Story of the Great War - Roland Usher


The execution of the plans for the opening of the Dardanelles was at first entrusted to the French and British fleets alone. Here was this narrow strait, protected by forts, the waters sown with mines, and nowhere more than a few miles wide. Some miles above the mouth of the passage came the Narrows, where it was not over two or three miles in width. Here were the chief defenses. It was supposed, however, that the range of the guns on the large British warships was greater than those of the forts, that they would be able to silence the latter, and would then be able to protect their own mine sweepers while they cleared the Channel. The real question was the effectiveness of a long-range attack by battleships. On February 19 and 25, 1915, fleet attacks were delivered upon the outlying forts, which were first silenced and then destroyed by landing parties. On March 6, a preliminary attack and on March 18, a concentrated assault, were delivered against the forts along the Narrows by the largest Allied battle-ships.

But it became evident that the fleet could not succeed alone. The passage was so narrow and so tortuous, the current so swift, that navigation of such large ships was very difficult. The mine sweepers were unable to clear the waters until the forts had been silenced and the fleet could not come up until the mines had been cleared. But the nature of the ground made it so easy to conceal shore batteries that the observers for the fleet were not able to detect their location, and therefore the fleet could not, as had been hoped, destroy them at long range.

The cooperation of an army was essential. The forts controlling the Narrows must be captured from the rear. They were located on the Gallipoli Peninsula, a very difficult position indeed to attack, but there was no other possibility because these very forts controlled the Asiatic shore and therefore could prevent the erection there of Allied batteries strong enough to reduce them.

The desperate character of the expedition lent to it an extraordinary interest, and has caused the British people to think of it "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, for something which had nothing to do with arms nor with the men who bore them."

Here was a tongue of mountainous land fifty-three miles long and from two to twelve miles wide, gay with beautiful flowers in spring, drab in summer and in fall, when the heather and the scrub pines and dust made it desolate and drear. It was all but roadless, rough, waterless, and commanded throughout by the hills in the interior. Only a few narrow beaches existed on which a landing was possible and they were all positions on which a landing was thinkable only if the enemy could be surprised.

But it was impossible to surprise him. His preparations at these few spots had been so complete that it seemed hardly within the power of flesh and blood to overcome them. The beaches and the sea itself were covered with tangles of barbed wire, ranged by cannon, swept by machine guns at close range. The troops must push their way through all these obstacles under galling fire, clamber up the hills and gullies, still under fire, and dig themselves in upon a waterless, torrid hill, while the Turks raked them with fire from all sides and charged them with bayonets.

On April 24, the transports moved out of the great harbor of Lemnos, crowded with soldiers. The cheering of the sailors and the returning cheers of the soldiers, going as they knew to all but certain death, was one of the impressive moments of the war. Attacks were to be delivered at all possible points, but the main attempts were confined to two: one at the top of the peninsula against Sedd-el-Bahr, and the other, farther along the outer edge of the peninsula, at a place henceforth immortal as Anzac.

The plan at the former was to run aground a collier, the sides of which had been especially cut down and reconstructed so as to form a sort of landing stage, to tow in between her and the shore with motor launches groups of flatboats, over which the troops in the collier should rush ashore and carry the first Turkish trenches. The collier should then become a landing stage at which the other transports should leave their loads. The collier was grounded, the tows drew in ahead of her, and then the Turks opened fire. They could not miss. From one hundred to three hundred yards away, in clear daylight, were thirty boats all bunched together and crowded with men, and a good large ship. Thousands were killed at once, a few reached cover on shore, but the bulk who were not at once destroyed were forced to wait until nightfall before they could land. Despite the awful slaughter the landing was made, the first trenches were carried, and a footing gained.

Farther along the peninsula, the Australian and New Zealand troops forced a landing at Gaba Tepe, now called Anzac, from the initials of Australian New Zealand Army Corps. Here they approached a small narrow beach, mined, covered with barbed wire, ranged by Turkish guns. The men leaped into the water from the boats, holding their guns and ammunition above their heads, and rushed on shore. After a terrific struggle of two days and nights they made good their grip on a little strip of beach, by that time soaked with the blood of thousands of as gallant men as ever wore uniform. They were not only compelled to land under fire, but to bring ashore on their backs  from the boats under fire, every gun, every bullet, ever scrap of food, ever drop of water they were to use. They carried up the hills on their backs the machine guns, the ammunition, and the food to the men in the trenches.

They had not merely to fight in a more dangerous position than most troops during this war or any other but to perform as well, under the most extraordinary difficulties, the services of supply and transportation. Without rest, improperly fed, drenched by rain, burning with heat during the day, chilled to the marrow by the cold at night, these same men must not only hold the trenches but make piers, dig shelters, bring on shore the food, water, ammunition, and heavy guns.

For ninety-six hours they fought continually with little or no sleep. And this they endured "night after night, day after day, without rest or solace, nor respite from the peril of death, seeing their friends killed, and their position imperiled, getting their food, their munitions, even their drink, from the jaws of death, and their breath from the taint of death, and their brief sleep upon the dust of death." No such undertaking was ever set an army before; no army ever performed such a task.

Their first landing came on April 25. A battle was fought on May 1, and a desperate general assault on June 4 from all the various stations gained a total of some five hundred yards. In the middle of August another landing was effected at Suvla Bay, but in September Turkish counter attacks were successful enough to show that the enterprise could not succeed.

The truth was that the troops were outnumbered, insufficiently equipped with artillery and munitions to be able to make headway against the Turks, admirably equipped with everything and ably led by German officers. The nature of the ground made concealment of artillery simple for the defense and all but impossible for the assailants to detect or destroy. The fleet did what it could to blow the Turkish trenches out of existence, but was deficient in information or in accuracy of fire or in both. The Allies learned here at great cost the lesson that a charge on machine guns is mere slaughter. The real blame must fall on the English and French political leaders who ordered the expedition despite the all but insuperable obstacles which their military and naval advisers pointed out.

The decision was taken in the fall of 1915 to withdraw the army, but it was by no means clear that the army could escape. To land under Turkish fire had been slaughter; to embark under the same fire would be no less certainly slaughter. And yet by a miracle of organization the entire British force, with all its wounded and supplies, was taken off during December, 1915, and January, 1916, without the loss of a man. The embarkation necessarily took place at night. The transports would steal in after dark and the loading proceeded, night after night—horses, stores, motors, guns—in absolute silence. The Turks had the range to a nicety and could have fired as accurately in the dark as in the daylight. During the day great piles of empty boxes were landed to convince the enemy that the British were intending to spend the winter.

At last only the active men of the final contingent remained. During the day bombardment of the Turkish lines was continued and wireless automatic bomb throwers, with automatic candles and dynamite charges, were arranged to go off at intervals during the night to imitate a desultory fire. All through the hours while the last troops were boarding the transports, this display continued. At last at 4 A.M. all was ready and fire was set to the great piles of boxes so as to destroy what could not be moved. The great mass of leaping, roaring flames threw a red glow over the heavens and lit up the whole scene. The empty boxes burned furiously and the Turks began pounding everything in sight—the empty, vacant trenches, the piles of boxes, the vacant landings. And the British troops, safe on the ships, began shooting at the same target to make doubly sure of the completeness of the destruction. The army had escaped!