undercover's new Turkey Page
The earth you have just unknowningly trodden
is the spot where an era ended and where the heart of a nation beats.
Mehmet Akif Ersoy, Turkish poet
inscription on Turkish war memorial at Gallipoli
The Naval Attempt on the Dardanelles.
The reasons for trying to force open that narrow strip of water that separates Europe from Asia Minor were, on the surface, very simple. The bloody impasse on the western front had led some to seek solutions elsewhere and the war against the Turks seemed to offer one. The scenario went something like this. The Royal Navy with Nelsonian daring would blast its way through the Dardanelles, the Sea of Marmara and then the Narrows reducing the defending forts to rubble as it went. Then, anchoring in the shadow of Constantinople, its sheer presence would lead to revolution in Turkey and cow the Turkish government into surrender. The flank of Germany and Austria-Hungary would be exposed and with the sealanes to the Black Sea open, Russia could be supplied with much-needed munitions. Newly rejuvenated, her massive armies would steamroller westward into Berlin. If it had only been so.
The main opponents of the scheme, however, were the British admirals who would have to carry it out. Ships fighting forts is difficult at the best of times and in the horribly constricted waters of the Dardenelles, probably madness. The place was heavily defended with almost 200 guns, fixed torpedo tubes, submarine nets and hundreds of mines. The admirals refused to allow their best ships to be used and, apart from the newly built battleship Queen Elizabeth and the battlecruisers Inflexible and Irresistible, most of the ships were old, due for retirement and manned by mostly reserve crews. The same was true of the French contingent. In spite of this it was still a mighty fleet that began its attack on March 18th 1915. There were sixteen capital ships with all their supporting vessels and with Queen Elizabeth in the lead they entered the narrow strip of water. According to all who saw it the sight was magnificent, the great grey ships powering into the azure waters of the strait with the dun-coloured hills of Gallipolli beckoning on their portside. It was the ultimate expression of gunboat diplomacy as practised in the 19th century and it failed.
The battle raged from 9.00am to 5.00pm when, like office workers anxious to be off home, the British called it a day. All day long they had pounded the shore batteries and forts but the Turks never for a minute gave up returning fire. This was not how it should have been and the Royal Navy, used to the immediate surrender of natives overawed by the spectacle of naval power, seemed at a loss as to what to do. Later in the afternoon, minesweepers were sent forward with a view to freeing the waters ahead for the battleships to follow. These minesweepers were not even warships at all, but fishing trawlers fitted with mine cable-cutting equipment. They were crewed by civilians and had never been expected to do their job under the kind of fire they now experienced. It was to much for them and they turned about and fled. Almost immediately the French battleship Bouvet struck a mine, capsized and sank in just a few minutes. Then HMS Inflexible was holed by a mine and limped back out to sea, listing heavily. HMS Irresistible was abandoned after hitting another mine and HMS Ocean saw her steering gear destroyed. The fleet withdrew. Not a single mine had been cleared nor a single Turkish gun destroyed. Seven hundred allied lives had been lost and three capital ships. Later reports suggested that the Turks were at breaking point and almost out of ammunition when the ships turned back out to sea and perhaps a determined attack the next day might have succeeded. It was, however, over; not only the battle but that myth of invincibility that had clung to the Royal Navy for over a century.
Now it became the turn of the soldiers.
The Land Campaign: Introduction.
They generals thought they could do the job in three days. Land on the Gallipoli peninsula, clear it of Turks and disable the seaward defences. With a bit of luck it could all be accomplished in 72 hours. They failed too, and at a much greater cost in lives than the naval assault. For 259 days, from April 1915 to January 1916, the allied forces hung on to their toeholds on Gallipoli. A total of about 500,000 men were landed there over the course of the campaign and almost 300,000 of them became casualties. For the Turks it was a great victory and marked the time they successfully stood against the greatest empire the world had ever seen. It threw up Mustapha Kemal, an obscure divisional commander, and propelled him on the road that would lead him to become the ‘Father of the Nation?E For the Australians it would provide the sacrifice that tempered their newly-forged nation in blood. For the British it was just another fiasco in a war full of them.
