In 1915, owing to the deadlock on the Western Front, the Allies formulated plans to attack Ottoman Turkey, an ally of the Central Powers of Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was hoped that attacking the Turkish capital Constantinople, via the Dardanelles, would relieve the pressure on Britain's ally Russia. It might also open a supply route to Russia through the Black Sea and at best knock Turkey out of the war altogether.
Conceived by First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, the operation was initially a naval expedition aimed at seizing the straits in February and March 1915. Given their strategic importance, the straits were well defended by minefields and fortifications. There were also many Turkish gun emplacements on the Gallipoli peninsula to the north and the Asian coast to the south.
Anglo-French naval attacks failed to destroy these defences. Many ships were lost before the navies withdrew. Ironically, had their naval bombardment continued, it is likely that the defending guns would have run out of shells, and the minesweepers could then have worked unscathed.
Instead, it was decided that a land force would have to seize the peninsula and destroy the Turkish guns. Only then could the Royal Navy force the straits and push on to Constantinople. However, the naval operation had alerted the Ottomans to the danger of an attack in the region. Any Allied landing had now lost the crucial element of surprise.
General Otto Liman von Sanders (1855-1929) was the German commander responsible for modernising the Ottoman Army. His decision to place the astute Mustafa Kemal in charge at Gallipoli was crucial to Ottoman success there. Both men used the time between the initial naval attacks and troop landings to strengthen their defences.
Colonel Mustafa Kemal (1881-1938, later called Atatürk) was in charge of the defences of Gallipoli. Kemal commanded the 19th Division before being made chief of staff of the Fifth Army. He displayed great leadership and tactical acumen, reacting immediately to the Allied landing at Suvla Bay. Personally brave, he expected the same from his men, declaring, ‘I don’t order you to fight, I order you to die. In the time it takes us to die, other troops and commanders can come and take our places.’
General Sir Ian Hamilton (1853-1947) served in several colonial campaigns before being placed in charge of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force. Tasked with leading a hastily planned invasion that underestimated the Ottoman defences, Hamilton lacked specialised landing craft and had to lead a disparate body of troops, few of whom were trained for this type of warfare. His force consisted of the British 29th Division, the Royal Naval Division, the French Oriental Expeditionary Corps, and the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC).
General William Birdwood (1865-1951) commanded the ANZAC troops at Gallipoli. When wounded in the head in May, ‘Birdy’ refused to retire, quickly earning the affection of his men. He was a shrewd leader who understood colonial troops and brought out their best.
Early on 25 April 1915, while the French made a diversionary attack at Kum Kale on the Asian shore, the British 29th Division landed on the tip of the peninsula at Cape Helles. It aimed to capture Krithia and the nearby high ground at Achi Baba and then push northwards to the forts overlooking the Dardanelles.
A second amphibious landing was made by the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) at Gaba Tepe (later renamed Anzac Cove) to the north. This force was to advance to the heights at Sari Bair and, once in control of them, move across the peninsula to cut off the southern half and prevent Ottoman reinforcements arriving.
The 29th Division landed on five beaches at Helles. Y Beach was relatively undefended and the troops advanced to within a third of a mile (500m) of Krithia, but it was evacuated the following day when Ottoman reinforcements arrived. At W and V Beaches the British faced well-defended positions obstructed with barbed wire, and suffered appalling casualties. At V Beach men disembarked from ports cut in the sides of the troopship SS ‘River Clyde’, but faced heavy machine-gun fire from Sedd-el-Bahr fortress. Out of the first wave of 200 men, only 21 made it ashore.
The Turks desperately tried to drive the British off the beaches, but they held on. Crucially, the Gurkhas took the high ground of Sari Bair. The fighting at W Beach was so furious that the Lancashire Fusiliers won an unprecedented ‘six VCs before breakfast’.
At Anzac the defences were less organised, but the landing vessels drifted to the north of their intended position, forcing the men to go ashore at the base of steep cliffs. The Australians scrambled up these, but on cresting the ridge found Ottoman reinforcements arriving: they made for the heights of Chunuk Bair and Hill 971.
