The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 179th installment in the series.
April 25, 1915: Gallipoli, Armenian Genocide Begins
One of the bloodiest fights of the Great War, the Battle of Gallipoli began with amphibious landings conducted by British, Australian, and New Zealand troops in the face of ferocious Turkish resistance on April 25, 1915. Over the next eight months, as they tried and failed to conquer the peninsula in hopes of capturing the Ottoman capital at Constantinople, the British and colonial troops (later reinforced by French units) would suffer an incredible 252,000 casualties, while the Turks lost a roughly equivalent number. Within these figures, 45,000 Allied troops and 86,000 Turkish troops were killed.
This tragedy, in which the colonial troops of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) suffered disproportionate losses under British command, would become one of the defining moments in the formation of distinct national identities for those Dominions, setting the stage for their eventual independence from the mother country. On the other side Gallipoli played an equally important role in the formation of a new Turkish identity, as ordinary soldiers sacrificed their lives in droves to protect the Turkish homeland; one of the heroes of Gallipoli, Mustafa Kemal, would go on to found the modern Republic of Turkey on the ruins of the old Ottoman Empire, winning the honorific “Atatürk” (“Father of the Turks”) from a reverent Turkish parliament (below, Kemal at Gallipoli).
“We Shall Get a Very Bad Knock”
The disaster at Gallipoli resulted from a series of bad decisions (and indecision) on the part of the British government, including Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, Secretary of War Lord Kitchener, and First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, as well as First Sea Lord Jackie Fisher, the overall commander of the Royal Navy. Beginning in the winter of 1915, the British leaders committed themselves to an ill-conceived plan to force the Turkish straits and capture Constantinople with naval power alone. However when repeated attempts failed at significant cost, instead of throwing in the towel they doubled down, sending a force 70,000 ground troops to mount a multipart amphibious invasion of the Gallipoli peninsula, in order to clear the Turkish coastal defenses on the straits from landward.
The problem was that over two months elapsed between the first naval bombardment on February 19, 1915, and the amphibious invasion on April 25, 1915 – giving the Turks plenty of time to prepare formidable defenses at Gallipoli. They were aided by their German allies, as Otto Liman von Sanders, the head of the pre-war German military mission to Turkey, took command of the Turkish Fifth Army, and German engineers directed the construction of defensive works.
Many Allied officers predicted that the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force under General Sir Ian Hamilton would run into trouble. On April 16 a British officer, Aubrey Herbert, went to lunch with his colleagues at the Allied base on the Greek island of Mudros and later wrote in his diary: “The talk was, of course, about the landing. A friend of mine said: ‘This is a terrible business; entire Staffs will be wiped out.’” Five days later Herbet confided: “The general impression is that we shall get a very bad knock, and that it may well set the war back a year…” In the same vein another British officer, Oswin Creighton, wrote on April 22:
It seems a perfectly desperate undertaking. I can hardly expect to see many of my men alive again. My present feeling is that the whole thing has been bungled. The Navy should never have started the bombardment without the Army. Now there has been no bombardment for some weeks. Meanwhile the Turks, under German direction, have perfected their defences. The aerial reconnaissance reports acres of barbed wire, labyrinths of trenches, concealed guns, maxims and howitzers everywhere. The ground is mined. In fact, every conceivable thing has been done. Our men have to be towed in little open boats to land in the face of all this… Slaughter seems to be inevitable.
This prophecy proved all too accurate.
Blood on the Beach
In the early morning of April 25, 1915, the first wave of around 35,000 British and colonial troops in the 29th Division and ANZAC force marshaled on the decks of their troop transports and then climbed down rope ladders into smaller landing craft that were tied together in long lines, bow to stern.
Beginning at 5am small steamboats towed the lines of landing craft towards a number of landing spots (designated S Beach, V Beach, W Beach, X Beach, and Y Beach) on Cape Hellas at the tip of the Gallipoli peninsula, as well as on the west side of the peninsula at Kabatepe, the intended site of the ANZAC landing. The landing at V Beach also included an armored steamer, the River Clyde, carrying around 2,000 troops who were supposed to exit via pontoon gangways laid on small boats.
Although the Allies succeeded in landing unopposed at Y Beach (where the landing party found itself facing sheer cliffs, and was later withdrawn) the other landings ran into a hail of fire from the Turkish artillery, machine guns, and rifles on shore, and naval bombardment by the Allied fleet proved unable to silence the Turkish defenses as hoped.
In many places the Turks waited until the last minute before opening fire, then laid down a devastating fusillade against the helpless troops, still trapped on the boats and encumbered with heavy packs. Some naval officers in charge of landing the boats reached the beach and turned around to help the troops disembark, only to find everyone already dead. William Ewing, a British medical officer who witnessed the landing at V Beach, recalled:
Not a shot was fired by the enemy until the River Clyde grounded and the tows touched the shore. The shells from the ships had left the defences practically unimpaired, save for the big guns in the forts. A tempest of lead burst from the slopes and trenches, lashing the water round the boats to the whiteness of foam. The sea quickly changed to a more awful hue.
