What went wrong at Gallipoli in 1915?

Detailed map of the Gallipoli peninsula in 1915 showing British and Allied landing beaches. (The War Illustrated Album deLuxe published in London 1916 / Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

When the First World War broke out in July 1914 the general feeling was that it would be over by the end of that year. However, as 1914 turned into 1915 it was clear this wasn’t the case. On the Western Front in particular, the fighting had ground to a stalemate, and the casualties continued to rise. The politicians and the military commanders in Britain began to look for other ways to attack Germany and to alleviate the pressure on the Eastern Front. The Russian government had also formally requested a ‘show of strength’ against Turkey, one of Germany’s allies. As First Lord of the Admiralty, the government minister responsible for the British navy, Winston Churchill supported the idea of an attack on Turkey. The plan was to attack Gallipoli, a peninsula in the strategically important area of the Dardanelles near the Turkish capital of Constantinople (now Istanbul) and then move inland to capture the capital. It was hoped that once Turkey had been knocked out of the war, the Allies would have access to Russia’s Black Sea ports, creating a line of communication to Russia and access to Russian wheat necessary for the war effort. The campaign is either referred to as the Gallipoli Campaign or the Dardanelles Campaign.

The Gallipoli campaign lasted from April 1915 to January 1916. It was a costly failure for the Allies, with heavy losses (44, 000 dead) and no gains made. Even so, there’s been a lot of debate about why it failed and how important that failure was in the context of the war overall.

The campaign has proved to be historically significant in other ways. A large number of the troops in the Allied force were from the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, better known as ANZACs. Gallipoli was the first really high-profile campaign in which they took a leading role. More than 8,700 Australians and 2,779 New Zealanders (over half of all ANZAC troops sent) were killed. Gallipoli has proved to be a key event in Australian and New Zealand history, giving birth to an ANZAC legend which is still enormously important in those countries today.

While the public in Australia and New Zealand were proud of the bravery of their soldiers, there was also anger and dismay at the scale of the losses and an intense desire to find out what went wrong. For many years, the most widely accepted explanation was that the British officers in command at Gallipoli were incompetent, careless and regarded the troops as expendable. Was this impression of the British commanders and their planning fair? If not, why did the campaign go so badly wrong?

The documents in this investigation focus on the planning, communication and coordination in the run-up to the Gallipoli campaign. They tell us about how the commanders prepared and planned. However, if we look closely at the documents they also reveal other factors such as the difficult terrain faced by the Allies and the determination and strong resistance from the Turkish troops - and the Allies’ underestimation of their resilience. It’s important to recognise that we’re only looking at one, albeit crucial, aspect of the campaign in this investigation but you’ll find that the sources do contain references to these other factors, too.

Lord-Morley-Letter

Cape Helles, Gallipoli, 7 January 1916, just prior to the final evacuation of British forces during the Battle of Gallipoli. (© Lt. Ernest Brooks, Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain])

Your challenge

We’ve gathered together some documents from the Churchill Archive and your challenge is to use these documents to investigate the key question: what went wrong at Gallipoli?