One of the most tragic episodes of the First World War was the British led attempt to force the Dardanelles by invading the Gallipoli peninsula. The origins of the campaign lay in the British desire to affect the war on the Western Front by conducting operations in other theaters that would indirectly force Germany to react to developments away from the decisive front, in France. A stroke against Turkey that would control the Dardanelles was strategically brilliant and may well have changed the course of the war if not for the tactical mismanagement of the campaign by the British commanders.
There were many subsidiary campaigns undertaken in attempts to influence the course of the fighting in France and give the Allies the upper hand, most were obviously quixotic in that any effects they might induce would be negligible at best. The Germans were not dependent on overseas colonies so the loss of their colonial Empire hurt them very little. Another theater that held promise was the Baltic, but the German stranglehold on the Danish straits precluded any major effort in that theater. The British efforts to topple the Ottomans in Iraq and Persia would not bear fruit until late in the war, losing a small army at Kut in Iraq in 1915 after a five-month siege.
Turkey was essentially a satellite of the Germans prior to their entry into the war in November 1914 as German allies; the Germans had sent many advisors to the Turkish army. The Turks had also accepted two German ships the Goebben and Breslau with their entire complements simply taking service in the Turkish navy. With the closure of the Dardanelles, the only potential warm water supply route to Russia was closed to the Allies, leaving Russia with great masses of men but inadequate means to equip them.
The Allies, prodded by First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill (1874-1965), viewed the opening of a warm water route to Russia through the Black Sea as potentially decisive in deciding the outcome of the war. In the spring of 1915, the Allied fleet under Admiral John de Roebeck (1862-1928) attempted to force the Dardanelles with a naval attack but was repelled with the loss of three dreadnoughts. The decision was then made to force the straits by invading Gallipoli and controlling the surrounding land.
One of the first things that should strike anyone studying the Gallipoli campaign is the nature of the terrain upon which the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force (MEF) was expected to fight. The Gallipoli peninsula is a long, thin neck of land that comprises the western or European portion of the Dardanelles leading to the Sea of Marmara and Constantinople. It generally runs in a northeast direction from the opening into the Aegean Sea and is approximately sixty miles long and anywhere from ten to as little as three miles wide. It is only about forty miles from the southern tip of the peninsula at Cape Hellas to the entrance of the Sea of Marmora adjacent to the town of Bulair. This southern portion is the part of the peninsula that is militarily significant for control of the Dardanelles.
The entire peninsular is semi-arid desert with rocky scrub and pine forests predominating as the type of vegetation. In the vicinity of Cape Hellas, the beaches are very narrow, less than one hundred yards wide and are backed by steep cliffs; inland the ground is crossed by numerous steep gullies and draws that impede movement. There are occasional broad beaches along the western side of the peninsula but the difficulties there are of a different character as the coastal waters are shallow and largely unsuitable for landing operations although they are not impossible. The climate in western Turkey is inhospitable to say the least, the summers are brutal with temperatures in the 90’s on average, and the winters are no better with temperatures plunging into the 40’s and lower accompanied by the annual winter rains.
War had been declared against Turkey in November of 1914 but no military action was taken initially although planning for an attack on the Dardanelles began almost immediately. Turkey was believed to be an easy target, as the Turks were seen as inferior to Western soldiers despite the ferocious reputation they had gained in previous centuries. The initial plan for forcing the Dardanelles was a naval plan only with little land action. The only land action initially foreseen was that of small landing parties going ashore to ensure the destruction of forts and guns in the straits that had been previously struck by naval gunfire. There were some in the British high command, who wished to coordinate the naval and land attacks, but Churchill loudly denounced this idea and the naval action began first.
The first thing the British had to accomplish in forcing the Dardanelles was to eliminate the threat of mines in the restricted waters of the narrows. There were no dedicated anti-mine ships available to the Mediterranean fleet and so the plan called for some converted fishing vessels manned by civilians to clear the mines under the protection of the fleet’s guns. The Allies assembled a combined fleet of twelve British and French battleships of which only one was a new dreadnought, the HMS Queen Elizabeth, which served as the flagship.
