If Ye Break Faith

This blog is dedicated to the promotion of educating about the Canadian experience of World War One. To discover who we are as a nation in the 21st Century, we must understand our past.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

I Order You To Die

It can become incredibly easy, when gifted with all the information hindsight allows to be too critical of past events.  The writing of this short series on Gallipoli has given me pause for thought as to whether or not the course of action taken was correct, considering the outcome.  In studying these events, I have information on their progression and depths of situational intelligence (enemy dispositions, terrain) that the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force’s commander,
General Hamilton would not have at his disposal.  Finding it incredibly difficult to give an objective opinion on if the ground campaign should have taken place, I consulted someone with no knowledge of this history.  Presented with only the bare facts of the situation as Hamilton would have had, and given the choice of making an effort to land troops or not, the answer was equivocally positive- troops must go ashore.  There are 75,000 to do the job, and all they have to do is make landfall and press on to objectives five miles or so inland.  From that, it is remarkably clear that General Hamilton made the best decision he could have at the time.  Rather good that he did, as his plans for multiple landings on the peninsula and the way his German counterpart, General Liman von Sanders, commanding the Turkish forces defending Gallipoli had positioned his divisions would inadvertently put into collision a colonial force whose performance in war would help to create a national identity, and a Turkish regiment under the command of a dynamic officer who would be instrumental in reshaping and modernising his country.

General Hamilton had it in mind that the landings to be made by the 29th Division around Cape Helles would be the main effort in opening the ground campaign.  To confound the Turkish forces defending the area, the French units and the Royal Naval Division under Hamilton’s command were to make feinted landings far removed from the 29th’s beaches.  Directly supporting the actions at Cape Helles, the Anzac portion of the MEF were to put ashore at a midpoint on the peninsula, designated Z Beach.  Scheduled to land moments before the Cape Helles embarkations, this covering force had as its objective the high features of successive ridge lines a few miles inland from the beach.  “The Anzacs, the biggest part of the Allied force, were to be taken up Gallipoli’s Aegean coast….Their destination was a promisingly easy-looking beach leading to flat terrain at a point called Gaba Tepe.”[1] This would give them a dominant position over inland roads, allowing the Anzacs “to cut off Turkish reinforcements heading south towards the main British landings at Helles.”[2]

0415 hrs., 25 April 1915, 3rd Brigade 1st Australian Division came ashore not at Z Beach, but due to tidal current at a point 1.6 km north of the indented location,[3] which would become known as Anzac Cove.  This mistake may well have been fortuitous, as even though 3rd Bde would suffer heavy casualties on landing at Anzac Cove, it is speculated that the defences at Z Beach may have made landing there more costly.  As it was, once ashore at the wrong place, further actions would have to be improvised so that the day’s objectives could be met.  “Instead of the flat and easy ground that supposedly lay beyond Gaba Tepe, they found themselves having to clamber up into steep craggy hills and rock-lined ravines in the face of gunfire from Turkish riflemen concealed in the nearby hills.”[4] Despite the setbacks, the 3rd Bde fought forward to gain the heights along Chunuk Bair and Sari Bair.  Within the first few hours of making landfall, the Divisional War Diary notes “Bde considerably mixed but roughly in order 9, 10, 12, 11 (Battalions) from right.”[5]  At 0700, the battalions reorganised to “push on” and within the hour had repulsed a Turkish counter-attack.  Even in the face of fairly heavy casualties, the Australians had managed to overcome a difficult start and their own inexperience so that by late morning, the outlook of the operation was projecting success.   Limits, however, had been reached “Unaware of this numerical advantage, Lieutenant-Colonel Ewen Sinclair-Maclagan, commander of the 3rd Australian Brigade, makes a crucial tactical decision at 400 Plateau: he persuades Colonel James McCay (2nd Australian Brigade), to reinforce his right flank rather than head up Hill 971 as originally ordered. Sinclair-Maclagan then orders his men to dig in at 400 Plateau rather than advance further. These decisions would be subsequently criticised as tactical errors.”[6]

