April 25, 1915. An Allied invasion force lands on the Gallipoli Peninsula in modern Turkey. Its mission: knock the Ottoman Empire out of World War I. Their hopes are quickly dashed when the fight turns into an agonizing slog that will herald the birth of three nations. Neither the Turkish defenders, nor the Australian and New Zealander attackers, come home from Gallipoli quite the same.
Constantinople/Istanbul has been one of the most important strategic locations in Europe for over two millennia. The city dominates the Dardanelles and the Bosporus, the narrow waterways that divide Europe from Asia and which together form the only sea route between the Mediterranean and Black Seas. The Dardanelles is the western half of this route that opens into the Mediterranean. A narrow strait, it is bounded on the west by the narrow Gallipoli peninsula, and on the east by mainland Turkey.
The Dardanelles was critical even in Ancient Greek times, and in 1914 it was controlled by the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans controlled the whole waterway from their capital at Constantinople (contrary to popular belief, it would not be renamed Istanbul until 1923). The Ottomans were an Islamic dynasty of Turkish origin which had controlled the region for 500 years, ever since they had taken Constantinople from the Byzantine Empire in 1453.
By 1914, however, the Ottoman Empire was in an advanced stage of decay. It had lost most of its European territories in the last century, and its Middle Eastern regions were rebellious and in danger of splitting away. The European Great Powers – especially Britain, France, and Russia – seemed to be circling it like a vulture, waiting for the old man to finally expire so they could pick at its corpse.
When the Great War broke out in 1914, hopes for a quick victory by either side faded away after the first two months of the war. The Ottomans, for their part, realized that Germany was their only possible salvation from eventual dismemberment – if the Allies won, nothing would stop the imperial powers from carving up the Empire. In October 1914, the Ottomans threw in their lot with Germany. It was a Hail Mary by a desperate coach staking everything on a Central Powers victory.
The entrance of the Ottoman Empire into World War I posed challenges to the Allies. When the Ottomans joined the war, the most important sea route from Britain and France to Russia – the Dardanelles – was closed off, and Ottoman troops were fighting the Russians in the Caucasus. Russia needed all the help they could get; they were already looking pretty shaky less than a year into the war. Britain and France decided that something needed to be done against the Ottomans to take pressure off Russia.
This is where the British First Lord of the Admiralty, 41-year-old Winston Churchill, entered the ring. Churchill proposed a naval attack on the Dardanelles based on reports that Ottoman defenses there were weak, followed by an amphibious assault to seize Constantinople. If this could be accomplished, the Allies could reopen the sea route to supply Russia and maybe even knock the Ottomans out of the war entirely. Allied military leaders were skeptical, but Churchill’s energy and charisma convinced them.
A fleet of old British and French battleships came together, and the Allies pieced together a landing force. Since most British and French troops were committed to the Western Front, each nation could only spare a couple of divisions for the attack. This meant that the weight of the Dardanelles Offensive would in large part fall on the new arrivals in Egypt – the Australian and New Zealand divisions.
These two Dominions of the British Empire had never stepped onto the world stage before, occupying a peripheral place in the course of history. Besides a general loyalty to the British crown, they had little national sentiment or unifying feeling among their various provinces and towns. The young men of Australia and New Zealand, though, had volunteered enthusiastically to fight for King and Country when the Great War came round. They were organized into the ANZACs (Australian/New Zealand Army Corps) and sent to Egypt, where their first assignment would be the Gallipoli operation.
On March 18, 1915, the Allied fleets failed to penetrate the Dardanelles due to unexpectedly heavy resistance from Ottoman fortress artillery and floating mines. While some leaders advocated abandoning the whole expedition, the Allies decided – fatally – to double down. They determined to land major ground forces on the west side of the Gallipoli Peninsula, where they could cross over to the eastern side and destroy the Ottoman forts, clearing the way for the Allied battle fleet.
78,000 men would take part in the initial landing, including British, French, and around 25,000 ANZACs. Allied intelligence reported few Turkish forces in the area. The Allies discounted the fighting ability of the Turkish soldier due to feelings of racial and cultural superiority. They failed to formulate a plan beyond “attack” once troops were on the beaches, and didn’t even coordinate naval fire support. The all-around optimistic, unconcerned and naïve assumptions of Allied planners sowed the seeds of disaster.
The Ottomans had almost 62,000 troops in the Gallipoli Peninsula, coordinated by German General Otto Liman von Sanders. Among the divisions was the 19th Division of Mustafa Kemal, later known as “Ataturk” for winning the Turkish War of Independence and President of Turkey until his death in 1938. The Turks, contrary to Allied predictions, would fight like devils at Gallipoli. For the last several hundred years, they had lost most of their imperial possessions – but this land was Turkish land, not Greek, Bulgarian, or Arab. For the first time in centuries, the Turks were fighting not for their empire, but for their nation.