After the failure of the naval attempt to force the Dardanelles, it was decided to land ground troops at the tip of the Gallipoli peninsula, secure the central heights and destroy the Turkish batteries, thus opening the way for the navy to proceed up to Constantinople. The force was commanded by General Ian Hamilton, a Scotsman and a brave, experienced soldier. Its main constituents were the British 29th Division, the 1st Royal Naval Infantry Division, the French 1st Infantry Division, the 29th Indian Infantry Brigade and the Australia New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC). There were lesser contingents from many different parts of the British empire including the colorfully named Assyrian Jewish Refugee Mule Corps. Formed in Egypt, they were reputed to be the first Jewish unit to go into combat since the Romans took Jerusalem in AD 70.
The expedition assembled in Egypt and security was abysmal; it seemed that every shoeshine boy in Alexandria knew that Gallipoli was the destination. The classical associations with the area were many. It was there that Xerxes had built his bridge of boats, where the Greeks had sailed on their way to Troy, where Leander had drowned. Most officers and not a few of the men had been classically educated and a desire to emulate the heroes of old may have fired them as they boarded the transports. The pathos of the situation they found themselves in a few short weeks later must have been sharpened by their musings on the Homeric deeds of previous battles. How long would it have taken a machine-gun to hit even an Achilles in the heel? Where was their Ulysses with the clever stratagem needed to turn stalemate into victory?
The troops were to land at two main areas. At Cape Helles on the tip of the peninsula the British would land on five separate beaches. 13 miles further up the northern side the ANZACs would come ashore. In the very early morning of April 25th the attack began. On three of the British beaches opposition was light or non-existent, on one it was stiff and on the fifth a disaster occurred. On V beach the plan was to run an old collier (the River Clyde) aground and the troops filling her hold would storm out of sally ports cut in her side, cross a bridge of lighters she had towed in behind her and secure the beach. The Munsters and the Hampshires were the units unfortunate enough to be selected for this duty. A battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers would come in at the same time in small boats. Nothing went right. When the Dubliners hit the shore the Turks opened up with a furious, telling fire. The Irishmen were cut to pieces. When the sallyports opened on the River Clyde the Munsters and the Hampshires flew out into a wall of lead that made no allowance for their courage. General Napier, the landing force commander, approaching in a small boat was urged to forego any attempt to land. He refused such entreaties and was cut down like almost all the rest. The attack had begun at 6.20am and despite the support of the 15 inch guns of the Queen Elizabeth, it wasn't until darkness fell that the remaining troops on the River Clyde could stumble ashore and secure (if that is the word) the beach. God only knows the agonies the wounded suffered as they lay all day in the hot sun, the slightest movement drawing Turkish fire.
The ANZACs fared better although a strong current took them past their assigned beach and they landed at what was forever known as Anzac Cove. Here they managed to get ashore without too much loss. They Australians were very different from their British army counterparts. Tanned, loose-limbed and vigorous and with a disregard for the superficialities of discipline that drove British staff officers wild, they could appear insubordinate even when standing at attention. They were, however, very good soldiers (warriors might be a better word). Once on the beach they quickly pushed inland, some even reaching the central heights of the peninsula. There they met a man who would match his mettle with their own. Mustapha Kemal, commander of the Turkish 19th Division, was one of the greatest soldiers his country ever produced and one of the best commanders to emerge from the Great War. Kemal moved his men against the advancing Australians, drove them off the heights and pushed them back almost to the beach.
Stalemate and Withdrawal
The peninsula never came anywhere near being cleared of Turks. The British managed to gain the whole tip of the peninsula but they never pushed more than five miles inland. The ANZACS didn’t do much better and though they fought with great skill and courage they got little further than the heights overlooking the beaches, and never reached the crests. For the first month the fleet had stayed offshore giving supporting shellfire and as the battlefronts were so shallow the sea and its great ships were almost always in sight of the men fighting on land. That changed on May 25th when a German U-boat torpedoed HMS Triumph. The ships were withdrawn to the safety of the Greek islands and the soldiers were left alone.
