Gallipoli – What Went Wrong?


“That’s quite a view”. 

“Yes it is, quite a view”.

So said the fictional Sergeant Horvath and Captain Miller after the slaughter on Omaha Beach in ‘Saving Private Ryan’.

As gripping and realistic as this scene is, Churchill later said that the casualties on D-Day had been lighter than he had expected.

That might have been because of another amphibious operation 29 years earlier that had been his brainchild, and that, unlike D-Day, had also been an unmitigated disaster. 

Just as the D-Day landings (Operation Neptune) were the preliminary stage of the Battle of Normandy (Operation Overlord), the Gallipoli assault that began on April 25, 1915 was intended as the initial stage of a larger naval campaign.

A quick look at the map reveals the strategic logic behind the assault.

The Gallipoli peninsula is shown inside the red box over western Turkey
A satellite image of the Gallipoli peninsula and the Dardanelles (image: NASA and Roke~commonswiki)

Britain and France were fighting Germany on the Western Front while Russia was locked into combat along its vast borders with Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey simultaneously.

However, Churchill believed, with good reason, that geography could work in the Allies favour instead.

Turkey is uniquely placed in that it is situated in both Asia and Europe simultaneously. This is because the Dardanelles strait cuts off the top corner of Turkey (where it is connected to Europe) and links the Mediterranean with the Black Sea.

While ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ would work with Arab allies to attack Turkey (the Ottoman Empire at the time) from its Asian side, an assault in the Dardanelles presented the tantalising prospect of knocking the Ottomans out of the war immediately.

That’s because Turkey’s capital, Constantinople (now Istanbul), lay on the Dardanelles. If it could be pounded into submission by Britain’s mighty navy, there was every reason to believe capitulation would follow.

As a bonus, there would then be a warm-water route open to Russia allowing her to be resupplied by Britain year-round (northern routes to Russia were prohibitively cold during the winter).

The Gallipoli campaign in context

As First Lord of the Admiralty, it was well within Churchill’s remit to propose such a strategy and the operation was first launched in February and March of 1915. At this point, it was conducted by the Navy alone.

But mines within the straits and shelling from coastal forts made getting through impossible.

This necessitated the landing of troops on the Gallipoli peninsula, the northern bank of the Dardanelles and offshoot of Turkey’s European corner.

The intention was for these men to rapidly work their way inland where they would promptly overwhelm and capture the forts and thus permit the Navy to slip through.

But while this all made good strategic sense, tactically the geography of Gallipoli would be as much of an enemy to the attacking troops as the defending Ottomans.

In the Discovery Channel’s ‘The Battle of Gallipoli’, geologist and amateur historian Professor Peter Doyle states:

“There wasn’t just one enemy… the British and the Allies were fighting not only the Turks, they were fighting the terrain. The terrain was an enemy that they had to fight and it was probably on unequal terms.”

In other words, the jagged hills and cliffs that zigzagged the peninsula were a defender’s dream and an attacker’s nightmare. 

Thus, considered on this scale, the answer to the question of what went wrong at Gallipoli is pretty much everything, because the operation seems to have been doomed from the outset. 

The five British landing sites are shown at the bottom of the peninsula while the ANZAC landing zone - Z Beach - is shown at the top (image from 'Gallipoli 1915' by Philip Haythornthwaite © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

Proper reconnaissance was never carried out, largely because good aerial photography would be years in the future.

Professor Doyle points out that information that was gathered from the air was supplemented with sketches of the landing sites made from the water.

These did show defended positions, the wire, where the forts were located and basic terrain. But crucially, the location of machine-guns and reverse-slope trenches and gun emplacements were missing. These elements were meant to remain hidden, of course, and unfortunately for the attackers, there was no way to detect them before they were encountered.

When 11,000 men did land on April 25th, there were plenty of traps waiting for them.

The ANZACs (Australian and New Zealand troops) came ashore in the north (at Z Beach) and their objective was a rise known as Mal Tepe far inland.

The British, meanwhile, were meant to land at multiple locations around the toe of the peninsula (at S, V, W, X and Y Beaches) and their objective was Achi Baba. 

Anzac_Position_Gallipoli_August_6_1915 shows Mal Tepe by Brass razoo
This map, showing the ANZAC trenches that had been established (in red) by August 6, 1915 also shows numerous topical features including Mal Tepe at the rear of the picture (image: Brass razoo)
The blue line marks the extent of the British and French advance after several months of fighting; Achi Baba is in the centre just beyond the British/French lines in the red box (State Library of New South Wales)

The plan was to seize the high ground, assault positions along ‘the narrows’ (the Dardanelles’ slimmest point) and then disable the defenders’ guns so that the Royal Navy could wind their way through.

On W Beach, the Lancashire Fusiliers who attacked were immediately hemmed in by the low cliffs. Naturally, the Turks had built their trenches along the contours of these cliffs since the terrain naturally funnelled attackers into a deadly V hemmed by rifles and machine-guns. 

