28: Gallipoli Pt. 4


While other troops are landing elsewhere the primary point of effort was at Cape Helles by the men of the British 29th division. They would land on 5 beaches scattered around the end of the Gallipoli peninsula early in the morning of April 25th.



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Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War episode 28, this is the fourth in our series of episodes covering the Gallipoli campaign of 1915, last week we looked at the landings by the ANZAC at what would come to be known at ANZAC Cove and the French division on the Asiatic side at Kum Kale, you may remember that as a whole these landings didn’t exactly meet expectations. Today we will be looking at the main set of landings by the British army on the tip of the Gallipoli peninsula at the Helles peninsula. These landings, spread across 5 beaches and performed by the 29th Division were the primary point of effort for the entire campaign. The other landings were all, in a way, to support the 29th and their quest to land on the tip of the peninsula and then to march the few miles it would take to take the high ground that would give the British dominance over the peninsula and the straits. We will cover each beach in turn, even though they were for the most part happening simultaneously on the morning of April 25th. The order in which we will cover them is slightly arbitrary with Y, X, and S beaches first followed by the two largest landings at W and V, which I have saved for last. I think that it probably enough intro, so let’s get to it.

The first landing that we will discuss today was that which took place at a beach called Y, although I’m not sure you can really call it a beach. It was really just a narrow rocky spot with two gullies leading away from it at a very steep slope, it meets the technical definition of a beach, but I don’t think anybody would be going there for holiday. Private Daniel Joiner was there, on the scene and he had this to say about the terrain “At first it appeared to be sheer cliffs with no possible chance of gaining the summit; on closer inspection, however, there appeared to be a resemblance of a watercourse, which to agile Switzerland mountain climbers might afford a possible ascent. It was too dark to make out anything of the top of the cliffs or background. No beach was visible, it appeared as if the cliffs ran into the sea. We imagined that the boat would go nearly to the beach. A rude awakening awaited us. The water was quite clear, and we began to notice shelves of rock. About 30 to 40 yards from the beach our boat grounded. This had not been in our reckoning, so for a fraction of a second we were at a loss, not so however with those in the know – as soon as the boat touched out they jumped into the water. No further order was necessary, before we realised what had happened we were waist deep. Instead, however, of the water getting shallower, it got deeper. The smaller men having a difficult job to keep their collars dry.” Luckily for the British going ashore, particularly those of the 1st King’s Own Scottish borderers who were the first ashore, the area was completely undefended. This was at least partially due to the fact that the Turkish commanders never dreamt that somebody would land a sizeable military force in the area, it just wasn’t setup to support it. Because of this belief the nearest Turkish positions were a mile to the south of the landing area. The British landed very early in the morning, and in the morning haze they did begin to make their way forward and up onto the top of the area overlooking the beach. Small parties of men were sent forward to reconnoiter the area but there wasn’t any large effort to begin moving large numbers of troops further inland, even though they were encountering no resistance. Instead of taking all the men avaialble and marching inland, something that really would have upset the Turkish defensive plans, the British entrenched at the top of the ridge close to the beach and waited. A bit after 5.30 in the afternoon the Turkish response arrived in the form of a Turkish regiment that appeared and began to attack the British positions. The troops, while they did have some level of fortifications were still in a bad spot. They had made it up the cliffs but now every single supply that they needed had to be hauled up from the sea as well. The only thing that was holding the attacks at bay was the prolific expenditure of ammunition by the riflemen but now every single bullet had to be painstakingly hauled up from the sea. This fact, and the fact that the British had created a line that was far too long to be defensible put the British in a position where they were constantly in danger of being overran. The attacks continued throughout the night as the British tried to frantically hold off the attacks, while then frantically trying to improve their position so that they could stop the next one as well. Urgent messages were sent to the 29th command center requesting reinforcements urgently at the beach, but they were not answerer. On the morning of the 26th, at around 7AM, the final attack came. They were able to break through the British line, and it was only by a last ditch bayonet charge by the remaining defenders that the position was saved. Daniel Joiner gives his account “Back and forward we swayed until the Turks had us on the topmost edge of the cliffs, with a sheer drop of 300 feet. The beach was littered with our wounded, in many cases dying comrades. The Turks had the chance of a lifetime. Another push and we would have been over the cliffs. We had turned at bay, every man that could hold a rifle was brought into the line. Holding like this we waited for the last push. No sooner had the Turks shown a hesitation than our remaining officer grasped the situation and ordered the charge. This time everything was in a mix, bayonets, butts, fists, feet, and in fact everything and anyhow. So mad was the rush, the Turks gave way. We got them right back over the position which we had held all night.” This would be the last Turkish attack, they had suffered around 50% casualties in all of their attacks. Now a very interesting thing happened, throughout all of the early morning there had been small ships going back and forth from the ships to the beaches to bring off the wounded. At some point troops on and near the beach began to believe that a general evacuation had been ordered and started to go out back on the ships. The commanders of the ships, confused by some of the messages from the shore, assumed that this was also the case and stepped up their efforts to evacuate anybody on the beach. Once something like that starts happening the only recourse was to order a general evacuation, which would be done by 11.30, just four and a half hours after the final Turkish attack was launched. During the evacuation the Turkish troops would not attack.

