Spatial Aspects of Gallipoli – The Big Picture
This is the first of two posts related to the Gallipoli Campaign. In this one we’ll talk about the importance of Gallipoli in World War One while the second will look at the ANZAC beach landing.
I’m no war buff – far from it. But there are a few military events that have really captured my attention over the years, such as Napoleon’s disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812, and increasingly, New Zealand’s involvement in World War I and the ANZAC landing at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915 in particular.
As we edge closer to the 100th anniversary of the campaign, I thought it might be useful to put the importance of the spatial aspects of Gallipoli into perspective. We’re probably all quite familiar with most aspects of the campaign itself, but why were the ANZACs there in the first place? Why were so many thrown into the bloody crucible on that lonely peninsula? To me, the answer lies mainly in its location.
But first, the big picture. War is in the air in a tangled and intertwined Europe when Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria is assassinated by a Bosnian Serb in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914 – after that the dominoes started to fall. A month later The Austro-Hungarian Empire invaded Serbia in retaliation, and its ally, Germany, invaded Belgium and Luxembourg, heading for France, which dragged the British Empire in as their allies, due to a protective treaty with Belgium. Meanwhile, the Russian Empire mobilised due to its alliance with Serbia. Within weeks, all of Europe is embroiled. In the meantime, Germany is carrying on secret negotiations with the Ottoman Empire to bring them in on the side of the Central Powers (Germany and Austro-Hungary) to the point where German warships are in Ottoman waters, flying the Turkish flag, and German officers had been sighted wearing Turkish uniforms. In November 1914, Britain formally declares war on the Ottoman Empire and it’s all in. Here’s a map of what things looked like in November, 1914:
This is the tail end of the period of the Great Game, where the empires carved up large parts of the rest of the world to suit their own purposes – but that’s another big story in itself. Both sides were expecting a quick war, highlighted by major, early offensives and decisive victories. The Germans headed for Paris, the French and British aimed for Berlin. In their haste to get there first, they created a deadly stalemate along a line from the North Sea and south through France all the way to the Swiss border. Similar conditions were set up on the eastern front and everyone settled in to a long and bloody period of trench warfare which would remain largely unchanged through the end of the war. To the south, the Ottoman Empire covered an extensive area, encompassing modern Turkey as well as the Arabian Peninsula as shown here:
At this point, the Ottoman’s were a mere shadow of their former self, territory-wise. At its height in 1683, this was the extent of their empire:
With the Turks now in the game, new fronts were opened up in the Caucuses and Mesopotamia and added to the complexity of the war effort. Enter young political upstart, Winston Churchill, and he had a plan. With the war in Europe grinding to a deadly halt of trench warfare, unlike anything that had ever been seen before, Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty (a government appointment rather than a military one), proposed that a third major front be opened up to the South. The Ottoman Empire was seen as being weak, the sick old man of Europe. And this brings us closer to the Gallipoli Peninsula.
It wasn’t the peninsula itself that was so important, it was what lay at the other end of the water body that it created that was the driving force. Looking at the map below, you can see that the Gallipoli peninsula forms a narrow body of water, now known as the Dardanelles, protected at the time by forts, castles and powerful cannons.
This is a place with a very long history. It was originally called the Hellespont (Sea of Helle) by the Greeks, based on the story of the Golden Fleece from Greek mythology. Helle and her twin brother, Phrixus, were escaping from an evil stepmother, and were flying over the straits on a golden fleeced ram (as you do). She fell from the ram, giving the strait its name, while the ram flew on to Colchis (present day Georgia on the Black Sea), eventually becoming the Golden Fleece which Jason and the Argonauts were later pursuing. The ancient city of Troy sat near the mouth of the Hellespont, controlling (and taxing) movements through the strait. Of course there were a few events at Troy that live on thanks to Homer. In 482 BC, the Persian despot, Xerxes I was on his way to overthrow the Greek empire (again) and sought a shortcut across the strait by building a series of pontoon bridges (he has a pretty good record for finding shortcuts.) When a storm destroyed them, he naturally was a bit angry, so he had all his lead engineers beheaded, lashed the waters of the strait with 300 lashes and scalded it (the Hellespont, that is) with red hot irons as punishment.
