When the Ottoman Empire joined the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary) in October 1914, the Entente Powers (Britain, France, and Russia) were naturally alarmed. They decided it was of vital strategic importance that they take control of the Ottoman Straits, which connected the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. By doing so, it would open Istanbul up for bombardment, weaken the Ottoman Empire, and provide safe passage for Allied shipping, especially the Russian Black Sea Fleet, which was trapped.
The fight to take control of the straits was, like much of the First World War, a brutal and bloody affair with huge casualties. It lasted from February 1915 to January 1916, and at its core was the Allied attempt to take the Gallipoli Peninsula.
First Days of the Battle of Gallipoli
Under pressure from Ottomans in the Caucasus and spread thinly on the western border, Russian general Grand Duke Nicholas appealed to Britain for help to divert the Ottomans away from Russian lands. It was Winston Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, who came up with the idea for the attack on Gallipoli.
On February 19, 1915, the engagement began with a massive naval bombardment of Ottoman troops on the Gallipoli Peninsula. Poor weather, however, had made visibility poor, and reconnaissance planes had been unable to effectively locate the Ottoman artillery batteries efficiently.
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Some mobile batteries managed to evade the naval bombardments, and Royal Marines were landed in order to destroy these elements as they continually threatened minesweepers that were needed to clear the Dardanelles sea route of mines. Admiral Sackville Carden drew up new plans to speed up the process before being put on the sick list for intense stress. He was replaced by Admiral John de Robeck.
On March 18, the Allied fleet attempted to run the gauntlet of the Dardanelles but encountered much resistance and Ottoman mines which did their job of sinking and damaging ships. The most deadly of these encounters caused the French battleship Bouvet to capsize and sink in two minutes. There were only 75 survivors out of a total crew of 718 men.
The attempt to get through the strait was a complete disaster, and it became clear that a landing was needed to clear the Gallipoli Peninsula of Ottoman presence so that minesweepers would be able to clear the strait completely.
Poor Allied intelligence and an underestimation of the quality of the Ottoman troops would play a heavy role in the upcoming battle. The slow buildup of the invasion force that was necessary to take the Gallipoli Peninsula gave the Ottomans good time to prepare defenses all along the peninsula, and although they were unsure where the Allies would land, their preparations and guidance from German officers gave them a boost in morale.
Sir Ian Hamilton was in charge of all the Allied forces that would take part in the upcoming battle. His force consisted of British (including Indian, Irish, and Newfoundland), French, Australian, and New Zealand troops. In the wake of Ottoman defeats against the Italians and the Balkan states, the Allies did not expect much from the Ottoman troops.
Despite the Greeks claiming that 150,000 men would be needed to defeat the Ottomans along the peninsula, Allied overconfidence was content that only 70,000 would be needed. On April 25, 78,000 soldiers took part in the initial landings.
The landings took place on the southern tip of the Gallipoli Peninsula. The first to land was the Australians and New Zealanders at a beach that became known as Anzac Cove as a result. Thousands disembarked, and despite only being resisted by two companies of Ottoman troops, the terrain was a severe factor. With the Ottomans on the high ground, they inflicted 2,000 casualties on the ANZAC troops.
South of Anzac Cove, the British landed at five different beaches named S, V, W, X, and Y. Despite progress being made inland at Y, the rest of the beaches proved to be too difficult to control completely. Ottoman resistance under the command of Mustafa Kemal effectively repulsed Allied attacks, and the Allies were unable to exploit any of the few gains they had made. At W, the Lancashires suffered 600 casualties due to confusion and lack of orders. Other regiments with particularly high casualty rates were the Dublin Fusiliers and the Munster Fusiliers. After the landings, so few survived that the two regiments were combined to form a single regiment – the “Dubsters.”
With poor communication and bogged down near or on the beaches, the Allied troops on the ground decided their only option was to dig in. The result would be an extremely high casualty rate as the Ottomans continued to rain down fire from the high ground, pinning the Allies to their precarious positions.
