The British at Gallipoli, August 1915 Part I

In April 1915, when the Allied armies in France and Flanders were already experiencing the frustrations of trench warfare that were to render them practically immobile for the next three years, some 70,00 British, Australian, New Zealand, and French troops were launched against Turkey in an attempt to circumvent the bloody deadlock on the Western Front. Their destination was the Gallipoli Peninsula, where they were to help the Royal Navy force a passage through the Dardanelles against Turkish guns; the prize was Constantinople and, beyond it, access to the West’s beleaguered ally, Russia. As well as knocking Turkey out of the war and unlocking a supply route to the massive but underequipped Russian armies, the Gallipoli campaign, if successful, also seemed to offer the chance of gathering useful allies from among the Balkan states and so, in Lloyd George’s celebrated phrase, “knocking the props from beneath Austria-Hungary.” Two years later, during the post mortem into the failure at Gallipoli, the former prime minister H. H. Asquith lamented a lost opportunity. “If we had succeeded . . . in my judgment it would have produced a far greater effect upon the whole conduct of the war than anything that has been done in any other sphere of the war.”

After the venture had ended in failure, the disgraced commander of the expedition, General Sir Ian Hamilton, opined that the fate of his force had always hung in the balance. “No man in Europe could have foretold whether the landing of April 25th was to be a success or a dreadful disaster,” he wrote. “Too many of the factors were unprecedented under modern conditions for any forecast to be made.” The poet John Masefield, who saw action at Gallipoli, took a somewhat different view of the failure at Suvla Bay in August 1915. He believed that success had been almost within the Allies’ grasp but that, in the words of the nursery rhyme, “for want of a nail, a battle was lost.” “In war, as in life,” he wrote, “the unusual thing, however little, betrays the unusual thing, however great.” In this case what could have turned a defeat into a victory were “two fresh battalions and a ton of water.”

Hamilton’s somewhat gloomy assessment contrasts strongly, however, with the mood of buoyant optimism that predominated at all levels before the first landings took place, a mood that owed much to a failure to consider exactly what an amphibious operation might entail and not a little to a deeply entrenched attitude of racist superiority toward the Turkish people in general and the Turkish army in particular. The notion that British troops—any British troops—must be superior to their Turkish opponents was the counterpart of the notion of prestige as the basis of British imperial rule. It was widespread throughout all levels of British society, and the expedition’s commander was deeply impregnated with it. “Let me bring my lads face to face with Turks in the open field,” he begged his diary some three weeks before Suvla Bay. “We must beat them every time because British volunteer soldiers are superior individuals to Anatolians, Syrians or Arabs and are animated with a superior ideal and an equal joy in battle.”5 Hamilton valued each British soldier as worth several dozen Turks; at Suvla Bay the cold statistics suggest that every Turk was the equal of ten Britons.

At its outset the Gallipoli campaign lacked a clear operational design. Adopted to solve a variety of diplomatic and strategic problems and launched largely as a result of the passionate advocacy of Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty and political head of the navy, it was first to be an attempt by battleships to rush the narrows at Gallipoli and break into the Sea of Marmora. When the admiral on the spot was asked his advice, however, he recommended a longer-drawn-out operation to force the straits by means of methodical bombardment and mine-sweeping combined.

Overwhelmed by Churchill’s persuasive oratory, and imprisoned by a concept of service that made them passive instruments of naval administration rather than active participants in naval policy, the senior admirals in Whitehall endorsed the plan although the serving head of the Royal Navy, Admiral Sir John Fisher, had gone on record ten years earlier opposing any such venture. “Any naval officer who engages a fort worthy of the name fort deserves to be shot!” he had declared. “Nelson said this!”

The Gallipoli Peninsula

Attempts to demolish the Turkish forts guarding the straits by a mixture of shell fire and demolition by landing parties during February were a failure; a second attempt to knock out the forts on March 18 was halted when three battleships were sunk and three more badly damaged. At this point the weight of the operation shifted from sea to land, and the long path to Suvla Bay began to open up.

When the idea of attacking Gallipoli was first discussed by the War Council on January 8, Kitchener intimated that at least 150,000 troops would be necessary. Gradually, as the weeks passed and the excessive hopes placed in the efficacy of naval bombardment were revealed to be far too overoptimistic, the role of ground troops in the operation expanded from being “in support” of the navy to joint operations and then to seizing the peninsula if the navy proved unable to get through the straits. Given the situation on the Western Front, troops were hard to come by, but after some hesitation Kitchener released a division for the expedition, and on March 12, 1915, he appointed General Sir Ian Hamilton to command the military forces.

A brilliant commander who was also a first-rate trainer of men and a good organizer, Hamilton seemed to combine all the qualities necessary to make the expedition a success. Although an infantryman, he had “all the brilliance and dash usually associated with the cavalry leader.” He had made his reputation in the first Boer War (1880) and on the Northwest Frontier of India and cemented it during the South African War (1899–1902), which he ended as an acting lieutenant general coordinating thirteen mobile flying columns. During the years of peace that followed he revised British infantry tactics, breaking up rigid lines of advance into smaller flexible groupings; in his writings he stressed the overriding importance of attacking the enemy. In short, Hamilton must have seemed the ideal choice for the new venture.

