On May 13th 1915, a young Private named Horace Buckshaw sat in a trench and wrote in his diary:
“Enjoyed a good, long night’s sleep for we were very tired. Our artillery has been bombarding since yesterday afternoon. We dug a hole in the ground first thing and put a waterproof sheet in it, which we filled with water. Stripping ourselves, we then enjoyed a much needed bath. Soon after we had completed our rough and ready toilet a big shell dropped right in amongst us knocking out seven or eight. Pollard and Madden were two victims out of our section. Duckworth … was blown to atoms.” (1)
Such a scene was not uncommon during the Great War. Indeed, similar events happened on the Western Front almost daily. However, Private Buckshaw wasn’t in France or Belgium. In fact, he was hundreds of miles away from the Western Front, in a place that would soon become just as synonymous with senseless waste. Private Buckshaw was in Gallipoli.
The word Gallipoli has become so loaded with lore, sorrow, anger, and blame that it can sometimes be hard to remember that the word itself refers to a simple geographic feature. The Gallipoli peninsula juts out from the southern tip of Europe on an oblique angle, and forms the northern section of a narrow strait that leads into the Sea of Marmara and modern day Istanbul. These straits, known as the Dardanelles, are the gateway from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea. Traditionally, the straits are considered to be the point at which Europe joins Asia. Xerxes, the King of Persia, was supposed to have had a bridge built across these very narrows during his famous invasion of Greece in 480 BC. In 1915, the land would see a new set of combatants.
Staring at the immovable deadlock of the Western Front at the end of 1914, many of the higher-ups in the British government and military realized that their efforts on the Western Front had hit a brick wall. Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, famously asked the Prime Minister, “how ought we to apply our growing military power? Are there not alternatives than sending our armies to chew barbed wire in Flanders?” As usual, Churchill did not ask this question without some ideas for an “alternative”. He proposed an audacious plan to charge through the Dardanelles with war-ships, and put Istanbul under threat of British guns. It was hoped that this would force the Turkish government, which had entered the war on Germany’s side, to sue for peace. Ever the optimist, Churchill envisioned this surrender as the first domino to fall in a long chain of events that would ultimately force the Germans to the negotiating table without having to confront the grinding stalemate in France and Belgium.
The feat was much more easily said than done. The Turks were not unaware of the vast strategic importance of the Dardanelles, and had built up formidable defenses in the area in order to fend off just this kind of attack. Ships attempting to get through would find the straits riddled with hundreds of underwater mines, as well as forts and gun emplacements lining both sides of the water, which at times is less than a mile wide. The Turks had turned the strait into a gauntlet of fire and death.
The devastating nature of these defenses might have dissuaded the British from attempting the scheme. Instead they simply added a land component. The plan now called for elements of the British army, French army, and Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) to land on the Gallipoli peninsula in order to seize the forts and knock out the gun emplacements that would menace the fleet as it moved into the straits. Critics ever since have called the plan a mad gamble, a reckless maneuver, and a badly planned disaster. Whatever it was, on April 25th, 1915, it began.
Among those charged with storming the peninsula was John Hargrave. As a sergeant in the Royal Army Medical Corps, Hargrave’s duty lay in caring for the wounded and bearing them off the front lines. However, during the initial landing, he had to watch helplessly from a ship while Aussies, Kiwis, and Brits went ashore into a hail of Turkish gunfire. He wrote of that day:
“You must understand that we knew not where we were. We had never heard of Suvla Bay—we didn’t know what part of the Peninsula we had reached. The mystery of the adventure made it all the more exciting. It was to be “a new landing by the Xth Division”—that was all we knew.
Some of us had slept, and some had lain awake all night. Rapidly the pink sunrise swept behind the rugged mountains to the left, and was reflected in wobbling ripples in the bay.
We could hear the rattle of machine-guns in the distant gloom beyond the streak of sandy shore. The decks were crowded with that same khaki crowd. We all stood eagerly watching and listening. The death-silence had come upon us. No one spoke. No one whistled.
We could see the lighters and small boats towing troops ashore. We saw the men scramble out, only to be blown to pieces by land mines as they waded to the beach. On the Lala Baba side we watched platoons and companies form up and march along in fours, all in step, as if they were on parade.
“In fours!” I exclaimed to Hawk, who was peering through my field-glasses.
