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 185th installment in the series.
June 4, 1915: New Allied Attack at Gallipoli
Like many of the other great battles of the First World War, Gallipoli was actually a series of clashes, any of which would have qualified as a huge battle by itself in a previous era. After the first wave of amphibious landings failed to conquer the Gallipoli Peninsula in late April 1915, the Allies mounted new attacks but were frustrated by Turkish defenses around the village of Krithia on April 28 and again on May 6-8. On the night of May 18-19 the Turks launched a huge assault against the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) trenches on the peninsula’s western shore, but this also failed at great cost.
After these initial failures the commanders on the scene – Sir Ian Hamilton, in charge of the Allied Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, and Liman von Sanders, the German general commanding the Turkish Fifth Army – issued desperate demands for reinforcements, which they duly received. By the end of May there were ten Turkish divisions on the peninsula (many badly depleted) numbering 120,000 men, while the Allies had the equivalent of around seven divisions plus a brigade, including British, Indian, ANZAC and French troops for a total 150,000 men.
Although fewer in numbers the Turks benefited from the same tactical advantage enjoyed by entrenched defenders on every front of the Great War, with barbed wire entanglements, machine guns, and massed rifle fire inflicting disproportionate casualties on Allied attackers. Even worse for the Allies, the ANZAC units suffered from a serious artillery shortage, both in guns and ammunition, while naval support was curtailed when the Royal Navy withdrew its battleships to its base at the nearby island of Mudros following the sinking of HMS Triumph and Majestic in late May – so they could no longer count on bombardments from the sea to help make up for the lack of artillery on land.
“No Reaction, No Feelings At All”
Nonetheless the Allies were determined to keep pushing forward, and in particular to capture a hill called Achi Baba behind the village of Krithia, which gave the Turks a vantage point to direct relentless shelling on to the Allied camp. The result was yet another frontal attack against the Turkish positions on June 4, 1915, in what became known as the “Third Battle of Krithia.”
On the Allied side the attack would pit an Indian Infantry Brigade, the 88th Brigade, the 42nd Division, a Naval Brigade from the Naval Division (a force of naval infantry) and two divisions of the French Corps Expeditionnaire d'Orient under Henri Gouraud, altogether numbering 34,000 men, against 18,600 Turkish defenders from the Ottoman 9th and 12th Divisions. With a local advantage of almost two to one, the Allies managed to advance up to a kilometer in places and by some accounts came close to a breakthrough – but once again victory proved elusive.
Due to continuing shell shortages for British artillery – the French 75mm guns were well supplied – the attack was preceded at 11am June 4 by a brief bombardment using shrapnel shells rather than high explosives, which (like the recent disastrous attack on Aubers Ridge) failed to cut the barbed wire in front of the Turkish trenches in many places (above, a British gun in action). In a bit of subterfuge the Allied bombardment paused to lure the Turks back to their trenches in expectation of an imminent infantry assault, then resumed a few minutes later, causing considerable casualties.
However the Turkish defenses remained unbroken and the first Allied infantry assault produced wildly uneven results, as the British 42nd Division punched a hole in the Turkish 9th Division to gain around a kilometer, while Allied attacks on the flanks mostly failed to advance (top, the King's Own Scottish Borderers go over the top; above, British infantry charge). A British soldier, George Peake, remembered the fight in the center:
And over the top we went at the Turks… We all shouted as we went over… I don’t know how many fell, but we kept on running… You’ve no reaction, no feelings at all except to go for him. I wouldn’t say it was fright or anything like that – it’s either you or him. Really you can’t tell what your feelings are like… I didn’t kill anyone with a bayonet. Before I got to them, I pressed the trigger and got a bullet into them. That stopped them.
Fighting was particularly intense on the left flank, where Indian and British troops faced the daunting task of advancing up Gully Ravine, a valley containing a dry riverbed leading up to the Turkish trenches (below). Here the rough terrain caused some units to lose touch with their neighbors, opening those in the lead to flank fire from the Turks. Oswin Creighton, a chaplain with the British 29th Division, joined a field ambulance following the advancing infantry up the gulley:
The gully was in a perfect turmoil, of course, guns going off on all sides, and the crack of the bullets tremendously loud. They swept down the gully, and one or two men were hit. I cannot imagine anything much more blood-curdling than to go up the gully for the first time while a fierce battle is raging. You cannot see a gun anywhere, or know where the noise is coming from. At the head of the gully you simply go up the side right into the trenches.