The initial British attempt to force the narrows on 19 February 1915, was a promising start with the destruction of several Turkish batteries and forts and only minor damage and casualties to the capital ships. They originally intended to continue operations but a storm, which lasted for six days, postponed further attacks until 25 February.
The fleet renewed the naval attacks on the narrows beginning on 25 February and continued fleet actions combined with isolated land actions by naval and marine landing parties continued until 18 March when the naval attacks ended after the loss of three battleships. This attack was intended as the culminating battle that would finally force the narrows and allow the fleet into the Sea of Marmora. It began well but ended with the retreat of the fleet into the Aegean after the loss of three battleships, Irresistible, Ocean, and Bouvet, to a previously unknown line of mines laid parallel to the Asian shore. The naval commander Admiral Sir John de Robeck initially planned to continue the attack but this was postponed until a combined operation could be mounted.
As early as 19 March, General Hamilton, the British commander, had wired Lord Horatio Kitchener, the British War Minister that the attack by the navy was a failure and therefore planning for a land attack should proceed, as this was the only viable option for securing the Dardanelles. There was much confused planning especially when it was discovered that the troops and stores from England had not been loaded for combat, necessitating a diversion of the force to Egypt so that the ships could be unloaded and reloaded. The initial date of the invasion had to be moved from early April to late April because of the confused ship loading and troop situation, the 29th division was not even released by Kitchener until March 10 and was still enroute to the Mediterranean when the decision to attempt an invasion was made.
Various commanders debated upon where was the best possible place to land infantry to exercise the most influence on the straits. Initial planning concentrated on a landing near Bulair at the neck of the peninsula, but this idea was discarded as being too obvious. The plan eventually settled on by Hamilton envisioned landings at the southern tip of the peninsula at Cape Hellas on five beaches with a diversionary landing on the southern shore at Kum Kale. The Turks under German General Liman von Sanders, expected the landings to come at Bulair and stationed three divisions there to guard it.
The beaches chosen for the Allied landings were hardly worthy to be called beaches, being very narrow and backed by steep hills. The Turks had extensively wired all the beaches in Gallipoli and these were to prove deadly obstacles during the assault. The Turks did not begin serious preparations to defend the beaches against invasion until after the naval attacks on the narrows began in January 1915. However, they did as thorough a job as possible and there defenses were well-planned thanks to the assistance of the German officers serving as advisors with the Turkish Army.
On the morning of April 25 1915, the landings began before daybreak. The assault parties all landed from lighters except at V Beach where a tramp steamer the SS. River Clyde would ground at the opening of the assault with two battalions of infantry aboard. The Turks had 2,000 men immediately available to oppose the landings, at V Beach there was only one company, less than two hundred men to fight off the assault.
The British commanders expected the landings to go off smoothly and for the invasion forces from Cape Hellas and ANZAC Cove to link up their respective bridgeheads on the first day. One of the most prominent objectives on the first day was Achi Baba, a hill approximately seven and a half miles from the landing beaches that dominated both the Narrows of the straits and all the beaches at the head of the peninsula. The British failed to reach Achi Baba on the first or any other day of the campaign and Turkish observers would use this position to maintain a devastating artillery fire on the Allied lines throughout the campaign.
The Allied landings of April 25 failed except for ANZAC, X, and W Beaches. Nowhere were Allied penetrations more than 1,000 yards at the end of the day. The landings at V Beach were disastrous, the plan was for the River Clyde to beach itself and then the troops embarked would clamber across lighters lashed to the bow for shore. Only 700 men of the 2,000 aboard the River Clyde attempted to disembark and of these over 300 were casualties by day’s end, the rest waited until darkness to disembark. A similar scene occurred at W Beach where the Lancashire Fusiliers landed and suffered 500 killed or wounded out of 950 landed, W Beach was thereafter known as Lancashire Landing.
In concert with the landings on the Gallipoli Peninsula, the French landed a force of two divisions on the Asian shore at Kum Kale near the site of ancient Troy. This landing was successful and met all of its objectives on the first day while scattering the little resistance it met. The French re-embarked on April 26 according to plan and were ferried over to the peninsula where they took up positions on the right of the Allied line. In this way, the Allies squandered the opportunity to further dilute the Turkish response by threatening both sides of the Dardanelles.
