The Landings on Gallipoli
- April 25th1915 -
The plan seemed sound enough. With stalemate on the Western Front in the form of trench warfare another ploy was needed. The one put forward was knock Ottoman Turkey out of the war, open up the Dardanelles Strait to Allied warships, make their way to capture Constantinople and link up with Russia. However, what the British had seriously underestimated were the defences on either side of the Straits on the Gallipoli peninsular and the ferocity of the Turkish troops under a 33-year-old Lieutenant Colonel Mustafa Kemal, who later became the leader and founder of the Republic of Turkey, Attaturk. The coastal forts and gun batteries had been rebuilt and strengthened.
The bombardment of the straits started on 19thFebruary 1915. The forts at the entrance to the Dardanelles fell within a week but the defences further up were much harder. The Turks had put mines in the narrow channel and on 18thMarch three battleships were sunk.
In order to help it was decided to employ a ground force to capture Turkish positions and, notably, the Kilid Bahr, a strategic plateau, that would enable them to do to so. Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty said that, “No formal decision to make a land attack was even noted in the records of the Cabinet or the War Council. This silent plunge into this vast military venture must be regarded as extraordinary."
70,000 soldiers made up the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force – British, Australian, New Zealanders, French and Indian. The French were to land on the Turkish mainland, the British on the tip of the Gallipoli Peninsular at Cape Helles and the Australians and New Zealanders with the Indians a little further North at Ari Burns, later called Brighton Beach, and then Anzac Cove.
From the Greek Island of Lemnos warships and Merchant Navy ships transported the soldiers to near the shore where they decamped to rowing boats. On 25thApril the Australian 3rdBrigade, under cover of darkness rowed to shore. Unfortunately, they could not see where they were going and landed in the wrong place. They faced high hills and cliffs and as soon as they landed were under fire.
22-year-old Australian, Sydney Harrie Skinner, tells the story of what happened next.
"As the day broke", he writes, "and the light became brighter you could just distinguish the land ahead. Along the shore were fifteen battle ships, laying grim, and silent, waiting for the shore batteries to open fire. At 5 am they opened fire on us – shrapnel was bursting everywhere."
"The accuracy of the firing was wonderful, the shells would land right in the Fort, you would hear a deafening explosion, and tons of earth and stones would shoot up into the air."
On landing, the boats"received a hail of lead, the machine guns were pouring lead on to them and the air was alive with shrapnel. It is terrible the damage this shrapnel does, it mows down everything in its path, hundreds were either killed or wounded before reaching the land, those that did reach the shore were mowed down by the machine guns. It looked as if it was impossible for any man to remain alive."
As the rowing boats discharged their soldiers"shrapnel was bursting everywhere and one hit us forward, shells were striking the water all round".
"Very soon they started bringing wounded alongside, it was a terrible sight and one I will never forget... Looking through the field glasses you could see those trenches, and every time a shell landed, it blew them to pieces, sending earth, guns and all up to the air."
About 12.30 more wounded were brought alongside in a barge... it was terrible to see these men; you can't imagine what it is like unless you were here to see for yourself, the wounds are terrible. The Turks are using Dum Dum, and explosive bullets, they also mutilate the wounded."
A New Zealand member of the medical team, James Jackson, reported that; We came in, in a rowing boat half full of water and with about 30 men, in it. It was the slowest yet most exciting row that I ever had…. The shrapnel was trying to stop us all the time and it seemed hours before we ran ashore. This shrapnel is very deadly stuff if it catches anyone in an exposed position and no position is more exposed than an open rowboat out on the water. It was our first experience of it and I can tell you we did not like it.… After reaching dry land we started work straight away. We did not have to look for wounded who required attention. They were lying all about the beach and in the bushes and we gradually cleared the hillside until we reached the top at about 8 o’clock in the evening. Then the trench work started and it was real hard work and rather dangerous….
By the end of the day the British had two pockets of land at Helles and the Anzacs had a strip of rugged land above Anzac Cove. It soon became evident that the naval bombardment had not destroyed the defences of the Turks and advancement was out of the question. The Allied Commander, Sir Ian Hamilton, refused permission for a withdrawal and the soldiers were told to dig in and consolidate. The heat was suffocating and flies were swarming around the corpses. There was a lack of water and thousands died from dysentery as the disease spread.
Skinner carried on. "In the afternoon our Artillery effectively established itself on top of the first ridge, and opened fire on the Turks. Just before dusk the Turks tried to work round the shore to outflank our men. The battleship Queen discovered their move and immediately started to shell them. She only fired four shots into them and trees, earth and men were blown into atoms – it is terribly wonderful, the effect of these Lyddite shells. I believe the fumes from a Lyddite shell kills everything within a radius of thirty yards."
Eventually a secondary tactic was needed and on August 6th63,000 Allied troops landed at Suvla Bay, just North of Anzac Bay, with the intention of linking up with the New Zealnders and Australians. This nearly worked but the Anzacs were unable to break out and a ferocious assault on Suvla by Kemal repulsed the Allies and all hope was lost. A withdrawal was the only way forward. Hamilton was replaced with Sir Charles Munro and on January 8th-9ththe evacuation occurred without a single man being lost.
58,000 allied soldiers were killed - 29,000 British, 11,000 Anzacs. On the Turkish side 87,000 were killed. Winston Churchill resigned and went to command a battalion on the Western Front and not long after Prime Minister Herbert Asquith stood down to be replaced by David Lloyd-George. It has oft been said that this is one of the worst disasters in military history. Skinner finishes his letter a week later on the way to Malta with the wounded.
"I don’t mind telling you, the Australians did great work, they were complimented on the fighting from the Queen Elizabeth (the flagship for the British General Sir Ian Hamilton, commander of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force) and everyone admits the same. The casualties when we left were 6,000 killed and wounded."
Anzac day, April 25th, is always remembered in Australia and New Zealand in the same way that Remembrance day is in the UK.