Of all the campaigns of World War I, none has had more ink spilled over it by historians and pundits than the 1915 effort by Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and France to conquer the Gallipoli Peninsula, force their way through the nearby Dardanelles, break into the Sea of Marmara, and then bombard Constantinople. Perhaps the Gallipoli campaign’s very attraction lies in the fact that it appears to have offered the only opportunity that might conceivably have lessened the terrible killing on the Western Front, which would last for three and a half more years. In retrospect, the campaign to break through the Dardanelles was, as the Duke of Wellington had remarked a century earlier, “a terribly close run thing.” But in this case, unlike at Waterloo, it resulted in Allied defeat.
Nevertheless, at innumerable points during the ten-month campaign, events might have taken a different course and the result turned out differently. Winston Churchill commented about the escape of the German battlecruiser Göben and light cruiser Breslau to Constantinople in August 1914 that “the terrible ifs accumulate.” Those words are even more applicable to the failure to take the Dardanelles. Yet where victory on the Gallipoli Peninsula might have led is open to considerable doubt. The problem lies in what its second- and third-order effects might have been. Would the appearance of Allied battleships before Constantinople have forced the Turks to quit the war? Would Turkish defeat on Gallipoli have kept the Bulgarians from joining the Central Powers? Would it have encouraged the Romanians to join the war? Would it have provided any substantial aid to the Russians? These questions are, of course, why the campaign has raised such interest and debate over the years.
Genesis of the Campaign
The origins of the Dardanelles campaign go back to the early days of the First World War. In the summer of 1914 British shipyards were in the final stages of completing two dreadnoughts for the Turkish navy. In fact, the Turks had already sent a crew to Britain for the first battleship. But worried about the naval balance of power between the Royal Navy and the German High Seas Fleet, Churchill, the first lord of the Admiralty, had the ships seized on 3 August in preparation for their joining the British Grand Fleet in the North Sea. The Turks were furious.
Meanwhile, the Göben and Breslau, the German navy’s Mediterranean squadron, escaped the Royal Navy’s efforts to destroy them and fled to Constantinople, where the Germans promptly “sold” them to the Turks. The combination of anger at Britain’s seizure of the battleships, which had already been paid for, and the appearance of the German ships in the Sea of Marmara led to the Turks joining the Central Powers on 31 October. Politically and strategically, that move was decisive for Russia because it ensured that the Dardanelles—the country’s main supply route to the world, which had been blocked by mines since 27 September—would remain closed. That would prevent the Russian export of wheat as well as the import of arms and munitions. While Russia’s allies could have supplied little of the latter in 1915, they certainly could have supplied ample amounts by 1916.
Here, Churchill’s febrile imagination came into play. By December 1914 he had become convinced that the Western Front offered no possibility for a decisive Allied victory even in the long term. He therefore suggested that Britain launch an amphibious assault to open up the Dardanelles as a means to supply Russia as well as to influence the Balkan states that still remained neutral. However, Churchill’s counterpart, Secretary of State for War Horatio Lord Kitchener, demurred. He argued that the army, with its commitments in France, did not have the troops to spare.
Churchill was left with the choice of either using the Royal Navy by itself or ignoring the opportunities that an attack on the Dardanelles seemed to offer. First Sea Lord Admiral John “Jacky” Fisher,” whom Churchill had brought back to the Admiralty, was not happy with the idea of a navy-only attack but eventually acquiesced. For the naval operation—a slow advance that would involve reducing Turkish forts by bombardment and then sweeping the mines—the Admiralty mainly chose obsolete battleships that were not fit to fight against the German High Seas Fleet because their armor was too light. Thus, any losses they suffered would not affect the naval balance of power; they were expendable.
In retrospect, one should note that the campaign rested on an underestimation of Turkish capabilities and will. Still, given the Turks’ military incompetence in the Crimean War, the 1877–78 Russo-Turkish War, and the recent wars in the Balkans, it is not surprising that even someone as sophisticated as Churchill would underestimate them.
In early November 1914 British ships had carried out a brief bombardment of the Gallipoli Peninsula to test the strength of Turkish positions guarding the strait. The shelling did little damage to the Turks but alerted them that the British might well return and that they needed to bolster and reinforce their defenses. Three months later the British were ready, but then so were the Turks.
Plan A: Naval Offensive
On 19 February the Royal Navy opened its campaign by bombarding the Turkish forts at the mouth of the Dardanelles. Included in the effort was the brand new super-dreadnought Queen Elizabeth, which was using the opportunity to register her guns and train her crew. By the end of February, the British had subdued the strait’s outer forts, and Royal Marine parties had landed to ensure the destruction was complete.
