The First World War was into its second year when Britain attacked the Dardenelles strait, a narrow passage of sea in the eastern Mediterranean overlooked by the Gallipoli peninsula.
The area, part of modern-day Turkey, was then part of the Ottoman empire, which after 600 years was falling apart, known as the “sick man of Europe”. The rising power of Germany and the existing empires of Britain, Tsarist Russia and Austria-Hungary wanted to grab what they could from the Ottoman rubble. Their rivalries and manoeuvring intensified. A secret deal in 1908 agreed that Russia could have Constantinople (now Istanbul) if Britain could have the Ottoman province of Iraq.
The Ottoman empire was governed from Constantinople. In 1908, the Party of Union and Progress overthrew Sultan Abdul Hamad, bringing to power the “Young Turks”, led by Enver Pasha, Talat and Kemal Mustafa.
When the War began at the start of August 1914, the Ottoman empire was not part of it. It might have remained neutral, or it might have joined with either side, according to its leaders’ calculations of potential benefit. While Germany courted Ottoman support, Britain made arrogant diplomatic blunders, and three months into the war, the Ottoman empire joined on the German side. On 6 November, Britain invaded Basra (then Ottoman, now in Iraq) to seize control of the oil fields. It was becoming clearer what the war was really about.
Russian Tsar Nicholas suggested to Britain that it could distract the Ottoman empire by engaging Turkey in battle in the eastern Mediterranean. Lord Kitchener (Secretary of State for War) and Winston Churchill (First Lord of the Admiralty) liked the idea: they would force the Dardanelles strait and capture Constantinople.
Most British military leaders, though, thought the plan was daft: Britain had little knowledge of the area or the Turkish enemy, and the terrain was unsuitable, with hills overlooking narrow straits that were far easier to defend than to attack. But Churchill went ahead regardless because it suited his political ambitions.
According to socialist newspaper The Herald, “With insouciant flippancy… [Churchill] bade us prepare for a most decisive and momentous development of the war by the conquest of the Gallipoli Peninsula.”
On 3 November, Churchill ordered the Navy to bombard the outer forts on the Dardanelles coastline. This alerted the Ottomans to the prospect of an attack, so they spent the next three months preparing their military defence: laying mines, installing heavy weaponry and searchlights, increasing the number of troops sixfold.
Following further bombardments in February 2015, Churchill began the naval campaign on 18 March by sending ships up the Dardanelles straits, attempting to force through a seaway only one mile wide. Turkish mines sank three Allied ships and the fleet withdrew. Churchill was undeterred, taking the view that it mattered little if these ships were lost because they were “old and useless”. He said little of the people on board, who were neither.
On 25 April, Allied forces landed on six beaches on the Gallipoli peninsula. Some landed on the wrong beaches, having drifted a mile north of their target in the dark.
Some men were shot dead as they sat in the boats taking them ashore, some as they waded towards the beach. The sea was red with their blood for 50 metres out from the shore. Witnesses spoke of unbearable crying of wounded and dying men. There were over 2,000 Anzac casualties, 2,000 Turkish.
The landings held, but troops did not advance onto the peninsula as planned. They did not have enough ammunition, and the military goal of capturing Constantinople was less achievable than ever. But their leaders ordered the much-reduced force to stay put.
Sir Ian Hamilton was in overall charge, commanding the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force. He believed that the British would win because they were superior to the Turks. The commander of the British 29th Division, which landed at Cape Helles, was Major-General Aylmer Hunter-Weston, who ignored requests for reinforcements and ammunition. Australian Gallipoli historian Les Carlyon writes that Hunter-Weston “threw away troops the way lesser men tossed away socks … without imagination or pity.” His misleadership at Gallipoli would show him as the caricature of the bumbling British general.
Three days after the landings, the Allies made their first attempt to advance from the beaches. The First Battle of Krithia was under-resourced and poorly planned: the French commander, Albert d’Amade, was confused about his role, and nobody was certain where the Turkish front line actually was.
Shortly after, the Second Battle of Krithia saw Hunter-Weston run the same battle strategy three times, even though it kept failing. There were no wagons to carry the wounded from the dressing station to the beach, so many died who might have lived. There were 6,500 Allied casualties, nearly one third of the men, but nowhere had the Allies advanced more than 600 yards.
