Category Archives: Gallipoli

19 DECEMBER, 1915: The Empire’s New Clothes

A couple of centenaries today, both reminders that the greatest military power on Earth had stumbled into a bit of pickle as 1915 drew to a close.  In the Eastern Mediterranean, British imperial forces began their planned evacuation of Gallipoli’s bridgeheads from Hell, Suvla Bay and Anzac Cove.  On the same Sunday, General Sir Douglas Haig took formal command of the BEF on the Western Front.  In British military terms these were major events, divesting the Empire’s war effort of two disasters in Sir John French and the entire Dardanelles operation, and for public purposes they could be presented as a fresh start after a year of bleak disappointments on every front.

The British war effort was in need of a fresh start.  Popular and political discontent was gathering as military failures chipped away the veneer of permanent good news that patriotism (and government) demanded of the British press.  This was especially true of those newspapers controlled by Lord Northcliffe.

Owner of (among others) The Times and The Daily Mail, the self-appointed voice of ‘the classes and the people’ was arguably the most powerful press baron in British history.  Northcliffe’s orchestration of the Shell Scandal during the late spring had played a major role in forcing a change of government, and his basic position was always that Germany – a state he hated and feared with unbridled passion – wasn’t being attacked with sufficient vigour.  He was a committed ‘Westerner’, sure the War could only be won in France and noisily against the distraction of resources to other fronts – so on the face of it an end to the Gallipoli adventure and a change at the top in France looked like positive government responses to press criticism.

All quite convincing if you wanted to be convinced, but it had nothing much to do with the truth.

Take Gallipoli. Of all the land fronts contested by British forces, sub-Saharan Africa aside, only Gallipoli had been conceived as an offensive operation.  Britain was fighting to defend Belgium and France, to protect imperial interests in Mesopotamia and Palestine, and (in theory at least) to rescue Serbia via Salonika.  The Dardanelles operation had been a bold attempt to change the War’s focus by knocking out the Ottoman Empire with a single blow, and its long, costly, embarrassing failure dealt a terrible blow to those arguing for that kind of lateral thinking.  The plan’s chief architect and sponsor, Churchill, quit the government and joined his old regiment on the Western Front, while the rest of British strategic thinking went back into its shell.  Some British resources would be sent to Mesopotamia and Palestine for offensive purposes in 1916, but the vast majority would be thrown into the battle for France or committed to a defensive posture in Salonika.

So all change but no progress when it came Britain’s strategic approach in late 1915, and the same applied to the tactical change of command on the Western Front.

Field Marshal Sir John French had to go, that much was clear to anyone not completely susceptible to propaganda.  Appointed in 1914 to command a small expeditionary force, and a cavalry officer with a reputation for colonial dash, he had proved timid and uncertain in command of a mass army.  His leadership had been characterised by extremes of optimism and pessimism, a chronic inability to liaise effectively with French commanders and a preference for caution at all times.  He also struggled to cope with large-scale operations, culminating in an inept display during the autumn’s Artois-Loos Offensive that was considered partly responsible for its failure and sealed his fate.

Like many a commentator before me, I feel the need to come to the poor Field Marshal’s defence, perhaps pointing out that even very good generals might have struggled with the rapid transition from leading a few hundred horsemen against colonial natives to commanding of millions of men in trenches.  Unfortunately I’ve read his relentlessly self-serving and notoriously unreliable memoirs, written during his post-War spell as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, so I’ll leave him to suffer posterity’s scorn and move on to Haig.

Haig does deserve more sympathy than the heritage industry can usually spare.  An intelligent and efficient staff officer, a good organiser with a solid record in command of the BEF’s First Corps, he was an urbane and orthodox figure, comfortable in political circles, on good personal terms with the King and generally admired by his peers.  This isn’t the time to discuss his future performance in detail, but broadly speaking it was a lot more competent than his popular reputation as a serial butcher suggests.

