The Battle of Gallipoli was one of the Allies’ greatest disasters in World War One. It was carried out between 25th April 1915 and 9th January 1916 on the Gallipoli peninsula in the Ottoman Empire. The doomed campaign was thought up by Winston Churchill to end the war early by creating a new war front that the Ottomans could not cope with.
On November 25th 1914, Winston Churchill suggested his plan for a new war front in the Dardanelles to the British government’s War Council. On January 15th 1915, the War Council gave its agreement and British troops in Egypt were put on alert. The Central Powers were fighting primarily on two fronts – the Western and Eastern Fronts. Fighting against such forces as the Russian and French armies put a great deal of strain on the German military. The input of the smaller Austrian army into the major battles had been small when compared to the German army’s input.
Churchill’s idea was simple. Creating another front would force the Germans to split their army still further as they would need to support the depleting Turkish army. When the Germans went to assist the Turks, that would leave their lines weakened in the west or east and lead to greater mobility there, as the Allies would have a weakened army to fight against.
The Turks had joined the Central Powers in November 1914 and they were seen by Churchill as being the weak underbelly of those who fought against the Allies.
Churchill had contacted Admiral Carden, head of the British fleet anchored off of the Dardanelles, for his thoughts on a naval assault on Turkish positions in the Dardanelles. Carden was cautious about this and replied to Churchill that a gradual attack might be more appropriate and had a greater chance of success. Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, pushed Carden to produce a plan which he, Churchill, could submit to the War Office. Senior commanders in the navy were concerned at the speed with which Churchill seemed to be pushing an attack on the Dardanelles. They believed that long term planning was necessary and that Churchill’s desire for a speedy plan, and therefore, execution was risky. However, such was Churchill’s enthusiasm, the War Council approved his plan and targeted February as the month the campaign should start.
There is confusion as to what was decided at this meeting of the War Council. Churchill believed that he had been given the go-ahead; Asquith believed that what was decided was merely “provisional to prepare, but nothing more.” A naval member of the Council, Admiral Sir Arthur Wilson, stated:
“It was not my business. I was not in any way connected with the question, and it had never in any way officially been put before me.”
Churchill’s secretary considered that the members of the Navy who were present “only agreed to a purely naval operation on the understanding that we could always draw back – that there should be no question of what is known as forcing the Dardanelles.”
With such apprehension and seeming confusion as to what the War Office did believe, Churchill’s plan was pushed through. It would appear that there was a belief that the Turks would be an easy target and that minimal force would be needed for success. Carden was given the go ahead to prepare an assault.
Ironically in 1911, Churchill had written:
However, he had been greatly impressed with the power and destructive ability of German artillery in the attack on Belgium forts in 1914. Churchill believed that the Turkish forts in the Dardanelles were even more exposed and open to British naval gunfire.
On February 19th 1915, Carden opened up the attack on Turkish positions in the Dardanelles. British and ANZAC troops were put on standby in Egypt.
The battleship “Cornwallis” bombarding the Gallipoli peninsula
Carden’s initial attacks went well. The outer forts at Sedd-el-Bahr and Kumkale fell. However, more stern opposition was found in the Straits. Here, the Turks had heavily mined the water and mine sweeping trawlers had proved ineffective at clearing them. The ships under Carden’s command were old (with the exception of the “Queen Elizabeth”) and the resistance of the Turks was greater than had been anticipated. The attack ground to a halt. Carden collapsed through ill health and was replaced by Rear-Admiral Robeck.
By now, there was a military input into Britain’s plan. Lieutenant-General Birdwood, who had been a former military secretary to Lord Kitchener, commanded the ANZAC’s based in Egypt. He reported that a military support for the navy was imperative and General Sir Ian Hamilton was appointed commander of the newly created Mediterranean Expeditionary Force. It contained 70,000 men from Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand along with troops from France. Hamilton left for the Dardanelles on February 13th along with a hastily gathered staff. He had little information on Turkish strength and he arrived on March 18th knowing little about the military situation there. It is probable that he had the same opinion as many as to the ability of the Turks in battle – and this was to prove very costly to the force under his command.
Also on March 18th, the Allies suffered a chronically embarrassing naval disaster. Three British battleships were sunk, three were crippled (but not sunk). At a stroke, the British had lost 2/3rds of their battleships in the Dardanelles. Robeck had little idea of what to do next. The mine clearing trawlers were ineffective, the Turks held the higher ground which was of great strategic importance and the idea of using destroyers to clear the minefields would have taken time to organise. The army suggested that it should take over.
