The Gallipoli campaign

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Turkish soldiers photographed waiting in trenches in Gallipoli

The Gallipoli campaign was a bold, though ultimately flawed offensive against the Ottoman Empire. The alliance system divided Europe into combatants and neutrals – but at the outbreak of war, the Ottomans remained as a wildcard, uncommitted to either bloc. The empire occupied a position of great strategic importance, sandwiched between the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Balkans, the Middle East and northern Africa. The Ottoman rulers had actively sought a military alliance to bolster their power, their preferred ally being Britain. Constantinople launched three successive attempts to forge an alliance with London (1908, 1911 and 1913) but each failed. For Britain, the strategic advantages of an Ottoman alliance were far outweighed by the risk of having to prop up the crumbling empire. An alliance with Constantinople would also complicate the newly formed alliance between Britain and Russia, the traditional foe of the Ottomans.

Germany was more interested in an Ottoman alliance, particularly as war approached. Since 1904, Berlin had been constructing a railway across Ottoman territory to Baghdad. Once completed, this railway would provide easy access to and from ports and oil fields in Mesopotamia (Iraq). An alliance would secure this Berlin-to-Baghdad railway, it would give Germany a measure of control over the Bosphorus, a neck of water connecting the Mediterranean with the Black Sea. It would also provide land access to northern Africa and the Middle East. German-Ottoman negotiations intensified during the July crisis, and a secret alliance was finally signed on August 2nd 1914, just five days after the first declaration of war. The Ottomans did not formally enter World War I until late October when their fleet entered the Black Sea and shelled Russian ports there.

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Winston Churchill, who was one of the driving forces behind an assault on the Ottomans

The impetus for an assault on the Ottoman Empire came in late 1914. With the Western Front slipping into stalemate, some Allied commanders argued for opening up a ‘second front’ against the weaker Ottomans and Austro-Hungarians. In Britain, the chief advocate for this strategy was Winston Churchill, a young aristocrat who had been appointed First Lord of the Admiralty before his 37th birthday. Churchill held a low opinion of Ottoman military capacity: he believed its land forces were poorly equipped, organised and commanded, while the Ottoman navy relied mainly on decrepit 19th-century ships. In February 1915, a joint Anglo-French naval force attempted to blast open the Dardanelles but sustained heavy damage from mines and land-based artillery. The decision was made for an amphibious landing, sometime in April or May, to seize control of the Dardanelles coastline and clear it of artillery. This would give Allied ships a clear run to the Sea of Marmara and the Bosphorus, where they could attack Constantinople.

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A map of the Dardanelles, with Allied landing positions highlighted by circles

An Allied invasion force was hastily organised. Since generals were reluctant to release men from the Western Front, the landing force was comprised mainly of British units stationed in the Middle East, British Empire forces (Australians, New Zealanders, Indians and Canadians) along with 80,000 French troops from Africa. The Ottomans, meanwhile, began preparations for the imminent invasion, assisted by German adjutant Otto Liman von Sanders. While Ottoman troops trained and drilled, defensive positions were built along critical points of the Dardanelles peninsula, known to the locals as Gelibolu (Gallipoli). The coastline was mined; likely beaches were fenced with barbed wire; machine-gun nests were installed on elevated positions. Though the Allies were confident of victory, the six-week pause between naval assault and landing would prove fatal. Ottoman forces – though thinly spread and poorly equipped – were well prepared.

“From the British perspective, few military operations can have begun with such a cavalier disregard for the elementary principles of war. Gallipoli was a campaign driven by wish-fulfilment rather than a professional assessment of the strategy and tactics required. Right from the beginning it was a distraction from should have been the main business of the war: concentrating scarce military resources on defeating the Germans on the Western Front.”
Peter Hart, historian

The Allied invasion plan aimed to bombard Ottoman defences with naval artillery, then stretch and disorient their forces with several co-ordinated landings. But when the invasion began on April 25th, the plan soon went awry. At two of the pre-determined landing points, the Allies encountered much stronger opposition than anticipated. At ‘V Beach’, British troops approaching the beach in boats were strafed with machine-gun fire. On the other side of the peninsula, Allied soldiers reached ‘W Beach’ only to find it strewn with barbed wire and mines. Ottoman machine-gun nests in elevated positions opened fire once they were ashore. The death toll at these two beaches exceeded 50 per cent. Meanwhile, landing forces elsewhere on the peninsula strolled ashore with barely a casualty. The Allied soldiers at ‘S Beach’ found it defended by only 15 Ottoman soldiers. At ‘Y Beach’, the coastline was deserted and British soldiers stood around on the beach, pondering what to do.

The most famous blunder of the Gallipoli campaign occurred further north at ‘Z Beach’, north of Gaba Tepe. The objective here was a broad four-mile stretch of flat beach – but when the mission began before dawn on April 25th, the boats became disoriented in the pitch-black night and landed a mile north of their target. Much of the Australian and New Zealand contingent came ashore at a small inlet, later dubbed ANZAC Cove. As the Allies came ashore in numbers, Mustafa Kemal – one of the Ottoman Empire’s most talented officers – moved to the area and set up defensive positions around the inlet. Surrounded by high hilltops and thick scrub, ANZAC Cove was easily defended by Ottoman snipers and machine-gunners, operating from elevated positions. Allied attempts to break out of the area were repelled and within a week, the situation at ANZAC Cove had reached a stalemate.

Though unable to advance, the Allies maintained their position on the beach for almost eight months. Further breakout attempts were launched in August at Lone Pine, Chunuk Bair and The Nek – but all failed with high casualties and no further offensives were contemplated. Elsewhere, British and French forces were no more successful in advancing up the peninsula. By early December, London had decided to abandon the Gallipoli campaign. ANZAC Cove was evacuated by sea in December 1915, an operation many historians consider to be the most successful element of the entire campaign. The rest of the peninsula was evacuated by mid-January 1916. The attempt to capture the Dardanelles was an unmitigated military disaster, riddled with false assumptions and poor planning that cost in excess of 44,000 Allied lives. In contrast, the defence of Gallipoli was the Ottoman Empire’s most successful military operation of the war. The date of the landings, April 25th, is marked by ANZAC Day, a day of remembrance in Australia and New Zealand.

gallipoli campaign

1. The Gallipoli campaign was an Allied attempt to capture the Dardanelles peninsula, part of the Ottoman Empire.

2. It was devised after the Ottomans entered the war as a German ally, threatening shipping access to the Black Sea.

3. It was championed by British commanders such as Winston Churchill, who perceived the Ottomans as militarily weak.

4. The campaign went awry early due to errors in planning, intelligence and Allied ships landing at the wrong sites.

5. The Allies met stiff resistance from Turkish soldiers and incurred heavy casualties. They were bogged down in the Dardanelles for eight months before retreating at the end of 1915.


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This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, Jim Southey and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “The Gallipoli campaign” at Alpha History, https://alphahistory.com/worldwar1/gallipoli-campaign/, 2014, accessed [date of last access].

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