On the other hand, and this is my point, Haig’s command was no more innovative than could be expected from a man chosen precisely because he was a trusted executive of convention.  As the BEF’s senior field commander after French, Haig was the safe, predictable choice, approved by King George V on the grounds that he wasn’t ‘too clever’ and charged with carrying out more of the same, more effectively.  Of course Haig was a believer in the ‘breakthrough tactics’ of 1915, and of course he was a byword for the steady but unspectacular, instinctively attracted to tried and tested tactics, loyal to subordinates in the field and inclined to blame chance or staff errors for their failures.

In short, feel free to deplore Haig’s persistent faith in the horrific bloodletting on the Western Front during 1916 and 1917, and in the tactics and generals involved, but be aware that he was the walking incarnation of the British high command’s strategic paralysis.  Far from setting off on a fresh start at the end of 1915, British leaders were stalled at the crossroads, forced to take stock but unable to come up with any positive ideas about a change of direction.

14 NOVEMBER, 1915: Low Profile

I’ve talked about submarine warfare before. Submarines were important, or at least widely used, in the First World War, and their story has been largely lost to a public mind hooked on iconic Second World War images. It was a good story: a tale of extraordinary bravery and endurance by submariners in machines that were unwieldy, unreliable, uncomfortable and distinctly unsafe; and a strategic saga of fearsome potential never quite realised that would be mirrored by its Second World War sequel.

In both wars, a U-boat campaign against Allied shipping in the Atlantic formed the centrepiece of the submarine story, and the First World War version tends to hog what little modern limelight is available to its submariners. In 1915, on the other hand, the exploits of submarines anywhere were headline news, sensational stuff featuring one of the wonders of the age – and a hundred years ago today, a dismayed British public opened its newspapers to discover that the Royal Navy submarine E20 had been sent to the bottom of the Sea of Marmora.  So this seems a good moment to look beyond the U-boats and doff a hat to the wartime exploits of the British submarine service.

The E20, one of the newest British boats, had met its fate on the afternoon of 6 November, and had been a victim of bad luck. The French Navy submarine Turquoise had run aground in the Dardanelles on 30 October, right under the barrels of Turkish shore batteries, and been captured with its orders and codes intact, including details of a planned rendezvous with the E20. The British boat kept the appointment, but was met by the German U-boat UB14 and sunk by a direct hit from a single torpedo. Of the submarine’s crew of thirty, 21 were killed, the rest rescued and taken prisoner.

The British press was predictably scandalised by the sinking, one of seven British submarine losses during the Dardanelles/Gallipoli campaign, and quick to point the finger at the Admiralty for poor operating practices. Then again, like other British authorities at a time of mounting popular disillusion, the Admiralty couldn’t really win with the press. For much of the previous six months the same papers had been praising the submarines as a success story and panning the Navy for not sending more of them to the theatre.

Despite the losses ­– only six boats survived the campaign – British submarines were a success in the Dardanelles. Four boats were lost attempting to pass through the Straits, a difficult and dangerous feat given the technical limitations of contemporary submarines, but between them the other nine sank two battleships, a destroyer, 5 gunboats, 9 transports, 35, steamers, 7 supply ships and 188 smaller vessels, causing persistent disruption to Turkish supply lines at the front. After a succession of failures to impress the British public, these excellent results came at a very good time for the Royal Navy, and by late 1915 the submarine service had become something of a public relations star turn.

It was about time, given that the British began the War with the best submarine fleet in the world. It wasn’t the biggest fleet in the world, but the Royal Navy’s 40 old boats for coastal defensive work and 17 modern, longer-range D- and E-Type boats outnumbered the German Navy’s ten long-range and 18 coastal craft in 1914, and the much larger French fleet possessed few boats fit for any kind of active service. I’m resisting the temptation to get technical, so take my word for it that the E-Type boat, in service since 1913 and destined to be the mainstay of British wartime production, was the safest, most efficient submarine available to any navy, and comprehensively outperformed contemporary U-boat designs.

