Even in a conflict characterized by poor strategic leadership, the Gallipoli Campaign of 1915 was one of the more shamefully chaotic episodes of World War I. Turkey had entered the war as Germany’s ally, prompting Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, to formulate a plan to attack the Dardanelles, the narrow straits in Turkey controlling maritime access to Constantinople (Istanbul) and the Black Sea. Churchill hoped that opening another theatre of war would relieve the stalemate on Europe’s Western Front.
When an Allied naval operation in the area proved inconclusive, plans were hastily drawn up for a supporting military campaign involving landings on the Gallipoli Peninsula. The campaign depended for any chance of success on the element of surprise, but in the event the Turks had long since been tipped off and knew about an imminent assault. Moreover, the determined resistance they put up was a factor consistently underestimated by the Allied commanders.
The landings began on April 25 1915. Of the three separate beachheads attempted, one comprised a force of 16,000 soldiers from Australia and New Zealand – the Anzacs: volunteers, mostly, who had signed up with patriotic fervor at the outbreak of war to help defend the mother country but whose long sea passage to Europe had been diverted by Churchill. Their dawn landing in a small bay flanked by steep cliffs was met with ferocious shelling from the Turkish gun emplacements above; by nightfall over 2,000 Anzacs lay dead.
The initial landings having been repulsed, the Allied forces had no choice but to dig in for a sustained campaign. They failed, however, to establish any effective foothold on the peninsula, and after a second seaborne assault in August failed, the order was sent from London for a wholesale evacuation of Gallipoli in December 1915 and January 1916.
When: April 1915 to January 1916
Where: Gallipoli Peninsula, Turkey
Death toll: More than 60,000 Allied troops died in Gallipoli, with an estimated 120,000 wounded. Of these deaths, over 11,000 were Anzacs – over half the contingent that had sailed from Australia. The Turks lost 66,000 men and 140,000 were wounded.
You should know: The battle for Gallipoli has been elevated in Australian history to the status of a national legend and a decisive factor in shaping Australian identity. Anzac Day on April 25 is a public holiday in Australia and New Zealand, marked each year with parades and commemorations.