“Much as we may wish to make a new beginning, some part of us resists doing so as though we were making the first step toward disaster.” – Sir William Throsby Bridges (1861-1915)
At nightfall on April 25, ANZAC Divisions clung hard onto ridges above the landing beach. Hopes of embarking on a grand adventure were fast evaporating. Marching through the streets of Constantinople, a disappearing dream…
First steps toward disaster…
Having missed the original landing point, the Australians waded ashore.‘The Sphinx’ stood on a maze of ravines, dense scrub and vertical cliffs. It looked down in the early morning light. From its lofty viewpoint groups of khaki- uniformed ANZACs fought their way uphill. Turks in drab brown uniforms make a haphazard fighting retreat.
The desperate push from the beaches to the heights was on. Rifles cracked, bullets whizzed, ricocheted, passed through bodies. Officers shouted directions, soldiers took cover, returned fire and rushed forward. Shrapnel burst overhead. Men crumpled into the dust in silence, or screaming agony. Chaos and casualties mounted.
Taking the heights around the Sphinx still seemed a possibility, despite unexpected resistance. But Turkish trenches and artillery positions still had to be overrun. Time was running out for the ANZACs. Turkish infantry and machine gunners were being force-marched to their hard-pressed comrades.
The ANZAC’s thought “Johnny Turk” would bolt at the first sight of an invasion fleet. They soon learned not to underestimate their foe. The Turk, defending his homeland proved a tough adversary, and a good shot. ANZAC officers were snipers prized targets. Without leadership, many units lost their momentum, in an already confusing landscape.
Turkish officers were able to direct the battle unhindered. Mustafa Kemal summed the situation up. The Colonel threw all available troops into recapturing the heights around Gaba Tepe. He reportedly told the Turkish 57th regiment
Men, I am not ordering you to attack. I am ordering you to die. In the time that it takes us to die, other forces and commanders can come and take our place.
The Anatolians of the 57th decimated, bought precious time. Their sacrifice is still remembered today. Another group of Turks were out of ammunition and fleeing uphill. Kemal ordered them to fix bayonets and lie down, and by doing so caused the ANZAC’s to hesitate, and halt their attack.
The heights of ‘Baby 700’ (below Hill 971) changed hands several times in desperate fighting. The ANZACs out of options, retreated back to ‘Battleship Hill’ (below Baby 700).
To the south-east of Hill 971, the 3rd Ridge (or ‘Gun Ridge’) was reached. Lacking support the Australians withdrew (to ‘2nd Ridge’). Turkish Artillery continued to rain shrapnel on the unprotected ANZAC infantry advancing uphill.
By the end of the day both sides had reached a stalemate. Dehydrated and exhausted. troops dug in and waited to be re-supplied and for the enemy’s next move.
The setting sun lengthened shadows over shrouded bodies in forlorn gullies. The cries of the dying echoed on the wind, and through the darkening defiles.
It would be a sleepless night for the living, on both sides.
In the interests of the enterprise
Cut into a gully on the beach, with reinforced sandbags and a canvas roof, stood the makeshift HQ of Major General Bridges. It was here that the next moves of the campaign were being thought out, and the fate of the soldiers in the hills decided upon.
Bridges spoke with his New Zealand counterpart Major General Godley his staff.
Now, writes C.E.W. Bean, at the end of the day –
[Bridges] was striving with all his great mental power and determination to ignore his personal feelings and to keep before his eyes only one issue – what course was best in the interests of the enterprise.
Bridges was as certain as everyone else that a heavy counter attack would come with the daylight.
All his inclination was to stay and fight.
Evacuation was a thought neither Bridges, nor his staff wanted to consider.
He found it exceedingly difficult to decide. But in view of what he heard on all sides, it seemed to him, as to White, that the soldierly course was to face a withdrawal and the preparations should be made for evacuation. Godley was in consultation with him, and was convinced of the likelihood of a disaster in the morning.
General Birdwood would need this information to consider and decide upon. They signaled to Birdwood aboard the Queen Elizabeth – ‘come ashore.’
After 10pm, high-ranking officers gathered inside Bridges’ beach HQ. Candle and torchlight illuminated the interior, casting shadows. The tents opening flapped in the warm Mediterranean evening breeze.
Inside, Bridges stooped like a hawk, examining a report. He and his staff looked up from their campaign maps and paperwork. General Birdwood entered, followed by a series of salutes and cordial introductions.
Bridges, never one to mince his words, spoke to the point. ‘Birdy’s’ facial muscles tensed as he listened to the urgent matters at hand. He had already seen the chaos of the landing area with lines of wounded and dying laid out on the beach. – and now, this news, going from bad to worse.