From a PR point of view, all these advantages had counted for little during the first months of the War. British submarines were held in a defensive posture, quiet on the margins of public perception as they clustered around home ports for fear of a German naval breakout. All that changed when a handful of E-Types sent to the Baltic began registering successes against German merchant ships in the spring of 1915, and the performance of the Dardanelles flotilla during the rest of the year cemented the position of British submariners, and particularly submarine commanders, as popular heroes in the same mould as flying aces.

Once the Gallipoli campaign had ended, so did the turkey shoot provided by Ottoman shipping around in the Dardanelles. British submariners never again had it so good, but the service expanded steadily and performed with relative success for the rest of the War. Coastal defence and commerce warfare remained their core duties, but British submarines were also occasionally adapted as minelayers and quite frequently deployed in anti-submarine operations.  The latter bring this tiny tour d’horizon full circle.

Wartime British submarines sank a total of seventeen U-boats, and most were trapped using the same subterfuge that did for the E20:  waiting in ambush at a prearranged enemy rendezvous point and dishing out a torpedo at close range. British boats could perform the trick so often because, beginning in December 1914, the Admiralty’s secret Room 40 had been deciphering German Navy radio traffic, a vital advantage that was yet another harbinger of the next war, and is another story I plan to mention one day.

14 JULY, 1915: Bloody Idiots

Jut a small anniversary today:  the end of an attack by British Imperial forces towards Achi Baba, a 200-metre hill about twelve kilometres inland from the southern tip of the Gallipoli peninsular. It wasn’t a very important attack, but it gets a mention for two reasons.

First of all, it’s an opportunity to check in with the shambles of the Allied assault on Gallipoli. In mid-March 1915, once it had become obvious that naval forces couldn’t get through the Dardanelles Strait without controlling at least one of its coasts, some 18,000 French colonial troops and 75,000 British imperial troops were committed to an invasion of Gallipoli. With all the better British generals busy elsewhere (and then some), command of the force was given to General Hamilton, who had previously commanded home front forces, backed by a distinctly second-rate selection of senior officers. Subsequent preparations were characterised by vagueness, command confusion, delays and over-confidence, giving Ottoman forces plenty of time to deploy some 84,000 troops at various points on the peninsula before Allied landings took place on 25 April.

Hamilton’s multiple landings on Gallipoli’s southern coast did strike at the least defended part of the peninsula, but were ill equipped and ineptly led. Thrown back wherever they met serious resistance, they eventually occupied two small beachheads, at Helles on the peninsula’s southern tip, and further up the Aegean coast near Gaba Tepe, on a tiny warren of cliff-top ridges soon to be known as Anzac Cove.

At this point, Allied commanders still took the standard pre-War view that Ottoman troops weren’t up to much, but the complete failure of a clumsy first attempt to break out from the Helles beachhead soon put them right.  While Hamilton started making timid requests for reinforcements of men and equipment, the two beachheads settled into a pattern of close-quarters trench warfare grim enough to stand comparison with the greatest horrors of even this war.

During May and June, Ottoman forces were transferred from other fronts, giving the defenders considerable numerical superiority. Meanwhile, in London, navy minister (and prime mover behind the operation) Winston Churchill convinced British war minister Kitchener that a rapid decision was needed on Gallipoli, so Hamilton was sent three British Army infantry divisions for a major new offensive.  Planned for August, Hamilton’s offensive was an ambitious affair focused on Anzac Cove and new landings further north at Suvla Bay.  Nothing more than a feint was planned for the Helles sector, but its commander, British General Hunter-Weston, convinced Hamilton to authorise the separate attack on Achi Baba in late June.

And so to my second reason for mentioning this undistinguished affair:  Hunter-Weston’s enthusiasm for action was precisely the kind of thing that was making Australians and New Zealanders at Gallipoli so angry.

