“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)
First step toward disaster…
By the evening of the 25th of April, Australian and New Zealand Divisions clung precariously onto the ridges and spurs around Gaba Tepe (ANZAC Cove.)
Any hopes held by the enthusiastic volunteers of the 1st A.I.F of embarking on a grand adventure, or plans by their commanders of marching through the streets of Constantinople, fell apart shortly after the first waves of troops hit the beaches.
Having missed the original landing point, the disoriented Australians waded ashore. ‘The Sphinx’ – at whose feet sat a maze of ravines, dense scrub and vertical cliffs – looked down on groups of khaki uniformed soldiers fighting their way uphill. Other groups in brown drab uniforms (the Turks) using the landscape to their advantage, make a haphazard fighting retreat.
On the ground, the ANZAC landing parties were running on adrenaline – the desperate push from the beach to the heights was on in earnest. Rifles cracked, bullets whizzed. Officers shouted directions, soldiers took cover, returned fire and rushed forward. Shrapnel burst overhead – men crumpled into the earth, screaming – casualties, like the confusion, steadily increased.
Despite the unexpected resistance, a break-out from the beach and capture of the heights dominating ANZAC Cove still seemed a possibility early on the 25th. Turkish trench works and artillery overlooking the landing, however, still had to be taken. Time was running out for the ANZACs – Turkish infantry units and machine gunners were being force-marched to link up with their hard pressed comrades.
The ANZAC’s were given to believe “Johnny Turk” would bolt at the first sight of the invasion fleet- or at least that is what they hoped. The plucky Australians and New Zealanders however, soon learned not to underestimate their foe, many of whom were hardened veterans. The Turk, defending his homeland proved a tough adversary – as well as a good shot. Exposed ANZAC officers were soon picked off; lacking direction, many units lost their way.
Turkish officers, on the other hand, were able to direct the battle relatively unhindered. Mustafa Kemal quickly summed up British intentions, and threw all his forces into recapturing the heights around Gaba Tepe. His foresight, and other actions on the day, proved decisive to the overall result of the campaign.
Kemal reportedly gave the following directive to the Turkish 57th regiment at Hill 971. It sums up what their Colonel and their country expected of them.
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 were decimated, but they bought precious time. Their sacrifice is still remembered today.
Ataturk reportedly told another group of Turks – out of ammunition and fleeing uphill – to fix bayonets and lie down and by doing so caused the ANZAC’s to hesitate.
From there on, the heights of ‘Baby 700’ (below Hill 971) changed hands several times in to and fro skirmishes. In desperate fighting the ANZACs were forced back over ‘Battleship Hill’ (below Baby 700).
To the south-east, the 3rd Ridge or ‘Gun Ridge’ was reached, but lacking support the Australians were forced to withdraw (back to the ‘2nd Ridge’). As a result the Turkish Artillery continued to rain shrapnel on the unprotected ANZAC infantry.
By the end of the day both sides had reached a stalemate. Dehydrated and exhausted, troops dug in and waited apprehensively to be re-supplied and for the enemy’s next move.
It would be another sleepless night for the living. As the sun set on the peninsular, lengthening shadows shrouded bodies in forlorn gullies, and the cries of the dying echoed on the wind, and through the darkening defiles.
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.
To cut their losses and evacuate was a thought neither Bridges nor his staff wanted to contemplate.
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.
The unpalatable option would have to be put to General Birdwood, commander of the ANZAC forces. Birdwood aboard the Queen Elizabeth was signaled to come ashore.
After 10pm, high-ranking officers gathered inside Bridges’ beach HQ. Candle and torchlight illuminated the interior, casting shadows. The tents opening flapped gently in the warm Mediterranean evening breeze.
Inside, Bridges stooped hawkishly, examining a report. He and his staff looked up from their campaign maps and paperwork. General Birdwood entered, and was greeted with a series of salutes and cordial introductions.
Despite the strains of the last 24 hours, Bridges, never one to mince his words, is measured and to the point. ‘Birdy’s’ facial muscles tense as he listens 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, seemingly 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 could not countenance talk of defeat, even though he respected Bridges’ soldierly opinion.
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 it must be at once
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 was woken from his sleep at about midnight, says Bean.
[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 until you are safe
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. Less partisan historians have taken a more critical view of Bridges’ performance on the 25th.