Colonel Mustafa Kemal realised the Anzac landing was not a feint and presented a huge risk to the defence of the peninsula. He personally led the 57th Regiment in a counter-attack. Kemal’s quick thinking pinned down the invaders directly above Anzac Cove and surrounded them.
General Hamilton was determined to extend the Allied foothold at Helles. Three successive operations were launched upon Krithia between 28 April and 4 June 1915. All failed to break the stubborn Turkish defences and the campaign became bogged down. After receiving additional reinforcements, Hamilton launched a new offensive on 6 August.
It took the form of a diversionary action at Helles, a drive from Anzac Cove towards Sari Bair and a landing of new divisions at Suvla Bay. This latter force was to link up with the troops at Anzac and then advance across the peninsula.
Although the landing caught the Ottomans by surprise, Lieutenant-General Sir Frederick Stopford's men moved inland too slowly and the enemy was able to occupy the heights overlooking their position. Despite local successes at places like Lone Pine, the wider offensive had rapidly lost momentum by 10 August due to tough Ottoman resistance and indecisive command.
After another attempt in late August to break out of Suvla and link up with Anzac Cove had failed, Hamilton's troops were forced to dig in. The Allies remained trapped around the three beachheads at Helles, Anzac Cove and Suvla Bay. Each of these was overlooked by high ground commanded by strong Ottoman forces and was under constant artillery and sniper fire. The soldiers lived and fought in appalling conditions. Casualties from heat and disease overwhelmed the inadequate medical facilities.
With little prospect of a breakthrough and winter looming, talk of a withdrawal was raised in London. Hamilton resisted, fearing the loss of both his own and British prestige. He was dismissed and replaced by Lieutenant-General Sir Charles Monro. In October 1915 Bulgaria joined the Central Powers and Allied troops deployed to Salonika, creating a competing front for reinforcements. In November it was decided to withdraw the Allied army from Gallipoli, which was done with minimal losses by 9 January 1916. The evacuation was one of the best-organised elements of the whole campaign.
The Allies suffered over 220,000 casualties out of a force of nearly 500,000. The Turks suffered almost as many. From the Allied point of view the campaign was a disaster.
Victory at Gallipoli rejuvenated the Ottoman war effort. Success at Kut in Mesopotamia (1916) followed and there was a renewed deployment into Sinai. Most of the withdrawn Allied troops re-grouped in Egypt where they provided much-needed reinforcements for the Sinai and Palestine campaign.
The failure of Generals Hamilton and Stopford ended their careers, whilst Birdwood enhanced his reputation. The excellent command of the Australians John Monash and Henry Chauvel saw them both promoted. The fall-out from the campaign contributed to the collapse of Herbert Asquith’s Liberal Government, forcing him to form a coalition with the Conservatives.
Gallipoli and the subsequent Allied partition of Turkey played a key role in the rise of Turkish nationalism and elevated Mustafa Kemal to heroic status. The exploits of the ANZACs also became legendary in their countries, where Gallipoli came to be seen as a national ‘baptism of fire’ and created new independent identities. The ‘Anzac spirit’ of sacrifice, egalitarianism and camaraderie are enduring national characteristics in both nations. Anzac Day, held annually to commemorate the landings on 25 April, is held with almost religious reverence. Every year thousands of Australians and New Zealanders visit the Gallipoli battlefields and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries.
Writers, film-makers and musicians have strengthened Gallipoli’s enduring position in the popular consciousness. Ernest Raymond’s best-selling ‘Tell England’ (1922) in which three of the novel’s main protagonists are killed on the peninsula, and Louis de Bernières ‘Birds Without Wings’ (2004), a novel covering the campaign from the Turkish point of view, are just two of the many literary works about the battle.
Peter Weir’s movie ‘Gallipoli’ (1981), starring Mel Gibson, and Dale Bradley’s ‘Chunuk Bair’ (1992), featuring Robert Powell, have told the story from the Australian and New Zealand perspectives, while Turkish director Faruk Aksoy is currently planning a film about the campaign. Eric Bogle’s anti-war song ‘And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda’ (1971), about a soldier wounded at Gallipoli, has been covered by many artists including Joan Baez, The Dubliners and The Pogues. More recently PJ Harvey’s album ‘Let England Shake’ (2011) was partly influenced by her interest in the battle.