In the days following the landings, the Allies worked feverishly to consolidate and enlarge the bridgehead they had gained at such cost. A major effort was launched out of the Cape Hellas bridgehead towards the village of Krithia on April 28 but was repulsed by the Turks with heavy loss after a gain of only a few hundred yards.
The Turks counterattacked in the first week of May but the Allies repelled them and launched another offensive almost immediately that lasted from 6-8 May, which became known as the Second Battle of Krithia. The final major Allied offensive, the Third Battle of Krithia was launched on June 4 and failed almost immediately gaining no more than two or three hundred yards at the cost of thousands of casualties.
After 4 June 1915, the Allies launched several minor attacks to adjust the lines but stalemate had essentially settled in. The front at both Hellas and ANZAC was essentially static and no headway could be gained. General Hamilton and the ANZAC commander General Birdwood agreed to a landing at Suvla Bay immediately north of ANZAC cove to try to break the stalemate and drive across the peninsula thus trapping all Turkish forces in the Cape Hellas area. There were several new divisions made available by Kitchener that would be used in these landings scheduled for the night of August 6-7.
The 53rd (Territorial), 11th, and 10th (Irish) Divisions comprised a new IX Corps for the assault at Suvla Bay, all were trained but had no combat experience. They attacked at Suvla Bay just before dawn on the morning of 7 August and moved rapidly inland for a half mile but then stalled for several hours before they resumed the advance towards their initial objective on the top of Chunuk Bair. During the fateful hours when the advance was stalled, the Turks had gotten a scratch force onto the heights and defended them against all Allied attempts to wrest control for the Chunuk Bair heights for the Allies. After the initial landings, the front at Suvla Bay fell into stalemate as well as both sides struggled for mastery of the dominating terrain of Chunk Bair and the Sari Bair ridge.
After the landings in Suvla Bay in August, both fighting fronts, around Hellas and further north at ANZAC-Suvla Bay settled into a stalemate. There was some talk of further landings in an attempt to reintroduce maneuver to the battle but this went nowhere. In the meantime, with the onset of winter weather in November the lot of the troops in the trenches went from a bad situation to even worse. The cold, rainy weather, flooded trenches and caused disease rates, which had always been high, to skyrocket. Reports from the front that were received in London painted a picture of imminent disaster. General Hamilton was relieved on 14 October and General Sir Charles Monro (1860-1929) was appointed to replace him. Monro, after a whirlwind tour of the front in late October recommended evacuation, which provoked sharp debate in London.
Amongst the most vocal advocates for continued effort at Gallipoli was Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty and Lord Kitchener. Kitchener even went so far as to pressure the ANZAC commander Birdwood to lad a force at Bulair in concert with the navy in order to break the stalemate. Birdwood replied that this was infeasible and it was never seriously considered. The final decision for evacuation was made on 12 December and the evacuation was completed on the night of 8 to 9 January 1916. The evacuation itself was surprisingly successful with little interference from the Turks and few casualties among the Allies.
The evacuation ended all allied attempts to force the Dardanelles during the war, making the campaign basically fruitless. The allied casualties were severe while the Turks suffered even more terribly in defeating the invasion. The Allies suffered 48,026 dead during the campaign and it cost the Turks 66,000 dead to repel them. Numbers alone do not tell the tale of misery at Gallipoli, as the troops of both sides endured horrendous conditions under which it is amazing they even survived much less managed to mount savage assaults in the effort to capture a few more yards of ground.
The allied effort at Gallipoli has been controversial from its initial conception until the present day. Immediately after the evacuation, the British formed the Dardanelles Commission to investigate the causes of failure. The Dardanelles Commission was extremely political and ultimately concluded that the failure was the governments fault for not properly supporting the plan from the outset. This is not the final answer though, while the government could have done more, several other factors were at play.
Among the largest causes for allied failure at Gallipoli was the poor quality of the army leadership. Most of the generals were either cast-offs or territorial/colonials with little experience of modern war, the lack of quality leadership led to poor guidance and planning for the invasion. The terrain objectives of the first day were too ambitious indeed some were never reached. Hamilton and other senior commanders were too far removed from the battlefield and deferred too much to subordinates when intervention by them may have changed the course of the battle.
