A New View of the Battle of Gallipoli, One of the Bloodiest Conflicts of World War I

The Turks are now rethinking their historic victory in the terrible battle

(Claudius Schulze )
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By August 1915, after a three-month stalemate, the Allied commanders at Gallipoli were desperate to turn the tide. On the evening of August 6, British, Australian and New Zealand troops launched a major offensive. The attack started on a plateau called Lone Pine, where Australians launched a charge at Turkish positions 100 yards away. They captured their objective but suffered more than 2,000 casualties. Australian engineer Sgt. Cyril Lawrence came upon a group of Australian injured, huddled inside a tunnel that they had just captured from the Turks. “Some of their wounds are awful yet they sit there not saying a word, certainly not complaining, and some have actually fallen off to sleep despite their pain,” he wrote. “One has been shot clean through the chest and his singlet and tunic are just saturated with blood, another has his nose and upper lip shot clean away....Lying beside them was a man asleep. He had been wounded somewhere in the head, and as he breathed the blood just bubbled and frothed at his nose and mouth. At ordinary times these sights would have turned one sick but now they have not the slightest effect.” 

Three regiments from the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade meanwhile advanced from north of Anzac Cove up a trail just to the west of a rugged outcropping called Table Top. Columns of Australian, British and Nepalese Gurkha troops followed them—taking different routes toward the 889-foot summit of Chunuk Bair. They moved through a confusing terrain of outcroppings, gorges and razorback ridges overgrown with brush. Their nicknames—Baby 700, Shrapnel Valley, the Sphinx, Russell’s Top, Razor’s Edge, the Nek—suggested the intimacy with which the soldiers had come to regard them. “There was a feeling of panic and doubt in the air as to where we were and where we were going,” recalled Maj. Cecil Allanson, commander of a 6th Gurkhas battalion. 

The Ottoman troops had just a single artillery platoon, 20 men, dug in atop the mountain, hardly enough to withstand an invading force of 20,000. But in difficult and unfamiliar territory, and enveloped by darkness, the Allied soldiers struggled to find their way. One New Zealand regiment wandered up a ravine to a dead end, reversed course and ended up back where it started hours later. The assault got nowhere.

The Nek, a small plateau just below Chunuk Bair, came to epitomize the folly—and would later be immortalized in the powerful final scene of Peter Weir’s Gallipoli. At 4:30 a.m. on August 7, 1915, under dim moonlight, the 3rd Australian Light Horse Brigade, composed mainly of farm and ranch boys from the outback, sat in their trenches on this small patch of ground, waiting to attack. Allied howitzers at Anzac Cove unleashed a furious bombardment. But the barrage ended seven minutes ahead of schedule, a fatal lapse that allowed the Turks to retake their positions before the Australian infantry charge. When the first wave went over the top, the Turks opened fire with machine guns, and killed nearly every attacker in 30 seconds. “I was in the first line to advance and we did not get ten yards,” recalled Sgt. Cliff Pinnock. “Everyone fell like lumps of meat....All your pals that had been with you for months and months blown and shot out of all recognition. I got mine shortly after I got over the bank, and it felt like a million ton hammer falling on my shoulder. I was really awfully lucky as the bullet went in just below the shoulder blade round by my throat and came out just a tiny way from my spine very low down on the back.” 

The second wave went over minutes later and again, almost all were killed. A third wave was shot to the ground, and a fourth. Later that morning, Maj. Gen. Alexander John Godley, loathed by his troops, ordered the New Zealanders to follow; they too sustained massive casualties. 

The next night, 760 men from New Zealand’s Wellington Battalion made a dash up Chunuk Bair. The site was held for two days and nights, only to be retaken when the Turks counterattacked. The Australians and New Zealanders suffered 10,000 casualties in four days. Said Pinnock: “It was simply murder.”

At the same time as the offensive, the British launched a major amphibious landing at Suvla Bay, a few miles north of Anzac Cove. But they never made a serious attempt to break out of that beachhead. In December, with blizzards and frigid temperatures sapping morale, and Ottoman forces moving artillery into position to begin bombarding the trenches, Lord Kitchener, Secretary of State for War, ordered a nighttime withdrawal of the remaining 80,000 troops from Gallipoli. Using self-firing guns and other diversions, the Allied forces managed to board ships and sail away from the peninsula with almost no casualties. It was one of the few logistical successes in the eight-month debacle.

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A hundred years later, historians, politicians and others continue to debate the larger meaning of the Gallipoli battle. For the Allies, it came to symbolize senseless loss, and would have a devastating effect on the careers of the men who conceived it. Doubts had already been raised within the British government about Winston Churchill, following a failed attempt by British naval troops to relieve besieged Belgian soldiers at Antwerp in October 1914. “Winston is becoming a great danger,” declared Prime Minister Lloyd George. “Winston is like a torpedo. The first you hear of his doings is when you hear the swish of the torpedo dashing through the water.”

