What? The Battle of Gallipoli.
Also known as? The Dardanelles Campaign
Where? I suppose you’re going to say “Gallipoli” aren’t you? Yes — the Gallipoli Peninsula in what is now Turkey, which forms the nothern bank of the Dardanelles Strait, which separates Europe from Asia. I have a map prepared if you’re interested…
Oh go on then.
Thanks very much. And when was this? During the the First World War; from 25 April 1915 to 9 January 1916, to be specific.
Ah, I remember now —champion Ozzie runners like Mel Gibson being slaughtered by machine gun fire. Do you get all your ideas about history from TV?
Well, I know ‘Braveheart’ was a bit fanciful… Imagine an Australian being king of Scotland! Can we get back to the Dardanelles please?
Why? Shouldn’t you be writing about Irish history? This is Irish history. There were a lot of Irish soldiers involved. Have you never heard ‘The Foggy Dew’?
Is that a type of whiskey? No, it’s a song about the Easter Rising. And part of the lyrics say “‘Twas better to die ‘neath an Irish sky than at Suvla or Sud-El-Bar”.
Suvla and Sud-el-Bar being presumably…? The locations of battles in the Gallipoli Campaign.
So, not just Australians then? No. The Australians (and New Zealanders) may mark the anniversary of the beginning of the campaign as their equivalent of Remembrance Day, but in fact twice as many soldiers from the UK died.
Not an unqualified success then? Pretty much a disaster from start to end.
Why even bother then? There were a number of reasons in favour of attacking the peninsula: military action on the Western Front had got bogged down in trench warfare the idea so alternative ways to break the deadlock were required. The Ottoman Empire was fighting with Germany and Austro-Hungary. If the Allies could use their naval forces to capture and control the straits, they could threaten the Ottoman capital Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) and also open supply routes to their ally Russia.
Put like that, it sounds perfectly reasonable. Whose idea was it anyway? Winston Churchill’s.
No, you’re getting your wars mixed up. He was in the Second World War. He was in this one too. At the time he was First Lord of the Admiralty and one of the most dynamic members of the war cabinet.
So what went wrong? Overconfidence, bad leadership, poor planning and training, the terrain itself, the Turks having advance warning of the Allies’ intentions…
Woah! Slow down! One at a time. The Ottoman Empire was in decline and the British and French didn’t rate its military capability particularly highly. In March there was an attempt to force the straits with purely naval power; when that was beaten off, the Allies began planning an amphibious assault. The delay gave the Ottomans time to prepare their defence strategy. They held all the high ground above the beaches where landings would have to be made. In many cases the Allied troops never even made it off the beach but were killed as they waded ashore. Those that did get onto dry land found themselves pinned down. Even when the Allies did manage to win ground, they were often too hesitant to exploit their advantage properly.
And how do the Irish come into this? Several Irish regiments, such as the Royal Munster Fusiliers and the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, landed at Sedd-el-Bahr (the “Sud-El-Bar” of the song) on the very first day; later, a second attempt, this time at Suvla Bay, was reinforced by the 10th (Irish) Division on 7 August.
And all got massacred? Pretty much. Of the first 200 men to leave the landing ship at Sedd-el-Bahr, three quarters were killed almost immediately.
And at Suvla? That was even worse. An administrative cock-up had sent the 10th Division’s artillery to France. The soldiers didn’t have maps, and quickly ran short of both ammunition and water. All in all, nearly three and a half thousand men serving with Irish battalions were killed or went missing during the campaign.
And what happened in the end? It slowly became obvious that the campaign was going nowhere, so between December 1915 and January 1916 all the soldiers still on the ground were evacuated. Ironically, this manoeuvre was carried out much more efficiently than anything the Allied armed forces had done up till then, with not a single life lost.
And how many died in total? It’s hard to put an exact figure on it. The estimates vary, particularly so because some don’t count those who died from ‘non-military’ causes such as thirst, sunstroke, and diseases like dysentry. But you’re looking in the region of 200,000 deaths on each side.
So, was it all pointless? If you mean “did it help the Allied war effort?”, then yes, but it did have long-term consequences that still matter today.
Like? The death of so many Irish soldiers at Gallipoli is often mentioned as one of the events that turned Irish public opinion away from Britain and favoured the rise of Irish republicanism. On the Ottoman side, the notable successes of a young lieutenant colonel called Mustafa Kemal helped bring him to power eight years later and create modern Turkey. (He is better known as Atatürk, the “father of the Turks”).A Beginner's Guide to the Gallipoli Campaign by Bruce Gaston