Contest for the Peninsula
With the landings being made, the Ottomans were now able to concentrate their forces which had until then been spread out along the peninsula. On April 27, the Ottoman 19th and part of the 5th divisions counterattacked in force at Anzac Cove but were repulsed by the Australian and New Zealand troops with the support of naval barrages from their rear.
In the south, the British 29th Division pushed forward and attempted to take the town of Krithia. The Ottomans countered the advance on April 28 and inflicted 3,000 casualties on the Allies, forcing them to abandon the attempt.
The failure to advance far from the landing grounds meant that the Ottomans were able to reinforce their positions in time. It became increasingly likely that the battle would turn into an attritional slogging match.
April 30 saw significant Ottoman counterattacks at Helles (the southern tip of Gallipoli) and Anzac Cove, and although they broke through the French sector, the attacks were repulsed. The next day, the Australians and New Zealanders attempted to break through the Ottoman lines again, but their attack was also repulsed.
May 6 saw another attempt to take Krithia, as well as the high ground at Achi Baba to the east of Krithia, upon which Ottoman artillery was supporting the infantry. The attempts on both targets failed.
On May 19, the Ottomans led a massive assault to dislodge the Australians and New Zealanders from their positions. Forty-two thousand Ottomans attacked 17,000 ANZAC troops and were beaten back with immense casualties. Of 13,000 casualties, 3,000 were fatal. The Allies lost only 160 killed and 468 wounded. In a show of compassion, a truce was organized so the Ottomans could bury their dead.
On June 4, the Allies made a third and final attempt to take Krithia and Achi Baba. With Five divisions, they still could not manage it. The Third Battle of Krithia was another failure for the Allies, and the period that followed descended into attritional trench warfare.
In August, Hamilton planned to open a new front north of Anzac Cove at Suvla. Thousands of men made the landing, which was lightly opposed. The Allies, however, faced determined opposition when they tried to push inland. Prepared Ottoman defense and determined counterattacks led to yet another failure for the Allies as they could not hold any captured ground long enough to link up their forces.
Hamilton appealed to his commanders for an additional 95,000 troops to be able to gain success at Gallipoli, but his request was denied. A major offensive on the Western Front meant that troops were needed elsewhere. Meanwhile, just to the west of Gallipoli, Bulgaria entered the war on the side of the Central Powers. Taking and holding Gallipoli would now become an even bigger task.
With these developments, it was finally decided that the attempt to take control of the Gallipoli Peninsula would be abandoned.
Despite dire expectations, the Allies managed to evacuate in good order.
The Aftermath of the Battle of Gallipoli
Like most of the engagements in the First World War, the Gallipoli campaign had been costly for all parties involved. Apart from the casualties due to combat, disease played a major part. Summer heat and poor sanitation gave rise to an explosion in the fly population which spoiled food and water supplies. Dysentery was rife.
The final casualty count was high on both sides. The Allies took 300,000 casualties, of which 57,000 died, while the Ottomans took 255,000 casualties, also with 57,000 dead.
Nevertheless, the common soldiers showed remarkable camaraderie. The Ottomans regularly threw dates and sweets to the Allies in their trenches, who, in turn, responded by gifting the Ottomans with cans of beef and packs of cigarettes.
On a strategic level, the failure at Gallipoli meant the Allies could not relieve pressure on Russia, and it may have thus contributed to the success of the Russian Revolution. It also served as a morale booster for the Ottomans, who won victories against the British later in the war.
For the New Zealanders and the Australians, the Battle of Gallipoli served to unite the countries in common remembrance of their significant losses. Memorials for their sacrifice exist all over the two countries. Anzac Day is marked on April 25 every year to remember the Australians and New Zealanders who had been killed in the war.
The Battle of Gallipoli was a bloody affair, like many other battles during the First World War. For the Allies, it was marred by poor planning, poor communication, pitiful conditions, and determined defense by the Ottomans.
Like most offensives in World War I, Gallipoli signifies the absolute futility of attacking during an era where defensive weaponry far outstripped offensive capabilities.