The Gallipoli campaign

Turkish soldiers photographed waiting in trenches in Gallipoli

The Gallipoli campaign was a bold Allied offensive against the Ottoman Empire, launched in April 1915. The objective of the campaign was to seize control of the Dardanelles peninsula and the Bosphorus, giving Allied navies and merchant ships passage between the Mediterranean and Black Seas.

The Gallipoli campaign failed due to miscalculations, tactical errors and an underestimation of Ottoman forces. After sustaining heavy losses and a long period of stalemate, Allied forces were withdrawn at the end of 1915.

The Ottoman position

The Ottoman Empire occupied a position of great strategic importance, sandwiched between the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Balkans, the Middle East and northern Africa. Ottoman power was dwindling, however, due to internal problems and rising nationalist movements in their empire.

Prior to the war, Ottoman rulers had sought a military alliance to bolster their regime. Britain was their preferred ally. Constantinople launched three successive attempts to forge an alliance with London (1908, 1911 and 1913) but each was rejected.

For Britain, the strategic advantages of an alliance with the Ottomans were outweighed by having to prop up the crumbling empire. Britain had also signed an alliance with Russia, a traditional rival of the Ottomans.

The German alliance

Germany was more interested in an Ottoman alliance, particularly as the clouds of war gathered.

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 with the Ottoman sultanate would help 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. 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.

Allied strategy

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

The push for an assault on the Ottoman Empire emerged in late 1914. With the Western Front quickly slipping into stalemate, some Allied commanders argued for the creation of a ‘second front’ against the weaker Ottomans and Austro-Hungarians.

In Britain, a major 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 considered Ottoman land forces to be ill-equipped, disorganised and poorly officered, 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. Their ships sustained heavy damage from mines and land-based artillery.

The decision was made for an amphibious landing sometime in April or May. This assault would 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 the Ottoman capital, Constantinople.

The campaign takes shape

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) and 80,000 French troops from Africa.

Fully aware of Allied intentions, the Ottomans began preparations to repel an invasion. They were assisted by General Otto Liman von Sanders, a German military envoy, who gave them advice on likely Allied strategy and how to prepare defences.

While Ottoman troops trained and drilled, defensive positions were built along critical points of the Dardanelles peninsula. This area was known to the locals as Gelibolu, or Gallipoli. The coastline was mined, beaches were fenced with barbed wire, machine-gun nests were installed on elevated positions.

While the Allies were confident of victory, the six-week interregnum between their February naval assault and the April landing would prove fatal. Ottoman forces, though still thinly spread and poorly equipped, were well prepared.

Allied plans go awry

The Allied plan aimed to bombard Ottoman defences with naval artillery then disorient their forces with co-ordinated landings at several points on the peninsula.

When the invasion began on April 25th, however, the plan quickly went awry. At two 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’ but found it strewn with barbed wire and mines. Ottoman machine-gun nests in elevated positions opened fire on them once 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 on the beach, pondering what to do.

The April 25th landings

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 coastline – 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. Instead of ‘Z Beach’, much of the Australian and New Zealand contingent came ashore at a small inlet, later dubbed ANZAC Cove.

As the Allies came ashore, Mustafa Kemal, one of the Ottoman Empire’s most talented officers, moved in 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, most operating from elevated positions.

Allied attempts to break out of the area and move inland were repelled. Within a week, the situation at ANZAC Cove had reached a stalemate.

The Dardanelles stalemate

Though unable to advance, the Allies maintained their positions on the beaches of the Dardanelles peninsula 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. No further offensives were contemplated.

Elsewhere, British and French forces were no more successful in gaining ground or moving up the peninsula.

The retreat

By early December, London had decided to abandon the Gallipoli campaign. ANZAC Cove was evacuated by sea in December 1915, an operation many considered the most successful element of the 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. It 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 today known as ANZAC Day, a day of war remembrance in Australia and New Zealand.

A historian’s view:
“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

gallipoli campaign

1. The Gallipoli campaign was an Allied attempt to capture the Dardanelles peninsula, in order to gain access to the Black Sea and knock the Ottoman Empire out of the war.

2. The campaign was devised after the Ottomans entered the war as a German ally. It was championed by British commanders such as Winston Churchill, who perceived the Ottomans as militarily weak.

3. The Gallipoli landings went awry early due to errors in planning, intelligence and Allied ships landing at the wrong sites. Ottoman troops were also aware of the offensive and thus able to prepare.

4. The Allies met stiff resistance from Turkish soldiers and incurred heavy casualties. They were bogged down in the Dardanelles for eight months.

5. In December 1915, Allied commanders decided to withdraw from Gallipoli, an operation carried out successfully. The campaign failed to achieve its objective but cost in excess of 44,000 lives.

Title: “The Gallipoli campaign”
Authors: Jennifer Llewellyn, Steve Thompson
Publisher: Alpha History
Date published: August 28, 2017
Date accessed: October 31, 2020
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