Carried out by predominantly Anzac troops, the Achi Baba attack began on 28 June with an advance along the Aegean coast that gained a kilometre, was halted by Ottoman trenches and counterattacks, and ran out of steam on 5 July.  Hunter-Weston then called up a division of reinforcements for a frontal assault on the hill, which opened on 12 July, met similarly stiff resistance and was called off two days later. The operation as whole cost Hunter-Weston about 12,000 battle casualties, and Ottoman losses were at least twice that.  Anzac officers believed that Hunter-Weston had greatly exaggerated the hill’s strategic importance when seeking permission for the attack, and saw it as essentially a vanity project, an unnecessary diversion of resources, sloppily handled, that was nothing more or less than a pointless waste of lives.  Historians agree with them.  Any view held by the British heritage industry has so far been difficult to discern.

26 APRIL, 1915: Secrets and Lies

I think we’re all aware that the Gallipoli land campaign kicked off a century ago, and it would be hard not to notice the human sacrifice involved. On the whole, the heritage story is also doing a pretty good job of pointing out the campaign’s international significance, giving great weight to ANZAC matters, managing to mention that much of the ground force committed came from various outposts of the British and French Empires, and even giving a nod to the impact of a hard-won Ottoman victory on the future of an independent Turkey. On the other hand, from a British perspective, you’d have to say the commemorative industry could be doing a whole lot better.

You can hunt down a documentary or dig deep in the broadsheet press, but if you stick to the mass-consumption side of the media you might not even notice that the entire campaign was a fiasco from start to finish. Perhaps national love for Winnie explains populist reluctance to roundly condemn Churchill’s bombastic role as the plan’s principal political promoter. Perhaps unwillingness to remind us of Churchill’s reckless streak has contributed to tabloid reticence when it comes to mentioning the strategic optimism, shoddy planning and command ineptitude that characterised Britain’s part in the campaign, or to laying much stress on the outrage provoked in contemporary Australia by those failings. Of course, this is the centenary of the first landings on the peninsular, and despite the abject failure of naval efforts against the Dardanelles defences the Gallipoli campaign wasn’t yet a disaster – but it was suffering from poor planning and execution from the first day, and that isn’t part of the news packages I’m seeing.

Ah well, let’s hope Gallipoli hasn’t dropped off the news map when the time comes to commemorate the really shambolic stuff.

One other problem with the pomp and ceremony surrounding Gallipoli is the way commemoration can warp history. The commitment of troops to a sideshow in the eastern Mediterranean wasn’t by any means the only, or even the most significant event of that weekend in 1915. Negotiations to bring Italy into the War on the side of the Triple Entente were reaching the end of a long road, and on Monday 26 April the Treaty of London was signed.

The Treaty guaranteed that Italy, by a distance the biggest European economy not yet committed to the War, would join the fight against Germany and Austria-Hungary. In early 1915, a time when strategic thinking on both sides assumed that one more push in the right place would bring this unsustainable conflict to an end, it was seen by many in authority as a potentially war-winning diplomatic triumph. It was not, however, a propaganda triumph, because it was kept secret, and it was kept secret because it was arguably one of the grubbiest agreements ever made between nations, a stark reflection of naked greed, high-handedness and desperation that left even some of its makers appalled and talking of international blackmail.

By the spring of 1915 Italian politicians, press and public were clamouring for war in the just causes of national expansion and national glory. Given that orthodox pre-war thinking all over Europe had assumed the approaching conflict, long overdue, would create a new world order dominated by the winners, this was not the outrageous chauvinism it appears today. The Ottoman Empire, Greece, Brazil, Bulgaria, Romania and almost every other country with foreign policy issues needed to be on the winning side and was open to bribery in return for joining it.

Italy had a young nation’s restless thirst for international status to go with foreign policy issues in spades, the most emotive of them centred on territorial disputes with the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Vienna’s refusal to make concessions in the region around Italy’s northeast frontier had scuppered any prospect of Rome going to war in 1914 alongside Austro-Hungary and Germany, its partners in the Triple Alliance, and gave the Entente powers a key advantage in what soon became an auction for Italian allegiance.

