Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Gallipoli Campaign – April 25, 1915 to January 9, 1916

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli Campaign.  What you know of Gallipoli, or if you have even heard of it, will depend more on where you are from than anything else. If Canada became a nation under the baptism of fire on Vimy Ridge in April 1917, Australia and New Zealand came of age on the Gallipoli Peninsula in 1915 and Turkish, as opposed to Ottoman, nationalism was given a huge boost.

Mostly when we think of WWI, we think of trench warfare in Belgium and France.  But it was truly fought all over Europe on several fronts.  The Ottoman Empire, reeling and bankrupt from disastrous wars in the Balkans from 1911 to 1913, was neutral.  The navy was initially pro-British and the army, under Minister of War Enver Pasha, was pro-German, dreaming of restoring lost territory and lost glory. 

Britain had seized two British-built battleships, which had been bought and paid for by Turkey.  The Germans, anxious to have an ally in Eastern Europe and the Middle East offered two ships in return.  The Goeben and the Breslau eluded a ham-fisted British naval attempt to intercept them (a great story in itself) and reached Constantinople.  They were “turned over” to the Ottoman navy but kept their German crews and commanders. In November 1914, they entered the Black Sea under Turkish flags and shelled Odessa, Sevastopol, and Nikolayev.  Russia promptly declared war on Turkey and the Black Sea was closed to Allied ships trying to supply the Russian Army.

In February and March 1915, the British and French navies tried to force their way through the Dardanelles to Constantinople.  The narrow channel was well defended by shore batteries and “The Narrows” was heavily mined, causing the loss of three British ships.  Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, put forward a scheme to land Allied troops on the Gallipoli Peninsula and wrest control of the shore batteries and The Narrows, which would effectively take Turkey out of the war. 

A basic map of the Gallipoli Peninsula, showing landing areas 

The links on the maps below take you to pages which will blow up quite large on your screen and provide a pretty good idea of the action timelines and the terrain.
The campaign was doomed from the start.  British military intelligence, that oxymoron to end all oxymorons, was thin on the ground.  They did not know the geography of the area and badly underestimated the fighting abilities of the Turkish Army.  Like a great deal of Turkey, the area was mountainous and the Turks held the high ground. They were ably led by Mustafa Kemal who is better known to the world today as Kemal Ataturk, the Father of all Turks.

The landings took place beginning April 25th. The British and French landed on Cape Hellas, the southern tip of the peninsula, under heavy fire.  The ANZACs (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) landed farther up the western coast at Gaba Tepe (in what is now referred to as ANZAC Cove), with the intent of catching the Turkish Army between the two forces.  Except they landed two miles off from where they were supposed to, in impossibly difficult terrain and were slaughtered as they came ashore.  Both armies fought to establish beachheads and held on under constant bombardment.

In spite of best efforts on both sides, neither could dislodge the other.  Stalemate and trench warfare developed similar to that in France.  An August offensive gained some ground at great cost in casualties on both sides. On September 20th, another offensive was launched, this time with British Troops, including 1074 members of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment landing in Suvla Bay to assist the ANZACS. This offensive, which was Newfoundland’s introduction to the war, also failed.

The decision was made to withdraw and on December 7 the troops began to be taken off and by January 9, 1916 the last one embarked for home.  Of 480,000 Allied troops, there were 250,000 casualties including 48,000 killed. This does not count those struck down by dysentery from the heat and unsanitary conditions.  The Turks also counted 250,000 casualties of which 65,000 were killed.

Churchill, whose brainchild this was, resigned and took a commission on the battlefield in France. 

Australia and New Zealand celebrate ANZAC Day April 25 as we celebrate Armastice Day Nov 11th. 

In 1934 Atatürk wrote a tribute to the Anzacs killed at Gallipoli:
Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives ... You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours ... You, the mothers who sent their sons from faraway countries, wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.
Kemal Atatürk Memorial, Anzac Parade, Canberra, Australia
A detailed write up of the campaign can be found on Wikipedia here and on here. The Australian story can be found here, here and here. The New Zealand Story can be found here. The Turkish side of the story here.

The Band Played Waltzing Matilda, the ballad of an Australian soldier at Gallipoli is one of the saddest anti-war songs ever written.


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