiser HMS Inflexible was severely damaged and that was the final straw. Unwilling to risk any more hits to their most important ships, the Allied naval forces withdrew.
The strength of the Turkish defences really catches the Allied commanders by surprise. Because our minesweepers can't get in to clear these mines and the Turks are coming out tonight and laying other minefields. It's obvious to the naval commanders that they're going to lose too many vessels if they try this again. They need to get the army involved in this to nullify those Turkish defences to make this a success.
To do that job the Allies pulled together the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force. This included the 29th Division, the ANZAC Corps of Australian and New Zealanders, the Royal Naval Division, British Territorial Army units and a small contingent of Indian Army soldiers. All of whom lacked experience in battle. A well-equipped French division completed the force of around 70,000 men led by General Sir Ian Hamilton.
His plan was two-pronged, the 29th Division and elements of the Royal Naval Division would land on five beaches at Cape Helles and the ANZACs would land on one beach at Gaba Tepe. A diversionary landing would also be made by french forces at Kum Kale across the strait. Once ashore the ANZACs were to push across the island to Maidos and cut off any reinforcements heading to Cape Helles where the 29th Division would have captured the high ground. From there the combined Allied force would sweep the rest of the peninsula capturing Turkish forts and gun emplacements and allowing the navy to complete its mission.
Standing in their way was the Ottoman Fifth Army. This was under the command of the German General Limon von Saunders who had previously been in charge of modernising the Turkish army. Other German officers took charge at divisional level alongside some very capable Turkish commanders including Mustafa Kemal who would go on to play a key role in this campaign and Turkey's future.
The other thing about this Turkish army is it it's actually packed full of Anatolian Turks. So these are men that are defending their homeland. The British army have met the Turkish army in Mesopotamia before Gallipoli, but there most of the troops were conscripted locals from Iraq don't have any love for the Turks and don't really want to fight for them. So we've got this idea again that the Turkish army isn't up to much, but here we are facing basically the flower of the Turkish army and their best commanders.
The Ottoman strategy was based on the defence in depth that worked so well for the Germans on the Western Front. They placed only a thin line of troops defending the beaches who would hold off the Allies for as long as possible before the main reserve held in a central location could make counter-attacks and push them back into the sea.
The landings commenced in the early hours of the 25th of April 1915, but very little went to plan. At Cape Helles, the troops landing at S, X, and Y beaches faced almost no resistance but failed to advance inland or reinforce their positions losing valuable time. Meanwhile, the main landings at V and W beaches were opposed by two companies of Turkish infantry who inflicted heavy casualties thanks to thick barbed wire and accurate rifle fire from the cliffs. At V beach the SS River Clyde, a converted collier, was used as a landing ship and run aground beneath the Turkish fort of Sedd-al-Bahr.
But unfortunately, the gangways are so narrow that as the men come out onto the gangways they're just shot down and casualties at W and V beaches are really, really heavy. In fact at W beach the First Lancashire Fusiliers that morning win 6 Victoria Crosses in their landing.
For the ANZACs things were even worse. They were landed about a mile further north than intended. So instead of the wide flats at Gaba Tepe, they had to fight up the steep cliffs of what would become known as ANZAC Cove. The fighting was extremely bloody as the ANZACs tried to take the heights around the beach but they were unable to do so due to fierce Ottoman encounter attacks organized by Mustafa Kemal.
It's basically a defender's dream this terrain. The Turks have been tenacious in defence and they're also very willing to put in these counter-attacks. And the Turks suffer horrendous casualties as well because then they're attacking and again the terrain favours the defenders. But they ensure that there is no Allied breakout at Gallipoli.
While the ANZACs simply tried to cling on to their beachhead the forces at Cape Helles continually tried to break out over the following months. But supply problems plagued these attempts. Gallipoli was always playing second fiddle to the Western Front where the bulk of the British army was engaged. The supplies that did arrive were within range of Turkish guns and there was little room to store it. Most importantly though there was never enough artillery or high explosive shells to seriously damage the Turkish positions. The quick and easy victory had turned to stalemate.
In July, hope for success was renewed when General Hamilton was offered 6 new divisions. He decided that a third landing further up the peninsula at Suvla Bay would finally enable an Allied breakout. This terrain was far more favourable and was to be supported by a simultaneous attack from ANZAC Cove. However, when the offensive began on August 6th the Allies lost the initiative once again waiting for artillery support to arrive and Turkish reinforcements were able to seize the high ground.
