Why did New Zealand end up landing at Gallipoli?

New Zealand’s road to the 25 April landings on Gallipoli was a tortuous one. Certainly it was never planned. When the New Zealand government called for British input into plans for an expeditionary force in 1909, the expected theatre was going to be Europe. And that was where our expeditionary force was going in 1914 when it was abruptly dropped off in Egypt.

The old French battleship Bouvet sinking after striking a mine near the entrance to the Dardanelles, 18 March 1915. Public domain.
The French battleship Bouvet – first commissioned in 1898 – sinking after striking a mine near the entrance to the Dardanelles, 18 March 1915. Public domain.

Like so much about war, it was as much expedient as anything else. Turkey declared war on the British Empire on 29 October, and amid fears of a Turkish thrust across the Sinai to cut off the canal and take Egypt, Britain hastily gathered whatever forces it could scrabble up into the area.

These included the Australian and New Zealand expeditionary forces, which by then were on their way to Europe, via Egypt. Plans called for a stop-over in Egypt to assemble the forces and more fully train the men before they were deployed into he European theatre. The unexpected extension of their stop-over was always looked on as temporary before they resumed their journey to France, but in the event that ‘temporary’ became over a year. The Anzac moniker emerged along the way – an acronym adopted by headquarters staff to abbreviate the ‘Australia and New Zealand Army Corps’ mouthful in their paperwork. A rubber stamp followed – and hey presto, ‘Anzac’ became a word.

By February 1915 the British were looking at ways of knocking down the Ottoman Empire by taking its capital, Constantinople. Initial plans – partially hatched by the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill – called for a naval-only expedition.

By this scheme – devised in detail by Vice-Admiral Sir Sackville Hamilton-Carden – a fleet of old battleships and a few modern vessels would blast the forts protecting the Dardanelles, steam up them, cross the Sea of Marmora – sinking the ex-German battlecruiser Goeben on the way – and then stand off the Golden Horn and invite the Turks to capitulate.

What might happen if the Turks refused was never contemplated; there was a sense that the government was racked with sufficient internal tension as to give up. The whole idea, of course, was absurd – reflecting the lack of staff to analyse the issue and advise the Committee of Imperial Defence among other bodies.

Still, there were dissenting voices in British command, among them Admiral Sir John Fisher, who thought only a combined operation – including an effort to take out the Dardanelles forts overland – would succeed.

HMS Majestic, one of Britain's oldest battleships in 1915, leaving Lemnos for the Gallipoli landings at Anzac Cove. Australian War Memorial, Public Domain.
HMS Majestic, pride of the Channel Fleet in the late 1890s, but one of Britain’s oldest battleships in 1915, leaving Lemnos for the Gallipoli landings at Anzac Cove. Australian War Memorial, Public Domain.

Initial plans nonetheless went ahead on the basis that no land forces would be needed until after Turkey surrendered, at which point a campaign would follow into Europe’s soft underbelly. Even then, the question was what could be deployed. Herbert Kitchener’s New Army was still being formed, and there were but two divisions left of the old ‘Contemptibles’. Preparations went ahead to form an army for Middle Eastern service built around one of these divisions, bolstered by the Royal Naval Division and by the Anzacs.

Meanwhile, the Royal Navy – supported by the French – tried to force the Dardanelles. Their force was mostly made up of obsolete battleships, but included the brand new super-dreadnought Queen Elizabeth, which was capable of firing across the entire Gallipoli peninsula to engage targets beyond.

The first effort to force the straits on 19 February failed, spectacularly, with loss of lives and ships. In hindsight it was obvious; naval guns weren’t suited to land bombardments and they couldn’t fully silence the Turkish forts or stop the Turks from siting new guns. The British persisted. Then the Turks added a new minefield near the entrance, smothering makeshift British minesweepers with fire from the forts.

After a final attempt to force the Dardanelles on 18 March led to the loss of more ships, Churchill accepted that a ground force would have to be put ashore on the Gallipoli peninsula. Plans called for a major landing in the south, bolstered by a side-thrust half way up the peninsula, by the Anzacs.

By this tWright_Western Front_200 pxime the Western Front had been deadlocked, which senior commanders understood was a consequence of the way military technology had evolved. But that risk never featured in initial plans for Gallipoli, which looked on the landings as a distraction from their campaign into Bulgaria.

Plans drawn up by Mediterranean Expeditionary Force commander, General Sir Ian Hamilton, and his staff in the dining room of a commandeered Cairo hotel envisaged the effort would be brief. The Anzacs would take their main objectives on the first day and the whole ground effort would be over within a few days. In theory.

It was, of course, far too optimistic; but that lesson had to be learned the hard way.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


11 thoughts on “Why did New Zealand end up landing at Gallipoli?

  1. Ah! The illusions of war—the idea that victory will be easy. The lesson is never learned. The illusion is too deeply embedded in human nature. Ian Hamilton did very well in the Boer War, where he was not a big decision-maker but a competent general, and you would think that his observations in the Russo-Japanese War would have immunized him against these illusions. He saw firsthand how the vastly underestimated Japanese totally outfought the arrogant Russians, and humiliated them. Too bad he in turn was about to be humiliated by the Turks. No matter how much folks in the various officer training schools around the world study the details of military strategy, they never learn how to ask that fundamental, terribly uncomfortable question, “Are my basic assumptions correct?”

