To mark Anzac Day 2015, MHM reposts Peter Hart’s action-packed article taking us into the inferno of the Gallipoli landings.
Gallipoli was an insanity triggered by First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill’s unwavering belief that the war could be won by attacking Turkey rather than facing the agony of prolonged trench warfare with Germany on the Western Front. The Allies would launch a campaign to seize the Dardanelles Straits between Europe and Asia. This would provide a gateway to Constantinople, knock Turkey out of the war, and open up a route to support Russia through the Black Sea.
The golden visions Churchill conjured up to make his case were largely illusionary. But what the Gallipoli campaign would do was to divert resources from the battle against the main enemy – the German Army which was occupying a significant part of France and threatening the domination of Europe. If Germany was to be defeated, then better by far on the Western Front where the British and French could fight side by side with a minimum of logistical problems. Britain had to fight the war as it was; not how visionaries dreamt it might be. But Churchill was persuasive and the Dardanelles campaign began in 1915.
The initial naval efforts climaxed in an attempt to force the straits on 18 March 1915. It resulted in disaster. Nearly a third of the Franco-British fleet was put out of action. Henceforth, it was decided that an Allied army would have to make a landing to storm the Kilid Bahr heights of the Gallipoli Peninsula that dominated the Straits from the European side.
By this time, any kind of strategic surprise had long since been forfeited, but some slim tactical opportunities remained. Unfortunately, the British commander, General Sir Ian Hamilton, adopted almost every option that lay open to him, landing at several widely separated points and thereby dissipating his superiority of force. His plan was also fatally predicated on a belief that once the British got ashore, the Turks would cut and run. This meant that Hamilton felt empowered to take risks that would have been unacceptable against the Germans.
Plan of attack
Hamilton choose V Beach at the tip of the peninsula as the site for one of the main landings on 25 April 1915. Here, the Turks had not wasted the time granted to them by the British. Around the beach they had constructed a series of trenches that stretched along the skyline from Fort No.1, round the natural amphitheatre of the beach, to the Sedd el Bahr village and old fort guarding the entrance to the straits. In front were at least two lines of barbed wire. The beach itself was fairly narrow and about 300yds long. The Turkish garrison was made up of the 300 men of the 10th Company, 3/26th Regiment, who had relieved the previous unit just the day before. The dangers should have been obvious.
Two weeks before the landings, a staff meeting was held to discuss the plans. Attending this meeting was Commander Edward Unwin. By his very nature, he was not a man to hold back when an idea occurred to him to assist the landings. A wreck ship that could be run aground on V Beach! A ship that could carry a large number of assault troops that could then be rushed ashore in a matter of moments.
Unwin’s suggestion was seized upon, and he himself was duly placed in command of the ship selected – the 4,000-ton cargo ship River Clyde. Large holes were cut in the sides of the ship and planking stages were then stretched to link the exit ports to a platform at the bow. Unwin realised that the River Clyde might run aground too far off from the beach, so they would tow alongside a steam hopper and three additional lighters to bridge any gap. As the modifications were being made, Unwin found that his personal accountability was beginning to weigh down on him:
“I have never spent such a time in my life as I did before the landing, the awful responsibility, for I wasn’t just carrying out orders, but carrying through a scheme of my own in which, if I failed, the consequences might be awful. The thousands of thoughts that flash through one’s head at such a time as to what might happen and how to meet them. And top of it all the wonder as to how one will behave one’s self, as I don’t believe any man is quite sure of himself.”
– Commander Edward Unwin, River Clyde
The armada of ships left their harbour at Mudros on the night of 24 April. Concealed deep within the cargo-holds of the River Clyde were the 2nd Hampshires and the 1st Munster Fusiliers. As they moved slowly across the Aegean towards V Beach, there was an air of undeniable tension that afflicted almost everyone aboard. Whatever their commanders may have thought, many recognised that they were about to undergo a severe ordeal that might be the end of them. It was not a cheery prospect.
“I felt we were for it. That the enterprise was unique and would demand all I was possible of giving, and more. That it was no picnic but a desperate venture. I just longed to get on with it and be done with it. I felt I was no hero and that I had not the pluck of a louse. My nerves were tense and strung up, and yet. I never doubted that we would not win through.”
– Captain Guy Geddes, 1st Munster Fusiliers
As the River Clyde made its final approach, it was intended that the men of the 1st Dublin Fusiliers would be the first to land on V Beach from six strings of rowing boats that would be towed in by steam boats until the last hundred or so yards.
As they reached their destination off the peninsula, the escorting warships began their bombardment just after 05.00 on 25 April. Although it was an impressive sight, the high-velocity, flat-trajectory naval shells meant that the results actually achieved were far less destructive than had been imagined. Most of the shells skimmed over the trenches, just missing them, to no real effect. Yet some shells did hit squarely home and there were Turkish casualties.
