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, 10 March 2015

Landing Under Fire

Even after the costly losses on the 18th of March when Admiral de Robeck’s task force failed to pass through the Dardanelles, it was still firmly believed that Constantinople could be taken from the sea.  The overall idea hadn’t changed- British and French ships would besiege the ancient city, forcing its surrender.  It was getting there which was proving problematic.  Ships of the line could push through the channel with enough speed such that the Turkish guns situated on the high ground on both sides wouldn’t be too bothersome.  It was the mines, laid in the hundreds, which were the real problem.  Mine sweeping is delicate and precise work, requiring the trawlers- mostly privately owned and crewed by civilians- whose task it was to clear a path to do so with great care and thus sacrificing speed for thoroughness.  This, in turn, placed them at the mercy of the Turkish gunners, working from mobile pieces or well-fortified emplacements on the slopes reversing from the channel side; both equally difficult to hit from the
covering ships down below.  A conundrum faced de Robeck.  To get his ships through, the mines must be cleared, to clear the mines, the guns must be taken out; and his ships simply could not reach the Turkish guns.  Overall, the hope had been to restrict actions in the area to the Navy alone, but it was becoming more apparent that troops would be required to land and take the positions along the peninsula by force. 

Success or failure here would go towards a resolution to the debate which had consumed the attention of military planners and political minds.  Since the establishment of strong trench lines on the Western Front, two opposing points of view on how to proceed had developed.  Sir Richard Holmes puts it succinctly that there “Were those ‘easterners’ who, in Kitchener’s words, were inclined to regard the Western Front a ‘a fortress which cannot be taken by assault,’ and to look elsewhere for a decision….On the other side of the debate were those who argued that there was no alternative to the Western Front.”[1]  Much more than philosophical, attempting a resolution in either the wet or the east would dictate where valuable and scarce resources; most critically in manpower and munitions, would be allocated.  Precisely because they were scarce meant that a full effort in both areas couldn’t be done concurrently.  At the centre of this was the 29th Infantry Division.

In February of 1915 “it was still in England, not committed to any theatre of operations, and therefore available.”[2] Formed in Warwickshire between January and March 1915, of units recalled to England from foreign garrisons, the 29th was the last division in the British order of battle composed of mostly regular army battalions.[3]  Such as that was, “after six months of war a division that was both intact and made up of experienced professional soldiers”[4] made it a highly coveted asset.  Field Marshall Sir John French, in command of British forces in France and Belgium wanted it to be placed under his command in the hopes it would be able to add to a general offensive.  Admiral Jackie Fisher, in command of the Royal Navy had posited that the 29th could be used to make a landing against Germany via the Baltic. There was little end to where this division might be sent; but outside of French, other plans for the 29th were based upon the supposition that territorial and colonial units should be adequate to the task of holding an established line in Europe; that the 29th could be more useful applying their expertise in more dynamic operations.  The division departed England for Alexandria, Egypt in mid-March; ostensibly to be used in a prospective campaign in Salonika.  It would form the core of a combined command to be known as the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force which would include the Australian Imperial Force, the New Zealand Expeditionary Force; which would be formed into one corps to be known as the “Australia New Zealand Army Corps” (ANZAC) and the French Corps Expeditionnair d’Orient.[5] All told, the MEF had 75,000 men and was placed on the 12 of March under the command of General Sir Ian Hamilton.[6]

