Today I salute the many thousands who fell on the beaches of Gallipoli, downed by Turkish bullets certainly, but just as surely by the incompetence and arrogance of the British command which treated their lives with unforgivable disregard. The following section is from Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East by Scott Anderson, coincidentally my current read during the centenary.
Rarely more than six or seven miles across, the peninsula runs northwards for some fifty miles before finally broadening out on to the European mainland. In selecting where to go ashore, the British could have chosen any number of spots along Gallipoli’s length where a ground force, once gaining the ridge line and climbing down to the opposite shore – a distance of less than three miles in places – would have split the Ottoman army in two and trapped any enemy forces positioned below that line. Of course, the best option might have been to sidestep the peninsula completely and put in at the Gulf of Saros at its northern end. An invasion force coming ashore in that broad bat would not only maroon all the Turkish troops garrisoned on Gallipoli but would then have a virtually unimpeded path through easy countryside to Constantinople, just 100 miles away. This was certainly the greatest fear of General Liman von Sanders, the German commander recently appointed by the Turkish government to over see the Dardanelles defence. In anticipation of a landing at Saros he had placed his headquarters and fully a third of his army there.
The one possibility that Sanders tended to discount entirely was a landing at Gallipoli’s southern tip, simply because the most basic rules of military logic – even mere common sense – argued against it. Not only would a landing force there be vulnerable to defenders dug in on the heights above them, but completely exposed to whatever long range Turkish artillery remained operable in their nearby fortresses. And even if such a force managed to scale the heights and seize those forts, the Turkish defenders could then begin a slow withdrawal up the peninsula, throwing up new trenchlines as they went, neatly replicating the static trench warfare of the Western Front. Indeed, one would be hard pressed to find a worse landing site most anywhere on the three-thousand-mile-long Mediterranean coast of the Ottoman empire – yet it was precisely here that Med Ex (the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force) was going ashore.
Along with condescension for the enemy, always a perilous mindset for an army, that decision was apparently born of sheer bureaucratic obduracy. Since the Dardanelles campaign had been conceived as a naval operation, the success or failure of the expanded mission would continue to be judged through the narrow lens of its original objective – clearing the straits – leaving its planners quite blind to the idea of trying a different approach that might ultimately achieve the same end. Incredibly, it seems Gallipoli strategists had less rejected alternative landing sites than never seriously considered them…
…At about 6.15 on the morning of April 25, SS River Clyde, a converted collier out of Liverpool, closed on a small gently arcing beach – codenamed V Beach – at Cape Helles, the southern tip of the Gallipoli peninsula. Crammed below decks were some two thousand British soldiers. Coming in on the gentle seas alongside the Clyde were five or six launches likewise crammed to their gunwales with more soldiers. At about 100 yards out, the cutter skippers cast off their towlines and distributed oars so that their crews might row the rest of the way to shore. From that shore came no sign of life at all. It appeared, just as hoped, that the landing at Cape Helles had caught the Turks completely off guard.
A damn good thing too, for the slapdash preparations made for those going ashore at V Beach – and the notion of sending men on to an enemy beach in unarmoured and motorless boats wasn’t the worst of it – suggested trouble if they met any resistance. In an Alexandria shipyard workers had started in on a camouflage paint job on the River Clyde but had run out of time – as a result as the collier approached V Beach that morning its muted battleship grey was offset by enormous splotches of tan primer, making it stand out against the sea as if illuminated. Then there was the small matter of the Clyde being unable actually to reach the beach. The plan instead was to run her aground offshore and then manoeuvre several fishing boats into the gap, lashing them together to create a makeshift bridge from ship to shore. At that point the disembarking soldiers would emerge from four portals cut into t he Clyde’s bow, pass along two gangways to the fishing boats, then clamber over those until finally they reached the beach. It’s hard to imagine that such blithe preparations would have attended a landing against Stone Age Pacific Islanders, let alone against a modern army but such was the contempt with which British war planners held the Turks.
As the cutters neared the beach the only sounds floating over the quiet bay were of boat engines and the dipping of oars, of men talking and laughing – perhaps a bit louder than normal out of relief at their uneventful landing. It was when the lead boats just yards off the beach that the Turkish machine gunners, secreted in strategic vantage points along the shoreline, opened up.
The men in the open cutters never had a chance. One after another, these boats were shot to pieces or capsized, the gear-laden soldiers within them drowning in the surf or picked off after becoming entangled in the barbed wire that had been strung below the water’s surface. Most of the very few who made it on to the beach alive were soon cut down by the raking machine gun fire.
Those coming off the Clyde fared little better. Time and again work crews emerged from the protected steel hull to try to lash the ersatz pontoon bridge together only to be shot down almost immediately or to similarly drown in the surf. When finally a bridge of sorts was established, the soldiers emerging on to the gangways were easy targets. Of the first company of two hundred men to go out of the portals, only eleven reach shore. Many of the early casualties on the gangways actually died of suffocation, pinned beneath the growing heaps of dead and wounded of those coming behind. Whoever did manage to make the beach huddled for safety behind a six foot high sand escarpment at its landward edge, scant protection against machine gun bullets. By late afternoon there were so many dead men in the water that, as a British captain on the scene observed, ‘the sea near the shore was a red blood colour which could be seen hundreds of yards away.’
By the end of that first day, the advance landing forces at Gallipoli had already suffered nearly four thousand casualties…So bewildered was General von Sanders by his enemy’s idiocy that for the next day he remained convinced the southern landing was a mere faint and that the main invasion force was still coming elsewhere…The first day objective of those landing on Cape Helles had been to secure a small village some miles inland and then to advance on the Turkish forts just above. Over the next seven months the British would never reach that village but would suffer nearly a quarter of a million casualties trying…
But it wasn’t just the estimated half a million soldiers killed or wounded on either side of the trenchline who would fall victim to the consequences of Gallipoli. On the very day the British came ashore, April 25, the Constantinople regime ordered the round up of some two hundred Armenian intellectuals and business leaders who it accused to being potential fifth columnists for the invaders. It was the beginning of a brutal ‘cleansing operation’ against the Ottoman Empire’s Christian minority – a genocide in the view of many – that would result in the deaths of as many as a million Armenians and Assyrians over the next year.