GALLIPOLI I: KNOCKING ON THE SULTAN’S DOOR

Not happy to be a British (or Dominion) soldier and be sent to the surroundings of Constantinople. Somehow, the area is a magnet for disaster, whether you are trying to help or destroy the Russians, it doesn’t matter the Turks being your allies or the target, and always hand in hand with the French. Come to the shores of the Bosphorus and the Black sea, impending doom awaits.

Otherwise, surely, the arts will be gratified by the experience. Some of Tennyson’s most famous lines came from the Crimea War (“into the valley of Death / rode the six hundred”) and that absurd monument to pointless élan which was the Light Brigade Charge; Errol Flynn also took advantage, as did a young Mel Gibson in Peter Weir’s film about Gallipoli more recently (strange this always present ANZAC tone in the area). Hopefully no more brilliant pieces of art will depend on the fruitless spending of so many lives.

The point is both the Crimea war and the Gallipoli campaign are outstanding monuments to the incompetence, lack of communication, misinterpretation of the actual situation and the disposition of the enemy when not sheer stupidity of politicians and top brass military alike. Campaigns which were regarded as easy to accomplished, regardless of the difficulties soon to appear, as a stroll through the park. Campaigns which distinguished themselves for the lack of Humanity and the loss of lives even when the sensible option was letting it go. At least, some may say, the Crimea ended in a Victory. Gallipoli, on the contrary was an utter defeat, despite the heroism and endurance of the troops involved. It was a pity that those in command, far away, were not up to their courage.

Turkey had fell into the Kaiser’s arms pulled by an ambitious politician, Enver Pasha, Minister for War, famous for having shot the former incumbent of his position because he did not agree on how the Balkans war was being conducted. Hot-headed, maybe, and Enver was not all popular within the Empire, but he had the support of the “Young Turks” movement, then in the Government albeit some other members of it, like Navy’s Minister Djemal, were pro-French. The Germans wooed the Turks for a long time, considering the geo-strategical importance of the Turkish Empire, the lust for oil and the always ongoing colonial competition. The Western Powers were no so aware of that, in spite of their alliance with Russia. The international trade of the Tsars was mainly via and the Bosphorus, both the grains that British and French will need and the military supplies the Russians were lacking. But, seemingly, they have the eyes elsewhere in the region: Greece, with a pro-Western Government lead Eleutherios Venizelos was willing to cooperate. Even during the proceedings to the campaign they offered three divisions, but the for the Russians, always coveting control of the Balkans, that simply won’t do. Just another big mistake.

So when Politicians in London and Paris saw that war would not be over by Christmas as expected, they suddenly recovered their senses and thought of Turkey as both a potential threat…and an open opportunity. Russia has suffered terrible defeats, the Western Front was stuck. The Bosphorus looked now as a suitable theatre of operations.

A man in London was strongly pushing for the case. Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, had discussed plans to support Greece in the event of another war in the Balkans with the Army and Navy leaders. When russia found itself in dire straits and asked for support and relief, plans were dusted and rearranged.

At the beginning, Churchill and his First Lord of the Seas, Lord Fisher, agreed in the Greeks taking the load of the landings, with the British using their mighty naval power to force the Dardanelles sacrificing if needed their huge stock of outdated vessels. As a strategical concept, this was both bold an innovative. But it was ill-advised and ill-informed. The plans assumed that the mere presence of the British fleet near Constantinople would make the Turkish tremble, the Government stumble and, easy-peasy, Turkey would be out of the war, and the Russians aided. That was all counting on the notion of Turkey as the “sick man in Europe”. Problem was the sick man was still alive and kicking. And with a German doctor seeing to his recovering.

