Anzac Day

April 25 is a public holiday in New Zealand and Australia, in remembrance of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps landing at Anzac Cove, in Gallipoli during World War 1, hence our major remembrance day remembers a disaster. In my opinion, the campaign illustrated just about most of what was wrong with the way World War 1 was fought by the allies. The Ottomans had entered the war on the German side, and the objective of the campaign was to take Constantinople and remove them from the war. That was a noble goal, but it left open the question, was it achievable with the resources available and did the Allies go about it in a sensible fashion? There were several strategic mistakes straight away (in my opinion, anyway).

The first mistake was to underestimate the enemy. It was generally felt that the Ottomans would have no heart for fighting. The British started with a naval blockade in the Dardanelles, using a number of obsolete battleships that were not doing anything else. This was pointless and had no worthwhile objective. You cannot defeat an enemy without at least the option of occupying his ground. The Ottomans mined the Dardanelles, and the British and French lost some obsolete battleships. With that, they managed to raise the morale of the enemy, and that was a critical mistake. The Ottomans had had a recent history of failure, and if troops feel they will fail, they usually do. If, on the other hand, they feel they are up to the job, they probably are. Another critical mistake was that the move gave away the element of surprise and flagged that a military operation was imminent. The Ottomans prepared.

Undeterred, the allies made landings on various parts of the northern side of the Gallipoli peninsula, with the main force of British and French at Cape Helles at the Western end, and the Anzacs at Anzac Cove. Things started badly for the Anzacs when the Royal Navy made a navigational error and landed them at the wrong place, which had a narrow beach and steep hills rising from close to the beaches. Now you might think that the commander of the invasion, seeing they were in the wrong place and not only that, a most unsuitable place, might order the navy to take them to somewhere better, but no. Incompetence has to be matched with stupidity! The landing was faced by only two companies but they had good defensive positions on the hills. There were serious casualties since there was no cover, and lot of time was wasted, which gave the Ottomans time to bring up reinforcements. On finally advancing, the troops found the terrain to be badly broken, with ravines and spurs; ideal for defence, terrible for rapid progress. Worse, the Anzacs had almost useless maps.

So with the attack bogged down in two places, you might think things couldn’t get any worse? Then you would be wrong. A third invasion was launched with an extra 70,000 British troops. The key to note here is that the British High Command regarded the Gallipoli attack as a bit of a side show, possibly put on to keep Churchill happy because this was his pet project. That meant the commanders sent to this campaign were the ones who were lesser lights. Now, with two lesser lights already bogged down, the third had to be a really dim light. Sir John Monash was later to describe the commanders as, “the most abject collection of Generals ever collected in one spot.”

The overall commander for the landing at Suvla Bay was Sir Frederick Stopford, chosen largely because he was the only one left with adequate seniority.

Stopford had been brought out of retirement, and although only 61, he was in very poor health, and before leaving for Gallipoli, had to get someone else to lift his dispatch case onto a train. He had never commanded troops in battle. The Divisional commanders were not much better. One, Major General Hammersley, had just got over a nervous breakdown, and collapsed on the first day of the landing. The first formal objective of Suvla Bay was to advance and take two important hills, as this would relieve the pressure on the Anzacs, but Stopford and his Divisional commanders seemed to believe they could not do this. No surprise here; if you think you can’t, generally you won’t. Stopford felt that success depended on surprise and it was important to keep all information from the Ottomans. Accordingly, his Brigadiers were not told of the plan until the last minute, they were only given a brief glimpse of the landing site, and many landed without maps. To make matters worse, they were given “targets” to occupy, but the Navy landed them in the opposite order. Had there been a slightly more dynamic commander, and had the Brigadiers been supplied with proper maps, the objectives could have been swapped, but no, the landing boats had to criss-cross, then unload on reefs. Thanks to the lack of maps, the men given the task of taking Suvla point simply got lost. Those tasked with taking Hill 10 had no idea which hill it was.

Even stranger, Brigadier General Hill, commanding 6,000 men on transport vessels, awoke unexpectedly to find himself under fire at Suvla Bay. He had no idea he was to take part in a landing, and had no orders as to where to land. Stopford felt he was up to this task: they would land and support the 11th Division attack on Hill 10. These orders assumed the 11th was attacking Hill 10. As it happened, they were still on the beach, which meant chaos on the beach.

Rather interestingly, there was no attempt at reconnaissance, which meant one of his commanders decided to create a five-mile diversionary attack on his target hill. This diversion went straight at the only real system of opposition trenches, while the primary target, as it happened, was essentially undefended. Later, three other Brigade commanders were happily resting on Hill 10, and while some troops had captured two other objectives, they needed reinforcements, but all communications seemed to have broken down. So had logistic support. Stopford had even overlooked in a Turkish summer the necessity of supplying the troops with water, and presumably everything else.

