COVER STORY by Anthony StauntonNews Weekly
The significance of the Gallipoli landing
, April 25, 2015
One hundred years ago, on April 25, 1915, Australian troops were part of the Allied landings on the Ottoman Empire’s Gallipoli peninsula in what is now Turkey.
Australia had been formed just 14 years earlier when six British colonies federated on the first day of the 20th century.
In 1915, 96 per cent of Australians could trace their origin to the British Isles. More than a quarter of the Australian troops were born in Britain or Ireland.
Just before dawn on April 25, 1915, boatloads of Queenslanders, South Australians and Western Australians headed for the Gallipoli coastline.
Plateaus and ridges at
Gallipoli landing site
The first waves of Australian troops landed at North Beach beneath a spectacular natural feature, a worn and weathered pinnacle, known to this day as the Sphinx. Turkish soldiers in the hills overlooking the beaches began firing as the boats approached and Australian casualties began to mount.
As soon as the Australians got ashore they moved off the beach as rapidly as possible. They scrambled up the steep scrubby cliffs and narrow gullies to seize the heights. Beyond the first ridge were the high hills of the Sari Bair Range. The highest point, known as Hill 971, was never to be reached throughout the campaign.
Having seized the high ground above North Beach the Australians tried to secure the important objectives of Battleship Hill and Baby 700 and were reinforced as more troops landed. The 1st Australian Division, the New Zealand and Australian Division and battalions of the Royal Naval Division landed in the Anzac sector in the first 48 hours.
On April 25, the outnumbered Turks supported by artillery used the rugged terrain to stop and push back the Anzac and British troops advancing through the undergrowth. At the end of the first day the Anzac sector extended to the high ground seized earlier on the morning. The positions were overlooked by Turkish strong points on higher ground.
The diggers named this
outcrop at the first Gallipoli
landing site the Sphinx
The first phase of the fighting continued for more than a week. During this fighting, between April 30 and May 2, the first Victoria Cross was awarded in the Anzac sector. The award is largely unknown in Australia since it was to a Royal Marine, Lance-Corporal Walter Parker, Portsmouth Battalion, and Royal Naval Division.
By the end of the first week, the Anzacs and the Turks had consolidated their positions into strongly held trench lines. However, some trench lines were quite close; such as Quinn’s Post, which was overseen on three sides by Turkish positions.
This led to ferocious and intense bombing duels and aggressive tunnelling below ground.
The invention of the periscope rifle in May 1915 by Lance Corporal William Beech, 2nd Australian Battalion, allowed a soldier standing in a trench to take accurate aim and fire without exposing himself to the enemy.
Wire nets were placed above the trenches to hold back hand grenades. Minor attacks continued for three months, but the Allied offensive would not be renewed in the Anzac sector until August.
Of the 13 British Empire divisions that would serve on the Gallipoli peninsula, the 29th British Division was the only division formed by regulars.
The role of the inexperienced Anzacs on April 25 was to prevent the Turks reinforcing Helles in the south of the peninsula. The 29th Division at Helles was to capture the forts guarding the Dardanelles to enable a British fleet to pass through the straits to bombard Constantinople (modern Istanbul), the then Turkish capital. The Turkish forts were not captured as planned and for the next three months the main Allied effort was to take the forts.
British, Indian and French troops and, in the Second Battle of Krithia on May 6–8, the 2nd Australian Infantry Brigade and the New Zealand Infantry Brigade tried unsuccessfully to break through the Turkish lines.
On the morning of May 15, Sir William Throsby Bridges, commander of the 1st Australian Division and the first Australian to reach the rank of major general, was hit by a sniper. He died on the 18th.
The same day signs of an imminent attack were noticed in the Anzac sector when the constant hail of Turkish rifle fire suddenly ceased and the unaccustomed silence aroused suspicions. Later that day naval aircraft observed large Turkish concentrations east of the Anzac sector with Turkish reinforcements coming ashore nearby.
The Turkish attack upon the centre of the Anzac line was designed to drive the defenders into the sea. It was unleashed early on the morning of May 19 but the Anzacs were prepared. The Anzac riflemen cut down successive Turkish waves, which continued for about six hours.
The Turks were brave and persistent with a very few stubborn men reaching the Australian parapets and trenches. Only at Courtney’s Post did Turkish troops enter the Australian lines.