… the two divisional commanders laid before Birdwood their grave doubts as to whether the over-stained troops could possibly withstand further shellfire and a heavy attack in the morning …
Birdwood respected Bridges’ opinion. But he could not countenance talk of defeat,
The idea of evacuation came as a shock to Birdwood. At first he was completely opposed to it. But it was late and an instant decision one way or the other was required. Bridges, whose advice counted greatly with him, led him aside, and urged the immense importance of the matter.
If anything was to be done it must be done before dawn. In the end Birdwood was impressed, exactly as Bridges had been, by the intense anxiety of his subordinates. He did not, however take action on his own initiative, as Bridges had urged, or even make a definite recommendation.
Sir Ian Hamilton, commander of the campaign would need to know the full situation at Gaba Tepe. Birdwood was aware that the British landings at Helles had run into difficulties,
He simply put the case most strongly before Hamilton, and left the responsibility of decision to him.
Birdwood to Hamilton: If we are to re-embark…
Birdwood sent the following hand-written message to Sir Ian Hamilton.
Both my divisional generals and brigadiers have represented to me that they fear their men are thoroughly demoralised by shrapnel fire to which they have been subjected all day after exhaustion and gallant work in the morning. Numbers have dribbled back from the firing line and cannot be collected in this difficult country. Even New Zealand Brigade which has only recently been engaged lost heavily and is to some extent demoralised. If troops are subjected to shellfire again to-morrow morning there is likely to be a fiasco, as I have no fresh troops with which to replace those in the firing line. I know my representation is most serious, but if we are to re-embark it must be at once.
Hamilton aboard the Queen Elizabeth woken from his sleep at about midnight,
[I]n his pyjamas [he] came into the Admiral’s cabin where de Roebuk, Thursby, Commodore Keyes, Carruthers and Cunliffe Owen were standing round the table.
Thursby handed him Birdwood’s letter. In silence he read it, and then looked up. “This is a difficult business,” he said. “What are we to do about it?” Braithwaite stood there in his pyjamas, chewing on his big moustache, but making no remark or suggestion.
It was Thursby who answered. He said he did not believe it was possible to evacuate the troops. The boats, many of them had been smashed and sunk, the transports had been scattered… Hamilton asked Curruthers what he thought… [he] replied that it seemed to him impossible to re-embark the force within necessary time. Cunliffe Owen agreed. “Well, on that I decide it,” said Hamilton.
Hamilton to Birdwood: Dig, dig, dig…
Hamilton sat down and wrote to Birdwood.
Your news is indeed serious. But there is nothing for it but to dig yourselves right in and stick it out. It would take at least two days to re-embark you, as Admiral Thursby will explain to you. Meanwhile the Australian submarine AE2 has got up through the narrows and has torpedoed a gunboat at Chunuk. Hunter-Weston, despite his heavy losses, will be advancing tomorrow, which should divert pressure from you. Make a personal appeal to your men and Godley’s to make a supreme effort to hold their ground.
P.S You have got through the difficult business, now you have only to dig, dig, dig until you are safe.
Burning Bridges: The analysis 100 years on
Charles E.W. Bean’s descriptions of events are invaluable as a primary source. He had a high opinion of the Australian soldier and a great respect for General Bridges. Historians have taken a less partisan view of Bridges’ performance on the 25th.
General Bridges came ashore after 7am. He found no commanders to brief him and units mixed up. Groups of exhausted, confused and wounded men were filling the beach.
Bean recorded the situation once Bridges’ makeshift HQ had been set up:
Again and again, every hour, agonized messages came from brigadiers, from battalion commanders, even from company commanders for reinforcements. Hour after hour he had to judge which need was most urgent. To many an appeal he would only grunt; “Umph!..tell them they’ve got to stick it out!” He managed to keep his last reserve – the 4th battalion – just long enough to save the situation on his southern flank.
Historians have been critical of Bridges for not sending reserves to Hill 971, and for not over-ruling 3rd Brigade commander, and trusted Colonel, Sinclair-MacLagan
Maclagan ‘s fears of an attack to his exposed right were evident before the battle. Whilst observing the landing site from their command ship, Bean notes
Colonel Maclagan, who commanded the 3rd Australian Infantry Brigade, which was to make the first landing and then deal with Gaba Tepe, kept his glasses upon that low, grim promontory on his prospective right flank. The barbed-wire entanglement on the beach was plainly visible. “If that place is strongly held with guns,” he thought, “it will be almost impregnable for my fellows.” MacLagan was deeply impressed with the difficulties. Bridges thought him pessimistic. Birdwood rallied him. To other officers, who were making notes of what they saw, the difficulties did not appear so great. “The beach selected seems excellent,” wrote one. “Coast seems suitable for landing,” noted another.