“The enemy was pounding the rifle trenches on the shore. Owing to the bluish-black and greenish smoke which was rising up, the shore was hidden and nothing could be seen. The area was altogether small compared to the weight of fire being put down by the fleet. Many shells were falling side by side and many shrapnel shells exploding one after the other. At this time two of our 37.5mm guns were destroyed and many rifle and communication trenches flattened out.”
– Major Mahmut, 3rd Battalion, 26th Regiment
The unscathed majority, however, were grimly awaiting the moment when the bombardment stopped and the landings began. Then it would be their turn.
Carnage in the boats
The tows of the Dublins were scheduled to land at 05.30, but had been badly delayed by the complexities of transhipping into the rowing boats from the ships and the current pouring out of the Dardanelles. This was to cause considerable confusion as it became apparent that the River Clyde would run ashore first. The complicated circling manoeuvre that the Clyde was forced to adopt meant that she had lost almost all seaway when she ran aground with barely a shudder at 06.22 some 80yds from shore.
This seems to have acted as the catalyst for a storm of fire, which lashed across the Dublin Fusiliers in their open boats still rowing towards the beach. The Turkish riflemen could hardly miss such a target – and they began to wreak a horrifying slaughter. Trapped in the close confines of the rowing boats, the Dublins were utterly helpless and almost before they knew what was happening had been shot to pieces.
“There were 32 in my boat, and only six escaped alive, including O’Hanlon, who had his hand blown off. One fellow’s brains were shot into my mouth as I was shouting to them to jump for it. I dived into the sea. All the time bullets were ripping around me.”
– Sergeant J Colgan, 1st Dublin Fusiliers
The torrent of fire was such that the British have always believed that there were at least two machine-guns, one high to the left and the other in the walls of the castle, but this seems to fly in the face of hard factual Turkish evidence. The Turkish Army had very few machine-guns, and there appears to be no doubt that the entire 26th Regiment had none at all.
Perhaps some of the confusion arises from the 37.5mm Nordenfeld guns, which had a high rate of fire and might, indeed, have been thought of as ‘old pattern Maxim guns’ by some witnesses. Furthermore, their destructive small shells, when coupled with rapid rifle-fire and the overwhelming masking roar of the massed British machine-guns firing from aboard the River Clyde, may have confused men with little or no time to think either coolly or calmly about what exactly was shooting at them. All they knew was that they were being splattered with bullets.
“The fire changed the colour of the sea with the blood from the bodies of the enemy – a sea whose colour had remained the same for years. Shells and machine-gun bullets fell ceaselessly at the points were rifle fire was observed, but in spite of this, heavy fire was opened from all our trenches. In a vain attempt to save their lives, the enemy threw themselves from the boats into the sea. The shore became full of enemy corpses, like a shoal of fish.”
– Major Mahmut, 3rd Battalion, 26th Regiment
Carnage on the gangway
Meanwhile, the River Clyde was getting ready to discharge its hidden cargo. Now was time for the steam hopper and lighters to move smoothly round from the port side and form a bridge between the platform attached to the bows and the beach. The steam hopper was commanded by Midshipman George Drewry, but his six Greek crewmen had rather unfortunately been ‘volunteered’ for the task in all ignorance of what lay in front of them. When they realised what was happening, they reacted extremely badly, reversing the engines and taking cover battened below decks. The steam hopper was left drifting away to the port side of the River Clyde.
By this time, Unwin was a desperate man: he could see that his scheme was crumbling around him; his worst nightmares were coming to fruition. With no time to think of his own safety, he leapt into action closely accompanied by Able Seaman William Williams. Together the two men would strive to make ‘the difference’ and by their own efforts resolve the crisis, even at the likely cost of their lives.
“I dashed over the side and got hold of the lighters which I had been towing astern and which had shot ahead by their impetus when we took the beach. We got them connected to the bows and then proceeded to connect them to the beach, but we had nothing to secure to, so we had to hold on to the rope ourselves. When we had got the lighters close enough to the shore, I sung out to the troops to come out.”
– Commander Edward Unwin, River Clyde
The men of the 1st Munster Fusiliers were ready and burst out of the starboard exit-ports, running down the rickety gangway onto the lighters.
“All the way down the side of the ship, bullets crashed against the side. On reaching the first barge, I found some of the men had collected and were firing. I mistrusted the second barge and the track to the shore, so I led them over the side; the water came nearly up to our shoulders. However, none of us were hit and we gained the bank. Any man who put his head up for an instant was shot dead.”