But the British were not able to silence the mobile batteries the Turks used for harassing fire. The problem was not the threat they posed to the battleships, but rather the fact that when British minesweepers entered the strait they would come under the batteries’ fire. In fact, the minesweepers were nothing more than fishing trawlers with civilian crews. While willing to take their chances clearing mines, the crewmen announced that they had not signed on to be shot at by the Turks.
During nighttime operations in early March, the minesweepers, illuminated by Turkish searchlights, came under fire from the batteries. Living up to their crewmen’s word, the vessels promptly fled. Some of the civilian crews were replaced with naval volunteers, and a subsequent nighttime attempt resulted in the boats remaining on the scene longer, but at the cost of four trawlers put out of action and heavy casualties.
With the failure of nighttime minesweeping, the British seized on a plan for a bold daylight assault led by battleships, which would be followed by minesweepers. On 18 March, the naval armada of some 17 British and French battleships, 1 battlecruiser, and numerous smaller vessels began to enter the strait.
The battleships soon ran into several lines of newly laid mines. A French battleship, the first to strike one of the explosive devices, turned turtle and sank, taking more than 600 of her sailors with her. Two British capital ships, the battlecruiser Inflexible and battleship Irresistible, were the next to hit mines, and both were badly damaged, the latter soon to sink. Altogether three more battleships, one British and two French, would also strike mines. British Rear Admiral John de Robeck, who was in charge of the operation, called off the attack despite the fact that he still had 12 undamaged battleships. But this was not Nelson’s navy.
De Robeck reported back to the Admiralty in London that ground forces were necessary to drive the Turks off the Gallipoli Peninsula so that the minesweepers could clear the mines and open the way for the battleships. His chief of staff, Commodore Roger Keyes, one of the few senior officers in the Royal Navy with the Nelson touch, disagreed, but of course he was not in charge. Ironically, the Turks were almost out of ammunition. Their narrow escape led them to place a highly competent German general staff officer, Lieutenant General Otto Liman von Sanders, in charge of planning and organizing the peninsula’s defense. Ironically, most of his advice was bad, and it would be the Turks themselves who were largely responsible for their eventual victory.
Plan B: Amphibious Landings
Kitchener meanwhile had made the British 29th Division available as well as ill-trained but eager Anzac (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) troops who were training in Egypt. The commander of the newly anointed expedition to seize the peninsula was General Ian Hamilton, who, as an observer of the Russo-Japanese War, had written a number of perceptive reports on the implications of that conflict.
Unfortunately for the soldiers who served under him on Gallipoli, those experiences do not seem to have influenced his thought processes. In fact, preparations for the landings were slapdash; intelligence on Turkish strength was nonexistent; knowledge of the terrain was haphazard; and planning was based on the most dubious of assumptions, particularly on the capability of Turkish troops. Finally, one might note that interservice cooperation between the navy and the army, if it existed at all, was based on the outdated experiences of the Crimean War.
At best, the planning seems to have rested on a belief that by landing troops all over the southern and western portions of the peninsula, some would succeed. The other possible explanation is the assumption that because the Turks were so incompetent, multiple attacks would overwhelm them. Interestingly, when confronted with a similar plan for the 1943 Sicilian invasion, Bernard Montgomery, a careful student of the Great War, exploded and forced a far more concentrated operation, especially for the British landings. There would be three major and two minor initial landings on Gallipoli, and their success or failure would determine the course of the campaign.
The landings began on 25 April—a date that would mark the coming of age of the emerging countries of Australia and New Zealand, a date celebrated as such to this day as Anzac Day. Hamilton placed his main effort at the tip of the Gallipoli Peninsula, Cape Hellas. Those landings, at beaches V and W, ran into fierce resistance. The Turks massacred 29th Division troops attempting to come ashore from the grounded converted collier River Clyde. An airplane flying over the scene noted the pinkish tinge of the water from the British dead and wounded. Nearby the story was the much the same; undamaged barbed wire prevented the attackers from coming to grips with the Turks, while rifle and machine-gun fire slaughtered the British. Only the fact that the defenders ran out of ammunition allowed the 29th to achieve a lodgment at the end of the peninsula. But at no place on the tip were the British able to reach the heights that overlooked the strait.
It was another situation entirely several miles to the north at Y Beach. No Turks were there, and some British soldiers reached the outskirts of the village of Krithia. But because the commander on the scene had no orders, he pulled back to the beach, and, after his troops fought off Turkish attacks during the night, he re-embarked them the next day. In terms of the slaughter taking place farther south, the troops had been in an ideal position to attack the Turks from the rear and open up the entire southern portion of the peninsula to a British advance. Keyes suggested to Hamilton that he funnel reinforcements in to support Y Beach, but the general refused to interfere with what he regarded as the purview of his subordinate commanders.
