Great War Wednesday: And the Band Played ‘Waltzing Matilda’

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By the spring of 1915, both sides in the conflict were desperate to find a way to break the stalemate on the Western Front because, while it hadn’t occurred to the top brass, others in and out of the military began realizing the carnage of the repeated forays into the meat grinder which was No-Man’s Land was ultimately unsustainable. The impetus for launching another front perforce came from outside the military because the highest generals in charge could not be swayed from their conviction that the sole path to Allied victory lay through the mud of France and Belgium. The idea came from a British politician, Sir Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty. He proposed a campaign that nearly cost him the rest of his political career, launched three nations forcibly onto the world stage, and ultimately proved no less bloody than the bloodiest battles along the Western Front. What Churchill proposed was an amphibious assault aimed at bolstering the flagging Russians and knocking the Ottoman Empire out of the war. The place he picked was a small peninsula in modern day Turkey called Gallipoli.

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ANZAC Cove today.

In the world before air power, Gallipoli was a small piece of land bearing supreme importance. It guarded two narrow straits called the Bosporus and the Dardanelles which in turn connected the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. Since ancient days when Xerxes marched his Persians to Thermopylae, whoever controlled the straits controlled access to the Black Sea and a huge swath of Russia’s interior. In fact, the only port the Russians had (and still have for that matter) which did not ice over completely in winter was located on the shores of the Black Sea. During the First World War, with the Ottoman Empire firmly in control of the straits, the entire not inconsiderable might of the Russian Black Sea Fleet was essentially unavailable to the Allies because no ship afloat could force the passage of the two straits. Churchill’s plan aimed to change that.

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Map of the area of the campaign.

Unfortunately, the Gallipoli Campaign — also called the Dardanelles Campaign — encountered serious problems from the very beginning. The first part of the plan called for a naval bombardment by a combined British and French fleet with the twin aims of knocking out the string of fortifications protecting the straits and guarding the civilian manned trawlers which acted as minesweepers for the larger battleships. This attempt met with disastrous results. Initially, the battleships were able to punish the forts with accurate and overwhelming battery fire and this enabled the trawlers to remove many mines standing in the fleet’s way. What the commanders could not know however, was their magnificent firepower was reducing mostly abandoned and de-armed forts to dust.

In a brilliant move, the Turks had stripped the forts of most of their guns and mounted them on movable carriages. They added these guns to the highly mobile batteries of howitzers well hidden and back from the shore. After the fleet let up its bombardment, it began taking indirect fire from previously unknown gun locations behind a line of screening dunes. To make matters worse, a terribly brave Turkish destroyer captain slipped behind the fleet under the cover of darkness and laid mines in areas previously cleared and therefore thought to be safe. When the flying batteries ashore began dealing serious blows to the attacking ships, the French admiral in charge ordered a strategic retreat . . . and backed his ships right into the newly laid minefield. The naval campaign had failed miserably.

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Well, that’s one way to land troops.

Unfortunately, the lack of naval success in no way diminished the planned invasion. In the next war, amphibious assault would be developed to a high art form. That would be the next war though. In this war, what passed for an amphibious assault meant landing men and materiel on shore through the surf zone in small motor launches whilst under murderous fire from the Turkish positions on the high bluffs overlooking the landing site. The Allies would have been hard pressed to find a less hospitable area on the whole of the Gallipoli peninsula to land their forces than what would come to be called Anzac Cove.

Of all the Allied forces involved in the campaign, the most remembered was the combination of the Australian Expeditionary Force and the New Zealand Expeditionary Force into one unit known as the ANZACS. The ANZACS were supposed to land at Anzac Cove and push inland, overrunning the Ottoman forces as they went. Two fatal flaws became immediately apparent in this plan. First, pushing “inland” was more like pushing up a mountain. The Aussies and Kiwis landed on a nice smooth sand beach, but 100 yards away the Turks held the high bluffs and their machine guns were lethal to the invaders from Down Under. Second, no one informed the Turks they were supposed to be overrun.

