Of all the military campaigns undertaken away from the Western Front during the First World War, the Gallipoli operations are the most famous and well-remembered. They parallel the battles of Verdun, the Somme, and Ypres (Passchendaele) in their collective imprint in modern historical memory. For the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) troops involved, the campaign has become a ‘foundational myth’ of modern nation-building. It has come to symbolise the rise of a national consciousness in both countries, and the bravery of those who took part continues to reverberate a century on, although a burgeoning wave of ‘revisionist’ histories have questioned both the utility of the campaign and the role it played in nation-building processes, provoking furious debate in Australia in particular.
For the Ottomans, the operations at the Dardanelles hold equal historical importance, as the Ottoman military fought with bravery and inflicted a resounding reverse on the allied armies. No less significantly, Mustapha Kemal emerged from relative obscurity to begin his transition into ‘Ataturk,’ the Father of the (Turkish) Nation. The Turkish war memorial at Cape Helles with Ataturk’s inscription paying tribute to the fallen of all nations remains one of the most moving memorials to the Great War. For the British, who made up the majority of the invading forces, there is no heroic mythologizing to hide what was a protracted operational fiasco; had Winston Churchill not achieved his status of greatness between 1940 and 1945, he likely would be remembered today as the instigator and architect of military failure.
Gallipoli represented the intersection of Russian expansionist objectives in the Middle East with British attempts to construct a wartime alliance of convenience against the Ottoman Empire. During the Crimean War six decades earlier, the fundamentally different Russian and British visions for the future of the Ottoman Empire and the city of Constantinople (now Istanbul) were a casus belli. Russia’s long-held desire to control Constantinople resonated with its pan-Slavic ambitions and reflected the importance of the city for the Russian Orthodox Church. Less culturally evocative, but more strategically important, the narrow Strait of the Dardanelles was also a chokepoint through which all seaborne trade entering and leaving Russia’s only warm-water ports on the Black Sea had to pass.
For their part, British policy-making towards the Ottoman Empire was guided by respect for its territorial integrity intermixed with awareness of its growing weaknesses. The possibility of Ottoman fragmentation took on important strategic considerations in light of its provinces along the vital sea route to India in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Arabian Peninsula. The British thus viewed any potential breakup of the Empire with deep misgivings lest it empower rivals with eastward designs, such as Russia or Germany. The signing of the 1907 Anglo-Russian Convention had blunted the rivalry between London and Moscow in Central Asia, but vestiges of it remained.
The declaration of war with the Ottoman Empire in November 1914 coincided with rising voices of concern within the British government at the onset of trench warfare and the emerging stalemate on the Western Front, amid signs that the war would be lengthy, and certainly not ‘over by Christmas.’ After the ‘race to the Channel’ culminated with the (First) Battle of Ypres in early-November 1914, the solidifying front-lines separating the British and German forces in northern France and Flanders set in motion the search for potential alternative approaches. Churchill, the combative First Lord of the Admiralty, was anxious to deploy and maximise the sea-power of the world’s greatest maritime power, and emerged as the leading advocate of the decisive use of British power on a peripheral front, rather than sending additional troops to the Western Front.
Momentum for a diversionary strategy gathered pace over the winter of 1914-15. The idea for a naval assault on the Dardanelles was first put forward to the British War Council by Churchill on 13 January 1915. It originated in a request from the Russian Commander-in-Chief for a British diversionary attack to relieve the pressure of the Ottoman advance against Russian forces in Anatolia. The idea won the support of influential members of the British government, including Lord Kitchener at the War Office and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George, although not, notably, the veteran First Sea Lord, Admiral John Fisher, who thought the strategy had little chance of succeeding. The result was an extremely vague operational objective, as the War Council mandated the Royal Navy to ‘prepare for a naval expedition in February, to bombard and take the Gallipoli Peninsula, with Constantinople as its objective.’
