The Allied ships enter the Dardanelles for their final, and largest attack. We then dig into what British plan to do after it fails.
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Hello everyone and welcome to history of the great war episode 26. This is the second episode in our series about the events that led up to the landings on the Gallipoli peninsula in 1915. You may remember last time that we ended the episode with the British fleet led by Admiral de Robeck ready to charge into the Dardanelles straight to try and force their way through to the Sea of Marmara. We will first cover this naval action today before moving into the prelude to the landings on the peninsula. We will talk about some of the forces that were assembled for the landing and what the British planned to do with the troops available in the region. We will also talk about the peninsula itself as a bit of geography lesson before talking about how the Turkish leaders and troops planned to defend it. This will set us up for future episodes when boots actually go onto the ground. But before any of that happens, lets find out how this naval attack goes, although I am sure you could guess at this point.
The ships advanced into the Dardanelles strait late in the morning, firing their guns the entire time. They advanced about a mile into the straight without any problems. This movement took almost two hours and during this time the French and British ships were constantly firing on the Turkish positions who were not idle. One thing to remember throughout the day is that the Turkish guns, while being slowly reduced in effectiveness never stopped firing, even if they wouldn’t end up doing as much damage as hoped. The ships they were firing at were designed to withstand punishment, just like ships for centuries had been designed to be hit time and time again with shot and shell before taking serious damage. After the first two hours of the fighting de Robeck ordered the French ships who had been in the lead to retreat back so that fresh ships could be brought forward to continue the attack. The goal was to maintain a certain rate of fire, and by bringing the French ships back and replacing them fresh crews would better be able to maintain this fire. As the French ships began to retreat the first disaster struck. The French ship Suffren was hit by a heavy shell that came it at a high trajectory which penetrated all the way through to the magazine. The ship came very close to going up in one giant explosion only to quickly be stopped by the crew. Suffren would be out of the fight, but a greater disaster then occurred. The French Ship Bouvet ran into a mine and sank in less than 2 minutes with 639 Frenchmen being lost. To quote Regimental Sergeant Major David Hepburn “We saw an immense cloud of black smoke ascending from the Frenchman’s starboard quarter. Almost immediately she began to heel over towards us and gradually, steadily and gracefully, she continued to heel till her masts lay on the water. A second or two in that position, then, just as steadily she continued to heel over till she lay keel uppermost – she was perhaps half a minute in that position then quickly slid under the water. From the time we saw the smoke till she disappeared was barely 3½ minutes. No noise; nothing horrifying in the sight – our imaginations supplied the horror.” Only about 66 people would survive from the ship. The rest of the French ships withdrew without incident to be replaced by 6 British ships. They would then continue to keep up the fire for another 2 hours. By this point the time was getting to be late in the afternoon and the Turkish fire was beginning to slacken significantly. The Turkish fortress garrisons were not in good shape, The Turkish General Staff report that telephone lines were almost nonexistent, most of the stationary guns were knocked out, and the garrisons were having trouble keeping up any kind of sustained fire due to the constant battering by the British naval guns. The Turks weren’t completely disparing though, they still had the mobile guns that were constantly moving a fireing and they still had sets of torpedo tubes further into the strait that were as yet untouched. De Robeck knew that he would need to be able to move forward soon if he planned to push through before darkness. He therefore sent the minesweepers forward, he knew that there were many lines of mines, 10 lines across the entire strait. There were 400 mines in total that had to be at least partially cleared before the ships could move forward. As the minesweepers moved forward they were in by far the most danger, the Turkish guns that were still firing were very aware that they were the linchpin of the plan of the British and they therefore targetted them as soon as they came within range. The minesweepers came forward and gave it a shot but had to retreat due to the fire they were receiving. While they were retreating the battleship Inflexible hit a mine, pretty close to where Bouvet had sunk earlier. Inflexible would be badly damaged but was able to slowly move away from the battle. Minutes later the battleship Irresistible hit yet another mine, again badly damaged would have have to be towed out by destroyers sent to rescue her. At this point de Robeck withdrew his ships temporarily, he now had 1/3 of his fleet out of action and wasn’t making much progress. The mines that they were hitting were laid by that one Turkish trawler that had snuck past the British the previous night, and the fact that mines were there made de Robeck second guess himself. Their greatest fear was that the Turks were sending floating mines down the channel, which would be completely random and something that the British had no defenses against. Just before de Robeck would order the retreat at 6PM yet another older battleship, the Ocean hit a mine and would be abandoned later in the evening.