Although Churchill bore only part of the blame for the Gallipoli debacle, George and other British leaders now challenged his judgment in matters of military operations and strategy, and he was forced to resign his post. He served in minor cabinet positions, and lost his seat in the House of Commons, finally winning back a seat in 1924. That same year, he became Chancellor of the Exchequer and his political redemption began.

Lord Kitchener saw his own reputation for military brilliance shattered. (He would drown a year later when his battleship sank after striking a mine, saving him from the disgrace of a full parliamentary inquiry.) 

The military historian Peter Hart faults the British leadership for “a lack of realistic goals, no coherent plan, the use of inexperienced troops...negligible artillery support, totally inadequate logistical and medical arrangements [and] a gross underestimation of the enemy.” Gallipoli, he concludes, “was damned before it started.” Carlyon excoriates Kitchener for his failure to provide troops and weaponry in a timely manner, and sharply criticizes Gen. Sir Ian Hamilton, commander of the campaign, who acquiesced to Kitchener’s indecisiveness and rarely stuck up for his men.

By contrast the German general who commanded the Turks, Otto Liman von Sanders, brilliantly deployed the Ottoman 5th Army, 84,000 well-equipped soldiers in six divisions. And the Turkish division commander Mustafa Kemal, who saw the dangers posed by the Australian and New Zealand landings at Anzac Cove, moved his troops into position and held the ridge­line for five months. Unlike the Allied generals, who commanded troops from the safety of the beach or from ships anchored in the Aegean, Kemal often stood with his men on the front lines, lifting their morale. “There were complaints to Istanbul about him, that he was always risking his life. And in fact he was hit by shrapnel,” says Sabahattin Sakman, a former Turkish military officer and a columnist for a popular secular newspaper in Istanbul.

The view that the battle’s outcome was decided by military leadership was codified by none other than U.S. Army Lt. Col. George Patton, who concluded in a 1936 report, “Had the two sets of commanders changed sides, the landing would have been as great a success as it was a dismal failure.” 

The Ottoman victory at Gallipoli, however, proved to be the empire’s last gasp. Known as “the sick man of Europe,” it suffered punishing defeats in the Middle East at the hands of British and Arab forces, and collapsed in 1918. Its territories were parceled out to the victorious Allies. In November of that year, British and French warships sailed unopposed through the Dardanelles and occupied Constantinople. 

Kemal (who would later take the name Ataturk) went on to lead the Turkish National Movement in a war against Greece, winning back territory the Ottomans had forfeited. In 1923 Kemal would preside over the creation of the secular nation of Turkey. For that reason, secular Turks have long viewed the battle of Canakkale as marking the birth of their modern society.

In recent years, though, the Turkish government has minimized Ataturk’s role in the battle—part of an orchestrated campaign to rewrite history. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), a socially conservative movement with deep Islamic roots, has spun the battle as a victory for Islam. Yet Erdogan, however conservative, presides over the nation Ataturk founded, a country regarded by many as a bulwark against the ultimate jihadist threat—ISIS—as Turkey cooperates with the West to counter the insurgents. 

The government buses hundreds of thousands of Turks to the battlefield to present its version of Ottoman-era glory. “They are selling this as a religious victory now,” Kenan Celik tells me as we walk around the Turkish War Memorial, a monolithic archway surrounded by Turkish flags, overlooking Cape Helles at the southern end of the peninsula. “They’re telling people, ‘We won this by the hand of God,’ rather than with German help,” Celik says. 

At the annual Canakkale Victory Day commemoration last March, “10,000 people were praying at the memorial, something you never saw a decade ago,” says Heath Lowry, a retired professor of Turkish history at Princeton University, who lives in Istanbul. In 2012 the government opened a multimillion-dollar entertainment and education center near Anzac Cove. Visitors walk through trenches, experience simulated shellfire through 3-D glasses—and watch a propaganda film linking Erdogan’s government to the Islamic fighters who achieved victory here. “We are here to express gratitude for the sacrifice made for us,” Rahime, a 30-year-old woman from Istanbul, told me after leaving the center. She came on a free trip organized by Erdogan’s party, which is facing an election in June. “This was a victory for Islam,” she says.

But the ongoing fieldwork by the joint Turkish-Anzac team doesn’t always bolster the official narrative. A few years ago, in the Ottoman trenches, the archaeologists discovered bottles of Bomonti beer, a popular wartime brand brewed in Constantinople. News of the find was published in Australian newspapers; the Turkish government reacted with dismay and denial. “They said, ‘Our soldiers didn’t drink beer. They drank tea,’” says Tony Sagona, a professor of archaeology at the University of Melbourne who leads the Australia-New Zealand team at Gallipoli. Turkish officials insisted that the bottles belonged to German officers who often fought alongside Turkish conscripts and put subtle pressure on the team leaders to back up that version of events. “I told them that the evidence is inconclusive,” says Mithat Atabay, leader of the project and a history professor at March 18 University in Canakkale, across the Dardanelles from Gallipoli. Drinking alcohol was a normal activity in the Ottoman Empire, he points out, “a way for young men to find their freedom.” It perhaps offered a small bit of comfort for men marooned in one of history’s bloodiest battlefields.    

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