Gallipoli Dissected: What did Britain get wrong?

In the run up to the 100th anniversary of the start of the Dardanelles campaign, we speak to Nigel Steel, Principal Historian for the Imperial War Museums’ World War I Centenary Programme and co-author of Defeat At Gallipoli about what really went wrong, and how this brutal clash under the Mediterranean sun would shape the national identities of three nations…


Why was the Gallipoli put forward and given the green light?

The landing on the Gallipoli peninsula was only undertaken after the failure of the Royal Navy’s attempt to force the Dardanelles using ships alone.

This operation, to push ships through the Dardanelles and capture the Turkish capital Istanbul (then still known to the Allies by its older name of Constantinople), was initiated in response to the combination of a number of key strategic opportunities: providing direct assistance to Russia, bypassing the inertia of the Western Front and galvanizing the undecided countries of the Balkans to join the Allied side.

It was on this basis that the campaign received Cabinet approval at the end of January 1915.

What was the aim behind the operation?

The intention was to project a British squadron of ships through the Dardanelles into the Sea of Marmara in order to reach Istanbul. It was believed that, if the Royal Navy appeared there, quickly and in some strength, the Turkish government would collapse and the country disintegrate into chaos. This would, in turn, effectively force Turkey out of the war.

However, the British ships were unable to overcome the well-built and determinedly manned Turkish defences along the Dardanelles. On 22 March it was decided troops would now have to land to clear the shoreline of hostile guns in order to allow the mines in the water to be cleared and the main forts to be destroyed by naval gunfire from close range. The military landing was only ever intended as a step towards resuming this naval operation and throughout, the capture of Istanbul remained the ultimate objective.

6th Battalion soldiers leaving the transport ship, 25 April 1915
6th Battalion soldiers leaving the transport ship, 25 April 1915

What technology, weapons and methods of warfare were used by the British forces at Gallipoli?

In considering Gallipoli, it is very important to remember how early in the war it took place. It was one of the first offensive operations undertaken by the British Army, with only Neuve Chappelle in March 1915 and the initial stages of First Ypres in October 1914 having preceded it.

No real lessons had yet been learned from the fighting on the Western Front that could be translated into new tactical doctrines. The Mediterranean Expeditionary Force (MEF) that landed on 25 April 1915, including British, Irish, Australian and New Zealand troops, was equipped and trained in almost exactly the same way as the original British Expeditionary Force (BEF) that went to France in August 1914 and was almost exactly the same size.

The MEF’s performance, brave and resourceful as it was, revealed the same inexperience in modern, industrialised warfare that the BEF had also shown eight months earlier.

Was the Ottoman Empire really the ‘soft underbelly of Europe’ as Churchill stated?

This is a common misrepresentation of Churchill’s position. This phrase actually applies to operations in the Mediterranean during the Second World War not to Gallipoli. In 1915 Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty and was responsible for pushing through and instigating the naval attack on the Dardanelles. The decision to land at Gallipoli was agreed locally between the naval and army commanders and Churchill had little part in the subsequent military operations.

Turkey, or the Ottoman Empire as it was then, was certainly seen as one of the weakest members of the Central Powers. But Britain’s attack also had a sound strategic basis. When they entered the war, the Turks directly threatened a number of vital British interests such as the Suez Canal and the Anglo-Persian oil fields. The attack on Turkey was as much about protecting these as striking at Germany through its most vulnerable ally.



Why did it fail? Was it a case of poor preparation by the British or were the Ottomans stronger than first thought?

There were many reasons why the April landings were frustrated and failed to reinvigorate the naval attack on the Dardanelles. There were only a limited number of options open to the attacking troops and all surprise had been lost. Neither the naval nor military staffs had any experience of planning this kind of complicated combined operation. Nothing like it had really been attempted since the landing at Aboukir in 1801.

But above all, no one on the British side expected the Turks to fight so effectively and so resolutely. Their troops were well sited, well motivated and determined. They were defending their homeland and religion against attack by a powerful alien enemy. Without any shadow of a doubt, it was the Turks who won the battle of the beaches and all the operations that followed.

Why were landings sanctioned after the ineffectiveness of the Royal Navy? Was it desperation or a possible good alternative tactic?

