World at War - M. B. Synge




Gallipoli

"Through the Narrows of the Dardanelles and across the ridge of the Gallipoli Peninsula lie some of the shortest paths to a triumphant peace."
—WINSTON CHURCHILL (5TH JUNE 1915).

It was but three days before the battle of Coronel, while yet the fierce struggle for Ypres was nearing its crisis, and Russian victories were encouraging the English and French Allies, that news rang across Europe that Turkey had entered the War on the side of Germany.

The news was not unexpected. For many years past Germany had befriended the Turks; the Kaiser had visited the Sultan more than once in full state, and German officers had modeled the Turkish army on their own efficient lines.

For was not Constantinople her capital—at once the great military prize for which both Russia and Germany yearned? This entry of Turkey into the War convinced the British War Council that a blow must be struck somewhere in the Far East. The New Year 1915 dawned, and Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, dreamed his dream of forcing the narrow Channel of the Dardanelles with British battle-ships, conquering the little Peninsula of Gallipoli, that "tongue of hilly land" some fifty-three miles long that lay over against the coast of Asia Minor. Then what could stay the ships from entering the Black Sea and realising his vision—"the downfall of a hostile empire, the destruction of an enemy fleet and army, and the fall of a world-famous capital."

"The struggle will be heavy," prophesied the dreamer, "the risks numerous, the losses cruel; but victory, when it comes, will make amends for all."

Victory never came in this sense. But the Dardanelles campaign will ever stand, "not as a tragedy nor as a mistake, but as a great human effort, which came, more than once, very near to triumph, achieved the impossible many times, and failed in the end as many great deeds of arms have failed." "This failure," adds an historian of the Gallipoli campaign, "is the second grand event of the war; the first was Belgium's answer to the German ultimatum."

Early in the New Year, British and French battleships were hurried to the great harbour of Mudros, in the island of Lemnos, some sixty miles from the Gallipoli Peninsula. By the middle of February quite a large fleet had been collected in this safe anchorage, and early one February morning eight ships opened fire on the forts at Cape Hellas, the nearest point of the Peninsular, while airships hovered overhead to report results. A few days later, led by the great new super-Dreadnought, the Queen Elizabeth, the bombardment was resumed. A terrific fire was poured on to the forts, but they were strongly defended by the Turks under German instruction, and the big naval guns could not silence them. Meanwhile the narrow channel between the land of Asia and the Peninsular had been mined by the enemy. On 18th March, the Allied ships made a fierce and determined attack on the shore defences. Right through the day the great guns boomed over land and sea from the Queen Elizabeth, the Lord Nelson and Agamemnon, the Inflexible, Prince George, and the Triumph, while four French battleships engaged the forts at close range, followed by more British warships. But suddenly, hidden by a cloud of smoke, one of the French ships struck a mine, and sank in three minutes with nearly all her crew. Soon after, two of the British battleships went down, and other ships were damaged. At twilight the great fleet steamed slowly out of the straits, followed by parting shots from the forts they had striven to destroy. Three first-class battleships and over 2000 men had been sacrificed in vain, and the hardest part of their task had not begun. There was consternation when the news reached England. It was then decided to send a land army to co-operate with the Fleet.

"But remember," said Lord Kitchener—"remember, once you set foot on the Gallipoli Peninsula, you must fight the thing through to a finish." It was five weeks before the troops arrived, by which time the Turks had constructed new defences with the help of German engineers, had concealed their heavy guns, put wire entanglement across miles of country, and converted the Achi Baba heights into an impregnable fortress commanding the land around. "Constantinople you may take, but Achi Baba—never," boasted the Turks with truth.

By the end of April, a strange medley of ships—from the obsolete battleship to the newest submarine—had collected in the harbour of Mudros, and the great black transports were beginning to move slowly out towards the Peninsula amid tumultuous cheering bearing their "freight of human courage." For the men knew what awaited them. They had to fight on a waterless land, 500 miles from a store; they had to take with them everything—guns, food, clothing, water, horses, and hospitals.

"No army in history has made a more heroic attack; no army in history has been set such a task; no other body of men in any modern war has been called upon to land over mined and wired waters under the cross-fire of machine-guns!"

Ship after ship crammed with soldiers moved slowly out of the harbour, and felt again the heave of the sea. No such gathering of fine ships has ever been seen upon this earth. As they drew near the battleships, the men swung their caps, and cheered and cheered again, till the harbour rang with cheers. "It broke the hearts of all there, with pity and pride; it went beyond the guard of the English heart."

