Ireland’s Wars: The Gallipoli Debacle

The established Irish regiments of the British Army had been battered and bloodied in the Gallipoli landings, with the larger effort floundering on isolated beachheads, that soon closer resembled the trenches of the western front than the more mobile affair that the planners had initially hoped for.

Even worse, the sweltering weather and necessity of supplying the allied forces via the sea meant that Gallipoli trench life carried extra perils, in the form of clouds of flies, rapidly-spreading disease unique to that kind of battlefield, and other sickness brought by unclean drinking water. Not to mention, of course, the guns and bombs of the Turkish defenders. The Irish regiments, such as the “Dubster” amalgamation of Munster and Dublin Fusiliers, were spending their time withstanding Turkish counter-attacks, and occasionally making very limited, and often pointless, advances of their own. The Turks were well prepared and committed to the defence.

There would surely have been thoughts of withdrawal at that stage, but instead, those in command decided to push on and put even more troops into the quagmire, in a desperate effort to break the lengthening deadlock. And into that firestorm would go the very first of the new “Irish” divisions of the British Army, raised since the beginning of the war: the 10th (Irish) Division.

The 10th, commanded by Bryan Mahon, was made up largely of the initial rush of recruits from the Irish Volunteers. In three separate brigades – the 29th, 30th and 31st – it contained new battalions of every pre-existing Irish infantry regiment: the Royal Irish Regiment, Royal Irish Rifles, Connaught Rangers, Leinster Regiment, Royal Munster Fusiliers, Royal Dublin Fusiliers, Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and Princess Victoria’s Royal Irish Fusiliers. In the first half of 1915 they had been transferred from Ireland to a base in England ahead of an expected deployment to the western front, but the need for more troops in Turkey altered their destination.

Sir Ian Hamilton’s new plan was a grand offensive from all points of the Gallipoli positions, along with another landing, this time in Suvla Bay, which was located to the north of “Anzac Cove”. The land beyond Suvla Bay contained a salt lake/marsh before breaking into a flatter plain, ahead of more difficult high ground of the Kiretch Tepe and the Sari Bair ridge. The plan was simple enough: for the 10th and others to be used en masse to land in the bay, advance quickly, secure the Kiretch Tepe and from there have their pick of targets, like the ammunition depot at Ak Bashi, or the positions on a number of other heights. But before the 10th was even on the boats approaching the shore, the plan was altered, nominally out of the necessity of providing reinforcements to other sections of the front. What followed was a series of smaller battles as part of a larger whole.

Instead of the whole division going ashore at Suvla, the first of the Brigades, the 29th, was instead diverted to the Anzac Cove sector, where the Australian and New Zealander contingents of the MEF were again trying to increase the size of their bridgehead, going up against the positions on the Sari Bair ridge. On the 6th of August, the 29th went ashore. The initial deployment was confused but without casualties, as the Irish mingled with the more shell-shocked ANZAC’s. The Royal Irish Rifles were the first of the new units to see significant combat, sent against the Sari Bair after numerous ANZAC and Gurkha units had tried and failed. The Rifles took heavy casualties from shellfire, advanced as far as they could, dug-in and stayed in their positions for a few days, before the lack of forward impetus necessitated a withdrawal. It was a suitably muddled entry to the fighting for the new Irish regiments. Elsewhere in this section of the line, the Leinsters were placed on “Rhododendron Hill”, where they were initially the subject of heavy shelling, before going back and forth with the Turks, defending and counter-attacking in turn, in a few days of brutal bayonet-filled combat between the 9th and 11th of August.

The overall efforts to take Sari Bair ended in failure, and while that expense of life was taking place, the landing at Suvla Bay was also going ahead. The reminder of the 10th, the 30th and 31st Brigades, went ashore at “A” and “C” beaches, or at least were supposed to, before a mixture of bad planning and poor seamanship resulted in them clamouring ashore in the wrong position. The battalion commanders, landing in darkness and having been inadequately briefed ahead of time by the now absent General Mahon, were left bereft of guidance.

The 6th battalion of the Innikillings, at “C” beach, were almost immediately under artillery fire, before they were moved inland to tackle “Chocolate Hill”. They first had to move through the salt lake/march, that was infested with Turkish snipers, before forcing the enemy out of a gully ahead of the actual hill. Chocolate Hill proved too much for the “Skins” alone, with the battalion ignorant of both the extent of the incline and the strength of its artificial defences. They were able to consolidate what they had gained though, having taken over a hundred casualties in the process.