Farther up the peninsula’s western coast, the Anzac troops came ashore against light resistance; the terrain was so formidable that Turkish officers thought that only someone insane would attempt a landing at that spot. Not only were the tiny beaches dominated by several high ridges, but the terrain leading up to the heights was covered with massive tangles of brambles. In fact the only reason the Australian and New Zealand troops came ashore at what would be called Anzac Cove was because the Royal Navy had landed them in the wrong spot, about a mile north of Z Beach.
As was to happen so often in 20th-century amphibious landings, the troops, delighted still to be alive when they reached shore, made only a cursory effort to capture the high ground behind the landing beach, which in this case were the ridges, which commanded the routes to the southern peninsula. Unfortunately for the Anzac troops, Colonel Mustafa Kemal (who later would become the founder of the modern Turkish state and be known as Ataturk) rushed troops to the scene. He would soon emerge as one of the few first-rate generals of the war. Recognizing both the crucial importance of the terrain as well as the danger looming if the Anzac soldiers were to capture the high ground, Kemal hastened his troops forward to establish defensive positions that would soon block the landing force. The Turks would never lose those heights.
Grinding Battle, Political Upheaval
Once fighting and heavy losses had established the front lines, both sides dug in, precisely as had occurred on the Western Front in the fall of 1914. On 6 May, Hamilton launched a major offensive in the south to break the stalemate; the aim was to capture Krithia, but the attack completely failed. Shortly thereafter, the Turks responded by carrying out a series of ferocious attacks on the Anzac positions. With little artillery support, they launched wave after wave of Anatolian peasant soldiers in an effort to destroy the bridgehead the Australians and New Zealanders had desperately built up. Machine-gun and rifle fire killed or wounded 13,000 Turks, while their opponents suffered less than 700 casualties. That fighting led to a period of quiet as both sides licked their wounds and prepared for the worst. In effect, the offensive had ground down to a stalemate that in almost every respect resembled the situation on the Western Front.
While profuse amounts of blood was being shed on Gallipoli in May, a major political crisis blew up in Britain. Both a supposed shortage of shells for the British Expeditionary Force on the Western Front as well as the Gallipoli difficulties were factors. But the spark that touched off the emergency resulted from Churchill’s adding two submarines to a list of ships to be sent to the Dardanelles without coordinating the change with his naval counterpart in the Admiralty, First Sea Lord Fisher. Quite literally, the 74-year-old admiral walked out and went into hiding in a seedy London hotel. His actions and demands, which included total control of the navy and the removal of Churchill, suggest that in some fashion he had suffered a mental collapse.
That was certainly the opinion of Prime Minister Herbert Asquith. Confronting a major political crisis, Asquith, the head of the Liberal Party, agreed to form a coalition with the Conservatives. But the price for the Tories was Winston Churchill’s scalp. Thus, Churchill fell from power, robbing the government of the one civilian who grasped the strategic dimensions of the great conflict. He would return to a crucial office in July 1917 when he became minister of munitions, but for the next two decades his opponents would throw the Gallipoli defeat in his face.
Suvla Bay Fiasco
For the British, there was no choice but to stay the course; pulling out might undermine Allied prestige throughout the Middle East. Thus the Gallipoli effort, which Kitchener would not even support with a single British division in January 1915, began expanding. By July Hamilton’s 5 divisions had grown to 15. To break the stalemate, he proposed a major landing on the Suvla Bay beaches, which lay to the northwest of Anzac Cove. That force would drive on to the heights laying to the northeast of the beaches to cut the Turks off on the peninsula. At the same time the landing was occurring, the Australians and New Zealanders would strike out to seize the heights that overlooked them. If either one of these efforts succeeded, the British would control the heights and consequently the Dardanelles and the entrance into the Sea of Marmara.
The initial Suvla Bay proposal had the Anzac divisions pulling out of their lodgment and conducting the landing, while recently arrived divisions, part of Kitchener’s all-volunteer New Army, would replace them. That plan was overruled for various reasons. The question then arose as to who would command the operation at Suvla Bay, and here the complexities of peacetime concerns over date of rank interfered. Hamilton wanted one of the experienced corps commanders from the Western Front appointed to lead the amphibious landings, either Henry Rawlinson, a major general serving as a temporary lieutenant general, or Major General Julian Byng.
The difficulty was that the commander of one of the New Army divisions participating in the landing outranked both officers, and Kitchener refused to ask that officer, whose date of rank was superior, to serve under an officer whose date of rank was later. About the only available lieutenant general was a certain Frederick Stopford, who had never been in combat, had held no major commands, and was 61 years old and ready for retirement. Stopford was a peacetime soldier who had already gained a solid reputation for his inability to make decisions. Yet he was now going to command the operation that could make or break the Gallipoli campaign.
