Soon after World War I began, the Allies realized that Russia could not be supplied by sea, nor a Balkan front opened against the Central Powers, unless Ottoman Turkey was eliminated. Winston Churchill, then the British First Lord of the Admiralty, decided that the quickest way to accomplish this would be to force the Dardanelles with a fleet and bombard İstanbul into submission. A combined Anglo-French armada made several, repulsed attempts on the straits during November 1914, before returning in earnest on March 18, 1915, when they reached 10km up the waterway before striking numerous Turkish mines, losing several vessels and hundreds of crew.
The Allied fleet retreated and regrouped on the Greek island of Límnos to prepare an amphibious assault on Turkish positions along the peninsula. The plan involved an Anglo-French landing at Cape Helles, Seddülbahir and Morto Bay at the mouth of the straits, and a simultaneous Anzac (Australia-New Zealand Army Corps) assault at Kabatepe beach, 13km north. The Australians landed first at dawn on April 25, 1915, with the British and French landing an hour afterwards, followed by the New Zealanders later in the day.
This hare-brained scheme ran into trouble immediately. Anglo-French brigades at the southernmost cape were pinned down by Turkish fire, and the French contingent virtually annihilated; after two days they had only penetrated 6.5km inland, just before Krithia (Alçıtepe) village, and never got any further. The fate of the Anzac landing was even more horrific: owing to a drifting signal buoy, the Aussies and Kiwis disembarked not on the broad sands of Kabatepe, with gentle terrain inland, but at a cramped cove by Arıburnu, 2km north, overlooked by Turkish-held cliffs. Despite heavy casualties (around 2000 on the first day alone), the Australians advanced inland, as the Turks initially retreated. The next day, they threatened the Turkish stronghold of Çonkbayırı, where lieutenant-colonel Mustafa Kemal told his poorly equipped, illiterate troops: “I am not ordering you to attack, I am ordering you to die.” Turkish reinforcements soon arrived, and the Anzac force never made it further than 800m inland.
A supplementary British landing at northerly Cape Suvla was followed by ferocious assaults on the summit in the middle of August, which the Turks repulsed. Otherwise the confrontation consisted of stagnant trench warfare; neither side had sufficient artillery to gain a decisive advantage. Finally, in November 1915, the Allies gave up. The last troops left Seddülbahir on January 9, 1916. Churchill’s career went into temporary eclipse, while that of Mustafa Kemal was only just beginning.
The reasons for the Allied defeat are many. In addition to the chanciness of the basic strategy, the incompetence of the Allied commanders – who often countermanded each other’s orders or failed to press advantages with reinforcements – was significant. Much credit for the successful Turkish resistance goes to Mustafa Kemal, later known as Atatürk, whose role in the two Turkish victories at Çonkbayırı is legendary (countrywide, he’s depicted hunched over in silhouette, patrolling that ridge). Enjoying a charmed life, he narrowly escaped death on several occasions and, aside from his tactical skills, succeeded – by threats, persuasion or example – in rekindling morale among often outgunned and outnumbered Ottoman infantrymen.
At various times, half a million men were deployed at Gallipoli; over fifty percent were killed, wounded or missing. Allied deaths totalled around 46,000, while the Turkish dead are estimated at 86,000. Fatal casualties among the Anzacs in particular – around 11,500 – were severe compared to the island-nations’ populations, but would be dwarfed by the 48,000 or so Anzacs killed on the western front later in the war. Claims that the Allied top brass regarded Anzac “colonials” as expendable cannon fodder – a major thesis of Peter Weir’s Gallipoli – don’t bear scrutiny; two Irish battalions suffered over fifty percent casualties on the first day, and the 42nd Manchester Division was almost completely wiped out. However, this baptism by blood had several long-term effects: a sense that Australia and New Zealand had come of age as sovereign countries; the designation of April 25 as Anzac Day, a solemn holiday in Australia and New Zealand; and a healthy antipodean scepticism about joining international adventures – though both countries were press-ganged by the US into sending troops to Vietnam.