The campaign at Gallipoli in 1915 is regarded as one of the most spectacular failures of World War One, and is famous for the dreadful conditions endured by those who fought there. Instigated by Winston Churchill towards the end of 1914, the campaign was a response to Tsar Nicholas II’s appeal for help, employing the British Royal Navy to seize the Dardanelle Straits and Constantinople, hence taking the Ottomans out of World War One, also protecting the British command of the Suez Canal. A battle at Gallipoli would also create a new theatre of war, relieving pressure on the other fronts.
The campaign was always a controversial one: Admiral of the Fleet Lord Fisher had twice studied the possibility of an attack at Gallipoli, and had concluded it “mightily hazardous”. A War Office study of 1906 had stated “The General Staff, in view of the risks involved, are not prepared to recommend an attack at Gallipoli being attempted.” However, eight years later, the attack did go ahead, and was a catastrophic failure. The consequence of this was a huge humiliation for the British as they withdrew with heavy losses was that strategies had to be devised to remove Turkey. The Gallipoli Campaign is famous, not only for being a massive and embarrassing mistake, but for the nightmare conditions that were endured by those who fought there. The extent to which the conditions had an effect on the campaign is debatable: some historians argue the conditions are a mere consequence of a strategic failure, others argue that the conditions and management of the wounded were the defining factors in the success of the campaign.
The decision to attack
By December 1914 stalemate was established on the Western Front. France’s Plan XVII and the German Schlieffen Plan had both failed to produce the decisive victories expected, and politicians on all sides were realising that the war was going to be longer than first anticipated. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) that was fighting on the Western Front was a small, highly trained, professional army, who were not accustomed to mass warfare: Britain’s strength lay traditionally in the Royal Navy. From this basis, First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, was seeking a way to reinvigorate the war using the Royal Navy: “…after the outbreak of war, the traditional strength of British forces was most keenly appreciated by Churchill”. Even as early as August 1914, Churchill discussed the possibility of a naval attack on the Dardanelle Straits with the Secretary of State for War, Field Marshal Lord Kitchener. When on 31st October 1914 Turkey entered the war with the Central Powers, the British War Council met to discuss their options: Churchill’s idea of a Dardanelles attack was initially rejected, but as he persevered and other options were exhausted, the idea became increasingly appealing. After Tsar Nicholas II of Russia requested British help to distract Central Powers’ armies from an attack on the Caucases, Kitchener finally agreed on action, although he was adamant that troops could not be used – none could be spared from the Western Front. It was decided that the naval operation would use a fleet of old pre-Dreadnought ships, with one addition of the most modern ship in the British Navy, the ‘Queen Elizabeth’. Admiral Fisher raised concerns about an operation without troops, and tried to resign as his objections were not heeded. He was persuaded by Kitchener and Churchill to remain in office and support the plan, “for the sake of unity”.
The plan of attack
Vice Admiral Sackville Carden designed the plan for the Navy to attack the Dardanelles on Churchill’s orders. According to Steel’s highly critical account of the planning of the attack “Churchill was … less concerned with the technical difficulties of the operation than his professional advisers, he increasingly overlooked their objections.” In Steel’s opinion the other members of the War Council “remained diffident and had agreed to the operation only because it involved such a limited part of Britain’s remaining resources.” Moorehead, however, argues that the other members of the War Council were less negative – “the decision was made without a dissenting voice” and it was a vague hope among the members that the frailty of Turkey’s government would mean that a simple advance from the Entente Powers would again throw Constantinople into “chaos by political revolution” and therefore out of the war. Nevertheless, regardless of the commitment of the War Council’s decision, the planning for a naval assault on the Dardanelles went ahead.
Carden’s plan for the naval attack on February 19th 1915 was to involve several phases: first to silence the guns on land using the fleet’s long-range primary armaments, then move in closer up the Straits and use lighter, secondary armament to continue the bombardment. The flotilla would then move closer still to make the final onslaught to destroy any remaining guns on land. The immediate appearance of the bombardment was that it was a success: the Turkish land forts did not return fire, indicating that they were being destroyed. However this illusion was shattered as the ships advanced to make the secondary bombardment and came under heavy fire. Steel explains that the “flat trajectory of the naval shells meant that they were relatively ineffective”: shrapnel would have been useful if it was used, but supplies were low and the gunnery officers too inexperienced to use it. The next day, February 20th, operations were suspended for 3 days due to bad weather. This gave the Turks vital time to regroup and repair damage. When restarted, the fleet’s progress into the Dardanelles was severely hindered by carefully concealed Turkish mobile guns.