At the same time as those new landings are going. In ANZAC Australian, New Zealand and Indian troops are trying to secure the high ground. They try and attack at night but they get lost. They get lost in this torturous, maze-like terrain and by the time they attack it's dawn the Turks can see them coming. New Zealanders heroically managed to secure the top of this ridge called Chunuk Bair but they're pushed off by a massive Turkish counter-attack and no ground is gained.
A key reason for these failed attacks were the terrible conditions. At ANZAC cove in particular there was a lack of water and nowhere to dispose of waste or bury the dead. During the summer huge swarms of flies went from corpse, to refuge, to food, and back again spreading dysentery up and down the Allied lines.
Many of the men they're absolutely debilitated which makes just even holding the trench line hard enough, let alone to actually the idea of launching an attack. And it's actually relentless there is nowhere to get away from this. The best way you can get away of from it is to basically get yourself wounded.
By October frustration was building within Allied leadership. Sir Ian Hamilton lost his job and was replaced by Sir Charles Monroe who immediately concluded that the peninsula needed to be evacuated. But British leadership was unwilling to accept such a knock to British prestige.
The event that forced Allied withdrawal actually came in the Balkans. In October Austria-Hungary and Germany finally began to make gains into Serbia and Bulgaria joined the war on the Central Power's side. Now Germany had a direct railroad into Turkey itself and could begin supplying the Ottomans with the heavy artillery they needed to push the Allies back into the sea. In November after a visit from Lord Kitchener himself, it was clear that the situation was untenable and the decision was finally made to evacuate.
They need to do this in great secrecy. If the Turks get wind of this and attack during the evacuation it could be total chaos and the destruction of the Allied force. Ironically as we're leaving the staff work is almost perfect, it is really the high point of the campaign.
The Allies introduced periods of silence leaving entire nights when not a single shot was fired. At first the Ottomans were confused, but eventually it became routine and the Turks stopped reporting silence in Allied lines. The Allies also landed empty boxes on shore, marched units around on the beach to give the impression of activity, and left empty camps up with fires burning. One innovation that's invented by an Australian is the self-firing rifle. You have two tins, the top tin containing water. The water drips into the bottom tin, once it becomes a certain weight that tin drops and fires the rifle. So they set these up on the last night just as they withdraw.
Over the course of the 18th and 19th of December, the entirety of the forces from Suvla Bay and ANZAC Cove were evacuated with only a few soldiers wounded. 83,000 men, 186 guns, and 4,600 horses and mules managed to escape with the Turks none the wiser. In January the same tactics were employed again, this time at Cape Helles. Despite a Turkish attack not two days before the evacuation, the Allied forces once again escaped unscathed. The final act of the campaign was the single bright spark in an otherwise dismal failure. The allies had suffered 115,000 casualties for no gain, while the Ottomans had suffered 186,000 in the successful defence of their homeland.
Well Gallipoli ends in a disaster firstly because we just didn't have the forces to commit to this campaign to make it work. You can't fight these wars on the cheap. We underestimated our opponents, the forces put together were untried and untested, many of the commanders were as inexperienced as the soldiers they were leading. Really it was not going to work.
The men doing the fighting were badly let down by their commanders and by the senior politicians who pushed for the campaign. British prestige took a huge knock, coupled with the British surrender at Kut a few months later the British were twice defeated by the so-called 'sick man of Europe' and alongside the shell crisis of 1915, the failure at Gallipoli would bring down the British government and force Prime Minister Henry Asquith's Liberals into a coalition with the Conservatives. Future Prime Minister Winston Churchill would lose his job over the campaign, instead leading a battalion on the Western Front. On the Ottoman side Gallipoli was a high point for national morale. Beyond the war it was the making of Mustafa Kemal or Atatürk who would go on to become the first leader of the Turkish republic.
Beyond that the failed amphibious landings in particular would reverberate throughout the following decades. Many lessons were learned for the successful Allied operations during the Second World War including Operations Torch, Husky and Overlord. Finally, the impact of the campaign on the nations of New Zealand and Australia are still felt to this day.
Gallipoli was was something of a birth moving away from being dominions of Britain to being sort of nations in their own right. And the fact that ANZAC Day was established for the 25th of April every year made sure that the Gallipoli campaign was never forgotten. And that whole sort of idea of the ANZAC as the mateship and the hardiness and steadfastness of those soldiers comes out of Gallipoli and lives long into the memory.