A watershed moment in the history of modern warfare
Captain B. A. Friedman, USMC is a field artillery officer and author of 21st Century Ellis, as well as numerous articles and posts. He is also a founding member of the Military Writers Guild. Views contained in this post do not represent the United States Marine Corps, the Department of the Navy, or the Department of Defense.
The Battle of Gallipoli was a watershed moment in the history of warfare. Few other battles were initiated with such high strategic hopes that were then dashed so quickly. Its influence carried far beyond the war in which it occurred. Simultaneously, it spurred some observers to proclaim that the amphibious assault was impossible and others, notably then-Captain Earl “Pete” Ellis of the United States Marine Corps, to completely reexamine the amphibious assault in a modern context and design modern forces to accomplish it. Even in defeat, the battle was a defining moment for Australia and New Zealand whose sons exhibited superhuman courage and endurance in horrific conditions and against desperate odds. Sir Winston Churchill, whose strategic vision was the impetus behind the attempt, faced political exile once the effort failed. He has been both criticized and praised for it since. Questions remain as to whether or not the effort could have succeeded. These questions will continue because at more than one point in the campaign either side could have won. In the end, the campaign was a stalemate through and through. The Allies could not achieve their objectives but neither could the Turks push them back into the sea. Like so many events in military history, inspired leadership at bayonet range can change the plans of nations.
Strategic Environment and Rationale
On January 2nd, 1915, the British government received a call for help. Russia was on the ropes. After dramatic and devastating defeats at the hands of Germany, the Tzarist behemoth was already tottering. Despite its size, Russia could not supply its depleted and defeated armies enough to ensure the defeat of a renewed German offensive the next year. If logistical support from Western Europe could not make it through the Turkish blockade of the Dardanelles and the Bosphorous, Russia may have to seek a separate peace. The commander-in-chief of the reeling Russian armies, Grand Duke Nicholas, first cousin of the Emperor Nicholas II, wanted some kind of effort against the Ottoman Empire to draw off their troops in the Caucasus. The British and the French had more than enough problems of their own, however. The Western Front had just settled into a morass of mud, steel, and blood. The worldwide shock of the massive casualties of the First Battle of the Marne had yet to wear off and the “Race to the Sea” had ended without a winner. Both sides were now locked into a continuous line of entrenchments for 350 miles across Europe. Opening a new front seemed beyond the pale.
Except that it was not. The Dardanelles, instantly recognized by Lord Kitchener as simultaneously the most practicable place to strike as well as the point where the most potential strategic effects could be gained, was weakly defended. Seizing or forcing the Strait and taking Constantinople could have drastically changed the war.
When the Turks had stopped the transit 350,000 tons of shipping had been bottled up in the Mediterranean Sea.
The Turkish blockade had a profound effect on the Entente’s ability to communicate with Russia. Fully 90% of Russia’s grain and 50% of all exports sailed through the Dardanelles to reach the West. When the Turks had stopped the transit 350,000 tons of shipping had been bottled up in the Mediterranean Sea. The Western Allies needed grain from Russia and Russia needed ammunition and other military supplies. The only other way to ship supplies from Western Europe to Russia was to cross the Atlantic, sail through the newly-opened Panama Canal to the Pacific Ocean, then northwest to Vladivostok. There, supplies would have to be unloaded and then moved over the harsh Siberian landscape to western Russia. The Trans-Siberian Railway, then under construction, was not completed until 1916. Russia’s inability to rapidly push supplies and troops across the vast steppes was a key component of its defeat in the Russo-Japanese War ten years earlier.
Allied troops lining the shore at “ANZAC Cove” on the Gallipoli Peninsula. The cove was named after the ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) troops that were part of the Allied forces. The Dardanelles Campaign against the Turks was a bloody defeat for the Allies.
The first strategic aim of the campaign was to restore the line of communication with Russia via the Dardanelles and hopefully keep the Eastern Front active. Additionally, the Ottoman Empire was allied with Germany and Turkish armies were fighting Russian troops. Once the Straits were open, Constantinople was a relatively easy target situated on the European coast on the north coast of the Sea of Marmara. The possibility of a collapse of the Ottoman government was not unrealistic. The Empire was run by the “Young Turks” who had deposed the Shah in 1909. Since then, their promises of democracy and liberalization of Turkish society had become subsumed in the day-to-day operations of administering a large but crumbling empire. Regime change or complete collapse in Constantinople seemed forthcoming and it did indeed occur in 1918.