A charitable view would be that the auction got out of hand, though it might be more accurate to say it reflected the madness of a world at war. Either way, the winning Entente bid made promises it either couldn’t keep, could only keep by breaking promises made to other countries, or had no intention trying to keep. On the Italian side, Entente promises were accepted eyes wide shut for fear that the breakthrough everyone expected would end the War before Italy could claim its share of the jamboree. Check out those promises and lies.

Italy was promised substantial military and economic aid, starting with an immediate loan from Britain of £50 million (a vast sum in 1915), as well as substantial reparations after victory was achieved and the fulfilment of almost all its many territorial ambitions. Italy was to be given the Trentino (South Tyrol) and Trieste regions to the north of the country, both then ruled by Vienna, and despite promises already made to Serbia it would control both the Dalmatian and Adriatic coastlines with the sole exception of the port of Fiume (Rijeka), which was withheld as a sop to Russian support for Slav interests. Italy was also to be given formal possession of the Dodecanese archipelago (which it had annexed in 1912 but which the Entente was also promising to Greece) and the Adalia region on the Turkish coast nearest to the islands, along with an expanded area of influence in Libya.

                             The bribe, territorially speaking.

None too surprisingly with hindsight, the Treaty of London did nobody much good. Allied aid never began to match Italian expectations, and the new battlefront that opened up in the mountain passes around the frontiers with Austria-Hungary became another ghastly stalemate that was still in progress when the Bolsheviks took over Russia and released details of all the Entente’s secret treaties.

Details of the London treaty began appearing the Western press at the end of 1917, provoking understandable anger in Serbia and Greece, but also sparking pubic outrage in Italy over a particularly embarrassing clause that prohibited any Entente response to peace proposals by the Pope. At the end of the War an exhausted and turbulent Italy received precious little of its territorial bounty at the Paris Peace Conference, as the Treaty became a byword for the failings of ‘old world diplomacy’ and the claims of smaller Balkan states took precedence. Within another three years, Italian dissatisfaction would find expression in the noisy nationalism of Benito Mussolini’s Fascist Party.

When we say Pope, we’re talking Benedict XV. Just so you know.

I don’t know, all that seems worth a mention to me, or at least a commemorative tip of the hat – but I guess hard-nosed diplomacy and treaty clauses get low billing in a media circus that’s all about feelings.

14 APRIL, 1915: Birth and Deaths

A hundred years ago today, on opposite sides of the world, two political statements set the table for the birth of Australia as we know it today.  In London, Colonial Secretary Harcourt announced that the Dominions of the British Empire – that’s to say the essentially self-governing ‘white’ colonies of Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa – would be consulted about any peace signed at the War’s end. On the same day Australian Prime Minister Fisher declared that his government would send every available fighting man to support the mother country in her hour of need.

In April 1915, the Empire needed Australians and New Zealanders in the eastern Mediterranean, and both statements were made in the context of ANZAC commitment to the upcoming battle against Ottoman defences on the Gallipoli peninsular.  The grim course of that campaign would transform the self-image, international status and economic fortunes of Australia, and to a lesser extent New Zealand, and consign to history the uncomplicated parent/child relationship expressed in the announcements of 14 April.  I’ll talk about New Zealand another time, but for now here’s a brief glimpse of the forgotten Australia that marched to Gallipoli that spring.

On the brink… ANZAC troops in Egypt, en route for Gallipoli.

When war broke out in Europe, Australia was in trouble. Its separate states had been formally inaugurated as a self-governing federation in 1901, but they remained a quarrelsome bunch burdened by a stagnant economy and competing to attract a dwindling flow of immigrants from Britain. Apart from an estimated 200,000 (largely ignored) native Australians living in the interior, a sparse European population of about five million (virtually all of British descent) was concentrated on the coasts.