The Turks were dislodged by the courageous efforts of Lance Corporal Albert Jacka from Victoria. While his mates distracted those Turks’ attention he leapt into the occupied bay and single-handedly attacked and killed the Turkish party, five by rifle fire and two with the bayonet. Jacka was the first Australian awarded the Victoria Cross for Gallipoli.
Australian and New Zealand casualties defending the Anzac sector from the Turkish attack were 160 killed and 468 wounded. It is estimated that 10,000 of the 30,000 to 40,000 attacking Turkish troops were casualties.
The immense slaughter, mainly inflicted by Australian riflemen, changed the attitude of the Australian troops towards the Turkish soldiers. In the words of Charles Bean, the Australian official historian: “From being bitter and suspicious they became admirers and almost friends of the Turks … and so they remained to the end of the war.”
The day following the failed offensive an Australian attempt to rescue Turkish wounded led to a short informal armistice. On May 24, there was a formal truce lasting nearly all day in which the dead were buried.
An impasse existed in both the Helles and Anzac sectors, but scouting reports from outposts in the north of the Anzac sector suggested that it would be difficult but not impossible for large numbers of troops to move up through the valleys and take the heights of the Sari Bair range.
Seizing the heights would allow British artillery to shell Turkish supply lines to both the Anzac sector and the Helles sector and perhaps allow an advance across the peninsula. Plans for the proposed break-out went ahead throughout June and July. Reinforcements and supplies were brought forward in preparation for the offensive.
The offensive began on the afternoon of August 6 with an attack by the 1st Australian Division at Lone Pine in the southern section of the Australian line. The plan was to divert Turkish attention from the northern hills. After dark 10,000 Australian, British, Indian, Gurkha and New Zealand troops moved from North Beach up the coast and into the Sari Bair hills.
The Australians led the forces on the most northerly route towards the highest peak, Hill 971. The New Zealanders led the forces to seize the vital peak of Chunuk Bair. Both Hill 971 and Chunuk Bair were to be held by dawn on August 7. With Turkish attention diverted by the capture of Chunuk Bair two dismounted Australian Light Horse regiments would then attack across the Nek to link up with the New Zealanders.
On the night of August 6, 1915, British forces landed north of the Anzac sector at Suvla Bay. The new landing was to support the breakout from the Anzac sector. Despite light opposition, the landing was mismanaged and quickly became a stalemate.
The 4th Australian Brigade, the British 40th Brigade and the 29th Indian Brigade got lost in the foothills to the west of Hill 971. Exhausted and debilitated they were unable to find the slopes leading to Hill 971. The 6th Gurkha Rifles reached the slopes of Chunuk Bair instead of Hill 971. The New Zealanders made the most successful night march, reaching Rhododendron Ridge. But at dawn they were still a kilometre from Chunuk Bair.
Dawn on August 7 witnessed the greatest tragedy in Australian military history. Despite the New Zealanders not being in position behind the Turks at the Nek, four waves of West Australian and Victorian light horsemen were ordered by Australian commanders to attack the Nek across just 50 metres of no man’s land. The Australian waves were destroyed and no man reached the Turkish positions.
Fighting at Suvla Bay, Chunuk Bair, below Hill 971 and at Lone Pine did not subside until August 10. The New Zealanders seized Chunuk Bair but the relieving British troops were unable to hold the gains.
Today Chunuk Bair is the location of the New Zealand Memorial.
The Turkish trenches captured in the diversion at Lone Pine were held despite intense fighting in which seven Australians were awarded the Victoria Cross.
The Australian Gallipoli Memorial is located at Lone Pine.
The last British offensive on Gallipoli peninsula was between August 21 and 29 at Hill 60 to straighten the line between the Anzac and Suvla sectors and to make communications along the shore between the two sectors safer. In this fighting the Victoria Cross was awarded to an Australian officer, Lieutenant Hugo Throssell, the only Australian light horseman so honoured.
On November 15, 1915, the British Secretary of State for War, Field Marshal Lord Kitchener, after inspecting the Helles, Anzac and Suvla sectors and consulting senior commanders, recommended evacuation of the three beachheads. A detailed plan was devised with elaborate deceptions so the Turks would be unaware of the withdrawal preparations.
Movement to the piers during the evacuation took place after dark, with the final 20,000 troops withdrawn over two nights on December 18-19 and 19-20, 1915. The withdrawal at Suvla and Anzac was completed with hardly a casualty. Helles was similarly successfully evacuated on January 8, 1916.