By 9 am, Ewing estimated, “Of the 1000 men who up till now had left the ship about 500 were either killed or wounded.” Meanwhile the boats carrying the ANZAC troops drifted about a mile north of their intended landing spot at Kabatepe, and achieved a landing against sporadic but fierce resistance. An anonymous soldier who took part in the ANZAC landing later wrote in his diary:
Over the sides of the boats dived and rolled those splendid infantrymen, their bayonets already fixed… In sixes and sevens, in tens and twenties, in platoons, in half-companies – just as they tumbled out of the boats – those great-hearted fellows dashed up the beach and into that sickening inferno. They didn’t fire a shot; they didn’t waste a single second. They just flung their heavy packs form their shoulders, bent their heads to the storm, and with every inch of pace at their command they charged the Turkish trenches, some fifty yards distant.
The ANZAC troops managed to push the first Turkish lines back and then pursued them inland, advancing toward their main objective for the day. In fact, if they had succeeded in capturing two key ridges, called Chunuk Bahr and Sari Bahr, they would be in a position to dominate the peninsula and clinch an Allied victory. But now Mustafa Kemal, commanding the 19th Division in reserve on the other side of the peninsula, mounted an immediate counterattack without waiting for orders. Kemal’s orders to his troops were simple, grim, and dramatic: “I am not ordering you to fight, I am ordering you to die. In the time it takes us to die, other troops and commanders can come and take our places.” In desperate fighting, the Turks forced the ANZAC troops back to the shore, where they dug in and held on desperately. The same anonymous ANZAC soldier wrote in his diary:
No man who took part in that retirement will ever forget it. Overhead burst the shells, underfoot the dust rose and the twigs snapped as the unending rain of rifle, machine-gun, and shrapnel bullets zipped! and spattered around. Men fell fast, killed and wounded; every temporary stand we made was marked by little groups of grotesquely postured khaki-clad forms still with the stillness of death… Time after time we tried to dig ourselves in. In vain! The line had to be shortened, else we should be outflanked by the enormously superior forces opposed to us.
The situation wasn’t much better at the Cape Hellas landing sites (with the exception of Y Beach, where the troops in the landing party were kicking their heels with no idea what was going on elsewhere). Herbert recalled:
We were being shot at from three sides. All that morning we kept moving. There were lines of men clinging like cockroaches under the cliffs or moving silent as the guns on the right and left enfiladed us. The only thing to be done was to dig in as soon as possible, but a good many men were shot while doing this... I believe that, had it been possible, we should have re-embarked that night, but the sacrifices involved would have been too great.
Allies Attack, Turks Counterattack
On the following day, April 26, the ANZAC troops continued digging in, while the British troops fought their way forward from the beaches on Cape Hellas and finally joined forces on the tip of the peninsula. Meanwhile the next wave of roughly 35,000 troops was landing, along with a French force which had briefly occupied the town of Kumkale on the other side of the Dardanelles.
On April 28 Hamilton ordered a renewed attack on the Turkish positions at Krithia, a small village on the slopes above Cape Hellas. Once again the casualties were appalling on both sides, with the wounded often left to suffer stoically for hours or even days before they could be evacuated. Arthur Ruhl, an American correspondent who was observing the battle from the Turkish side, recalled the mute suffering of ordinary Turkish soldiers (below):
During the early fighting on the peninsula the wounded came up to Constantinople, after days on the way, in wagons, perhaps, over horrible roads, in commandeered ferry-boats and freighters, yet one scarcely heard a sound, a murmur of complaint. Gray and gaunt, with the mud of the trenches still on them, they would be helped into ambulances and driven off to the hospitals, silent themselves and through crowds as silent as those which had watched them march away a few weeks before.
On May 1 Turkish War Minister Enver Pasha order a major counterattack, with both sides suffering huge casualties as the Turks tried to push the invading force into the sea. The anonymous ANZAC soldier wrote in his diary:
Men fought that day stripped to the waist; fought till their rifles jammed, picked up another – and went on fighting. Men with broken legs refused to leave the trench, cursing those who would have assisted them – went on firing until a second bullet crippled their rifle arm. Yet still they clung on, handing up clips of cartridges to their mates… Thus it went on from before dawn till towards evening. Charge and counter-charge, till men reeled from sheer exhaustion, and their blood-clotted weapons slipped from hands sticky with the same red paint.