The outbreak of war in Europe, coming immediately after election of the new Labour-led federal government, sparked the first major display of national unity in Australia’s history, as the conflict was greeted with a wave of public enthusiasm comparable with that in Britain.

Relatively humble loyalty to Britain and almost universal public approval of the War were still in full effect after eight months of fighting, not least because the conflict was bringing a steady improvement in economic conditions. Though Australian industry was not sufficiently developed to enable a wartime boom on the scale of, for instance, the USA or Japan, pressure from Europe to produce manufactured goods, and weapons in particular, was laying the groundwork for rapid post-war industrialisation. Meanwhile exports of meat and metals to Europe were mushrooming, helped along by a healthy budget, excellent port facilities and good railways, and the collapse of exports from Europe was opening doors to important trading contacts with the USA and Japan.

Economic growth would be maintained, and Australia’s share of world trade would rise by 25 percent during the War, but unadulterated national enthusiasm for the imperial fight would disappear forever in the ghastly trenches of Gallipoli.

It wasn’t that the perceived British blunders and slights at Gallipoli, along with the huge and undeniable cost in lives, made Australians unwilling to fight.  Though resistant to conscription, Australians poured into British theatres throughout the War, often serving with particular distinction, and the country’s relatively tiny population eventually contributed about 322,000 men to wartime service. These suffered more than 280,000 casualties (including 60,000 dead), the highest rate of attrition experienced by any wartime national army.  The difference after the horrors and scandals that accompanied Australia’s terrible introduction to modern warfare was that Australians no longer fought as obedient, uncritical servants of Empire.  They learned to fight as Australians, rather than as British ex-patriots or state residents, and to fight for Australia, if necessary in defiance of imperial edicts.

Three-time Australian premier Andrew Fisher, arguably the country’s last ‘British’ prime minister.

This wasn’t true at once, or true of all Australians.  After Fisher’s resignation later in 1915 (another by-product of the Gallipoli campaign), the government of William Hughes, first as Labour leader and later at the head of a Liberal coalition, pursued a firmly pro-British policy throughout the War – but it was never able to introduce conscription in the face of political opposition, and earned widespread mistrust amid consistent popular and press disapproval of British war management.

A hundred years on, Australia still recognises the British monarch as head of state, and is still nominally ruled by a governor-general, but in practice nobody has told Australians what to do since Gallipoli.

6 MARCH, 1915: Side Effects?

However much tourism and the edifice of the EU may persuade us otherwise, modern Greece has always been a turbulent, unstable country, prone to revolution and civil war throughout its relatively short history as a sovereign state.

Part of the Ottoman Empire for almost four hundred years until it gained independence in 1829, its first constitutional monarch was a Bavarian prince, King Otto I, elected to the job in 1832 and overthrown by a revolution thirty years later.  His Danish successor, King George I, oversaw the country’s steady territorial expansion, so that by the end of the Balkan Wars in 1913 Greece controlled Crete and Lemnos, along with parts of Macedonia and Thrace – but George was assassinated at Salonika, the Macedonian capital, in March 1913.  At that point the crown passed to his son, King Constantine I, and Greece was plunged into a long, painful political crisis that came to the boil a hundred years ago today.

Greek politics in the early twentieth century revolved around the promise of territorial expansion and the threat of territorial loss. All parties agreed that Greek’s principal rival in this context was Ottoman Turkey, followed by the aggressive young kingdoms of Serbia and Bulgaria, each smarting from perceived injustice during the Balkan Wars. Russia, with its well-known designs on access to the Mediterranean, was also considered a permanent threat.  A map seems appropriate and here’s one, thieved from the net and removable at the drop of a hint.


From this position, as Europe divided into diplomatic power blocs, it followed that the big question for Greek political leaders was which side to take.  Constantine was strongly pro-German, as were most important and officers in the Greek Army, but Eleutherios Venizelos, by a distance the biggest wig in Greek politics and Prime Minister since 1910, led a cabinet that had, in close cooperation with King George, pursued a policy of cautious but consistent friendship with London and Paris.