As the ships retreated de Robeck was very concerned with what the response would be from London, and he honestly feared for his job. Instead of his dismissal when he informed London of the losses Churchill immediately sent back that 4 more British Battleships and one French replacement were already in route to the Dardanelles. Really, Churchill and a lot of the leadership in London didn’t see this failure as a huge setback. In their mind these are old battleships that for the most part aren’t good for anything but mobile gun platforms. They are too slow and old to be used in large fleet actions against the Germans so if it cost them a few more of these ships just destined for the breakers after the war, did it really matter? On the other side, de Robeck and other naval officers saw each ship as precious and not to be wasted. It was because of this type of thinking that de Robeck had absolutely no plans to go back into the strait, even though they had now fitted destroyers with the minesweeping equipment since they had far better survivability. Churchill, upon hearing this instantly planned to send a telegram to de Robeck flat ordering him into another attack but he ran into resistance from Fisher and other naval leaders. It was a bit of a faux pas to order the admiral on the scene to do something against their better judgment, after all they had a better grasp of the situation in the area. Churchill fought this for a bit but then acquiesced. Maybe Churchill was right and another effort, especially with the destroyers now handling the minesweeping instead of the fragile trawlers, could have gotten through. For their part the Ottoman commanders were simply flabbergasted that the British didn’t try again, their ammunition supplies were running low, with some guns down to less than 30 rounds, and the supply of mines was pretty much completely exhausted. Peter Hart in his book Gallipoli takes some issue with the idea that the Turkish defenders were on the ropes stating “Research in Turkish archives has revealed that they had plenty of shells left – not as many as they may have wanted, perhaps, but enough to face a renewed Allied attack. The forts were battered but still standing, the main Narrows minefield had not been reached, the howitzers were still plying their trade, the torpedo tubes were undisturbed and the Goeben still waited for any ship lucky enough to have broken through – her designated conqueror the Inflexible already run aground and out of action. There was surely no hope here for a naval attack on 19 March.” Regardless of whether or not a renewed attack would have succeeded in the end another attack would not occur and this represents the great turning point in the operation, it here and now that the British really commit themselves to land operations to force through the Dardanelles. General Hamilton, future commander of the land forces, would be on the scene on March 19th, after the actions he would send the following message to Kitchener “I am being most reluctantly driven towards the conclusion that the Dardanelles are less likely to be forced by battleships than at one time seemed probable,” he reported, “and that if the Army is to participate, its operations will not assume the subsidiary form anticipated.” So with that, let’s move into the next phase of the campaign as the British begin planning exactly how they are going to use land troops to help the ships get through.
While the planning was occurring for the land attacks they were always planned as a way to allow the Naval attacks to continue and not as a separate action that would win the battle. The army would move in, take out the Turkish forts on the heights overlooking the straits and those pesky howitzers so that the minesweepers could move in and do their work without having to worry about constantly being under fire. While it was a step that they didn’t necessarily want to take most of the British leaders believed that now that it had come to moving in the infantry it was just a matter of time before the objectives were achieved, all they had to do was put in the effort and the result was guaranteed. The troops could be ready by maybe mid-April at which point the operation would happen, no one really considered what would be required if the land attack wasn’t quickly successful, or even worse couldn’t achieve its objectives at all. Before we dig too deep into the land operations it is important to talk about Russia’s reaction to the possibility. To put it simply Russia wasn’t happy, Sergei Samsonov the Russian Foreign Minister was concerned that having British and French troops in the region would alter the balance of power away from Russia. It was pretty similar to the concerns that the Russians had about giving concessions to Turkey during 1914 when they were deciding who to fight for. The real crux of the problem was that deep down inside Samsonov simply didn’t believe that if the British were able to capture Constantinople that they would just hand it over to the Russians like they said they would. This belief also hurt the ability of the Allies to bring Greece into the war on their side. In early 1915 Greece was still neutral but was