New Zealand troops made their first major effort of the First World War during the Allied invasion of the Gallipoli Peninsula in April 1915. The Allies hoped to seize control of the strategic Dardanelles Strait and open the way for their naval forces to attack Constantinople (Istanbul), the capital of Turkey and the Ottoman Empire.
Allied forces landed on Gallipoli on 25 April. British (and later French) forces made the main landing at Cape Helles on the southern tip of Gallipoli, while the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) landed midway up the peninsula. Sent 2 km north of their intended landing place, they encountered determined Ottoman forces in the rugged country above the beach (soon known as Anzac Cove). Unable to make any significant advance, the Anzacs spent the next few days desperately holding onto their small beachhead.
At the end of 1914, the Western Front was a 700-km-long line of fortified trenches stretching through France and Belgium from the Swiss border to the North Sea. Fighting had reached a stalemate, with the Germans dug in on one side of the line and the French and British on the other.
Keen to break the deadlock, the Allies began looking at ways to exploit their superior sea power. With the German fleet contained in the North Sea, the opportunity of launching amphibious attacks on the enemy was especially evident to British First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill. He submitted several plans to utilise British naval resources, including an assault on the Dardanelles Strait – a 50-km-long waterway linking the Aegean Sea to the Sea of Marmara. The aim was for an Allied naval force to break through into the Sea of Marmara and threaten Constantinople, the capital of Germany’s ally, the Ottoman Empire.
Churchill wasted no time in ordering a bombardment of the Ottoman forts guarding the narrowest point of the straits, the Narrows, which was less than 2 km wide. This operation, carried out a few days before Britain and France formally declared war on the Ottoman Empire (5 November 1914), reminded the Ottomans of the threat to the Dardanelles. They quickly improved their defences, including by laying underwater minefields.
In late November 1914, Churchill raised the idea of an attack on the Gallipoli Peninsula at a meeting of the British War Council. The council, led by Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, Secretary of War Lord Kitchener, and Churchill, deemed the plan too risky. However, the continuing stalemate on the Western Front, and developments in the Balkan region led the council to rethink its position.
Where did all the people go?
Most of the people living on the Gallipoli Peninsula until April 1915 were Greek. The Ottoman Fifth Army forcibly removed 22,000 Greek civilians from the area two weeks before the landings, on the pretext that, as Orthodox Christians, they might support the forthcoming Allied invasion. They never returned, ending 2500 years of Greek settlement on the peninsula.
With the Ottomans advancing northwards into the Caucasus region, Russia appealed for help to relieve the pressure. Although Russian forces soon drove the Ottomans back, this scare saw Churchill’s proposal taken more seriously. The War Council began to warm to the idea of a Dardanelles campaign, believing it could tempt Balkan states such as Greece and Romania to attack Austria-Hungary from the south-east, and persuade Italy to enter the war on the Allied side.
The limited nature of Churchill’s plan also counted in its favour. A naval attack on the Narrows would not require a large force. Nor would it compromise British naval power in the North Sea, as only older battleships would be involved. On 28 January 1915, the War Council approved an attack on the Dardanelles.
The naval attack began on 19 February 1915. While the forts at the entrance to the Dardanelles fell within a week, the Ottoman defences inside the straits proved tougher to crack. Attempts by British and French warships to clear the underwater mines and knock out the coastal batteries ended in disaster – a final attack on 18 March saw three battleships sunk by mines. These minefields remained a barrier to Allied progress.
Rather than concede defeat, the Allies despatched a ground force which was to land on the Gallipoli Peninsula and capture the prominent Kilid Bahr plateau, west of the Narrows. From there, they could destroy Ottoman defensive positions on both sides of the straits, which would allow the naval operation to proceed. Lieutenant-General Sir Ian Hamilton, commander of the new Mediterranean Expeditionary Force (MEF), assumed responsibility for organising and planning the invasion.
Hamilton assembled his forces in Egypt. As well as a single British division sent out from England – the 29th – the forces at Hamilton’s disposal included the Anzac troops in Egypt, a makeshift Royal Naval Division of sailors and Royal Marines, a French colonial division from North Africa, and a small Indian expeditionary force. Of the 75,000 men in the MEF, almost half were serving in the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC), which consisted of the 1st Australian Division (commanded by Major-General William Bridges) and the composite New Zealand and Australian Division (Major-General Sir Alexander Godley). The New Zealanders and Australians had been training in Egypt since December 1914, in preparation for service on the Western Front. The decision to invade the Gallipoli Peninsula changed all that.
