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.

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