Locked in the titanic struggle on the Western Front, Britain was able to spare few men or resources for the arenas of war beyond Europe. In the Pacific, in Egypt and the Middle East., in Africa and at Gallipoli the peoples of the Empire shared the burden of conflict. Their generous sacrifice helped to save the mother country at her time of peril. But it also fostered a sense of self-awareness and independence which challenged old concepts.
When an Anglo-French naval attempt to force a passage through the Dardanelles to Constantinople was stopped by Turkish minefields, Britain decided to seize the strategically placed Turkish peninsula of Gallipoli. Almost 30,000 Anzacs were among the assault force that struggled ashore at dawn on April 25th, 1915. War.
The Bungling Before the Shooting
Bungling was the keynote of the Gallipoli expedition - then history’s biggest ambitious strike. Only two weeks before its proposed date, General Sir Ian Hamilton, classics scholar and poet, still had no plan of attack, no military staff, no accurate maps or charts, no knowledge of the enemy dispositions and no idea where to land his 73,000 men. Even worse, when the British joined the Anzacs at Lemnos Island in the Aegean, they found that their guns, ammunition and stores had been loaded into the ships in England in hopeless confusion. Guns were in one ship, ammunition in another, fuses for shells in a third. To disregard this would have been fatal to the success of the landings, so the ships had to sail to Alexandria
This crucial delay gave General von Sanders, German Commander-in-Chief of the Turks, the chance he needed. He had learned what was afoot - his agents had reported that letters to the British in Alexandria were addressed “Constantinople Force, Egypt” and he now had the time to prepare powerful defences. The campaign had opened with blunders at the highest level. Many more were to occur before its end.
The entire campaign was marked by a series of military blunders, uncharacteristic of the British Military Authorities.
A Heath Robinson Campaign. Usually so efficient, the British had rushed their troops to Gallipoli without regard even to basic common sense, much less detailed military planning. “The slip-shod manner in which the troops have been sent out from England is something awful,” complained Rear-Admiral Wemyss. There was a serious shortage of guns and one of the two British divisions used a different rifle and bullets from other troops.
There were no hand grenades - they had to be improvised from food tins - and the six trench mortars that were available were Japanese made and soon ran out of shells.
Absent too. Were army engineers and the materials and equipment necessary for constructing piers and jetties on Gallipoli’s beaches, which made it impossible to land ammunition and supplies quickly
These elementary mistakes all took their toll when, on April 25th 1915, the Anzacs and the British stormed onto the heavily defended beaches
Suicide - Gallipoli Style
The invading troops went ashore without a realistic plan of action. For lack of any alternative, they repeatedly launched suicidal frontal attacks against concealed Turkish machine-guns. In one such mission carried out at dawn on August 6th 1915, 400 Australians were lost in 15 minutes. Dismounted Australian Light Horse were ordered out over the sandbags to attack the Turks on the Chunuck Bair Heights.
Two minutes later came the command for a second line to charge. These men had just seen their comrades annihilated, but they went over the top unhesitatingly. Except for one man who managed to crawl back they too were swept away . A third line despite the pleas of their officer, were also sacrificed without any gain. Similar charges at Cape Helles cost 17,000 men - mainly British - for an advance of 500 yards.
A War Without Proper Weapons
A hail of well-directed Allied mortar- and shell-fire on the Turkish trenches could have swayed the balance of countless actions at Gallipoli. “More and more munitions will be needed” urged General Hamilton. But they were not forthcoming. The Navy, too, failed to provide accurate pinpoint shelling of roofed-in enemy trenches which were too well hidden to be sighted from afar.
Mortars were so essential to this close range fighting that home made catapults and bombs were used , but with little effect. By August, all but one of the eight 60-pounder guns at Cape Helles had broken down through over-use, while only 900 shells for all guns there, were held in reserve. Only human lives were not rationed by the Gallipoli commanders.
Allied losses were staggering, exceeding even the gloomiest official predictions. The War Office had estimated 5,000 killed or wounded for the entire operation. The Director of Medical Services, Surgeon-General W.A. Birrell, had shocked them by planning for a total of 10,000. In the first six days alone, the Anzacs lost 6,500; five weeks later the total losses for the campaign reached 60,000.
Chaos followed. Wounds were hurriedly dressed by a handful of doctors in dugouts or tents beneath a cliff
Many died lying in long lines on the hot beaches. Others perished packed like sardines in transports or hospital ships on the way to Malta or Egypt. The Captured German ship “Lutzow” arrived in Alexandria with several hundred wounded attended by the veterinary surgeon who had brought mules out in it. No one had even cleaned the vessel . “It was like a scene from The Inferno” said a New Zealander.
After so much heroism and sacrifice, withdrawal was the final tragedy. When the Anzacs and the British evacuated their trenches, they had achieved precisely nothing. “I hope they wont hear us going down to the beaches”, said an Australian soldier with a sorrowing look at the graves that lined one of the hillside cemeteries.
Ironically, the withdrawal itself was a brilliant success. It started on the night of December 18 at Suvla and Anzac beaches beneath the Turks noses - a ghostly nocturnal departure - and by December 20, some 80,000 men, 5,000 animals and vast quantities of stores had been spirited off.
At Cape Helles too, withdrawal was made by stealth and by January 8, one week after it began, 35,000 troops and tons of equipment were safely embarked. The operation was a miraculous success. Rearguards withdrew at 3.45 a.m. And minutes later fused ammunition dumps exploded. Alerted at last, enemy gunners began shelling the empty British beaches.
War is the great solvent. It is at once so grim and so inspiring that, by comparison, almost anything else seems dwarfed. Obstacles to social and political change are swept aside and new forces find room for action.
Thus as early in the war as July 1915, Sir Robert Borden of Canada, the first Empire Prime Minister ever to attend a British Cabinet meeting, felt compelled to challenge Britain’s right to unquestioned leadership. The old concept of Empire was dead, he told an audience at the Guildhall in London. “The great policies which touch and control the issues of peace and war concern more than the people of these islands.”.
Australia, South Africa and India were soon echoing these challenging views. For they, with Canada, were expending so much of their youthful national energy that they were no longer prepared to be dictated to by the mother country. In victory they sensed their own power in the world; and in defeat they resented their subjugation to British leaders who planned the costly campaigns.
These sentiments were greatly strengthened by the war overseas, where British power was less in evidence than on the Western Front and where Empire troops frequently took the brunt of the fighting. From the prolonged struggle in German East Africa, from the disastrous Gallipoli campaign and from the changing fortunes of war at sea, a new outlook on Empire was born!.
Further reading on Gallipoli go to - Gallipoli Landings - Click Here
But a worse terrain for the invasion could hardly have been chosen. Gallipopli’s narrow beaches and unmapped hinterland were dominated by fortified heights from which the Turks were able to direct a murderous fire. For eight months Empire troops endured a merciless punishment, until they were withdrawn in the most disastrous and humiliating defeat of the First World
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