On the right flank the two French divisions advanced several hundred meters early in the attack but were later forced back. This started a chain reaction, as the French retreat left the right flank of the British Naval Brigade exposed, forcing them to retreat, which in turn left the right flank of the 42nd Division exposed, eventually forcing it to the withdraw as well.
Unsurprisingly losses were heavy along the entire front, but especially on the left flank, where some Indian and British regiments advancing up Gully Ravine were almost completely wiped out. Sir Compton Mackenzie, an observer with the 29th Division, recorded the results of a gallant, courageous, but ultimately futile charge:
That morning the Fourteenth (King George’s Own) Sikhs moved out to the attack with fifteen British officers, fourteen Indian officers and five hundred and fourteen men. On the morning after, three British officers, three Indian officers, and one hundred and thirty-four men were left. No ground was given: no man turned his back: no man lingered on the way. The trenches of the enemy that ran down into the ravine were choked with the bodies of Turks and Sikhs… On the slope beyond, the bodies of those tall and grave warriors, all face downward where they fell indomitably advancing, lay thickly among the stunted aromatic scrub.
Creighton recorded similar losses for another regiment: “They had lost five of the six remaining officers, all the ten officers who had recently joined them, and somewhere about 200 of the remaining men. Of the original regiment, including transport, stretcher-bearers, etc., 140 were left.” The next day Creighton noted that hundreds of wounded men were left in no-man’s-land, dying slowly within sight of their comrades:
The whole situation was terrible – no advance, and nothing but casualties, and the worst was that the wounded had not been got back, but lay between ours and the Turks’ firing line. It was impossible to get at some of them. The men said they could see them move. The firing went on without ceasing… I buried eighteen of them in one grave while I was there… The majority of the bodies are still lying out there. In the gully I buried four more who had died of wounds.
The Turks had also suffered very heavy casualties and abandoned their frontline trenches in the center, where the 42nd Division advanced almost half the distance towards Krithia. Later this led some supporters of Sir Ian Hamilton to argue that victory was within reach, if only the Allies had more troops and artillery to throw at the overstretched Turks. But there were no Allied reserves, while the Turks were able to hurry more reinforcements, including the 5th and 11th Divisions, the front to contain any Allied breakthrough and then to mount a counterattack.
In a stunning reversal, on June 6 the Turks unleashed an onslaught against the Allied left wing that almost succeeded in breaking through the British lines and sent the defenders reeling back, as whole units retreated despite orders to hold their positions. Disaster was only narrowly averted by a British officer who shot four British soldiers leading this unauthorized retreat – a severe but legal measure (in fact the officer later received the Victoria Cross, the highest decoration in the British Army). The Allies then managed to establish a new defensive line just a few hundred yards in front of their original starting position (below, Gurkhas take up position in Gully Ravine on June 8, 1915).
As on other fronts of the Great War, at Gallipoli fighting continued at a lower intensity between major battles, with shelling, snipers, grenades, and mines producing a steady stream of killed and wounded on both sides. Meanwhile no-man’s-land, only recently cleared of corpses during the truce on May 24, was once again littered with bodies from the Third Battle of Krithia as well as occasional trench raids. George Peake, the British soldier, recalled:
The whole place was full of dead, unburied. In one trench I was lying down on the firing step, and I’d have to peep up every now and again. There were three Turks buried in the parapet with their legs sticking out, and I had to get hold of their legs to pull myself up just to peer over… They were everywhere, absolutely everywhere, and the bluebottles [flies] were feeding on them.