The troops even thought for the most part untested, also share some of the blame. On the first day of the landings, in both April and August they showed an amazing lack of aggressiveness in the face of spotty, sometimes nonexistent opposition. It is entirely possible that if the troops had continued to push on 7 August 1915, they would have captured and been able to hold the heights of Chunuk Bair, which dominated the entire beachhead. The same thing could have been accomplished at Cape Hellas in April 1915, when the troops at Y Beach landed virtually unopposed.
Lastly, the systemic failures common to all Great War battlefields, lack of reliable communications and tactical mobility also contributed to failure. The lack of a reliable means to communicate with the supporting naval units and higher headquarters proved disastrous at Gallipoli, by making it impossible to call for effective fire support or provide intelligence about enemy resistance and dispositions to higher headquarters. The navy did not know where to shoot nor did the divisional commanders know where to send reinforcements to exploit success.
One question about Gallipoli that is seldom asked is; was the invasion of the Gallipoli Peninsula the best way forward in forcing the Dardanelles? Below an alternative will be presented that, given the conditions of the time, may have achieved success. It is simple to war-game the past, hindsight being 20/20 but even the planners of the time knew the topography and likely dispositions of Turkish forces. Perhaps if other voices had been listened to, the Dardanelles would have been successfully forced and the course of the war been altered.
A better alternative would have been an invasion of the Asian shore or a combination of attacks on both sides of the straits, though the most likely successful scenario would have been an assault solely on the Asian shore. There are several reasons for this but the most persuasive is the gentler terrain on the Asian shore, which would if nothing else, have allowed for a larger initial lodgment.
Several other factors argue for an invasion of the Asian shore rather than Gallipoli. In order to control the Dardanelles it is only necessary to control one side, and not only is the terrain friendlier on the Asian shore, the coastal waters are less restricted than on the European side. Access to the open sea is easier from the Asian side of the straits, which would make resupply of the invasion forces simpler. There is more ready access to freshwater, which would negate or reduce the requirement of shipping water all the way from Egypt as happened on the peninsula. Lastly, an assault on the Asian side would have opened up more strategic possibilities than an attack on the narrow Gallipoli Peninsula in which there was no room for tactical or strategic finesse.
It is inconceivable that historians have failed to question the rationale behind the decision to land an invasion force on the Gallipoli Peninsula vice the Asian shore around Kum Kale. By what stretch of the imagination did General Hamilton think that a landing on the precipitous cliffs at Cape Hellas would be more likely of success even if the beaches had been empty of Turkish defenders? General Hamilton arrived in the area 17 March and witnessed the abortive naval attack of 18 March so he surely saw the nature of the difficult terrain at Cape Hellas.
Even a cursory glance at the terrain on the Gallipoli Peninsula shows that it is unsuitable for large-scale operations. Nowhere were the beaches chosen for the initial landings in April more than narrow shingles, which were backed by steep cliffs as much as one-hundred-fifty feet tall. Behind the beaches, the terrain was even more daunting, for once the seaside cliffs were climbed; the invading troops were confronted with a series of undulating ravines all running perpendicular to their line of advance. The troops were expected to debark from lighters under fire and then assault up these cliffs and continue to objectives as much as four miles inland all the while under fire from the Turkish defenders.
The second landings in August at Suvla Bay at least offered terrain that is more suitable once the troops got ashore, though even here there were major obstacles. The landing beaches themselves were overlooked by the Sari Bair and Chunuk Bair ridges little more than a mile inland and the coastal plain of the landing zone was bisected by a dry salt lake of unknown firmness. Furthermore the waters leading to the beaches at Suvla were exceedingly shallow which hindered the navy from providing adequate fire support and landing artillery quickly.
Overall, General Hamilton and the entire planning staff did a poor job of choosing invasion beaches in either April or August. They could have chosen more suitable landing places elsewhere on the peninsula or concentrated their assault on fewer beaches to achieve better results. The deception plan, with several feints along the lines of the fake landings threatened by the Royal Naval Division at Bulair or the brief French attack at Kum Kale in April could have been beefed up thus depriving the Turks of adequate intelligence.