Each side of this argument pursued separate negotiations when war broke out in 1914. Constantine and his chief military advisor, Colonel Metaxas, received a German offer of alliance in August, while negotiations were underway between the Venizelos government and the Entente – but neither suitor was prepared to jeopardise ongoing negotiations with Bulgaria and Turkey by providing the right territorial guarantees. Both sets of talks broke down, and Greece remained neutral through the War’s opening phases.

Unsatisfied greed wasn’t the only reason for Greece to stay neutral. Serbia and Russia were otherwise engaged, and therefore posed no immediate threat, but Bulgaria and Turkey were still sitting on the fence. Either might, it seemed from Athens, try to recover lost territories by attacking Greece while the rest of Europe was preoccupied elsewhere. With a largely peasant population of less than five million, little modern industry, less than 2,000km of railways, and armed forces in the throes of belated modernisation, Greece needed a period of peace and reform before it was capable of fighting back.

Recognition of this weakness was the basis for a period of uneasy political truce between Constantine and the Venizelos government, but it melted down after the Anglo-French attack on the Dardanelles pinned down Turkish resources and brought the War physically close to Greece.

The government proposed aid for the Entente and on 6 March, after the King had vetoed the move, Venizelos and his cabinet resigned. That point marked the end of all pretence at political unity in Greece. While Constantine reopened negotiations with Germany, Venizelos would return to power with a landslide election victory in June and immediately offer assistance to the Entente, most notably use of a base in Salonika. As stresses between crown and government matured into an undeclared civil war, the country was destined to simmer in a state of semi-neutral chaos until mid-1917, when Constantine’s removal from power would finally see Venizelos lead Greece into war on the Entente side.

Though Greek support enabled the Entente powers to open a new battlefront in Salonika, Greek entry into the War had very little direct effect on the conflict. The War nevertheless had a profound effect on Greece, exacerbating internal instabilities, provoking internal conflict into crisis, and creating divisions that would continue to plague the country deep into the twentieth century – and that still lie at the heart of a very fragile nation state.

Meanwhile on the Western Front… unabated slaughter, but nothing that changed anything.

19 FEBRUARY, 1915: Hell’s Gateway

A hundred years ago today, the first shots were fired in what became known as the Gallipoli campaign, one of the First World War’s most notorious cock-ups or, if you look at it from the other side, the defensive victory that saved Ottoman Turkey (at least for the time being) and made the name of Kemal Ataturk, one of post-War Europe’s most important political leaders.

The land campaign on the Gallipoli Peninsula holds a guaranteed place in the small pantheon of war stories from beyond the Western Front considered important by the British heritage industry, albeit largely because British command failures and genuinely shocking fighting conditions support the reassuring and popular ‘lions led by donkeys’ view of the conflict. The same view is broadly accepted by the Australian commemorative industry, though in the context of Gallipoli’s totemic role in bringing national identity to the squabbling, competing states that made up Australia in 1914.

So the soldiers’ war in Gallipoli will be remembered in detail, and I’ll have no more than occasional sidelights to add, but ground fighting on the front didn’t get underway until April 1915. The shots fired on 19 February were the start a purely naval campaign, an Anglo-French attempt to force a passage through the heavily defended Dardanelles Straits and take Constantinople by sea. Land forces would be dragged into the fray in the wake of its initial failures.

The naval attack was intended to knock the Ottoman Empire out of the War, enable direct collaboration with Russian forces in the Black Sea and persuade all sorts of minor European nations to join the Allied side. Given that the Western Front already bore the mark of a hugely expensive stalemate, this seemed a tempting option to some strategists, particularly the all-action minister in charge of the British Royal Navy, First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill. A simple map, borrowed and removable on request, illustrates the temptation nicely.