General Bridges came ashore after 7am and found no commanders to brief him, units mixed up and groups of exhausted, confused and wounded men 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 criticized Bridges for not throwing his reserves into taking 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 action diverted troops needed as reinforcements at Battleship Hill and Baby 700 (and for the push up Hill 971.)
MacLagan’s fears of a Turkish counter-attack proved to be unfounded. Some have said that MacLagan stabilised a chaotic situation and saved the landing. However by ignoring orders and establishing a defensive position on 2nd ridge, the opportunity to take and hold Turkish positions and gun emplacements on 3rd Ridge was lost.
The failure to take Hill 971 and 3rd ridge meant ANZAC forces would spend the rest of the campaign hemmed in on all sides with a broken defensive line, facing uphill . After the 25th., the Turks used their reserve forces to tighten their stranglehold.
Bridges and Birdwood have also been criticized for delays in bringing heavy guns ashore and a reluctance to risk their capture during any counter-attack . Only 12 of the 60 Allied guns available were landed on the first day at ANZAC Cove. As a result Turkish guns rained shrapnel among advancing troops with relative impunity, causing heavy casualties.
The failure to get all the guns ashore can be explained by the difficulties of amphibious landing and the steep terrain. (The advantage of using Allied naval guns was largely negated due to the unusual geography and subsequent lack of visibility.)
What Bridges and his staff at the time didn’t know was that both Turk and ANZAC forces had already ‘shot their bolt’ – no major counter-attack would be forthcoming on the night of the 25th. 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 that the British landings at Helles had also failed to make headway. Ultimately, an evacuation from Gaba Tepe (Anzac Cove) would have shifted the ANZACS from one fatal shore to the next. The final evacuation in December 1915 worked because it was – unlike the landings – well planned and executed. In addition, assuming boats could have been made available on the 25th, re-embarkation would have been demoralising and casualties could have been high.p(caption).
25 April 1915. Landing of the 1st Brigade signals section. (AWM P00035.001)
The ANZAC landing was meant to achieve 2 outcomes, to stop any Turkish units coming from the north to reinforce troops fighting the British landing at Helles in the south, and having done this, British and allied forces would subdue the Turkish guns (preventing their navy from progressing up the straights to Constantinople.)
The troops and officers were enthusiastic, and the British had access to reasonably accurate maps. So why did the landings fail?
The naval bombardment of Turkish coastal defenses in Nov. 1914 and the build up of men and logistics on nearby Greek Islands signaled allied intentions months in advance. This allowed the Turks and their German advisors time to organize their defenses. The allies on the other hand came woefully unprepared – they had inadequate supplies, reinforcement and artillery support.
Sir Ian Hamilton’s planning was daring but unrealistic. The general assumption – disproved during the navy’s costly attempts to ‘force the narrows’ – that the Turks would just cut and run and that the British could simply ‘muddle through’ proved to be nothing more than wishful thinking.
The daunting terrain, lack of experience, poor communications and decision making on the ground – and the resolve of the Turks to defend their homeland – all contributed to the end result, and forced the hand of senior staff on the night of the 25th of April.
Most analysts say the campaign was doomed from the start. 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 once the message had come back from Hamilton at 2.30am to Birdwood, Bridges and Godley for the men to “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, Her Majesty’s ship’s are silhouetted against the evening horizon – like iron leviathans floating impossibly at the edge of the world, with funnels exhaling smoke and steam from coal stoked bellies. They are here to stay, for now.
Looking over ANZAC Cove, the moon’s reflection -a luminescent band rolling across the dark, satin glass of the Mediterranean sea – is broken now and then by the movement of boats – bringing men and equipment in, and taking the injured, dying and dead out.
One could imagine, in an age of gods and heroes, the mythical ferryman) appearing out of the mists of time- to take the dead men’s souls to the underworld. According to legend, if the ferryman wasn’t paid by placing a coin in the mouth, or the deceased remained unburied, their ghosts would wander earthly shores for 100 years.
Like ancient and classical bards and historians, Charles Bean honoured the memory of the fallen by collecting and recording information to add to his Official Histories ; His Histories illuminate the past and repay debts owed to the dead. Their spirits however, still wander the pages of our literary imagination, and walk the shores our history – over 100 years later.
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