British Underestimate Ottoman Forces, Turkish Resolve

Thousands of Allied Troops Killed on the Beaches

Special to The Great War Project

(25 April) In the hope of a swift victory, the Allied powers on this day a century ago, land some 50,000 troops on the Gallipoli Peninsula in northwestern Turkey, on the northern shore of the strategic Dardanelle Straits.

The landing takes place in two zones. One at Cape Helles at the southern tip of the peninsula, and another further north. The first landing occurs at dawn on what is designated Z Beach.

Allied troops landing on Gallipoli beach, April 1915

Allied troops landing on Gallipoli beach, April 1915

The troops come from Australia and New Zealand. They are initially designated for the Western Front, writes historian Martin Gilbert, but then are diverted to the Gallipoli landing for the “quick and easy battle against the Turks.”

The goal is to break the Turkish control of the strategic waterway, then seize Constantinople, and knock the Ottoman Empire out of the war.

In March the British attempted a naval attack, without significant support from army troops, on the Straits. That was a resounding failure.

Now the British put the plans squarely on the shoulders of the army.

Front the start things go wrong. In the first landing “possibly because of a navigational error, they were put ashore not at their original landing place…from where they might have advanced on almost level ground” across the narrow central part of the peninsula. Instead the landing takes place at a smaller cape further north “below the precipitous heights” of a different sector.

Said the commander of the landing, “Tell the Colonel….that the damn fools have landed us a mile too far north.”

Still, reports Gilbert, “The landing itself was virtually unopposed.” But within a few hours, the Turks on the high ground unleash an artillery barrage of the Allied troops on the landing beach below.

With some success, the Australians push further toward the crest of the cliffs, as the Turkish troops are running out of ammunition. New guns arrive and the Turks reposition them. Then more Turkish troops arrive, “coming in the thousands,” reports an Australian scout. The officer in charge replies, “I didn’t dream they’d come back.”

The battle becomes heated. “Successive waves of Turks,” writes Gilbert, “hurling themselves on their adversary, were killed by machine-gun fire as they clambered over the bodies of the previous wave.”

“More and more Australian wounded are falling back to the narrow beach. “There was no rest, no lull,” writes one Australian soldier, “while the rotting dead lay all around us, never a pause in the whole of the long day that started at the crack of dawn…How we longed for this ghastly day to end!”

By nightfall both sides are exhausted.

The British officer in command wants to evacuate the Australian beachhead. But his superior officer replies, “Your news is indeed serious, but there is nothing for it but to dig yourselves right in and stick it out.”

British intelligence about the terrain they are attacking is especially poor. The British “even lacked maps of the area to be assaulted,” reports war historian John Keegan.

Allied troops on the offensive at Gallipoli, April 1915.

Allied troops on the offensive at Gallipoli, April 1915.

As for Cape Helles at the southern tip of the peninsula, there are five landing zones. At one, designated V Beach, as the Allied troops tried to run from ship to the shore, “they were caught by fierce machine-gun fire from the cliff above,” according to historian Gilbert. In another zone, not only are the Allied troops mowed down by Turkish machine-gun fire. Many also drown under the weight of their packs.

“So many men were lost in the first hour,” reports Gilbert, “that a halt was called until nightfall.”

The Allied troops meet similar resistance at W Beach.

In all, “more than 30,000 Allied troops were ashore,” writes Gilbert. “The number of dead and wounded …exceeded 20,000. Hospital ships, soon to be as familiar a sight in the Eastern Mediterranean as warships, took the wounded back to Egypt.”

Like the naval bombardment of the Dardanelles in March, once again the British miscalculate the strength of the Turkish forces, which outnumber the British.

“The Turks, far from collapsing,” writes historian Norman Stone, “put up a display of extraordinary resilience.”