Dawn was early on Sunday morning, 25th April, as slowly and quietly in a calm sea the boats crept toward the land, and the men scrambled ashore.

The Battle of the Beaches almost defies description. On several beaches around Cape Hellas, notably V, W, and Y beaches, landings had been planned, but before the British landed, a, murderous fire blazed forth from hidden Turks on shore. Greeted by ten thousand shots a minute, men were shot dead before they set foot on land, many jumped overboard and swam ashore, others were swept away by the fierce current.

And right through that still spring day the great guns boomed from forts on land and battle-ships on sea.

The Australian and New Zealand Army Corps—Anzac will ever be their immortal name—landed farther to the north. In the darkness of the early morning they missed the appointed spot, and desperate was the fighting over rough ground and steep scrub-covered cliffs—men fell into unsuspected gulleys, but ever they pressed on under terrific fire over the broken hills. "Australia will be there," they shouted. Then "they dropped and fired and died," as company followed company to almost certain death.

By Tuesday, the 27th, the "impossible had happened." A footing had been gained at practically every landing; but nothing more, and the losses had been colossal.

Awful days and nights followed, but amid the unceasing crash of artillery and the scream of many shells, followed by death-dealing explosions, little progress was made.

The great guns of Achi Baba dominated both land and sea. At the end of five weeks' fighting, more men had been lost than in the whole South African War.

Spring passed into summer, and the situation did not improve. The Turk was no mean foe. He was holding the gate of his capital Constantinople, and he had every advantage in men, arms, and position.

For the British the advance of summer brought increased discomfort. There was no shade; the sun beat pitilessly down on rock and scrub. The scarcity of water, a plague of flies and outbreaks of fever, sorely tried the troops as they sat in their stifling trenches day after day and week after week. "Never had our troops shown a more dauntless courage, a more complete devotion, or more stubborn resolution." Even their enemies were full of admiration. "These British are the finest fighters in the world," said the Turks; we have chosen the wrong friends."

The army was in great peril, difficult to reinforce, difficult to withdraw. The fleet was passive, and German submarines were beginning to attack the many ships supporting the Dardanelles operations.

Early in August, fresh troops arrived, and a great new surprise landing was made at Suvla Bay to the north of Anzac on the shores of the Aegean Sea. The day chosen for a great combined attack on the Peninsula, 6th August, was one of "airless and pitiless heat." To divert the enemy from the main attack on the Anafarfa hills, the Australians were to storm the Turkish fort on Lone Pine which commanded the main enemy water supply. Before that summer night fell, by sheer heroism, the position was won, and out of nine V.C.'s awarded for the August battles in Gallipoli seven went to the conquerors and holders of Lone Pine.

For four days and nights isolated battles raged over the southern part of the Peninsula, battles fought in a blazing sun, with no rest, with little food and less water, and at the weary end but little had been gained. The sacrifice had been very great. No less than 30,000 casualties were reported, a quarter of the whole army—a loss even greater than at the first and second battles of Ypres.

The great battle of the campaign was over, and, despite incredible courage, it had failed, failed tragically, hopelessly. Sir Ian Hamilton was recalled, and the idea of withdrawing the troops was urged. Summer gave place to autumn, and Lord Kitchener himself visited the Peninsula and decided on evacuation. But the sufferings of the troops were not yet ended.

Towards the end of November, a blizzard of rain and sleet and wind rising to a gale swept over sea and land. With a bitter north wind and thunder, came rain more violent than any soldier on the Peninsula had ever seen. In a few minutes "every gully was a raging torrent and every trench a river." Bitter frost followed. Sentries were frozen dead at their posts, and the suffering of the troops reached the limits of human endurance. At Suvla alone there were 200 deaths from exposure, and no less than 10,000 sick had to be removed as a result of these few terrible days.

The evacuation was now hurried on during the spell of warmer weather that followed. It was a triumph of co-operation between army and fleet—an achievement "without parallel in military or naval history."

To remove large numbers of men, guns, and animals from positions commanded by the enemy was no light task. Night after night, showing no lights, the black transports crept in and out of Suvla Bay and Anzac Cove. There were 20,000 Turks on the battle front, but the warships kept up their usual bombardment, and the troops quietly embarked in perfect order.

Christmas still found British troops around Cape Hellas, but the New Year of 1916 found the same skilled withdrawal under cover of the night, until the whole Peninsula of Gallipoli was in the hands of the Turks with only our 50,000 dead left behind.

"Great hearts are glad when it is time to give;

Life is no life to him that dares not die,

And death no death to him that dares to live."

—SIR H. NEWBOLT (SACRAMENTUM SUPREMUM).