“Sheer murder,” said Hawk.
No sooner had he spoken than a high explosive from the Turkish positions on the Sari Bair range came screaming over the Salt Lake: “Z-z-z-e-e-e-o-o-o-p—Crash!”
They lay there like a little group of dead beetles, and the wounded were crawling away like ants into the dead yellow grass and the sage bushes to die. A whole platoon was smashed.
It was not yet daylight. We could see the flicker of rifle-fire, and the crackle sounded first on one part of the bay, and then another. Among the dark rocks and bushes it looked as if people were striking thousands of matches.
Mechanical Death went steadily on. Four Turkish batteries on the Kislar Dargh were blown up one after the other by our battleships. We watched the thick rolling smoke of the explosions, and saw bits of wheels, and the arms and legs of gunners blown up in little black fragments against that pearl-pink sunrise.
Mechanical Death moved back and forth. It whistled and screamed and crashed. It spat fire, and unfolded puffs of grey and white and black smoke. It flashed tongues of livid flame, like some devilish ant-eater lapping up its insects… and the insects were the sons of men.
Mechanical Death, as we saw him at work, was hard and metallic, steel-studded and shrapnel-toothed. Now and then he bristled with bayonets, and they glittered here and there in tiny groups, and charged up the rocks and through the bushes.
The noise increased. Mechanical Death worked first on our side, and then with the Turks. He led forward a squad, and the next instant mowed them down with a hail of lead. He galloped up a battery, unlimbered—and before the first shell could be rammed home Mechanical Death blew the whole lot up with a high explosive from a Turkish battery in the hills.
And so it went on hour after hour. Crackle, rattle and roar; scream, whistle and crash. We stood there on the deck watching men get killed. Now and then a shell came wailing and moaning across the bay, and dropped into the water with a great column of spray glittering in the early morning sunshine.
The incessant noise of battle grew more distant as our troops on shore advanced. It broke out like a bush-fire, and spread from one section to another. Mechanical Death pressed forward across the Salt Lake. It stormed the heights of the Kapanja Sirt on the one side, and took Lala Baba on the other. Puffs of smoke hung on the hills, and the shore was all wreathed in the smoke of rifle and machine-gun fire. A deadly conflict this—for one Turk on the hills was worth ten British down below on the Salt Lake.
Here was organized murder—but it was steel-cold! There was no hand-to-hand glory. A mine dispersed you before you had set foot on dry land; or a high explosive removed your stomach, and left you a mangled heap of human flesh…
Mechanical Death wavered and fluctuated—but it kept going. If it slackened its murderous fire at one side of the bay, it was only to burst forth afresh upon the other.
The crack and crash was deafening, and it literally shook the air… it quivered like a jelly after each shot.
The fighting got more and more inland, and the rattle and crackle fainter and farther away. But we still watched, fascinated.
The little groups of men lay in exactly the same positions on the beach. That platoon by the side of Lala Baba lay in a black bunch—stone dead. We could see our artillery teams galloping along like a team of performing fleas, taking up new positions behind Lala Baba. So this is war? Well, it’s pretty awful! Wholesale murder… what’s it all for? Wonder how long we shall last alive before Mechanical Death blows our brains out, or a leg off…” (2).
The first day did not go well for the Allies; nor the second. The British had counted on the Turkish army to be poorly led, poorly trained, and poorly equipped. Instead, the Turks put up a ferocious defence, confining the landing force to their beach-heads and firing down on them from the heights of the surrounding hills and mountains. Gallipoli was supposed to be a quick victory for the British. Instead, Private Buckshaw found himself being shelled by the Turks nearly three weeks after the landing.
If Churchill could have seen the future, he probably would have scrapped the whole plan. Gallipoli wasn’t the key to deadlock that he sought. It wasn’t going to allow British troops to escape the barbed wire of Flanders In the coming weeks and months, it would prove to be just one more bloody disaster. The British were looking for an easy way to win the war. Instead they hit another brick wall.
1. Horace Bruckshaw, in The Mammoth Book of Eyewitness World War I, Jon E. Lewis, ed. (New York: Carroll & Graf, 2003), 104.
2. John Hargrave, At Suvla Bay (New York: Houghton Mifflen Company, 1917), 58-64.
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