Even though General Hamilton had not held active command on the western front prior to assuming command in the Mediterranean, he was aware of the conditions and limitations on offensive activity there. The British were also well aware that there were a number of German advisors attached to the Turkish army and that General Liman von Sanders was in command at Gallipoli.
Perhaps a partial answer for the expectation that the landings would be successful is that the Turks were held in contempt by the Europeans. This contempt was seemingly confirmed by the pathetic Turkish attempt to seize the Suez Canal in January 1915, which was easily repelled by the British garrison in Egypt. The poor showing of the Turks in the Balkan wars of the nineteenth and early twentieth century also supposedly proved the insignificance of Turkish soldiers.
What allied planners failed to appreciate was that it was generally not the ethnically Turkish units that fought badly, only the Arab, Kurdish, Armenian, and other ethnic groups, which did not fight well for the Turkish sultan. The Turks did have some problems with Arab units during the campaign but they never mutinied and generally fought well if excitably and prone to panic under great stress. There are several instances when Arab units were withheld from the front lines because of concerns for their reliability.
The Mediterranean Expeditionary Force (MEF) command group as assembled by the British war cabinet could have been provided with stronger leadership. The senior commanders both within the Army and between the Army and Royal Navy quarreled throughout the campaign. There was never any unity of purpose among the services about objectives and both General Hamilton and Admiral de Roebeck can be blamed for this. The weak leadership at the top filtered down and affected all the leaders below especially the division and brigade commanders. Travers attributes this weak leadership to British tradition. Tradition cannot be a complete answer for the command weaknesses displayed at several levels during the campaign.
It was not just in the selection of landing beaches that the planning was poor; the subsequent offensives were poorly planned as well. There was seldom enough artillery due to supply problems and the objectives were too unrealistic. By May 4, the line at ANZAC Cove was essentially static; nowhere was the penetration deeper than 2,000 yards from the beaches and it would remain essentially unchanged throughout the campaign. The limited success at ANZAC had been achieved at a cost of 10,000 casualties.
At Cape Hellas, the situation was slightly better, but poorly planned offensives gained negligible ground at a horrible cost in lives. The largest attack at Cape Hellas was launched on 4 June 1915 and failed almost immediately, gaining only five hundred yards while the allies suffered 6,500 casualties. Joseph Murray described the opening minutes of the attack in his diary:
Over we went into the withering machine gun fire. Poor old Lieutenant-Commander Parsons was killed in the first seconds and many fell back into the trench. The Turkish aim was perfect; only a handful of us managed to cover the fifty yards to a stretch of dead ground immediately in front of us. We slowed down in the hope that we might be joined by others but there were none left to come.
His experiences on this day were typical of many of the attacks carried out until offensive actions ceased at Hellas in July. Typical of World War I generalship, continued attacks were ordered using the same methods that had failed previously. By the end of the campaign, the allies had suffered 265,000 dead, wounded, and missing in a fruitless campaign.
Another leadership failure common in World War I is the chateau Generalship displayed both in France and at Gallipoli. General Hamilton did not go to see the fighting or conditions at the front for himself very often, instead he relied on reports relayed to his Headquarters on the island of Imbros. This remove from the fighting certainly led him and others on his staff to expect better results than conditions allowed for, however the results of the first few assaults at Cape Hellas and ANZAC should have disproved the notion that fighting at Gallipoli would be radically easier than in France.
The supply situation on the beachhead was miserable from the beginning, the plan assumed that water would be readily available ashore; from preexisting wells or ones the troops would dig. As it happened, only two successful wells were dug at Cape Hellas one at X Beach and another in gully ravine and these were not dug until late July. Prior to these wells being dug, the men had been so short of water they had been reduced to sucking on stones to keep their mouths from drying out. Water was also shipped from the Nile in Egypt but with the sheer number of men on the peninsula, enough water could not be shipped to meet requirements. One particular difficulty with shipping water was the problem of getting it ashore because all the beaches were in range of Turkish artillery.
