Gallipoli Landings from the perspective of the Lancashire Fusiliers.
Jamie Booth (ex Royal Navy Gunner 1997-2004)
This is Jamie's level 3 research project that he has been doing on Gallipoli and the Lancashire Fusiliers
He is going to University in September and hopes to be able to do some further, more in depth study about the Fusiliers
Gallipoli Landings from the perspective of the Lancashire Fusiliers.
Although much has been written about the ill-fated Dardanelles campaign, not so much has been told solely on the involvement of the Lancashire Fusiliers. It is a story of great sacrifice and heroism- Indeed no fewer than six Victoria Crosses were awarded to the men of the 1st Battalion. Entrusted with the assault upon W Beach, these local men under Major Bishop (mentioned in Dispatches) fought gallantly- indeed such were the prominence of their assault, the operation on W Beach became known as the "Lancashire landings". In this essay the origins of the Gallipoli Campaign will be discussed, as well as highlighting the early naval failures that led to the all-out assault by Allied forces. In addition the topography of the Gallipoli Peninsula will be provided in order for the reader to get an appreciation of just how difficult the task of gaining a foothold in the Dardanelles was due to the geographical obstacles that gave the Turks an immediate advantage. The main brunt of the essay will of course be the story of the Lancashire Fusiliers, using both primary and secondary sources to highlight the account of the Lancashire's that allowed them to win the famous "six VC's before breakfast".
The Gallipoli Campaign lasted some nine months between the 25th April 1915 and the 9th January 1916. The campaign was born out of a resounding failure of Churchill's somewhat arrogant and politically motivated plan that the Dardanelles could be taken with a purely a naval force. The importance of knocking out the Ottoman Empire out of the war held great tactical importance. Efforts on the Eastern Front relieved pressure on the Western Front. Germany and Austria-Hungary blocked Russia's land trade routes to Europe, and no easy sea route existed because the White Sea in the north and the sea of Okhotsk in the Far East were too distant from the Eastern Front and often icebound, making transit very difficult and The Baltic Sea was blocked by the German Imperial Navy. The Black sea's only entrance was through the Dardanelles and the Bosporus, which were controlled by the Ottoman Empire. When the Ottoman Empire joined the Central Powers in October 1914, Russia could no longer be supplied from the Mediterranean Sea; therefore a military plan was inevitably required in order to take advantage of the might of the Russian Forces in hope of bringing the Great War to a swift and victorious conclusion. (taken from Gallipoli Disaster documentary, YouTube)
The immediate origins of the Allied campaign began with an appeal by the Grand Duke Nicholas of Russia to Britain on January 2nd 1915 for a demonstration to help against the Turks, who were attacking in the Caucasus.(Travers, 2004, pg 19). The next day Kitchener and Churchill met to consider the situation and later that same day Kitchener wrote to Churchill saying that troops were not available, due to being tied up on the Western Front. This did not dissuade Churchill about the possibilities that a naval campaign could succeed, albeit with heavy losses. Indeed this was considered by Churchill, as his concern about mines in the straights was highlighted in his telegram to Admiral Carden:
"It is assumed older Battleships fitted with mine bumpers would be preceded by Colliers or other merchant craft as bumpers and sweepers" (Travers, 2004, pg 20).
So, on the 18th March the main attack was launched. Most unfortunately for the Allies, the Dardanelles were reported clear of mines to within 8,000 yards of the narrow forts, which meant that the area in which the fleet would have to manoeuvre was presumed safe. This was not the case as only ten days before, on 8th March the Turkish minelayer Nousret had successfully laid a line of twenty mines after observing the British fleet manoeuvring there on the previous day. (Steel, 1995, pg 23). The fleet comprising of 18 battleships sought to target the narrowest point of the Dardanelles, where the straights are only a mile wide. The operation was a resounding failure- The French battleship Bouvet was sunk by a mine whilst HMS Irresistible and HMS Inflexible both sustained critical damage. HMS Ocean too was sunk due to its futile attempt to rescue the Irresistible. So, the Royal Navy had been defeated- Commander Worsley Gibson RN, highlighted the dismay of allowing political wrangling and wishful thinking to rule over the advice of the commanders in the field (or sea for that matter):
"This is just what one might expect, and what we really did more or less. Every book on war ever written always states the fact that politicians (That is Churchill) interfering with Commanders in the field always lead to disaster but still they think they are born strategists and know all and do it again and again" (Gibson, diary, 18th March, 1915).