    1. Good point. Hamilton’s observations certainly fed into British military planning – for instance, the casualty rates reported during the ground battles of 1904-05 were accepted as the norm for industrial-age warfare and built into pre-war planning. New Zealand’s scheme for an expeditionary force included an astonishing 25 percent ‘wastage’ per month on the back of it. So the lessons HAD been taken on board. Why were they forgotten at Gallipoli? I suspect part of the reason was the gimcrack way the whole effort was organised – floating, as it did, amidst rival arguments in British high command. The concept of ‘combined ops’ versus ‘navy only’ was particularly bitterly fought and I do wonder whether that didn’t flow into the way the ground plan was finally devised. Add to that the way that the terrain was underestimated at Anzac Cove, particularly, and it was a recipe for disaster.

    2. Well … to be fair to the military strategists, there are a lot of assumptions that have to go into any plan. You can’t work out backups or alternatives to everything, because nobody is Batman and there’s a limit to how many alternative plans one can have.

      That said, nobody should ever rely on the assumption “and after this show of force, they will naturally give up”, since it turns out that only holds true after four years of blockade, saturation bombing, and atom-bombing. And even then is a close-run thing.

      1. Very close! The FINAL shot of the Second World War came 15 minutes after the surrender, when a kamakaze crashed near HMNZS Gambia. It had apparently been targeting a British aircraft carrier astern. There was a very serious fear that rogue military elements would continue to provide opposition.

        In terms of military strategy you’re quite right – nobody knows how things will pan out, and commanders often had to prepare plans on the basis of partial data. Gallipoli was no exception, they didn’t even have proper topo maps of the area. It’s all very well for armchair commentators, afterwards, to sit back and make pronouncements about what ‘should’ have happened, but they weren’t there at the time.

  2. Matthew, I’ve tried a half-dozen comments, but none of them come out right. The truth is that infantry stuff scares the living blank out of me.

    One note about Gallipoli: the first I ever heard of it was when I was fourteen years old. I was reading Men Who Made a New Physics by Barbara L. Cline. Lord Rutherford (a Kiwi, as I recall) had a young assistant, a brilliant physicist, who volunteered for service. He died at Gallipoli, shot, ironically, through the head. That fact has stayed with me ever since. Especially when idiots talk about the “Darwinian” aspect of war.

    1. Ernest Rutherford was born and bred in New Zealand – there’s a memorial at his birthplace near Nelson, and his lab at the old Canterbury University was a museum up until the earthquakes broke the building. Like most Kiwis of the day he did all his important stuff overseas (Canada and Britain) – one of the little known ones is that he was on the 1917 Committee that developed underwater sound ranging.

      I agree completely about the stupidity of social Darwinism as an interpretation of war. It has absolutely no validity whatsoever. I can’t help thinking that the people who advocate that kind of idea, in any context, have other agendas. To me the reality of warfare, at the human level, is that it was indiscriminate – a leveller in which everybody, exceptional or not, was potentially a victim. The ‘citizen armies’ of the First and Second World Wars, in particular, drew together people from all walks of life. None were spared over others. Here in NZ, the tragedy of WWI was that while we didn’t have ‘Pals Battalions’, the population was so low and the casualty rate so high (58 percent killed or wounded across the whole war) that families were decimated in any event. And that was in spite of a deliberate Army effort to mix-and-match in order to prevent that sort of thing happening.

  3. I draw a distinction between details of military strategy and a broader, deeper understanding of the different attitudes and situations of the opposing sides. Military strategy has to do with particular practical modes of attack. The deeper understanding has to do with the larger motivations and determination of the enemy. I believe the lack of this understanding led not only to the Allied failure at Gallipoli but to the horrific intensity of conflicts in the Pacific in WWII (until the A-bomb was decided on as the only solution), to the terrible misunderstanding of the U.S. of attitudes of the Vietcong and similar misunderstandings in Iraq and Afghanistan. And, to go back to the beginning of my mention of Ian Hamilton, the huge misunderstanding of the British about the Boers in the 1899-1902 conflict: surely the Boers would surrender once Bloemfontein and Pretoria were captured. Wrong! Two years of brutal guerilla warfare lay ahead.

  4. As a minor aside, a lawyer friend of mine in Lander Wyoming had a large framed print of the New Zealand forces coming ashore at Gallipoli. In asking him about it, he told me his grandfather had been an officer in the NZ contingent in the operation. His unit had given him the print.

    He obviously survived it, but not with really happy consequences. According to his grandson, he’d never mentally recovered from the experience.

    1. The psychological impact of that war was often deep. I wrote a book exploring the psychology of NZ military heroism and later covered tbe theme of war’s impact in the combatants in a general study I wrote of New Zealand’s Gallipoli and Western Front experience. The social frameworks of the day essentially excluded the real consequences of combat in the human sense, with the result that a lot of soldiers suffering from PTSD were basically told it was their own fault for being weak. It was another generation and another war before this issue was tackled.

  5. One thing that I think is a common misunderstanding about this operation (Gallipoli) is that it was an “Australian” operation. The impression is widespread, but in actuality it was quite multinational, including, as you note, NZ troops, but also featuring French and British troops. Some of the units involved in the famous Curragh incident prior to the war, for instance, served there.

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