The next phase of Carden’s plan was to move up into the Straits and sweep the mines. This process had to be done using trawlers with inexperienced civilian crews due to lack of minesweepers available. The trawlers were under fire from the forts that had not been destroyed, which greatly hindered their progress with what was already a difficult job of sweeping against the current. Churchill became impatient: on March 13th he complained to Carden “I do not understand why minesweeping should be interfered with by fire which causes no casualties. Two or three hundred casualties would be a moderate price to pay for sweeping as far as the Narrows… This work has to be done whatever the loss of life and small craft and the sooner it is done the better.” This pressure from Churchill led to Carden devising a new plan, shortly before being sicklisted due to stress. His second in command, De Robeck, took over. The new plan involved three lines of ships one after the other to move in and bombard the Narrows from close range, allowing minesweepers to enter. The bombardment would continue overnight to protect the sweepers, the next morning the ships moving into the Sea of Marmara. On the morning of March 18th, it was announced that the Dardanelles were clear of mines to within 8000 yards of the Narrows forts, therefore the fleet had a safe area in which to manoeuvre. However, without British knowledge, a Turkish ship had ten days earlier laid a row of 20 mines parallel to Erin Keui Bay. When the first and second lines of ships tried to retreat from the gun battle into which they had become drawn, they hit the mines. Three out of the sixteen ships were sunk, and three disabled. Very little progress was made by this attack: Steel summarises “The reality of the 18th March was that it was a failure for the Allied fleet.”
The introduction of the army
It was becoming increasingly obvious that a naval attack alone would not succeed, and that some sort of military support was required. Although Kitchener had been resolute that no troops should removed from the Western Front, on September 9th he had sent an offer to station troops on Salonika to support Serbia if Bulgaria joined the Central Powers, thus revealing that there were troops free from the Western Front. Seizing this opportunity, Carden expanded the plan to include troops, not as an invading force, but to take the land forts as the Navy destroyed them. Kitchener then changed his mind about committing the Salonika troops, the 29th Division, proposing instead the Anzacs. By March 1st, the Anzacs were at Mudros, on the Aegean island of Lemnos, under the command of Lieutenant General Birdwood. When asked his opinion on sending in troops by the War Council, Birdwood replied “If troops do become involved, it will be impossible to limit them to the minor role Kitchener has in mind.” Kitchener changed his mind once again and at a meeting of the War Council, he announced that the 29th Division would be involved, increasing the number of Mediterranean divisions to five. The highly experienced General Sir Ian Hamilton was put in charge of this force.
After having seen the peninsula for the first time the previous day, Hamilton informed Kitchener on the 19th March that the army’s contribution would have to “…be more than mere landings of parties to destroy forts, it must be a deliberate and progressive military operation carried out at full strength so as to open a passage for the Navy.” Kitchener’s reply “If large military operations on the Gallipoli Peninsula are necessary to clear the way, they must be undertaken and carried through” Hamilton took as permission to go ahead. It was agreed by both men that “no further progress could be made until the shoreline was seized.” On March 22nd, De Robeck and Hamilton met to discuss the military initiative: there is confusion over which party proposed that the naval operation became a military campaign, however the outcome was the same – troops would land on Gallipoli. The next day, the General Staff presented Hamilton with a basic outline of a plan that he instantly approved. On March 27th, the General Head Quarters (GHQ) was established in Alexandria. Not all members of the General Staff were there which hindered the details of the plan’s formation.
Hamilton’s main weapon was surprise, but after recent events he was left only tactical surprise – where and when he would strike. Hamilton hoped that by keeping the location of the landings secret the Turkish defence would have to be spread more thinly over a greater area in order to defend every possible attacking point, therefore weaker at the point the British attacked. The attack had to be as close to the entrance of the Dardanelles as possible in order to allow the Narrows to be mineswept – the Turkish defence had to be reduced at decisive range. The landings also had to be within the troops’ capability, and their counterparts in the Navy’s ability to land them.
The decision was taken that the 29th Division would make the main thrust at Cape Helles, where although the terrain was difficult, the Navy would be able to give greater support at the area was surrounded by sea. There would be second landings by the Anzacs north of Gaba Tepe along the difficult terrain that Hamilton hoped would be less thoroughly defended due to the unlikelihood of an attack. As the Navy did not have the capability to land all the troops at once, there would be a third later attack by troops at Bulair. Multiple landings would disguise which was the main attack, plus force the Turks to split their defence. The positioning of the two attacks meant that the Kalid Bahr plateau would be under pressure from both sides, threatening Turkish communications along the peninsula.
The failure of amphibious landings and conditions on the ground
Consistent with the rest of the campaign, the attacks floundered. The landings were unsuccessful, and the troops were faced with such impregnable defences that were stronger than anticipated that they made little progress. Exhausted and ill-prepared, they did what was their only option, and dug into trenches. From this, a ‘trench-warfare’ situation developed, similar to the stalemate at the Western Front.
