Gallipoli: The Bloody Defeat
By 1915, as World War I reached a stalemate on the Western Front, the Allied Powers were considering a shift in strategy. Rather than persisting with offensives in Belgium and France, there were deliberations about taking an offensive stance in a different region of the conflict.
During this period, Grand Duke Nicholas of Russia sought assistance from Britain to counter a Turkish invasion in the Caucasus. (Turkey, aligned with the Central Powers—Germany and Austria-Hungary—as part of the Ottoman Empire, had joined World War I by November 1914.)
In response, the Allies decided to launch a naval expedition to capture Constantinople (now Istanbul) and seize the Dardanelles Straits, a narrow passage connecting the Aegean Sea to the Sea of Marmara in northwestern Turkey. If successful, the capture of the straits would allow the Allies to link up with the Russians in the Black Sea, where they could work together to knock Turkey out of the war.
Spearheaded by the first lord of the British Admiralty, Winston Churchill (over the strong opposition of the First Sea Lord Admiral John Fisher, head of the British Navy), the naval attack on the Dardanelles began with a long-range bombardment by British and French battleships on February 19, 1915. Turkish forces abandoned their outer forts but met the approaching Allied minesweepers with heavy fire, stalling the advance.
Under tremendous pressure to renew the attack, Admiral Sackville Carden, the British naval commander in the region, suffered a nervous collapse and was replaced by Vice-Admiral Sir John de Robeck. On March 18, 18 Allied battleships entered the straits; Turkish fire, including undetected mines, sank three of the ships and severely damaged three others.
It also cost Winston Churchill his job as First Lord of the Admiralty. He had masterminded the campaign and served as its chief public advocate, so he was sacked when the British Parliament needed a scapegoat.
Lasting eight months, the Battle of Gallipoli pitted British, New Zealand, Australian, French, Indian, and Canadian forces against the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire, which had sided with Germany.
The plan was simple: from the Mediterranean, sail gunships up the narrow Dardanelles strait which separated Europe from Asia and served as the gateway to the Ottoman capital of Constantinople (Istanbul). This would give the Allies control of access to the Black Sea.
It was a disaster, many of the ships being damaged or sunk by Ottoman cannons and mines. Then came Plan B. The Allies would invade by land instead in the greatest amphibious campaign the world had seen.
But the heavily armed Turks were entrenched in their positions in the cliffs overlooking the beaches and thousands of Allied soldiers were killed on the first day. The front lines never moved more than a few hundred metres from the beach in eight months of fighting.
Historians say that the one bright spot for the Allies was the contribution of the Australians and New Zealanders, who particularly distinguished themselves on the battlefield.
They served together in the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC). The beach where they landed became known as Anzac Cove, and the Turks were never able to take it. Every April 25 is Anzac day in Australia and New Zealand – a day of remembrance and a national holiday in both countries. It is the day that Anzac forces landed in Gallipoli.
At one stage, General Ian Hamilton, the Allied Commander, asked for 95,000 reinforcements but he was offered less than a quarter of that. So with casualties rocketing evacuation of the 105,000 troops became inevitable. The evacuation began on December 7 and ended on January 9, 1916.
It was the last major victory of the Ottoman Empire, while for the Allies it was a costly and humiliating defeat that extended the war.
On January the 9th, 1916 the last 200 British soldiers climbed into their boats and abandoned the Gallipoli peninsula. Their departure ended an international carnival of death and the greatest amphibious campaign the world had ever seen.
Officially, the dead included 2,700 New Zealanders, 8,700 Australians, 9,700 French, 21,000 British and 80,000 Turkish soldiers. So by the time this ten-month First World War campaign ended, about 120,000 men had died. And the wounded numbered around 260,000.
The Australian Department of Veterans' Affairs put the figures higher, recording nearly half a million casualties.
A bitter Churchill, who for years endured taunts of “Remember the Dardanelles” in the House of Commons, said later: “The ill-supported armies struggling on the Gallipoli Peninsula, whose efforts are now viewed with so much prejudice and repugnance, were in fact within an ace of succeeding in an enterprise which would have abridged the miseries of the world. . .
“Contemporaries have condemned the men who tried to force the Dardanelles. History will condemn those who did not aid them.”
* Sixteen-year-old Australian Alec Campbell lied about his age to enlist and joined the Anzac troops at Gallipoli. But he fell ill with mumps and was given a medical discharge. He died in Australia in May 2002 at the age of 103, the last known survivor of the battle.