In the run-up to the First World War, both the Entente and the Central Powers vied for the support of the Ottoman Empire, the massive political structure that nominally dominated Turkey and the Middle-East. In reality, the Ottoman’s had been the infamous “sick man” for some time now, the Empire struggling to keep itself together amid numerous independence movements springing up within its borders, most notably in Turkey itself. Even with those problems though, the Ottomans were a potential goldmine in terms of alliances, controlling the narrow Straits of the Dardanelles, the Mediterranean Sea route to Tsarist Russia.
Where once they had shown favour to Britain, by the time the war began in Europe the Ottomans were more or less in the German camp, Kaiser Wilhelm’s army sending advisors and ships to boost their Turkish counterparts. On October 31st 1914, they joined the war openly, carrying out offensives against Russia in the Caucuses and allowing their German commanded Navy to seal up the Dardanelles.
By 1915, with the western front at stalemate, numerous Allied figures, most notably perhaps Winston Churchill, conceived an ambitious and daring offensive, to assault the Dardanelles, open the straits and send a combined navy and army force to capture Constantinople, opening up the seaward approach to Russia and potentially knocking the Ottomans out of the war in one fell swoop. The operation also had the potential to get some of the Balkan powers involved in the war on the Allied side, leaving Germany and Austria-Hungary surrounded. The impetus for the plans was boosted by the general Allied opinion of the Turkish military, thought to be under-trained and unlikely to withstand any kind of forward assault for long. As long as the Allies could maintain the element of surprise, a quick sharp attack on the Dardanelles could be the pivotal moment of the war.
The Allies critically under-estimated their opponents. While the Turkish armies were generally in a bad state compared to their neighbours, German training and commanders were helping immensely. The German general for the coming campaign, Liman von Sanders, was no pushover, and his main Turkish subordinate, Mustafa Kemal, was to become a potent symbol for the burgeoning Turkish nationality. Moreover, the Allied leaders simply forgot the basic fact of warfare, that even the most ill-trained rabble can win a battle if they fight on the defensive, in well-prepared positions and with decent leadership.
The failure to adequately account for all of this would be paid by numerous units of the British and French military. Initially, the only regular division available for the campaign was the 29th, that comprised battalions of the Royal Munster, Inniskilling and Royal Dublin Fusiliers, which set sail for the straits in mid-March. By the time they arrived, that crucial element of surprise was lost when the Royal Navy attempted and failed to force the straights themselves, losing a number of ships to Turkish guns and mines. In April, the 29th was in Alexandra, acclimatizing with the commander of the “Mediterranean Expeditionary Force”, Sir Ian Hamilton, who have we noted before for his service in the Second Boer War. They were joined by the “ANZAC” portion of the army, volunteers from Australia and New Zealand, along with a French contingent. All the while, expecting a renewed attack, this time with infantry, the German advised Turks were preparing defensive fortifications on the Gallipoli peninsula of the Dardanelles. Gallipoli was a defensive minded general’s dream, with numerous natural strongpoints, steep bluffs and potential landing points that were vulnerable to a wide field of fire.
The Allied plan was overly simple. The 29th was to land on numerous beaches on the very tip of the Gallipoli peninsula, Cape Helles, while the ANZAC’s went ashore further up the coast. The French would launch divisionary attacks elsewhere, and the whole operation would be supported by the guns of the Allied navies. Once the footholds were established, the infantry would move forward, capturing the numerous forts that dotted the passage, and the Navy would then be free to move through the straits. All going well, and if the reports of Ottoman military incapability were true, the Allies would soon be marching victoriously for Constantinople.
On the 25th of April, the first troops went ashore, starting with the ANZAC’s, who almost immediately ran into trouble after landing too far north. They would secure roughly 2km’s worth of a beachhead before finding any further advance impossible in the face of the well-entrenched Turks, losing 2’000 men – and starting a national legend – in the process.
