Six VC’s Before Breakfast: The Gallipoli Landings
100 years ago today (25th April 2015) the Allies commenced seaborne landings on the Gallipoli peninsular (now named Gelibolu in modern day Turkey). There are many commemorations and services taking place today and over the next few days to remember one of the most costly battles of the entire war. Here is my take on the initial landings that took place on 25th April 1915.
There were two main reasons why a fight in this part of the world was of interest to the Allies; Firstly, they were keen to open up an effective supply route to Russia as the fighting in Europe had blocked the natural land based trade routes and the Baltic Sea routes were blocked by the German Navy. Secondly, with stalemate on the Western Front, the Allies were looking around for other ways of kick starting their war effort. They thought that by dragging the Ottomans into the war, it might draw Bulgaria and Greece into the ring on the side of the Allies and if this area could be captured it would secure an alternate trade route to and from Russia.
On 19th February 1915 the French and British Navies tried to force the Dardanelle Straights by smashing the coastal defences and forts to smithereens. An intercepted message suggested that coastal forts were running out of ammunition, surely the Straight was there for the taking? The main attack was planned for 18th March. At the head of the fleet Allied minesweepers came under intense fire from the coastal defences. Many of these minesweepers were manned by civilians, and they soon had had enough and turned around, without effectively clearing a path through. As the rest of the fleet continued on their way they ran straight into a rather large and complete mine field and numerous Allied ships, including HMS Irresistible, HMS Inflexible, and HMS Ocean, were sunk. These losses forced the Allies to halt the naval campaign. If the Dardanelles were to be captured ground forces were going to be needed to be landed on the peninsula. It would be another six weeks before the troops arrived in earnest to hop ashore and this delay gave the Ottoman forces time to prepare defences and get in reinforcements.
The landings were pencilled in for 25th April and were to take place in two different locations: Cape Helles and Ari Burnu. On the day of the landings, Cape Helles saw 35,000 Anglo-French troops clamber ashore at 5 distinct areas (‘Y’, ‘X’, ‘W’, ‘V’, and ‘S’ beaches). Ten miles up the coast 17,000 ANZACS (members of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) were making a b-line for ‘Z’ beach at Ari Burnu. In truth, they should have been a mile further south at Gaba Tepe, which would have been a much easier place to advance from, but for some reason, possibly a navigation error, they ended up at Ari Burnu, a much smaller cape which was surrounded by steep cliffs.
That said, the ANZACS had managed to get 8,000 men ashore by 8am and began to push forward up steep terrain in an attempt to capture the higher ground. By now, the Turkish defenders were concentrating heavy rifle fire onto the Anzacs and inflicting significant casualties. Fanatical counter attacks by the Turks held the Australians back, they could only get two-thirds of the way up the slope towards the plateau. By nightfall both sides were exhausted. With retreat impossible, the ANZACS had no choice but to dig in as best they could and prepare themselves to tough it out.
Meanwhile, further south, the Anglo-French landings, overseen by General Sir Ian Hamilton enjoyed mixed fortunes. At ‘Y’ beach, 3,000 men were ashore, unopposed, by 6am. A similar situation greeted the slightly smaller contingent who landed ashore at ‘S’ beach. On ‘X’ beach the intimidating garrison of twelve (12) Turkish defenders surrendered immediately and the attackers reached the cliff top without a single casualty. They then quickly turned towards ‘W’ beach where things were not going according to plan.
At ‘W’ beach the naval bombardment that had preceded the landings had failed to cut the underwater barbed wire or destroy much of the defence system around the beach. A small number of Turks were waiting for the troops when they landed. They waited in silence, fingers on the triggers of their machine guns. 950 men of the Lancashire Fusiliers were sent towards that beach, by the time the beach was secured 260 had been killed and another 283 had been wounded. Six Victoria Crosses were awarded that morning. ‘Six VC’s before breakfast’ is a motto repeated with pride by the fighting men of Lancashire, and ‘W’ beach is now known as Lancashire Landing.
At ‘V’ beach things were equally chaotic. The plan here was to use an armoured troop ship, the River Clyde, to take 2,000 men right into the shore, whilst another 1,000 men approached the beach in naval cutters, (small wooden boats with oars). Hidden defenders held their fire until the last second and then let rip as the soldiers rushed from the River Clyde. The result was utter slaughter. The cutters didn’t escape either, these fell under a hail of machine gun and artillery fire and were literally blown to pieces, with many men falling into the water and drowning due to the weight of their kit. So many men were lost in the first hour that a halt to the landings was ordered. They would try again under cover of darkness when the River Clyde would attempt to put the remaining troops ashore. By the time the beachhead had been secured, the assaulting troops had lost over half their men.
As the different beachheads eventually linked up, it seemed that, despite the slaughter on ‘V’ and ‘W’ beaches, the overall plan might just work out. There was an opportunity to re-calibrate the main point of the attack to ‘Y’ beach where the troops had encountered little resistance and were eagerly awaiting further orders to advance. Unfortunately this opportunity was passed over by British Command. They also refused to believe prisoner reports that there were only a few thousand Turkish defenders at Helles. Instead of pushing forward and taking the initiative the attackers chose to consolidate, and wait. Once more an opportunity had been lost.
By nightfall on the 26th there were more than 30,000 Allied troops ashore however the Turkish defenders were allowed to retire unmolested to a new line south of Krithia on 26th April. By the time the Allies were ready for an attack on the 28th, the Turks had reinforced their numbers to match those of the attackers.