The scenes were especially shocking for newly arrived troops sent from Britain to bolster the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, including the 52nd Division, which landed at Gallipoli in June. However the newcomers soon grew used to death as part of the daily routine, or at least tried to affect the same blasé indifference as hardened veterans. One green recruit, Leonard Thompson, recalled his first encounter with dead bodies shortly after disembarking, when the men from his unit looked under a large piece of canvas doubling as a makeshift morgue, followed by their introduction to burial duty:
It was full of corpses. Dead Englishmen, lines and lines of them, and with their eyes wide open. We all stopped talking. I’d never seen a dead man before and here I was looking at two or three hundred of them. It was our first fear. Nobody had mentioned this. I was very shocked… We set to work to bury people. We pushed them into the sides of the trench but bits of them kept getting uncovered and sticking out, like people in a badly made bed. Hands were the worst: they would escape from the sand, pointing, begging – even waving! There was one which we all shook when we passed, saying “Good morning”, in a posh voice. Everybody did it. The bottom of the trench was springy like a mattress because of all the bodies underneath.
Soldiers also had to contend with a whole array of environmental privations, including vermin and overpowering heat. Body lice in particular were ubiquitous in Gallipoli as elsewhere in the war zone, inflicting endless torment from itching and infected rashes caused by scratching, while also raising the specter of diseases like typhus – not to mention the sheer embarrassment felt by many of the afflicted. The “cooties” tended to congregate and reproduce in the seams of their shirts, pants and underwear, and soldiers tried to drown them by soaking their clothing in seawater or scouring their bodies and picking through their clothing to kill them by hand (below). Neither strategy proved particularly effective in the long term, and most men resigned themselves to suffering from the lice until they could be deloused before going on leave.
During the summer months Gallipoli was also covered with swarms of flies, which fed on dead bodies and made life unbearable for the living. Another British chaplain, William Ewing, recalled trying to do basic tasks surrounded by flies, as well as the inescapable dust:
The table was black with them. They came down upon the food likes hives of bees. When you ventured to take a helping, they rose with an angry buzz, and violently contested the passage of each bite to your mouth… They explored your eyes, nose, mouth, and ears. If you tried to write, they crawled over the paper, and tickled your fingers till you could hardly hold the pen. Meantime you breathed dust, and swallowed dust, and your teeth gritted upon dust in your food.
Another natural adversary was the heat, with temperatures sometimes exceeding 100° Fahrenheit. According to some accounts many soldiers coped by simply disrobing and spending the hottest parts of the day nearly – or even entirely – naked. On June 11, 1915, British officer Aubrey Herbert noted: “The Australians and New Zealanders have given up wearing clothes. They lie about and bathe and become darker than Indians.”
To escape the heat and insects soldiers also spent a great deal of time bathing and swimming in the sea (already a favorite activity for many Australian soldiers). However this was risky too, as the beaches were exposed to Turkish artillery fire in many places. Mackenzie described the odd, cosmopolitan scene he encountered walking along the supply road behind the beach at Cape Hellas:
The sea was thronged with bathers in spite of the shrapnel which was continually bursting over them… The road itself was thronged with promenaders of every kind – tall grave Sikhs, charming dapper little Gurkhas, button-headed Egyptians, Zionist muleteers, Greek hawkers, Scottish Borderers, Irish Fusiliers, Welshmen… and as many different types besides… The dazzle of the water was blinding. Occasionally stretcher bearers would pass with a man who had been hit, as you may see stretcher bearers jostle through the crowds at Margate [an English seaside resort] with a woman who has fainted on a torrid August bank holiday.
Unable to endure the heat and insects any more than their men, officers set aside their dignity and joined the naked bathers, leading to some amusing scenes, especially among the more egalitarian Australians and New Zealanders (below, ANZAC commander General William Birdwood). Herbert was present when a portly ANZAC officer fleeing biting flies disrobed and waded in amongst the rank and file:
Instantly he received a hearty blow upon his tender, red and white shoulder and a cordial greeting from some democrat of Sydney or Wellington: “Old man, you’ve been up among the biscuits!” He drew himself up to rebuke this presumption, then dived for the sea, for, as he said, “What’s the good of telling one naked man to salute another naked man, especially when neither have got their caps?
British Advance in Mesopotamia
As the fighting ground to a stalemate in Gallipoli, 1700 miles to the east the Anglo-Indian force dispatched by the Government of British India appeared to be making rapid progress in its conquest of Mesopotamia (now Iraq) thanks to the ambition of Mesopotamian theatre commander-in-chief Sir John Nixon and the boldness of Major General Sir Charles Townshend – but events would later reveal their daring was really just sheer recklessness.