Hoping to break the deadlock Hamilton mounted another landing further north at Suvla Bay, but although the troops were put ashore successfully they were not pushed forward vigorously enough and soon the Turks had sealed off another little allied enclave. While the British were landing the Australians made a series of attacks that were designed to draw off Turkish troops that could have been used against Suvla. One of these at the Nek was made by the 3rd Light Horse who tried to advance across a very restricted front to attack trenches full of Turkish troops. Three waves went forward and each was slaughtered by the Turks, none of the attackers gaining many more than a few yards before they were cut down. Some of the Turks even climbed out of the trenches and perched on the parapets to get better shots. It was a massacre made even more bitter by the lack of success of the Suvla landings.
As spring gave way to a blistering summer and then a wet, weary winter conditions rapidly deteriorated. “The beautiful battalions of April 25th are wasted skeletons.?Ewrote Hamilton. Disease was rife, the soldiers filthy, rotting corpses lay everywhere and day after day the attacks and counter-attacks continued in a horrific parody of the trench warfare going on in France. By the end of the year the Turks were at breaking -point, but so were the British. Lord Kitchener came out from London to appraise the situation and was appalled at the mess he found. An atmosphere of gloom and desperation hung all over the peninsula and Kitchener recommended withdrawal. Slowly the troops were taken off, and in a brilliant last phase the rearguards were withdrawn without the Turks having the slightest idea what was happening. When the Turks woke up on January 9th, they found themselves alone on the peninsula and the British positions eerily empty. In a predictable display of military optimism, the evacuation was portrayed as a great victory, another example of the British genius for amphibious warfare. The public probably weren’t fooled and the soldiers definitely not. As one of the last Australian units slipped through the darkness down to the beach and the evacuation boats, one of the men was heard to whisper as he pointed to the graves of his fallen comrades,”I hope they don’t hear us go.?E
Gallipoli : a footnote.
I recently received an e-mail from a Turkish gentleman chiding me for disregarding the sufferings of the Turkish soldiers during the Gallipoli campaign. He was right, of course, and I feel I should add something here. The British Empire and Dominion troops who fought at Gallipoli laboured under terrible conditions but for their enemy things were, if anything, even worse. the Turkish army had no great fleet to supply it and as British submarines were active in the Sea of Marmora seaborne supply was not an option. A single railway line led to the peninsula but it ran out far from the battlefronts and had nowhere near the capacity to adequately service the Turkish army fighting there. Sometimes the Turkish troops were starving and it is said they would lick the traces of sauce they found inside cans of food discarded by the British and Anzac troops. And yet they held on and finally drove the invaders back onto their ships. The Turkish soldier was poorly equipped and often badly led but his courage and determination won the admiration of his foes. Before the landings the Anzacs were just as racist as most Europeans at that time and felt that the upcoming battle against a bunch of ‘asiatics?Ewould soon be successfully completed. Such ideas didn’t last long and a respect for their enemy grew amongst the Anzacs. They called the Turkish soldiers ‘Johnnie Turk?Eor ‘Mehmet?Eand these were terms not derogatory but akin to the name ‘Tommy?Ethat the Germans used to describe the British.
After Gallipoli the Turkish army went on to other victories. In Mesopotamia a Britsh army was forced to surrender at Kut al Amara and though the British finally took Baghdad, Jerusalem and Damascus it took them three long years and massive superiority before they could do so. Even when the Great War itself ended the Turks had to struggle on: first to throw off the shackles of an unfair peace settlement, then to expel the invading Greek army and finally to face down the British Empire once again in the Chanak Crisis.
In the early 1950’s Turkish troops fought alongside their former British and Australian enemies in the Korean conlict and throughout the long years of Cold War tension Turkey stood guard on NATO’s vulnerable southern flank. Political alignments change, enemies become friends, old soldiers fade away and life goes on. Perhaps at the end of the day the only real comrades-in-arms are the dead. On the overgrown, silent battlefields of Gallipoli may they rest in peace - together