The landings followed on logically from the suspension of the naval attack. None of the politicians in London saw them as anything other than an extension of what was already under way. The question was not referred back to the Cabinet, nor did the Prime Minister interfere. It is this lack of political intervention and questioning of what was going on that is perhaps the strongest indictment of the way both campaigns were conducted.

Britain was in no position to undertake a major new military campaign. Its industrial infrastructure was already struggling to keep pace with the growing demands of the Western Front and the ‘shell scandal’ precipitated by the attack at Aubers Ridge a few weeks after the landing showed how the country had not really yet moved onto a real war footing.

At Gallipoli the landing was seen as necessary to enable the push towards Istanbul to be continued. But no one in authority questioned whether the capture of the Turkish capital was still feasible. I believe by 25 April it no longer was and the landings began a new phase of a campaign that was already unwinnable.

Lifeboat carrying men of the 1st Divisional Signal Company, 25 April 1915
Lifeboat carrying men of the 1st Divisional Signal Company, 25 April 1915

What was the bloodiest operation of the whole campaign?

The largest individual action of the Gallipoli campaign was at Suvla Bay on 21 August. As well as attacks on Scimitar Hill and the W Hills, nearby Hill 60 was also assaulted. The tinder dry landscape was set alight by the shelling and fires burned across the battlefield.

One British officer, Captain Guy Nightingale of the 1st Battalion, Royal Munster Fusiliers, explained to his mother: “Our headquarters was very heavily shelled and then the fire surrounded the place and we all thought we were going to be burned alive. Where the telephone was, the heat was appalling. The roar of the flames drowned the noise of the shrapnel, and we had to lie flat at the bottom of the trench while the flames swept over the top… The whole attack was a ghastly failure. They generally are now.”

What was the role of the ANZACs in the campaign?

The Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) had been diverted to Egypt in December 1915 to continue its training before carrying on to the Western Front. It was therefore already in theatre when planning began for a military assault on the Peninsula. ANZAC was given the subsidiary role of landing north of Gaba Tepe, while the main landing was undertaken at Cape Helles by the British 29th Division.

The Australian and New Zealand troops failed to capture the vital high ground of Chunuk Bair that dominated their beachhead, and the position they developed surrounding the beach that became known as Anzac Cove was soon tightly hemmed in.

For both Australia and New Zealand, Gallipoli was an important moment as it was the first time their soldiers had fought in war as national armies, rather than simply as constituent parts of the British forces, as in South Africa during the Boer War.

Australian troops going into action, 25 April 1915
Australian troops going into action, 25 April 1915


What technology, weapons and methods of warfare were used by the ANZACs?

The Australians and New Zealanders used the same basic weapons and equipment as the British troops. However, distinct, national characteristics soon revealed themselves in battle. The Australians and New Zealanders were less hierarchical and tended to show more initiative. Yet, this looser discipline was not always an advantage.

Once pinned down within the claustrophobic positions surrounding Anzac Cove, the ANZACs showed themselves to be masters of trench warfare. They dug deep trenches across the hillside that can still be seen today. They were aggressive in defending their positions and in launching attacks, such as at Lone Pine during the August offensive. In assessing the significance of Gallipoli for Australia and New Zealand, it is also vital to remember that throughout 1915 this was their entire involvement in the war and the campaign became the focus for the people of both nations in a way that has endured ever since.

How did the campaign affect World War I as a whole?

The fighting at Gallipoli and the overall strategic failure of the whole campaign led directly to new campaigns and new political agreements across the modern Middle East, the consequences of which can still be felt today.

It clearly exposed the limitations of British and Imperial military understanding in the first year of the war and showed how far away Britain was from becoming a major military power. Gallipoli stands right at the very beginning of the long, painful journey to the hard-nosed, battle-forged professional soldiers of the British Armies in France of 1918. It showed everyone that neither Britain nor its Empire were ready or prepared to fight a world war in 1915.

Members of 13th Battalion, AIF, occupying Quinn’s Post, 25 April 1915
Members of 13th Battalion, AIF, occupying Quinn’s Post, 25 April 1915

The battle is often portrayed as Britain versus Turkey. Were the Germans and French involved and if so, in what capacity?

It is very misleading to portray Gallipoli as being simply the British Empire versus the Ottoman Empire. It was, in fact, a truly global campaign.

