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Gallipoli World War One

Gallipoli World War One

Gallipoli Word War One 

Map of Gallipoli in 1914/1915 published c.1920

Gallipoli, the 9 month battle for control of the Dardanelles Strait, began after Turkey entered the war on the side of the Central Powers (Germany & Austria-Hungary) on November 1st 1914. The Dardanelles are an internationally significant waterway in north west Turkey and access to the strait was vital in order for Britain and France to provide Russia with supplies, including munitions, as they were severely ill-equipped. Access to the strait would have provided the Allies with a direct sea route to Russia. The fight for access to the Dardanelles actually began before war was officially declared. In August 1914 Germany sent battle cruiser “Goeben” and light cruiser “Breslau” to the Black Sea where they were transferred to the Turks as battle cruisers adding considerable strength to the Turkish Navy. The British Mediterranean Fleet tried to intercept the ships before they reached Turkish waters but they were unsuccessful, a huge embarrassment to the British Navy. The German ships passed through the Dardanelles Strait, reaching Constantinople, where they were handed over to the Ottoman Empire. Access to the Dardanelles Strait was closed to Allied ships, German command ordered the battleships attack Russian positions, forcing Russia to open yet another front on the east of the Black Sea, threatening British held Egypt and bringing the Ottoman Empire in to the First World War.

The British-French offensive began in November 1914 when a combined fleet bombarded the Dardanelles forts positioned around the Gallipoli Peninsula, the gateway to the straits. The Turks had already protected the narrow strait itself with naval mines. A naval mine is an explosive device that is deposited in the water to damage or destroy surface ships or submarines. Unlike depth charges, the mines sit on the surface of the water and are triggered when contact is made by an enemy vessel. At the beginning of the campaign a British submarine managed to successfully pass under the mines and torpedo Turkish warship “Messoudieh”. Further sea attacks were undertaken in February and March 1915 however it soon became clear that commanding the strait by sea power alone was highly unlikely. Eighteen battleships attempted to force their way through to Constantinople, the highly ambitious plan being an attempt to knock Turkey out of the war. Navigating deeper in to the strait was treacherous. Mine sweeping trawlers with untrained fisherman aboard were unable to clear the minefields. Two thousand lives were lost when three battleships - the French “Bouvet”, and British “Irresistible” and “Ocean” - were sunk by mines, a submarine was wrecked and her crew captured, and a further three battleships were damaged. This unsuccessful offensive gave the Turks ample warning that attempted landings on the Gallipoli Peninsula were highly likely and the Turks had four weeks to strengthen defences and prepare a new Fifth Army of 80,000 troops positioned and ready.

Following the failed British and French naval attack, Australian and New Zealand forces (known as the Anzacs), training in British held Egypt under the command of Lieutenant General William Birdwood, were drafted. A month later, on the 25th April 1915, 78,000 British, French, Australian and New Zealand troops were prepared for landing at various sites around the peninsula. The Anzacs landed twelve miles northward of the main body, between Gaba Tepe and the Fisherman’s Hut and stormed the slopes of Sari Bair. The British landed in four places around the peninsula. 1000 men stormed ’W’ beach and of the first 200 to land only 21 survived, a further 600 immediately wounded. The ‘River Clyde’ landing at ‘V‘ beach was equally barbaric. The adapted steam collier known as SS River Clyde was the idea of Royal Naval Officer, Commander Edward Unwin. The plan was to fill the collier with approximately 2,000 troops, and the necessary crew, and run it aground. Holes were cut in the steel plates in her sides and gangways supported by ropes ran along the sides which led down to two barges which were to form a gangway to shore. The landing did not go as expected - the ship landed 80 yards out to shore and one of the barges broke away drifting in to deep water. Troops, stranded in a vulnerable position and met with gunfire, jumped over the side hoping to make it to shore, but many drowned under the weight of the heavy equipment. As the remaining gangways were prepared the Turks were expectantly waiting for disembarkation and again they were met with a hail of bullets and gun fire from higher ground. The Turks knew that Cape Helles was a vitally important part of the peninsula to defend and it was heavily defended with machine guns and barbed wire in the water. The slaughter of the troops as they disembarked quickly turned the water blood red. The carnage was heavy and the landing brutal but the bravery of the troops as they battled to maintain the bridge to the beach so they could recover the wounded was awarded with six Victoria Crosses. The heroism displayed by the Lancashire Fusiliers is celebrated each year with a Gallipoli Day march and church service in Bury, England.

The landings at Sulva Bay and Anzac Cove were also largely unsuccessful. Anzac Cove, on the western coast of the Gallipoli Peninsula, is a narrow beach within a steep sandy cove. Defended by a Turkish division commanded by Mustapha Kemal (later Kemal Ataturk, the Father of modern Turkey) there was very little cover for the landing troops and they were under constant fire from the well hidden, and highly skilled, Turks above them. The fighting was often at very close range and armed troops improvised by making hand thrown grenades out of jam jar tins. With no real objectives achieved and trapped on the beaches under constant fire from steep cliffs, the area soon became covered in dead bodies. The flies and stench caused outbreaks of dysentery and 78% of the Anzac troops in the Number 1 Stationary Hospital were being treated for this disease. The landing at Sulva Bay was met with no real opposition but the lack of ability of the British commander gave the Turks ample time to bring up reinforcements and another stalemate followed.

The fight to move from the beach and gain higher ground was intense. A few determined attacks of the Turks led to a few gains of this higher land - notable victories being that of the region known as “The Vineyard” and the heights of Anafarta Ridge, Scimitar Hill, Chocolate Hill and Burnt Hill. Another notable feat was the capture and holding of the highland called Lonesome Pine and the taking of Knoll Sixty by the Anzacs.

As the battle progressed, stalemates and heavy losses on the side of the Allies, without ever gaining much of a foot hold, led to Secretary of State for War Lord Kitchener visiting the Gallipoli Peninsula in November 1915. At this time, the casualties stood at approximately 200,000 including 50,00 killed. On December 7th 1915 the decision was made to withdraw. A flotilla of ships evacuated the troops and their supplies, surprisingly without a single casualty. Sulva withdrew overnight 18-19th December and Cape Helles 8-9th January 1916. The failure at Gallipoli did great damage to Winston Churchill’s career. Churchill, the political head of the Royal Navy, had eagerly promoted the unsuccessful use of sea power to force open the straits. Following the withdrawal of troops Churchill resigned from his position as First Lord of the Admiralty leaving the Ottoman Empire still in control of the Dardanelles and Turkey still in the war. From a civilian population of 21.3 million, by the end of the war, 1 million Turkish troops had been killed or injured.

Australia and New Zealand suffered large numbers of casualties during the war compared to their relatively small populations. In 1914 Australia had been a federated nation for only 13 years and when war broke out they were automatically sided with the Commonwealth. Of a population of 4.87 million, 420,000 Australian troops served in the war. By the time the war ended 53,560 were killed, 155,130 wounded and 3,650 taken as Prisoners of War. New Zealand had 130,000 serving troops from a population of approximately 1 million, of these 16,710 were killed, 41,320 wounded and 500 taken as Prisoners of War. 11,000 Anzac troops died at Gallipoli. Australia recognises 25 April as ‘Anzac Day‘, the date the first troops landed on the peninsula. The date has now become a day of national remembrance for their war dead.

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