The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East, by Eugene Rogan
The British War Council met in London on 2 January 1915 to consider an urgent war request for assistance from the commander in chief of the Russian army.
As recently as 27 December, the Russians were on the verge of being encircled by the Ottoman Army in the Caucasus. After deliberations, Britain initiated planning for the Dardanelles campaign. Unknown to the British, by the time of this War Council meeting, Russia was on the verge of total victory. Yet, learning of this shortly thereafter, the British decided to forge ahead anyway – as fateful and disastrous a decision as any taken on the western front.
Field Marshall Kitchener was the loudest voice in the Council. He felt a naval operation along the Mediterranean coast would be sufficient to draw Ottoman troops away from the Russians and the Caucasus due to fear of risk to the capital, Istanbul. Kitchener turned to Winston Churchill, the first lord of the Admiralty, tasking him to measure the feasibility of the endeavor. Churchill raised the stakes: more than just bombing coastal positions why not force the Straits and go on to the capital?
The Dardanelles run over forty miles from the Mediterranean to the Sea of Marmara; at the Narrows, the distance between the shores of Europe and Asia is as little as 1.600 yards. The path was strewn with undersea mines.
Admiral Carden replied to Churchill: the Straits could be forced with naval power alone. But by this time, news came of the Russian successes. So the objective changed: instead of going now to aid their Russian allies, the British would go to conquer a weakened Turkey, believed to be on the brink of collapse.
The French promised full support in the Mediterranean, and the Russians promised to simultaneously attack the northern Straits from the Black Sea. And, as was expected for the time, the Allies immediately went into negotiations to divide up the soon-to-be dissolved remains of the Ottoman Empire.
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By early February, the British and French had massed their fleets in the Mediterranean. They would soon come to conclude that some ground troops might actually be necessary in the assault; between the British and the French, soon over 60,000 troops would be assembled.
Naval operations began on 19 February – eighteen battleships, including the massive Queen Elizabeth. With a range farther than the capability of the Turkish guns onshore, the navy was free to fire without risk. Only when British ships approached the shore to assess the damage, the Turkish gunners returned fire.
News of the attack panicked Istanbul. The Ottoman government and the palace left the city and set up shop in Anatolia; the treasury was doing the same with its gold. The British were anticipating a government crisis that would topple the Young Turk government.
And then catastrophe for the British and French. On 18 March, several ships were able to enter the Straits – to include the Queen Elizabeth. After being hit by Turkish shelling, the French ship Bouvet turned to leave the Straits. Then it all really went bad: being carried downstream by the strong currents, it struck a mine.
The explosion blew a hole in the hull; the ship capsized within two minutes with nearly all of its crew of 724 trapped inside – and then it immediately plunged to the ocean floor. Sixty-two men survived.
The Allies were caught by surprise with the mine explosion; it hadn’t dawned on them that the Ottomans might lay new mines after the British finished sweeping operations days earlier. These new mines caught the Bouvet, and would quickly strike the Inflexible, Irresistible, and Ocean. Four ships in a matter of a few hours.
And this was before artillery fire from the shore struck the Suffren and Gaulois. Even the Queen Elizabeth suffered five hits. All Allied ships were recalled from the Straits, escaping to safety.
Three battleships sunk, three others badly damaged; over 1,000 lives lost and hundreds wounded. One-third of the Allied battle fleet was lost in a single day – with nothing to show for the effort. The events of 18 March brought to an end the naval campaign. Not leaving bad enough alone, the Allies began to work out a land campaign; after all, to withdraw after such a disastrous defeat would not be honorable.
The Allies took one month to develop their battle plan. The Turks, aided by German military officers, took the month to fortify their positions. On 25 April the assault began. From the beginning, nothing went to plan – with results as disastrous and futile as those realized in the naval campaign.
The Allies successfully landed 50,000 men (after accounting for the dead and wounded) yet were unable to secure a single one of their objectives. Casualty rates as high as 30 percent within the first days, with nothing but a few hundred yards to show for it. Ottoman casualty rates were as high – and higher when the Ottomans attempted a counter-attack.
After a month of horrific fighting, a stalemate ensued: just as in the western front, this south-eastern front would turn into a body churning trench war. This, combined with the arrival of German U-boats, certainly offset any possible Allied advantage, and made stalemate almost certain.
The situation in Gallipoli caused a political crisis at home. The Liberal government was forced to accept cabinet members from the Conservative Party – one casualty was Churchill, replaced as Lord of the Admiralty by Arthur James Balfour. It wasn’t the Ottoman government that fell, but the British.
Lord Kitchener – who, despite having been perhaps most responsible for the planning that led to the disaster, remained in office – presented three options to the newly formed Dardanelles Committee.
Britain and its Allies could abandon the Gallipoli campaign altogether. They could dispatch a major army to conquer the peninsula. Or they could continue to reinforce the small expeditionary force under Sir Ian Hamilton in the hope of making slow but steady progress towards the eventual conquest of Gallipoli.
Option one was ruled out immediately: lose to Muslims here and there would be Muslim uprisings throughout the Allied and Allied-controlled portions of the Ottoman Empires. After debating the other two options, it was decided to dispatch a major Army: five divisions would be sent, each comprised of 10,000 – 15,000 men.
Over the summer, trenches would form a complex grid throughout the landscape. Those who saw battle on both the western front and Gallipoli felt that, of the two, the latter was far worse. Unlike the western front, where a soldier might go months without firing his rifle, on Gallipoli the fighting was constant. With the Turks holding the high ground and the German U-boats driving the British navy far from shore, Turkish artillery pounded the Allied trenches with impunity. And this says nothing of the snipers.
Leave. There was no place to take leave, unlike on the western front where towns and villages were just a few miles away, offering respite.
The soldiers were afraid of being attacked, but more afraid of going on the attack. Wave after wave would be sent, only to be mowed down by Turkish fire. Dead bodies by the thousands filled the land between the combatants. In the intense summer heat, the flies filled the skies. The flies accompanying the dead also accompanied the living – to include the food rations. Sickness traveled from the dead to the living.
Week after week the casualties mounted, by the thousands and tens-of-thousands. Yet, one more push. A successful marine landing: twenty-thousand men landed on a beach defended by no more than 1,500 Ottoman soldiers. Alas, an opportunity lost: unaware of the relatively small force opposite, the British commanders gave their men a day of rest. And during this day, the Ottomans reinforced their positions.
Two months later, 11 October, the first discussion of evacuation was raised; even evacuation was not risk free, with casualty estimates as high as fifty-percent. One month later, the “prime mover” of the campaign, Lord Kitchener, came to visit for the first time:
He saw Gallipoli and he understood: “The country is much more difficult than I imagined…and the Turkish positions…are natural fortresses which, if not taken by surprise at first, could be held against very serious attack by larger forces than have been engaged.”
The decision to evacuate was made on 7 December; over the course of two nights, ending 20 December, 77,000 soldiers were successfully evacuated with not a single casualty. The British, it seems, were far more careful with the plans of evacuation than they had been with their plans of conquest.
Initially it was thought that 50,000 could secure the Straits. Even after a force of over half-a-million was deployed, this was not accomplished. They faced an Ottoman contingent of over 300,000. Of the roughly 800,000 men who fought in the campaign, perhaps 500,000 were killed, wounded or taken prisoner.
Gallipoli, for the Allies, was a total defeat.
If you have not seen the movie Gallipoli, with a young Mel Gibson, it is well worth it if you want a visual of the utter catastrophe that was the Gallipoli campaign. Just multiply what you see by about 10,000.
Reprinted with permission from Bionic Mosquito.