Dardanelles Fleet

The Irish at Gallipoli (Episode 1: Background)

In this series of podcasts we will examine the part played by the Irish during the Gallipoli campaign, looking in particular at the landing on 25 April, the advance to Krithia between April and July, the August offensive, both at Anzac Cove, when Anzacs and Irishmen fought literally shoulder to shoulder, and at Suvla Bay, and finally the evacuation. In this first episode I will give an overview of the origins of the Gallipoli campaign and the events leading up to the landing.

Dr Jeff Kildea

The Irish at Gallipoli is a six-part podcast series recorded by Dr Jeff Kildea who was Keith Cameron Chair of Australian History at University College Dublin in 2014. Dr Kildea was also the Chief Investigator on the Irish Anzacs Project which has made available to researchers and the public a database of the approximately 6500 Irish-born members of the Australian Imperial Force who served in the First World War. The Irish Anzacs Project was made possible through the generous support of the Global Irish Studies Centre of the University of New South Wales; the invaluable partnership of UCD; and a grant from the Irish government’s Emigrant Support Programme. Click here to access the database.

Episode 1 – Background

The Gallipoli campaign in which thousands of Irishmen fought and died is largely unknown in Ireland. By contrast, in Australia and New Zealand the anniversary of the landing at Gallipoli in Turkey on 25 April 1915 is the focus of national commemorations for those who died in the First World War and all wars and civil conflicts since. Conceived as a naval operation to force a way through the Dardanelles to relieve pressure on Russia and to break the stalemate on the Western Front, the eight-month military campaign ended in defeat, claiming the lives of more than 50 000 soldiers on the Allied side and many more on the Turkish side. This first episode provides an overview of the origins of the Gallipoli campaign and the events leading up to the landing.


Transcript

In 1916 Michael MacDonagh wrote a book called The Irish at the Front, in which he declared “Gallipoli will ever be to the Irish race a place of glorious pride and sorrow”. Alas, MacDonagh’s bold prediction has not come to pass and the Gallipoli campaign of 1915 and the part played by the Irish in it has largely faded from public memory in Ireland. This is in stark contrast to the manner in which in my own country, Australia, and also in New Zealand, Gallipoli continues to resonate down the generations.

Each year on 25 April, the anniversary of the beginning of the military phase of the Gallipoli campaign, tens of thousands of Australians and New Zealanders turn out in cities, towns and suburbs to attend commemoration services and to march, or watch others march, in honour of those who fell in that campaign and in all wars since in which their countries have participated.

In Ireland, especially the 26 counties, the Gallipoli campaign is largely unknown and, except for commemorations organised by Australians and New Zealanders living in Dublin, the anniversary of the landing at Gallipoli passes almost unmarked in Ireland, notwithstanding that about the same number of Irishmen as New Zealanders died there. For, although the Irish were as gallant in battle as the Australians and New Zealanders, who came to be known as the Anzacs, the sacrifice of the Irish at Gallipoli in the Empire’s cause was often portrayed at home as a betrayal of the Irish nation and its struggle for independence. In the words of the nationalist song The Foggy Dew, which commemorates those who died in the Easter Rising: ‘Twas better to die ’neath an Irish sky than at Suvla or Sedd-el-Bahr’.

In recent years, and in particular during this decade of commemorations, the Irish people have begun to rediscover the First World War, a war in which a grandfather or a great-uncle may have served and, in some cases, not returned. Although most of the fighting in which the Irish were engaged occurred in the trenches of the Western Front, for eight months in 1915 the allies attempted to break the stalemate that had set in there by launching an attack on one of Germany’s allies Turkey, by landing at Gallipoli a large invasion force that included thousands of Irishmen.

In this series of podcasts we will examine the part played by the Irish during the Gallipoli campaign, looking in particular at the landing on 25 April, the advance to Krithia between April and July, the August offensive, both at Anzac Cove, when Anzacs and Irishmen fought literally shoulder to shoulder, and at Suvla Bay, and finally the evacuation. In this first episode I will give an overview of the origins of the Gallipoli campaign and the events leading up to the landing.

Origins

Following Turkey’s entry into the war on the German side in October 1914, some on the British War Council had suggested an attack on Turkey as a means of breaking the stalemate which had come over the Western Front and of assisting Russia.

Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty, put forward a proposal to force the Dardanelles, the narrow waterway that connects the Mediterranean with the Sea of Marmara. From there another narrow waterway, the Bosphorus, leads past Constantinople (now Istanbul) to the Black Sea and Russia. This sea-route had been closed on Turkey’s entry into the war. The aim of the plan was to enable a fleet to pass through the Dardanelles to the Sea of Marmara and stand off Constantinople to intimidate and, if necessary, to bombard the Turks into surrender.

Success would re-open this all-year sea route enabling the Allies to send supplies to Russia and the Russians to ship wheat to the Allies. In addition, Churchill reasoned that the neutral Balkan states (Greece, Romania, and Bulgaria) would be inclined to join the Allies if Turkey were defeated.