X beach was the beach closest to the main efforts at V and W beach. The most interesting thing about the troops involved is that two of the battalions were designated as the divisional reserve and were not to be committed to the fighting unless absolutely necessary. This beach was manned by precisely 12 Turkish troops when the bombardment began to fall on the cliffs overlooking the landing beaches. Due to the commander of the ships involved bringing them in closer than was usual it was also a very effective bombardment. The beach that would be landed on was about 200 yards long, and this time it was actually something of a beach. The troops would begin coming ashore at about 6.30 and they were all ashore at about 7.30. More troops began to land at about 9, but not as many was originally expected. Two of the battalions that were supposed to go ashore were being shifted over to Y and S beach since they were experiencing much stiffer resistance as the day wore on. The troops available were able to easily capture their objective, Hill 114, but 11.30 and then they sort of just stopped. Due to the terrain they were able to see that the attacks from V and W beach hadn’t taken their objectives. So the commander of the landings, Brigadier General William Marshall chose not to continue his attack forward. He believed that it was his duty to make sure that the beaches were held against all attacks since he possessed the Divisional reserve, and just in case X was the only successful landing it may be needed as an area to shift all of the troops to. So essentially, a small number of Turkish troops, by this point far more than the original 12, but still heavily outnumbered, had managed to contain the most successful of the British landings mostly because the British were okay with where they were at. By the time General Hunter-Weston, the commander of the 29th had been contacted and a further attack order was given it was already the morning of the 26th and there were enough Turkish troops to make such an attack impossible.

At S beach the 2nd South Wales Borderers were set to go ashore with the objective of taking the old fortified position called De Tott’s battery. This position overlooked several of the other beaches, including the beaches of V beach to the south. The British were concerned that if there were several guns and men there it could be a serious problem for the other landings. The bombardment from the Cornwallis a predreadnought commanded by Captain Alexander Davidson began about an hour before the troops went ashore. In a bit of a nicety to the troops Davidson decided to help the landing along a bit more by committed several smaller naval ships to take water, ammunition, and the packs of the soldiers ashore so that they wouldn’t have to carry as much with them. I’m sure the troops appreciated this but it did cause a slight delay in the landings. They were supposed to begin at 6 but instead ended up not really getting going until about 7.30, not that it mattered much. The Borderers were able to quickly capture the battery, it only had one platoon of Turkish defenders, and by 8 the battery, such as it was, had been captured. So here again the British had quickly captured their objectives, and now they weren’t sure what to do. Their orders were to not move out until the other landings to the south, those as V and W beach, began to move off their beaches. From their position at de Tott’s it was obvious that those landings weren’t being very successful. In the absence of other orders to move forward the Borderers just began the process of digging in their positions in case a counter attack should materialize, which there were several rumors of during the day, although nothing ended up happening.