For the Irish regiments, it was the Cape Helles landings that concerned them, the five beaches named alphabetically as S, V, W, X and Y beaches. For the Inniskillings, their landing at X beach on the morning of the 25th went as smoothly as could be hoped against relatively light resistance. Over the next few days, they were involved in a few difficult operations, trying to spread out the beachhead and support the operations of other regiments. On the night of the 1st May, the Turks launched a daring night-time assault of the Innsikilling trenches, that resulted in a bloody, bayonet filled conflict, where the “Skins” sent the enemy packing, but not without loss. They were reduced to drawing up a trench line to defend the scrap of the peninsula they had been able to take. They were lucky enough in these opening exchanges. It was the Dublin and Munster regiments who would walk into a bloodbath.
They were tasked with V beach. Here, to the south, the Turkish defenders controlled significant high ground, including an imposing fort called Sedd-el-Bahr that overlooked the proposed beachheads. If you’re wondering why the British decided on such an unlikely spot for a landing, remember their belief that the very sight of enemy troops, combined with the artillery, would be enough to get the white flags flying.
Some of the troops tasked with taking the beach would head to land on row-boats, but 2’000 of them would instead attempt to disembark from the SS River Clyde, a former collier ship. The plan was for the River Clyde to operate as a “trojan horse” ship, filled with men and then deliberately run aground as close to the shore as possible, whereupon troops would swarm out of specially cut hatchways and scramble over a series of semi-improvised lighters to the beach itself. If you haven’t figured it out just yet, the exact particulars of the Gallipoli landings were figured out in a rush of planning, and many men were about to pay for that lack of preparation.
Accompanied by a bombardment from the Navy, the Clyde beached without serious incident, but as soon as troops began to disembark in earnest, the defenders opened up. The Munsters were coming from the Clyde, with the Dublins mostly in smaller boats: all now came under withering rifle and machine gun fire. The British soldiers had nothing to aim back at, and precious little cover. As such, the Turks were essentially able to sweep back and forth with their guns, and a massacre was the result.
Many of the Dubliners boats were completely annihilated, left to drift back out to sea. Others desperately rowed as hard as they could, with infantry taking over from downed Navy men, only to find next to no cover on the beach anyway. Others took their chances in the water a bit too quickly, and were dragged to their deaths by the weight of their own equipment, or tangled up in barbed wire emplacements the Turks had left below the waterline.
For the Munsters, disembarking from the River Clyde was no less deadly, with the lighter-bridge cut to pieces and ruined very quickly. Of the first 200 men to leave the Clyde, maybe 180 were casualties in seconds. Men took to diving directly into the water from the ship, there to struggle with their equipment, the tide, and the bullets. A Dublin company in the River Clyde was one of the last to actually leave the vessel, and suffered a similar fate to all of the others.
A scrap of men, Dublins and Munsters, managed to get to the shore and find a rudiment of cover, making an incredibly brave but futile effort to advance into the fort. After a few hours, scraps of other units were similarly ashore, eventually numbering maybe 200 in number, able to do little more than huddle behind sand dunes and listen to the carnage around them. They faced a lengthy day among the dead and dying, waiting for the cover of nightfall before any other move could be contemplated. The few left in the Clyde after the last of the assaults had been sent forward could do little than withstand the peppering shots of the Turkish defenders and wait for further instructions. When night did come, what men could now be organised on the beach were able to establish more formal outposts. Of their roughly thousand strong contingent, each, both the Munsters and Dublins lost over 600 dead or wounded.
The following day, the Irish regiments were obliged to pick themselves up and forge on with whatever they had to hand, the Munsters and Dublins coalescing into a formation that would become known as the “Dubsters”. Together they engaged in a brutal attack on the Sedd-el-Bahr fort, where Turkish defenders held for a time, counter-attacked and then were eventually pushed back, enacting a price in blood for every step. By the evening of the 26th, the Irish and other British forces at V Beach could do no more, and a ragged trench line was established.
And so, instead of the triumphant advance on Constantinople that so many had envisioned, the fighting in the Dardanelles became little more than an amalgam of what was taking place in Europe. On the tip of the peninsula and around “ANZAC Cove”, the Allies dug-in. Soon, more Irish would be on their way to join them.
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