On March 22nd, Hamilton and Robeck decided that the naval fleet would sail to Alexandria to give it time to reorganise itself while Hamilton prepared his force for a land battle. According to Winston Churchill, this decision was taken without the knowledge of the government:
While this was going on, the War Council did not meet and was not to meet for another two months!
The army’s input into the Gallipoli campaign was a disaster. It would appear that the senior commanders on the ground believed that their opposition simply was not up to the standards of the British and ANZAC troops.
The Secretary to the War Council, Sir Maurice Hankey, called the whole affair a “gamble” based on the belief that the Turks would be an inferior force. Even the General Officer commanding Egypt, Sir John Maxwell, wrote “Who is co-coordinating and directing this great combine?” Maxwell’s comment was apt. Hamilton commanded the army on the ground; Robeck the navy while Maxwell was GOC Egypt where the troops were based. No one was given overall charge.
Hamilton decided on a landing at Gallipoli. The landing place was barely a secret as security at Hamilton’s headquarters was regarded as weak at best. Hamilton’s plan was that:
- The 29th Division would land on five small beaches at the southern end of the peninsula
- The ANZAC’s would land further north just by a jutting promontory called Gaba Tepe.
- The French would launch a feint – a ‘landing’ at Besika Bay. The French were to make a proper landing at Kum Kale to protect the 29th Division
It is generally assumed that one major failing of the Allied forces in the Dardanelles was that they underestimated the ability of the Turks. In fact, the Turkish Army was weak in the region and it was poorly led. On March 24th, the command of the Turks was passed to General Liman von Sanders. He had to defend a coastline of 150 miles with just 84,000 men. However, its fighting capacity was just 62,000 men. The troops that were there were poorly equipped and supplies were poor. Sanders could not call on one plane to assist him. However, he placed his men away from the beaches much to the consternation of the Turkish officers there. They argued that there were so few beaches that the Allies could land on, that Turkish troops were better being placed on the beaches or immediately above them.
The landings started on April 25th. The British landed unopposed on three beaches at Cape Helles. Another landing was resisted but the Turks were defeated. But the landing at Sedd-el-Bahr was a disaster. The British were caught in the fire of well dug-in Turkish machine gunners. Many British troops could not get ashore and were killed at sea.
The ANZAC’s landed at Anzac Cove. Here they were faced with steep cliffs which they had to climb to get off the beach. To make matter worse, Anzac Cove was a tiny beach and quickly became very congested. The Turks pushed back the initial ANZAC move inland. The fighting was bloody and costly. The Turks in this area were led by the unknown Colonel Mustapha Kemel. Lieutenant-General Birdwood asked Hamilton for permission to withdraw his troops. Hamilton refused.
Some months later Birdwood wrote:
By May in Helles, the British had lost 20,000 men out of 70,000. Six thousand had been killed. The medical facilities were completely overwhelmed by the casualties. Trench warfare occurred along with the fear of dysentery and the impact of the heat. One British soldier wrote that Helles:
The next phase of the battle started in August. Hamilton ordered an attack on Suvla Bay that was not heavily defended. The landing took place on August 6th and involved the landing of 63,000 Allied troops. This time the secrecy behind the operation was so complete that senior officers were unaware of what others were doing. These 63,000 men were meant to take the area around Suvla Bay and then link up with the ANZAC’s at Anzac Cove. The plan very nearly worked but the ANZAC’s could not break out of Anzac Cove. The British at Suvla were pushed back by a frantic attack led by Mustapha Kemal and by August 10th, the Turks had retaken Suvla Bay.
However, the opponents of the campaign in London had become louder and more numerous. Hamilton was recalled and he was replaced by Sir Charles Monro. He recommended evacuation and the task was given to Birdwood. The evacuation of Suvla Bay and Anzac Cove was a brilliant success. It was accomplished on December 19th to December 20th. Not one casualty occurred.
The evacuation of Helles occurred on January 8th to January 9th, again with no loss of life. Thus the campaign ended with two successes.
However, the overall campaign was a disaster of the first order. Over 200,000 Allied casualties occurred with many deaths coming from disease. The number of Turkish deaths is not clear but it is generally accepted that they were over 200,000.
Before the Gallipoli campaign even got started, Lloyd George had prophetically written:
After the end of the campaign, opinions were divided. Sir Edward Grey and Lord Slim (who fought at Gallipoli) were scathing in their criticism. Slim called those who had been in command at the campaign the worst in the British Army since The Crimean War. Despite the losses, Churchill remained a defender of what had gone on – as was Hamilton.