World War I: Battle of Gallipoli

Battle of Gallipoli
Australian troops attack at the Battle of Gallipoli. (National Archives & Records Administration)

The Battle of Gallipoli was fought during World War I (1914-1918) and represented an attempt to knock the Ottoman Empire out of the war. The plan for the operation was conceived by First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill who believed warships could force the Dardanelles and strike directly at Constantinople. When this proved unfeasible, the Allies elected to land troops on the Gallipoli Peninsula to open the straits.

The early stages of the campaign were badly handled and Allied forces were effectively trapped in their beachheads. Though the Allies spent much of 1915 trying to breakout, they were not successful and the decision was made to withdraw late that year. The campaign marked the Ottoman Empire's greatest victory of the war.

Fast Facts: Gallipoli Campaign

  • Conflict: World War I (1914-1918)
  • Dates: February 17, 1915-January 9, 1916
  • Armies & Commanders:
    • Allies
      • General Sir Ian Hamilton
      • Admiral Sir John de Robeck
      • 489,000 men
    • Ottoman Empire
      • Lieutenant General Otto Liman von Sanders
      • Mustafa Kemal Pasha
      • 315,500 men
  • Casualties:
    • Allies: Britain - 160,790 killed and wounded, France - 27,169 killed and wounded
    • Ottoman Empire: 161,828 killed, wounded, and missing

Background

Following the entry of the Ottoman Empire into World War I, First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill developed a plan for attacking the Dardanelles. Using the ships of the Royal Navy, Churchill believed, partially due to faulty intelligence, that the straits could be forced, opening the way for a direct assault on Constantinople. This plan was approved and several of the Royal Navy's older battleships were transferred to the Mediterranean.

On the Offensive

Operations against the Dardanelles began on February 19, 1915, with British ships under Admiral Sir Sackville Carden bombarding Turkish defenses with little effect. A second attack was made on the 25th which succeeded in forcing the Turks to fall back to their second line of defenses. Entering the straits, British warships engaged the Turks again on March 1, however, their minesweepers were prevented from clearing the channel due to heavy fire.

Another attempt to remove the mines failed on the 13th, leading Carden to resign. His replacement, Rear Admiral John de Robeck, launched a massive assault on Turkish defenses on the 18th. This failed and resulted in the sinking of two old British and one French battleships after they struck mines.

Sir Ian Hamilton
General Sir Ian Hamilton, 1910. Library of Congress

Ground Forces

With the failure of the naval campaign, it became clear to Allied leaders that a ground force was going to be needed to eliminate the Turkish artillery on the Gallipoli Peninsula which commanded the straits. This mission was delegated to General Sir Ian Hamilton and the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force. This command included the newly formed Australia and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC), the 29th Division, the Royal Naval Division, and the French Oriental Expeditionary Corps. Security for the operation was lax and the Turks spent six weeks preparing for the anticipated assault.

Ottoman machine gun team
Ottoman machine gun team during the Gallipoli Campaign. Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-S29571 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Opposing the Allies was the Turkish 5th Army commanded by General Otto Liman von Sanders, the German advisor to the Ottoman army. Hamilton's plan called for landings at Cape Helles, near the tip of the peninsula, with the ANZACs landing further up the Aegean coast just north of Gaba Tepe. While the 29th Division was to advance north to take the forts along the straits, the ANZACs were to cut across the peninsula to prevent the retreat or reinforcement of the Turkish defenders. The first landings began on April 25, 1915, and were badly mismanaged (Map).

Meeting stiff resistance at Cape Helles, British troops took heavy casualties as they landed and, after heavy fighting, were finally able to overwhelm the defenders. To the north, the ANZACs faired slightly better, though they missed their intended landing beaches by about a mile. Pushing inland from "Anzac Cove," they were able to gain a shallow foothold. Two days later, Turkish troops under Mustafa Kemal attempted to drive the ANZACs back into the sea but were defeated by tenacious defending and naval gunfire. At Helles, Hamilton, now supported by French troops, pushed north towards the village of Krithia.

Trench Warfare

Attacking on April 28, Hamilton's men were unable to take the village. With his advance stalled in the face of determined resistance, the front began to mirror the trench warfare of France. Another attempt was made to take Krithia on May 6. Pushing hard, Allied forces only gained a quarter mile while suffering heavy casualties. At Anzac Cove, Kemal launched a massive counterattack on May 19. Unable to throw the ANZACs back, he suffered over 10,000 casualties in the attempt. On June 4, a final attempt was made against Krithia with no success.

Gridlock

After a limited victory at Gully Ravine in late June, Hamilton accepted that the Helles front had become a stalemate. Seeking to move around the Turkish lines, Hamilton re-embarked two divisions and had them landed at Sulva Bay, just north of Anzac Cove, on August 6. This was supported by diversionary attacks at Anzac and Helles.

Coming ashore, Lt. General Sir Frederick Stopford's men moved too slowly and the Turks were able to occupy the heights overlooking their position. As a result, the British troops were quickly locked into their beachhead. In the supporting action to the south, the ANZACs were able to win a rare victory at Lone Pine, though their main assaults on Chunuk Bair and Hill 971 failed.

Soldiers at Gallipoli
Soldiers of the Royal Irish Fusiliers in the trenches on the southern section of Gallipoli Peninsula during World War I. Australian War Memorial

On August 21, Hamilton attempted to revive the offensive at Sulva Bay with attacks on Scimitar Hill and Hill 60. Fighting in brutal heat, these were beaten off and by the 29th the battle had ended. With the failure of Hamilton's August Offensive, fighting calmed as British leaders debated the future of the campaign. In October, Hamilton was replaced by Lt. General Sir Charles Monro.

After reviewing his command, and influenced by the entry of Bulgaria into the war on the side of the Central Powers, Monro recommended evacuating Gallipoli. Following a visit from Secretary of State for War Lord Kitchener, Monro's evacuation plan was approved. Beginning on December 7, troop levels were drawn down with those at Sulva Bay and Anzac Cove departing first. The last Allied forces departed Gallipoli on January 9, 1916, when the final troops embarked at Helles.

Aftermath

The Gallipoli Campaign cost the Allies 187,959 killed and wounded and the Turks 161,828. Gallipoli proved to be the Turks' greatest victory of the war. In London, the campaign's failure led to the demotion of Winston Churchill and contributed to the collapse of Prime Minister H. H. Asquith's government. The fighting at Gallipoli proved a galvanizing national experience for Australia and New Zealand, which had not previously fought in a major conflict. As a result, the anniversary of the landings, April 25, is celebrated as ANZAC Day and is both nations' most significant day of military remembrance.