Therefore, out of this initial defeat came the inevitable requirement that in fact, landing troops was indeed a vital requirement if the path to Constantinople was to be cleared. However upon this realisation came the fact that such a campaign would prove to be one fraught with problems. Not only should the furiousness of the adversary be paramount in considering the operation- after all the Turks were defending their homeland, the geographical difficulties were not to be underestimated:
From the sea the Gallipoli Peninsula was a sight of remarkable beauty. Beyond the narrow bays and escarpments at the toe of the promontory, at Cape Helles where the Dardanelles met the Aegean Sea, a low plain rose behind the seashore village of Sedd-el-Bahr, cupped in a saucer between low cliffs, and stretched north to the inland village of Krithia. Beyond it crouched Achi Baba, a deceptively unimposing hill with a broad-breasted summit just high enough to command a view of the Aegean across its western shoulder and the narrows of the Dardanelles to the east. Further north on the western coastline, the land took on a wider aspect. Sheer cliffs scarred with deep gullies and ravines swept down almost to the water's edge and towered up to rugged heights of formidable grandeur. (Macdonald, 1997, pg 346).
So, from a military perspective any landing on Gallipoli would indeed prove to be extremely arduous. This was highlighted by General Sir Ian Hamilton, Commander Mediteran Forces. As mentioned in his graphic dispatch, the three dominant features in the southern section of the peninsula were first the Sairbar mountain, a series of escarpments running to the height of 970 feet, capable of being easily defended owing to its wooded nature and also because of the number of ravines that scarred its sides; secondly, Kild Bahr plateu, which is nothing more or less than a natural fortress to which the Turks and Germans had added their own fortifications; and thirdly, Achi Baba, the 600 feet hill that featured so prominently in the fighting after the landing had been accomplished. (Princess Catherine Radziwill et all, circa 1920, pg 767)
To the regular Lancastrian solider, such complexities of the geographical situation were not such an issue that was considered, many can be said to have been blissfully unaware that they were about to embark on a bloody campaign that would cost the lives of so many. Alarmingly and a prelude to such disaster was the distinct lack of military intelligence from the so called military greats. Hamilton, speaking on March 24th, merely a month before the operation began, said his personal knowledge of the Turks and the Dardanelles area "was nil". Indeed it was not until April 11th that Hamilton's administrative staff arrived in Egypt, by which time the entire burden of drawing up the landing and administrative plans had been borne by the General Staff officers, few of whom had little experience. To add to this the naval and military staff were now divided by several hundred miles of water, which obviously made planning even more difficult. With regards to the Navy, at a comparatively late stage in the preparations it was discovered that the 18- pounder guns, vital for Naval Gunfire Support for the troops, were only supplied with shrapnel shells and the Navy also was running short of high-explosive ammunition. So, this coupled with the Army's lack of preparation with no engineers, no signal company , no trench stores, and no materials for the construction of peers and jetties was indeed a recipe for disaster, that would contribute significantly to the death toll- 44,000 allied troops were killed with many more wounded. (James, 1965, pg 79).
The landing operation was to comprise of two distinct areas- The 29th Division (including the Lancashire Fusiliers) landed at Helles on the tip of the peninsular with the intention of advancing upon the Forts at Kilibahir whilst the Anzacs landed north of Gaba Tepe on the Aegean coast, with the intention of advancing across the peninsula, thereby cutting off retreat from or reinforcement of Kilitbahir.
The Helles landing was made by the 29th Division under the command of Major-General Aylmer Hunter-Weston, on five beaches in an arc about the tip of the peninsula, designated from east to west as S, V, W (1st Battalion Lancs Fus), X and Y beach. The Jewish Legion also landed at Helles on the 25th, as well as a regiment of British Gurkhas, the 6th Gurkha Rifles; this unit took and secured Sari Bair above the landing beaches.(Griffin 2012, Britishempire website)
W Beach consisted of a narrow strip of deep powdery sand, some 350 yards long and from 15 to 40 yards wide. On either flank of the beach the ground rises to high cliffs, and in the centre there are gradually rising ridges of sand dunes. The beach had received careful attention from the Turko-German engineers, and elaborate barbed wire defences had been erected. In addition to this, the Turks had constructed entanglements concealed under the sea surface of the shallows. The Turks were well dug in, and well-armed with machine guns concealed within holes in the cliffs. Indeed the Naval bombardment in prelude to the attack at W beach made little impact therefore making the job of taking the beach near impossible. (Princess Catherine Radziwill et all, circa 1920, pg 771).
