Gallipoli: WWI's Most Disastrous Battle

It nearly ruined Winston Churchill’s career and launched Ataturk’s. On this day 100 years ago, tens of thousands died in one the most global battles in WWI.

Like so many military catastrophes, the amphibious assault on the Ottoman Turks at Gallipoli on April 25, 1915 by an Anglo-French force began with the best of intentions and a hefty dose of wishful thinking. On January 2, 1915, the British War Council met to entertain an urgent request from their ally, Grand Duke Nicholas, supreme commander of Russian forces in World War I. His army was heavily engaged against powerful Ottoman forces in the Caucasus Mountains, and in danger of encirclement and annihilation. Could the Allies mount a diversionary operation against the Turks to draw pressure off the Russian army?

“Yes,” replied Field Marshal Herbert Horatio Kitchener, British Secretary of State for War. After consulting with First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, who was fairly chomping at the bit to get his navy into the thick of the fighting in what had been pretty much an army war, it was decided to launch a powerful fleet of warships to break through the antiquated defenses lining the Dardanelles straits, sail on into the Sea of Marmara, and threaten the Ottoman capital, Istanbul. Such an operation, Churchill opined, might well lead the Turks, whose military establishment was thought to be as antiquated as her infrastructure and civil administration, to throw in the towel.

Even if the Turks continued to fight on in other theaters, Allied control of the straights, which linked the Mediterranean to the Black Sea, would open a desperately needed warm-water shipping channel between Russia and her Western allies. In addition, a strong showing by the Allies at the Dardanelles was sure to encourage both Bulgaria and Italy to join the war on the Allied side. In the event the fleet couldn’t break through the straits alone, a landing force was to be made available to storm the beaches and wrest the Gallipoli peninsula from its defenders. The French readily agreed to participate in the campaign, as they wanted a prominent place at the table when it came time to dismember an Ottoman empire that had been slowly disintegrating for more than a century.

At 1100 hours on March 18th a joint British-French armada of 85 ships, including the Royal Navy’s only aircraft carrier, the new super-dreadnaught Queen Elizabeth, with her massive 15-inch guns, 16 older battleships, and a welter of destroyers and minesweepers, approached the straits in three lines abreast. For three hours the flotilla pummeled the ancient forts and mobile artillery batteries on both shores of the straits as it slowly sailed up into Erenkoy Bay, inflicting heavy punishment on the defenses, and cutting the telephone wires connecting the artillery batteries. “The situation had become very critical,” said the Turkish General Staff reports at 1400 hours.

Then, disaster struck. Although the sea lanes had been swept of mines several weeks earlier and kept under close surveillance, the Turks had managed to string 10 rows of fresh mines across the Bay without being detected on the night of March 7th. The Bouvet, a French battleship, hit a mine and capsized in two minutes, with the loss of 700 crewmen. Several other battleships were struck by heavy shells, and forced to retire, or sunk. Confusion reigned on the bridge of the English flagship. Turkish gunners rallied. Before the end of the afternoon a third of the fleet had been sunk or was out of action.

The War Council met the next day in the wake of the defeat. Aside from the significant losses in ships, there was great concern that the humiliating loss at the hands of the Muslim Turks, who had performed poorly in the war up until the previous day, would stir unrest and rebellion among the millions of Muslims within the French and British empires, including several hundred thousand Muslim colonial troops. The Ottoman sultan had already declared a jihad against the Allied infidels.

Abandoning the campaign in defeat was unthinkable under the circumstances. Kitchener ordered General Sir Ian Hamilton, commander of the Mediterranean Expeditionary force in Egypt to commence planning a seaborne assault of the Gallipoli peninsula with five divisions of 75,000 troops. The landings must commence within five weeks.

Even if Hamilton and his naval counterpart had been the beneficiaries of previous training in the exceedingly dangerous business of bringing combat power from ships across a heavily fortified beach—and they had not—a month would have been woefully insufficient time to plan and rehearse the landings. Indeed, it would have taken a month just to gather basic intelligence on enemy dispositions and to select suitable beaches. (By way of comparison: the U.S. Marines in 1945 landed a similar number of men on Iwo Jima against a Japanese force considerably smaller than that of the Turks on Gallipoli, and the planning and training took well over six months.)

The diversity of the untested invasion force, historian Eugene Rogan explains, further complicated planning. No battlefield in the Great War would prove more global than Gallipoli. The Mediterranean Expeditionary Force numbered some 75,000 men from around the world. In addition to British troops—Welsh, Irish, Scottish, and English—there were Australians and New Zealanders (with both Pakeha and Maori units), Gurkhas and Sikhs, Frenchmen, Foreign Legionnaires… and colonial troops from across Africa… Soldiers were mutually reliant on men with whom they could barely communicate. Without a clear battle plan guide to movements of each and every unit the expeditionary force risked dissolving into a veritable Tower of Babel.

