The Dardanelles Fleet
The now much denigrated Mel Gibson starred in a movie about this campaign, not surprisingly called Gallipoli. The movie is great and it is also a good portrayal of the cost paid by young soldiers for making war that is poorly led, poorly planned, begun with poor intelligence and untried methods. It is also an indictment on the carnage that WWI was on both the Western front and in the near east. WWI had become a bloody struggle characterized by trench warfare, where combatants lived and fought in miles of meandering open tunnels sometimes just yards away from the enemy. By 1915 WWI had become hopelessly bogged down and expensive. The company level heavy machine gun proved itself against massive frontal infantry attacks a la the American Civil War. At the Somme, German machine guns caused upwards of half a million casualties in just hours, and British military commanders had proven that they had no answer for it but overwhelming frontal assaults. Few people realize that as many casualties occurred on the eastern front as occurred at the Somme.
The master plan was a way to break up the agonizing stalemate in the west. Lord Kirchener and Winston Churchill thought that an attack through the Dardanelles might allow bases to be built from which attacks could be made on Germany and Austria from the West. Turkey was a highly westernized Islamic republic, the flagship country as it were for the moribund Ottoman Empire. That’s the problem though with history. One only has to read that an empire is on the decline and conclude that a few modern weapons and spirited leadership will overcome all. Churchill, the hero of WWII was largely to blame here, refusing to imagine that these backwards looking Muslims would not be able to withstand the might of the British Navy. The British Empire indeed commanded the armies of New Zealanders and Australians in WWI and was granted quite a bit of patriotism from the extra nationals. The expeditionary force called ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Command) along with the French invaded the southern islands off of Turkey’s western sea coast and east of the Gallipoli peninsula into the Sea of Marmara. The problems began with the assumption by Kirchener and Churchill that French and British heavy warships could move up between Gallipoli and Turkey and just blast their way through and land troops on the eastern shores of the Balkans.
On March 18th, 1915, the British and French navies headed into the bay and started firing heavy shells down on Turkish military outposts. Of course, and in retrospect obviously the Turks had artillery gun implacements themselves and they began to return fire, to good effect. Before the end of the second day the French battleship Bouvet was sunk claiming 600 sailors in two minutes; and the Galois and Suffren were put out of action by mines. The HMS Invincible and Inflexible were also sent listing back into the Meditteranean.
Türkei, Dardanellen, Schweres Geschütz German Heavy Gun
The land invasion was long and complex, and not to be discussed here except for this. The Turks held the high ground along the invasion routes and held onto their advantage. By the end of the very first day, the sloppy, confused, unprepared landing craft were no match for machine guns and mortar fire from the hills overlooking them. The Australian 29th Division had suffered 60% casualties, filled hospital ships and ha secured only a few yards of beachhead. The eight month campaign required ever more men and materials pouring into Gallipoli and the cost to both sides was hard to imagine. When the campaign was called off in January 1916, the British, Aussies, New Zealanders, Indian and Newfoundland allies had suffered 220,000 casualties, about 60% of their forces. Similarly the Turks suffered 253,000 casualties, or 60% of their forces.
Trenches became death traps with dysentery, pneumonia, and infection from wounds. The British Empire had not considered that the Turks were fighting to defend against an invasion on their own soil. Had the countless frontal assaults worked, still there was the rest of Turkey to consider. It was the most needlessly bloody campaign ever fought during the first world war. Letters collected from the Turks and Aussies revealed the horror both sides had at the carnage. The stories of bodies piled three high littered over fields hundreds of yards across are hard to believe. Streams up and down the hills often were blood red for days, and to this day, thousands of soldiers from both sides are buried as a reminder.
Mustafa Kemal, the 34 year old Turkish Colonel was hailed as a hero who prevailed over another Empire, one that the sun once never set on. Kemal became Turkey’s first president after the Ottoman government crumbled.
Keegan, John, The First World War (1999); Hanna, Henry, The Pals at Suvla Bay (1917); Gallipoli, the Documentary
Turkish Heavy Gun