The campaign was already a trench-bound war of attrition. One side would attack, the other would fight them off. Thousands would die, more would be injured, but only a few yards would change hands. It was savage, bloody, pointless. On the hospital ship Gascon, Nurse Kitchen described it in her diary as “a dreadful war … more like wholesale murder”. Some were so badly injured they were sent home, only to face destitution, abandoned by the government which had sent them to war. The Herald reported the “pitiable story” of a man who fought at Gallipoli and was discharged with rheumatism: with a wife and 3 kids to support, he received a pension of just 4s8d per week, for 18 months only.
Private Ernest Law also kept a diary, writing on 6 May of charging out of the trench with his fellow soldiers “under heavy machine gun fire, some of them was hit before they could get over the top. It was terrible going across the open – was at it until dusk and suffered heavy losses.” On 12 June, “Dropping shells about our trench all day. The 5th [Lancashire Fusiliers] was coming out of the firing line and one of them got his head clean blown off by one of the Turks” shells about three yards away from me.”
Churchill’s brother Jack, a Staff Officer, wrote to him just two weeks after the first landing, telling him that it was stalemate trench warfare. But still he carried on.
Three weeks into the land campaign, the British War Council discussed the situation.
Bound by the upper-class nonsense about not giving bad news to superiors, Hamilton made out to Kitchener that things were not so bad. Instead of discontinuing the operation, it was continued and reshuffled. Churchill was moved away from the Admiralty to the Duchy of Lancaster. Lord Fisher resigned his position as First Sea Lord when his demand that the operation be discontinued was overruled, and was replaced by Sir Henry Jackson. On 24 May, despite his litany of failure so far, Hunter-Weston was promoted.
On 24 May, both sides’ leaders agreed a pause to bury the dead soldiers. This was not an act of respect or ceremony, but because the thousands of corpses were rotting, swelling, stinking, and attracting millions of flies and rampant disease.
In the words of Scottish-born Australian Eric Bogle’s song “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda”, “We buried ours, and the Turks buried theirs, then we started all over again.” A Turkish captain wrote that: “At this spectacle even the most gentle must feel savage, and the most savage must weep.”
But when the Turks later requested a similar armistice, Hamilton refused. As June turned to July, Turkish battalions carried out a series of suicidal counter-attacks after slight Allied advances, and Hamilton hoped to benefit from Turkish soldiers’ unwillingness to charge over fallen friends’ corpses.
Turkish army leaders, under the command of the German Von Sanders, also made mistakes, and also sent their own soldiers, many of whom were conscripts, to certain slaughter, for example in a May 19 attack on Anzac lines.
The 57th infantry led the charge for Turkey and the Ottoman empire, but not a single man survived the war. Their commander, Mustafa Kemal, told his men that he was ordering them not to fight but to die – they would be replaced. Before the attack on the Dardanelles, in January 1915, Enver Pasha took command of an attack on the Russians and ordered an advance which led to 30,000 Ottoman soldiers freezing to death.
Hunter-Weston, claiming poor health, was allowed to leave the campaign in a way no rank-and-file soldier would have been. The new commander was Lieutenant-General Frederick Stopford. In August, the Allies launched a desperate offensive. With reserves arriving, the campaign became bigger on both sides.
The New South Wales Infantry charged Turkish lines on 6 August: W.H. Nevinson wrote in the Manchester Guardian (under strict wartime restrictions): “At the word all the first sections rose, climbed the sandbag parapets, and rushed forward across an open space of about sixty yards of rough ground. Our men were at once met by furious rifle fire and several machine guns at short range.” When they reached the enemy trenches, they found them covered with wooden beams, and the Turks shot them from below until they made holes in the improvised roof and jumped down into the trenches for hand-to-hand fighting.
The next day, new Allied landings went badly. Bogle’s narrator sings: “And how well I remember that terrible day, how our blood stained the sand and the water, And how in that hell that they called Suvla Bay, we were butchered like lambs at the slaughter.”