The thing was that as the plan was progressing, numbers skyrocketed. More ships and troops were thrown in, and Fisher began to have second thoughts and his previous good rapport with the young Churchill went to some sourness. Some fear that taking brand new ships like the HMS queen Elizabeth to the Dardanelles would put the Northern Sea fleet at risk was also forming. Kitchener, who was at first happy with the operation, as it involved few troops, began to feel uncomfortable as the Russians opposed greek intervention (in the process helping to oust the Venizelos cabinet which was replaced with a pro-German one) and new British Divisions were called, with the French taking a lesser role. Fisher finally took to the front the idea that, albeit some ships could be expendable, their well-trained, expert troops, were not so.

Anyway, with the Greek option discarded, the time running and the Western Front showing no signs of improvement, Churchill sorted the last objections and Fisher convinced Kitchener to send the much-needed troops. Kitchener selected his old friend General Hamilton to lead the force.

First things first, Hamilton changed the name of the force from Expeditionary Force to Constantinople to Mediterranean expeditionary Force on the grounds, quite obvious even for the non-expert, that the former name made the target all too evident.

So, after all this process, with mistakes and misunderstandings all around, the dice were cast and the attack on German’s eastern friends was scheduled for February, on the idea that, after all, troops could not be needed if the naval attack went well. The ANZAC was transported to Lemos but Kitchener retained the 29th British division, just in case something happened on the West. And, on 19 February, the attack did start with twelve ships, one-third French. First targets were the fortresses guarding the Dardanelles: Sedd-el-Bahr and Kunkale; after that the fleet should force “the narrows”, a pass wider less than a mile, guarded with mine fields. After an interchange of heavy fire, and both sides almost unscathed, bad weather conditions put the attack to rest for some days. When it was re-launched on the 25, it was clear that the fleet would have to get closer to the shores, so risking more casualties, to do some harm on the strong fortifications. And so it did, resulting in a Turk-German retreat, small landings to get hold of the fortresses and a significant spirits improvement now that the forecasts seemed to be right. In fact, Rear-Admiral Sackville Carden, commander of the fleet, informed that he was expecting to land in Constantinople in two weeks on March 2.

To no avail. He had been too optimistic. The Turks regrouped and went back their steps to retake the forts, the artillery was still firing on the light minesweepers which couldn’t clean the mine fields. A new attack on the 13 put things on sight: four out of six minesweepers were knocked out by the coastal batteries. On 15 March, exhausted and in the verge of a nervous breakdown, Carden resigned his command. On the 18 Vice-admiral De Robeck, the new commander, was again on the fight.

Three successive waves were sent, bombarding relentlessly, against the Turks guarding “the narrows”. Little by little, the coastal batteries were being silenced. But then, the mines took their toll. Few days earlier the Turks had run a line of mines close to the asian side of the narrows. Unnoticed, this line became the tomb for some of the best vessels in the fleet: Bouvet, Inflexible, Irresistible, Ocean…the Inflexible, much damaged but still afloat, was sent to Malta for repairing, with the Galois and Suffren, French allies also damaged. The other three went to the bottom of the channel.

Come to that, De Robeck lost faith and stopped the onslaught, to the relief of the Turks who were badly shattered and running out of ammunition. Seemingly, the Army leaders no longer believed in the naval operation and were sure that, anyway, massive landings would be needed. So believed ANZAC’s commander, General Birdwood, and probably also Hamilton. As it was, even Kitchener was favouring now a land attack. Finally, De Robeck gave way on March 22. The Gallipoli campaign was becoming a major embroilment, as thousands of soldiers would know in the coming months.

So is the war: nothing is always as promised, and if you start with mistakes, mishaps and misunderstandings, why to expect a resounding victory? Agonizing suffering will ensue, casualties by the thousand, lacklustre command, loss of prestige, accursed politicians…One wonders if Churchill, when drafting his famous WWII speech, “we shall fight in the beaches”, “whatever the cost maybe”, “we shall never surrender”, could have been thinking on the Gallipoli events. There were feats of courage there, no surrenders, fight in the beaches at an appalling cost. It was almost Churchill’s political grave; but when drafting that speech, he was bound for Glory. Pity so many of the Gallipoli’s heroes couldn’t be there to see Britain in its finest hour.

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