Men who fought at Gallipoli lived in horrendous conditions, with poor food supplies and little clean water apart from the small amount that was shipped in from Egypt. The food consisted primarily of bully beef and teeth-breaking biscuits. It was repetitive, unsuited to the climate and in short supply. All this naturally provoked a low morale among the troops: many felt they were being driven insane through being filthy, covered in lice and living with constant attacks of flies. Gallipoli veteran Major Claude Foster wrote in his diary at the front: “If one tries to sleep, down comes the pestilent black cloud of flies... to harass one to the verge of insanity”. As this was written for himself, it can be said to reflect a realistic, although subjective, idea of what life at the Gallipoli front was like. Most soldiers suffered from a lack of sleep: Gallipoli was unique as a battlefield in that it had no ‘safe’ rear area for off-duty soldiers to retire to. Sympathetic to the soldiers, Steel writes: “At Gallipoli the mental strain of possible imminent death or maiming was unremitting”. Men were unable to relax, and there was nowhere to get a proper night’s sleep: “The men slept in what dugouts they managed to hollow out in the side of the trench or more usually just on the fire step or bottom of the trench”. After evaluating the evidence, Steel then goes on to establish “Troops in this state were not militarily efficient”.
Due to the unsanitary conditions, it was almost inevitable that disease would break out at Gallipoli. The omnipresent mass of flies contributed to this. They landed on the many corpses that were fast decomposing in the unrelenting heat, or in the what were according to Steel, the “uniformly primitive” open trench latrines; then contaminated the troops’ food or an exposed wound: although written as a descriptive piece, Steel sums up the result of poor conditions: “The combination of a totally unsuitable diet, flies, putrid corpses and latrines resulted in the terrible disease of dysentery which affected almost everybody”. The advent of dysentery and other diseases such as paratyphoid, malaria and jaundice led to huge loss of fighting numbers: on some occasions 1000 men were being evacuated sick each day. Not only did this leave the obvious problem of numbers, but again caused the demoralisation of those who were left fighting: in Steel’s opinion “…it was disease, above all, that caused the rapid disillusionment of those who landed at Gallipoli.”
The massive numbers of sick and injured put pressure on the medical services at Gallipoli: on the field, sheer numbers meant that those in need of it “could only expect minimal treatment unless they were in danger of expiring”. The medical services lacked much of the basic equipment they required – stretchers, bandages, and especially water, which resulted in poor sanitation and cleanliness: distinguished military historian C Barnett wrote that “... the medical care, even at base hospitals... bore comparison with the Crimea.”
Many of the doctors, like the troops themselves, were inexperienced in handling military wounds, and unprepared as to the sort of injuries and conditions they would be facing. Supporting hospitals and medical ships around the Mediterranean were at full capacity. Captain Norman Tattersall wrote his eyewitness account to report the severity of the situation to his superiors on August 8th 1915 “They lay there in the dust all Saturday afternoon and then all night... Have nearly 200 lying here now and will not be able to have more than half of them embarked tonight and they are constantly filling up from behind.” Base hospitals were overcrowded: Sister A M Cameron reports arriving at the main hospital in Alexandria: “... A shock greeted us at Alexandria, every hospital full and 900 wounded lying on a transport ship.” The logistical delays and shortage of appropriate medication within the medical provisions at Gallipoli meant that men suffered from gangrene or maggot infected wounds, often requiring unnecessary amputations, therefore creating preventable depletion of numbers, which added to the many who were lost through disease and wounds.
The cumulative effect of poor medical care, sanitation, food and living conditions is plain to see: disease took over on the Gallipoli front, reducing numbers of troops able to fight effectively to a level barely able to sustain the front. The hard-minded General Monro on assessment of the front reported back to London “The troops on the peninsula ... are not equal to a sustained effort owing to... the depleted condition of many of the units. I am therefore of the opinion that another attempt to carry the Turkish lines would not offer any hope of success”. As an official report on a campaign he supported, Monro would have portrayed the situation to be as mild as possible. From this it can be concluded that the situation was extremely serious, as even an ardent supporter was recommending withdrawal from the peninsula. Gerard De Groot argues in his book on the First World War “the campaign was doomed before the first salvo was fired”. This is a view held by many historians: that the British strategy was flawed and that the attack itself was, as put by De Groot, “poorly planned and ineffectually executed”. The lack of proper, detailed reconnaissance on the part of the British meant that, in the words of French historian M Ferro, they severely “underrated the Turks’ capacity for resistance”. Naturally, a book written for a French audience takes a different tone than a British or Australian piece, but it could be argued that such a book would therefore be more objective. A maverick attack on the Dardanelles by a British ship on November 5th 1914 had forewarned the Turks of an imminent attack, so they consequently strengthened their defence and placed a network of mines in the Straits. This meant that when the British eventually attacked, confident in their command of the seas, they employed a haphazard selection of ships that could not destroy the land forts: according to the advocate of the idea of the authorities disorganisation De Groot, “It required audacious egotism to assume the Royal Navy could conquer a corridor as well defended as the Dardanelles.”