Supplies of all kinds had to be moved from ship to shore by lighter given the lack of real port facilities. This meant that ships stacked up offshore waiting to be offloaded since it was so slow to unload ships by hand. General Hamilton was complaining to his diary shortly after the April landings that half his effective fighting force was busy unloading ships while the other half were busy digging trenches.
The soldier’s diet was meager and not very predictable; it was an open question every day whether food would make it up or not. When food arrived, it typically consisted of bully beef, rock-hard biscuits, jam, and rancid tea. Joseph Murray devotes almost two pages of his diary to a description of the methods used to prepare a meal, hot meals being delivered rarely if at all.
The most unrealistic assumption made about the landings was that the Russians would be able to assist them by attacking the Turks and drawing off reserves from the Gallipoli front. That this was considered makes a mockery of the original impetus to force the Dardanelles, which was to open up a warm water supply route to Russia. In any event, the Russians did counterattack the Turks on the Caucasus front but they never truly succeeded in drawing any reserves away from Gallipoli. The roads on the peninsula were overstrained and barely adequate to support the Turkish force at Gallipoli. It is doubtful if Turkish reinforcements could have been supplied if they could be got onto the peninsula at all.
The last question and one that has received very little attention by historians is what would the Allies have done if they had succeeded in forcing the Dardanelles. Once the Sea of Marmora had been broken into, there was still the obstacle of the Golden Horn and Constantinople to get past. It is folly to think that the Turks would simply fold up tent and leave their capital of almost 500 years simply because the Allies had forced their way to its shores. The Russian Black Sea Fleet was laughable and they were incapable of materially assisting any conquest of Constantinople; the British would not have sufficient troops to seriously attempt attacking the Golden Horn until mid 1915 and then only at the cost of transferring troops from the Western Front, which all agreed was the decisive front.
The assumptions made by the British before the Gallipoli campaign were questionable at best. Would opening the Dardanelles and the Black Sea route to Russia have made a material difference to the outcome of the War? Of all the combatant countries in World War I, the Russians increased the size of their economy and output of their factories the most. The Russians did not suffer any greater material shortages in 1915 than did the other allies. The problem with Russia was not supply, rather it was the quality of their army. Opening the Dardanelles would have allowed the allies to ship troops to Russia to assist them on the Eastern Front and perhaps make the East as costly for the Germans as was the West. The great German disadvantage was in total manpower, a higher quality Russian army would have materially affected Germany’s ability to prosecute the war.
If nothing else, more Allied assistance to Russia would have propped up the Romanov regime, thus staving off the revolution and collapse of 1917. The Russian collapse allowed the Germans to continue the war into late 1918, by freeing up the troops Germany used in their spring offensives of 1918. If Germany had been forced to continue to fight a two-front war, it is entirely likely that the war would have ended in the spring of 1918 given the offensives the allies were planning on launching.
The most positive outcome of a successful forcing of the Dardanelles and subsequent occupation of Constantinople would have been to effectively remove Turkey from the war even if the Anatolian heartland had not been occupied. It is hard to imagine how the young Turks could have continued to govern and prosecute the war with their country split in two and the capital occupied.
The idea of forcing the straits, thus opening a route to the Black Sea was the original intent of the Gallipoli campaign, and if successful, it would have no doubt altered the course of the war. The strategic situation with turkey out of the war and the effect of a warm water Russian supply line would have been immense. The tragedy is that the effort was uncoordinated, and poorly led, and therefore doomed to failure. If more thought and careful planning had gone into the operation, it may very well have succeeded. A stroke against Turkey that would control the Dardanelles was strategically brilliant and may well have changed the course of the war if not for the tactical mismanagement of the campaign by the British commanders.
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 Ibid., p. 121
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 Travers, p. 275
 Ibid., pp. 276-277
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 Travers, p. 118
 Ibid., p. 104,
 Ibid., pp. 200 & 300-310
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 Murray, Joseph, Gallipoli 1915, p. 80
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 Moorehead, pp. 153-154
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 Ferguson, Niall, Chap. 9, Ferguson makes an element argument that the Allies maintained an economic advantage throughout the war and Russian industrial output increased by almost 20% prior to 1917.
By: Patrick Shrier