Hamilton spent the next month finalising his plan for the landing – not an easy task, given the rough nature of the peninsula’s coastline. He decided to focus his attack on Cape Helles at the southern tip of the Gallipoli Peninsula, where British forces would land at five separate beaches. At the same time, French colonial troops would launch a diversionary attack at Kum Kale on the Asiatic side of the straits.
The ANZAC, under the command of Lieutenant-General William Birdwood, would make a separate landing midway up the peninsula near Gaba Tepe (Kabatepe). Their job was to secure key points in the Sari Bair Range and then capture Mal Tepe, a hill overlooking the main road running from north to south down the peninsula. This would allow them to prevent Ottoman reinforcements reaching Helles. Only the New Zealand Infantry Brigade (led by Brigadier-General Francis Johnston) would be involved in this attack – the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade (Brigadier-General Andrew Russell) remained in Egypt.
Defending the Gallipoli Peninsula were six infantry divisions (around 80,000 men) and support units of the Ottoman Fifth Army. Turkish troops made up the majority of the Ottoman units, but Arab infantry regiments also played a significant role in the defence of the peninsula.
The invasion would be a tough task for Hamilton’s force. Under-strength and under-equipped, the ad hoc MEF had had little time to prepare for the landings. While senior British generals such as Lord Kitchener still had doubts about the MEF’s military capabilities, they felt it would be good enough against a ‘second-rate’ opponent like the Ottomans.
The landing: 25 April 1915
Originally scheduled for 23 April, the invasion was delayed for two days by bad weather. On Sunday 25 April, the MEF launched its invasion of the Dardanelles. First ashore was the ANZAC, which had moved forward to the nearby Greek island of Lemnos from Egypt in mid-April. From Lemnos, warships and merchant ships transported the troops to the landing zone, where they were loaded into ships’ longboats that were towed inshore by steamboats before rowing to the beaches. The ANZAC landing site was Z Beach (later known as Brighton Beach), a 2700-m front north of the Gaba Tepe headland.
Historians have long argued about the reasons for this, suggesting unexpected tides, faulty navigation by the landing fleet and belated changes of orders. The most likely explanation is that an unauthorised change of direction by one of the midshipmen commanding a steamboat pulled the whole line of tows off-course.
The 1st Australian Division spearheaded the attack, with the first wave of troops landing before dawn. They came ashore about 2 km north of the intended landing site, most in a narrow bay (later known as Anzac Cove) just south of the Ari Burnu headland. This was one of the worst places on that stretch of coast to make a landing – the surrounding landscape was steep and broken by deep gullies. As the troops tried to get off the beach, units got hopelessly lost amidst the rugged terrain. Only a few small, uncoordinated parties managed to reach the initial objective, Gun Ridge.
Delays in landing the remainder of the 1st Australian Division compounded the problems ashore. The last of these troops reached shore four hours behind schedule. In the meantime, the first elements of Godley’s New Zealand and Australian Division had begun landing soon after 10 a.m., adding to the confusion. New Zealand infantry, led by the Auckland and Canterbury battalions, started landing around 11 a.m. and quickly joined the desperate and confused fighting on the hills and ridgelines above Anzac Cove.
We came in, in a rowing boat half full of water and with about 30 men, in it. It was the slowest yet most exciting row that I ever had…. The shrapnel was trying to stop us all the time and it seemed hours before we ran ashore. This shrapnel is very deadly stuff if it catches anyone in an exposed position and no position is more exposed than an open rowboat out on the water. It was our first experience of it and I can tell you we did not like it.… After reaching dry land we started work straight away. We did not have to look for wounded who required attention. They were lying all about the beach and in the bushes and we gradually cleared the hillside until we reached the top at about 8 o’clock in the evening. Then the trench work started and it was real hard work and rather dangerous….
James Jackson, New Zealand Medical Corps, in Gavin McLean, Ian McGibbon and Kynan Gentry (eds), The Penguin Book of New Zealanders at War, Penguin, Auckland, 2009, pp. 119–20
The Australians and New Zealanders landed on a particularly rugged stretch of the Gallipoli coastline. The tangle of ravines, gullies and spurs inland from Anzac Cove climbs up to a line of scrub-covered ridges known as the Sari Bair Range. The highest points on this range are Hill 971 (971 m), Hill Q (900 m), and Chunuk Bair (850 m).