At the same time, the Anzacs attacked a ridge called the Nek. Commander of the 3rd Light Horse Brigade Colonel Frederic Hughes ordered a bayonet charge doomed to failure against weapons
developed fifty years earlier. Most of the first and second wave of men died within three paces of going over the top. Hughes’ brigade officer Lieutenant-Colonel John Antill refused a request to cancel the third wave and ordered the men to “Push on!” Hughes’ decision to call off the fourth wave came too late. Carlyon argues that: “The scale of the tragedy of the Nek was mostly the work of two Australian incompetents, Hughes and Antill.” Hughes went on to be heavily decorated, and retired in 1924 as a honorary major-general.
Allied forces also attacked Lone Pine in an attempt to break out from positions and make progress along the peninsula. But with the military commanders having poor communications, the result was not a breakout, but loads of dead men on both sides.
The first four days of August offensive saw 25,000 Allied casualties. The operation had failed. But Hamilton had an absurd romantic notion about regaining lost ground and pressing on, and kept sending men to their deaths. Stopford did not even go ashore, and objected to being woken up to be told of problems with landings. Ten days into the doomed and disastrous offensive, he was sacked and replaced by General Julian Byng.
By this time, the Allies had attacked various hills, either failing to capture them or holding them briefly only to be easily picked off. On Hill Q, the Allied troops were mistakenly shelled by an Allied gunship.
Nevinson, who had been a socialist activist in East London before becoming a war journalist, wrote: “The slopes of the ridges here bear terrible witness to the intensity of the fighting. The dead lay thick everywhere and the stench is appalling.”
The command knew that it could not win anything more than a few yards of territory, but this at least gave them the opportunity to send good news to Kitchener.
In the ruling class’s sick dictionary, “thousands of working-class men dead, ten yards gained” was “good news”.
Les Carlyon, Gallipoli, Bantam 2001
John Rainford and Peter Ewer, film: ‘Gallipoli Lest We Forget … the facts’
John Rainford, World War I – separating fact from fiction, 17/4/15, Green Left Weekly
Phil Shannon, review of What’s Wrong with Anzac? The Militarisation of Australian History, Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds, 2010
Matt McCarten, Anzac story — a sordid tale of world domination and death, 29/4/97, New Zealand Herald
Harvey Broadbent, Gallipoli: the fatal shore, 2005
Bob Gould, Don’t mention the war, Ozleft, 2005
Gallipoli’s Shadow, The Age, 2003
HN Brailsford, The Tragedy of the Dardanelles, The Herald, 17/3/17
Gallipoli Association website
The Manchester Guardian
By Janine Booth
Rank corpses carpeted Gallipoli
At Russell’s Top, Lone Pine and Suvla Bay
By bullet, bayonet or dysentery
Eight months of folly fighting lives away
Young Albert Booth got out of there alive
From hell to hell, from Dardanelles to trench
No others from his landing craft survived
But joined the dead, the ANZACs, Turks and French
One hundred thousand gone from those sad nations
And all for what? A great futility
Did lives not figure in the calculations
Of Britain’s First Lord of the Admiralty?
Excuse me if I don’t take out a sub
To Winston Churchill’s great admirers’ club
25 April 2015
3 November 1914: Naval bombardment of Dardanelles forts
5 November: Turkey joined the War on the German side
19 February 1915: Naval bombardment of the Straits forts began
18 March: Naval attempt to force the Straits; Turkish arrest of 250 leading Armenians begins the Armenian genocide
25 April: Landings at Cape Helles and Anzac Cove
28 April: First Battle of Krithia
2 May: Turkish counter-attack
6 May: Second Battle of Krithia
14 May: War Council
24 May: Armistice to bury dead
4 June: Third Battle of Krithia
28 June: Battle of Gully Ravine
30 June: Failed assault on Russell’s Top
3 August: Allied reserves landed
6 August: Offensive began
7 August: Landings at Suvla Bay; charge on the Nek
8-10 August: Chunuk Bair hill briefly captured by Allies
9 August: Attack on Hill Q
21-22 August: Battle of Scimitar Hill; attack on Hill 60
14 October: Dardanelles Committee sacked Hamilton
15 November: Churchill resigned from government
22 November: Kitchener recommended a partial evacuation
27 November: three-day storm; hundreds killed
7 December: Cabinet decided to evacuate Suvla and Anzac
18-19 December: Anzac and Suvla evacuated
28 December: Cabinet authorised evacuation of Helles
9 January 1916: Evacuation completed