Landing_at_Gallipoli_ANZAC Cove from Archives New Zealand

Experiencing Life As A Soldier In Gallipoli

Landing_at_Gallipoli_ANZAC Cove from Archives New Zealand

The map is not the territory - so the saying goes, and it was certainly proved correct at Gallipoli.

For Australian and New Zealand troops, a large part of the reason for this was that they landed in the wrong place.

The early morning assault had necessitated an overnight preparation, and their boats had drifted more than half a mile too far north by the time they landed at 4:30 am on April 25, 1915 at a place that would come to be called ANZAC Cove.

From there, they made the most of the situation, rushing up and down jagged gullies and through ragged foliage planners had not anticipated.

Pushing on despite snipers concealed in the undergrowth and defenders firing down on them, the tenacious attackers eventually routed their Ottoman enemies.

Trenches_at_Gallipoli_2004_OIC by Orderinchaos
Preserved trenches at Gallipoli today (image: Orderinchaos)

These Turkish defenders fled in the face of the mass advance initially, but, according to ‘The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century’, they were stopped in their tracks when they encountered their commander - Lieutenant Colonel Mustafa Kemal.

He later recalled:

“I said to the men who were running away ‘You cannot run away from the enemy’. ‘We have no ammunition,’ they said. ‘If you haven’t got any ammunition, you have your bayonets’. And shouting to the men, I made them fix their bayonets and lie down on the ground. I said ‘I don’t order you to attack – I order you to die’.”

As harsh as Kemal’s order was, his actions may have saved his men’s positions.

It gave reinforcements the time they needed to reach the peninsula.

\Internally though, Kemal admired the men for obeying him:

“They knew they would die in about three minutes, but they showed not the least dismay. There was no wavering. Those who could read prepared to enter paradise with the Koran in their hands."

This renewed resistance slowed the advance.

It was clear that attackers were clearly not going to break through as quickly as planned and the race was on for the Turkish defenders to dislodge them before they established a foothold.

But the ANZACs (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) managed to cling on so that by nightfall both sides had each suffered around 2,000 casualties.

An attacking force would normally be expected to sustain more than the defender, especially while advancing over terrain as difficult as that encountered by the Australians and New Zealanders.

The fact that the casualty rates were about even is a testament to how hard the ANZACs fought.

View along trenches, Russell's Top, Gallipoli, Turkey, 1915 by National Library NZ
A trench at Gallipoli (image: National Library NZ)

As Major General Julian Thompson CB, OBE, Dr Peter Pedersen and Dr Haluk Oral tell us in ‘Gallipoli 25 April 1915 – 9 January 1916’:

“Landed in the wrong place, hamstrung by dubious decisions and often fighting in small groups in hostile terrain, the Anzacs had endured thanks to their enthusiasm and inner strength.”

Though Thompson, Pedersen and Oral point out that the Turks also endured, not being overrun by the invaders despite their most frontal units having been virtually wiped out before reinforcements could arrive.

Mustafa Kemal’s order and reflections about his men’s dire situation had not been hyperbole.

By the end of that first day at Anzac Cove, the invading force had put 13,500 men ashore who were now blocked from going any further inland by less than half as many Turks.

Unloading supplies at Anzac Cove, Gallipoli, Turkey, 1915 by National Library NZ
Anzac Cove shown later in the campaign as supplies are unloaded (image: National Library NZ)

Further down the peninsula, the British 29th Division was tasked with landing on and rushing up five beaches: Y, X, W, V and S.

The ANZAC landing site had been dubbed Z Beach.

These men would also struggle to surmount the difficult terrain and dogged defenders.

At V Beach, Lancashire Fusiliers were coming ashore in a number of row boats.

Their approach was quiet at first, but when they got within 50 yards on of the beach:

“A hail of gunfire killed men jammed in the boats. Others were cut down in the water. Many dropped their rifles into the sea and sand, jamming their weapons.”

Others who leapt into the water were caught up in barbed wire which the Turks had submerged close to the shore. 

Commander Samson, who was flying his plane over the beach that day, later described what he saw:

“The water (was) simply whipped into foam by shells and bullets. We could see the lighters (barges used for going ashore) full of dead and the sea stained with blood all along the beach.” 