W beach was one of the two primary landings on the Helles tip and was primarily carried out by the 1st Battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers, or at least they were the first unit on the shore. The goal of the landing was to move inland and take hill 138 before meeting up with the Royal Fusiliers that should at that point be moving out of X beach before moving further inland. W beach was one of the best landing areas on the entire peninsula, and the Turkish commanders knew it. It was 300 yards of beaches that sloped slowly upwards into the hills. The Turkish defenders had dug a line of trenches surrounding the area and had placed a ton of barbed wire obstacles all over the beach. As the Lancashire men got into their landing craft and began moving toward the beach it very quickly became apparent that the barbed wire was still mostly intact and that the bombardment from the ships had neither taking care of most of the obstacles or greatly effected the Turkish troops in their trenches. One of the landing craft now moving into the shore was commanded by Leading Seaman Gilligan and he would say “As soon as we touched the beach we could see wire entanglements. The fire was terrible; just like a hailstorm. I jumped out of the stern up to my arms in water and pushed the boat in.” Fortunately for the British troops here again the Turkish defenders held their fire until the British boats got very close into shore, and therefore lost a great opportunity to inflict casualties. Even when the soldiers got ashore it wasn’t exactly an inviting place. Captain Harold Clayton would have this to say about his experience during the landing “There was tremendously strong barbed wire where my boat landed. Men were being hit in the boats and as they splashed ashore. I got up to my waist in water, tripped over a rock and went under, got up and made for the shore and lay down by the barbed wire.” One of the things that had never really crossed my mind about these amphibious landings, and those in later wars, that Peter Hart brings up in his book is the fact that once the men landed and were under some kind of shelter they then had to clean their rifles. Hart quotes a few soldiers who talk about this, and it makes perfect sense, these rifles had probably been submerged in water a few times, probably had a bunch of sand and grit in the barrel and covering the action, so not only were they landing right into the teeth of the enemy that was just raining fire down up on them, they also couldn’t fire back. I only really bring this up because in all of my reading about who knows how many military landings over the years, this never really crossed my mind. Anyway, back to the landing, there were only maybe 150 Turkish troops defending the beaches but with the Lancashires exposed on the beaches with barbed wire in front of them they were incredibuly exposed. Even with all of these problems the Lancashires did slowly begin to push forward. There simply weren’t enough defenders to be strong everywhere so there were a few undefended spot that the British soldiers were able to eventually find and exploit. The Lancashires were able to move forward and link up with the Royal Fusiliers for a short time on Hill 114 and began to look at attacking Hill 138. This was going to be difficult because hill 138 were surrounded by another round of barbed wire defenses and of course Turkish troops. As the second wave of troops began to land at W beach, some of them like the 1st Essex Regiment originally assigned to V Beach, attempted to take hill 138, only to be repulsed. At around 3PM in the afternoon, after another attack and a concerted bombardment by naval ships Hill 138 was finally captured. Unfortunately all this really meant was that there was not another hill to take, it was simply pouring down fire onto V Beach which it had a nice overlook position on. Another attack, was launched soon after taking Hill 138 and just an hour later both hills was on British hands. Now they were staring at Hill 141, by far the strongest position encountered so far, but they wouldn’t attack it on the 25th, instead as night fell the troops from W Beach stopped their advance and dug in, expecting a Turkish counter attack to find them during the night. We will catch back up with these men on the 26th after we talk about the landings at V Beach for a bit.

The Landings at V beach would utilize one of the more interesting tools used for any of the landings, and that was the collier the River Clyde. This ship was used as a landing ship to try to protect soldiers landing on the beaches from as much fire as possible for as long as possible. It wasn’t necessary a bad idea, although it wouldn’t play out quite like the British wanted. A man named Edward Unwin, a naval Commander in 1915 came up with the idea and when he presented it to the leaders of the campaign he was put in charge of making it happen. He only had about 2 weeks to get the idea off the ground and fully operational, which isn’t a huge amount of time, but he was able to make it happen. The ship would be outfitted with several machine guns mounted on the bow and then be run aground on the beach while filled with men on the lower decks, four holes would be cut on each side of the ship and these would be linked by wooden walkways to a platform on the bow of the ship. The men would hopefully descend down a ramp from the platform to the beach. It very soon became apparent that the ship might run aground too far out from the shore for it to be quite that easy. To solve this problem a steam hopper and three lighters would be used to bridge any gap between the platform and the shore. They would be towed behind the River Clyde until it ran ashore at which point they would be piloted around to the front of the ship and placed in position. The real key in the entire operation was that it was very important that the River Clyde not be the first thing to hit the beach. It would be the perfect way to quickly boost the strength of the troops ashore as long as the Turkish defenders right on the beach were eliminated quickly be an earlier wave of infantry landing in the more traditional style. As the troops moved out of the Clyde they would be very exposed to fire as they walked along the narrow walkways on the side of the ship. Commander Unwin was under a lot of pressure to make this idea work, and he fully understood the ramifications if his planned failed. “I have never spent such a time in my life as I did before the landing, the awful responsibility, for I wasn’t just carrying out orders, but carrying through a scheme of my own in which if I failed the consequences might be awful. The thousands of thoughts that flash through one’s head at such a time as to what might happen and how to meet them. And on top of it all the wonder as to how one will behave one’s self, as I don’t believe any man is quite sure of himself.”