Having foiled the Turkish attempt to recapture Basra at the Battle of Shaiba in April, Nixon ordered Townshend, commanding the Indian 6th (Poona) Division, to begin advancing up the Tigris River after the retreating Turks – in the middle of flood season. Scraping together a ragtag force of old steamboats, barges and local Arab river craft, Townshend first attacked Turkish outposts north of Qurna, where rising floodwaters had isolated the Turkish defensive positions on small islands. One anonymous British junior officer remembered the odd battle that resulted on May 31, 1915: “Was there ever such astonishing warfare – attacking trenches in boats!”
After driving the Turks out of Qurna, Townshend led his motley flotilla upriver almost unopposed, taking control of town after town in the midst of seasonal floods – a slightly absurd episode with carefree holiday overtones, later remembered as “Townshend’s Regatta.” Believing the Turks were in full flight, and impatient with the slow pace of his supporting infantry, Townshend now took a small force of around 100 men and raced ahead in his fastest boat, the HMS Espeigle (above).
On June 3, 1915 Townshend’s tiny crew of sailors and soldiers sailed into the strategic town of Amara and, incredibly, convinced the garrison of 2,000 Turkish soldiers to surrender by claiming that the larger infantry force was about to arrive (in fact it was over two days’ march away). Townshend’s capture of Amara was one of the great bluffs of the First World War – but eventually his luck was going to run out.
Meanwhile Anglo-Indian troops in Mesopotamia had to endure even worse conditions than their comrades in Gallipoli. As the Mesopotamian summer drew near temperatures rose to 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade by midday, so the advancing troops could only march in the early morning end evening hours, sheltering in tents for most of the daytime. As at Gallipoli, some men tried to deal with the stifling heat by simply giving up wearing clothing altogether. Edmund Candler, a British war correspondent, recorded an officer’s account of the approach to Ahvaz in southwest Persia (Iran) in late May 1915:
From eight to eight it was hell… You lay under your single fly [mosquito net] naked. You soaked your handkerchief in water and put it on your head. But it was dry in five minutes. The more you drank the more you wanted to drink. We were on the edge of the marsh all the way. We used to sit in it. The water was as warm as soup and about the same colour. It was very brackish, and got salter and salter every day. One’s body became impregnated with salt. You could scrape it off your arms, and the dried sweat on your shirt was as white as snow.
The same anonymous British officer cited above described the daily routine in Ahvaz:
From 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. it was hot. From 9 a.m. to 12 damned hot. From 12 to 5.30 much too damned hot. From 5.30 to 6 p.m. one could venture out… In the afternoon, from 3.30 to 5.30, there was usually a hot dry wind and a sandstorm blowing, and once could not see more than five yards… the only thing to do was to lie on one’s bed and drink lots of water and sweat.
Again like Gallipoli, immersion was a popular method for escaping both heat and biting insects, especially sandflies, although here as well there were risks associated with the water, as recounted by Colonel W.C. Spackman, a British medical officer who accompanied Townshend’s river fleet upstream:
The sandflies were so small that they could get in through a mosquito net… It was far too hot to try to protect yourself with even a thin cotton sheet so I spent most of that night lying uncomfortably in the shallow waters of the shelving river bank, risking taking a mouthful of dirty Tigris water if I dozed off. Next night I gave up any idea of repeating this procedure when I heard that one of our sepoys had gone fishing with a baited hook and caught a shark!
Przemysl Falls, Again
The Russian Army’s capture of Przemyśl on March 23, 1915 would prove to be a short-lived victory. Following the strategic breakthrough by the Austro-German Eleventh Army at Gorlice-Tarnów from May 3-7, the retreating Russians were forced to abandon their recent conquest on June 5. The loss of Przemyśl was a major blow to Allied prestige, but its strategic importance was diminished by the fact that the most of the fortifications had been destroyed by Russian bombardment or the Austrians themselves at the end of the previous siege. And in any event, it was just a small part of the territory surrendered by the Russians during the Great Retreat, when their armies on the central Eastern Front were forced to fall back hundreds of miles.
