Spatial Aspects of Gallipoli – the Landings at Anzac Cove
This is the second of two posts on Gallipoli. The first set the scene for the landings at Anzac Cove on 25 April 1915. In this post, the spatial aspects of the landing are covered in more detail. Warning: the account here may differ from a traditional telling of the event.
In part 1 of this post, the big picture of World War 1 was set out, and particularly the importance of the Gallipoli Peninsula in the war effort. As we left things, the ANZAC forces were in training in Egypt, in the shadow of the Pyramids and the Sphinx. With the British naval bombardment having failed to open up the Dardanelles, the decision was made to land troops on the ground to capture the forts guarding the Narrows and open the way to Constantinople. The Ottoman forces were expecting a ground invasion from then on. The campaign was largely a British operation, though as well see, the ANZAC forces were allowed to make some of their own decisions. Several landings were planned with the bulk of the forces being landed at the southern tip of the peninsula at Cape Helles (a familiar name). There were five main landings centred around the tip of the peninsula (beaches S, V, W, X and Y), with a regiment of French and North African troops being landed on the eastern shore at Kum Kale as a diversionary tactic while the ANZACs were allotted Z beach to the north.
The ANZAC objective was to gain the high ground at the narrowest point of the peninsula and prevent any of the Ottoman reinforcements from reaching the main landing beaches. Once on the high ground, they would meet up with the main invasion force coming north from the cape and capture the forts guarding the Narrows. If these could be taken, the strait could be opened.
What follows is an alternative version to the normally accepted story of the landings, largely based on Hugh Dolan’s book, 36 Days, and an excellent documentary (Gallipoli from Above). The traditional story we’ve been told is that the troops were landed on the wrong beach at dawn and were open to slaughter from the moment they set foot on the beach. According to Dolan, this is far from the truth. Z Beach encompassed a length of coastline from Gabe Tepe, a small cape (labelled as Kaba Tepe on the map below), northwards to a collection of buildings known as Fisherman’s Hut. Below is an image of the type of map they were working with:
You can see that this map is divided into numbered grids which are further subdivided into 5 x 5 grids. These smaller cells are then designated with letters (with no “e”s) running left to right and then top to bottom. On some maps I’ve seen, these smaller cells are further subdivided into yet smaller divisions. With map likes these, locations can be referenced with the grid number and letter. So on the map above, for example, Anzac Cove would be referenced as 224g and 224l
Sir Ian Hamilton was appointed to command the Allied Mediterranean Expeditionary Force with overall responsibility for the Gallipoli campaign. He allowed the ANZAC forces, led by British Army officer lieutenant-general William Birdwood, , to have free reign over how and exactly where they would make their landings. To make his decision, Birdwood made use of much cutting edge technology to give himself a better sense of what he was getting his men into. Amongst the hundreds of ships on duty was HMS Ark Royal, the world’s first aircraft carrier.
Fragile planes could be launched from her decks and were used for extensive reconnaissance flights over the peninsula. Here’s an aerial photo of Gaba Tepe
Below is a mosaiced image of Anzac Cover from October 1915.
In the weeks leading up to the landings, flights over the Ottoman-held territory allowed ANZAC intelligence officers, Maj Charles Villiers-Stuart in particular, to observe and, importantly, map enemy positions. What he found in the hills above Z Beach was sobering. Enemy trenches, very large guns, and, worst of all, thousands of Ottomans, mainly Turks. His observations were transferred to maps, a portion of which is shown below with indications of the enemy positions.
From these Villiers-Stuart constructed a plaster 3D model of the beach and the surrounding hills. It’s apparent from these maps and photos that the ANZACs had a fairly good idea of what they were heading in to.
It became clear that the original landing site nominated by the British was on a nice flat beach, which, based on the reconnaissance, also happened to be the site of a camp of some 8,000 Ottoman soldiers. Birdwood and his staff made some big decisions. Using Villiers-Stuart’s intelligence, the landing beach was shifted to the north, on either side of a yet smaller cape, Ari Brunu. This was an area that was less well guarded by Turkish guns but had much more difficult terrain to deal with. Next, the decision was made to land troops on the beach in between the setting of the moon and the rising of the sun, under the cover of darkness, and before dawn.
