The Gallipoli Campaign 19 February 1915–9 January 1916

In 1915 the Allies were confronted with a dilemma: how could they maintain maritime supply lines to Russia when the Baltic Sea was blockaded by the German navy, while the Ottomans controlled the Black Sea? The solution was to send a Franco-British naval expedition to clear the Dardanelle Straits, the narrow passageway that gave access to both Constantinople and the Black Sea from the Mediterranean. The first order of business was to destroy the two Ottoman forts that guarded the mouth of the Dardanelles. As the Allies advanced into Ottoman waters on 18 March 1915 they became aware of the mines that were strung across the Straits and along the southern shore. When the fleet banked and turned it was struck by a minefield, losing three battleships and 700 casualties.

The naval assault had proved unviable, so the Allies decided on a land attack to capture the straits. The Mediterranean Expeditionary Force (MEF) sailed from Alexandria on 22 March, accompanied by the Anzacs, a corps of Australian and New Zealand troops. By 25 April the MEF was dispersed at five main landing points around Cape Helles, which lay at the southern tip of the Gallipoli peninsula, a long spur of land that formed the northern shore of the Dardanelles. Here they were subject to relentless bombardment and suffered by many casualties. The Anzacs landed further up the Aegean coast of the peninsula, where they found themselves hemmed in by cliffs. The situation soon consolidated into static trench warfare with the lines being drawn near the village of Krithia.

By the summer of 1915 the situation was becoming desperate. The entrenched troops were suffering high casualties from enemy bombardment, but disease was also rife. A new assault was planned at Suvla Bay, to the north of Anzac Cove. The surprise landing was successful but the Anzacs were unable to break through from their positions and join up with the new arrivals, and an Ottoman counterattack forced them back. More reinforcements arrived, but a failed attempt to capture Scimitar Hill was the final straw. Allied High Command turned their attention to the European campaign and the situation in Gallipoli stagnated. Intense summer heat, flies, inadequate food supplies and diseases such as dysentery and tetanus all made the lives of the front line troops unendurable. The lack of planning by the Allied military authorities and their failure in their duty of care to their soldiers is a common theme in accounts of the Gallipoli campaign.

Beaches X, S and Y on Cape Helles were lightly defended and it was here that the Allies had a chance to break through and overcome Ottoman defences. But instructions from High Command were unclear and the commander on the ground, Major General Hunter, vacillated, squandering a unique opportunity. Instead Allied troops dug in, facing a bitter war of attrition. Their three attempts to break through the Ottoman lines at the village of Krithia were repulsed with heavy casualties. Eventually, evacuation was ordered: in contrast to the assault the evacuation was carried out with great efficiency. When troops finally withdrew on the night of 8–9 January it was without loss of life.

Australians have never forgotten the bitter legacy of Gallipoli, and the 8,000 men who never returned home – Anzac Day commemorates the disastrous campaign. The Ottomans’ victory saw the inspirational 33-year-old lieutenant colonel who commanded the 19th Division, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, rising to prominence. He eventually became the founding father of the Turkish Republic in 1923.