Turkish forces were drawn from regions of Ottoman control as far apart as Salonika and Basra, Tikrit and Aleppo. Reflecting the role of German officers in rebuilding the Turkish Army before the war, both at senior command level and on the battlefield, German soldiers played a key role in the Turkish Army’s performance at Gallipoli.

For the Allies, concerned about British moves across the Middle East, the French also played a part in all stages of the campaign, sending both warships and troops. Although some French soldiers came from metropolitan France, most were Imperial coming largely from Africa. From India, Sikhs and Gurkhas were part of the British forces, and the Newfoundland Regiment joined the 29th Division from North America. Gallipoli really was a microcosm of the wider world war.

Just how did the British hierarchy get so much wrong?

The main problem really was underestimating the scale of what was needed and how ill-equipped Britain was to meet this. When the naval campaign was finally defeated on 18 March, a halt should have been called to reassess and work out if the logical next step – a military landing – could really be afforded.

That this was not done is the real failure at Gallipoli. The Turks had already shown their capacity to defend. Even if the Peninsula had been captured and the ships resumed their attack, by the end of April 1915 it is highly unlikely that the appearance of the British fleet off Istanbul would have led to the overthrow of the Turkish government.

The inability of the Allied force to capture the Peninsula shows that they would equally have been unable to seize Istanbul by force against twice as many troops defending their capital city. This ultimate strategic goal was almost certainly unattainable by early April and Britain’s statesmen in London should have recognised that the situation had changed since January and cancelled the landings before they began.


Did it affect the way the British began new campaigns in the future?

Along with lessons in planning and logistics that were beginning to be learned in France and Belgium, Gallipoli showed the need for clear staff assessments and the identification of clear cut objectives.

The well-planned and executed evacuation of Gallipoli in December 1915 and January 1916 was followed four months later by the surrender of the British and Indian garrison of Kut al Amara in Mesopotamia, where another ill-considered campaign had demonstrated the dangers of ‘mission creep’.

The command and control failures that characterised both campaigns significantly contributed to the steady professionalisation of the British Army, which saw it emerge in the final Hundred Days fighting of 1918 as the dominant element of the Allied forces.

Was there an alternative operation possible? Could it ever have worked?

I have been studying and thinking about Gallipoli since 1985. Each year that passes convinces me more and more that the campaign could never have succeeded. Historians and visitors to the peninsula’s entrancing battlefields are distracted and preoccupied by the tantalizing counter-factual possibilities of ‘what if we had landed here’ or ‘what if we had advanced as far as Achi Baba or Chunuk Bair?’. But this is all irrelevant.

The only thing that mattered was the capture of Istanbul and the defeat of Turkey that should have resulted from it. From 18 March onwards, this was not going to happen. The alternative was what happened in the end in the fight against Turkey. Between 1916 and 1918 it became a long, drawn-out war fought in other regions of their Empire that led to a self-interested carve up of Turkish territory, which still overshadows global politics today.

What would have happened if there was no Gallipoli?

This is a very difficult question to answer as really it is impossible to say. Had Turkey been defeated in 1915, it is possible that Allied support for Russia through the Black Sea might have had a long-term impact in preventing or altering the Russian revolutions of 1917. Had Turkey not suffered such catastrophic losses at Gallipoli, particularly of educated officers and NCOs, its battlefield performance in other regions might have been different and, according to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who emerged from Gallipoli to reform Turkey as a modern, secular republic, the nature of Turkish society between the wars would certainly have been very different.

And we all know that the establishment of Australia and New Zealand as independent nations would not have happened in the same way. Gallipoli stands at the heart of the national identity of three nations: Australia, New Zealand and Turkey.


What did both the Entente and the Central Powers learn from Gallipoli?

Gallipoli confirmed the power of defence over assault in modern industrialised war. With well-motivated troops and scientifically laid out defensive positions, in 1915 it was almost impossible for assaulting troops to break through and capture objectives.

Writing at the end of his battle report, Major Mahmut Sabri, who commanded the 3/26th Battalion that defended the beaches of Cape Helles against the British assault, concluded modestly, “I acknowledge that a battalion is the most trifling element of an army and that it did not do anything else but its duty, and that to stop the enemy’s intention in spite of his superior numbers and armament was due to the grace of God. I consider, however, that its resistance and tenacity on the Seddulbahir [Cape Helles] shore on 25/26 April… is a fine example of Turkish heroism.”

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