Lt Colonel Mustafa Kemal, the officer commanding the 57th Turkish Infantry
Regiment Sanders had placed in a central location to provide a responsive reserve force made his decision to move his men towards the Anzac landings.  Kemal, at the front of a battalion he was driving hard to push in a counter-attack gave his men the now famous inspiration “I don’t order you to attack,” he said, “I order you to die.”[7]  Outnumbered and with remaining forces still en route, the 57th pressed forward into the broken scrub of the ground just taken by the Australians.  In what was described as “heavy and close” fighting, - at points hand-to-hand and with bayonet- Kemal’s daring shook the invaders loose.  At 1600 hrs. Turkish forces had once again secured the high ground.  There would be no opportunity to put any more men on the beach, “By the afternoon of 25 April, the beach was crowded with the wounded from the ferocious actions being fought out along the ridges. That day an estimated 2,000 wounded passed through the cove, while others lay out on the battlefield awaiting evacuation.”[8]

In the first twelve hours, some 12,000 Anzacs had come ashore; “they…had formed a beachhead, albeit much smaller than intended. In places they were clinging onto cliff faces with no organised defence system. Their precarious position convinced both divisional commanders to ask for an evacuation, but after taking advice from the Royal Navy about how practicable that would be, the army commander decided they would stay. The exact number of the day's casualties is not known. The ANZACs had landed two divisions but over two thousand of their men had been killed or wounded, together with at least a similar number of Turkish casualties.”[9]   Those still fit for duty were short on ammunition and exhausted from the day’s efforts.  As night fell, the Australians were ordered to dig in on what ground they still held.  “The Australians and New Zealanders remained crowded into, and unable to break out of the wretched toehold.”[10]

Hindsight, once again, makes it far too easy to assign an evaluation of history.  Dan Snow, a BBC presenter on military history diminished the accomplishments of the Anzacs at Gallipoli by reminding the present observer that their contribution to the campaign was peripheral.  “Far more British soldiers fought on the Gallipoli peninsula than Australians and New Zealanders put together. The UK lost four or five times as many men in the brutal campaign as its imperial Anzac contingents. The French also lost more men than the Australians.”[11]  In response, it can be taken that such things do not always rely on how many of one nation’s forces fought.  For Canadians, Vimy Ridge is a touchstone of national emergence, but would also be seen as a small measure placed in context against British efforts in the Arras campaign, of which Vimy was a diversionary objective.  However, these assessments while not untrue, are a little unfair.  Australia, very much like Canada had wholeheartedly committed itself to the Imperial war effort.  Such as Sir Robert Borden, Canadian Prime Minister had declared his country’s answer to Britain’s call was “Ready, aye, ready”, his Australian colleague, Prime Minister Andre Fisher had responded to the war with the promise that “We shall pledge our last man and last shilling.”[12]

Australia very nearly did.  “Australian casualties for the Gallipoli campaign amounted to 26 111, comprising of 1007 officers and 25 104 other ranks. Of these, 362 officers and 7 779 men were killed in action, died of wounds or succumbed to disease. Nine Victoria Crosses were awarded to soldiers in Australian units.”[13]  Overall, the tiny, worlds-away nation has much to take pride in.  In his book on travelling through Australia in the early 2000’s, American author Bill Bryson provides this insight: “It is a fact little noted outside Australia- and I think worth at least a mention here- that no other nation lost more men as a proportion of population in World War I than Australia.  Out of a national population of under 5 million, Australia suffered a staggering 210,000 casualties- 60,000 dead, 150,000 injured.  The casualty rate for its soldiers was 65 percent.”[14]

[1] Meyer, G.J. “A World Undone”: The Story of the Great War 1914-1918, Delta Books, 2006, pg. 309
[2] Royalmunsterfusiliers.org
[3] Royalmunsterfusiliers.org
[4] Meyer, G.J., ibid. pg. 310
[5] War Diary, 1st Australian Division, 25 April 1915.  Courtesy Australia War Memorial
[10] Meyer, G.J., ibid. pg. 312
[11] Snow, DanViewpoint: 10 big myths about World War One Debunked” BBC.com 25 February, 2014
[12] Firstbattalionassociation1rar.org
[14] Bryson, Bill “In A Sunburned Country”, Anchor Canada (Random House) 2000, pg. 296

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