While it seemed to have little effect on the water, it did spur his remaining engineers to come up with a solution that did work. And quick. By the time the Ottoman Empire rose to power some 20 centuries later, the strait was known as the Dardanelles, after the city of Dardanus on its eastern shore (which was in turn named for Dardanus, son of Zeus and Electra). Perhaps inspired by the story of Hero and Leander, Lord Byron later famously swam across the Hellespont to great acclaim.
Throughout history this body of water has been strategic. Why so? It’s location. For one, it’s thought to separate Europe from Asia, though Istanbul is typically thought of as being that border. The Dardanelles link the Aegean Sea with the Sea of Marmara. And on the other side of the Sea of Maramara lay a jewel of the east,
Constantinople!, the then capital of the Ottoman Empire, the seat of the Sublime Porte, ancient Byzantium! And beyond Constantinople, through another strait called the Bosphorus (now amongst the busiest sea lanes in the world), lies the Black Sea and access to southern Europe. So the Dardanelles are really the gateway from the Mediterranean Sea to the Black Sea and southern Europe: the one who controls its waters could control the end of the war.
If the British and French Allies could take Constantinople, not only would they be taking the Ottoman Empire out of the war, they would also open up supply lines with their other ally, the Russians, ensure safe passage through the Suez Canal and perhaps bring this war to a quick close. (As a side note, the Crimean Peninsula and the Black Sea coast provide the only year round ice-free ports for Russia – perhaps one of the key reasons the recent war in Ukraine may well have been started.)
So back to the main question – why did the ANZACs end up here? As dominions of the British Empire, Australia and New Zealand were called upon to defend the empire for king and country. The ANZAC force was mobilised and the boys shipped out (so did some of the women). Our Canterbury contingent departed from Lyttelton on 23 September 1914, headed for what they thought was the European Western Front.
En route, war was declared on Turkey and the troops were diverted to Egypt (then a British protectorate) for training. But Constantinople lay at the other end of the Dardanelles, so getting warships and troop ships into the city and beyond would mean safe passage through the strait. The Ottomans were certainly conscious of an eventual attack here; they couldn’t help but notice the British warships hanging about at the entrance to the strait. Defences were built up around the old castles and fortresses, troops were brought in and the area known as the Narrows (where Xerxes had his fit) was laid with minefields and submarine nets.
As the Ottoman Empire reluctantly fell further into the war effort, there was political unrest. The brash group of young army officers and politicians who had earlier overthrown the Sultan of Constantinople, the so-called “Young Turks” were running the empire and struggled to maintain calm. A brilliant young field commander, Mustafa Kemal, was dispatched to lead the troops on the Gallipoli Peninsula – he would later be called “Ataturk”, the father of the Turks, and would prove to be a decisive leader in this campaign.
Churchill’s initial plan was to use massive British sea power to open the strait, but due to a combination of weather and enemy cannon fire from the forts (and the loss of several British and French warships), several days of bombardment were called off when the fleet admiral felt that the strategy was never going to work. The sad, sad irony, is that had they carried on just one more day, the Ottoman forts may well have fallen – they had run out of ammunition, but this wasn’t known until several decades later (Fromkin, 2009). The decision was made to land troops on the peninsula.
In the shadow of the pyramids and the Sphinx, our boys drilled and drilled and awaited further instructions.
In early April, the orders came. The troops were loaded back onto transport ships headed for Turkey and the Gallipoli Peninsula; the scene is set for the landings at Anzac Cove.
To summarise this post, the Gallipoli Campaign is pointed to as one of the founding events for both New Zealand and Australia. Our boys ended up on the peninsula as part of a larger strategy to open up a new southern front and end the war. Gallipoli was important because it had to be conquered before the allies could take Constantinople and open up the route to southern Europe. There’s much more to this story which we’ll cover in more detail in the next post.
My thanks to Greg Ryan and Lloyd Carpenter for some judicious reading and suggestions.