Wartime Issue 38 - War is Helles: the real fight for Gallipoli

By Peter Hart.

ANZAC: the one word guaranteed to generate a sentimental buzz right across Australia. It still generates enormous uncritical attention in the popular media; but little attention is paid to the serious analysis of the ANZAC performance being carried out by dedicated Australian military historians. A peculiar monocular view prevails, one that encompasses only the fighting at ANZAC. Everything else at Gallipoli is dismissed as irrelevant, boring or farcically incompetent. That straitjacket precludes any real understanding of what was going on. Above all, the ANZAC myths that originated during and since the war are widely accepted as gospel truth.

Many still believe the Gallipoli campaign was a brilliant concept – no, it wasn’t. It was a lunacy that never had a chance of succeeding; an idiocy generated by the muddled thinking of “Easterners” who thought they could end the war by knocking out Germany’s allies, or by attacking her non-existent soft underbelly. It was never sensible, not while the mighty German army was lurking just a few kilometres from the vital Channel ports that underpinned the whole British involvement on the Western Front. This was the real enemy. By attacking the Turks, the British merely allowed them the opportunity to kill and maim British soldiers. Left to themselves, in the face of simple defensive measures to secure British interest in the Suez Canal and Mesopotamian oil supplies, there was nothing the Turks could have done. By diverting resources to Gallipoli, and thereby weakening the concentration on the Western Front, the allies exposed themselves to a greater possibility of defeat.

The campaign provides a checklist common to all British military adventures in the Middle East. Lack of realistic or well-defined goals – check. Lack of any real plan – check. Under-trained troops – check. Absence of proper maps or intelligence – check. Inadequate artillery support – check. Inadequate uniforms and equipment for the climate – check. Inadequate supply arrangements – check. Grossly underestimating the enemy – check. Easily disrupted communications – check. Incompetent local commanders – check. Ludicrous over-confidence all round – check. Inevitable disaster – check. Humiliating retreat – check. All present and correct.

There is an overwhelming perception that the ANZAC landings were central to the campaign – no, they weren’t. They were a secondary attack intended to strike across the Gallipoli peninsula to seize the Mal tepe hill, before joining with the planned assault from the main British landings at Helles indended to take the Kilid Bahr Plateau. This was the real objective, the imposing massif that directly overlooked the Narrows and dominated the peninsula. All the rest were just stepping-stones. Worse, that was still just the first step to success. The allied fleet still had to get through the Narrows, defeat the Turkish fleet, avoid any further minefields or torpedoes while steaming across the Sea of Marmora to Constantinople, and then they still had to force the surrender of the Turkish government.

Amid all confusion of the ANZAC Cove landing on 25 April 1915, the outnumbered Turks used all the natural advantages of the rugged terrain to stymie the Australian troops advancing to contact across broken ground through tangled undergrowth. When the dust died down, in the circumstances, it was truly a tremendous achievement for the ANZACs to retain a small bridgehead, ringed and overlooked by Turkish strong points on all the surrounding hills and ridges. The “diggers” dug in and held their ground. But the could not – and did not – make any renewed effort to attain their real objectives of Mal Tepe and the Kilid Bahr plateau. For the next three months, until the August offensives, the ANZAC beachhead was nothing more than a holding camp for Australian and New Zealand troops. In essence they achieved nothing in those months – other than to defence themselves from the Turks. It was against all military odds or sense, it was heroic, it was fascinating in the extreme – but it was of negligible importance to the campaign as a whole.

It was at the main landings, and in the campaigns that followed at Helles, that the campaign would be decided one way or another

Yet the British have their own myths about the fighting. Prominent among these is the idea that the landings they made were somehow a military achievement of the highest order – well, no they weren’t. The British utterly bodged the landings, making mistake after mistake at every level of command, missing every brief opportunity and ludicrously exaggerating the scale of the opposition. Just one company of Turks – some 250 or so men – faced 12,000 British troops; yet they succeeded in keeping them penned back to the beaches for most of the first day. It may have been the first landing to be made in the face of modern weapons, but the British could hardly have done worse, or indeed the Turks better, on 25 April.

It is important to stress that, at both ANZAC and Helles, it is not a matter of doubting the courage of individual soldiers; rather it is more a matter of accepting an endemic military incompetence lethally combined with inexperienced troops who had no exposure to modern warfare.