giving the allies the rights to use the islands of Lemnos and the port of Salonika. When it became clear that there would be landings they also offered to assist by sending troops. This was a huge step for the Greek government that would have instantly ended their neutrality in the conflict. This is also at a time before either Bulgaria or Romania had committed, so it really would have been a big move in the region. If the British could get Greece on their side, it could completely change the dynamics in the negotiations with both of the other Balkan neutrals. The involvement of Greece in the operations made Samsonov even more skittish about the whole operation. Greece was one of the primary challengers to Russian dominance in the region after the war, and Russia feared what concession the Greeks could get out the of the allies to get them into the war. Anything that the Greeks wanted would almost certainly directly clash with what the Russians were hoping to gain. Samsonov would be quoted as saying “in no circumstances can we allow Greek forces to participate in the Allied attack on Constantinople.” Upon hearing about the resistance of the Russians the Greeks changed their terms and decided that they would only enter the war if Bulgaria would join the allies as well. This wasn’t crazy of them, the Bulgarians were far away the greatest threat to northern Greece and shipping Greek troops to Gallipoli could have made them vulnerable. As we talked about a few weeks ago Bulgaria would end up joining the Central Powers, so obviously Greece will not end up supporting the operation. In the end Sir Edward Grey would have to assure Samsonov, very strongly, that Constantinople would be handed over if it was taken by the British. At some point Samsonov decided to trust in this assurance and they would come to promise a corps to join in the attack once the allied ships reached the Sea of Marmara, but only once they reached the sea.
The person that would be put in the command of the allied effort was General Sir Ian Hamilton, born in 1853 Hamilton was 62 years old and much like almost every other British leader we had discussed had taken part in the Boer war. He managed to make it out of the war without many negative things to be said, something of an exception among British commanders in what was not the greatest moment for the British military. Late in the Boer war he would become Kitchener’s Chief of Staff, and he would become something of a protégé of Kitchener’s. He would be sent as an observer to the Russo-Japanese war and then when a leader was needed for the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force Hamilton was Kitchener’s first choice. With his close relationship with Hamilton Kitchener believed that his experience would help the attack to succeed. As I previously mentioned Hamiltom arrived on the scene in the Mediterranean in time to see the final naval attack on March 18th, and seeing some of the problems involved with the military operation would affect his thoughts and decisions moving forward. As mentioned the force that he would come to command would be called the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, and no I won’t be saying those three quite long words for the next few episodes, I will be using the much nicer acronym of MEF. So just remember MEF means Mediterranean Expeditionary Force.
The MEF would be made up of a hodgepodge of different divisions, 5 to be exact. These would be the 29th division, Royal Naval Division, the Corps Expeditionnaire d’Orient, the 1st Australian, and the Australian and New Zealand Division. The 29th we have already discussed several times before, particularly last episode, this was a collection of different garrison units from around the empire that had been cobbled together. None of the troops had seen action in the war so far, and they really weren’t the best coordinated at a divisional level. When they went into action they would be as a unit disorganized, all of the different unit commanders had never worked together and had only a few months to try and sync up for combat. However, they were still confident and had the skills typical of British soldiers that were trained before the war began. There was also the Royal Naval division made up of sailors who didn’t have a place on the ships at the beginning of the war, you may remember this unit from the Antwerp adventure in late 1914 where they landed and marched to Antwerp only to pretty much just march back out again. They were still very high spirited, but weren’t exactly the most well trained unit under British command. They numbered 25,000 though, so still a force to be reckoned with. The third unit was the French unit with the flowery name Corps Expeditionnaire d’Orient. The French weren’t the most enthusiastic participants in the operation but felt that it was their duty to send some form of ground troops to take part. The Corps was really about divisional strength and was made up of primarily North African troops but also a few French units. This was the most diverse unit used in the campaign with battalions of French, Senegalese, Foreign Legion, and Zouaves all finding themselves in the ranks.
