THE Gallipoli Campaign has long been regarded as being the birth of our nation; the moment the newly Federated Australia proved itself worthy to stand on its own two feet in the dominion of the British Empire.
The campaign is also noted for its military blundering; for bad decision making by British generals, sending our troops often to certain death facing insurmountable odds.
Indeed, the campaign’s military miscalculations began well before the first Australian soldier set foot on the beaches of Gallipoli on 25 April 1915.
Turkey, part of the once great but now weakened Ottoman Empire, had been a good friend to both the British and Germans before the First World War. Once war was declared, it made clear its neutrality.
But just days into the war, a defining action by the First Lord of the Admiralty, a young Winston Churchill, set in motion a series of events that would result in the Gallipoli Campaign, and the loss of over 8,000 Australian lives.
On 1 August 1914, the Ottoman Empire’s greatest naval hero, Captain Huseyin Rauf, arrived in London with his Turkish troops to take delivery of the first of two dreadnoughts that had been purchased from Britain for six million pounds.
The great sacrifices the Turkish people had made to raise the funds for these ships, to become the pride of the Turkish fleet, can not be underestimated. Taxes had been raised significantly, donation boxes had been placed on bridges, civil servant wages had been docked, and in villages across Turkey, women had cut off and sold their hair to wig makers to raise the funds required.
The problem Captain Rauf faced this morning, in the London shipyard, was a line of men in uniform, not Turkish uniform either, advancing with guns with bayonets fixed. Due to the declaration of war, and the uncertainty of where Turkey stood in the bigger picture, Winston Churchill had claimed the ships for Britain.
The consternation over the “theft” of their ships was the subject of much heated discussion in Constantinople.
Over the next week, a domino effect of declarations of war spread throughout Europe, and leaders in Constantinople had declared a “neutral call to arms”.
Just days later, two German warships, Goeben and Breslau, fleeing pursuing British ships, requested permission to enter the narrow and heavily defended strip of water called the Dardanelles, to seek safe-haven in the Sea of Marmara.
Turkey was now on a knife’s edge, and the decision to let the German ships enter or not enter would change the shape of world history. To refuse them entry would be to maintain Turkey’s neutrality, but to allow them to enter would be nothing short of a declaration of war against Britain.
The Turkish Minister for War, General Enver, now faced two decisions. The first was whether to allow the German ships passage through the Dardanelles. “Yes” was his answer. The second was whether the Turkish guns were to fire on the pursuing British ships.
General Enver broke the news to Cabinet colleagues with the words “A son has been born to us”.
The German ships would be “purchased” by Turkey, thus replacing the ships taken from them by the British, and certainly pushing Turkey into the war on the side of the Germans.
The British now had a problem. The Dardanelles was considered key to winning the war. Not only was it the strip of water separating Europe from Asia, but it also led directly to Constantinople, the capital of Turkey, and via The Bosphorus, to the Black Sea. It was a passage that, now restricted, cut off much of the supply and naval movements by one of Britain’s allies, Russia.
Very quickly, British commanders established the need to “force the Dardanelles” with the British Navy. It would allow for the capture of Constantinople, the opening of an eastern front against Germany, and the opening of the supply route.
On 4 November 1914, four battle cruisers sailed into the mouth of the Dardanelles and began firing on the Ottoman forts lining the shores. This is despite the fact that Turkey was yet to enter the war. One shell scored a direct hit on a Turkish fort, killing 86 Turkish soldiers. Ten days later, a fatwah was issued proclaiming a jihad against British, French and Russian infidels.
On 18 March, 1915 the day had come for Britain and her allies to “force the Dardanelles”. A massive force; the pride of the British Fleet, assembled at the mouth of the Dardanelles. Eighteen battleships then attempted to ram their way through with disastrous results. Six were either sunk or damaged to the point of being out of commission.
It was then that the realisation came. There was no way to “force the Dardanelles” without the assistance of ground troops to knock out the forts that so successfully protected the waterway.
It was known from the outset what would be faced on the shores of Gallipoli. One commander called his troops together and told them “Boys, the General informs me that it will take several battleships and destroyers to carry our brigade to Gallipoli; a barge will be sufficient to take us home again.”
It was before sunrise on 25th of April, as the troops approached the Gallipoli shore in boats that a single shot rang out followed by a barrage of heavy fire. It had begun. One Australian was heard to say “They want to cut that shooting out. Somebody might get killed.”
It was a day that will live in history books forevermore. Troops that had been gathered from across the states of Australia, most untested in battle, stormed the cliffs and well-defended trenches of the Turkish troops at great cost. By the end of the day, the severity of the situation was apparent, and discussions were held in ships offshore as to whether to abandon the operation and evacuate the troops not yet killed. It was considered doubtful they could hold their tenuous positions and would soon be pushed back into the sea.
Hang on they did though. Against tremendous opposition, and with death and disease all around them. (In some months during the campaign, more men died of disease than of Turkish bullets and shells. The squalid conditions, poor supply lines, fleas, lice and flies in their billions lead to the proliferation of diseases and deadly infection.)
What was planned as an attack of ground troops to facilitate a naval operation to “force the Dardanelles”. What occurred was a land operation that was assisted by naval support with bombardments of Turkish positions from the sea. Eventually even the naval support was wound back after the sinking of the British battleship Triumph by a German U-boat.
The troops were left clinging to the edge of the Gallipoli Peninsula until they evacuated on 9 January, 1916.
Perhaps the last word on the debacle that was Gallipoli should be left to Australia’s official war correspondent, Charles Bean, who wrote:
“Remote though the conflict was, so completely did it absorb the people’s energies, so completely concentrate and unify their efforts, that it is possible for those who lived among the events to say that in those days Australia became fully conscious of itself as a nation.”