Five weeks may not have been nearly enough time to square away a viable invasion plan, but according to the German architect of the Turkish defense network on Gallipoli, General Liman Von Sanders, it “was just sufficient to complete the most indispensable arrangements.” And indeed, by the third week of April, Von Sanders and his garrison of some 50,000 defenders had prepared a formidable network of trenches, gun emplacements, bunkers with interlocking fields of fire, and thousands of individual fighting positions on the peninsula.

At dawn on the 25th of April, the Allied flotilla began to disperse scores of tugs and small steamships tasked with towing the landing craft to the shoreline. The main landing was carried out by the British 29th Division on five small beaches around the southern tip of the peninsula, at Cape Helles, all dominated by steep cliffs. Simultaneously a second landing was conducted by the Australian and New Zealand troops—soon christened the “Anzacs,” about 10 miles northwest of Cape Helles, on the Mediterranean side of the peninsula. That beach appeared to be the only location on the entire Mediterranean shore where infantry could make the ascent to high ground with relative ease, and threaten the rear of the Turks defending against the main landing to the south.

As it happened, strong currents pushed the Anzac landing force a mile north of its intended destination, and the troops debouched at the base of very steep cliffs that gave way to a series of ridges. The landing at “Anzac Cove” was unchallenged, as the beach was hardly a propitious place to launch ground combat operations. The planned advance-in-strength from the beach to the high ground was impossible from the Cove, given the terrain. Hurriedly, makeshift squads and platoons struggled to make their advance inward and upward, via vast stretches of cliffs, and broken and trackless ground. Their objective was the Sari Bar Ridge, which dominated the surrounding landscape. Its possession was seen by the high command as essential to cutting off the Turkish forces below, and securing the entire lower half of the peninsula.

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Sari Bar Ridge was two and half miles from the Cove. The Anzacs were only able to press inland (and upwards) for a mile and half before they encountered a blistering counterattack by elements of the 1st Ottoman Division under Col. Mustafa Kemal. Artillery, machine gun fire and infantry probes continued unabated through the night. By morning 500 Allied troops were dead and 2500 wounded in the Anzac sector alone. Exhausted and low on ammunition, the Australians and New Zealanders held on by a thread.

Colonel Kemal, who emerged from the cauldron of Gallipoli with a well-deserved reputation as one of the greatest soldiers in the Ottoman Empire’s 600-year history, went on to lead Turkish war of independence in 1923-24. Taking on the name “Ataturk”—father of the Turks—he was chosen the first president of the Republic of Turkey.

At Cape Helles, three of the five landings by the British 29th division went off unopposed, but on Beaches V and W, separated by the headlands of Cape Helles, it was pure mayhem. Hundreds of Lancaster Fusiliers were killed by machine gun file before they reached the beach line. Of 950 Fusiliers who attempted to land that day, 500 died.

As Ottoman Major Mahmud Sabri remembered,

The enemy approach shore… When they came into range, our men opened fire. Here, for years, the colour of the sea had always been the same, but now it turned red with the blood of our enemies. Wherever the flash of [our] rifles was spotted, the enemy plastered the area with artillery and machine-gun fire. This failed to reduce the intensity of our fire. In the hope of saving their lives, some of the enemy jumped from life-boats into the sea. From shipboard, their commanders used flags to order life-boats to take shelter behind promontories, but there was no escape… .[O]ur men continued to hit their targets, and the dead rolled into the sea. The shoreline of [V Beach] filled with enemy corpses, lined up like rows of broad-beans.

For the next few days, the Allies struggled to fortify and expand their tiny enclaves at Anzac Cove and Cape Helles, while the Turks mounted several division-size attacks to drive them into the sea. Casualties were extremely heavy on both sides. Soon, the peninsula was reduced to a hellish abattoir, replete with continual artillery fire, attack followed by counter-attack, and the stench of putrefying, unburied bodies. Veterans of the Western front who also served in the Middle East agreed that as bad as things were in France, Gallipoli was worse. “In France, apart from full-dress attacks, an infantryman may live for many months without once firing his rifle, or running the remotest risk of death by a rifle bullet, observed the British veteran and poet, A.P. Herbert. “But in those hill-trenches of Gallipoli the Turk and the Gentile fought with each other all day with rifle and bomb, and in the evening crept out and stabbed each other in the dark. There was no release from the strain of watching and listening …”

Three times in late April and May, the 29th Division attempted to break out of its tight perimeter to seize the high ground around the town of Krithia four miles northeast of the beachhead; three times they were repulsed with marginal gains.