Indeed, as the plan become operational, it suffered from a mismatch between aims and objectives. A number of key questions remained unresolved right up to the commencement of operations on 19 February 1915. Could a naval operation by itself force its way through the network of onshore fortifications and defences that protected the Straits? How could ships ‘take’ a heavily-fortified land-based target? Kitchener felt that the Ottoman garrison on the Gallipoli peninsula would flee or surrender without requiring the landing of British forces, but was this likely? If the force succeeded in pushing through the Straits, would its presence at Constantinople precipitate an Ottoman withdrawal from the war given the substantial military direction and assistance rendered by its German military missions? And if it did not, could military planners in London find sufficient troops and draw up an operational plan quickly enough to regain the initiative without losing the element of surprise in the campaign?
The initial decision to utilize naval force (through a combination of minesweepers, submarines and battleships) alone began to unravel almost immediately. Early in February 1915, the British commanders decided that an infantry division would after all be needed, in addition to the small contingents of Royal Marines. One final regular division remained available, the 29th Division. This had been created at the start of the year by amalgamating disparate units of infantry that had been scattered across various garrison posts throughout the British Empire. Accordingly, it was dispatched to Egypt, where it joined the infantry forces that had been arriving from Australia and New Zealand for onward transit to the war zones in Europe and, now, the Dardanelles. Thus, the ANZAC soldiers undergoing training in Egypt were grouped into the Australian 1st Division and the composite New Zealand and Australian Division. Together, they made up the now-legendary ANZAC Corps. It was joined by the Royal Naval Division, a ‘strange combination of barely trained troops with next to no artillery provision’ which included the acclaimed English poet, Sub-Lieutenant Rupert Brooke.
Hostilities commenced on 19 February 1915, when two British destroyers and two British battleships bombarded the Ottoman forts on the Gallipoli peninsula. However, this and further engagements later in February and in March made little progress in clearing the Ottoman minefields that had been meticulously laid across the Straits, preventing the larger and more powerful battleships from closing in on the fortifications. Thus the successive bombardments did little to silence the enemy artillery pieces, and the difficulty of forcing a passage by naval means alone became increasingly evident. On 18 March, the Anglo-French naval force assembled in three lines of attack. Six British battleships would attack first and would be followed by four French ships, with a flotilla of six more British ships acting as a relief force to replace damaged vessels. That sunny morning saw the failure of Churchill’s grandiose and over-ambitious scheme as three battleships were sunk and three more critically damaged.
Plans were accordingly hurriedly drawn up for a landing on the Gallipoli peninsula itself. However, they had to await the arrival of troop reinforcements from Britain. This gave the Ottomans much-needed time to regroup at the potential landing-sites, as they too had taken substantial losses in the March fighting. On 25 April 1915, Australian and New Zealand forces landed at Anzac Cove while British and French troops assaulted Cape Helles. Lacking the element of surprise, they met intense resistance from the Ottoman defenders on the high ground surrounding all the beachheads. At the site of the main landing at V Beach at Cape Helles, the British and Irish suffered appalling casualties as they were picked off by Ottoman machine-guns and barbed wire. Up the coast at Anzac Cove, the bulk of the Australian and New Zealand force managed to establish a foothold on the peninsula and advance inland. For a time, the ANZAC force appeared to be on the verge of taking the critically important high ground that offered a vantage point over the entire peninsula.
Kemal responded by personally leading the Ottoman counter-attack and famously leading the 57th Infantry Regiment into battle with the cry “I do not expect you to attack, I order you to die!” This act of heroism seized the momentum from the attacking forces just as it appeared to hang in the balance. In addition, it laid the foundations for the mythologizing of Ataturk as the great national figure he later became. By the end of the first day of the land attack, the Ottomans had managed to contain the British and ANZAC landings to the beachheads, and deploy the reserves to reinforce their defensive lines. Ottoman commanders also benefited from the arrival of reinforcements which proved instrumental in halting the waves of British and ANZAC attacks, ending any lingering hopes of a breakthrough, and bringing to a close the opening phase of the Gallipoli campaign.
Kristian Coates Ulrichsen is a research fellow at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University and an associate fellow on the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House. He is the author of The First World War in the Middle East.