Much of the planning for the Gallipoli Campaign predicated on the Ottoman Empire being a spent force, a kind of paper tiger. Sure, it appeared large and imposing, but the Turkish soldiers couldn’t match the British and French Empire troops in courage and fighting ability. Several thousand graves on the land overlooking Gallipoli give the lie to that fatal presumption. The Turks were far from paper tigers. While they may not have had all the modern weaponry available, they had made strides towards modernization with liberal German help. What is more, these were the descendents of the men who fought for and against Genghis Khan. No tougher men lived on the planet. One amazing example is the order given by one commander to his troops in the face of a massive Allied attack. The Turks had expended all their ammo and had nothing left but bayonets. Their commander gave the order to fix bayonets and shouted his last order to his men, “Men, I do not order you to fight! I order you to DIE! In the time which passes until we die, other troops and commanders can come forward and take our places.” His regiment fought til the last man was killed.

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The main Gallipoli memorial in Turkey. The inscription is a quote from Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and says: “Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives … You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours … You, the mothers who sent their sons from faraway countries, wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.

Nothing Churchill envisioned in the Gallipoli Campaign went as planned. By the end of the month, the operation which was supposed to relieve pressure on the Western Front had dissolved into a stagnant version of the Western Front, South. Allied troops would attack from their precariously situated bases on the beachheads they managed to hold and the Ottomans would counterattack downhill and attempt to drive the invaders into the sea. As summer descended, the heat and humidity became nearly unbearable. Sanitation was mostly unknown and the presence of so much human waste added to the massive amounts of putrid, rotting unburied bodies killed in the fighting gave rise to a biblical plague of flies which then spread diseases among both camps.

The ANZACs at Anzac Cove had much of the worst time of it. Where they were situated, no cooling sea breezes managed to penetrate to give even momentary respite from the flies and the stench. What’s more, several of the Turks on the bluffs overlooking the ANZAC beachhead were excellent shots and possessed extremely accurate modern rifles. Sniping casualties piled up each day as staying hunkered down under cover meant suffocation in the stale, rancid air. The ANZACS even lost a major general to sniping as he tried to review his troops to raise morale.

By the end of August, the Allies were done. They’d had enough. Bulgaria had entered the war on the German side opening up a flank and giving the Germans breathing space to rearm the Turks. Also, the French High Command announced their plans for what was becoming an annual fall offensive on the Western Front and demanded the British send the troops they had promised late in the previous year. The Gallipoli Campaign was abandoned and the remnants of the attackers got off the peninsula in the same small boats under the same withering fire that had greeted them almost nine months before. Back in London, Sir Winston Churchill was sacked as First Lord of the Admiralty and by his own account figured his political career had come to an end. Of course we know now his “finest hour” was still to come.

The legacy of Gallipoli probably casts its longest shadows over the ANZACs and what would become the country of Turkey. The First World War in general and the Gallipoli debacle in particular marked the last time Australians and New Zealanders would take the field beneath the Union Jack. From World War Two onward they would fight as separate and fiercely independent countries, still loyal to the mother country, but unwilling to take orders from her to slaughter her sons. Since 1916, April 25 is celebrated in both countries as ANZAC Day, sort of a Memorial Day and Fourth of July all rolled into one.

For the Ottomans, Gallipoli was the end. Commanding the troops on the peninsula was a young ethnic Turkish general named Mustafa Kemal. He would rise to great power during the three year Turkish War of Independence that followed the Great War. His guidance and vision combined with the respect he had among his countrymen earned him the rulership of Turkey and the honorific surname “Ataturk” which means “Father of the Turks.” In many ways, he is the Turkish version of George Washington.

The Gallipoli Campaign is entirely too complex and interesting to hope for one blog entry to do justice. If you find your curiosity about this seminal part of the Great War, I invite you to read probably THE definitive account of the events around Gallipoli. The book is simply titled Gallipoli by Robert Rhodes James.

Until next time, love y’all and keep those feet clean.

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