The Lancashires, embarked from the Euryalus on eight strings of boats, towed abreast by eight steam picket boats made for the shore. It is apparent by the first-hand accounts at the time that the Turks lay in wait for the Lancashire's until they unleashed their attack that cost the lives of so many local men. Major Willis of the Fusiliers, one of the regiment's recipients of the Victoria Cross spoke of the apparent lack of opposition right up until the boats were about to land on the beach:
"Not a sign of life was to be seen on the peninsula in front of us...it might have been a deserted land we were nearing in our little boats. Then, crack! The stoke oar of my boat fell forward, to the angry astonishment of his mates".
Under a hail of murderous fire the Lancashires disembarked their boats. Of particular interest is the account of Captain Clayton who was present at the initial landing and it highlights the grim reality of the task bestowed to the 1st Battalion:
There was tremendously strong barbed wire where my boat landed. Men were being hit in the boats and as they splashed ashore. I got up to my waist in water, tripped over a rock and went under, got up and made for the shore and lay down by the barbed wire. There was a man there before me shouting for wire cutters. I got mine out, but could not make the slightest impression. The front of the wire by now was a thick mass of men, the majority of whom never moved again The noise was ghastly and the sights horrible. I eventually crawled through the wire with great difficulty, as my pack kept catching on the wire, and got under a small mound which actually gave us protection. The weight of our packs tired us, (the average weight of a British private's accoutrements was about 60 1bs. The official history points out that it is a well-known fact that the optimum weight for a man to carry is one third of his own weight. On average, a British recruit weighed 132 1bs and was therefore grossly overloaded) (Ellis, 1976, pg 33) so we could only gasp for breath. After a little time we fixed bayonets and started up the cliffs right and left. On the right several were blown up by a mine. When we started up the cliff the enemy went, but when we got to the top they were ready and poured shots on us" (Lancashire Fusiliers Website, 2012)
This source is particularly useful as this account was written just after the landings, as in fact, Captain was killed at Gallipoli six weeks later. (James, 1965, pg 118).
Interestingly, more official contemporary accounts do not encompass such harsh realities, in contrast, with a somewhat political motives, much is said of the "glory" of the landings. Indeed in the antique book circa 1920, The History of the Great War, a much more glorious account is recorded for the benefit of the reader:
"The whole mass of Khaki clambered upwards and went with a deep roar of sound charging down the first Turkish trench that was enfilading the beach. With their bayonets flashing they went right in with an irresistible rush, using the cold steel with such effect that in a moment the Turkish infantry were on the run".
This account has a common theme with many books of the day- they do not dwell upon the number of men killed, nor those injured. Indeed in this particular account there is no mention of the great number of Fusiliers who lost their lives on that fateful day. The furthest the book goes is to say is "a long line of men were mowed down" and "men fell in dozens". In fact, the Lancashire Fusiliers lost on W beach landing 6 officers and 183 men killed 4 officers and 279 wounded and 61 men missing, a total of 533 casualties. Furthermore, it can be said that the "deep roar" of the troops in their charge may be hard to imagine if Captain Claytons account is to be considered- it appears that such would be impossible as many were "gasping for breath" due to the weight of theirs packs and the physical difficulties in getting on the beach.
However, the bravery and professionalism of these men cannot be underestimated. The 1st Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers were army regulars and therefore more experienced and professional than their conscripted counterparts. This can be said to be a factor when considering the initial successes that the battalion enjoyed, albeit with heavy losses.
Indeed such was the bravery of the men, Sir Ian Hamilton spoke of them very highly:
"All day and night Beach W had been the scene of bloody fighting; at times mowed down and killed to a man, others rushed up without a moments hesitation to the attack So strong were the defences of W Beach that the Turks may well have considered them impregnable, and it is my firm conviction that no finer feat of arms has ever been achieved by the British soldier- or any other soldier- than the storming of these trenches from open boats on the morning of April 25th" (Princess Catherine Radziwill et all, circa 1920, pg 775).