The division’s contingent of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers and Royal Irish Fusiliers were also landed at “C” Beach and also took part on the overall assault on Chocolate Hill, and beyond onto other defended heights. They are credited with the final taking of Chocolate Hill on the 8th of August, before being diverted to hold positions at Green Hill, where the poor quality of the existing trenches meant inadequate cover from Turkish shelling. However, a further assault on the fearsomely named “Scimitar Hill” was beyond the 10th’s ability.

The rest of the 10th was supposed to be at “A” Beach, but the actual location they had landed in was soon re-named “A Beach West” to belatedly cover for the fact that it was the wrong place. The beachhead was a mess of confused battalions with no clear idea of how to proceed, with the Royal Munster battalions eventually taking the initiative and advancing up the Kiretch Tepe, as far as they could, before being checked by intense Turkish fire. The British were unable to make adequate headway.

Indeed, in every part of Allied held Gallipoli, barely any kind of significant gains were being made. On the 13th of August the Inniskillings went against the Kiretch Tepe and were similarly repulsed with loss, with over 350 casualties. The 7th battalion of the Munsters was next to give it a try, between the 15th and 16th of August, with the 6th Dublins eventually thrown in as support, despite being reduced to less than 500 men. The Royal Irish Fusiliers were also engaged nearby: between them all, they finally took the summit, but were then obliged to withstand repeated Turkish counter-attacks, with barely any more ground gained. Life there became a grim schedule of holding the line, relief back a small way to the beachhead, before being rotated back to the front, with water supplies continually low and disease soon running rampant.

On the 20th, the 1st Inniskillings were redeployed to be thrown against Scimitar Hill, where they lost over 600 of the 5’300 British casualties taken in the effort to uproot the Turks from their positions. The Skins’ efforts that day became legendary, but were ultimately futile. The day after, in the Anzac sector, the Connaught Rangers were thrown against “Hill 60”, gaining ground at an astonishing rate, before going too far and being cut down in droves by well-placed machine guns. That particular battalion of the Rangers almost ceased to exist in a week of back-and forth fighting.

Such was the nature of the Autumn offenseives, with dozens of bloody attacks that accomplished remarkably little. The new assaults finished up without any major overall success, and certainly without the breakthrough that Hamilton, Churchill and all the others would have hoped for. The experiences of the 10th coincided with a messy change of command structure, as Mahon briefly resigned his Generalship over a dispute about his immediate superior, even as his men were fighting and dying on the Gallipoli heights.

While it was not immediately apparent, the Gallipoli operation was all but done, though it would take an agonising number of months for the final withdrawal to go ahead, during which time the British and imperial forces remained in place, stuck in the limited ground that would eventually cost over 180’000 men to have gained. Despite Hamilton’s requests, there was little appetite for continuing to throw men and material into the area, especially with the continuing bloodshed on the western front, that more critical area that required reinforcements ahead of the next campaigning season. French appetite for Turkish adventures was waning, and Bulgarian entry to the war, on the Central Powers’ side, meant that German supply of the Ottomans would be easier than ever.

The 10th was one of the early evacuees, being transferred to the Salonika area of operations, where the Allies were trying to buttress the failing military efforts of Serbia and maintain another front against the Central Powers, with decidedly mixed results; a story for another day. For the others, they had to stay in place, as the blistering summer heat turned to howling wind, freezing rain and even icy blizzards, that introduced the dangers of frostbite and even flooding to the trenches. It was not until December that they were allowed to trudge back onto the beaches and from there to waiting Navy vessels, with the very last of the soldiers taken off the peninsula on the 9th January 1916. The evacuation was pretty much the only part of the campaign that was well-handled. For those other units, service in the rest of the Middle-East, or back at the western front, awaited.

The Gallipoli campaign’s failure had a far-reaching consequences. Apprehension and disquiet over the offensive had contributed to a change in the British government earlier in 1915, with figures like Lord Kitchener and Winston Churchill side-lined. Hamilton’s military career ended in ignominy. The Ottoman war machine was in the ascendant, attacking other British positions in the Middle-East, while any efforts to be made in the later months of the 1915 were hamstrung by the expense of men in the east. Beyond the scope of World War One, the events at Gallipoli were a major influence on the planning of amphibious operations in later wars, most notably the Normandy landings in 1944: a real “What not to do” sort of guide.

For the Irish, the pre-existing regiments and the new, Gallipoli was a nightmarish exercise in futility they now had to do their best to put behind them. 1916 would have its own butchers bill, but, for those on the western front, 1915 still had more fighting to get through.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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