Allies Fail to Strike Decisive Blow Against Ottomans;
Miss Opportunity to End War
Special to The Great War Project
(4-6 August) This is a pivotal week in the war, on both the Eastern Front in Poland and the Turkish Front at Gallipoli.
On August 5th a century ago, the Polish city of Warsaw falls to the Germans.
It is a “signal triumph” for Germany and its allies,
…writes historian Martin Gilbert. “For the first time since 1815, Russia was denied control of the Polish capital.”
On that same day, Austrian cavalryman Oscar Kokoschka, who will become a renowned artist after the war, describes what fighting on the Eastern Front is like.
“I was really lucky to escape with my life yesterday,” he writes, “because the Cossacks show no mercy if they catch you! I and a patrol were ambushed in the endless forest and swamp hereabouts. We lost more than half our men. Hand-to-hand fighting, with all of us thinking our last hour had come.
“It was pure chance that two or three of us got away, me last because my horse is weak, and to crown it all, went lame!!!! Then a life-or-death chase, with the first of the brutes only ten paces behind me.
“I used my sabre to flog my horse to its limits and made it back to my unit.”
On the day after Warsaw falls to the German army, there is renewed action on the Gallipoli Peninsula. A substantial force of British reinforcements lands at a new beachhead at a place called Suvla Bay.
Their goal, writes Gilbert: Break the Turkish defenses at Gallipoli and enable Allied ships to force their way through the narrow straits.
Thereby making possible an attack on Constantinople, the Ottoman capital.
In order to carry out this operation, the allies must drive the Turks from the heights they control. The allies plot diversionary tactics, involving mostly Australian troops. They penetrate Turkish trenches at a place called Lone Pine, according to historian Gilbert, “in one of the fiercest battles on the peninsula.”
The allies lose 1700 killed or wounded. But the Turks suffer much greater casualties. “When the Australians consolidated their new trenches,” reports Gilbert, “more than a thousand Turkish corpses had to be lifted out for burial. A further 4,000 were killed or wounded.”
The Australians mount a second diversionary feint, but that attack proves unsuccessful. Still, the diversions allow a successful beach landing at Suvla Bay.
The Turks are overwhelmed by a force of Australian, New Zealand, British, Indian, and Gurkha soldiers.
Then, at the crucial moment, the allied generals hesitate, “surprised by such a swift advance,” reports Gilbert. “Their minds, fashioned by the warfare on the Western Front, were attuned to ‘victories’ of a hundred yards.”
“A virtually unopposed advance of half a mile bewildered them.”
“The hesitation was decisive and disastrous….the heights remained in Turkish hands.”
One senior German general on the scene is puzzled by the British hesitation. “We all had the feeling,” he writes, “that the British leaders had delayed too long on the shore instead of advancing from the landing place at any cost.”
In his diary, one German admiral on the scene on August 7th a century ago, writes: “The situation is obviously critical. Should the Dardanelles fall, the World War has been decided against us.”
It appears that if the British generals make the right choices, here at the Dardanelles straits and on the Gallipoli peninsula, the war would end.
But the British do not make the right choices, and the war continues.