December 1915

The Dardanelles

By Alessandro Chebat

"Ordered by the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, the campaign of the Dardanelles was one of the most terrible battles of the Great War. The hope that a striking victory would quickly decide the conflict clashed with the logic of machine guns, trenches, and frontal attacks."

 

On the night between December 19th and 20th, 1915, the last troops of the Australian New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) were evacuated from Suvla Bay. Australia and New Zealand thus concluded the tragic epic of Gallipoli. Operations had begun in February with a heavy naval bombardment that silenced the Turkish artillery. The purpose of the attack was to take up the Dardanelles and quickly defeat the Ottoman Empire, which, although militarily weak, had forced the Allies to disperse numerous forces on  minor fronts. The simultaneous control of the Strait would allowed a fast track to supply Russia, in chronic crisis of armaments.

Already in this phase, the invasion force suffered a harsh blow with the loss of three battleships that collided with mines, laid along the coast. The original plan to conquer the straits with only the forces of the Navy was soon abandoned in favour of a large amphibious operation.

The action was organised sketchily and with a relatively small number of men because of the priority assigned to the western front. On April 25th, an English, French, Australian, and New Zealander contingent landed on the coast around Gallipoli. The lack of surprise prejudiced the operation’s success from the outset, since the British commanders had publicised the concentration of the invasion forces in Egypt. Awaiting their arrival were 84 thousand well-armed, well-equipped Turkish soldiers, taken from the best troops available.

Despite this, when the contingents of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force (MEF) landed they did not meet with any particular opposition. Within a few days, 75 thousand men were ready to attack the Turkish positions. Inexplicably, Commander Sir Ian Hamilton did not exploit this favourable situation, but took a wait-and-see attitude. The troops already on the ground remained inactive, without consolidating the bridge-heads conquered. This negligence was exacerbated by the British military leaders’ low opinion of the Turks: the Minister of War, Lord Kitchener, defined the offensive of the Dardanelles as "a cruise in the Marmara Sea." On the contrary, the commander of the Ottoman forces, the German Otto Liman von Sanders, exploited the stalling of the operations and organised the first counterattacks by concentrating his forces in the areas most at risk.

One of these areas was the Bay of Gaba Tepé, dominated by the high ground of the Sari Bair Range between which stand out Chunuk Bair, Baby 700, Battleship Hill and Hill 971. Here was planned an attack by the ANZAC's forces insomuch as, in the early hours of the morning had already landed about 8000 australians. Only three Turkish battalions, reinforced by a battery of cannons, were there to oppose them. The bulk of the reserve forces, eight other battalions and three artillery batteries, commanded by the young and as yet unknown Mustafa Kemal, were six kilometres from the bay. 

Due to the size of the landing forces, and the strategic importance of the high ground, Kemal went forth to meet the ANZAC with all available forces. The Turkish contingent arrived on the ridge of Chunuk Bair at 10 in the morning and soon blocked the Australian front lines engaged in the ascent of the mountain. The battle that would influence the rest of the operations then began. In six hours of fighting the ANZAC lost more than two thousand men, establishing a precarious and discontinuous front sheltered from the coast and extending for two square kilometres. Turkish troops also sustained heavy losses, but succeeded in shattering the progress of the ANZAC. At Cape Helles, the Anglo-French efforts against the village of Krithia, a stronghold of Ottoman defences, failed with heavy losses on both sides. In spite of repeated, bloody assaults, the front line would not suffer any changes until the withdrawal of the expeditionary corps. As on the western front, even in the Dardanelles it proved impossible for the infantry to overcome well-arranged, well-equipped entrenchments with machine guns and artillery. 

In order to exit the impasse, a new landing was attempted on August 10th in Suvla Bay, where 1,500 Turkish soldiers, then supported by reinforcement troops, pushed back the attack led by approximately 25 thousand Allied soldiers. The attempts of the ANZAC to overcome the Sari Bair Range had similar results: the front remained immobile, whereas losses rose dramatically. Young, inexperienced, and ill prepared for a modern war, the ANZAC soldiers, with useless, but stubborn attacks, gained the respect of the British, who had so far considered them troops of little value. 

In response to Hamilton’s constant requests for reinforcements, the British government reacted by dismissing the General: the Dardanelles campaign was ending in failure. It is indicative that the only operation carried out with success was the retreat, which took place without any hitches or losses. 

The campaign caused approximately half a million losses among the Allied and the Turkish forces. The fallen were over 110 thousand, divided equally between the two sides. The ANZAC closed the campaign with 35 thousand dead, wounded and missing, out of approximately 78 thousand Australians and New Zealanders who landed at Gallipoli. The epic of the Australian New Zealand Army Corps, which became a symbol of Australian and New Zealander patriotism, is remembered every 25th of April on the occasion of ANZAC Day.

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