What happened at Gallipoli?

The Gallipoli campaign was a terrible tragedy. The attempt by the Allies to seize the Gallipoli peninsula from the Ottoman empire and gain control over the strategically-important Dardanelles failed in a welter of hubris, blood and suffering. Located just across the Dardanelles straits from the fabled city of Troy, its classical undertones have helped create a rich mythology of ‘the terrible ifs’; of what might have been achieved with ‘a bit more luck’. The beach landings at Helles – the first made against modern weapons systems – saw incredible heroism and turned the sea at V Beach red with blood.


Gallipoli is today synonymous with the achievement of the Australian and New Zealander Army Corps (ANZAC) in carving out a small bridgehead at Anzac Cove. That maze of tangled gullies and ridges is still sacred for Australians.

But for all that the campaign was an utter failure. The question is why? Here are five possible reasons...


The Gallipoli campaign was poorly conceived

The First World War stalled when the huge armies of Germany and France fought themselves to a standstill on the Western Front in 1914. When the Ottoman Turks attacked Russians in the Caucasus mountains in December 1914, Russia went to her allies requesting help. The British were fully committed elsewhere but a group of politicians led by Winston Churchill, then at the Admiralty, sought to help Russia with an attack on the Gallipoli peninsula that aimed to gain control of the Dardanelles straits that separated Asia and Europe. This, it was boasted, would remove one of the allies ‘propping up’ Germany, influence wavering Balkan states and open the sea route to Russian Black Sea ports for the export of munitions to feed Russian guns on the Eastern Front.

Much of this was nonsense. There was no backdoor to Germany; no easy route to victory, no allies that propped her up. Germany operated on interior lines of communications and even in the event of a Turkish defeat would merely have rushed reinforcements to bolster her Austro–Hungarian allies.

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Finally Britain did not have sufficient munitions for her own armies. Britain had to fight the war as it was; not how visionaries dreamt it might be. German armies were deep in France, and Britain could not just abandon her ally to her fate. The priority of the Western Front meant that the Gallipoli expedition could never be given sufficient men and guns to have any chance of success. As such it should never have been started.

The myths of the battle of Gallipoli

Professor Gary Sheffield challenges some commonly held assumptions about this failed attempt to change the course of the First World War...

Australian troops head for Gallipoli in 1915

The British Army wasn't ready

The British Army of 1915 was not yet ready for war. There were not enough guns or shells for the Gallipoli campaign to have any chance against Turkish troops once they were well dug in, with barbed wire, machine guns and artillery. Success demanded hundreds of guns that did not exist, fired by gunners not yet trained, using complex artillery techniques that had not been invented, firing hundreds of thousands of shells as yet not manufactured. It required infantry tactics not yet painfully developed in the heat of battle and support weapons not yet imagined.

Gallipoli shared the failings of every campaign launched in that benighted year: a lack of realistic goals, no coherent plan, the use of inexperienced troops for whom this would be the first campaign, a failure to comprehend or properly disseminate maps and intelligence, negligible artillery support, totally inadequate logistical and medical arrangements, a gross underestimation of the enemy, incompetent local commanders – all of which was overlaid with lashings of misplaced over-confidence leading to inexorable disaster.

Gallipoli was damned before it started. Every day merely prolonged the agony and it ended in such catastrophe that it could only be disguised by vainglorious bluster.


Inferior leadership

The British commander was General Sir Ian Hamilton who was one of Britain’s greatest soldiers. He was no fool, but his plans for Gallipoli were fatally overcomplicated. He launched multiple attacks, each dependent on each other’s success, but left isolated when things went wrong. Taken as a whole, his schemes were utterly unrealistic. Everything had to go right, but his plans demanded incredible feats of heroism, raw troops would have to perform like veterans and incompetent subordinates lead like Napoleon. Above all, his plans demanded that the Turks put up little resistance. When the landings failed he blamed everyone but himself.

"Behind us we had a swarm of adverse influences: our own General Headquarters in France, the chief of the imperial general staff of the War Office, the first sea lord of the Admiralty, the French cabinet and the best organised part of the British press. Fate willed it so. Faint hearts and feeble wills seemed for a while to succeed in making vain the sacrifices of Anzac, Helles and Suvla. Only the dead men stuck it out to the last." – General Sir Ian Hamilton

Opposing Hamilton was a German, General Otto Liman von Sanders. A steady professional, Liman husbanded his reserves until he knew what the British were doing before committing them to devastating effect. He was fortunate indeed in one of his Turkish subordinates Colonel Mustafa Kemal. As Kemal led his 57th Regiment into action against the Anzacs on 25 April his chilling words have gone down in legend: "I don't order you to attack – I order you to die. In the time which passes until we die, other troops and commanders can take our places."

This unflinching martial spirit inspired the Turkish troops to victory.


The Turks were experienced and well led

Colonel Mustafa Kemal, who became President Kemal Atatürk after the war, summed up the grit and determination his countrymen demonstrated at Gallipoli. A good proportion of the Turkish soldiers had recent experience fighting in the Balkan wars of 1912–13. But all of them came from a country where life was hard. They made tough, well-disciplined soldiers when fighting in defence of their homeland.

"But think about the enemy which landed at Ari Burnu shores equipped with the most advanced war machinery, [they] were, by and large, forced to remain on these shores. Our officers and soldiers who with love for their motherland and religion and heroism protected the doors of their capital Constantinople against such a strong enemy, won the right to a status which we can be proud of. I congratulate all the members of the fighting units under my command. I remember with deep and eternal respect, all the ones who sacrificed their lives..." – Colonel Mustafa Kemal

In contrast, with the exception of the British 29th Division and two French divisions, most of the Allied troops committed to battle were inadequately trained. It was not that the Anzacs, the reservists of the Royal Naval Division, the Territorials and the first of Kitchener’s New Armies raised in 1914 were not keen; it was just that they were not yet ready for war in such an unforgiving environment as Gallipoli. The Turks were experienced and well led. They were determined to win – and they did.


It was a logistical nightmare

The United Kingdom was some 2,000 miles away and the nearest ‘real’ base was that of Alexandria back in Egypt with its spacious quays, cranes, lighters, tugboats and plentiful labour. Yet it was nearly 700 miles from Alexandria to Gallipoli. The advanced base of Mudros on the island of Lemnos, some 60 miles from Helles, had a good natural anchorage. But that was all it offered – there were no port facilities. A phenomenal amount of work was required to build it up into a military supply base.

There was an advanced supply depot at Imbros, but even then there were still 15 miles of open sea to the Gallipoli peninsula where all the thousands of tonnes of necessary foodstuffs and munitions had to be landed on open beaches. Makeshift piers were all they had and these were ephemeral in the face of the raw power of the sea. Every day of the campaign Turkish shells crashed down on the beaches while soon U-boats lurked offshore.

Gallipoli was a logistical nightmare that would make any responsible staff officer tear his hair out. As a method of waging warfare, it was insanity.

Peter Hart is a military historian specialising in the First World War. He is the author of Gallipoli (Profile, 2011)


This article was first published in the February 2011 edition of BBC History Magazine