The bombardment of V Beach and the surrounding area began at about 5AM on the 25th and it was at least somewhat effective. Like at many of the other beaches the naval guns found it difficult to hit the Turkish defenses at the relatively low angle of fire that they were capable of. The landings on V beach were scheduled to begin about 30 minutes after the bombardment began at about 5.30 and they would be landing on a beach that was about 300 yards long and defended by about 300 Turkish defenders. The 1st Royal Dublin Fusiliers were scheduled to be landed first in their landing boats much like at the other beaches. The tows of the Fusiliers were supposed to go in first, but the heavy current was slowing them down drastically, this after there were also delays while traferring the men from the larger ships into their landing craft. Commander Unwin in the River Clyde now had a problem, he had been informed that the Fusiliers were running behind schedule so he had to turn the Clyde in several large circles. Due to the fact that the collier was towing boats behind it stopping wasn’t really possible because the towed ships would then collide with the Clyde. After this delaying tactic it was decided to move the Clyde in without confirmation that the Fusiliers would arrive at the beach first. As it turned out the Clyde would arrive at the beach just before 6.30, which is when the Fusiliers would arrive, and the Clyde found itself about 80 yards from the shore when the ship finally came to a stop. For the 1st Royal Dublin Fusiliers the row into the beach was much the same as at other defended beaches. Every man moving toward the beach felt the same nervousness as Captain Guy Geddes who found himself on the River Clyde and he would describe how he felt as it moved in to the beaches “It was not a cheery prospect. I felt we were for it. That the enterprise was unique and would demand all I was possible of giving, and more. That it was no picnic but a desperate venture. I just longed to get on with it and be done with it. I felt I was no hero and that I had not the pluck of a louse. My nerves were tense and strung up, and yet I never doubted that we would not win through, because I knew the splendid fellows at my back, highly trained, strictly disciplined, and they would follow me anywhere.” As the ships began to move closer and closer to the beach the enemy fire began to grow as experienced by Lieutenant Cuthbert Maffett “They opened a terrible fire on us with machine guns and pom-poms, the shells of which contained an incendiary mixture. They began to hit the boat I was in very frequently and killed many of my men as we were rowing ashore. We were also unlucky enough to lose several of the blue jackets who were rowing us in. The men had to take over their oars and as they did not know much about rowing the result was that we often got broadside on to the shore and presented a better target to the enemy.” AS more and more British soldiers started to come ashore they found themselves under heavier and heavier fire. There are many first hand accounts and official British military reports that the Turkish defenders had between 2 and 4 machine guns firing down on the beaches as the men landed, Peter Hart asserts that these machine guns did not exist. He claims that the Turkish sources say that there were no machine guns on the front at this point in time, and that the British were actually just experiencing heavily concentrated rifle fire. Hart believes that most of the accounts of the machine guns were actually hearing the guns mounted on the bow of the River Clyde and mistaking them for Turkish guns. Regardless of what exactly was pouring down fire on the beaches, fire was being poured down. Private Robert Martin came onto the shore shortly after the first wave “There were twenty-five in my boat, and there were only three of us left. It was sad to hear our poor chums moaning, and to see others dead in the boat. It was a terrible sight to see the poor boys dead in the water; others on the beach roaring for help. But we could do nothing for them. I must have had someone’s good prayer for I do not know how I escaped. " On one side of the beach some British soldiers were able to push forward toward the Sedd El Bahr village only to be very quickly overwhelmed by a Turkish attack and pushed back to the beach.

