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.

World War 1: Stupidity and Luck

The fourth of August was apparently the anniversary of the opening of World War I as far as Britain was concerned, and also New Zealand, which, together with a number of other countries in the Commonwealth, joined in to help Britain. Thus started one of the most depressing episodes of weird luck, stupidity and criminality, possibly for ever. First, stupidity and criminality. I argue various generals committed very serious war crimes. You haven’t heard of them? No, you wouldn’t, because they committed them on their own troops! For New Zealand, the worst two were at Gallipoli and Passchendaele. The concept of Gallipoli was ill-conceived, but even then it was hopelessly executed. They landed in the wrong place, and when one landing actually could have brought success, instead what happened rated a chapter in the book “Great Military Stupidities”. Passchendaele had terrain unsuitable for tanks, weather unsuitable for artillery or any form of vehicle, so they sent in the infantry into waste-deep mud. Simple target practice. A simple strategy would have been to attack further east with tanks and artillery, which was known to work, and cut off the German army there, but that sort of strategy, known at least from the time of Tutmoses III (see the battle of Meggido), and probably earlier, seemed to lie outside the comprehension of these “professional Generals”. As the anniversaries of various battles come to pass, I shall post a few more stupidities and acts of criminality.

What about luck? The first New Zealand casualty in the war was a young soldier who was apparently the target of a long-range shooter, perhaps an early sniper. The bullet hit his rifle and ricocheted off it, into his neck and thence to spine and killing him. That has to be unlucky, although some may say he could have taken better cover. However, in war, you cannot spend the whole time taking cover.

Our History Channel has just offered a program that showed some quite remarkable aspects of luck. How true these are I do not know, but for what it is worth, two that struck me were as follows.

The first involved a British advance. The bulk of the action went somewhere else, but a lone British soldier was walking along when an unarmed German stood up. The British soldier raised his rifle and ordered the German to stop. The German faced him, then, when the soldier did not fire, and apparently did not know how to order him to surrender, he turned his back on the Briton and walked calmly away. The Briton did not fire. The German was Adolph Hitler. Think of how history would have changed had that British soldier pulled the trigger. The second involved an Italian soldier who came across three enemy, presumably Austrians. He calmly shot each of them as they turned and ran. Taking cover or shooting back did not occur to them. The Italian was Mussolini.

Young men apparently rushed to enlist, and in Britain at least, instructors in the army camps also rushed to get to the front. Apparently they believed this would be over by Christmas, and they wanted their medals. This had the effect of leaving the newly enlisted essentially untrained, although given the way the Generals used troops, it may not have mattered that much. The war was terrible, but even worse it set the scene for even worse. The war to end all wars failed miserably in that objective.