V_Beach_at_Gallipoli by Jll
The geography at Gallipoli gave the defenders a huge advantage – this picture is of V Beach (image: Jll)

Similarly, a converted collier, the SS River Clyde, had been brought in to help convey a large body of troops to the shore quickly.

Instead, the plan, according to Thompson, Pedersen and Oral was:

“Conceived by amateurs in the amphibious art… (and) funnelled (2,000 men) two abreast (down gangplanks) through the most dangerous place in a seaborne landing: the waterline."

Vast numbers of them were cut down by fire before they even got ashore – they had been, after all, deposited right in front of a machine-gun.

The story at W Beach was similar, with the 1st Lancashire Fusiliers coming inland in row boats.

At first, they were supported by naval guns firing over their heads, but, as with any assault on the Western Front, these lifted to more distant targets inland as the boats got nearer to shore (300 yards was the threshold) so that the way was clear for the attack.

Unfortunately, the Turks were soon manning their trenches, and Commander Samson of the Royal Naval Air Service describes what he saw below him next:

“At about 200 yards from the beach, the Turks started firing. I could see bullets and shells hitting the water around the boats. It seemed certain they would all be killed, still they came on.”

They may have come on, but many were forced to leap over the side of their boats, and many of those who did were drowned by their heavy equipment.

Boats that weren’t abandoned hit underwater mines in many instances anyway – of the 24 boats in the first wave, only two made it to the beach.

Amazingly, despite the first wave not being able to cut through the barbed wire strung across the beach, men of the second wave were able to scale the cliffs on either side and outflank the Turks’ positions.

The men pushed through and linked up with X Beach.

11 officers and 350 men were killed that morning and six VCs were later awarded.

Gallipoli_ANZAC_Cove_Sphinx_2 ANZAC cove by Julian Nitzsche
An example of some of the extreme terrain that confronted the Anzacs when landed on the first day (image: Julian Nitzsche)

Further up on Z Beach, it was also well appreciated by commanders that the Australian and New Zealanders had overcome difficult and unexpected odds to establish and maintain a position on the beach.

The following day, Corps commander Lieutenant General William Birdwood commended his men in a special order:

“(The ANZAC commander) wishes to place on record his appreciation of the gallantry and dash with which the 3rd Australian Brigade carried out the difficult operation entrusted to it of landing in face of opposition on an open beach. In spite of the enemy being ready and of the heavy casualties inflicted at short range the brigade pressed on carrying successive positions in face of heave fire and completing a hazardous operation in a manner reflecting the highest credit on the commanders and on the troops engaged.”

As the campaign moved into May, and attacks were launched by both sides, the bond between commanders like Birdwood and his men would begin to fray.

The Australian Cyril Lawrence would later vent in his diary:

“Soon these English idiots will have ruined one of the finest bodies of men that ever fought. Once, I used to worship the British soldier as a hero and I was proud to be a Briton, but jigger me if I am now. For we see nothing but British blundering, boasting, bullying, bluff and blasting failure and doing nothing. God but it’s disheartening.”

Conditions would get increasingly desperate as the attackers fought to hang onto what they’d taken.

At a position called Quinn’s Post, No Man’s Land was just 10 metres wide.

Thus, it bore the brunt of numerous attacks by the Turks.

Defenders would yell “Come on, you kangaroo-shooting bastards”, and when the Turks tried to mine it, a subsequent sortie launched against the Turks would cost the ANZACs 50 casualties out of the 60 men who ventured out.

Royal_Naval_Division_trench training on Greek island during Gallipoli
This Royal Naval Division training trench on a nearby Greek island gives us an idea of what attacks out of trenches at Gallipoli may have looked like

For their part, British commanders were also getting frustrated with their men.

Birdwood would come to complain about his men’s indiscriminate fire that wasted ammunition, as well as their ‘amateurish’ entrenching.

Trenches were too deep, too shallow and lacking in loopholes – apparently, Turkish snipers took full advantage of the ANZACs’ inexperience.

Behind the scenes, British commanders also became frustrated with their own leaders.

General Sir Ian Hamilton, in charge of the whole operation, didn’t want to keep attacking under the terrible conditions but was continually ordered to do so. 

He pleaded that he didn’t have the resources necessary to take the high ground, yet the pressure didn’t let up – after all, British prestige would have been tarnished by a defeat suffered at the hands of a (non-European) Muslim power like Ottoman Turkey:

“The War Office urged me to throw my brave troops yet once more against the machine-guns and redoubts. To do it on the cheap, to do it without asking for the (artillery) shells that give the attack a sporting chance. People slur over my appeal for the shells and yet continue to urge us on as if we were hanging back.”

