The Failure of the Dardanelles Campaign and its Importance for New Zealand’s Culture
In 1915, the First World War raged across Western Europe. When the war broke out in the prior year, the nations involved in the conflict on the Western Front believed in a rapid victory (Wright 67). The reality turned out to be quite different. Instead of achieving any success, British, Commonwealth, French, and Belgian troops were facing German troops in brutal trench warfare in France and Belgium (72 – 74). Throughout the entirety of this type of warfare, neither side made any significant or lasting progress (72 – 74). Therefore in 1915, British High Command came up with the plan of attacking the Ottoman Empire, Germany‘s ally in the east, and breaking through the Dardanelles strait to capture Constantinople (Erickson, “Command” 24 – 26). Alongside this, there was also the idea of aiding the Russian Empire by allowing supply shipments and thus possibly causing a relief on the Western Front (24 – 26). However, the Dardanelles campaign turned out to be one of the most fatal and costly military disasters throughout the history of the First World War.
Despite not having been successful, the Dardanelles campaign, most commonly associated with the Gallipoli peninsula in Turkey where thousands of Australian and New Zealand troops landed as part of the amphibious component of the campaign, has had a significant impact on the culture of New Zealand which persists to this day (New Zealand, Ministry for Culture and Heritage, “Anzac Day” 1).
While the general outcome of the Dardanelles or Gallipoli campaign is widely known, the reasons for its failure are often unclear or over-simplified. The goal of this paper is to analyse the primary reasons causing the failure of the Dardanelles campaign and the effect it created for the culture and national consciousness of New Zealand. The analysis will be based on the thesis that inadequate planning, wrongful assessment of the general situation by British High Command, and lack of adequate supplies led to the failure of the Dardanelles campaign and created a lasting impact on New Zealand’s culture and national consciousness. Secondary sources, as well as some primary sources of New Zealand Army Major Fred Waite, who took part in the campaign, will be analysed in order to support the thesis. A selection of important accounts concerning the Ottoman perspective will also be examined as their view of the battle is often overlooked in other works but is indeed crucial for a complete understanding of why exactly the Dardanelles campaign failed.
Before executing any major military operation, there should be intensive strategic planning and evaluation of possible tactics and strategies that take into account the strength of friendly and enemy troops. In the case of the Dardanelles campaign, planning was very poor, or as Wright put it, “the campaign was marked by make-shift preparations and little advance planning” (67). The Dardanelles campaign consisted of two main parts, the first being the naval assault attempting to force a way through the Dardanelles strait and the second part being the amphibious landings at beaches on the Gallipoli peninsula (Hart 23 – 25).
At first, however, the operation was planned to be executed by naval forces only, and large numbers of ground troops were landed at Gallipoli only after it was decided that the Dardanelles strait could not be captured using warships alone (Erickson, “Command” 105). This fact already suggests that the situation may have been underestimated by British High Command combined with a lack of sufficient planning and poor reconnaissance before the operation even commenced. In Erickson’s work, it becomes very apparent that Winston Churchill, one of the central planners of the campaign, pressed for the campaign to be executed solely by warships, only with the exception of smaller landing parties being dispatched from these ships in order to manually disable Ottoman gun emplacements and then return to their ships (“Command” 59 – 60, 64). Furthermore, Erickson also explains that several higher-ranking officers had severe doubts that an attack by warships alone would succeed in taking the Dardanelles strait, let alone the original primary objective of the campaign, which was the large town of Constantinople (“Command” 28 – 29). In light of these facts, especially when considering the point of having planned the operation as a naval-only attack while having set the capture of land objectives such as the Gallipoli peninsula or a town as the main objectives of the campaign, shows that there was an apparent lack of concept or logical basis for the campaign. Hart quotes Admiral Sir Henry Jackson: “The naval bombardment is not recommended as a sound operation unless a strong military force is ready to assist it, or, at least, to follow it up immediately the forts are silenced” (23 – 24). This again clarifies the fact that there were indeed critiques of the plan, which were left mostly unheard in the planning of the campaign. Besides these very obviously incomplete plans, reconnaissance or detailed knowledge of the Ottoman positions along the Dardanelles strait were also poor. Erickson quotes Admiral Carden, commander of the British fleet during the first days of the Dardanelles campaign, who pointed out to Churchill that the positions of several Ottoman defences, such as mobile artillery guns, are not yet known (“Command” 26). Despite these points, the campaign commenced as a naval-only operation on the 19th of February, 1915, with the aim of using naval artillery to bombard Ottoman artillery emplacements and fortifications located on the banks on either side of the Dardanelles strait (Erickson, “Command” 43, 55). The only notable British strategy during this undertaking was to out-range the Ottoman coastal artillery by firing at it from a longer distance from the sea than the inferior Ottoman guns could return fire at (Hart 19). Still, Admiral Carden’s point of mobile artillery guns in unknown locations persisted, which endangered the idea of out-ranging the Ottoman artillery guns.
