Written by Dr Jack Binns
As early as November 1914, Asquith’s cabinet accepted that the war would be long and costly, yet there was much debate and disagreement about what Britain could do next to break the deadlock that had paralysed the Western Front. Sir John French, commander of the BEF, still believed that a new offensive, reinforced with Kitchener’s volunteers and supported by colonial troops, could break through the German lines in the spring of 1915, but his argument was unconvincing.
30,000 British, 11,000 Anzacs, 10,000 Frenchmen and 2,000 Indians lost their lives.
Both Lloyd George, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, were convinced that the Royal Navy should be employed to turn the flank of the Central Powers. The question was where should British superior seapower be directed. The veteran First Sea Lord, Fisher, favoured an assault on the German North Sea coast; Lloyd George suggested an expedition to Austria’s Dalmation coast or to Salonika in the Aegean; Secretary of the War Council, Maurice Hankey, thought that the fleet should make a direct attack on Turkey’s capital, Constantinople (Istanbul) by forcing a route for troops through the Dardanelles Straits.
So when Churchill assured the cabinet that no land forces would be needed for the operation, at the end of January 1915 an entirely naval plan was approved. The Royal Navy’s battleships could be trusted to obliterate the Turkish batteries and forts along the shores of the Dardanelles.
The assumption that the fall of Constantinople would be certain to shorten the war was remarkably wishful: even if an open line of supply to Russia’s Black Sea had been secured, at that time neither the British nor the French had a surplus of munitions to aid their ally. On the contrary, as the events of 1915 on the Western Front were to show, their offensives there were fatally frustrated by lack of guns and ammunition. And if Turkey had been knocked out of the war, this would have aided not hampered Germany. Nevertheless, as so often happens in wars, once a commitment had been made, it would be difficult and demoralising if not impossible to admit defeat and withdraw. (“Mission creep” was not yet a familiar, ominous phrase). So despite Churchill’s assurances, if his warships failed, the army would have to be sent in to achieve the objective.
On March 18, 1915, British and French battleships entered the Straits and began to shell the Turkish forts guarding them. All seemed to be going well: most of the shore batteries were silenced and none of the ships was hit. But as the fleet withdrew it ran into a line of mines that had not been noticed. Three allied warships were sunk and two severely damaged. Though all these vessels were old and due for scrap, Sir John de Robeck, commander of the fleet, decided that it was too dangerous to renew the attack and reported that troops would have to be landed to capture the Straits.
The War Office had made no preparations for such a landing, so that the Turks were given a month’s warning while allied military plans were hastily improvised. During that time, under German military command, the Turks poured 80,000 troops into the length of the Gallipoli peninsula, more than Sir Ian Hamilton, the allied general, had at his disposal.
Initially, Hamilton had no accurate maps, no Staff, no information about the strength and location of opposing Turkish forces and no clear instructions about the purpose of his command. Worst of all, his troops had no purpose-made craft and no training for landing from the sea onto a hostile shore. Accurately, he described the forthcoming campaign as “an adventure unprecedented in modern war” and called upon “the help of God and the Navy”!
Eventually, Hamilton had assembled a makeshift, mixed army of about 75,000 soldiers: 18,000 in the 29th Division, a unit of regulars gathered from imperial garrisons; 30,000 Australian and New Zealander volunteers, the ANZACs; 10,000 seamen and marines from the Royal Navy; and 17,000 Frenchmen. However, instead of concentrating the assault on to a spacious landing zone, Hamilton split his force into three: the French to the Asiatic mouth of the Straits, the 29th to five different points round Cape Helles, and the ANZACs further north on the Aegean shoreline of the Gallipoli peninsula.
Though the Turks were taken by surprise and at several beaches no resistance was met, there the early advantage and opportunity were wasted by inertia and lack of command. Instead of advancing immediately up to the dominating heights, Hamilton’s men dug in or near the shore. The momentum was lost, both at Cape Helles and Anzac Cove. Without adequate reinforcements, short of ammunition and under constant fire from Turkish guns above them, the allied soldiers were pinned down in trench warfare.
In August, preliminary success was again won by a surprise landing further up the peninsula at Suvla Bay. Hamilton now had three additional divisions, the Irish of the 10th, the West Countrymen of the 13th, and the Northerners in the 11th. All were from Kitchener’s New Army facing their first ordeal of battle. Commander of all three was Sir Frederick Stopford who had retired in 1909 and in 1914 was Lieutenant of the Tower of London! He chose to control the landings at Suvla from his private sloop and spent most afternoons in siesta. Major General Frederick Hammersley, who was put in charge of the 11th, was even more unsuitable. He had fought at Omdurman in 1898 and had been seriously wounded in South Africa. It was well known that he suffered from an acute nervous disorder and had had at least one mental collapse.
Once again, the opportunity to outflank the Turks was wasted by the failure of the generals to order a rapid advance into undefended country. The troops were untrained to fight in exceptional conditions and their senior officers elderly, inexperienced and incompetent. Once again, under continuous artillery and sniper fire, Kitchener’s young men suffered heavy losses on the exposed beaches and foothills.
By August 17, only 10 days after the first landing at Suvla Bay, Hamilton was asking for reinforcements to break yet another stalemate. In response, Kitchener demanded that the veteran he had appointed, Stopford, should be sacked and Hammersley’s gross negligence was disguised by the claim that he had a dangerous blood clot in his leg.
Hamilton’s replacement in October, Sir Charles Monro, immediately recommended complete evacuation. As Churchill wrote of him, “He came, he saw, he capitulated.” The politicians were at odds, as usual. Churchill wanted to stay; Lloyd George was for withdrawal. In the end, the new Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir William Robertson, the first field-marshal ever to enlist as a private in the ranks, introduced a fresh draught of realism. Germany, he said, could be defeated only where its army was fighting on the Western Front. Regardless of the loss of prestige, the campaign had to be abandoned as hopeless. Anzac Cove and Suvla Bay were evacuated in December and the last British troops left Cape Helles the following month. Only the removal of 80,000 men had been carried out with skill and without casualties. The last soldier had gone before the Turks realised it. Altogether the “adventure” had cost the lives of 30,000 British, 11,000 Anzacs, 10,000 Frenchmen and nearly 2,000 Indians.
The Gallipoli campaign continues to excite controversy amongst military historians, but the majority view now is that it was a bungled mistake, strategically wrong and very badly conducted.