At the same time, the British were making their own decisions about how and when to make their landings. As the landing date approached, troop ships anchored in the harbour at Lemnos Island began their preparations.
ANZAC soldiers spent their days practicing disembarking from the ships down rope ladders with full combat gear, as quietly as they possibly could until the orders were given for three ships full of the troops to steam for the peninsula and anchor off of Z Beach. HMS London, Prince of Wales, and Queen, full of ANZAC troops, prepared for the landings.
The landings were originally scheduled for the 23nd of April, but two days of bad weather pushed the date back to the 25th, anxiously cutting down the time of full darkness between moonset and sunrise. Silently, the troops began disembarking their ships, climbing down rope ladders and into their rowboats around 4.00 in the morning. The decks were covered in carpet to silence their movements. Here’s an image of the landing summary from HMS Queen for the 25th of April:
There were to be several waves, with small steam boats towing flotillas of rowboats in towards shore. At a close enough distance, the steam ships were to cast the rowboats free and the boys were left to row ashore under their own power. The key to Birdwood’s plan was hitting the beach under cover of darkness. The first waves came ashore silently and largely bloodlessly. It wasn’t until day began to break that the Turks noticed that something was up, and opened fire on the beach. This is what they found when finally ashore (this picture is from this north side of Ari Burnu, around the corner from Anzac Cove):
In the background, that peak at left came to be known as the Sphinx, reminiscent of their time in Egypt. Here’s another view looking down towards the beach from the heights.
This was the kind of terrain they had to deal with to get to the tops – it often reminds me of some of the terrain around Banks Peninsula, steep and incised like this. Importantly, the Ottomans held the high ground, a very significant advantage as the ANZACs tried to move up onto the high ground. The first waves were primarily Australian soldiers and the beach was quickly secured so that the later troops could come ashore with relative ease.
The first Kiwis hit the beach sometime shortly after dawn – below is a picture of those first New Zealand troops coming ashore, taken by private Joseph McBride (later the principal at Papanui High):
With the majority of the ANZAC forces on shore, they immediately headed up the ridges in an attempt to quickly gain the high ground – and they went straight into chaos. Birdwood recognised that they were in a dangerous position and recommended an immediate evacuation. Sir Ian Hamilton’s famous reply was, “You have got through the difficult business, now you only have to dig, dig, dig until you are safe.” And since then, Australians have been referred to as “Diggers”. Within a few days, Anzac Cove became a bustling though uncomfortable settlement.
It’s been difficult to pin down how many of the ANZACs were killed during the landing on the morning of the 25th, but in any case, the numbers were far, far less than at Cape Helles to the south.
The British took a very different approach to their landings. Theirs were preceded by a pounding from British warships at dawn, followed by their troops landing in broad daylight. The difference between the two outcomes is stark. And bloody.
The bombardment on Cape Helles gave the Turks a pretty good indication that an invasion was imminent. To land their troops at V Beach, the British took an unusual approach. The SS River Clyde, a converted collier ship with 2,000 men aboard, was intentionally grounded on the rocks just below one of the key forts guarding the entrance of the Dardanelles, Sedd al Bahr. The Turks were prepared and expecting the landing – the British and French were sitting ducks and had little or no protection. Those flying out of the RIver Clyde were met with a hail of Ottoman bullets; many, many died, in the water, on tenders, and on the bow of the River Clyde. Reports from observer planes overhead reported that the sea literally ran red with British blood. (Warning – the picture below is quite graphic.)
Note the troops sheltering on the shore (just to the left of image center), underneath the fort. Those that managed to make it ashore found precious little cover behind a bank roughly 1.5 m high and waited out the rest of the day.