The Lancashire Fusiliers didn’t stand a chance. 

This image shows w beach right before the British evacuation in 1916 but the cliffs in the background give a sense of the what the attackers were up against in 1915 (Australian War Memorial)

Worse, although they had come ashore expecting to run into barbed wire, the British at W beach hadn’t expected the wire to be so robust that their wire cutters would not be able to slice through.

The assault on V Beach was similarly tragic.

Here, a more ambitious landing was being attempted, with men in row boats as well as an old collier named the SS River Clyde, from which men were meant to disembark down gangplanks onto the beach.

Boats were peppered with lethal fire, and those coming down the gangplanks would be funnelled, disastrously, into right where the enemy fire was at its most intense. 

Half of them became casualties before even getting to shore, though once there a low bank granted a reprieve as men were able to huddle behind and beneath it after digging in with their spades.

The story was similarly dire on other beaches, but while getting ashore was a major achievement in and of itself, the difficulties didn’t let up for the attackers once they’d done so.

They would next discover that their maps were inaccurate. Entire hills were missing, as was vital input on enemy wire and positions.

ANZACs at Gallipoli (image from 'ANZAC Infantryman' by Ian Sumner © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

The disparity was worst for the ANZACs, who had landed at the wrong place. The men made the best of it and rushed into the hills. But, after navigating their way through a deadly thicket of Turkish sharp shooters sniping at them from beneath the undergrowth, the Aussie and Kiwi troops made a jaw-dropping discovery.

They were expecting a gentle rise that would allow fast passage to the high ground that was their objective further inland. However, when they crested the first peak they discovered to their horror that their cartography had been woefully inadequate. 

The hill fell away in front of them into an intimidating series of jagged rises and crevices – an area that would be murderous to cross.

Gallipoli_Gallery_at_the_Australian_War_Memorial_(MG_9337) by Bidgee
A 3D model of the terrain tackled by the ANZACs (image: Bidgee)

The Allies had been pinned down, all 70,000 of them. Now the Gallipoli peninsula would become a microcosm of the Western Front – namely a quagmire.

Ironically, the whole operation had been intended to bypass the stalemate that had developed elsewhere, not imitate it. The fact that it had now done so would bring other planning problems to the surface. 

Getting supplies in would be a logistical nightmare. Reaching the men was difficult precisely because the peninsula remained defended and many boats that approached it were sunk. 

Small details like lack of standardisation in the type of ammunition used by the British Army and Royal Navy often meant that bullets kept by the latter could not be utilised by the former.

Meanwhile, the heights continued to facilitate the harassment of those on the peninsula by artillery as these positions had been neither defined nor quickly captured on the first day.

The result was lethal shrapnel raining down constantly, forcing the men below ground. 

The confinement of trenches and tunnels then exacerbated the spread of disease – after all, once the initial assault had failed, the warm climate, human waste, and hordes of closely packed soldiers would be a perfect breeding ground for microbes. 

Dysentery, a type of gastroenteritis complete with bloody stools (the result of the triggering pathogen eating into the intestinal lining), was probably the worst illness. A 12-stone man could drop to eight within several weeks of being infected.

As the spring turned to summer and the temperature soared, and more and more men became dehydrated through diarrhoea, lack of water became another enemy.

According to Colonel Alan Hawley, Commander of 3 Division Medical Services, 20 litres of water a day is necessary to sustain a man in hot weather. Soldiers at Gallipoli would have been lucky to have got two a day.

Turks at Gallipoli
Turkish/Ottoman troops at Gallipoli - this picture shows a soldier trying to defuse a grenade thrown into the trench (image from 'Ottoman Infantryman 1914 - 1918' by David Nicolle © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

This is because wells were spoiled by sea water contamination, necessitating the hauling of huge canisters of fresh water sometimes brought from as far away as Egypt.

Despite these difficulties the Allies doggedly pressed on, making numerous assaults, but they were to hit another wall – and his name was Mustafa Kemal.

He would go on to serve as the first president of Turkey in 1923 after the end of the Ottoman Empire, but during the Gallipoli campaign, he was the Turks’ frontline commander. 

He was astute and ruthless, telling his men when they were on the verge of retreating: “I don’t order you to attack, I order you to die”.

A statue of Mustafa Kamel at Gallipoli (image: Adam Carr)

Despite being vastly outnumbered, the Turks were able, through Kemal’s thorough planning and tough leadership, to make the most of their natural defences and eventually repel the invaders.

The British were eventually forced to retire in early 1916 with nothing to show for their efforts at Gallipoli during much of 1915. Churchill would resign over the fiasco.

To learn more about Gallipoli, read 'Gallipoli 1915' by Philip Haythornthwaite, 'ANZAC Infantryman 1914–15' by Ian Sumner, 'Ottoman Infantryman 1914-18' by David Nicolle and visit Osprey Publishing for more military history.

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