Ten days after his appointment, Hamilton met with de Robeck about the situation in the Dardanelles.  Both agreed that the naval advance could not be resumed “without the assistance of strong landing parties.”[7]  Historian Liddell Hart notes that not only the Naval actions had put Turkey on high alert; their abrupt cessation and a complete disregard for operational secrecy made clear the intention of the British to begin a ground campaign[8]. Alarmed at the disposition of Turkish forces in the face of such obvious intentions, the commander of the German Military Mission, an attaché to the Turkish government, General Liman von Sanders lobbied for the ability to control efforts in the threatened area.  He was given an independent command of six divisions.  All he required, was enough time to place them and make the area defensible, and estimated that given eight days, he could have everything in place.  In the event, von Sanders had nearly four weeks, which “was just sufficient to complete the most indispensable arrangements.”[9] The Turkish divisions were distributed to points of prospective attack, and unfortunately not concentrated at the places the British intended to put ashore.  General von Sanders had done the best with what he had to hand; there was no way to cover all possible approaches with overwhelming numbers, so he held back one division in a central location in the upper peninsula as a general reserve and spent a great deal of time making improvements on the road system.  Under the command of an officer who, though capable had been sidelined because of his political opposition to the current government of Turkey, Lt Col Mustapha Kemal, this division would be able to provide support to the most threatened area once the British attack developed.[10]

With 84,000 men, von Sanders’ force had a slight numerical advantage, but his uncertainty in placing them dissipated this.  On balance, the MEF didn’t have ample time to plan what is one of the most complex types of operations.  Seaborne assaults require an immense amount of coordination between services and intricate tactical and logistical arrangements.  The troops would be required to secure a beachhead for subsequent landings, and then, when in enough numbers, move up steep and rocky defiles to engage the defenders.  Odds were massively stacked against them.  Hamilton had planned to land the 29th Division on four beaches, “Y”, “X”, “W” and “S” around the southern tip of the upper peninsula at Cape Helles and Sedd El Bahr, the ANZAS would land at “Z” beach, on the northern side, with the Royal Naval Division and the French forces making feint landings in other locations.  “In retrospect,” says Sir John Keegan, “it is possible to see that Hamilton’s plan could not work, nor could any other have done with the size of the force available to him.”[11]  Keegan allows for the possibility of success at Gallipoli, providing a much larger allotment of troops had been made available; while conceding that such numbers did not exist, and most of all that a “large commitment of troops was, in any case, outside the spirit of the enterprise, which was designed to achieve large results without dissipating the force engaged on the Western Front.”[12] Nevertheless, the operation would be the largest military landing in history to that point.[13] Taking Hamilton’s 75,000 men into action were “two hundred transport ships…accompanied by eighteen battleships, a dozen cruisers, twenty-nine destroyers and eight submarines.”[14] Where they were going to land by and large were in places that von Sanders hadn’t adequately prepared.  Despite Keegan’s hindsight, it could have been possible for things to have turned out more in favour for the British than they did.

Part of the problem was that Hamilton had to act quickly, and this expedience had a dreadful effect. The other was due to the ground itself. “The geography of the region and the limited size of supporting forces available prevented the Allied troops from advancing beyond those positions they originally commanded.[15] Most of the beaches, unprepared and under defended were taken quite easily, and the heights made with little effort and light casualties. “At first in the dim light nothing could be seen but the great wall of the bluffs close on to 200 feet high. …the apparently vertical cliffs modified into steep slopes or red clay, thickly covered with scrub.”[16] Lack of clear and contingent instruction, of a comprehensive coordinated effort, and an  absence of initiative on the part of commanders in areas where landings had been successful meant that there was no forward thinking beyond just getting ashore.  Which also meant that some units would remain idle when perhaps they could have been best used to support others who weren’t experiencing the same level of success.  Nowhere was this more evident than at “V” Beach, where a daring plan to get men inland had not worked well at all.

An old collier, the River Clyde had been repurposed into a latter-day Trojan
Horse.  V Beach was to be brought under a tremendous Naval bombardment, allowing the River Clyde to approach, deliberately run aground and have men
rush ashore through sally ports cut into the bow, over a makeshift bridge of two lighters, all the while covered by machine-gun fire from posts on the ships forecastle.  There were very few Turkish forces present, well entrenched though shaken by the heavy gunfire from the British ships; the bombardment had turned out to be more sound and fury than actually effective.  The beach at Cape Helles formed a natural crescent which puts to mind most descriptions of an amphitheatre, with beach as stage and the heights above the gallery.  It is naturally a difficult place to attempt to make a landing, as the entire beach could be (and was prepared for such) brought under intense fire from the Turkish “audience.”  “The River Clyde could hold about 2,100 troops together with the necessary crew, and she had eight machine guns mounted on her decks. The barges which would form the gangway to shore were to be towed alongside the vessel, and with the impetus of the ship under way, were to shoot forward when the vessel was beached and then manoeuvre into position so that the troops could run along them to shore and so land quickly, form up, and develop the attack.”[17]

