By the end of 1914, the Western Front was at a stalemate and casualties were mounting. With both sides digging in for the long run, Allied political and military leaders began to look for other ways to achieve a breakthrough. In January 1915 Winston Churchill, who was The First Lord of the Admiralty, tabled a plan for a naval attack on the Dardanelles Strait which would neutralise Turkey and enable the Allies to take Constantinople. This would ensure control of the Bosphorus, would take out one of Germany’s allies, and potentially give the Allies a way to attack Europe through the back door.
|Extent of Royal Naval advancement into Dardanelles|
Also, Mediterranean Expeditionary Force landings at Cape Helles
An intelligence report compiled in September 1914 had already indicated that the Strait was heavily fortified and that armaments had been modernised. The report also advised that the Gallipoli Peninsula was “likely to prove extremely difficult” and that it would be “unjustifiable” to attack with less than 60,000 men. The following year, Churchill’s suggested attack was for a naval bombardment of Turkish fortifications on both the European and Asiatic shores of the Dardanelles Strait. It was anticipated that there would not be great loss, except for those sustained in sweeping for mines, and that the greatest difficulty would be in getting through the narrows – a long, narrow section of the strait, around the Çanakkale area.
On February 19, the naval bombardment began. The campaign had mixed success – some Turkish fortifications were destroyed, but minesweepers had difficulty against the strong currents in the Strait. On March 18, eighteen battleships entered the Strait: three were sunk, three crippled, and 700 men were killed. The day was a disaster for the Allies but considered a victory for the Turks, as Britain, rulers of the sea, essentially withdrew from the Dardanelles. Churchill wanted to continue the attack, but the First Lord of the Sea refused to send further resources to the area, claiming that fighting in the Atlantic was top priority, and he ordered all battleships to withdraw. Naval operations continued on a much smaller scale over the following months, though the ships still struggled against the currents and gains were few. (Excitingly, two submarines – one Australian – made it through the Narrows. Here’s an article from the Australian Anzac Site if you’re interested in reading further.)
|As I mentioned in previous posts, the naval victory is a BIG DEAL to the Turks.|
I am surprised that the naval aspects of the campaign are not very well-known -
they feature big battleships, submarines, and lots of guns. Definitely not boring!
So why all the background? Personally, I feel that the naval attack – the original campaign – has largely been forgotten about. Attention, instead, has focused on the ground attack on the Peninsula, mainly due to the extremely high casualty rates there. In addition to this, there has been perhaps an overemphasis on the role of the ANZACs at Gallipoli. For Australia and New Zealand, still getting on their feet as countries, the proportions of men killed or injured was high in relation to total population. We also know that the ANZAC story had an effect on nationhood, and helped to develop the identities of Australia and New Zealand as separate from simply being colonies of the Empire. There is good reason for attention to be focused on the ANZAC efforts, but at the same time, we should not forget about the involvement of British and French troops in the Campaign.
While at Gallipoli, we wanted to explore some of these lesser-mentioned aspects of the Campaign - the original naval attack and the British landings at Cape Helles. When we left Eceabat, we drove south and explored some of the terrain that the British fought on during their nine months on the Gallipoli Peninsula. We also visited the Helles Memorial, which serves as a Commonwealth memorial for the whole Campaign, as well as commemorating missing servicemen, and those who died in the naval attack. Our visit to the area felt like a fitting end to our Gallipoli trip – bringing most of the strands together. (In future, I would like to explore more of the French involvement in the Campaign – though I doubt we'll ever get to Kum Kale to see the shores on which the French landed on April 25, 1915.)
The first stop on our tour was Kilitbahir. We had spotted this fortress when returning by ferry from Eceabat, and decided to hunt it out. We learnt that it was called Kilitbahir Castle, and was built in 1452 by Sultan Mehmet II, the conqueror, as a means of guarding the Narrows. A twin fortress was built at Çanakkale.
It was easy to spot, though we were disappointed to find it was closed for restoration work.
We were excited to discover these fortifications beside it. With the help of Frenchman Baron de Tott, Fort Namazgah was constructed during the Russo-Turkish war of 1768-1774. It was expanded over the next 100 years, as it was recognised that this was a key place to protect the Strait from future enemy attacks.
During the Dardanelles Campaign, only two of the guns at the Fort were used, as the others were of too short a range to reach the Allied battleships.
In 2005, the site underwent massive restoration and it was reopened on 18 March 2006, in celebration of the end of the naval battle of 1915.
|Ruins at the Fort|
|The surrounding village|
Soon, we arrived at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s memorial at Cape Helles. It was truly beautiful, and in an amazing location – overlooking the Dardanelles, the Aegean Sea, and the Gallipoli Peninsula. Encompassing all theatres of the Campaign. The memorial is beautiful, again the contrast of white sandstone and marble, blue sky, green grass, and azure sea. Around the outer wall are the names of 20,000 men who are ‘missing’, including those who perished at sea. In the centre are plaques commemorating the corps at Suvla, Anzac, Helles, and those on Royal Navy battleships. It is here that you fully comprehend the scale - and the casualties - of the Gallipoli Campaign.
Apart from their landing at Suvla Bay, and support to the ANZACs at Anzac Cove, the British made five landings around Cape Helles, the southernmost point of the Gallipoli Peninsula. Terrain was similar to Anzac Cove, and the men faced heavy Turkish fire from entrenchments at the top of cliffs overlooking the beaches. However, they soon made gains – though the frontline remained largely static over the following nine months.
Landings took place at beaches nick-named S, V, X, W, and Y. At S, X, and Y beaches, British forces were “virtually unopposed” but gains were not capitalised on, due to communications failures and possibly a lack of understanding of how important it would be to press forward while Turkish resistance was low.
At V and W beaches there were heavy losses, and many troops were killed by entrenched machine gunners. At ‘V’ beach, a boat was grounded to act as a landing aid but this was a prime target for Turkish snipers at the top of the cliffs, and few men made it ashore alive. Of the first 200 soldiers to leave the ship, only a tenth made it ashore. Overall, casualties at the beach stood at about 70%.
Over the next few months, the focus would be on taking the small village of Krithia – ground that was supposed to have been captured in the initial assault of April 25. A small number of ANZACs were sent to assist the British units, and on May 6 another attempt was made on Krithia. The plan was dangerous – a frontal assault in broad daylight – and over the next two days the men made gains of only 500 metres, with 6,500 casualties, including 800 New Zealanders.
During May, 20,000 of 70,000 men were wounded, of which 6,000 were killed. The medical facilities were overwhelmed by the casualties, and many troops waited days to be evacuated from the Peninsula. In June and July, the pattern continued: heavy bombardment, small gains, and “horrendous” losses of close to 30%. The Turks also sustained heavy losses, but merely retreated, dug in, and awaited further attacks.
In August, another offensive was launched at Helles, designed to draw attention away from the ANZAC offensive at Lone Pine/Chunuk Bair. Once again, the action at Helles was a “costly failure”. After this, no new offensives were launched and the units at Cape Helles were evacuated in early January 1916, bringing an end to the disastrous Gallipoli Campaign.
On our way up the coast, we came across quite a bit of Ataturk memorabilia and reminders of the fighting, such as guns and emplacements. The naval victory, and Ataturk's subsequent creation of the nation of Turkey, really are very important to the history of the Peninsula, and we felt they had definitely retained a special place there.
- NZ Anzac Site
- NZ History Net
- Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery Database
- The Australian Department of Veterans' Affairs Anzac Site
- The Australian War Memorial on Gallipoli
- Or, if you're a real geek, the National Archives have a worksheet with primary sources, you can view it online or download here