NOTE: Although written to accompany research on the Collingwood Battalion, both the Queen's Own Dorset Yeomanry and the 5th Battalion The Dorsetshire Regiment also fought at Gallipoli
Gallipoli was to have been a tactical masterpiece that became a bloody sideshow and has come to symbolise the waste and futility of the Great War. 46,000 allied troops were killed in nine months of fighting with no real gain and which resulted in a stealth retreat from the peninsular.
The Dardanelles were a strategic area and when Turkey came into the war as allies of Germany, which left the Russians having to use the freezing artic route for supplies and for help in their war. Breaking through the Dardanelles and taking Constantinople would open up the seaway to the Black Sea and Russia.
It was first proposed that an assault should be made on these straits in November 1914, but nothing was done. Then in January 1915 the Russians appealed for help. A combined land and sea assault was abandoned in favour of a naval operation when Kitchener announced it would be impossible to find the 150,000 men needed for the land operation.
The naval operation found favour with Winston Churchill, but three very senior men had reservations about the feasibility of such an undertaking.
The decision was made and ships were sent to the area in February 1915. The largest of these was from the Grand Fleet, Dreadnought Queen Elizabeth. The other ships were older and slower, ones that were useless either for the grand fleet or in the Mediterranean. The minesweepers were helped by converted trawlers, many of which were not strong enough for the currents.
The first shots were fired from the Cornwallis at 9.51 February 19th. Bombardment of enemy positions continued through the day. Bad weather set in and the bombardment by the ships guns did not begin again until February 25th. This became a pattern throughout the campaign, either at sea or on land. It could be the weather, indecisiveness or bad management, but fighting was not continuous and the Turkish forces were forever given the opportunity to regroup, and reinforce.
The bombardments recommenced, with some success, the Turkish guns were silenced and the forts were left empty, but then disaster struck. Four ships were sunk by undetected mines, one French and three British. The sinking had been so unexpected and sudden that the naval operation was called off. Any further attempts were hampered by bad weather.
It was decided to mount a land operation and would be the first amphibious landing of troops. They had just five weeks to prepare.
Aerial reconnaissance was primitive and many maps used were from sketches drawn by officers of the land from the sea. Although these had detail, they had the wrong detail needed. The sketches did not show machine gun placements or trenches. Other maps were enlarged from ones drawn 60 years previously and sketchy land contours became non- existent with the enlargement and many regiments thought they were landing onto relatively flat ground.
The land assault started on April 25th. The Australian and New Zealand forces [Anzacs] found themselves at the wrong place, they had landed one mile north of where they should have been. This meant that having reached the summit of the heights found themselves with nowhere to go, the maps linked the plateau with high ground, but instead there was a sheer ridge of razor edges, impossible to pass. The British who had landed at W beach further down the peninsular had met with enemy fire from two cliffs and were drawn into a trap by the defenders.
The forces had no choice but to dig in and the whole campaign quickly turned into the last thing the generals wanted, trench warfare.
The assault at Suvla Bay was the British attempt to help break the deadlock between the Anzac and British forces already fighting the Turks on the peninsular and to secure a supply base for all forces.
The first troops landed at Suvla Bay on August 6th 1915, which did not go well, the Navy had misjudged the location and anchored 1,000 yards too far south and many of the men had to wade ashore up to their necks in water. More successful landings were made throughout the darkness but soon degenerated into chaos. One witness said
“No firm hand appeared to control this mass of men suddenly dumped on an unknown shore.”
Officers became confused and in some cases did not know where their intended objectives were. When the sun rose the troops soon became targets for snipers. Progress was minimal.
The misery continued for the next few days, the terrain was unfamiliar, rough and difficult. To make matters worse the troops had landed with no fresh water to drink. When the British did manage to reach the summit of a hill, they were met with Turk forces, most of which were reinforcements which had had time to amass from the lack of British advancement straight from landing. The British suffered appalling casualties. The Sulva operation soon became a failure and General Stopford was sacked as commander of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force
Also at this time the New Zealand forces had managed to gain a piece of high ground, Chunuk Bair, holding it for 36 hours waiting for relief. Two British battalions relieved the New Zealand forces, but were exhausted and lay down and went to sleep. This resulted in a counter attack by the Turkish forces and the ground was lost. Fighting would continue, but such gains would not happen again.
Failure to capitalize on advances and gains was another thing that went wrong at Gallipoli. The Dorset Yeomanry were among those that landed at Suvla in August 1915. They landed on 18th August and between then and when they went up to the firing line on August 21st they changed camp twice and on the 19th even went bathing, some finding the spot “unhealthy” crossed the ridge northwards and found a bathing spot free from shellfire. The Australians on high ridges 3 or 4 miles away could see hundreds of British troops on the beaches having bathing parades or playing football.
Conditions were appalling, the terrain was dry with no natural fresh water supply, and tanks were brought onto the beaches and then hauled up the slopes, with water from as far away as Egypt. Any wells sunk were tainted with salt water. The lack of water resulted in the required daily intake dropping from approx. 20 litres per day to just 1 or 2. It also made personal hygiene impossible. The summer temperatures reached 30 degrees plus and in just six weeks an average 12st soldier dropped to 8 stone in weight. It was considered that if a soldier could hold a rifle then he was fit enough for front line service.
Disease became a big killer, a combination of lack of water, flies, lack of adequate latrine facilities and the dead proved to be a breeding ground for dysentery and typhoid. There were too many dead and at best bodies were tumbled into shell holes or gullies and covered with a thin coating of earth, most were not buried. The smell was horrendous. There was a lack of supplies to deal with the sick and wounded, all supplies had to come in and out by sea. This also made a shortage of hardware for the troops, in some instances the heavy artillery field guns were limited to eight rounds per day, and there was also a shortage of small arms ammunition and no hand grenades.
With no gain being made it was finally decided to withdraw the troops from Gallipoli. While the discussions were being made about the withdrawal the troops were suffering severe hardship because of the weather. There was a series of terrific storms during the autumn and early winter. On November 26th a violent thunderstorm and hurricane flooded the trenches and caused great suffering. On the 27th a northerly Artic wind began to blow with snow following. The men already soaked now had their clothing freeze to their bodies. In the British trenches at Suvla, 280 men were drowned while others froze to death.
The decision was made to evacuate the peninsular and it would be done in stages to help keep it concealed from the Turks. From mid-December until January 9th 1916. The evacuation was the one success of the operation. The total British casualties during the evacuation of Suvla and Anzac was one officer and six men wounded.
The whole expedition had cost Britain 31,015 killed, 73,357 wounded and 7,623 missing or taken prisoner. Nothing was gained.