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.