April 25, 1915 – WWI Allied Troops Land in Gallipoli

One of the best-known battles of World War One was the Gallipoli Campaign, which resulted in approximately 250,000 casualties on each side.

Early in the war, Britain assumed that the Ottoman Empire did not pose a significant military threat, and therefore could be ignored until the European portion of the war was finished.  But the war in France quickly ground to a stalemate as both sides erected defensive lines of multiple trenches stretching from Switzerland to the North Sea.  The British could not see a way through without coming from Germany’s rear.  The British Secretary to the War Council, Maurice Hankey, articulated the subsequent British policy that “Germany can perhaps be struck most effectively, and with the most lasting results on the peace of the world through her allies, and particularly through Turkey.”

gallipoli1

Turkey was thought to be particularly vulnerable because its capital and only really large city, Istanbul, lay directly on the Sea of Marmara, an offshoot of the Mediterranean. The British reasoned that if they could get a few of their large battleships into the Sea of Marmara, they could obliterate the city in a few days. British battleships were armed with guns that fired shells 15 inches in diameter and weighed about 2000 pounds each.

A major problem was that the entrance to the Sea of Marmara from the Mediterranean was the 38-mile-long strait, the Dardanelles, which is no more than 4 miles wide and less than one mile wide in spots and which had been heavily mined by the Turks. Moreover, the forbidding heights of the Gallipoli Peninsula overlook the strait. The British battleships could not get through the Dardanelles without removing the mines, and British minesweepers were vulnerable to Turkish artillery fortified on the heights of Gallipoli. Thus it was necessary to mount a land based attack on the Turkish army that was entrenched on the heights.

Winston Churchill, Lord of the Admiralty, tried to argue for a combined attack by the army and navy; a purely naval attack would merely provide the Turkish artillery with an opportunity to make literal the concept of “turkey shoot.” But the War Minister, Lord Kitchener, declined to provide any troops for Churchill’s navy; he felt they were needed in Europe. Thus Churchill was forced to do his best with the navy, and the inevitable disaster ensued.

At dawn on this day in history, April 25, 1915, Allied troops landed on the Gallipoli peninsula. General Sir Ian Hamilton, commanding the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, decided to make two landings, placing the British 29th Division at Cape Helles and the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) north of Gaba Tepe in an area later dubbed Anzac Cove. The troops landed on the beaches below the entrenched Turks on the heights, but were never able to scale the cliffs. More than 16,000 Anzacs died trying to break out of the beachhead.

ANZAC charge at Gallipoli

As the UK Imperial War Museum reports:

Trench warfare quickly took hold, mirroring the fighting of the Western Front. Casualties mounted heavily and in the summer heat conditions rapidly deteriorated. Sickness was rampant, food quickly became inedible and there were vast swarms of black corpse flies. In August a new assault was launched north of Anzac Cove. This attack, along with a fresh landing at Suvla Bay, quickly failed and stalemate returned.”

 

A view of ‘V’ Beach, Cape Helles, Gallipoli, taken from SS River Clyde, via UK Imperial War Museum

On November 22, 1915, the British decided to cut their losses and evacuate the troops. Planning moved quickly and efficiently. The evacuation began on December 15, with 36,000 troops withdrawn over the following five nights. The last party left in the early hours of December 20 from Suvla Bay. British and French forces remained at Cape Helles (the rocky headland at the southwesternmost tip of the Gallipoli peninsula), until January 8-9, 1916.

Gallipoli had been a costly failure for the Allies: 44,000 soldiers died trying to wrest the peninsula from the Ottomans. Among the dead were 2779 New Zealanders – about a sixth of those who fought on the peninsula. Victory came at a high price for the Ottoman Empire, which lost 87,000 men during the campaign.

As The History Channel online observes:

The invasion had been scuttled by incompetence and hesitancy by military commanders, but, fairly or unfairly, Churchill was the scapegoat. The Gallipoli disaster threw the government into crisis, and the Liberal prime minister was forced to bring the opposition Conservatives into a coalition government. As part of their agreement to share power, the Conservatives wanted Churchill, a renegade politician who had bolted their party a decade earlier, out from the Admiralty. In May 1915, Churchill was demoted to an obscure cabinet post.”

Historian Warren Dockter noted in the UK Telegraph:

. . . it is worth remembering that Churchill was only the primary architect of the naval aspects of the operation. The beach landing strategy came from Lord Kitchener and Ian Hamilton. There were strategic benefits elsewhere from keeping the Ottoman Army occupied at Gallipoli. For instance, the Turks were never able to mount a successful attack on the Suez Canal. More importantly, there were long-term benefits as well. The campaign highlighted the weaknesses of inter-service and international cooperation in 1915, teaching Churchill and others valuable lessons in time for the Second World War.

Of course, some of the blame must be laid at Churchill’s feet, and Churchill realised that. He accepted his fate and left government to command a battalion on the Western Front. The experience tested his character and his judgment, but ultimately made him a better leader.”

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