The same soldier recorded a shocking scene in the ANZAC trenches:
We were also so clogged up with dead in our trenches that to make room for the living we had to throw the bodies out over the back. In many cases where our line was cut on the edge of the ridge these bodies rolled right down to the foot of the cliff… In one place quite a little stack of bodies had been huddled together on one side of the track; there might have been eighteen or twenty in the lot. Owing to the water running down this stack began to move, and kept on moving till it blocked the track up altogether… eventually a fatigue party had to be told off to build up the bodies as you would build sheaves on a wagon.
The French division which had landed on the eastern end of Cape Hellas found itself plunged into the hellish fighting as well. One French officer, Joseph Vassal, later recorded his impressions in a letter to his English wife: “Artillery cases, dead men, dead horses, police, doctors, above all guns which thundered and deafened us… During the night from 2nd to 3rd May one regiment alone spent 40,000 cartridges… I went to the beach, where shells were still falling continually. Fountains of earth, fountains of water. Nine horses killed, two men.”
But the attacks and counterattacks failed to make much of an impact either way, and by mid-May the situation at Gallipoli was already settling into a deadly stalemate. Hamilton and Sanders both called for reinforcements, which they duly received, promising even more grinding attrition in the months to come. The nightmare at Gallipoli was only beginning.
Armenian Genocide Begins
As the Allies prepared their invasion of Gallipoli, the government of the Young Turks was already setting in motion their plan to wipe out the Armenians, whom they suspected of aiding the Russian advance in the Caucasus region. Mounting persecution in early April foreshadowed much worse violence to come. Four years later, the former American ambassador to Constantinople, Henry Morgenthau, would recall the beginning of the purge in eastern Anatolia during the spring of 1915:
On April 15th, about 500 young Armenian men of Akantz were mustered to hear an order of the Sultan; at sunset they were marched outside the town and every man shot in cold blood. The procedure was repeated in about eighty Armenian villages in the district north of Lake Van, and in three days 24,000 Armenians were murdered in this atrocious fashion.
Although mass murders were already taking place, many historians date the genocide to April 24, 1915, when the Turkish secret police rounded up around 250 leading Armenian public figures in Constantinople, including intellectuals, writers and journalists – the leaders of the Armenian community – placing them under arrest and detaining them without cause or on trumped up charges. Over the next few weeks they were joined by around another 2,000 Armenian intellectuals in Constantinople and elsewhere. All the detained individuals were then deported to detention centers near Ankara in central Anatolia. Almost all of them were later killed.
This was just the first blow in a wider campaign against the entire Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire. Although the process varied from place to place across the empire, typically local Turkish officials would first disarm Armenian men and arrest their local leaders, who were often tortured and killed. Then the officials and ordinary citizens would confiscate Armenian property and homes, and the Armenians would be “deported,” supposedly to other destinations in central Anatolia and later the Syrian desert.
However the deportations were in effect death marches. Sometimes groups of Armenians would simply be marched into the countryside and shot by the Turkish secret service, the Teşkilât-ı Mahsusa or “Special Organization.” On other occasions columns of deportees would be set upon in the countryside by Turkish or Kurdish bandits. Older, sick, or disabled people who couldn’t keep up were often the first to be killed, as “stragglers.” An American missionary, Henry H. Riggs, was returning to his mission from a visit to Diyarbekir in May 1915 when he encountered a column of refugees:
They were under guard… As I passed, one man, looking at me quickly, lifted four fingers. That was all, and for a time I could not imagine what his signal was intended to convey. I sound found out, however. In a few minutes I came to a spot where the dust had hardly absorbed a pool of fresh blood. A trail through the dust from the scene of the tragedy to the edge of the bluff beside the road showed plainly enough where the body had been dragged from the road and dropped into the river which flowed just under the bluff. A little further on… [t]here lay the bodies of two elderly Armenians… A little further on yet, we passed the fourth ghastly trophy of that march of exiles.
Other methods of mass killing included herding groups of victims off cliffs, forcing them to dig their own graves and then burying them alive, and drowning in rivers or lakes. The British diplomat and historian Arnold Toynbee quoted a report written by a German missionary about a mass drowning in May 1915:
Between the 10th and 30th May, 1,200 of the most prominent Armenians and other Christians, without distinction of confession, were arrested in the Vilayets of Diyarbekir and Mamouret-ul-Aziz… On the 30th May, 674 of them were embarked on thirteen Tigris barges, under the pretext that they were to be taken to Mosul… A short time after the start the prisoners were stripped of all their money… and then of their clothes; after that they were thrown in the river. The gendarmes on the bank were ordered to let none of them escape.
The same report went on:
For a whole month corpses were observed floating down the River Euphrates nearly every day, often in batches of from two to six corpses bound together. The male corpses are in many cases hideously mutilated (sexual organs cut off, and so on), the female corpses are ripped open… The corpses stranded on the bank are devoured by dogs and vultures. To this fact there are many German eyewitnesses.