The last two divisions of the MEF were in the ANZAC or Australian and New Zealand Corps. Before I begin discussing them I would like to say that I have tried very hard in the podcast up to this point, and will continue in the future to never refer to the ANZAC as the ANZAC Corps due to the fact that this is basically just me saying the Australian and New Zealand Corps Corps. If I have or do mess this up in the future, I apologize, I have found it very difficult to stay away from. Anyway, the ANZAC were commanded by Lieutenant General Sir William Birdwood who was born in 1865 and who had served in India before being promoted to Major General in 1911, he had been chosen specifically by Kitchener to lead the ANZAC. These troops were on their way to Europe via the Suez Canal when Turkey entered the war and it was decided that the divisions should be offloaded in Egypt to complete their training while increasing the security of the Suez Canal. The ANZAC would be the first troops committed to a Gallipoli operation while the fighting over the 29th division continued. The ANZAC was technically made up of two different forces the Australian Imperial Force and the New Zealanders Expeditionary Force but they are rarely referred to under these names, they are almost always just lumped together under the name ANZAC. All of the men were volunteers and had received a lot of training in their local militia regiments back home. They were known for their physical fitness. At this stage in history New Zealand wasn’t as unified as a country as it is today but that didn’t stop them from providing military support for the Empire. According to Keegan “To be a New Zealander in 1914 was to be taught that: ‘The Empire looks to you to be ready in time of need, to think, to labour and to bear hardships on its behalf.’ ” When the call for troops went out to New Zealand the response, relative to population size, was huge. This was partially due to peer pressure like in other societies, the “if they are going I need to go to” mentality, but also from bravado. Just like the Australians the New Zealanders were known for their sporting tendencies which made them believe they would make excellent soldiers. The New Zealanders would prove to be just as good as they thought themselves to be. There are some that would come to consider the New Zealanders as the best colonial troops that the British had during the war, although I’m sure that some Canadians and Australians might have a word or two to say about that. The Australians, and particularly those of the 1st Division and the 1st Light Horse Brigade that saw service at Gallipoli, would attain near legendary status during the war. They were of course volunteers and contemporaries and historians alike make much to do of their many outback origins. The image is perhaps a bit tainted by the fact that 27% of them were actually born in Britain, but who wants to be technical? As is almost always the case the first to volunteer are the best soldiers and these Australians would be no different. The 1st division would be commanded by Major General Sir William Bridges who had lived in Britain, Canada, and Australia by 1879 before becoming the commandant of the Royal Military College of Australia before the war. I will make a small note here about the fact that while the ANZAC was training in Egypt they were joined by the 42nd Division which was the first territorial division to be posted overseas during the war, they won’t join in on the initial assault but look for them to make a comeback in later episodes. The troops in the ANZAC were for the most part low on artillery and artillery ammunition and after leaving Egypt for the Greek island of Lemnos they would actually have to turn around and go back to Egypt to sort out their transport ships due to how incredibly disorganized they ended up being. Not only were the stores completely jumbled up but units were split up onto any number of ships and all mixed together. When all of this was settled the troops of the ANZAC, the 29th, the Royal Naval, and the Corps Expeditionnaire d’Orient, all 80,000 of them were ready to go ashore, the question was what exactly would they be landing on, and what was waiting for them there?
While the British were assembling their forces the Turkish defenders were not idle, they used the time between the last naval attacks and the landings to greatly improve their defenses. They were still not well equipped, and there certainly weren’t enough troops to go around but day by day and week by week things were getting better. The British believed that there were around 170,000 troops defending the peninsula and that they would have to fight through, this would prove to be a gross exaggeration. In fact General Otto Liman von Sanders only had about 6 divisions, or 84,000 men, under his command in the form of the Fifth army. Sanders had been born in Prussia and now had the full command of the defense of the straits. The Turkish army as a whole of course had many more men but most of these were committed to other theaters like the continued fighting in the Caucuses and the middle east. Really, the problem wasn’t even the number of men that could be put into the peninsula but instead a problem of supplying them with adequate arms and ammunition. While the British were grossly overestimating the number of defenders they were also grossly underestimating their fighting abilities. In general, the troops under Sanders’ command, especially the Turkish troops, were optimistic about their chances in the fighting. To quote a Captain of Artillery of the Fifth Army “A year earlier we had the Balkan Wars and we were defeated very