Hamilton had at his disposal some 70,000 troops—less than half the number Kitchener had thought necessary, but the demands of the Western Front made it impossible to release any more. They also meant that the Gallipoli expedition went short of artillery and ammunition; British divisions should have had 304 guns but Hamilton’s had only 118, and there was an almost total lack of howitzers, trench mortars, grenades, and high-explosive ammunition. Had he landed his force on the peninsula in mid-March, it would have faced perhaps 25,000 Turks. But on March 26, alarmed by the second British attempt to force the narrows, the Turks had given the German general Liman von Sanders overall responsibility for the defense of the peninsula and some 60,000 troops. Liman split his forces into three equal parts. One, at Besika Bay, protected the Asiatic shore; a second guarded the Bulair Lines; and the third was posted on the Gallipoli Peninsula. On the eve of the landing, Hamilton reckoned that he faced 40,000 Turks.

Lacking adequate resources, Hamilton also lacked adequate guidance and even up-to-date information. No general plan of operations was worked out by the general staff in London, on the assumption that Hamilton and his naval opposite number, Vice Admiral Sackville Hamilton Carden, would do that on the spot, thereby leaving much to extemporization between staffs which were uncoordinated. When Hamilton’s chief of staff, General Walter Pipon Braithwaite, asked the War Office for information about his foes and his destination, the Intelligence Department gave him “an out-of-date textbook on the Turkish army and two small guidebooks on western Turkey.” Later Hamilton bewailed both the lack of a plan of operations and the lack of lucidity in Kitchener’s orders; but at the time he accepted the situation uncomplainingly.

The Gallipoli landings took place on April 25, 1915. A successful deception operation in the Gulf of Saros, involving a naval bombardment of the coast and the presence of transports loaded with troops, kept Liman’s attention away from the southern end of the peninsula for twenty-four hours—though the Turks later claimed that only one of the three Allied landings (by the Australians, at what became known as Anzac landing) took them by surprise.

Due to the narrowness of the beaches, a shortage of boats from which to land the troops (primitive landing craft had been constructed but were not available), and the lack of room to maneuver troops from a single point, Hamilton chose to attack the peninsula at three different points near its southwestern tip. The attack was based on two assumptions, both of which turned out to be unwise: that the only really difficult part of the operation would be getting ashore, after which the Turks could easily be pushed off the peninsula; and that the main obstacles to a happy landing would be provided by the enemy.

When the day dawned, and the sun shone straight into the eyes of the attacking troops, dazzling them and thereby giving the Turks a small but important advantage, British inexperience and Turkish resilience confounded both these expectations. Ships lost their way; troops were landed in the wrong place; arrangements for soldiers to land by way of improvised temporary wharves failed; and supporting firepower proved either inadequate or nonexistent. The enemy posed yet more obstacles. The Turks defended and counterattacked with unexpected ferocity. Against the Anzac landing, which they estimated at 12,000, the Turks launched regiments totaling 4,000 men. After twenty-four hours they had suffered 50 percent casualties.

Fierce Turkish resistance stopped the Anzacs’ progress; and it also put up what proved to be an impenetrable barrier in the south, where general Hunter-Weston had put the 29th division ashore at four different landing places. But at the third landing site—“Y” beach—2,000 men embarked without a hitch, meeting no opposition. What happened next was—with hindsight—a pointer to the fate of the whole expedition, for a golden opportunity went begging. Aylmer Hunter-Weston, preoccupied with the stiff fight going on at the toe of the peninsula, ignored “Y” beach. The troops there, lacking any order to press forward at all costs, first dug themselves in and then, next morning, began to drift back down to the beaches. Hamilton saw what was happening, but did not intervene. His passivity—so great a contrast with his reputation for boldness—resulted from his conception of command, which we shall explore later. The consequence was a minor tragedy: Bereft of any clear orders, and discovering that an extemporized embarkation had already begun, the local commander permitted it to gather pace. After twenty-nine hours of unfettered freedom, during which they could have carved a sizable hole in the improvised Turkish line, the British troops pulled out.

When the first day at Gallipoli ended, the Allies had toeholds in three places on the peninsula and faced the task of expelling a ferocious opponent from one of the finest natural fortresses in the world. Hamilton, showing the mixture of overoptimism and misunderstanding characteristic of his entire period of command, cabled the Anzac commander on the evening of April 25, “You have got through the difficult business, now you have only to dig, dig, dig until you are safe.” Short of sufficient strength from the outset, his forces had suffered some 12 percent casualties in the first three days. The deficiency could not immediately be made good because Kitchener had refused to supply the extra troops normally allotted for wastage. Over the next three months the Allied troops struggled to enlarge their foothold against the opposition of Turkish machine guns and the difficulties of the terrain, while their commander telegraphed home for more divisions and more artillery ammunition. Men were easier to find than shells, and with them Hamilton planned to make a major effort at the start of August to surge to the crests of the hills which dominated the Gallipoli peninsula. Once held, they would put the Allies in a commanding position from which to bombard the Turkish positions, support the navy against Turkish batteries strung out along the narrows, and clear the peninsula. All that would remain would be a triumphant advance on Constantinople, already terrorized by the appearance of Allied battleships off the Golden Horn. Excitement at the prospects offered by success, and frustration at the failure of the April landings, added a heavy burden of hopes to the new venture.