A purely naval attack on the Dardanelles had been deemed impossible by a British study in 1907, on the grounds that ships’ guns would be unable to subdue strong Turkish shore defences. Even if warships were able to ‘force’ a passage through the straits, enemy control of fortresses on the shoreline would force them to return. This was still true in 1915, but Churchill, one of the most strident voices for diversity of the British war effort away from the Western Front, was having none of it.

Never short on eloquence, energy or enthusiasm, Churchill ordered Admiral Carden – commanding the fleet of largely obsolete warships patrolling off the straits since August 1914’s Goeben fiasco – to carry out a raid against forts at the entrance to the Straits in November. Lucky British shooting caused considerable damage, alerted Turkish commanders to the danger of attack and told Churchill what he wanted to hear. In early January, the First Lord asked Carden for advice on the best way to force the straits with ships alone, and then mis-sold the admiral’s cautious reply to the British cabinet as a positive response. By the end of the month, despite the fact that no qualified authority had actually suggested it would work, Carden’s preferred option had become an authorised plan of action.

Most British naval strategists, led by fiery First Sea Lord Admiral Fisher, regarded success as impossible without the support of ground forces to control the coast, but political optimism outweighed their mounting opposition and Churchill was able to assemble a powerful fleet for the task. When Carden’s operation began on 19 February he commanded one modern battleship, three battlecruisers, twelve pre-Dreadnought battleships and four cruisers, along with the seaplane carrier Ark Royal and a full supporting cast of destroyers, minesweepers (trawlers with civilian crews) and submarines. Carden was also supported by a French Navy force based on four more pre-Dreadnoughts, because although sceptical about the operation’s chances, the French government wasn’t about to be left out of anything that might affect its economic ambitions in the eastern Mediterranean.

Carden’s plan was hardly daring. He intended to force the straits in three stages, moving slowly and deliberately to maximise the damage to Turkish morale. Stage one involved destroying the outer forts with long, steady bombardments, beginning with an attack by heavy guns beyond the range of defensive fire; stage two concentrated on coastal batteries and minefields; and the third wave would destroy Turkish forts further inside the straits. By the end of the first day, the plan was looking unlikely to succeed.

Turkish defences had been strengthened since the heads-up of November. Minefields had been extended, an additional 24 German mobile howitzers had arrived and the siting arrangements for defensive artillery had been improved… but these had nothing to do with the ineffectual performance of Carden’s forces on 19 February. British aircraft performed poorly as artillery spotters, their reports were often ignored anyway, and observation problems contributed to lousy shooting that left most Turkish positions undamaged.

Bad weather prevented further efforts until 25 February, when Carden moved his ships closer to the targets and the outer forts were silenced – but after this small success the plan fell apart completely, as minesweeping was rendered impossible by shore batteries that could not be attacked until the mines were swept. The big guns of the modern battleship Queen Elizabeth did cause serious damage to the shore batteries when deployed on 5 March, but this was missed by British reconnaissance and the ship was withdrawn when it came under retaliatory fire from a mobile battery.

Churchill had always claimed that the operation could be called off and redefined as a raid if it went badly, but instead the stakes were raised, as the British and French governments responded to stalemate by sending ground forces to support their navies. Some 18,000 French colonial troops sailed for the Dardanelles on 10 March, and two days later General Hamilton took command of 75,000 British and Imperial troops ordered to the front.

As the invasion force gathered off the Gallipoli peninsula, and intelligence reported desperate Turkish ammunition shortages, Churchill remained convinced that victory was just a push away and ordered Carden to make a last dash for Constantinople. Carden suffered a nervous breakdown after ordering the attack on 17 March, and it began the following day under the command of his deputy, Admiral de Robeck. An unmitigated disaster, and a story for another day, it marked the end of the Gallipoli campaign’s opening phase, the point at which an audacious but ineptly planned adventure became a ghastly strategic error, and a living Hell for those sent to carry it out.