Scientific American looked at the wider context of the battle for Gallipoli.
This Week in World War I: April 24, 1915
April 25, 2015, marks the 100-year anniversary of an important battle in the First World War: it was a major defeat for the Allies (Britain, France and Russia) and a great victory for the Ottoman Turks (and their allies Germany and Austria-Hungary). On that date in 1915 troops from Australia, New Zealand, Britain and France landed on the Gallipoli peninsula, only 130 miles from Constantinople, the capital of Turkey and the heart of the Ottoman Empire. In nine months of hard fighting, and after close to a quarter of a million casualties on each side, the Allies were forced to withdraw, and they evacuated the last of their forces in January 1916.
But why attack Gallipoli?
The Ottoman Empire entered the war, somewhat reluctantly, on the side of Germany and Austro-Hungary on November 11, 1914. The British, French and Russians believed that it would be relatively easy to knock the Ottoman Empire out of the war by the shortcut of attacking the capital city and the heart of the empire, Constantinople. It was thought that “with Constantinople in the hands of the enemy, the whole Turkish plan of campaign would collapse” [Scientific American, March 20. 1915]. Within a wider strategic context, a key war aim of the Allies was an economic blockade Germany and Austria-Hungary to cut off their ability to import raw materials to fight an industrial-scale war. In this context, capturing the capital city of the Ottoman Empire would be “the last link in an unbreakable chain, which, with the capture of Constantinople and the resultant entry of Italy and the Balkans into the war, will extend unbroken from the western coast of Norway by way of the North Sea, the Mediterranean, the Balkans and Russia, to the eastern shores of the Baltic.” [SA, March 20, 1915]
A perception of the Ottoman Empire as being militarily weak and politically vacillating, and therefore easy to defeat, may have helped push the decision to attack. The empire had lost recent wars against Italy in 1912 and the Balkan states of Serbia, Greece, Montenegro and Bulgaria in 1913. The navy was known (with the exception of two recent additions from Germany) to be in deplorable condition. As far back as 1897 (on the occasion of the war against Greece), Scientific American had sneered that the Ottoman empire was “half-barbaric, half-civilized” [SA, May 8, 1897]. Not only was there an opportunity for a quick victory but also perhaps easy pickings as well. The empire was referred to as “The Sick Man of Europe” and for decades its territory had been carved off by ascendant European powers in a great and predatory game of imperialist geopolitics:
“The dismemberment of Turkey is the goal which Europe has steadily aimed at since the loss of the Holy Land of Christendom. It will also be the last chapter in the long history of Europe’s commercial conquest of western Asia. Three causes operate in favor of this partition: the country is rich in natural resources; it is held by a people whose incompetence to convert nature’s gifts into use or profit is historically patent; it occupies a commanding situation with reference to the trade of Europe with Asia or Africa. These three points are fundamental in the solution of the Turkish problem. The European nations most vitally concerned in the dismemberment of the Sultan’s dominions are four in number: Great Britain’s interest is born of the Empire’s relation to Egypt and India. The cause of Russian progress depends on the country’s access to warm seaports. Germany, the newcomer on the scene and a land power, is engaged in extending her land area. To her sons Turkey offers an attractive colonization area and at the same time the land route which will render them independent of the sea way passing through Suez to the East. As a colonial power of the first magnitude no less than on account of her millions of Mohammedan subjects, France cannot be disinterested in the fate of the core-lands of Islam.” [Scientific American Supplement, April 14, 1917]
In 1915 the first attempt to fight a way to the doorstep of Constantinople was an attack by sea along the narrow waterway called the Dardanelles. The tactic was attempted despite the well-known difficulties, such as this warning from almost two decades before: “On either side of the narrow waterway Nature seems to have conspired to render difficult the passage of the invader. Nor has man been backward in assisting her designs. By the erection of works of defense along both shores he has endeavored to improve by art the natural capabilities of the place” [SA, January 25, 1896]. The naval effort, covered in blog posts from March 20 and April 3 started well but with some adroit defensive work by the Turks, quickly turned into a resounding failure.
Planning for a land assault began immediately. The goal of the attack was not to have infantry march to Constantinople, but to destroy the forts and guns overlooking the narrow Dardanelles waterway so that minesweepers could clear a path for British and French naval ships to sail relatively unimpeded into the Sea of Marmora and to Constantinople. Again, from the issue of January 25, 1896, there was this note: “There is, however, one weak spot in the defense of the Dardanelles, which is the exposure to attack from the rear of the forts on the European side. An army covered by a sufficient fleet might, without much difficulty, land on the coast of the peninsula…in the Gulf of Saros.”
