Battle of Gallipoli, 1915-1916
By Jonathan Webb
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Sir Ian Hamilton versus Liman von Sanders: An Allied army under Hamilton attempts to seize the Gallipoli peninsula, held by a Turkish army under Sanders. Will the expedition prove as easy as the Allies expect or will they have to test their strength against the Turks yard by yard? Also known as the Battle of Çanakkale, Gallipoli Campaign and Dardanelles Campaign. Includes the Battles of Krithia, Kereves Dere, Gully Ravine, Achi Baba Nullah, Sari Bair, Lone Pine, Chunuk Bair, Suvla, Anafarta and Scimitar Hill.
British military historians would surely prefer to forget the Gallipoli campaign ever happened, dismissing the campaign’s failure to be the result of incompetent generalship. This conceptualization of the battle as an Allied failure does not recognize the obvious reality that it was also a Turkish triumph. So while Allied commanders made some grave mistakes but the logic does not proceed that had they not made these mistakes, the Allies would have necessarily won. The Turkish victory literally made the Turkish army: all but one of the senior commanders leading the Turks in their War of Independence 1919-1922 served in Gallipoli at some point (Erickson, 2010: 228-229). So while Allied commanders made some grave mistakes but the logic does not proceed that had they not made these mistakes, the Allies would have necessarily won. For Turkey, Australia and New Zealand, Gallipoli is of huge psychological importance, representing “a coming of age of a people about to test themselves against the currents of the twentieth century” (Erickson, 2001: 76).
Much of the explanation for framing the campaign as a British failure is the latent racism involved in planning, fighting, and recording the campaign. The Allies believed they could knock Turkey out of the war in a single campaign, either by bombarding Constantinople with naval guns or marching on it from the beaches of Gallipoli. Even with success at Gallipoli, marching on Constantinople would have entailed sweeping aside the 150,000 Turkish soldiers British intelligence estimated to be in the area (Carlyon, 2001: 87) with a mere 75,000 Allied troops, in the context of World War I combat. The whole plan is reminiscent of a colonial campaign against some indigenous people armed with bows and arrows. Such latent racism persists even in modern accounts of the battle. Up until Erickson’s excellent Gallipoli: The Ottoman Campaign, many of these myths persisted simply due to lack of accurate information available in Turkish archives. While the Ottoman Empire may have been declining, its army was strong and increasingly adept.
Erickson describes at length the Turkish army’s strengths at Gallipoli:
If there is a singular observation about why the Turks were able to stop Hamilton so completely, it is that they were able to operate inside the British decision cycle. As a military doctrine, the concept of ‘getting inside the enemy’s decision cycle’ was articulated by the United States Army in its AirLand Battle doctrines of the late 1970s. It is based on the idea of leveraging fresh intelligence and information about the enemy in a way that enables a force to react faster than the enemy. It depends on a number of factors such as empowering commanders with the authority to act and training them to use their own initiative to accomplish the mission. On the ground in real combat the essence of operating inside the enemy’s decision cycle is succinctly captured by the American Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s famous maxim ‘Get there firstest with the mostest.’ On the Gallipoli Peninsula in 1915, the locally outnumbered Turks showed up most of the time with more troops, more favorably positioned, in the hands of more active commanders. How they managed this deserves consideration.
The Ottoman army’s reporting system was, in comparison to the Allied system, much more effective because of its standardized formations and bottom-up driven requirements. The Fifth Army commanders, at every level, were consistently in possession of accurate and timely information that enabled them to make rapid and effective decisions. This also created a superior condition of situational awareness for army, corps and division commanders, which enabled them to calculate and take risks. Cumulatively, these factors led to the capability to mass the available forces effectively and efficiently. This was enhanced by the army’s ability to task organize regiments and battalions at will between divisions and corps. This seemingly effortless ability to cross-attach units was a result of the triangular division architecture as well as a result of the hard-won experiences of the Balkan Wars. The generation of combat power by the Ottoman army, then, was really an expression of doctrines and methods rather than the simple accumulation of men and weapons. Four operations illustrate this point: Sefik and Mustafa Kemal’s coordinated attack on 25 April, Kemal’s subsequent massed night attacks, Mahmut Sabri’s defence of Cape Helles and Nicolai’s massing at Kum Kale. In each case the Turks brought their forces to the right place in time to thwart the Allied offensives. (2010: 90-91)
Erickson argues that while adept at the operational level, the Turkish army’s main weakness was its strategic thinking and planning:
Finally, in the author’s opinion, the most significant mistake made by the Turks in the Gallipoli campaign occurred [during the initial Allied offensives]. Enver Pasha eventually sent thirteen additional Ottoman army infantry divisions to the Gallipoli front to reinforce the Fifth Army’s original six divisions. Had he sent six to eight divisions immediately from the massive force pool then held in Thrace in the late spring of 1915, these could have had a dramatic effect on the Ottoman attacks in phase three of the campaign – possibly leading to the destruction of the Anzac and Cape Helles bridge heads. This was a significant strategic error that immobilized critical military assets when they were most needed. There were two reasons for this: Enver thought that the Russians were about to launch a corresponding amphibious invasion on the Bosporous strait and, moreover, he worried about a Greco-Bulgarian alliance attacking western Thrace. That he thought these things were possible highlights the generalized weaknesses in strategic thinking and planning which affected the Ottoman high command throughout the war. As the British managed to throw away their victory so too did the Turks manage to discard the possibility of a campaign of annihilation. (2010: 91)
While eventually victorious, the Turks suffered heavy casualties in catastrophic offensives May-June. The Gallipoli front was just as susceptible to stalemate as the Western Front during World War I. Erickson lists a number of reasons why the Turkish senior officer corps undertook such offensives, despite learning such lessons from the Balkan Wars 1912-1913. The one relatively unique explanation within the context of World War I is the fact that
the lack of positional depth of the Allied beachheads meant that the Turks did not have to develop complex plans involving deep penetrations or pursuits. The simple act of punching through and driving forward 2 or 3 kilometers would have put them on the landing beaches themselves. Unlike the Allies, they did not have to plan for follow-on objectives and multi-phase attacks. The very simplicity of objective was itself decisively seductive. (Erickson, 2010:137)
Unlike the unrealistic hopes of ending the stalemate in the West with a single decisive attack, the Turks could have annihilated the Allied forces on the Gallipoli front with such a success.
