'Damn the Dardanelles!'

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In December 1915 the evacuation of allied troops from the Dardanelles straits in the Ottoman Empire finally began. A century on Steve Guy looks at the significance of the allies' failed Gallipoli campaign.

A century ago allied troops retreated, defeated, from the shores of Turkey after the eight-month Dardanelles campaign. The allies — Britain, France and Russia — had wanted to carve up the Ottoman Empire — Turkey, the Arabian Peninsula, Mesopotamia (Iraq and Syria) and the area south of the Caucasus mountain range.

The British and French wanted Mesopotamia, which was known to be rich in oil deposits, while Russia wanted Constantinople, which would give it unfettered access to the Mediterranean.

The new Turkish nationalist government desperately wanted to avoid conflict, but First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill forced the issue. First he ordered the impounding of two Turkish battleships being constructed in British shipyards, and then the shelling of the forts guarding the western approach to the Dardanelles straits. Turkey declared war on the allies.

In March 1915 the allies launched a full-scale naval assault on the straits, which achieved very little, apart from making it clear to the Turks that they needed to strengthen their defences, which they did. Despite this, Churchill championed a military onslaught on the Gallipoli peninsula, prompting the first sea lord, “Jacky” Fisher to exclaim, “Damn the Dardanelles! They will be our grave!”

Churchill and those around him brushed these reservations aside. Their arrogant attitude was expressed by Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Skeen: “It will be grim work to begin with, but we have good fighters ready to tackle it, and an enemy that has never shown himself as good a fighter as the white man.” But the Turkish officers were well prepared. Tens of thousands of Ottoman troops, conscripted largely from the Anatolian peasantry, small farmers and artisans, were dispatched to the area in advance of the invasion, with hundreds of thousands more in reserve.

The Dardanelles campaign, which began on 25 April 1915, could best be described as the perfect example of how not to organise an amphibious invasion of a hostile territory.

The allied forces intended to establish beachheads in two locations, with the British at Cape Helles on the south western end of the peninsula, and the Australians and New Zealanders (known as Anzacs) further up the northern coast. The British forces came ashore opposite a heavily defended fort and were cut to ribbons by artillery and machine gun fire; thousands died in the first few hours and the blood was said to have stained both the sand and the sea bright red.

For the Anzacs the lack of accurate and reliable maps meant that many of their craft landed in the wrong places, and once ashore, they lost valuable time trying to reach their objectives. This gave the Turks the chance to secure the high ground above the invasion beach, later nicknamed Brighton beach, which they never relinquished.

The allied forces were never to advance more than a few kilometres inland before being repulsed, often with heavy losses. Contributing to the body count was the ruthlessness and incompetence of the allied officers, prepared to order troops to attack well-defended positions, where they were butchered and their bodies left to rot in the merciless Mediterranean heat.

After a month a truce was arranged in order for both sides to bury their dead, and as the burial parties commenced their work, some fraternisation took place between the combatants, with cigarettes exchanged for uniform buttons and regimental badges. When the truce was about to end, the allied troops wished their opponents good luck, with the Turks replying, “Smiling may you go and smiling come again.” This interlude was not to be repeated, both sides resorting to using funeral pyres to dispose of the dead for the duration of the campaign, almost certainly to avoid any future instances of fraternisation. In some areas of the former battlegrounds charred human remains can still be found.

The campaign ground on through the summer months, with attacks and counter-attacks often from trenches only feet away from each other, and with both sides using early forms of improvised explosive devices. By August the allies attempted to break the deadlock by throwing in another 60,000 men.

Once again the attempts to drive inland and sever the Turkish lines were frustrated by a combination of incompetent allied leadership and determined Turkish resistance. It was at this time that Kemal Ataturk, later to become the first president of the Turkish Republic, distinguished himself in organising the Ottoman defence.

The clamour in allied political and military circles to end the campaign finally won out. In October a new commander in chief, General Munro, arrived and immediately formulated an exit strategy. The beleaguered troops were still to endure another two months of fighting, in sub-zero temperatures and lashed by a snow storm that saw sentries on both sides freeze to death at their posts.

The evacuation began in December 1915, with the last allied troops leaving on 8 January 1916. The final death toll over the eight months was recorded as 44,000 British, French and colonial troops, and nearly 87,000 Ottoman troops (though the numbers were almost certainly higher).

For many subject peoples around the world, suffering under imperialist oppression, the victory of the Turks over the Europeans was seen as the victory of a subordinate people over their oppressors. Many national liberation movements of the 20th century drew inspiration from the outcome at Gallipoli, not least the Irish nationalists who were to stage a rising against the British only months after the final allied troops had left that fatal, futile shore.