badly, but on the other hand we had the practice of fighting. In this war at Gallipoli we were facing two great forces in the world – the French and British people. They had great armies, but they were lacking practice.” Sanders would arrive on 26 March 1915 and begin to try to sort out how he would defend the roughly 150 miles of coastline that had been put under his care. To understand his plan and his future actions I think it is important to discuss the win conditions for the defenders, win conditions are just a simple set of objectives an army has to accomplish to consider a battle to be a victory. The Ottoman troops occupied all the ground the British had to take, to win all they had to do was occupy the high ground on either side of the Narrows so that their artillery could continue to fire at the ships and the battle would be won. This put them at a huge advantage not just because they were defending against a seaborne landing, but also because they could lose pieces of the peninsula and still not lose the important high ground positions. With this is mind Sanders had one wild card that he had to account for, where would the British land their troops? 150 miles of coastline is a lot to defend with the number of troops that Sanders had available to him. So he couldn’t defend it all. Because of this Sanders decided not to really defend the beaches strongly, he would have small units at many of the probable landing sites that would slow down the landing before these small units could be reinforced by reserves held further inland and waiting to see where the landings would occur. The only real concern with this plan was the broken ground that he reinforcements would have to traverse to get to the lines of battle, but it was hoped with the interior lines that they possessed and the knowledge of the terrain gained by the troops in the months before the battle that this problem would be minimized. Sanders would say about this decision “The important question was where the hostile landing should be expected. On it depended the grouping of the troops, which were rather inconsiderable in comparison with the great extent of the coast. Technical feasibility for the landing of large bodies of troops existed in many parts of the coast. All could not be occupied. The decision therefore must be made on tactical grounds. Whatever might be in store, in view of our weak forces, our success depended not on sticking tight, but on the mobility of our three battle groups.” As it turned out, this plan of action was the perfect counter to the British plan of attack. Regardless of wherever the British would end up landing the defenders tried to determine any really likely landing places and work on boosting the defenses in those areas. Again quoting Sanders “For the improvement of the field fortifications of the most endangered stretches of the coast all available men were put to work and mostly at night. The available Turkish means of obstruction were as short as were the tools, but we did the best we could. Torpedo heads were used alongside with the regular land mines and the fences of gardens and fields were stripped of their wood and wire. At places particularly suitable for landings barbed wire was stretched under water.” As March turned into April Sanders and the Fifth army had made, prepared, and rehearsed their plans and when the bombardment from the ships would come, they would be ready.
So now that we know what the defenders were planning, what did the British plan to do to dislodge them? Well, right from the start Hamilton knew that the terrain greatly favored the defenders. He had to constantly balance the easy landings of the nice beaches, which would be defended the strongest, versus the less accessible, more lightly held landing sites that would make it more difficult to advance inland. The British had several maps of the landing sites but some were somewhat inaccurate. Some of the problems seems to have grown from continual transcribing of the maps that ended up suppressing the elevation contours. This is a very big deal when they were advancing into an area full of ravines and hills. Captain Bertram Smith, who participated in the planning of the operation, is quoted by Peter Hart as saying “The military history refers to the surprise of many soldiers at the unexpected sharpness of the many ravines; but on looking at my copy of the map, which I have kept, the contour lines seem to have indicated this fairly clearly. As a matter of fact good map-reading is not common, and many army officers are, or were, bad at it.” So whether it was bad maps or bad map reading skills, nobody really knows. There were also airplanes trying to do reconnaissance work to try and verify terrain features, they extensively used photographs to find and catalogue Turkish defenses. This was done by sea planes from the carrier Ark Royal and is one of the more comprehensive uses of air reconnaissance in early 1915, at least that I can find. Even with these efforts there was still a lot of guesswork in trying to figure out where the Turkish defenders were the strongest and where they were weak. There were many landing options that the British could use to go ashore and the most appealling of these, at least on paper, was the beaches at Bulair. These beaches were nice and flat coming from the Mediterranean and it was right at the neck of the peninsula which meant that if an attack was successful all of the Turkish troops that were farther out on the peninsula would be cut off. This was tempting of course, but was dismissed very early by the British leaders. A landing at Bulair was Sanders’ greatest fear so this is where the defenders