By 1915 there were more compelling reasons for a land attack against the Ottoman Turks: the Russians had been receiving a mauling at the hands of the resurgent Turkish army. On the Western Front in Europe the armies of France and Britain faced the armies of Germany in a bitter deadlock with little chance of a breakthrough by either side, yet still causing vast casualties and absorbing huge resources. And then there was the hope that dangling as prizes some attractive post-war territory prospects might induce other countries to enter the war: “the collapse of Turkey would set free probably between 300,000 and 400,000 British and Russian troops, for the reinforcement of the allied armies in the eastern and western theaters of conflict. Furthermore, it might well serve to bring Italy and the Balkan nations into the conflict, urged on by their desire to have an authoritative voice in the readjustment of boundaries which must necessarily take place at the finish of the war” [SA, March 20. 1915]
After a lengthy delay (which allowed the Turks to strengthen their defenses), the Allies landed on the Gallipoli peninsula on April 25, 1915. More detailed articles than this one have looked at the many errors committed by the Allies in planning and executing the attack. In contrast to the incompetence of the Allies, the Turks, fighting tenaciously and ably led (and assisted by their German advisors), took full advantage of the higher ground and used their scarcer resources to their best effect. The hard fighting continued for months. “In the Dardanelles, on the Gallipoli Peninsula, the British and French have been fighting desperately against the Turk, and have made gains, which although measured in fractions of miles, are very important, since they bring them closer to the forts that are the key to the straits” [SA, July 24, 1915].
Even as the fighting continued, recriminations about strategic and tactical errors were being discussed, in the corridors of power, in the press, and in Scientific American:
“Just here, with regard to the Dardanelles operations as a whole, it should be said that the attempt to force the Straits by a naval demonstration unaided by land forces was one of the worst blunders of the whole war. The first reports of this adventure were optimistic and aroused an expectation of success which was altogether unwarranted by the facts. It has been rumored that the Allies expected Greece to furnish the land army for co-operation; but this has never been substantiated. The present operations promise success after slow and arduous fighting. That the Gallipoli peninsula is being won by the Allies is another tribute to sea power; for every man, gun and every pound of provisions for the large army there had to be transported by sea and the army itself provisioned and munitioned from the sea.” [SA, August 7, 1915].
Lest the reader be lost geopolitically: Bulgaria and Romania form a direct land link between Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Turkey. Even though Romania was still neutral (but eventually throwing in her lot with Britain, France and Russia) supplies could be sent across land from the Central Powers to Turkey. On the side of the Allies, they were seeking to establish a vital link that would have helped their war efforts immensely, a waterway link via the Black Sea, the Dardanelles and the Mediterranean:
“The wealth of Russia’s wheat belt was locked up in the Black Sea and demanded an outlet. The urgent need of the Russians for ammunition, which only the west could supply, demanded an inlet. The passage of the Dardanelles was the sole solution of both problems. The French and English on the Gallipoli were pressing the Turks hard, Turkish ammunition was becoming scarce. A cry to Germany for help was the Turks’ solution. The transport of assistance across Rumania was the simplest answer and involved the shortest route.” [SA October 23, 1915]
But there was one more geopolitical disaster waiting for the Allies. Starting on October 7, 1915, Bulgarian, German and Austro-Hungarian forces invaded Serbia. The quickest way for the Allies to help Serbia was to send reinforcements through still-neutral (technically, at least) Greece. But the forces hastily landed at Salonika were too few and arrived too late to help the Serbs. With Serbia firmly in the grip of the Central Powers, a railway line was now open between Germany and Turkey, increasing the supplies and reinforcements to help the Turkish defense. With the opening of this railway line, the fate of the Allied attack in Gallipoli was sealed. In a rare opinion excoriating the vacillating British, who had been promising for months to send forces to help the Serbians, Scientific American said:
“The British simply shirked their responsibilities just as they did in the case of Belgium at the beginning of the war, and, also, just as they were then, are absolutely panic stricken at the result. The outcome of it all now is that the Teutons [a disparaging term for the Germans] have already opened a water route to Constantinople, and in a short time will open also a rail route. This means the inevitable failure of the Gallipoli campaign. Whether the British are broad enough to acknowledge that for the present, at least, they must admit defeat is another question. Something of British pride and prestige must suffer if the British army has to yield to the great defensive strength of the Turks, but the situation will soon arise, if, indeed, it has not arisen already, and it does not seem so, where the forces on the Peninsula will be in desperate straits through additional supplies sent the Turks from Germany, and then a withdrawal will be effected only with terrible losses.” [SA November 23, 1915]
On December 7, 1915, the British government accepted that troops would have to evacuate their untenable position, and up to January 9, 1916, 140,000 Allied troops were withdrawn from the Gallipoli peninsula.
Our full archive of the war, called Scientific American Chronicles: World War I, has many articles from 1914-1918 on artillery. It is available for purchase at www.ScientificAmerican.com/wwi