Thursday, November 27, 2014

THE Dardanelles campaign, or just plain Gallipoli (which means beautiful city), was how the British called it. The Turks’ title was ‘Canakkale wars’, after the province of the same name, while the French version was Les Dardanelles. In Australia and New Zealand, whose troops were collectively known as Anzacs, it was the Gallipoli campaign. This title was also applied by Ireland.

It took place on the Gallipoli peninsula, which is in Turkish Thrace, the European part of Turkey, with the Aegean Sea to the west and the Dardanelles straits to the east. Whatever title you care to apply, this was probably the bloodiest battle of all wars, especially when the weaponry used at the time was not the sophisticated stuff used today, or even that used in World War II. Most of the fighting was carried out at close range and from entrenched positions. So when mortars and artillery came into play, there was nowhere to run and nowhere to hide. This resulted in the massive death toll and the even more serious mutilation and injuries of the wounded on all sides. It was also one of the longest campaigns in either world war, running from 25 April 1915 to 9 January 1916.

Let us look at the reason for the invasion by allied forces into Turkey in the first place. In 1915, the western front was deadlocked and the allies needed a supply route to Russia. German and Austrian troops blocked all of land routes to Europe from Russia, and there was no easy access by sea. The Baltic Sea was blocked by Germany’s Kairserliche Marine, while the Black Sea had only one entrance through the Bosphorus, which was controlled by the Ottoman Empire. When they joined the central powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary) in November 1914, the Russian supply route from the Mediterranean was effectively closed.

As allied strategists argued the merits of a campaign through the Balkans, a landing on Germany’s Baltic coast, or an advance through Belgium and France, it was only when the Russians found themselves under threat from the Turks in the Caucuses and asked for some help that Britain decided to bombard the Gallipoli peninsula. The objective was to take Constantinople (Istanbul) and link up with the Russians, with a view to taking the Turks out of the equation. It was also hoped that the Balkan states would then join the allies. Britain had tempted the Turks with a £4,000,000 bribe to join them, but Germany topped that with another million, which won the Ottoman support.

Winston Churchill, at this time first lord of the admiralty, put forward the plan of attacking the Dardanelles, using mainly naval power, which would include ships that were unfit for other duties. His intelligence reports suggested that defences were weak. Although first sea lord John Fisher was not happy, and proposed a direct landing on the northern coast of Germany instead, Churchill eventually won the day.

The initial plan was to capture Constantinople, thereby setting up a secure sea route to Russia. About this time, Lieutenant General Birdwood, in command of the Anzacs on standby in Egypt, stated it was imperative that the navy have military back-up. General Sir Ian Hamilton was appointed commander of the new Mediterranean expeditionary force. It was comprised of 70,000 men from Britain, (including a large contingent of Irish-born soldiers), France and India, along with the Anzacs. Hamilton and his staff arrived in the area on 18 March, when the main assault was initiated. He, along with other senior allied personnel, underestimated the Turks, which would prove to have fatal consequences for those under his command. The campaign began on 19 February 1915 with Admiral Carden in charge, who himself had expressed caution to Churchill on this plan. The attack group comprised British and French ships. Besides the supply line through Russia, Churchill believed that a second front to the east would relieve the beleaguered fighters on the western front.

The initial attacks went well. Forts at Sedd-el-Bahr and Kum Kale were taken out, leading Carden to cable Churchill on 4 March that he expected to be in Constantinople within 14 days. This was premature, because the straits were heavily mined. Suffering from stress, Carden was replaced by Admiral Sir John de Robeck.

The main attack began on 18 March. The group was made up of 18 battleships as well as numerous cruisers and destroyers and targeted the narrowest part of the straits, which were just a mile wide. But alarm bells tolled on the very first day when the fleet lost three battleships, with three more crippled. This meant one-third of the force’s elite ships were lost on day one, mostly by mines, but one or two may have been torpedoed. One thing was certain, though: the minesweepers were totally ineffective.

Due to these losses and bad weather, there would now be a six-week delay in the action as the allied ground troops made their way to the battle area. And while the navy carried out repairs to its damaged vessels, the Ottoman forces made good use of this time.