Indeed, in one letter Hamilton had begged for more artillery ammunition to support continued attacks. But the War Office’s logic was brutally simple.

Their reply simply stated: 

“The ammunition supply for your force was never calculated on the basis of a prolonged occupation of the peninsula. It is important to push on.”

Soldiers from the 14th Battalion, AIF, (Australian Army) occupy positions around Gallipoli in 1915
Australians dug in at Gallipoli

In other words, the territory now had to be made to conform to the map, or rather the reality to the original plan.

This was meant to have been a rapid breakthrough and capture of the Turkish forts and coastal guns that were preventing the Royal Navy from passing through the Dardanelles straits and capturing the Turkish capital Constantinople. 

And so began the First, Second and Third Battles of Krithia (named after an inland village on the peninsula). 

In one assault during the effort, “four weak battalions of New Zealanders were to attack in full daylight, a position held by at least nine battalions of Turks”, and all without proper artillery support.

As with elsewhere during the First World War, a lack of radios made proper coordination and control of battles by commanders impossible.

At one point during one of these battles, General Hamilton, peering through his field glasses from a distant hill, asked why his attacking troops had ‘gone to ground’ instead of continuing the advance. 

The answer, as it later emerged, was that they were all dead.

Part of the Battle of Lone Pine diorama in the Gallipoli Gallery at the Australian War Memorial by Bidgee
A diorama showing the assault on Lone Pine, another battle for the heights later on in the campaign – in this battle, of the 759 men who went over the top, 511 ended up as casualties (image: Bidgee)

Life between battles was difficult too.

Cyril Lawrence came to the peninsula a month into the campaign.

He described in his diary the now transformed landscape that confronted him as his boat moved towards the beach:

“As we approached the shore, what an aspect opens up before us. Valleys and valleys, scrub-covered hillsides, men getting about looking all the world like ants. But above all, the thing that meets, or rather hits the eye, is the number of dugouts. The whole landscape is covered with them. It looks for all the world like a mining camp.”

Australian troops trenches gallipoli
Australian troops in trenches at Gallipoli (left; image made available by Ellen Thompson) and with periscopes above trenches (right; image: State Library of Queensland)

Once on land, Lawrence would find himself a troglodyte in the war of stalemate that had developed:

“The trenches are totally different to what I expected. It is sure death to put your head up to look around. Even the periscope mirrors measuring three inches square at most are picked off one after the other. When the Turks charge they usually cry ‘Allah, Allah’, and our boys reply ‘Come on you bastards, we’ll give you Allah’. From the frequent use of this word ‘poor old Turk’ wants to know if ‘Bastard’ is one of our gods.”

Conditions got worse as summer came on.

Supplies were short and water rations had to be cut right in the face of extreme heat.

Food too became inedible – bully beef and jam turned to liquid while teeth broke on hard biscuits. Flies were ubiquitous, as was disease.

The question for both sides was for how long they could hold on.

Here, the Turks had the advantage, not only because of better positions and access to supplies, but also in that they were defending their homeland.

One Turkish soldier, a teacher and law student before the war had started, expressed his hopes for the campaign in a letter home:

“My dearest mother, I can see a line of soldiers washing clothes near a stream in the emerald green hillside. One soldier with a beautiful voice is saying prayers. I opened my hands, looked up at the heavens and said ‘God of Turks, master of the birds, the sheep, the leaves, the mountains – God, all this soldier wants is to keep this land from the British and the French. Grant me this, please. Make the bayonets of these soldiers sharp and destroy our enemies’.”

His wish would be granted, though he would not live to see it, being one of 86,000 Turks who would die in the battle. 

For their part, the attackers suffered 55,000 dead (10,000 of these were ANZACs and another 10,000 French), and a total of a quarter of a million casualties.

Eight and a half months after it started, the offensive ended as the British and French withdrew.

For an extensively illustrated account of the campaign in the Dardanelles, complete with replications of period maps, letters, and other memorabilia, read ‘Gallipoli’ by Major General Julian Thompson CB, OBE, Dr Peter Pedersen and Dr Haluk Oral.

Cover image: Archives New Zealand

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