Click to enlarge
Under Germany’s new rising star August von Mackensen, the new Eleventh Army had punched through the Russian defensive line in the first week of May, forcing the Russian Third Army back and eventually exposing the flank of the neighboring Russian Eighth Army. Meanwhile the Austro-Hungarian Fourth Army rumbled in to action, following on the Eleventh Army’s flank, signaling an even wider offensive to come. By May 11th the Third and Eighth Armies were in full-scale retreat, opening a 200-mile gap in Galicia and southern Russian Poland that threatened to unravel the entire Eastern Front; in mid-May the Galician city of Jaroslaw fell to the advancing Germans, who brushed aside a counterattack on May 15, inflicting massive losses on the Russian Caucasian Corps.
By this point the Russian Third Army, dragging itself across the River San, had been reduced from its original strength of 200,000 to 40,000, with tens of thousands of men killed or wounded and still more taken prisoner. On May 17 the Russian high command, called Stavka, relieved Third Army commander Radko Dimitriev of command and replaced him with General Leonid Lesh – but it was too late. The Austro-German offensive had torn a huge hole and it was only going to get wider. After the failure of desperate counterattacks on May 27, Russian commander-in-chief Grand Duke Nicholas had no choice but to order a fighting withdrawal to a new defensive line.
The Russians would receive no respite from Mackensen, who kept driving forward with a series of new offensives (above, German troops advance in Galicia), using overwhelming artillery power to smash through Russian defenses again and again. To the north he was aided by the German Fourth Army, to the south by the German Südarmee (South Army) as well as the Austro-Hungarian Second Army and newly formed Seventh Army.
The southern theatre saw another round of fierce fighting over the bitterly contested passes through the Carpathian Mountains, down into the foothills and then further north on to the plains along the Dniester River. Anton Denikin, a Russian general, recalled the fighting here:
Those battles south of Peremyshl were the bloodiest of all for us… The 13th and 14th Regiments were literally blown away by incredibly heavy German artillery fire. The first and only time I saw my brave Colonel Markov in a state approaching despair was when he brought the remnants of his squad out of battle. He was covered with blood which had gushed all over him when the 14th Regiment commander, walking beside him, had his head torn off by a bomb splinter. The sight of the colonel’s headless torso standing for several seconds in a living pose was impossible to forget.
Although they were advancing victoriously, for ordinary German and Austrian soldiers this renewed war of movement was just as confusing and terrifying as the static conflict in the trenches. Dominik Richert, a German soldier from Alsace, described a battle which took place in late May outside an unnamed village south of Lemberg (today Lviv in western Ukraine):
We had to occupy a hollow in a wheat field outside the village. Nobody knew what was actually happening. Suddenly the German batteries roared out a terrible salvo, and then the heavy barrage started… From up ahead we heard the detonation of the shells. Soon the Russians answered, firing shrapnel, and a number of men were wounded. We sat on the ground with our backpacks over our heads. The young soldiers who were experiencing their baptism of fire were all shaking like leaves.
The effect on its intended victims was even more remarkable:
In the smoke of the exploding artillery and shrapnel shells the Russian position was almost invisible… First as individuals, then in greater numbers, and finally in masses, the Russian infantrymen came running towards us with their hands in the air. They were all trembling as a result of having had to endure the terrifying artillery fire... Across the whole territory you could see lines of advancing German and Austrian infantry, and in between them were groups of Russian prisoners who were being led back.
By early June the Russians had lost an astonishing 412,000 men, including killed, wounded, and prisoners – but the Russian Army could draw on the massive manpower of the Tsarist empire to make good these losses. It should also be noted that the Russian retreat was not chaotic, but took place in stages and for the most part in good order. As during Napoleon’s invasion, the retreating armies and fleeing peasants enacted a policy of scorched earth, destroying crops, vehicles, buildings and bridges – and anything else of use – to deny the invaders any advantage (above, Russian troops retreat through a burning village). Manfred von Richthofen, who later won fame as the “Red Baron,” described the scene from the air: “The Russians were retiring everywhere. The whole countryside was burning. A terribly beautiful picture.”