While all of this drama was taking place on the beach the River Clyde was slowly being prepared to land the troops now sitting in its holds. The hopper and lighters were slowing being moved to the bow but the hopper found itself slowly drifting in the wrong direction. The hope was that the hopper could be used to bridge most of the gap by positioning it long ways reaching from the Clyde to the shore, instead it was coming up parrallel to the beach which left quite a bit of space between it and the bow of the Clyde. Commander Unwin was on the scene to try and make the best of the situation “I dashed over the side and got hold of the lighters which I had been towing astern and which had shot ahead by their impetus when we took the beach. These I got under the bow and found Williams with me. I had told him the night before to keep with me and he did so literally. We got them connected to the bows and then proceeded to connect them to the beach, but we had nothing to secure to, so we had to hold on to the rope ourselves. When we had got the lighters close enough to the shore I sang out to the troops to come out.” As the men began to move out of the ship they came under heavy fire and were, to put a phrase to it “mowed down” Captain Guy Geddes would be one of the first men out of the ship “We got it like anything, man after man behind me was shot down but they never wavered. Lieutenant Watts who was wounded in five places and lying on the gangway cheered the men on with cries of ‘Follow the Captain!’ Captain French of the Dublins told me afterwards that he counted the first 48 men to follow me, and they all fell. I think no finer episode could be found of the men’s bravery and discipline than this – of leaving the safety of the River Clyde to go to what was practically certain death. I dashed down the gangway and already found the lighters holding the dead and wounded from the leading platoons of ‘Z’ Company. I stepped on the second lighter and looked round to find myself alone, and yelled to the men following out of the Clyde to come on, but it was difficult going across the lighters.” Soon after the first wave of men ran out of the Clyde, Williams, who was helping Unwin keep things together would be hit by artillery fragments and even though Unwin attempted to save him, would die. It was around this time that Unwin, after all of his heroics and work to try and get the men onto the beach, would collapse in complete exhaustion. At 9AM another group of men tried to make it out of the Clyde, only to be again hit with massive casualties, at 9.30 they tried again with the same result. At a bit before 10.30 in the morning, with reports starting to filter back to headquarters Hamilton, out on the Queen Elizabeth began to believe that the landing at V was hopeless and began to plan on landing the rest of the troops still at sea at W beach instead of V.

The mean who did get ashore found that all they could do was huddle behind any bit of earth that they could find and stay as low as possible, as soon as they tried to move forward they instantly found themselves in a hail of bullets. Over a thousand men found themselves still trapped in the River Clyde waiting for a lull in the Turkish fire so that they could move out of their hold. In the afternoon some hope returned to both the men on the beach and those inside the Clyde. Remember how we talked about the troops at W beach beginning to capture some of the Turkish high ground in the afternoon, well the beaches were so close together that from V beach the troops could actually see this happening. It must have been extremely uplifting for the men stuck under fire to see one of the other groups of soldiers having success. On the Turkish side the commanders were screaming, as loud as possible, for reinforcements. They knew, at least roughly, how many British troops were trying to land and they knew that once it got dark the ability of the defenders to interdict the landings would be greatly diminished. The Turkish units were down to somewhere around half strength at this point and all that the Turkish commanders could do was put all of their reserves in the line and hope for the best. As darkness fell exactly what the defenders feared began to happen, all of the troops that were stuck in the Clyde began to be disembarked onto the beach, by 12.30 all of the British soldiers were ashore and even though Turkish reinforcements had arrived, including some machine guns, they were now very outnumbered. Early in the mornings the attacks off the beach began in earnest. By 8AM the fortress of Sedd el Bahr was captured and the men of V beach were able to link up with the troops from W beach and begin to advance toward Hill 141. As they began to advance they moved from a walk to a sprint to cover the last yards of open terrain before the Turkish defenses. The Turkish defenders had been hoping that they could hold out until nightfall before retiring so that they would be safe from the naval shells, but by 1.30 in the afternoon it was becoming very apparent that they couldn’t wait any longer to concede the position to the British. At 2.30 the final British attack was able to completely overrun the Turkish rearguard on the hill. So the British were now in command of Hill 141 after almost 2 days of hard fighting, an accomplishment for sure, but nowhere near what was hoped.

When the landings and first days of fighting were over the British found themselves with somewhere around 10,000 casualties, this seems like a small number until you compare it to the number of troops involved, which was only about 30,000. The British would hand out over 12 Victoria Crosses just for actions that took place during the landings including one each to Commander Unwin and Ableseaman Williams. But the troops were ashore at ANZAC and Helles, and here they will stay for quite some time. None of the beaches had really accomplished their goals for the landings. Some of the advances that pushed inland during the first day but were then pushed back would be the furthest that they would ever advance. All of the troops at Gallipoli were in for a very long summer, next week we will look at this long summer and how the British tried again and again to break out of their beach heads while the weather kept getting warmer and warmer and the Turkish defenses kept getting stronger and stronger. Thank you for listening, and have a great week.