On the night of May 18, the Turks launched a massive 50,000-man assault under artillery fire against the Anzacs; a British spotter plane had spotted vast troop concentrations at the end of the day, and the ANZAC infantry and artillery were well dug in and prepared for the assault. The melee lasted until morning. Ten thousand casualties littered the broken ground in front of the Allies’ trenches.

In August, General Hamilton made a final bid to break the stalemate. Employing two fresh divisions, he launched an attack north of Anzac Cove at Sulva Bay in the hopes of wresting Sari Bair Ridge from its Ottoman machine gunners at last. In the event, a tough New Zealand battalion reached the second of the Ridge’s three peaks, holding it against repeated Turkish counterattacks for two days before being forced to withdraw to lower ground. In the end, all Hamilton got for his two-division offensive was yet a third shallow, fortified enclave—this one at Sulva Bay.

As the summer wore on thousands of troops on both sides fell victim to dysentery, disease, and shellshock—far more casualties were evacuated from the front lines as a result of sickness than combat. The failure of the August offensive led inevitably to talk of withdrawal in London and Paris. Hamilton was summarily relieved. Both sides had thrown in multiple divisions of reinforcements, and repeated Allied efforts to wrest the high ground from the Turks had had come to nothing. A visit to the dilapidated enclaves shocked even Field Marshall Kitchener, who had seen war at its worst. At last, he ordered the evacuation of the Allied forces on the peninsula back to Egypt.

By January 9, it was all over. The Turks had won a great victory, but they had paid very heavily for it. In what was initially meant as a diversionary campaign, the Allies had deployed 410,000 British and Commonwealth troops and 79,000 French troops. Fifty-six thousand perished in the fight—almost as many Americans as would die in the entire Vietnam war—another 196,000 were either wounded or taken off the line as a result of illness. Some 86,000 Turks were killed, and another 200,000 became casualties.

The planning and execution of both the naval expedition and the amphibious assault of Gallipoli have long been judged a complete shambles, and so they were. But the amphibious assault and the land battle that followed deserve to be singled out as one of the most muddleheaded and incompetently run campaigns in the history of modern warfare. The seaborne invasion was thrown together in the most ad hoc, improvisational manner, based on the patronizing (and quite wrong) assumption that the Muslim Turks lacked the courage and the wherewithal to stand up to Western troops in the defense of their own homeland.

Neither General Hamilton nor his division or regimental commanders had adequate maps of the landing beaches or good intelligence on the disposition of the Turkish defensive positions. Nor was adequate naval gunfire available to support later attempts at breakthroughs. Even if it had been, at 75,000 men, the initial invasion force was far, far too small to defeat a defending force that Allied intelligence itself estimated might exceed 100,000 men.

In the High Command’s defense, amphibious attacks had yet to be systematically studied and broken down into their constituent parts at military colleges—that would begin to happen in no small measure as a result of the disaster at Gallipoli and be carried out most effectively by the U.S. Marines in the 1930s. Still, every lieutenant in the British Army in 1915 knew that to attack a well-fortified adversary with a force of inferior numbers to those of the enemy was to court disaster.

Napoleon, grand maestro of the offensive, always made sure before he maneuvered his forces to do battle that he had sufficient reserves on hand to break through his adversary’s defensive line at a decisive point. Hamilton attacked with no reserves on hand at all. Had France’s greatest soldier by some imaginary circumstance reviewed the operational plan for the Gallipoli attack, he would have thought it a joke and tossed in the rubbish. In retrospect, it’s a shame that Kitchener or Churchill didn’t do just that.

And yet, on this hundredth anniversary of the landings, we can well understand why this gruesome slugging match on the blood-drenched beaches, cliffs, and ridgelines above the Dardanelles has come to play a defining role in the cultural narratives of three nations. For the Turks, the battle is commemorated for the hard-won victory it was, for the heroics displayed here not only by Ataturk, but by thousands of its sons who survived to tell the story, and thousands more who did not. Gallipoli burns brightly as a symbol of national resolve and pride in the Turkish nation and its soul.

The incompetence and folly of the senior Allied leadership does nothing to tarnish the bravery, sacrifice and stoicism of the nearly half million Allied men who fought in the battle. Anzac Day, celebrated today and every April 25th in Australia and New Zealand and at a dawn ceremony on the peninsula, commemorates the memory and sacrifices of those two nations’ soldiers in all wars on the date of their first significant military action. “Anzac Day,” former Governor-General of Australia Sir William Deane has written, “is not merely about loss. It is about courage, and endurance, and duty… and the survival of a sense of self-worth and decency in the face of awful odds.” And so it is.