On April 25, 1915, the Allies went ashore at two spots on the Gallipoli Peninsula and immediately ran into stiff, murderous opposition. The sandy, craggy hills of Gallipoli overlooked every beach, and the attackers had to wade inland through the warm Mediterranean waters while rifle, machine gun and artillery fire cracked around them.
The Australians, on the beach to the north at what would be called “ANZAC Cove,” forced their way over their own dead to overwhelm the light Turkish defenses and began to move inland. Kemal acted quickly by rushing to the site of the struggle, personally leading reinforcements forward and launching a fierce counterattack. His quick response, and the bravery of his Turkish soldiers, killed any hope of a quick Allied victory at Gallipoli. Kemal’s leadership was both inspiring and ruthless. His words to the 57th Regiment would become immortal: “Men, I am not ordering you to attack. I am ordering you to die. In the time it takes us to die, other forces can come and take our place.”
By the end of April 25, the ANZACs held a tenuous perimeter only about a mile long around their landing zone and were under constant attack as they started digging. Both sides were barely holding their own on the sunny rocks. They suffered about 3,000 killed and wounded on the first day alone, out of 16,000 landed – almost 20% losses. The Turks had also suffered grievous losses, but they had held their ground.
Other landing sites by the British and French also failed to gain any real purchase. Several more days of attacks proved futile. Across the barren, sandy hills of Gallipoli, Allied and Ottoman soldiers both began digging in and preparing for the long haul. What had been pitched as a quick victory had shifted into a quagmire.
April 25’s failure turned into the great agony and loss that was Gallipoli. The Allies poured hundreds of thousands of men into the battle like a gambler desperately trying to recoup his initial bet. Throughout the summer and fall of 1915, more and more attacks over the same ground produced blood and misery in the sand. In what seems a perennial hallmark of the 20th Century’s most terrible battles, tiny pieces of ground, hills and ravines and ridges, became points of obsession for commanders and soldiers. Progress was measured in feet rather than miles. The Allies in particular were terribly exposed due to their inability to take and hold the high ground; supplies had to come over beaches that were always exposed to enemy rifle and artillery fire. Days turned into weeks and months in the idyllic little spit of land that would become a byword for futility, hubris and costly failure. Long after the point it had any relevance to either side, the killing and deadening trench warfare went on.
Both sides breathed a sigh of relief when, on January 8, 1916, the Allies withdrew from Gallipoli overnight. After eight months of carnage in the Greek sun, the Allies had suffered over 300,000 casualties, the Ottomans 250,000. Gallipoli was a decisive Ottoman victory. The sea route to Russia would never be opened. The Ottomans were not knocked out of the war, but proved more committed than ever. Churchill’s career was nearly ruined by the failure; he resigned as First Lord of the Admiralty and went to lead a battalion on the Western Front, probably never dreaming he could recover and lead his country someday. The failure of Gallipoli nearly brought down the British government.
Gallipoli, then, was one of the great terrible battles of World War I, on a level with the Somme, Verdun, or Passchendale. But to three nations, it was more than just another battle of the war.
To Australia and New Zealand, the Gallipoli campaign hit like a ton of bricks. The Australians lost 8,709 dead, and the Zealanders 2,721; staggering losses for their little countries. To this day, April 25 is “Anzac Day” in both nations, with dawn observances being the most common form of remembrance. A solemn, sacred day to Aussies and Kiwis, it is akin to American Memorial Day. For many in both countries, Gallipoli was the birth of their national identity through popular memory and media – their “baptism of fire.” Eric Fogle’s classic song “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” is one of the many popular evocations of the national moment that was Gallipoli.
To the Turks, too, Gallipoli had special significance. To them, the long retreat that had begun at Vienna in 1683 ended at Gallipoli: here, there could be no more retreat. March 18, the day that the Turks threw back the Allied fleet, became their day of remembrance, marked by ceremonies and parades annually. The emergence of Mustafa Kemal “Ataturk” (meaning “Great Turk”) at Gallipoli was the start of his rise to national hero status, and his efforts in the years to come would ensure the survival of Turkey as an independent republic in the aftermath of World War I. “The Ballad of Canakkale,” a Turkish folk song, commemorates their own hallowed dead of Gallipoli.
As odd as it seems, the Turks and the Anzacs found common ground in the remembrance of Gallipoli. In 1934 Mustafa Kemal, now President of Turkey, sent a personal message to all the mothers of Australians and New Zealanders lost at Gallipoli. It is worth quoting in full.
“Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives… you are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets where they lie side by side here in this country of ours… You the mothers who sent their sons from far away countries, wipe away your tears. Your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. Having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well."
Three nations found themselves on a little beach on April 25, 1915 at a place called Gallipoli.