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 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, 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 time 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