As Bean mentions, Bridges was aware of the value of Baby 700 and Battleship Hill to the campaign. But he allowed MacLagan to use 2nd Brigade (meant for Hill 971) to strengthen his position on 2nd ridge. This diversion of troops was contrary to original orders.
MacLagan’s fears of a Turkish counter-attack proved incorrect. Some have said that MacLagan stabilised a chaotic situation and saved the landing. Establishing a defensive position on 2nd ridge meant 3rd (Gun) Ridge and 971 were never taken.
ANZAC forces would spend the rest of the campaign hemmed in on a broken defensive line, facing uphill . After the 25th, the Turks used their reserve forces to tighten their stranglehold.
Bridges (and Birdwood) have also received criticism for delays in bringing heavy ordinance ashore. Only 12 of the 60 Allied guns available were landed on the1st day at ANZAC Cove. Turkish artillery rained shrapnel among advancing troops with relative impunity, causing heavy casualties. Allied naval guns proved to be ineffective knocking them out due to poor visability, and aiming tradjectory.
Although the artillery was a decisive factor, this criticism of Bridges is harsh. Bridges feared losing his artillery pieces during any counter-attack it is true. But the failure to get guns ashore was largely due to the logistical difficulties of amphibious landing. The steep terrain also prevented proper deployment.
No major counter-attack would be forthcoming on the night of the 25th. Bridges and his staff didn’t know that the ANZACs and Turks had already ‘shot their bolt’. Neither side would get much further than they did on the first day. The story of the campaign would become one of deadlock, attrition and failed breakout.
In relation to the issue of evacuation on the evening of the 25th;
Maj. Generals Bridges and Godley were unaware of the results of other landings. At Helles the British had also failed to make headway. An evacuation from Anzac Cove would have shifted the ANZACS from one fatal shore to the next.
The final evacuation in December worked because it was well planned and executed. Enough embarkation craft were not available on the 25th, according to Thursby. Deserting would have been demoralising but casualties could also have been high.
The ANZAC landing had 2 intended outcomes. Stop Turkish units from reaching the British landing at Helles in the south. Then, take out Turkish guns preventing the navy from progressing through to Constantinople.
The troops and officers were enthusiastic. The British had access to accurate maps. So why did the landings fail?
A few reasons. The Turks and their German advisors had time to organize their defenses. The naval bombardment of Turkish coastal defenses signaled allied intentions. The build up of men and logistics on nearby Greek Islands also meant invasion was imminent. The allies came unprepared and under equipped. They lacked enough supplies, reinforcement and artillery support.
Sir Ian Hamilton’s planning was daring but unrealistic. The presumption that the Turks would cut and run was false. (Disproved during the navy’s costly attempts to ‘force the narrows’)
The British assumption they could ‘muddle through’ proved nothing more than wishful thinking.
Many other factors played their part and forced the hand of senior staff on the night of the 25th of April. Daunting terrain, lack of experience, poor communications. Bad decision making and the resolve of the Turks to defend their homeland. All contributed to the end result.
Most analysts say the campaign, doomed from the start was pointless side show. Europe was where WW1 would be won.
If that is the case, could anyone else have done a better job? – at ‘muddling through’ the 1st day – if they were in General Bridges position?
What we do know is that a message came back from Hamilton at 2.30am to Birdwood, Bridges and Godley. The men must “Dig, dig, dig” that is exactly what they did, like their lives depended on it. In the words of C.E.W Bean —
The forms of men hard at work could be seen in the moonlight … the clink of shovels was everywhere on the hillside.
Out to sea the warships sat silhouetted against the evening horizon. Like iron leviathans floating at the edge of the world, exhaling smoke and steam from their coal-stoked bellies.
Over ANZAC Cove, the moon’s reflection on the wine-dark glass sea is broken by boats – bringing men and equipment in. On the return journey the injured and dead are taken out to the Island of Imbros.
The Ancient Greeks had a legend. Coins were placed in the eyes or mouth as payment to the underworld ferryman. If not, the dead became ghosts for 100 years. This story remembers those brave spirits who fell and wander the shores of our collected histories a century on.
Bean C.E.W. Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918, Vol. 1 .
Broadbent, Harvey Gallipoli: the fatal shore Penguin : Camberwell, Vic. 2005
Hart, Peter Gallipoli London : Profile, 2011.
Moorehead, Alan Gallipoli Arum: London, 1956, rep 2007.
Roberts, Chris The landing at ANZAC 1915 Big Sky Publishing: Newport, NSW 2015.
Gallipoli: The first day ABC online http://www.abc.net.au/gallipoli/
Morris, Phillipa From Mosman to Gallipoli http://mosman1914-1918.net/project/blog/mosman-to-gallipoli