Of the Allied shortcomings, there are many and they are well-documented in English accounts of the battle, which often lack sustained research of Turkish accounts. The purpose of these comments is largely to push back against this overwhelming discourse based on English sources, which has been made possible by Erickson’s well-sourced account from the Turkish perspective based on Turkish sources set against these secondary English accounts. For example, writing of the Third Battle of Krithia June 4-6, it is understood that Hunter-Weston made a grave mistake by committing Allied reserves to the flanks where Allied forces made little progress on rather than reinforcing the center where Allied forces had broken through. As is clearly visible in this animation, this notion is ridiculous as none of the Ottoman Southern Group’s reserves were yet committed to the battle (Erickson, 2010: 110). The other Allied blunder that warrants discussion is Stopford’s unwillingness and/or incapability in pushing his divisions forward to capture Anafarta Ridge in the first few days of the Suvla landings August 6-7. This predominant theme is illustrated in the 1981 film wherein the fictional Australian General Gardner observes that while Australians are slaughtered, “the [English] officers are sitting on the beach drinking cups of tea.” While Stopford and the British 10th and 11th divisions’ performance was abysmal at Suvla, the operation’s objective was actually Sari Bair ridge, which the Anzac failed to capture regardless of events on their left.
I have largely omitted depicting the corps level for this battle for the sake of clarity. During WWI, the Turks preferred using ad hoc groups to manage crises anyways, and so these are represented as the commander of any such group wielded great influence over the battle. For example, at one point (August 21 to be exact) Mustapha Kemal commanded seven divisions in the Anafarta Group without any corps organization. There were a few points where I was forced to lengthen the text to explain who was making what decision but the omission of the corps-level decision-making offered few issues overall. For the sake of clarity, I will likely omit the corps level during the Battle of the Bulge animation, another animation at the divisional level.
One of the reasons this animation took so long is the fact that Erickson’s Gallipoli: The Ottoman Campaign, was not available in McMaster’s regular book stacks. This meant I had to request it via interlibrary loan, wait a week for it to arrive from a different university, use it for two weeks, then return it and begin the cycle anew. In normal circumstances, two weeks is sufficient to finish off any animation but not a massive one like Gallipoli. I began requesting the book from a second university as soon as I received it from one university so I always had a copy even if it continuously changed. However, an e-mail from McMaster library staff politely telling me to stop doing that returned me to the usual cycle. As soon as the animation was complete, McMaster purchased its own copy of Erickson’s great book. I could think of this as bitter irony but I would like to think that my repeated interlibrary requests convinced the staff of the book’s value and demand.
The image I used to represent the Allied soldier is specifically Anzac. Australia and New Zealand possess a greater attachment to the campaign than their British comrades and so I felt it made sense to represent this.
- Jonathan Webb
Carlyon, Les. Gallipoli. New York: Doubleday, 2002.
Carver, Michael. The National Army Museum book of the Turkish Front 1914-1918. London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 2003.
Dupuy, Trevor N. The Harper Encyclopedia of Military History: From 3500 BC to the Present, Fourth Edition. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.
Erickson, Edward J. Ordered to Die: A History of the Ottoman army in the First World War. London: Greenwood, 2001.
Esposito, Vincent J. and T. Dodson Stamps. A Short Military History of World War I. New York: Praeger, 1954.
Hickey, Michael. Gallipoli. London: John Murray, 1995.
Moorehead, Alan. Gallipoli. Victoria: MacMillan, 1989.
Prior, Robin. Gallipoli: The End of the Myth. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.
Travers, Tim. Gallipoli 1915. Stroud: Tempus, 2001.
Allied soldiers: http://www.tracks-n-troops.eu/shop/index.php?main_page=product_info&cPath=14_2&products_id=6919
Map of Europe: http://isedphistory.wordpress.com/ww-i/maps-world-war-i/
Map of the world: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_map_projections
Otto Liman von Sanders: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Otto_Liman_von_Sanders
Ottoman soldiers: http://www.twcenter.net/forums/showthread.php?t=398692&page=11
Sir Ian Hamilton: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ian_Standish_Monteith_Hamilton
Tags: 1900s, Allies, amphibious landing, attack from a defensive position, British, envelopment of a single flank, French, Ian Hamilton, indirect approach, infantry, land, modern day Turkey, Modern Era, Otto Liman von Sanders, Ottomans, penetration of the center, Season 6, Western Asia, World War I
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