It can be concluded from these facts that both the planning and reconnaissance for the operation were indeed very poor, causing the campaign to be ill-fated from the beginning. Hart summarizes this discrepancy between reality and the ideas or plans for the campaign by saying that “Gallipoli was a campaign driven by wish-fulfilment rather than a professional assessment of the strategy and tactics required” (Hart, Preface). This wish-fulfilment can, for instance, be interpreted as Churchill’s wish to carry out the operation solely using warships, despite having heard serious doubt about this plan.
In addition to the poor and incomplete planning of the campaign, the Ottoman military had reinforced its positions along the Dardanelles strait considerably and also with the aid of German military advisors (Erickson, “Command” 50 – 51). Several hundreds of German military personnel had been dispatched to the Dardanelles to improve the fortifications of the Dardanelles strait, which previously had been in poor condition (Erickson, “Ottoman Campaign” 9). Additionally, a brief British bombardment of some fortifications at the entrance to the Dardanelles strait in November 1914 had already alerted Ottoman High Command of the danger of further attacks in that region and gave the Ottoman military time to prepare (9). During these preparations, a large number of new artillery guns and naval mines, were installed to fill up possible gaps in the lines of defence (12 – 13). These points again add to Admiral Carden’s worries about not being aware of the exact positions of every piece of Ottoman artillery. Therefore, it can be concluded that British High Command was unaware of the actual and potentially increased strengths of the Ottoman defences, making the Dardanelles campaign a perilous undertaking, especially as a naval-only operation. When the naval operations, commanded by Admiral Carden, commenced on February 19, 1915, it soon became visible that the long-range fire at the Ottoman artillery positions was ineffective and inaccurate (Hart 24 – 26). Wright points out that in March of 1915, during a German inspection of the defences along the Dardanelles strait, it was noted that there were signs of heavy bombardment, but hardly any damage to the actual gun emplacements (80). This means that the British naval gunfire indeed was inaccurate, and most of the Ottoman gun emplacements were not directly hit and remained intact, able to return fire at the British ships. Another reason for the ineffectiveness of the naval bombardments was, that instead of it being done in one or several consecutive significant strikes, there were pauses of up to several days in between the bombardments, allowing the Ottoman troops to reorganise their defences or even to repair damages and return fire at the British fleet (Hart 26). Unable to destroy the Ottoman gun emplacements from longer distances, the British fleet was forced to close in on their targets for more accurate fire (Hart 26) and to dispatch small raiding parties to destroy the gun emplacements using explosive charges (Erickson, “Command” 59). Eventually, the naval attack reached its most fatal day on the 18th of March, 1915, when three ships were sunk, and several others were severely damaged by Ottoman guns and naval mines (Erickson, “Command” 71 – 72). In comparison, Ottoman losses were not very high, or as Erickson put it: “It was small return for a heavy investment” (73).
