On 19th February, 1915, Vice Admiral Sackville Carden began his attack on the Dardanelles Forts. The assault started with a long range bombardment followed by heavy fire at closer range. As a result of the bombardment the outer forts were abandoned by the Turks. The minesweepers were brought forward and managed to penetrate six miles inside the straits and clear the area of mines. Further advance up into the straits was now impossible. The Turkish forts were too far away to be silenced by the Allied ships. The minesweepers were sent forward to clear the next section but they were forced to retreat when they came under heavy fire from the Turkish batteries. (1)
Winston Churchill became impatient about the slow progress that Carden was making and demanded to know when the third stage of the plan was to begin. Admiral Carden found the strain of making this decision extremely stressful and began to have difficulty sleeping. On 15th March, Carden's doctor reported that the commander was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Carden was sent home and replaced by Vice-Admiral John de Robeck, who immediately ordered the Allied fleet to advance up the Dardanelles Straits. (2) Reginald Brett, who worked for the War Council, commented: "Winston is very excited and jumpy about the Dardanelles; he says he will be ruined if the attack fails." (3)
On 18th March eighteen battleships entered the straits. At first they made good progress until the French ship, Bouvet struck a mine, heeled over, capsized and disappeared in a cloud of smoke. Soon afterwards two more ships, Irresistible and Ocean hit mines. Most of the men in these two ships were rescued but by the time the Allied fleet retreated, over 700 men had been killed. Overall, three ships had been sunk and three more had been severely damaged. Altogether about a third of the force was either sunk or disabled. (4)
At an Admiralty meeting on 19th March, Churchill and Fisher agreed that losses were only to be expected and that four more ships should be sent out to reinforce De Robeck, who responded with the news that he was reorganising his force so that some of the destroyers could act as minesweepers. Churchill now told Asquith that he was still confident that the operation would be successful and was "fairly pleased" with the situation. (5)
On 10th March, Lord Kitchener finally agreed that he was willing to send troops to the eastern Mediterranean to support any naval breakthrough. Churchill was able to secure the appointment of his old friend, General Ian Hamilton, as Commander of the British Forces. At a conference on 22nd March on board his flagship, Queen Elizabeth, it was decided that soldiers would be used to capture the Gallipoli peninsula. Churchill ordered De Roebuck to make another attempt to destroy the forts. He rejected the idea and said that the idea that the forts could be destroyed by gunfire had "conclusively proved to be wrong". Admiral Fisher agreed and warned Churchill: "You are just eaten up with the Dardanelles and can't think of anything else! Damn the Dardanelles! they'll be our grave." (6)
Arthur Balfour suggested delaying the landings. Winston Churchill replied: "No other operation in this part of the world could ever cloak the defeat of abandoning the effort at the Dardanelles. I think there is nothing for it but to go through with the business, and I do not at all regret that this should be so. No one can count with certainty upon the issue of a battle. But here we have the chances in our favour, and play for vital gains with non-vital stakes." He wrote to his brother, Major Jack Churchill, who was one of those soldiers about to take part in the operation: "This is the hour in the world's history for a fine feat of arms, and the results of victory will amply justify the price. I wish I were with you." (7)
Asquith, Kitchener, Churchill and Hankey held a meeting on 30th March and agreed to go ahead with an amphibious landing. Leaders of the Greek Army informed Kitchener that he would need 150,000 men to take Gallipoli. Kitchener rejected the advice and concluded that only half that number was needed. Kitchener sent the experienced British 29th Division to join the troops from Australia, New Zealand and French colonial troops on Lemnos. Information soon reached the Turkish commander, Liman von Sanders, about the arrival of the 70,000 troops on the island. Sanders knew an attack was imminent and he began positioning his 84,000 troops along the coast where he expected the landings to take place. (8)
The attack that began on the 25th April, 1915 established two beachheads at Helles and Gaba Tepe. Another major landing took place at Sulva Bay on 6th August. By this time they arrived the Turkish strength in the region had also risen to fifteen divisions. Attempts to sweep across the peninsula by Allied forces ended in failure. By the end of August the Allies had lost over 40,000 men. General Ian Hamilton asked for 95,000 more men, but although supported by Churchill, Lord Kitchener was unwilling to send more troops to the area. (9)
In the words of one historian, "In the annals of British military incompetence Gallipoli ranks very high indeed." (10) Churchill was blamed for the failed operation and Asquith told him he would have to be moved from his current post. Asquith was also involved in developing a coalition government. The Conservative leader, Andrew Bonar Law, became Minister of the Colonies and Churchill's long-term enemy, Arthur Balfour, became the new First Lord of the Admiralty. Churchill was now relegated to the post of the Chancellorship of the Duchy of Lancaster. (11)
On 14th October, Hamilton was replaced by General Charles Munro. After touring all three fronts Munro recommended withdrawal. Lord Kitchener, initially rejected the suggestion but after arriving on 9th November 1915 he visited the Allied lines in Greek Macedonia, where reinforcements were badly needed. On 17th November, Kitchener agreed that the 105,000 men should be evacuated and put Monro in control as Commander-in-Chief Mediterranean. (12)
About 480,000 Allied troops took part in the Gallipoli campaign, including substantial British, French, Senegalese, Australian, New Zealand and Indian troops. The British had 205,000 casualties (43,000 killed). There were more than 33,600 ANZAC losses (over one-third killed) and 47,000 French casualties (5,000 killed). Turkish casualties are estimated at 250,000 (65,000 killed). "The campaign is generally regarded as an example of British drift and tactical ineptitude." (13)
In November, 1915, Winston Churchill was removed as a member of the War Council. He now resigned as a minister and he told Asquith that his reputation would rise again when the whole story of the Dardanelles came out. He also criticised Asquith in the way the war had so far been managed. He ended his letter with the words: "Nor do I feel in times like these able to remain in well-paid inactivity. I therefore ask you to submit my resignation to the King. I am an officer, and I place myself unreservedly at the disposal of the military authorities, observing that my regiment is in France." (14)
We had been expected to be sent to France, but in the late spring we got orders to equip with tropical kit. I realised that our destination was either Gallipoli or Mesopotamia. In June, 1915, we sailed from Avonmouth for the East and had an uneventful voyage through the Mediterranean to Alexandria.