Following rest and reorganisation in Egypt, the Australian and New Zealand infantry distinguished themselves on the Western Front and the mounted infantry distinguished themselves in the Palestine campaign.
Gallipoli has never been forgotten in Australia and New Zealand, where Anzac Day, April 25, each year is a national day of commemoration when the service and sacrifice of servicemen and women in all wars and peace operations are remembered.
Australian and New Zealand veterans of the Gallipoli campaign commemorated the 50th anniversary of the landings in 1965, but general interest seemed to be waning. This lack of interest was captured in 1971 when Scottish-born folk singer-songwriter Eric Bogle wrote And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda in which young people asked “What are they marching for?”
However, in the years since there has been a renaissance of Anzac Day, a growth in the Anzac legend with many books and articles about the Australians at Gallipoli and on the Western Front. It is ironic that Australia and New Zealand commemorate the anniversary of the start of a campaign that ended in defeat.
Despite the amount written and spoken about the campaign, there is still a debate over several aspects of the campaign.
The following are some of the contentious issues:
• The British and French failed between February 19 and March 18, 1915, to force open the Dardanelles by naval power. The Turks used this time to increase their defences on the Gallipoli peninsula and with morale boosted by their naval victory they never surrendered the high ground.
• The Turks had the advantage of both shorter and more secure supply lines, with reinforcements near at hand.
• The British had the most allied troops; followed by Australia and France. The casualty figures of 120,000 British; 27,000 each for Australia and France and 7,500 for New Zealand indicates the relative sacrifice.
• The British command at Gallipoli was not of a high order, but Australians still have a great regard for Field Marshal Birdwood, the British commander of the Anzac forces, and for many other British officers who commanded Australian troops at Gallipoli and on the Western Front.
• The August offensive was the only time the Anzacs had the main role at Gallipoli. They were supported by British and Indian troops.
One of the continuing controversies is that the Anzacs were landed north of their intended beach and faced tortuous and difficult country. While this is true, the Turkish defenders were soon overrun and the heights captured on the first day remained in Anzac hands until the evacuation.
This needs to be balanced with the fact that the Turks had stronger garrisons, offshore obstructions and artillery at the intended landing place.
The evacuation from Gallipoli was well planned and executed but surprise withdrawals are easier to manage than attacks. Wars are not won by retreats.
If the Dardanelles had been forced, Turkey would probably have been eliminated from the war. However, Germany was propping up its allies rather than the other way around. But an Allied victory would have been advantageous to the allied powers, a morale boost to Russia and a blow to Germany.
Australia’s most famous World War I soldier was the Gallipoli Victoria Cross recipient Albert Jacka. He had been commissioned and also distinguished himself on the Western Front, being awarded two Military Crosses.
However, his fame has been eclipsed and today if school children are asked to name someone who served at Gallipoli, the name will be English-born John Simpson Kirkpatrick, who with a donkey assisted the lightly wounded, particularly troops with leg wounds, to get down to the beach.
As to whether Dardanelles could have been forced, some writers agree with Britain’s Peter Hart, who wrote: “It was a lunacy that never had a chance of succeeding.”
In hindsight it is easy to suggest it might have succeeded if a combined naval and land operation had been undertaken under competent leadership with experienced forces without giving Turkey time to prepare its defences.
Australians and New Zealanders should reflect on Peter Hart’s words: “British visitors to Gallipoli almost always visit both Helles and Anzac; Australian visitors almost never visit Helles. Perhaps they should.”
Military historian Anthony Staunton
Anthony Staunton is vice-president of the Military Historical Society of Australia. After graduating in Business Studies (RMIT) and History (Deakin University), he worked for 35 years in the Departments of Defence and Veteran Affairs.
Inspired by his 3rd grade teacher telling the story of the seven Victoria Cross winners at Lone Pine, Anthony has had a life-long interest in the Victoria Cross. He has accumulated an extensive reference collection on the subject and has written numerous articles. He has collaborated on four books dealing specifically with the VC.
In 2005 he was the sole author of Victoria Cross: Australians Finest and the Battles they Fought, published by Hardie Grant Books.
Anthony has a broad interest in military history, particularly Australian military history. He joined the Military Historical Society in 1976 and served as federal secretary for eight years. He has been the society’s editorial board convenor since 1989 and edited the society’s journal, Sabretache. He was elected federal vice-president in October 2010.