The British at Gallipoli, August 1915 Part III

Shortage of Artillery

In March and May 1915, British attempts to break the German lines on the western front at Neuve Chapelle and Aubers Ridge failed. The official explanation for both of these failures was that the necessary quantities of heavy guns and high-explosive ammunition with which to pound the German trenches to pieces had been lacking. This experience produced an “artillery fixation” in the minds of British generals, who became convinced that success or failure—at Gallipoli and elsewhere—hinged on the possession and use of large amounts of artillery. In fact, conditions at Gallipoli did not demand a “Western Front” style of operations: This was a different theater, with different problems. But a preoccupation with the need for lots of guns and heavy preliminary bombardments to soften up enemy trenches blinkered local commanders so that they were unable to perceive and then follow up an opportunity when it occurred. In its analysis of the causes for the failure at Gallipoli, the Dardanelles Commission concluded that the absence of artillery “must have materially contributed to the failure at Suvla.” This conclusion reflected the opinions of many of their witnesses—and, no doubt, their own prejudices. Brigadier General R. P. Maxwell, commanding a brigade in Hammersley’s division, told the commission, “Even at the end I think if we had had enough howitzers we should have forced the Turks out.” In fact the shortage of artillery was probably not a critical factor on August 7 and 8; Stopford had more guns than the Turks who opposed him, but in any case the broken ground, thick cover, and scattered position of the enemy (whose lone snipers did much damage) suggest conditions artillery could have done little to ameliorate. However, the critical fact is that Stopford’s self-confidence—such as it was—was sapped by the belief that the means allotted to him were inadequate to the job.

From the moment of his arrival off the peninsula Stopford was afflicted by a tendency to compare conditions at Gallipoli with those on the Western Front, where it was believed that with heavier artillery bombardments the German line could be broken. Visiting Birdwood at the Anzac landing, Stopford was inclined to consider that a preliminary bombardment was necessary before any attack and disregarded his host’s suggestion that he trust to surprise. His orders of July 22 reflected a concern over the likely role of enemy artillery, which he believed was emplaced on the hills overlooking Suvla Bay; and his preternatural caution was fully evident in a letter he wrote to Hamilton on July 26, which led to a revision in his orders three days later. “The whole teaching of the campaign in France,” he wrote, “proves that troops cannot be expected to attack an organized system of trenches without the assistance of a large number of howitzers.”

Stopord’s conviction that the success of his attack required a massive artillery barrage was given more support by his chief of staff, Brigadier General H. L. Reed, V. C. Reed had been attached to the Turkish army in the Turco-Bulgarian war and had formed a very favorable view of the resistance that Turkish troops could put up on the defensive; and he came to Gallipoli from France, where he had been imbued with the artillery ethos being built up there. Aspinall later described Reed as

obsessed with the difficulty of fighting without lots of howitzers . . . he gave me the impression that he did not think the plan could succeed. He never said so, but he had the whole air of a man who does not think he is going to perform his task.

With such half-heartedness at the top, it is scarcely surprising that negative forces triumphed over positive ones during those hot August days at Suvla Bay.

Once again, however, as in the case of the water shortage, a minor problem—though one that exercised a strong psychological effect—conceals a different but related problem that posed a major threat to the chances of success. The real difficulty was summed up by a New Zealand soldier some three weeks before the attack on Suvla Bay; lamenting a failed attack, he added, “With a stock of mills bombs and trench mortars we could have gone to Constantinople.” What was desperately needed in the hand-to-hand combat amid the scrub, thorns, gullies, and ravines, were infantry weapons that could suppress local opposition quickly and accurately without needing a sighting. For this task rifles were all but useless and grenades essential, yet the troops were always short of them. At the end of May there were only twelve grenades per company, and in June only four trench mortars in the whole of the Anzac position. The mortar problem was never solved, and not until August 29 were there enough grenades to supply attacking troops with two per man. A week before this, one regiment had been ordered to attack “with bomb and bayonet” even though its commanders knew it possessed no bombs at all.

To enable the troops to do their job, the high command needed to equip them with the necessary means. The full value of bombs and mortars was not yet recognized by the generals—though it was by the troops themselves—but instead Hamilton took comfort from the fact that Stopford would have naval artillery to support his attack. In common with Vice Admiral John de Robeck, Stopford seems to have felt that naval guns were completely ineffective against deep trenches. The weapon he favored to crack this nonexistent nut—for there were no such lines of trenches facing his troops at Suvla Bay—was not available. Even more corps artillery might not have turned failure into success. A year later the real requisite was more readily apparent. “Had we had half the mortars (I mean trench mortars) we have here,” wrote Major General Sir A. H. Russell from France, “I am sure we could have won our way across the Peninsula without difficulty and the whole history of the war been altered.” Yet even without the missing weaponry Stopford and his men might have done better. The gap between success and failure was not one that only a particular item of equipment could have bridged.