Firstly, they had to figure out the allies’ favoured place. There was some disagreement on this. Mustafa Kemal, a 34-year-old colonel who had fought the Bulgarians in this area, believed Cape Helles on the southern tip the most likely, with Gaba Tepe next in line. However, Otto Liman Von Sanders, a German commander and adviser and to the Turks, disagreed. He identified Besika Bay on the Asian side as the best option for an invasion. Preparations continued over the quiet period, with every possibility covered.

The real plan drawn up by Hamilton would see the landing at Gallipoli, with the 29th division going ashore on five minor beaches on the southern tip of the peninsula. The Anzacs would land further north at Gaba Tepe. And the French would make it look as if they were landing at Besika Bay, but their main force would land at Kum Kale to protect the 29th.

The landings began on 25 April 1915. I am going to deal with the Anzac landing first, which took place in what would soon be known as Anzac cove, north of Gaba Tepe on the Aegean coast. The attack fleet was spotted by Turkish observers at 2am. An hour later, the moon had set and the 9th, 10th and 11th battalions of the Australian 3rd Brigade left their battleships and boarded the rowboats. They were towed by steamboats towards their landing site before being released to row the rest of the journey.

This operation was a disaster. The tows went off course and landed 2.4km from the target. The officers in charge – the only ones with information on what was required – were all killed or wounded. They were evacuated in the early fighting, leaving chaos behind them. Many died from the concentrated firepower, which caught those in the boats and on the shore. The second wave, 20 minutes later, met the same resistance and fared no better. Faced with steep cliffs, which had to be climbed to get off the beach, three ridges had been identified as a means of moving forward, but that was at the original landing site.

The Anzacs were quickly finding out that Kemal was proving to be an able leader, as were other troops involved in the landings. The fighting ability of the enemy had been grossly underestimated. This, along with downright bad planning and leadership, were playing havoc with the frontline forces, who were taking enormous casualties. This was a sign of things to come in a campaign that would turn into a long-running bloodbath. So bad was it for the Anzacs that Birdwood requested permission from Hamilton to withdraw, but this was refused. The bad reports coming back to the admiralty and Fisher’s demand of Churchill that he abandon the campaign fell on deaf ears, a decision taht let to Fisher’s resignation.

The Cape Helles landings went only slightly better. The five beaches from east to west, were code named S, V, W, X and Y. The 29th division, under the command of Major General Aylmer Hunter-Weston, made the landings. Also deployed were the Jewish Legion and the 6th Gurkha Rifles, who would secure Sari Bair, just above the landing areas. The troops from Y beach got to within 500 yards of their target, Krithia village, without a shot being fired. But this was as far as they got before Turkish reinforcements arrived. On the following day, Y beach was evacuated. The ***SS River Clyde*** was sacrificed by being run aground in order to land troops on V beach. Those on board included the Royal Munster Fusiliers, who had been based in Tralee, County Kerry, and the Royal Hampshires, while the Dublin Fusiliers, who were based in Naas, County Kildare, would join them by open boat.

The Lancashire Fusiliers landed at W beach, also from open boats. But both beaches were protected by barbed wire, which slowed them down, making easy targets for the Turks on hills above. Only 21 of the first 200 to land made the beach.

The Turks defended their country with great courage. On the morning of 25 April 1915, they ran out of ammunition. This was when Kemal gave his famous order: “I do not expect you to attack; I order you to die. In the time that passes until we die, other troops and commanders can come forward to take our place.” The entire Turkish 57th Regiment was wiped out. And as a mark of respect, there is no 57th Regiment in the modern Turkish army. The summer saw the deadlock continue, the sweltering heat bringing disease, which added to the casualty list.

Back in London, the Liberal government had been replaced by a coalition that was still led by prime minister Herbert Henry Asquith. Churchill was relieved of his post but remained a member of the war council.

It was now clear that the price being paid in human life was extreme and thoughts began to turn to the fact the allies were staring a very stark defeat right in the eye. It was time to plan a way out without losing face.

Continued next week

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By Frank White
Contact Newsdesk: +353 59 9170100

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