The Gallipoli campaign has been a fiasco. Staggering their naval and ground assaults of the straits so that Turkish War Minister Enver Pasha enjoyed every opportunity to reinforce the peninsula against him, the allies presented operation commander Sir Ian Hamilton with a far more difficult task than they otherwise might have, but his own leadership has not helped matters. In his third dispatch from Gallipoli, published today across the United Kingdom, Hamilton describes his attempt to surprise the Turks with an amphibious landing at Suvla Bay in August as if it was a rousing success rather than an abysmal failure.
On the nights of the 4th, 5th, and 6th August the reinforcing troops were shipped into Anzac very silently at the darkest hours. Then, still silently, they were tucked away from enemy aeroplanes or observatories in their prepared hiding places. The whole sea route lay open to the view of the Turks upon Achi Baba’s summit and Battleship Hill. Aeroplanes could count every tent and every ship at Mudros or at Imbros. Within rifle fire of Anzac’s open beach hostile riflemen were looking out across the Aegean no more than twenty feet from our opposing lines. Every modern appliance of telescope, telegraph, wireless was at the disposal of the enemy. Yet the instructions worked out at General Headquarters in the minutest detail (the result of conferences with the Royal Navy, which were attended by Brigadier-General Skeen, of General Birdwood’s Staff) were such that the scheme was carried through without a hitch. The preparation of the ambush was treated as a simple matter by the services therein engaged, and yet I much doubt whether any more pregnant enterprise than this of landing so large a force under the very eyes of the enemy, and of keeping them concealed there three days, is recorded in the annals of war.
While it is certainly true that the Ottoman Empire has the conveniences of modern technology at their disposal, Hamilton’s description of the enemy’s mind and motivations is a pure fantasy. In fact, his IX Corps landed against minimal opposition on the beach because the German commander on the scene, Liman von Sanders, held the bulk of his forces in reserve rather than oppose Hamilton on the shore, where supporting naval gunnery would have been more effective. The British force came ashore in disarray, with units going off-course in the dark and failing to secure critical objectives because no one had bothered to share the operations plan with them. Once landed, IX Corps wasted its strength on uphill attacks against entrenched positions.
Making the exhausted halt of IX Corps seem like a victory is quite a trick, but Hamilton is quite adept at the art of spin. For instance, referring to a close-quarters fight that took place in trenches only yards apart, and which went badly due to grenade shortages that have plagued his force throughout the campaign, Hamilton says that “advantage was taken of every cessation in the enemy’s bombing to consolidate” — a fancy way of saying that he reinforced his failures. Writing of the abysmal attacks in which whole units were annihilated and failed to win anything meaningful with their sacrifices, Hamilton shrugs off the losses: “Enough had been done for honour and much ground had everywhere been gained.” Perhaps the most maddening point in Hamilton’s dispatch is the way he ignores superior Turkish troop numbers to present the failure as a ‘very near thing’ that might have been won, had he only felt like committing himself to even greater losses.
At times I had thought of throwing my reserves into this stubborn central battle, where probably they would have turned the scale. But each time the water troubles made me give up the idea, all ranks at Anzac being reduced to one pint a day. True thirst is a sensation unknown to the dwellers in cool, well-watered England. But at Anzac, when mules with water “pakhals” arrived at the front, the men would rush up to them in swarms, just to lick the moisture that had exuded through the canvas bags. It will be understood, then, that until wells had been discovered under the freshly-won hills, the reinforcing of Anzac by even so much as a brigade was unthinkable.
Hamilton’s force has been severely weakened by inadequate supplies of fresh water — a problem that he thought he had solved.
When originally I conceived the idea of these operations, one of the first points to be weighed was that of the water supply in the Biyuk Anafarta valley and the Suvla plain. Experience at Anzac had shown quite clearly that the whole plan must be given up unless a certain amount of water could be counted upon, and, fortunately, the information I received was reassuring. But, in case of accidents, and to be on the safe side, so long ago as June had I begun to take steps to counter the chance that we might, from one cause or another, find difficulty in developing the wells. Having got from the War Office all that they could give me, I addressed myself to India and Egypt, and eventually from these three sources I managed to secure portable receptacles for 100,000 gallons, including petrol tins, milk cans, camel tanks, water bags and pakhals. Supplementing these were lighters and water-ships, all under naval control. Indeed, by arrangement with the Admiral, the responsibility of the Army was confined to the emptying of the lighters and the distribution of the water to the troops, the Navy undertaking to bring the full lighters to the shore to replace the empty ones, thus providing a continuous supply. Finally 3,700 mules, together with 1,750 water carts, were provided for Anzac and Suvla — this in addition to 950 mules already at Anzac. Representatives of the Director of Supplies and Transport at Suvla and Anzac were sent to allot the transport which was to be used for carrying up whatever was most needed by units ashore, whether water, food or ammunition.
Even with half his force engaged in carrying water, there has not been enough, and the wells Hamilton expected to find inland turned out to be dry holes. Like so much else that he has been wrong about, Hamilton still seems blissfully unaware of how short this effort fell, and accepts no responsibility for the failure. In part, that is because of his choice to command the entire operation from Imbros, a Greek island forty-five minutes from Anzac Beach, and manage his force by undersea telegraph line rather than observe battles in person.
Although the Sari Bair ridge was the key to the whole of my tactical conception, and although the temptation to view this vital Anzac battle at closer quarters was very hard to resist, there was nothing in its course or conduct to call for my personal intervention.
To be sure, this is an era when the modern headquarters is being invented, and theater commanders must remain far behind the front lines just because it is the only place where all their lines of communications can converge, while there is very little Hamilton might have done to improve the situation. But his impression of the morale of the men under his command underlines just how out of touch Hamilton is. As he adds to the dispatch in his memoir annotations:
From this date onwards up to the date of my departure on October 17th the flow of munitions and drafts fell away. Sickness, the legacy of a desperately trying summer, took heavy toll of the survivors of so many arduous conflicts. No longer was there any question of operations on the grand scale, but with such troops it was difficult to be downhearted. All ranks were cheerful; all remained confident that, so long as they stuck to their guns, their country would stick to them, and see them victoriously through the last and greatest of the crusades.
Most of the officers serving at Gallipoli have favored withdrawal since the first day of landings. Even as his dispatch is published for an increasingly-skeptical British public, the corridors of power are maneuvering against him. Hamilton has already lost more lives than the Admiralty or the War Office originally envisioned putting on the line at all, much less in the ground. The addition of IX Corps was supposed to provide him with more than enough strength to finish the job, but now Hamilton claims that further reinforcements are necessary. Increasingly isolated and discredited, Hamilton is virtually the only person left who thinks that the war can be won here.