20 December 1915 – Gallipoli
As dawn arrives in the Dardanelles this morning, the Turkish defenders standing-to in the front lines observe silence from the enemy at Anzac Cove and Suvla Bay, while surveillance teams on the heights quickly report a lack of movement. Scouts return with the news that the enemy has absconded in the night leaving little behind, whereupon the Turks make a general advance to reclaim their country from the grasping hands of the Entente allies. A fused mine detonates, erupting in a giant crater and killing dozens of Turkish soldiers, but this does not halt the tide of troops flowing down towards the beaches. Only when the two British destroyers covering the beach start blasting at everything that moves does the victorious cascade draw short, and both warships depart by 7 AM upon rumors of a German submarine sighting.
Despite the best efforts of the invaders, some part of their logistical mountain of food, ammunition, and supplies has been left behind undestroyed, and the hungry, underequipped Turks quickly set about eating and carrying off as much as they can. But this pittance aside, withdrawal operations are a complete success, and only twelve days have passed since the British government finally made the agonized decision to evacuate Gallipoli. That much is good military news for the British Empire, and sadly it is the best military news for Britain in 1915.
Many Ottoman Army officers have suspected the invaders were preparing to withdraw since late September, when the enemy assumed a defensive crouch in his lines. Recent activity on the beachheads has fed speculation, and the speculation running rampant in Turkish ranks have made troops unwilling to attack in recent weeks, especially as the winter cold has arrived to make everyone miserable. Commanding the Fifth Army defense of Gallipoli, German General Otto ‘Liman’ von Sanders has avoided pitched battle and discouraged offensive operations while waiting to discern enemy intentions. On November 29th, Sanders wrote a note in French to his famous subordinate, Colonel Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, requesting that he stand down from planning an assault that afternoon.
You know very well that the enemy is at the moment still in considerable strength, and we have sustained enough casualties already doing this kind of thing…The spontaneous and radical change in the situation, of which you have clear signs, now commences, that the enemy wishes to withdraw. Until then, you must obtain [my] permission [to attack].
Sanders has more divisions than the Ottomans can muster throughout the rest of their empire, but he has been forced to husband his forces on a battlefront that strongly resembles the Western Front. Trenches have been cut just yards apart in the unforgiving soil; barbed wire and the weight of artillery fire have been the decisive factors in combat; Turkey simply cannot endure a war of attrition like this at a European scale, and Sanders’s policy reflects that reality. Now suddenly granted a numerical advantage over the remaining Entente beachhead at Cape Helles on the ‘toe’ of the peninsula, however, Sanders begins to plan for redeployment and a fresh attack on the retreating foe. But his blow will never land, for the same logistics and weather conditions which have left his men hungry and cold also make it difficult to catch the enemy before he departs.
Long considered a potential political rival to Minister of War Enver Pasha, whose own wartime leadership has proven disastrous, Atatürk is an aggressive leader, but also a shrewd one. Rather than lay political siege to Istanbul, he has cultivated the Turkish press by taking them on a tour of the Gallipoli battlefields (see photo at top), so as word of the sudden victory reaches the rest of the besieged country, he reaps a personal harvest of positive publicity. In leaving him behind alive, the British Empire has elevated Atatürk into a national hero, and in a very real sense has created the modern nation of Turkey. Atatürk will spend the remainder of the war becoming a constant presence in state propaganda, advance in rank, and rule over the new modern state of Turkey which emerges from the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire; after today, the stigma of defeat attaches only to the ‘Three Pashas’ who led it into war.