Gallipoli is one of the most infamous campaigns of the First World War. The battlefields in the Dardanelles are now the site of the graves of over 30,000 British and Commonwealth troops who perished there in 1915. The Allies had expected a swift victory at Gallipoli. But uninspiring leadership, poor intelligence about Turkish forces and the local climate and terrain, and ferocious Turkish resistance, created a costly and pointless sideshow.
In a war characterised by courageous yet often futile sacrifice, the Gallipoli campaign of 1915 stands out as a bloody and wasteful enterprise, marked by confused strategy and terrible conditions for the soldiers on the ground.
At the beginning of 1915, five months into the First World War, it was clear to Allied leaders that there would be no quick victory against German forces in France and Belgium, as the Western Front settled into the stalemate of trench warfare. But in Turkey, the Allies saw an opportunity to strengthen their own cause and weaken Germany. Turkey was a German ally, and its control of the Dardanelles straits (which links the Mediterranean and Black Sea) prevented Allied aid reaching Russia, where it was urgently needed to sustain the Russian war effort against Germany. If Turkey could be knocked out of the war, these supplies would flow freely, Germany would lose an ally, and it was hoped Greece and Bulgaria would be persuaded to join the war on the Allied side.
The original plan, ardently advocated by Winston Churchill, Britain's First Lord of the Admiralty, was for Allied warships to sail up the straits and bombard the Turkish capital Constantinople, forcing Turkey to make peace. But in the confined waters of the Dardanelles, Turkish mines and shore batteries forced the Anglo-French fleet to retreat, with three battleships sunk and three more damaged.
It was therefore decided to land troops on the strait's western shore, on the Gallipoli peninsula, to capture the Turkish forts. The landings began on 25 April. Their success varied dramatically from sector to sector. At Cape Helles, some British troops landed unopposed, but at 'W' Beach the Lancashire Fusiliers suffered horrendous losses as they were rowed to the beach in open boats. The men nevertheless charged ashore through surf and barbed wire and under heavy fire, taking 60% casualties and winning six Victoria Crosses 'before breakfast', as the Regiment puts it.
At 'V' Beach, British and Irish units also came ashore in open boats, or descended one by one down the gangplanks of the SS River Clyde. They were all easy targets for Turkish machine-gunners. 12 miles to the north, units of the newly-formed Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZACs) landed on the wrong beaches. Despite the confusion, they advanced quickly inland, but were forced to pull back almost to the beach when they were counterattacked by Turkish forces.
Despite heroic efforts on the part of the troops, the Allies had gained only a tiny foothold on the Gallipoli peninsula. The failure to push inland on the first day would prove decisive. Turkish forces, under the direction of German general Otto von Sanders, rushed in reinforcements, and over the next few weeks both sides mounted a series of offensives - the Turks trying to drive the Allies back into the sea, and the Allies desperately trying to push inland. For more than a month the British launched assaults on the village of Krithia –a first-day objective – leading only to huge casualties. Turkish counter-attacks were also bloodily repulsed. Just as in France, both sides were now dug in, holding elaborate trench systems that could only be taken by costly frontal assault.
The conditions for both sides were hellish. In the unbearable heat of a Mediterranean summer, the bodies that littered No Man's Land quickly became bloated and swarmed with flies. The difficulty of getting supplies and fresh water to the troops led to misery and sickness. The harsh terrain was marked by steep ravines and gullies, and with opposing trenches sometimes only a few yards apart, there was the constant threat of shelling, snipers and trench raids.
In August, the British mounted fresh landings at Suvla Bay in a bid to break the stalemate. They were accompanied by diversionary attacks from Cape Helles and what had become known as 'Anzac Cove'. The Australian 3rd Light Horse Brigade made a particularly heroic but futile assault at the Nek, immortalised by the film 'Gallipoli'. But despite these sacrifices the Suvla Bay landings, hindered by over-cautious commanders, failed to make any impression on the overall situation.
The Allies had expected a swift victory at Gallipoli. But uninspiring leadership, poor intelligence about Turkish forces and the local climate and terrain, and ferocious Turkish resistance, created a costly and pointless sideshow. Reluctantly, the Allies decided to abandon the operation.
Ironically, the evacuation of the troops in December 1915 was executed almost flawlessly. Casualties were almost zero, as the troops used ruses and diversions to mask their re-embarkation under cover of darkness. The debacle at Gallipoli cost both sides nearly quarter of a million casualties – about 60% of those engaged. Perhaps the most significant legacy of this immense loss, marked by monuments and cemeteries across the Gallipoli peninsula, is in the national memory of Australia, New Zealand, and Turkey (Atatürk, the father of modern Turkey, played a key role in the campaign). In all these countries, the service and sacrifice of their countrymen at Gallipoli is seen as an important stepping stone on their road to a modern, national self-identity.