Natural Obstacles

It is difficult now to grasp the extent to which contemporaries were ignorant of the physical problems the Gallipoli expedition would have to overcome. Maps of the peninsula were few and poor, were only gradually improved as better ones were obtained from Turkish prisoners, and marked only the main spurs across which the troops would have to fight. New Zealand troops expected to find “good grazing” land confronting them; but when the Australian war correspondent C. E. W. Bean saw the peninsula at firsthand on the morning of April 25, he realized at once how misleading the maps had been.

The place is like a sand-pit on a huge scale—raw sandslopes and precipices alternating with steep slopes covered with low scrub—the scrub where it exists is pretty dense.66

Facing what seemed to be an endless series of ravines and knife-edged ridges that often bisected each other like a maze and were clothed with scrub so thick that a man standing 5 yards away was invisible, the Anzacs’ attack halted at the end of the first day in “country which would have been well-nigh impassable even in peace manoeuvres.”

The hills surrounding Suvla Bay—up which Hamilton proposed to launch a night attack on August 8–9—were equally forbidding:

. . . rough stony ground, cut up into a tangled succession of steep ravines. Everywhere there was a strong growth of dwarf ilex of ancient growth, with limbs frequently as thick as a man’s arm, and with foliage through which it was impossible to force one’s way. Here and there were narrow winding openings forming natural paths, only broad enough to allow one man to pass at a time.

In country such as this a few determined snipers could put up serious resistance against attacking troops who could all too easily lose their way and wander out of reach of support: On August 12 the commanding officer of a battalion of the Norfolk Regiment together with sixteen officers and 230 men disappeared into this bush in an attack, and none of them were ever seen again.

Hamilton argued afterward that steep, broken ground such as that facing the troops at Suvla Bay was no easier to defend and no more difficult to attack than flat ground in France.69 He certainly did little to help his troops overcome these obstacles. Reconnaissance was ruled out because he wished to keep the Turks in the dark;70 and an excessive concern for secrecy meant that maps of Suvla Bay were only handed out after midday on August 6. As a result, on the night of the landing “many officers of the 11th Division had never seen a map of the area in which they suddenly found themselves.” This failure to provide the best possible information and intelligence was the more inexcusable because Hamilton knew well by then that maps were misleading, that mere visual reconnaissance from the bridge of a passing warship was inadequate, and that actual physical features often turned out to be quite different from the results of either.

Like Stopford and Reed, Hamilton saw the problems presented by the physical features of the Gallipoli Peninsula in terms of trench warfare. Despite the superficial similarities between the two theaters, attacking on the Gallipoli Peninsula was often more akin to hill warfare, and it is noticeable that the units that did best were those, such as the Gurkhas, who had combat experience in similar conditions and knew, for example, that attacking troops should avoid the apparent safety of the ravines and instead pick their way up the spurs, retaining control of the high ground. To do this successfully, the troops needed the most accurate knowledge they could get about the kind of ground over which they had to fight. This was denied them by their commanders, who thereby made a further contribution to the likelihood of disaster.

TRAINING AND INITIATIVE

Shortly after he had been sent out to Gallipoli by the prime minister and had witnessed the Suvla Bay attack, Lieutenant Colonel Maurice Hankey telegraphed a brief and pithy explanation of the failure to Asquith: “Troops lately sent from England unfortunately failed completely, owing partly to water difficulty, but mainly to bad staff work and want of dash and drive.” The latter feeling—that they had been let down by the quality—or lack of it—of the troops allotted to them was shared by a number of senior commanders. Stopford was very disillusioned with the territorial divisions he had been given; “they not only showed no dash in attack but went back at slight provocation, and went back a long way.” Hamilton shared the view that the troops, rather than their commanders, were at fault:

It was general want of experience and the youth of the men. The New Army were fine men but there was a want of savvy about the whole proceedings. They were all raw; there was no one to show them the way.

In his opinion, an Indian division or one with experience in France would have “walked on to the hills at once.”

Hamilton had been persuaded to use troops fresh from England for the attack—not the seasoned Twenty-ninth Division, which had taken part in the original landings on April 25—on the grounds that little opposition was likely, and that even if stiff resistance was encountered, a new division was likely to give as good an account of itself as one weakened by the effects of three months’ continuous fighting. This reasoning was mistaken; and the error was compounded by inadequate training and preparation, the ineptness of the timetabling for the landing, and the failure to pay sufficient attention to the need for good leadership by junior officers.

With no previous experience of amphibious landings against opposition, troop training in Britain in 1915 had no fund of experience on which to build. Divisions were trained with a view to fighting in France; in Hamilton’s opinion this predisposed them to dig in at the first opportunity.77 In any case peacetime training lessened the very sense of individual initiative that conditions on the Gallipoli Peninsula put at such a high premium. This imposed an extra burden on commanders, which, as we shall see, was not recognized and catered to. Training in Egypt would probably have done little to improve matters, being “frankly admitted to be Boer War stuff.” In any case, in the novel conditions of warfare on the peninsula, lack of training was compounded by lack of a prior taste of battle. “It was experience, not training, which we lacked,” remarked one of the Eleventh Division’s colonels. In France, newly arrived divisions were introduced to the rigors of the front gradually and were given time to accustom themselves to their task before being called upon to undertake a major offensive. At Suvla Bay, Hamilton committed raw troops to a task that required especially effective leadership if underlying deficiencies were not to prove insuperable. Such leadership was not forthcoming.