It is sadly evident that the average Australian thinks that the British and French troops did little real fighting at Helles – well, yes they did! This was where the main offensives were launched to try to break through the Turkish lines, to seize the Achi Baba hill that overlooked Helles and then to drive on across broken ground to Kilid Bahr. Time and time again the British, Indian and French troops heaved themselves forward out of their trenches in the first, second and third Battles of Krithia, the actions of 12-13 July and Gully Ravine, and the major diversionary attack in August. Here was real drama: hubristic plans, minor or temporary successes and dreadful failures. Here was paid the butcher’s bill as the soldiers from England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, India, France, North Africa and, yes, the ANZACs, flung themselves into action in the common cause at Helles. Throughout, they were faced by determined Turks of almost equal numbers, well dug in and grimly determined to defend their homeland. There were many violent Turkish counterattacks, when they flung themselves forward in their thousands, attacking without heed down gullies that would soon be blocked by their fast decomposing corpses. Their bones lie scattered there even now.

These were all engagements that dwarfed the skirmishes at ANZAC in May, June and July of 1915. To put it in context, the French had more troops on Gallipoli that the Australians. And they fought more battles, killed more Turks and had more casualties. They even had the most difficult military ground in the Kereves Dere sector, where the dreaded Ravin de la Mort is quite self-explanatory. Go there even now, and marvel at the sheer impossibility of the task that General Sir Ian Hamilton had given them; perhaps even ponder on this as real evidence of a perfidious Albion.

It is often claimed that Gallipoli was a close run thing – no, it wasn’t. Generally the guilty “Easterners” have tried to present the campaign as a tragedy, where their brilliant concept was thwarted only by a combination of bad luck and poor command decisions that undermined the heroic efforts of the men on the ground. But this cannot hide the reality of a complete farce, where the Turks held the allies back from their real objectives with relative ease. Most of the “close shaves” of legend were incidents where the confused remnants of a company or so of allied troops found themselves marooned in an isolated position, facing the undivided attentions of masses of fresh Turkish troops. Look at the real objectives: the passage of the Narrows and Constantinople. To achieve these they needed Kilid Bahr, but to do that they needed Achi Baba; they couldn’t get that, so they must get the village of Krithia that lay in front of it. But that too was beyond their reach, so the Vineyard would be a stepping stone. Even that was impossible, so the end result was men fighting and dying in their hundreds to capture Trench H12, or J13, or some other benighted irrelevance. This was “mission creep” – or rather, “mission shrink” – at its worst. They never got anywhere near Kilid Bahr at either Helles or ANZAC.

There were no offensive battles at ANZAC until in August the Empire bestirred itself to send massive reinforcements for the combined British/ANZAC/Indian attempt to break out from ANZAC, all in conjunction with the fresh landing at Suvla Bay. After that there were no real efforts to gain the original objectives. Simple survival became paramount everywhere on the Peninsula.

Even the general view of the end of the campaign betrays an Australian bias. There is a notion that the ANZACs were brilliant in evacuating their positions without loss in December 1915 – well, yes but…What about the even more dangerous situation when the British had to evacuate Helles from under the noses of the forewarned Turks, long after the ANZACs had been taken to safety by the Royal Navy? The British had to make their evacuation on 8 January 1916, just a day after a major Turkish attack had been thwarted, and all were carried out in the face of severe weather problems. What a story! Could they get back the five kilometres from the front line without the Turks noticing? Would the makeshift piers collapse as the seas grew rougher, smashing up piers until only a couple remained functional? Could the last stragglers escape in the last boats before the timed mines exploded? Yes, they could – but few Australians seem to know or care.

When the debris settled, the evacuations had been a stunning achievement – but the campaign itself remained an utter failure. The Australians would go on to fight on the Western Front. Here, after undergoing a painfully sharp learning curve, they more than pulled their weight as one of the finest allied attacking formations. Nothing written in this article is intended to undermine or deny recognition from the ANZACs for all they achieved, either collectively or individually. But military history is not just about nationalistic pride. Sufficient time has now elapsed to allow a mature historical look at the Gallipoli campaign, examining not just events at ANZAC, but also giving equal credence to the real heart of the fighting at Helles.

British visitors to Gallipoli almost always visit both Helles and ANZAC; Australian visitors almost never visit Helles. Perhaps they should.


Peter Hart, co-author with Nigel Steel of Defeat at Gallipoli (1995), is writing a new book on the myths surrounding the campaign.