In 1915 the British entered on an adventure in the Eastern Mediterranean which proved to be one of the most tragic miscarriages in the whole war, though it called forth imperishable manifestations of high-hearted courage and self-sacrifice. The aim was to force the Dardanelles, guarded on the north by the peninsula of Gallipoli, in order, among other things, to open the sea route to Russia and to prevent Rumania from supplying the Germans with grain and oil.
A few obsolete ships might well have been risked in an effort to dash through the straits, though, as the event proved, success was impossible in view of the strong current, bearing destructive mines against the invader, and in view of the hidden fortifications equipped with powerful Krupp guns. When the surprise attack failed, the attempt should have been given up. The only other possibility would have been to refrain from disclosing the design until the land forces were ready to cooperate. The British did neither one thing nor the other.
Gallipoli was the battle where Ataturk, the "Father of the Turks," first distinguished himself and learned from the horrors of war the value of lasting peace. Gallipoli might have gone down in history as a brilliantly successful strategic gamble, but the allies underestimated the bravery and the tenacity of Ataturk and his comrades who fought even when their ammunition was exhausted. The "common wisdom" of the 1930's regarding amphibious operations after Gallipoli was that they were too risky. But the visionary US Marine Corps leaders of the 30's, seeing opportunity in the defeat at Gallipoli, developed and refined the concepts for amphibious operations.
Soon after the Great War erupted in August 1914, Turkey and Germany signed an agreement giving German forces control over the Dardanelles, the narrow strait between the Aegean Sea and the Sea of Marmara. Looking for a quick and decisive operation in an otherwise static war, in 1915 to seize the Dardanelles. The move was designed to assist Russia and help that country maintain an active second front against Germany. Opening the Dardanelles also would free shipping trapped in the Black Sea, restore sea lines of communication to southern Russia, and allow grain shipments to pass from Russia's wheat fields to Great Britain.
Under the recommendation of First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, a naval campaign was launched in February 1915 to "bombard and take the Gallipoli Peninsula with Constantinople as the objective." The Allies scraped together a Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, consisting of British, Australian, New Zealand, and French troops. The force would go ashore at the southern tip of the Gallipoli peninsula, on or near Cape Helles. These troops had little or no training in making even simple, "administrative" landings, and the Gallipoli assaults promised to be more dangerous and complex.
In February and March, 1915, assisted by the French, they launched a naval attack, and with a loss of two ships, beside having two more put out of action, they scarcely managed to penetrate beyond the entrance to the straits. Against the protests of Marshals Joffre and French, Churchill - the British First Lord of the Admiralty - insisted on sending a land army to cooperate with the fleet, and the Secretary for War, Lord Kitchener, yielded. The Allied design having already been disclosed, the Gallipoli defenses were rapidly strengthened and supported by a Turkish force of 250,000 men, officered and trained by Germans and operating close to its base.
Not only did the Allies have to transport a part of their invading army and most of their supplies a thousand miles through submarine infested waters, but the landing places were protected by barbed wire, as far as the shallow water reached, and covered by gun fire, while farther inland the peninsula was a series of hills rising tier on tier. Moreover, the climatic conditions were dreadful - what with the withering rays of the summer sun, to say nothing of the searching winds of winter - and all water had to be shipped from the subsidiary bases of Lemnos and Egypt. The French contributed comparatively few to the expedition, chiefly Colonials, while the British used, first and last, upwards of 200,000 men, largely Anzacs (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) training in Egypt.
More than 300 ships of the Allied amphibious task force arrived off Gallipoli on the morning of 25 April 1915, and the landing began shortly after daybreak. Allied troops disembarked from their transports into ships' cutters and lifeboats, none of which were designed for amphibious assaults. Steam picket boats towed these craft part of the way toward their assigned beaches, then cut them loose. From there, the boat crews would have to row their craft ashore.
The first landings were made 25 April, 1915, by the British on the toe of the peninsula and by the Anzacs at a point, farther up on the north side, which came to be known as Anzac Beach. The former were to march north and the latter east, but, in spite of the furious bravery of their assaults, they never advanced more than three miles and one mile respectively.
Turkish forces under Mustapha Kemal (who as Kemal Ataturk later became the first president of newly created Republic of Turkey) launched a vigorous counterattack. Despite being outnumbered, Kemal's forces pushed the surprised and exhausted Australian-New Zealand (ANZAC) troops back upon their beachhead. Their containment of the Allied landings gave the Turks time to bring reserves forward from farther north on the peninsula and from Turkey's Asian territory. Allied forces felt the presence of these reserves when they tried unsuccessfully to break out of their encircled Cape Helles beachheads on 27 April. After this effort, the next three months witnessed a series of heavy but ultimately inconclusive attacks by both sides.
Initial Allied losses and the failure to break out of the beachheads occurred despite the naval surface fire support. Potentially devastating fires from supporting the Allied battleships the landings were hampered by obsolete fire control systems and shortages of high-explosive ammunition. Forward observers did not have the means to rapidly pass target data to offshore warships, which affected the timeliness and effectiveness of fire support from all the Royal Navy ships. In addition, the relatively flat trajectories of naval ordnance made it difficult to strike Turkish targets on the reverse slope of the high ridgelines and hills that ran the length of the Gallipoli peninsula.
In May, after the enemy submarines had destroyed three British battleships, the fleet with its supporting guns was withdrawn. Sickness, due to the terrible summer heat, swelled the total of the killed. The supreme effort came in August with a major attack, four miles north of Anzac, supported by lesser demonstrations aimed to distract the Turks farther south. After a preliminary surprise the main advance was unfortunately delayed long enough to repulse ;t absolutely.
Finally, in the late winter, the swoop of the Germans through Serbia made withdrawal from Gallipoli absolutely imperative, an undertaking which was achieved, in December and January, with rare skill and comparatively little further loss. All that can be said for this glorious but futile sacrifice was that it contained a large force of Turks during a critical period in the Russian campaign. Otherwise it was costly in many ways. It used up men and munitions which were sorely needed on the western front, it lowered the prestige of the Allies in the Balkans, determining the course of Bulgaria whose King was already bound to Germany, and alienated many former Allied supporters among the Greeks. For these reasons, and owing to the great losses, the ability to assist Serbia was greatly weakened.
|Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list|