Therefore, the results of the naval attack can only be interpreted as a complete failure since the British fleet did not manage to push through the Dardanelles strait but instead suffered considerable losses. The consequences of very poor planning and insufficient knowledge of the Ottoman strengths started to show very clearly. Nothing to this point had gone as expected by British High Command. At this point, the entire operation had already been a failure. Since the naval operation did not achieve its goals, troops were landed at Gallipoli on the 25th of April, 1915 in order to capture the peninsula and thus allowing the British fleet to pass through the Dardanelles strait without being targeted by Ottoman artillery located on the Gallipoli peninsula (Erickson, “Command” 105, 111). On this date, the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, abbreviated as “ANZAC” (New Zealand, Ministry for Culture and Heritage, “Anzac Day” 2) was one of the major units that landed on the beaches of the Gallipoli peninsula, marking the beginning of Australian and New Zealand involvement in the campaign (1). ANZAC troops landed on the north of the Gallipoli peninsula with orders to push across towards the east of the peninsula and then later unite for a joint attack with British troops that landed in the south (Hart 76). To achieve this, it was crucial for the ANZAC troops to seize several hills, particularly the Mal Tepe mountain (Erickson, “Command” 111 – 112). The date of the amphibious landings itself already implies one of the first problems that must be considered. As over one month had passed since the ill-fated naval bombardment on March 18, 1915, the Ottoman military had a lot of time to reinforce its positions and to prepare for any attacks to come (Erickson, “Command” 105). During the amphibious landings, ANZAC troops met a lot of Ottoman resistance. New Zealand Major Fred Waite described how he witnessed many soldiers being struck by rifle fire or shrapnel immediately after disembarking from their small boats (63). He also reported a lot of confusion on the beaches because there were many casualties and that the hilly terrain made general control very difficult (63). The amphibious landings, just like the naval attacks, did not go to plan at all. Because of the challenging terrain and Ottoman resistance, which was considerably heavier than initially expected by British High Command, the attack of the ANZACs was slowed down (Wright 93 – 94). This slowing down of the attack allowed Ottoman commanders to take action and alert reinforcements to move towards the landing sites of the ANZAC troops (Erickson, “Ottoman Campaign” 52 – 53). According to Erickson, Ottoman commander Mustafa Kemal ordered his men who had at first retreated from the ANZAC landing beaches and were running out of ammunition to now hold their ground, using their bayonets, to buy time until reinforcements would arrive (“Ottoman Campaign” 52). British troops that were landing at Cape Helles on the southern tip of the Gallipoli peninsula at the same time were also soon stopped by Ottoman defences, with many units unable to even secure their landing sectors (Erickson, “Command” 123 – 124). It becomes very apparent here that just like it had previously occurred during the attempt of the naval-only operation, the situation had not been assessed correctly. The failure at the landing sites can only be interpreted as a serious underestimation of both the strength of Ottoman troops, as well as of the entire situation in general, very similar to the situation during the naval attack. With reinforcements on their way, Ottoman troops soon counter-attacked the ANZAC troops, which came as a surprise as Hart states in his work: “Some had never guessed that the Turks would counter-attack [...]” (98). Eventually, bad terrain, Ottoman counter-attacks, and the absence of proper command led to the ANZAC troops making no progress and the amphibious landings ending up in a standstill with both sides digging trenches just like on the Western Front (Wright 100). The stalemate that British command had tried to escape from in Belgium and France had now once again overtaken their plans for a quick victory. From this point on, it is clear that the campaign could hardly have ended successfully for British and ANZAC troops as none of the primary objectives that high command had set were achieved. Further attacks ordered by British High Command, such as one charge in June 1915, now mainly focused on capturing the opposing Ottoman trench lines with no further mention of capturing the hills, which had been the original strategic objectives of the amphibious landings (Erickson, “Command” 157). These attacks did not achieve their goals, and hardly any terrain was gained, very similar to the trench warfare still happening on the Western Front at the same time (Erickson, “Command” 158). Another reason that lead to the failure of these attacks was the lack of a functioning supply system. Ammunitions, as well as drinking water, had to be brought in by supply ships coming from Britain and Egypt (Wright 106 – 108). Since British High Command had expected a quick and decisive victory without much Ottoman resistance, the amount of ammunitions needed had been calculated to last only for a few days of light combat (107). Trench warfare at Gallipoli would eventually continue until it was decided at the end of 1915 that the campaign had failed and could not be saved (Erickson, “Command” 219). ANZAC troops were evacuated in December of 1915 and British troops at Cape Helles in January of 1916 (219). The evacuation went according to plan (219), making it the only real success of the entire campaign.
Despite the campaign having been unsuccessful, it still had a major impact on the culture and national consciousness of Australia and New Zealand through their participation in the campaign with the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. Major Fred Waite made the following observation:
“By common trials, a common suffering, and a common interest, Australian, Indian and New Zealander realized they were brothers in fact, as in army. These first two days made great things possible within the Empire. The experience of those sweet sensations of brotherhood will be cherished and handed down as one of the priceless gifts of Anzac.” (71).
These shared experiences at Gallipoli created a spirit between ANZAC soldiers, which persists today and is annually commemorated as ANZAC Day on the 25th of April, the anniversary of the amphibious landings at Gallipoli (New Zealand, Ministry for Culture and Heritage, “Anzac Day” 1 – 2). In both Australia and New Zealand, the events at Gallipoli are seen as having contributed heavily to the growth of national identity (New Zealand, Ministry for Culture and Heritage, “Evacuation” 6). According to Major Fred Waite, the campaign at Gallipoli has taught New Zealanders a lot of lessons, such as to “respect his own strength and capabilities” (249). Major Waite further describes: “Before the war we were an untried and insular people; after Anzac, we were tried and trusted.” (249).