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What went wrong at Gallipoli in 1915?

Allied forces seamen attempting to defuse mines under Turkish artillery fire. (DEA Picture Library/Getty Images)

The Gallipoli campaign was fought on the ground between 25 April 1915 and 9 January 1916 on the Gallipoli Peninsula near the Dardanelles Straits. The Allied bombardment of the Turkish defences had already begun a few months prior to this in February 1915. The Gallipoli campaign was championed and pushed forward by the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, and was geared toward ending the war quickly.

By opening a new war front designed to stretch the German army and that of their Ottoman Empire ally, Turkey, Churchill wanted to push them past the breaking point. The Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary and their allies) were already fighting the war on two fronts: on the Western Front – France and Belgium – as well as fighting the Russian army in the east. So the idea was simple: to create another front to force the German military command to further split their armies to support the Turks and to assist Russia.

On 25 November 1914, the plan to create this new front was brought before the Imperial War Council. The Council was made up of the most senior politicians in the Cabinet along with the most senior military commanders and it was their job to plan and run the war effort and to evaluate possible military actions. The Council gave its agreement to proceed. British troops in Egypt were readied to head out towards Gallipoli. The Imperial War Council scheduled the attack date for late February or early March 1915.

During the War Council meeting, there was some disagreement on the number of troops needed and leadership roles. Although originally he didn’t want to commit troops to the Dardanelles Campaign, when the amphibious assault became an inevitability, Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, pushed for more troops; First Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of War and head of the British army, disagreed.

The initial plan was to launch a naval attack. British and French warships would force their way up the Dardanelles Straits and attack Constantinople (now Istanbul). The ships would destroy the Turkish forts on the mainland which defended the Straits and Royal Marines would be landed to destroy the guns the naval ships couldn’t reach.

Early parts of the attack went well. But the Turks had planted underwater mines and the Royal Navy proved ineffective in clearing the way. In the initial assault three battlecruisers were sunk and many other ships damaged. Churchill pressured the British commander Admiral Carden to increase his efforts and the fighting intensified. Naval losses mounted and Carden fell ill with stress. Eventually the naval forces were pulled back and it was decided to land troops and capture Gallipoli which would then clear the way to Constantinople.

British troops at their position on the Gallipoli peninsula in the summer of 1915.
(Photo by ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

General Sir Ian Hamilton was chosen to lead the ground forces, which numbered nearly seventy thousand men during the original attack. These consisted of British and colonial troops including troops from India, Australia and New Zealand (better known as ANZACs). There were also French and French colonial troops as well.

The landings began on 25 April 1915. It soon became clear that the Allies had underestimated the strength and organization of the Turkish defending forces and also their determination and ability to fight. The Allied forces were able to land on various beaches and set up defensive positions of their own. However, they paid for this success with heavy losses and it proved impossible to advance much further inland against determined Turkish opposition which was soon reinforced with extra troops. A new Allied attack was followed by Turkish counter-attacks in May 1915. Through June and July there was little movement. In August, a new attack was ordered, and 63,000 Imperial troops came close to succeeding. However, the Australian and New Zealand troops weren’t able to get out of the steep cliffs and narrow beach where they were cornered. On 10 August, the Turks began a strong counterattack, and by 19 December, the evacuation of the Gallipoli Peninsula was ordered.

The retreat and the evacuation were well organized and well carried out but this was little consolation. For a campaign that lasted only a few months, the Allied loss of life was very high, at around 44,000 men. For the ANZACs in particular it had proved to be a bloody and punishing campaign. To this day Gallipoli remains a particularly important event in Australian and New Zealand history in which the bravery of the troops and the losses they suffered are commemorated. This is also true for Turkey; they too fought with great determination and for them, victory came at a very high price, losing around 87,000 men during the campaign. Gallipoli anniversaries are today marked by joint commemorations in Australia, New Zealand and Turkey.

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