The landings on Suvla Bay beaches commenced the night of 6–7 August. While there was some initial confusion, the Turks were caught by surprise, and the few scouts in the area scampered off, leaving the British divisions alone on the beaches. Moreover, there were few enemy troops on the heights beyond the plain behind Suvla Bay, and Stopford’s command had little opposition between them and the ridges overlooking the Sea of Marmara to the east. But without any clear orders from above to push forward, it generally remained in place and sorted out its various battalions and regiments, positioned artillery, established defensive positions, and organized itself in the best peacetime fashion. Unbothered by Stopford, who remained on board one of the supporting ships, the division and brigade commanders undertook little action on their own.
The sorting out continued on the second day. And on the third day Hamilton arrived to discover the landing force had undertaken no inland advance and was still sorting itself out. When queried by Hamilton as to what was happening, Stopford announced that the men were all safely ashore and prepared to defend themselves. Finally Stopford’s divisions began their advance, but it was too late. The Turks had arrived on the heights in strength, and Stopford’s troops were as firmly bottled up as were the other Allied forces on the peninsula. British reinforcements enabled further advances to be attempted, but with their control of the high ground, the Turks shot the attackers to pieces.
What makes the failure of Stopford’s efforts so inexcusable was the fact that British and Anzac troops launched major attacks elsewhere on the peninsula beginning on the evening of 6 August. Some historians, perhaps to make Stopford look even worse than he was (and that’s pretty hard), suggest that these attacks were meant to draw the attention from the Suvla Bay landings. They certainly did that, because the failure of the Turks to pay attention to the considerable threat at Suvla probably had a great deal to do with the enormous pressure they were under from Anzac forces.
Of these various attacks, the British attack at Hellas represented another attempt to seize the wretched village of Krithia and failed dismally. However, the attacks out of Anzac Cove came close to success. New Zealand troops actually reached the 870-foot peak of Chunuk Bair, one of the objectives, and received reinforcements. They held the crucial high ground for a short period before a Turkish counterattack led by Kemal swept them off the heights. One might note that had Stopford’s force done its bit, Kemal would have been elsewhere, most probably trying to wrest control of the heights to the northwest from the newly landed divisions.
Recent historiography suggests that the landings at Suvla Bay were to establish no more than a supply base. Why that would be necessary if the Anzac attack was going to tumble the Turks off the heights makes little sense, especially with two divisions being landed at Suvla. Instead what appears more likely is that both attacks were supposed to work together, with the combination of the Suvla landing outflanking the Turks on the heights and thus enabling the Australians and New Zealanders to drive the defenders from the high ground. Whatever the case, one cannot imagine any German commander in charge of the Suvla operation waiting three days to decide what to do.
With these early August failures at Helles, the heights overlooking Anzac Cove, and Suvla Bay, matters settled back into stalemate, and the campaign to take the Gallipoli Peninsula and open the way into the Sea of Marmara had, for all intents and purposes, failed. Hamilton found himself replaced in October by Lieutenant General Charles Munro, who recommended that the Gallipoli force withdraw before the gales of winter set in on the Aegean. The troops were evacuated successfully from Anzac Cove and Suvla Bay in late December and from Helles Point in early January 1916.
The campaign’s ending only served as an opening salvo in the arguments about whether the effort had been worth it. In retrospect, a victory in the spring of 1915 opening the Sea of Marmara to Allied warships probably would not have driven the Turks out of the war. But it would have allowed the Allies to ensure that the Ottoman Empire remained separated from Germany and Austria-Hungary. Also, it certainly would have encouraged the Greeks and Romanians to enter the war along with the Italians, while keeping the Bulgarians neutral. The threat in the Balkans, in turn, might well have forced the Germans to turn south instead of hammering the Russians in the summer and fall of 1915. Nevertheless, that is all speculation. What one can say for sure is that failure at Gallipoli gave the British and French no choice but to fight the terrible battles of the Western Front.
The campaign also ended the careers of Hamilton and Stopford. About the latter’s performance, Llewellyn Woodward, one of the great 20th-century British historians, commented that Stopford “dallied and muddled, wasted invaluable time, and thus allowed the Turkish reinforcements, whom he could easily have forestalled, to get first to the key positions. No single act of incompetence had such far reaching effects on the history of the war.” Interestingly, given the fact that the British Army was considered as the welfare home for those in the upper classes not likely to succeed at any other occupation, Stopford, despite his performance, would continue to be on the active list of lieutenant generals until 1920.
Alan Moorehead, Gallipoli (New York: Harper, 1956).
Robin Prior, Gallipoli: The End of the Myth (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009).
David Stevenson, 1914–1918: The History of the First World War (New York: Penguin, 2005).
Tim Travers, Gallipoli 1915 (Charleston, SC: Tempus Publishing, 2002).
Llewellyn Woodward, Great Britain and the War of 1914–1918 (Boston: Beacon Press, 1967).