War of Attrition on All Fronts; Sickness a Deadly Enemy
Millions More Troops Needed
Special to The Great War Project
(26-29 June) It’s nearly a year since this war broke out, and it’s clearer now than ever, it’s a war of attrition on all fronts, Western, Eastern, and in several areas of the Ottoman Empire.
On June 29th a century ago, General Henri-Philippe Petain, a commander of French forces “told his superiors,” writes historian Martin Gilbert, “that the war of attrition on the Western Front would go ‘to the side which possesses the last man.’”
On the same day, reports Gilbert, “the British government introduced a National Registration Bill, the first step on the road from voluntary to compulsory military service.”
The British continue to pour troops into the Western Front and Gallipoli, the deadlocked battle on the Gallipoli peninsula of northwestern Turkey.
The total additional British troops reaches more than two million.
“But,” writes Gilbert, “by the end of June 1915, it had become clear that even this would not be enough.”
This same week, a hundred years ago, “the number of French troops under arms reached five million.”
They are not supplied sufficiently, even simple items such as steel helmets, most important to the French troops. “There were never enough,” reports Gilbert. By this moment in the war, the soldiers needed millions. They received only tens of thousands.
The war in the Middle East is emerging as another active front, and it too is deadlocked.
At the beginning of June in Mesopotamia (today’s Iraq), British forces, landed at the top of the Persian Gulf, take Amara, in southern Iraq. Their goal is to seize Damascus and drive the Turkish forces out of Iraq and Syria.
At first the British score a series of victories. But in June, “grave difficulties were beginning to emerge.” On June 27th a combined force of British and Indian troops attacks the Turkish garrison at Nasariya in southern Iraq.
The heat is unbearable, writes Gilbert, reaching 115 degrees Fahrenheit.The troops are attacked by swarms of mosquitoes. The Turkish artillery keeps up steady and accurate fire.
Finally the Turks leave Nasariya to the British but they dig in at al Kut, further north.
Sickness becomes another enemy for the British, beginning “to decimate the fighting abilities of the troops,” according to Gilbert. Heatstroke and sunstroke are weakening the British capacity to fight.
On the Gallipoli Peninsula, after three months of fighting, the British are bogged down and unable to dislodge the Ottoman defenses. British war planners are shocked by this turn of events.
Sickness also affects both sides in the Gallipoli battle. “The absence of proper latrines,” writes historian Eugene Rogan, “left soldiers who feared to expose themselves to sniper fire to relieve themselves in the same trenches where they fought, ate, and slept.
“Dysentery reached epidemic proportions.”
According to Rogan, thousands of soldiers are “evacuated from the front, dehydrated and too weak to walk, let alone to fight.”
Gilbert reports that the commander of Turkish forces at Gallipoli, Mustafa Kemal, is confident his forces can defeat the Australian and New Zealand forces at Gallipoli and drive them into the sea.
He leads the attack on June 28th. This time it’s the Turks who suffer defeat. Kemal offers his resignation but it is rejected. Years later, Kemal will lead Turkish forces to seize Anatolia and create the modern Turkish state. He will call himself Ataturk.
But on this June 28th a century ago, the British mount a counteroffensive at Cape Helles at the southern end of Gallipoli. The British attack is partially successful. British troops take some Turkish trenches, and in one according to historian Gilbert, “found a breakfast of biscuits and hard-boiled eggs waiting to be eaten.”
According to one regimental historian, they also found “a more gruesome sight,” the bodies of some British soldiers, killed in April “but still unburied.”
“The fighting on the Gallipoli Peninsula from which the [Allied forces] had expected so much, had become another stalemate,” concludes Gilbert, “a replica in miniature of the trench warfare on the Western Front…..the terrors of which were now being duplicated in a distant war zone.”