A LOST OPPORTUNITY

The battle that took place on the peninsula from August 6–9, 1915, provides one of the most striking examples in modern military history of the failure of an organization to seize and secure a success that, to both contemporaries and subsequent historians, looked to be there for the taking. Confronted by what seems to have been a golden opportunity to achieve a local success of major dimensions, the result of taking the Turks completely by surprise at Suvla Bay, British troops failed to see and to take full advantage of an opportunity presented to them by considerable enemy weakness. Thus the Suvla Bay landing presents exactly those major characteristics we have identified as indicative of true military misfortune: the failure of one party to do what might have been reasonably expected of it, and widespread shock at the outcome once the true scale of the lost opportunity became known. Winston Churchill, deeply involved in the genesis of the campaign and with much to justify—as well as much to conceal—allowed his pen free rein when he came to write his personal account of the war.

The long and varied annals of the British Army contain no more heartbreaking episode than that of the battle of Suvla Bay. The greatness of the prize in view, the narrowness by which it was missed, the extremes of valiant skill and of incompetence, of effort and inertia, which were equally presented, the malevolent fortune which played about the field, are features not easily to be matched in our history.

Though they lacked his magisterial powers of self-expression, others shared Churchill’s view. One officer who was present at the battle held that Suvla Bay “will always remain one of the great failures of the war, and a black page in the history of the British Army.” And Alan Moorehead, a later historian, set out very clearly the two sides of the puzzle to be solved:

Somewhere, one feels, there must be some missing factor which has not been brought to light—some element of luck neglected, some supernatural accident, some evil chain of coincidence that nobody could have anticipated. And yet it was quite unlike the April landing. One does not have the feeling that it was touch and go at Suvla, that some slight shifting of pattern would have put things right again. There is instead a strong sense of inevitability; each event leads on quite inexorably to the next. . . .

To understand what went wrong, and to be able to chart the pathways to misfortune such historians as Moorehead have perceived, we shall first examine what was expected to happen and then test the contemporary explanations for the failure. Only then shall we be in a position to construct our matrix and identify the root causes of the failure to cope with a golden opportunity.

Suvla Bay is a long, curved stretch of sand backed by a flat plain from which rise several low hills. Some four and a half miles north of the main Allied positions, it lies at the end of the chain of mountains that command the center of the Gallipoli Peninsula. It was for the possession of this chain, and particularly of the heights of Sari Bair, that Hamilton was about to launch his main attack from the Anzac landing. Until the beginning of August, Suvla Bay had escaped the fury of battle, neither side perceiving its importance in the struggle to escape from the fringes of the peninsula and gain control of the commanding high ground. The idea of operating in the bay area was first raised at the end of July when General Sir William Riddell Birdwood, commanding the Anzac landing, proposed attacking Sari Bair with two divisions and added that if he had a third he would send it to Suvla Bay. Herein lay the first seed of failure: Always perceived as a secondary operation, Suvla Bay never got the full attention it merited from Hamilton’s headquarters staff.

The difficulties inherent in the kind of operation Lieutenant General Sir Frederick William Stopford was about to undertake were sadly underrated. On the eve of the April 25 landing, Hamilton had been forcibly struck by “the amount of original thinking and improvisation demanded by a landing operation.” Twenty-seven years later, when American marines landed on Guadalcanal on August 7, 1942, they had expected six months’ grace to train for their first Pacific operation but were given only six weeks. However, unlike Stopford’s men, they had the benefit of such prewar innovations as combat loading to ease their task. Stopford’s force lacked any such body of doctrine and technique; it lacked experience; and it lacked time.

To command IX Corps, which was to be entrusted with the landing, Hamilton asked for an experienced general from France. He requested General Sir Julian Byng or General Sir Henry Rawlinson, but was denied either by Kitchener and left with a choice between two senior but retired generals—“dug-outs,” in the parlance of the day. His choice fell on Stopford. The novelist Compton Mackenzie, meeting Stopford shortly before the attack, was forcibly struck by his shortcomings:

He was deprecating, courteous, fatherly, anything except the commander of an Army Corps which had been entrusted with a major operation that might change the whole course of the war in twenty-four hours.

This assessment of Stopford may well have benefited from the wisdom of hindsight; but the new corps commander certainly did not have a high reputation inside the army, where he had made his career chiefly as an administrator, and Hamilton chose him only because he had the necessary seniority over one of the divisional generals he would have to command, Lieutenant General Sir Bryan Mahon. A less passive commander might have pressed harder for an officer he felt suited to the difficult task at hand; but Hamilton can certainly be faulted for failing to take steps to keep a close watchful eye on a general he suspected was not up to the job.

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