First to disembark was to be the First Battalion, Royal Munster Fusiliers, a regular army unit from recruiting districts in Ireland.  Things had not gone to design at all.  The River Clyde had grounded further out than had been hoped, the two lighters which had come forward were struggled into position to provide the bridge point, their crews under intense fire from above the whole time.  By the time all was set for the Munsters to go, the entire landing area was enfiladed by machine gun and light artillery, the men were cut down, almost before they could move from ship to shore.  The slaughter was appalling, wounded and dead were now blocking the gangways, making egress of the still fit difficult. One of the lighters broke its mooring, stranding men trying to move forward, and allowing the Turks to pick them off as they stood helpless.  Others jumped clear of the bridge but were weighed down by equipment and drowned, or caught up in barbed wire which had been laid in the shallow edges, and shot down there.  In the midst of this, a sailor named Williams jumped into the water from the lighter he was crewing.  “When he had first volunteered to join the specially selected crew he had been told by Commander Unwin that he was full up and that he ‘did not want any more petty officers’. Williams had protested, offering to give up his rate if it would ensure his inclusion with the salty retort, ’I’ll chuck my hook if you’ll let me come.’ Unwin commented many years later, ‘I did, to his cost but everlasting glory.’”[18]  So, as of that morning, now Able Seaman Williams was in water to his chest, wresting the tow line of the lighter so that it would come about to be close to a spit of land from where the men could make ground.  The line wasn’t long enough to be brought in and tied off, so Williams stood, exposed to fire, holding fast his line for an hour, allowing the soldiers to pass to the beach.  He might have stayed longer had he not been terribly wounded by
shellfire, from which injuries he would shortly die.  William Charles Williams would be awarded the Victoria Cross, the first ever to be posthumous award for naval personnel, and one of six merited to the River Clyde for the landing at V Beach, Cape Helles, 25 April 1915.[19]  The Munsters would lose seventy percent of their effective strength in the landing, and it became necessary to hold off putting men ashore until dark, when at last the wounded and dead could be moved off and the remaining thousand men aboard the River Clyde could move onto the beach.

Thus started the first day of a campaign which would last a further eight months, and fail to accomplish what it had been set to do.    

[1] Holmes, Richard, “The Western Front” BBC Books, 1999 pg. 58
[2] Meyer, G.J. “A World Undone”: The Story of the Great War 1914-1918, Delta Books, 2006, pg. 265
[3] 1914-1918.net
[4] Meyer, G.J., ibid. pg. 266
[5] Firstworldwar.cam
[6] Greatwar.co.uk
[7] Keegan, John “The First World War” Vintage Canada Edition, 2000, pg. 239
[8] Liddell Hart, Basil “History of the First World War” Pan Books, 1972, pg. 70
[9] Liddell Hart, Basil, ibid. pg. 172
[10] Liddell Hart, Basil, ibid.
[11] Keegan, John, ibid. pg. 241
[12] Keegan, John, ibid.
[13] Smithsonplanning.au; “Monumental Moments”-from “Cobbers-Stories of Gallipoli 1915” by Jim Haynes, ABC Books pg. 3
[14] Meyer, G.J., ibid. pg. 307
[15] Jim Haynes, ibid. pg. 4
[16] Gillon, Stair, Captain, “The Story of the 29th Division: A Record of Gallant Deeds” Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd. 1925, pg. 19
[17] O’Sullivan, James  http://www.worldwar1.com/sfclyde.htm 
[18] http://ww2talk.com
[19] http://ww2talk.com

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