Below is an image of the grounded River Clyde several days after the landing:
Of the 700 men in the initial landing force, 300 were killed and most of the remaining were injured. The remainder of the troops on board the River Clyde waited until darkness to attempt another landing. The other beaches fared better but all are a stark contrast to the Z Beach experience.
The story we’re typically told about the landings at what came to be know as Anzac Cove may not be quite the whole story. According to Dolan, the ANZACs had a pretty good idea of what they were up against, and shifted their landing beach to a more protected one. Use of aerial reconnaissance and mapping allowed them a well-rounded notion of what they were up against. What everyone seemed to underestimate was the tenacity of the Ottoman forces and the skill of Mustafa Kemal, the field commander later to be known as Ataturk (father of the Turks) and later still, the first president of the newly secular Republic of Turkey. They are his words which ring loudly in our ears and are carved into the Gallipoli Memorial in Wellington.
In the great scheme of World War 1, Gallipoli was a minor campaign. But its impact on Australia and New Zealand and their burgeoning sense of self cannot be underestimated. The Ottoman Empire was no “sick man of Europe“. This was a formidable opponent ready to sacrifice all to protect their land. When the Allied forces were evacuated nine months later, it was seen as a great victory for the Turks. Gallipoli can and probably should also been seen as the birth of the modern Turkish state. The rise of Mustafa Kemal after the war and his role in secularising the state made Turkey what it is today.
What I was wanting to achieve with this post is an alternative view of the Gallipoli landings, and how the ANZACs used technology and mapping to give themselves an advantage. An independent approach to getting men onshore resulted in a near bloodless landing; what we’ve been told was a failure could, and perhaps should, be viewed as a success, sullied only by what followed. The campaign was an unmitigated disaster for all who set foot on the peninsula. As shown in the first map above, the territory controlled by the Allied forces was never substantially increased – the campaign was a failure and sent Winston Churchill into the political wilderness until the late ’30s. From here, the ANZACs that remained went off to the Western Front and those place names that are commonly carved in cenotaphs all over New Zealand: The Somme, Passchendaele, Le Quesnoy, Mesopotamia, to name a few. Per capita, New Zealand had the highest casualty rates of the Allied forces. And all for what?
A parting note – growing up I never really knew anything about World War 1, let alone Gallipoli. As a teenager, my first exposure was the Peter Weir film of the same name, which actually had quite an influence on me. It wasn’t until I came to New Zealand that I really had any appreciation of the events. My thinking about the war has changed much in recent times. I increasingly see it as really a clash of empires, as an attempt to hold on to or increase territory with little regard for the impacts on soldiers and their families or even any higher principles. The empires involved seemed to be eying up the dissolving Ottoman Empire and how it could be carved up amongst the victors. From the vast expanse of their once extensive empire, the Ottoman Empire winked out of existence and horrifically morphed into the country of Turkey, leaving a swirling vacuum in its wake.
I’d venture to say that the ripples from World War 1 are still being felt today. Arguably, the uneasy “peace” that followed the end of the war festered away and resurfaced as World War 2. A strong argument could also be made that much of the turmoil we are dealing with in the Middle East today stems directly from the machinations at the end of World War 1 (See here for an excellent tour of the history of the Middle East in maps. Also see Fromkin, D., 2009, A Peace to End All Peace), but maybe that’s best left to another post. Culturally, a new awareness of the brutality of the battlefield meant that war was no longer seen to be such a great adventure. Poets like Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and of course Rupert Brooke, set the tone for young men’s expectations of what lay in store for them.
I’ve argued that spatial thinking played a major role in the successful ANZAC landings on the Gallipoli Peninsula (as it often does with military operations) and was an essential ingredient in its success. The use of aerial photos and maps provided crucial intelligence that minimised the loss of life of a risky operation. It’s a great example of good decision making informed by spatial information and a judicious use of existing technology. As Anzac Day edges closer, I hope this casts a slightly different view on the events of that morning. Come Saturday, we’ll bow our heads in silence, vowing never to forget, but if history is any guide at all, that won’t be enough.