To estimate the required numbers for the land attacking force, Churchill had relied on the estimate of Callwell, a member of the War Council involved in the investigation possibilities of attacking Gallipoli in 1906: critic of the British authorities Steel states “Estimating the Turkish garrison of the peninsula to be about 27,000, he Callwell felt that an attacking force would need to be at least 60,000...” There were in fact, 350,000 troops positioned on the peninsula – from the beginning the British were wholly outnumbered.
The ships, equipment and troops at Gallipoli were those that were not in use on the Western Front. This meant that they were mostly reserve troops - those who for one reason or another, had not qualified for the Western Front: De Groot contends “The campaign was from the start starved of men, weapons, ships and supplies...” The troops were not all fully trained: the Anzacs were supposed to be completing their training en route to the front. Simple resources like maps were not fully available: “Junior commanders, deprived of maps, bought Baedeker’s Guides in second-hand bookshops in Cairo” De Groot points out to emphasise how poor the British organisation was. These were consequences of the half hearted enthusiasm of the British and French command, which put their forces in a deficit position before the attack even began: Steel reasons “...the procrastination and their failure to commit themselves unreservedly... meant that the cards were stacked high against success.”
Gallipoli was a first for amphibious attacks. The land attack was settled at such short notice that that there was no chance for a rehearsal or thorough consideration of what would be required to succeed: Distinguished military historian C Barnett points out “Such an amphibious operation demanded well trained, well equipped troops, with experienced task force headquarters, and all the specialised communications and equipment necessary to put an army on a hostile coast and maintain it there. It required a thoroughly rehearsed assault force with plenty of reserves... None of these requirements was satisfied”. Once again, the British and French had stacked the odds against success through insufficient planning and preparation: Barnett continues “... everything about the expedition was too improvised, too unrehearsed, for it to have the chance of success”.
Inter-service rivalries became apparent as the army and navy were required to co-operate to perform the amphibious landing. A confidential report stated bluntly: “One must not be led by mutual expressions of confidence, admiration and eulogy to think that on no occasion there was any impatience or criticism of the methods or work of the other arm”. The lack of co-operation between the two services meant that efficiency was lost: there was a delay of over a month between the Naval attack on the Straits and the landing of the troops on the peninsula – the troops had been moved in a non-armed transport, so had to change ships in Cairo. Constant critic throughout the campaign Admiral Fisher wrote “Things are going badly at the Dardanelles! We want military co-operation... Now we are held up for want of troops!” The delay gave the Turks time to regroup and prepare for the attack, strengthening their defences once again, so once landed, the troops were faced with 35 days’ worth of mine laying, barbed wire and trenches armed with deadly machine guns. Faced with such impregnable defences, on extremely difficult terrain, it is unsurprising the troops dug themselves into trenches and the new theatre of war became a death trap.
The tragic failure of the Gallipoli campaign was due to improper planning and management. London’s failure to commit unreservedly led to a compromise between inaction and effecting a proper campaign: this meant that there was insufficient reconnaissance of geography and defences on the peninsula. The combination of this and insufficient resources meant that as one section of a plan failed a new plan would be devised to compensate: procedure was formulated almost as events themselves unfolded. This is a reflection of how rushed and unplanned this first ever amphibious attack was: Barnett states in no uncertain terms “… everything about the campaign was too improvised, too unrehearsed, for it to have a chance of success...” This is largely an indication of the mismanagement of the campaign – commanders constantly gave and withdrew their support, troops, and ideas, and there was no single overall commander willing to take responsibility. Barnett states this as the lack of an “experienced and combined headquarters” that allowed the campaign to go so wrong. This view is shared by Steel in his modern evaluation of the operation: “The British lost the Gallipoli campaign not on the beaches… but in London.” The terrible conditions at Gallipoli were not instrumental in the failure of the campaign, however, if troops had not been in such depleted numbers and in such low morale, the front could perhaps have been sustained rather than lost. The issue of the success of the landings presents a paradox: the incomplete naval campaign meant that the military advances could never succeed as the Turkish forts were far too well defended to be taken by troops alone, and the incomplete military campaign meant that the Navy could not advance as the forts continued to fire upon the minesweepers. This represents the essence of why the Gallipoli campaign failed: the command could not cooperate to coordinate an attack due to inadequate planning, therefore the German reinforced Turkish defence did not have any difficulty in repelling disorganized attacks. The severe mismanagement of the initial stages led to the failure of the campaign.
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