You may think this would sum up all the incompetence and stupidity of Suvla Bay. Unfortunately, it merely scratches the surface. The overall result was that it achieved nothing, there was no reprieve for the Anzacs, and the whole Gallipoli campaign was soon to collapse. Only the withdrawal was done competently. The ordinary soldiers at Gallipoli fought with great courage and determination. Their commanders fought with unparalleled stupidity and incompetence. So the Anzacs and others were lucky to get out of Gallipoli? Not really. Their next destination was the Somme where the losses were even greater than at Gallipoli, and the stupidity was still there in good order. The Anzac ceremonies end with, “Lest we forget.” Yes, we must remember the brave fallen, but also we should ensure a level of competence in commanders if we ever have to fight again.


Remembering Gallipoli

You may agree with me that war is futile, but during WW1 futile as a word seems quite inadequate. Appalling seems better. I have been reminded of this because in Australia and New Zealand the 25th April is known as Anzac Day, to celebrate that 100 years ago, Australian and New Zealand soldiers fought together for the first time at the ill-fated campaign at Gallipoli. Unfortunately, the commanders were British, and were officers that were not required for the Western Front, and hence were down the list of competence. Given that the Western Front was not exactly overloaded with competence, the residue was just plain awful. The New Zealand and Australian forces were landed at what we call Anzac Cove, and if you search Google Earth, you might well ask, why there? There is a small amount of flattish land, behind which there are fairly impressive hills. The Turks, not unnaturally, occupied the high ground. If you look a bit further with Google Earth, you will see there are much better landing spots from the point of view of having room to maneuver later. As it was, the Anzacs got ashore, and were peppered with fire from the word go.

The whole campaign seems to have been an exercise in incompetence. It would have been possible to land a month earlier, in which case the defences could have been relatively weak, but the lack of appreciation of the need for speed stalled that. There are also reports that they landed at the wrong spot anyway, but these cannot really be confirmed. This lethargy by the command continued with the landing. Rather than make a determined advance, which admittedly would have cost lives, they stayed near the beach, which meant that when they did try something, they lost more lives. Eventually, a number of attacks were attempted but they were poorly planned and achieved nothing against the determined defence.

Eventually the command decided they had to do something more likely to lead to success, and less of the formal “turn up and fight”, so two moves were tried that could in principle have given a chance for overall success. In one, the New Zealand infantry brigade made an attack on Chunuk Bair. One battalion got held up during the advance, so the commander stopped the attack for a while to let the fourth battalion catch up. That is just plain stupid, as the plan was exposed and it gave the Turks an excellent opportunity to quickly reinforce, and thus made the whole exercise extremely costly. There was some possibility that the overall commander was drunk, but we shall never know. Eventually it was taken and held for two days before being relieved by two British battalions. There had been attempts to support them during those two days, but apparently the support got lost in the dark! At this point the two British battalions were dislodged and the Turks retook the position. This exercise was really incompetent. Either the position was critical or it was not. If it were not, it should have been ignored. If it were, either there were reserves available to take advantage of victory, or there were not. If not, again, the assault was a criminal waste of lives. The taking of ground is not an objective. The real objective is to take advantage of the gain and make whatever easy advances are available.

Even worse was the attack on Suvla Bay. Twenty-two British battalions were to land, and would be opposed by only 1500 Turks. The troops would then advance inland and take three hills that were important for the Turkish artillery, and then rout the enemy. The problem with this plan was that it required a commander with the need for energy. What they got was Lieutenant-General Stopforth, who was in poor health. Accordingly, when the landing was made, he stayed on the ship, in bed! The next level down was not much better. One, Major-General Hammersley, had recently had a nervous breakdown, and he had another on day one of the operation. The landing went badly, with many not knowing where they were or what they were really trying to achieve. Brigadier-General Hill did not even know he and his men were to land at Suvla so he had no time to plan or look at maps. Landing was difficult because those who had landed had not moved inland. General Sitwell apparently went so far and decided to stop and take a break, despite no real Turkish opposition. Logistics were awful; they even forgot to provide water. Finally, communications were so bad that nobody had any real information on what was going on other than that in front of them.

The tragedy here was that there were two plans that might have worked. One was so poorly supported that it was almost inevitable it would not, and the other was so ineptly carried out it did not. Notwithstanding that, this was the stuff of nation-building. Australia and New Zealand suddenly decided that British generals were not exactly brilliant, and the two countries became much more like independent countries. Turkey found something here to unite it, and Kemal Ataturk, a commander in the campaign, went on to build modern Turkey. Finally, the British learned two things. The first was that seniority and long service are not what makes a great commander. Secondly, they learned how to make seaborne landings, which in WW 2 was not a bad thing to know.