Today in European history: the Gallipoli campaign ends (1916)

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January 9 is the anniversary of the end of World War I’s very extended Gallipoli campaign, which lasted eight and a half months starting from late April 1915. In full disclosure, the date is a bit misleading—while “January 9” is the date upon which the last British (Canadian, if you want to be particular about it) unit retreated, it was so early in the morning as to really be the night of January 8. But we’re covering it today anyway.

The Gallipoli Peninsula is also the northern coast of the Dardanelles, one of the two straits (along with the Bosphorus further north and east) through which any ship must travel to go from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean and vice versa. This was a pretty important location in 1915, particularly for the British-French-Russian alliance. Once the Ottomans entered the war on the German side, Britain and France were cut off from their eastern ally—Germany and Austria-Hungary sat on any potential overland routes, the German navy blocked a Baltic Sea route, and the Ottomans were blocking the Black Sea route (and potentially an overland-through-Iran route as well). So with the strong backing of First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, the Allies decided to make control over the straits a priority, and that meant seizing the Dardanelles first.

As a side benefit, it was believed that a full-scale Allied attack on the Ottomans might draw Greece and Bulgaria, traditional Ottoman enemies, into the war. As it turned out, Greece didn’t enter the war until 1917 because of internal political divisions. It is true that Bulgaria entered the war in October 1915...but it did so on the Ottoman/German side. Oops.

A joint British-French attempt to breach Ottoman defenses in the Dardanelles by sea in March failed badly and clued the Ottomans in to the Allies’ intentions, so the empire began preparing to defend against an invasion along either coast of the strait. They positioned the Ottoman Fifth Army, which was commanded by German General Otto von Sanders and whose officer corps was primarily German, to meet an attack. Sanders was in overall command, but it was a Turkish officer, a lieutenant colonel named Mustafa Kemal (he wasn't “Atatürk” yet), who prevented the Allies from coming ashore safely. Sanders believed that the Allied attack was likely to come on the southern, Asiatic side of the Dardanelles. But Kemal, who knew the lay of the land better than Sanders did, believed that the landing was likely to come along the southern tip of Gallipoli and another site slightly to the north. He made a convincing enough case that Sanders put him in command of a rapid response division on the northern side of the strait.

The Allied forces, which included for the first time the famous Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) and were commanded by British General Ian Hamilton, took a few weeks to prepare for their invasion. Since the naval attack in March failed, they had to retrain for a landing under fire. The April 25 landings themselves, and subsequent Allied followup attacks over the next couple of days, were successful in the sense that the Allies were able to take and hold some territory. But the Ottomans, under Kemal, were able to stymie their advance and inflict heavy casualties upon them. As it did in the west, the fighting on Gallipoli settled into a trench battle, very costly from a personnel standpoint but territoriality indecisive. Soldiers on both sides suffered as much from unsanitary conditions and disease (dysentery in particular) as from the actual fighting. But as the Allies were very much on Ottoman territory, this stalemate worked more to Ottoman than Allied benefit.

Looking to shake things up, the Allies planned another landing for August 6 at a beach further to the north, Suvla Bay. The forces landing there encountered little resistance and this represented the Allies’ best chance to make some real progress. But a funny thing happened when the British commander of the landing, Frederick Stopford, just...stopped (no pun intended), despite the aforementioned lack of resistance. It seems General Stopford, who had little combat experience despite being in his 60s, had some limited objectives for the landing, and once he’d achieved them he elected to call it a day instead of pressing his advantage. The fact that he chose to “command” the landing from a boat offshore, where he undoubtedly couldn’t get a good sense of how things were going, might have contributed to his poor decision-making. The delay gave Kemal and Sanders time to shift their troops around to oppose Stopford’s landing, and the new front quickly became a stalemate as well.

The Allied position on Gallipoli, tenuous at best anyway, took a big hit when Bulgaria entered the war on the Central Powers’ side on October 14. What Allied planners hadn't considered was that the Bulgarians’ hatred for Serbia—a lingering effect of the 1913 Second Balkan War—was greater and more immediate than their hatred for the Ottomans. Bulgaria’s entry into the war opened up overland supply lines from Germany to the Ottoman Empire. Bored British officers back home were already diverting reinforcements that should have gone to Gallipoli in favor of newer, younger, hotter operations, like the Salonika Front in northeastern Greece. The Allies finally decided in late November to evacuate the peninsula, which was done in stages over the course of December with the final rearguard on the final beachhead withdrawing after midnight on January 9. It’s no exaggeration to say that the withdrawal was by far the smartest and most successful part of the whole Allied operation.

In a war that was chock full of questionable decisions and a (shocking to modern sensibilities) willingness on the part of governments and highborn officers to feed (generally lower class) foot soldiers into the proverbial meat grinder for very little gain, Gallipoli ranks right up there with the most questionable, most meat grindery (?) episodes of them all. An operation whose chances of success were dubious before the initial naval attack flopped was all but a certain failure once that attack let the Ottomans know what was coming. The failure of the campaign contributed heavily to British Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith losing his job in favor of David Lloyd-George in December 1916, and for their troubles Ian Hamilton and Frederick Stopford never commanded troops in the field again. Around 900,000 men participated on both sides, with over 100,000 of them dying (many from illness) amid an estimated 500,000 total casualties. In the short run, the Ottomans benefited from being closer to home and therefore better able to reinforce and resupply than the Allies. In the long run, though, these were losses that the Allies could bear far more easily than could the dilapidated Ottoman Empire.

The longer term implications of the Gallipoli Campaign are interesting. The performance of the ANZAC, a rare bright spot in an otherwise disastrous effort, contributed to national sentiment in both Australia and New Zealand. April 25 is celebrated as a public holiday, “Anzac Day,” in both countries. The campaign is also viewed as a landmark event in the development of the modern Turkish republic, in that it represented a major military victory in defense of the Turkish “homeland” and because the remarkable performance of Mustafa Kemal helped start him on the path toward becoming the future republic’s founding father.