– Captain Raymond Lane, 1st Munster Fusiliers
They were hopelessly pinned down under a small 5ft bank about 10 yards from the water’s edge. Meantime, on the port side, Captain Geddes was slightly slower in getting out through the exit ports as the gangway there had become jammed. By then they knew what they were about to face when they burst from the dark, womb-like security of the River Clyde into the sunlight.
“We got it like anything, man after man behind me was shot down, but they never wavered. Lieutenant Watts, who was wounded in five places and lying on the gangway, cheered the men on with cries of “Follow the Captain!” I think no finer episode could be found of the men’s bravery and discipline than this – of leaving the safety of the River Clyde to go to what was practically certain death.”
– Captain Guy Geddes, 1st Munster Fusiliers
Unfortunately, at this critical juncture, when they were already under heavy fire, the makeshift bridge temporarily broke loose in front of them and their lighter drifted away to port once again. Captain Geddes and the survivors were left staring at a widening gap of deep water, while the bullets still thudded in amongst them. Only a few managed to swim and stumble ashore to join the remnants of the Dublins.
By this time, Unwin and Williams were teetering at the end of their physical resources as they struggled to hold the lighters together. After about an hour, their luck ran out and Williams was mortally wounded, while Unwin collapsed utterly exhausted by his efforts. After two more desperate attempts to storm ashore had been crushed by the Turks, the senior officers on board the River Clyde decided that they must stop the hopeless slaughter.
“I now saw that it was impossible to carry out the original plan of attack. My reasons were that the crossfire brought to bear from the fort and the village on the right and from the trenches and works to the left were so heavy that nothing could live on the ground about the beach. Men who left the cover of the bank for an instant were killed. I considered that we should hold on and wait till dark, when I thought we should stand a better chance of getting the men out without such heavy casualties.”
– Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Tizard, 1st Munster Fusiliers
But military operations tend have a life of their own. Brigadier-General Henry Napier and some of the second wave had boarded boats still reeking with the blood of the dead and wounded Dublins, and were already heading for the beach. Someone shouted down from the River Clyde, ‘You can’t possibly land!’, to which Napier replied, ‘I’ll have a damned good try!’
As the Turkish fire swelled up once again, Napier was killed and slipped overboard. His body was never recovered. Shortly afterwards, it was finally accepted that there was no hope at V Beach and all further troops should be diverted to W Beach. Over 1,000 men were still cooped up in the River Clyde, while there were about 200 ashore crouching down behind the small bank that was all that lay between them and eternity. The situation settled down into grim stalemate.
Only the cover of darkness had brought relief and allowed the remaining men to begin to file out of the River Clyde. By this time, there were too few Turks left alive to disturb a night landing.
“For three hours I stood on the end of the spit of what had been rock in two feet of water helping the heavily laden men to jump ashore onto submerged dead bodies. This is what went on monotonously: “Give me your rifle!” “Your shovel!” “Your left hand!” “Jump wide!” “It’s all right, it’s only kits!” “Keep clear of that man’s legs, can’t you?”
– Lieutenant-Commander Josiah Wedgwood, Machine Gun Detachment
Young Midshipman Drury was assisting in the collection of desperately wounded men who had been lying exposed to Turkish fire for what must have been their longest day.
“I had a party getting wounded and putting them onboard a trawler lying under our quarter. An awful job, they had not been dressed at all and some of the poor devils were in an awful state. I never knew that blood smelt so strong before.”
– Midshipman George Drewry, River Clyde
V Beach had been tamed at last. But the landing had been a terrible failure largely because the massively out-numbered Turks had everywhere fought with a supreme combination of skill and courage. The British plans had been ludicrously over-optimistic and heavily reliant on the Turks not putting up any serious opposition after the naval bombardment. But the naval gunfire had proved ineffective.
Furthermore, the commendable imagination showed by Unwin in conceiving his River Clyde scheme had not been matched by an equal attention in working out the nitty-gritty details which needed to be resolved if the scheme was to be successfully executed.
The Trojans of legend had had no idea what lay within the ‘gift’ left by the Greeks: that was the whole point of the story. At V Beach, the Turks could plainly see the gangways, they knew what would happen when the ship ran aground, and they had more than enough time to aim their weapons on the exit ports. The British had simply not thought the matter through. Hundreds of them paid the price with their lives.
On the 26 April, the British troops were supposed to have taken the Kilid Bahr heights as their final objective overlooking the straits. Instead, they would become bogged down in eight months of tortuous trench-warfare as the Turks moved forward their reserves and continued to prove themselves a grim and determined enemy in defence of their homeland.
Peter Hart is the author of Gallipoli, published by Profile, and a leading oral historian at the Imperial War Museum.
This article appeared in issue 9 of the magazine (Military History Monthly, formerly called Military Times).
The fighting on the first day was close-run. In issue 56 of the magazine, MHM describes those first critical hours.