The likelihood that Stopford’s force would be able to cope successfully with the task confronting them was further diminished by the mismanagement that preceded the attack. Some troops had been kept on board ship since July 11 and had been given little opportunity to exercise and regain their full level of fitness. Other units were not rested before the attack; instead, normal duties were carried out until nearly midday on August 6, when the men were informed that they were about to take part in a major operation. Marched to the boats during a hot afternoon, they were unable to gather their strength for the task ahead; when the first troops reached the beach some had already been on their feet for seventeen hours. By the second day of the battle, besides being short of water and food, many of the men had had no sleep for fifty-two hours.80 In these circumstances even seasoned regulars might have found it difficult to summon up the reserves of energy and determination necessary to push forward. Stopford’s men found it impossible.

The problem of lack of training and experience was exacerbated by the fact that the new divisions lacked effective leadership at the lower levels of the chain of command as well as higher up. On the first day Turkish snipers took a heavy toll of officers. Losses among senior officers and company commanders were particularly heavy, and as a consequence, command fell on the shoulders of very young junior officers who often had less than a year’s military experience. As a result of the excessive secrecy of the high command, many junior officers found themselves leading attacks without knowing what their objectives were and unable to take the kind of elementary precautions that seasoned fighters would have. Some unwisely disdained to take cover under fire, adding to the scale of losses.

Lack of experience, coupled with the lack of energy and drive that command should have supplied, magnified the troops’ natural tendencies to sit down and wait for orders rather than using what initiative they had. Hore-Ruthven noticed this phenomenon: “An Australian, even if he did not get the order, if he thought it good business to go on, would go on.” Many contemporaries noted the combination of willingness and passivity that seemed to characterize the troops of the New Armies raised by Kitchener in 1914, and that contrasted so markedly with the Anzacs’ enterprise and boldness. The Australian official historian believed that his countryman was “half a soldier before the war.” Driving bullocks, gathering sheep for shearing, and particularly fighting bush fires had prepared him for combat; “fighting bush fires, more than any other human experience, resembles the fighting of a pitched battle.” By no means all the Anzacs were products of the Outback; but the social attitudes of the Australian soldier made him much better at overcoming the hostility of the battlefield than his inexperienced and undertrained British companion-in-arms.

EXPLANATIONS

Having examined the actual course of events and the reasons most frequently given for the failure at Suvla Bay, we are now in a position to return to our matrix and explore the “pathways” to this particular misfortune. The first thing to note is that errors made by the highest authorities, although important in general terms, had no direct role to play in contributing to disaster. Kitchener allowed Hamilton only half the number of men generally reckoned to be necessary to carry out the operation and denied him the customary 10 percent extra for wastage on the grounds that doing so would lock up troops needed in France. In practice this was irrelevant, because at Suvla Bay for some 48 hours Stopford enjoyed a ten-to-one advantage over his local opponent—ample time to have brought off what might have been one of the major victories of the war. Kitchener’s refusal to allow Hamilton the corps commanders he wanted probably did have a significant, but indirect, effect on the battle. However, once Hamilton knew they were not going to be released to him, it was his responsibility to take steps to compensate for this deficiency. He failed dismally to rise to this task.

As the matrix makes clear, critical failures by the expedition’s commander in chief contributed directly to the subsequent failure of the troops in combat. Hamilton’s failure to perceive the possibilities inherent in the operation, and his failure to insist that primacy of place in the action be given to the attack on the hills rather than the occupation of the bay area, magnified the unaggressive tendencies of his local subordinate, which in turn percolated down through the chain of command on the ground. The explanation for this lies in Hamilton’s hands-off concept of military command. The view that the commander’s role was to set the general objectives and then leave his subordinates and their staffs to work out all the details was well established in the upper echelons of the British army, and Douglas Haig adopted it throughout his period as commander in chief in France.84 Hamilton did show some inclination to intervene on the spot when he realized that things were not progressing as fast as he wished them to: At “Y” beach on the second day of the Gallipoli landing he felt “inclined” to take a hand when he saw troops drifting off the crest of a hill but was talked out of doing so by his chief of staff, Lieutenant General Sir Walter Braithwaite. Thereafter, following both his natural inclinations and the decided views of his staff, he lapsed back into quiescence. At the time of the Suvla Bay landing, his headquarters was located on the island of Imbros, some distance from the mainland. In a very revealing comment to the commissioners who conducted the inquiry into the Dardenelles venture, Hamilton justified the distance he had put between himself and his subordinate by explaining that “General Stopford was within an hour’s run of me and knew perfectly well that I should be delighted to see him at any time.”

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