had put the greatest amount of their effort, and it was the closest landing site to groups of reinforcements. It was at least partially due to these defenses that the British ruled out the landing. The British also decided against a landing on the Asian side of the straits, this was tempting for the same reason as Bulair with nice flat beaches that opened onto the plains around Troy. This was ruled out for a few different reasons the primary of which was that on the open plains it would be easy for the 5 divisions that would participate in the operation to be overwhelmed by Turkish troops. Any attack on the Asiatic side would necessitate an advance toward Chanak which would leave the right flank of the attackers wide open to attack. With these two options ruled out the attack pretty much had to happen on the edges of the Gallipoli peninsula, which meant dealing with the worst terrain in the area, with the entire attack zone crisscrossed by ravines, gullies, streams, hills, and ridges. Pretty early on Hamilton decided that wherever the landings would happen all 5 divisions would be used at the same time, instead of the alternative of just landing a few here or there before using the rest in follow up attacks. To quote Hamilton “I would like to land my whole force in one – like a hammer stroke – with the fullest violence of its mass effect – as close as I can to my objective, the Kilid Bahr plateau. But, apart from the lack of small craft, the thing cannot be done; the beach space is so cramped that the men and their stores could not be put ashore. I have to separate my forces and the effect of momentum, which cannot be produced by cohesion, must be reproduced by the simultaneous nature of the movement.” So the goal was to take all five divisions and land them all over the peninsula to hopefully confuse the defenders and to prevent them from focusing all of their strength on one landing. In theory all of the landings would happen simultaneously.
The primary point of effort would be at Cape Helles on the tip of the peninsula. This was an area made up of a bunch of small beaches that were overlooked by hills that the Turkish troops had fortified heavily. While these defenses were known to the British it was hoped that the Navy would be able to disrupt the defenders enough to allow for the landings, it was here that the Navy would be of greatest assistance since they could fire on the defenders from three sides. This is where the 29th Division would be committed over a series of 5 beaches that would be code named Y, X, W, V, and S. Y beach was a few miles from the other beaches, on the Mediterranean side, and was positioned so that as the British troops advanced they would cut off Turkish reinforcements from joining the fight for the other beaches. Y was also at the bottom of a very steep gully, and it was hoped that a landing here would surprise the defenders to minimize the terrain advantage that they enjoyed. X, W, and V beaches were all right at the tip of the peninsula and S was within the Dardanelles straits. The landings would all occur during the day since General Hunter-Weston, the commander of the 29th was completely against night attacks. Hamilton favored going in at night, like what was planned for the ANZAC, but he allowed Hunter-Weston to make the final decision as the commander of the spot. This tendency for Hamilton to defer to his generals against his judgment is one of the things that historians absolutely tear into him for. It will hurt the operation several times over the course of his command and it has caused a lot of blame for the failure of the landings to fall squarely on Hamilton’s shoulders. The ANZAC would be put ashore on beaches near Gaba Tepe. This area was on the Mediterranean side of the peninsula and was really the only place that a landing could be made in this area, most of the rest of the coast was almost shear vertical cliffs. The beaches near Gaba Tepe were small, but they would provide for enough space to land, but if the ANZAC troops landed anywhere else they would be in huge trouble. Trying to deal with the cliffs in some of the other areas would just be a nightmare if they didn’t hit their beaches dead on. I may be foreshadowing something here, if you haven’t figured it out yet. The last two divisions involved in the attack were the Royal Naval Division and the French division both of which would launch diversionary attacks. The French would land at Kum Kale on the Asiatic coastline this was for the diversion but it was also hoped that they would be able to silence the guns on the Asiatic coast that could shell the 29th division on their landing beaches. The RND wouldn’t actually launch at attack at all but would just sort of posture in the direction of Bulair to try to draw Turkish attention.
To close out today I will leave you with another quote from Peter Hart with his opinion of the plans that Hamilton had finalized for the landings. “Unfortunately, in drawing up his plans for the landings, Hamilton cast aside any slim opportunities that were set before him. Instead of forming a cohesive focused plan and sticking to it, he adopted, at least in part, almost every option on offer. He needlessly overcomplicated everything: like a sentence bespattered with clauses, subclauses and tangential meandering syntax, his plan layered main landings, support landings, diversionary landings and distracting demonstrations one upon the other. He had intended to confuse Liman to prevent him from concentrating the Turkish forces against the landings, but in doing so he failed to concentrate his own forces” Tune in next week as the action begins on the beaches of Gallipoli.