As previously mentioned, six Victoria Crosses were awarded to the Lancashire Fusiliers, an event hailed in the allied press as the winning of "six VC's before breakfast". The men awarded with the medal were Captain Cuthbert Bromley, Corporal John Grimshaw, Private William Keneally, Sergeant Alfred Richards, Sergeant Franks Stubbs and Captain Richard Willis.
An extract from "The London Gazette" (No. 29273) dated 24th Aug., 1915, records the following:
"On 25th April, 1915, three companies, and the Headquarters of the 1st Bn. Lancashire Fusiliers, in effecting a landing on the Gallipoli Peninsula to the West of Cape Helles, were met by a very deadly fire from hidden machine guns which caused a great number of casualties. The survivors, however, rushed up to and cut the wire entanglements, notwithstanding the terrific fire from the enemy, and after overcoming supreme difficulties, the cliffs were gained and the position maintained. Amongst the many very gallant officers and men engaged in this most hazardous undertaking, Capt. Willis, Sergeant. Richards, and Private Kenealy have been selected by their comrades as having performed the most signal acts of bravery and devotion to duty.". (Commonwealth War Graves Commission, 2012).
The citation for Bromley, Stubbs, and Grimshaw was not issued until March 15, 1917, due to War Office regulations and red tape.
Sergeant Richards in particular highlights the modest attitude of the recipients. When he was told he had received the VC through the votes of his fellow soldiers, he said "I am proud my comrades chose me as one of the three bravest, but we all did our duty even though luck may have helped some to more notable acts, had it been a comrade selected instead of me I should feel just as proud"
Once the successful landings had been achieved the intention was to push on, however famously Gallipoli became yet another stalemate just like the Western Front. This was due to both the Allied underestimation of the Turks and the lack of planning and co-ordination between the Army and the Royal Navy. In addition it can be said that terrain is a magnificent munition of war- the combination of all these factors along with the limited amount of boots on the ground led to the resounding failure that cost the lives of so many men. By January 1916, a total of 50,133 Allied were killed along with an estimated 86,000 Turks. The sheer numbers are hard to comprehend- Indeed in today's modern theatres of war the loss of just a handful of men will make the headlines- In this bloody war sometimes thousands were killed in a single day.
Interestingly the general conclusions of the Dardanelles Commission basically laid blame on the Governments in London. Here there is no mention of the steadfastness of the Turkish military, or indeed the terrain:
We are of the opinion that, with the resources then available, success in the Dardnelles, if possible, was only possible upon condition that the Government concentrated their efforts upon the enterprise and limited their expenditure of men and material in the Western Theatre of war. This condition was never filled. (Travers, 2004, pg 297).
Therefore it can be said that the whole campaign was doomed to failure from the start. One success of Gallipoli was in fact the retreat- The final act of evacuating some 90,000 men, with 4,500 animals, 1,700 vehicles and 200 guns was carried out with great skill and ingenuity, under the very noses of powerful Turkish forces. Not a single life was lost. The evacuation was carried out at night-time. During the day, however, ships riding at anchor under Turkish observation could be seen disembarking troops and unloading guns and stores. The trick was that more men and materials were evacuated during the night than had been ostentatiously brought ashore during the day. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/1915/dec/20/mainsection.fromthearchive).
The story of the men of the Lancashire Fusiliers and indeed all other forces, including the Turks is one of remarkable sacrifice and bravery. Perhaps the most emotional monument bears words spoken in 1934 in the Meclis (Turkish Assembly) by Ataturk, President of Turkey, formerly Mustafa Kemal:
Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies (Allied Soldiers) and the Mehmets (Turkish Soldiers) to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours You, the mothers, who sent their sons from far away countries, wipe away your tears, your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well". (Travers, 2004, pg 312).
It is with that quotation that the essay comes to a thoughtful end, with hope that conflicts such as the Great War that have now past, with the death of the great Harry Patch, out of living memory will never be forgotten. It is our duty to pass on these stories of sacrifice to future generations. They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old. Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.