I had three or four weeks at Helles experiencing the heat and smells and flies. Like many others, I got dysentery. Eventually I fainted and was carried down to the beach and embarked for Malta. I thus missed the big attack at Anzac where our Division had six or seven thousand casualties, including many of my friends of the South Lancashires.
The great venture has at last been launched, and the entire fleet of warships and transports is now steaming slowly towards the shores of Gallipoli. As the huge liners steamed through the fleet, their decks yellow with khaki, the crews of the warships cheered them on to victory, while the bands played them out with an unending variety of popular airs. The soldiers in the transports answered the last salutation from the Navy with deafening cheers, and no more inspiring spectacle has ever been seen than this, of the last crusade setting forth for better or worse.
No such gathering of fine ships has ever been seen upon this earth, and the beauty and the exultation of the youth upon them made them seem like sacred things as they moved away. All that they felt was a gladness of exultation that their young courage was to be used. They went like Kings in a pageant to their imminent death.
The campaign came, more than once, very near to triumph, achieved the impossible many times, and failed, in the end from something which had nothing to do with arms nor with the men who bore them.
The Gallipoli campaign will always remain a vivid memory. I have always held that the strategic conception was sound. The trouble was that it was never adequately supported. Unfortunately, the military authorities were Western Front minded. Reinforcements were always sent too late. For an enterprise such as this the right leaders were not chosen. Elderly and hidebound generals were not the men to push through an adventure of this kind. Had we had at Sulva generals like Maude, who came out later, we should, I think, have pushed through to victory.
We have spent four days in the fire trench. We had only a few casualties. We were put there just after a big attack which had partially failed and the ground between our trench and the Turks were strewn with bodies. It strikes me that they will be there for a long time. In this heat the body and face turn quite black in less than 24 hours and the smell is terrific. The flies - which are myriad - also add to the general discomfort.
The enemy's machine-guns were too scientifically posted. Generally speaking the coast is precipitous, and good landing-places are few. In most of these landing-places the trenches and lines of wire entanglements are plainly visible from on board ship.
Throughout the afternoon and all through the night the Turks made assault after assault upon the British line. They threw bombs into the trenches. The British repeatedly counter-charged with the bayonet and always drove off the enemy for the moment, but the Turks were in a vast superiority and fresh troops took the place of those who temporary fell back. By 7 a.m. on the first day after the landing, only about half remained to man the entrenchment made for four times their number.
Up to the very last moment it appeared as if the landing was to be unopposed. But a tornado of fire swept over the beach, the incoming boats, and the collier. The Dublin Fusiliers and the naval boats' crews suffered exceedingly heavy losses while still in the boats. About 1,000 men left the collier, and of these nearly half had been killed or wounded before they could reach the cover afforded by the steep, sandy bank at the top of the beach.
After the strain of carefully organised preparations, the excitement of the final hours was extreme, but no signs of anxiety were shown. Would the sea remain calm? Would the moon remain veiled in a thin cloud? Would the brigades keep time and place? Our own guns continued firing duly till the moment for withdrawal came. Our rifles kept up an intermittent fire, and sometimes came sudden outbursts from the Turks.
Mules neighed, chains rattled, steamers hooted low, and sailor men shouted into megaphones language strong enough to carry a hundred miles. Still the enemy showed no sign of life or hearing, though he lay almost visible in the moonlight across the familiar scene of bay and plain and hills to which British soldiers have given such unaccustomed names.
So the critical hours went by slowly, and yet giving so little time for all to be done. At last the final bands of silent defenders began to come in from the nearest lines. Sappers began to come in, cutting all telephone wires and signals on their way.