Three spurs – designated First, Second, and Third Ridges by the Anzacs – run off Chunuk Bair. Third ridge runs south, eventually joining up with two smaller crests – Battleship Hill (or Big 700) and Baby 700 – overlooking First and Second Ridges.
Second Ridge continues as a narrow spur from Baby 700. Small indentations along the ridgeline were to be developed into Quinn’s, Courtney’s, and Steele’s Posts. Further along the ridge opened out into a broad plateau (400 Plateau). At the southern end of Anzac, a series of thin spurs ran down toward Gaba Tepe before merging into rolling mounds inland from Z Beach (Brighton Beach), and the small headland of Gaba Tepe.
First Ridge stretched southwest from Baby 700 across a narrow saddle (The Nek) to a narrow plateau (Russell’s Top). From Russell’s Top, two spurs ran down to the beaches, some 150 metres below. The northern spur (Walker’s Ridge) allowed access onto Russell’s Top via a series of narrow tracks, while the southern spur (The Sphinx) presented a seemingly inaccessible face.
Russell’s Top itself ended in a narrow ridge (The Razor Edge), which fell away steeply at both sides. This impassable obstacle linked Russell’s Top with Plugge’s (Pluggy’s) Plateau, the arms of which ran to Maclagan’s Spur in the south and Queensland Point (Ari Burnu) to the north. Both features enclosed the beach at Anzac Cove.
The inland slopes of the First Ridge fell away into a valley, which bent sharply before climbing toward the junction of the First and Second Ridges. The section from the bend to the sea became Shrapnel Valley, the upper part Monash Gully. Together, they separated the First and Second Ridges.
‘Dig, dig, dig’
Defending the area were two infantry companies (around 200 men) and an artillery battery of the Ottoman 27th Infantry Regiment. They inflicted substantial casualties on the Australians but were unable to prevent them landing and advancing inland. The Anzacs’ haphazard progress continued until they ran into elements of the Ottoman 19th Infantry Division, commanded by Mustafa Kemal (later Atatürk). One of his units — the 57th Infantry Regiment — was on exercises near Hill 971 that morning. When reports of the landings reached Kemal, he quickly led this force toward the threatened area.
As Kemal’s men arrived on the scene, they went straight into battle. A counter-attack in mid-morning drove the Australians back from 400 Plateau. Kemal then turned his attention to the Anzac position around Baby 700, where New Zealand troops had joined the Australians in the front line. As fighting intensified during the afternoon, casualties mounted on both sides. By evening, Ottoman troops had pushed the Australians and New Zealanders back from Baby 700 and the Nek. Instead of securing the heights of Hill 971, or even Gun Ridge, the exhausted Anzacs were facing defeat.
The situation looked so dangerous that Birdwood recommended evacuation. Lieutenant-General Hamilton, commander of the MEF, rejected this option, as there was no way to undertake it with the resources available. He could only urge Birdwood’s Anzacs to dig in: ‘You have got through the difficult business, now you only have to dig, dig, dig until you are safe.’
Over the next 48 hours, the Anzacs scrambled to secure their tiny foothold. As further units from the New Zealand and Australian Division landed, they filled gaps in the line. The Anzac positions were gradually linked up and a tenuous line developed along Second Ridge. As soon as possible, the original landing units were withdrawn and reorganised. Eventually, Birdwood was able to establish two divisional sectors: the New Zealand and Australian Division took responsibility for the line north of Courtney’s Post, and the 1st Australian Division for the southern area.
The results of the British landings at Cape Helles were equally disappointing. Although tactical success was gained at two of the beaches (S and Y), unimaginative leadership ensured this was not exploited. At the main landing sites (X, W and V Beaches), the British 29th Division suffered heavy losses in gaining a shaky foothold. Casualties were particularly heavy at V Beach, where troops disembarking from the improvised landing craft River Clyde made easy targets for Ottoman machine gunners.
The results fell far short of the first-day objectives. On the Asiatic side of the peninsula, French colonial troops landed at Kum Kale as planned but were soon withdrawn and sent to Helles. On 26 April, the British finally cleared the beaches and landed the remainder of the 29th Division. The first units of the Royal Naval Division also came ashore after making a mock landing at Bulair the previous day. In this operation, which had little practical effect, Bernard Freyberg, future commander of the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force and Governor-General of New Zealand, distinguished himself by swimming ashore to light flares in an attempt to mislead the Ottoman defenders.