Apart from these military considerations, ever present in the background was the long-held imperial ambition of each of Britain, France and Russia to carve out for themselves a slice of the Ottoman Empire once Turkey had been defeated. As we now know Britain’s and France’s ambitions in this regard were met in accordance with the Sykes-Picot Agreement concluded between the two nations in May 1916 with the assent of Russia.

Initially the Dardanelles campaign was conceived as a joint naval and military operation. To overcome the objection of Secretary of State for War Lord Kitchener that British troops could not be spared from the Western Front, Churchill’s plan involved the use of Greek troops. However, while the Greek government was then pro-British, King Constantine, who was married to the Kaiser’s sister, was opposed to the proposal and Greece declined to participate.

The idea therefore languished until early January 1915, when Grand Duke Nicholas, supreme commander of the Russian forces and a cousin of the Czar, appealed to Britain for a military demonstration to draw away the Turkish troops who were attacking his armies in the Caucasus.

While Kitchener rejected the use of troops, he left open the possibility of a naval operation. Consequently, Churchill requested Vice-Admiral Sackville Carden, commanding the British East Mediterranean Squadron and a scion of an Anglo-Irish family from Tipperary, to prepare a plan for a naval operation against the Dardanelles. Carden came up with a plan to use battleships to knock out the forts and mobile batteries which guarded the Dardanelles and trawlers to clear away the mines which the Turks had laid in the waterway.

Within a short time the idea of attacking the Dardanelles, which had been developed to relieve pressure on the Russians, assumed a life of its own, for the Russians were able to defeat the Turks in the Caucasus without Allied help.

The idea continued to attract support because there were those in the War Council who believed the stalemate on the Western Front could best be broken by a successful campaign in the east. They were called “easterners” and included Winston Churchill and David Lloyd George.

On 28 January 1915 the War Council formally adopted Churchill’s proposal for a naval attack on the Dardanelles, while two weeks later a decision was made to send to the Greek island of Lemnos a military force, including a brigade of Australians who were then training in Egypt, to prepare for a possible landing on the Gallipoli peninsula in support of the naval operation.

The naval operation

The Dardanelles is about 2 miles wide at its mouth widening to 4 miles at Eren Kuei Bay before narrowing to just over 1 mile near Canakkale at what is called the Narrows and which is overlooked by the Kilid Bahr plateau.

Forts lined both sides of the strait leading up to and just beyond the Narrows with ten minefields laid across the strait. The location of the minefields was known to the British. However, an 11th line of mines parallel to the strait was laid in secret after the naval operation began. It would have a devastating effect on its outcome.

The naval bombardment of the forts began on 19 February 1915. A few months earlier, on 3 November 1914 (two days before Britain and France formally declared war on Turkey), British and French ships had fired on the forts at the mouth of the strait, achieving some success by detonating the magazine at Sedd-el-Bahr fort at Cape Helles, thus inspiring confidence in the efficacy of a naval attack. However, in the main round the navy had only limited success.

While a few forts were knocked out (some with the assistance of marines who had been landed on shore), others remained operational. Forewarned by the attack in November, the Turks had spent the intervening period strengthening their defences, so that, despite losing some forts, the remaining forts and the elusive Turkish mobile field batteries continued to prevent the minesweepers from clearing a path through the mines.

By mid-March it was decided that the navy should make an all-out attempt to force the Dardanelles. By then Admiral Carden had been relieved from command due to illness and replaced by fellow Irishman Admiral John de Robeck. The date chosen was 18 March. It proved disastrous for the Allies and provided a great victory for Turkey. Not only did the Anglo-French fleet fail to knock out the forts and clear the mines, three battle ships were sunk by Turkish guns and mines and three others badly damaged in the attempt. Hundreds of sailors were killed. Unbeknown to the Allies, the 11th minefield had been laid on the night of 8 March in Eren Kuei Bay which the Allied ships used for turning. At least two of the battleships struck those mines causing alarm and confusion. In an afternoon the Allies lost more than a third of their strength.

Instead of cancelling the campaign, given the failure of the naval operation and the Russian victories in the Caucasus, it was decided to press on with a military attack on the peninsula to knock out the forts from the landward side.

The military plan

The man appointed to command the expedition was Sir Ian Hamilton, a 62-year old veteran of numerous campaigns in Afghanistan, South Africa and Egypt. At his command was a force of some 75 000 soldiers comprising:

  • two divisions of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, whose initials ANZAC have now become the word “Anzac” used to describe Australian and New Zealand soldiers of the First World War;
  • the British 29th Division, comprising regular soldiers recalled from the far reaches of the Empire, including three Irish battalions: the 1st Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers and the 1st Battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers both recalled from India and the 1st Battalion Royal Munster Fusiliers recalled from Burma;
  • the 1st Division of the French Corps Expéditionnaire d’Orient, a mixture of French and French Africn colonial troops; and
  • the Royal Naval Division, a military formation made up of naval personnel surplus to the requirements of the Royal Navy.

In late April 1915 Hamilton’s forces began to assemble in Mudros Harbour on the island of Lemnos awaiting the order to launch the invasion.

In the next episode we will look at the landing at Gallipoli on 25 April and the Turkish resistance to it.

Image: Dardanelles Fleet by British Navy photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons