Today in World War I history: the Gallipoli campaign ends (1916), and the Battle of Rafa (1917)

There are a pair of World War I battles that have anniversaries today. Of the two, Gallipoli is far and away the larger and more famous. It’s also probably the more meaningful, although considering that the side that won Gallipoli wound up losing the war, that case isn’t totally cut and dried.

This is actually the 100th anniversary of the end of the Gallipoli campaign, which took eight and a half months starting from late April 1915. Technically, and if I’d had it in me, I should have written this last night, because while “January 9” is the date upon which the last British (Canadian, if you want to be particular about it) unit retreated, it was so early in the morning as to really be the night of January 8. The retreat took the entire day of January 8, starting at about 4 AM.

The Ottoman Empire in World War I; you'll find Gallipoli in the top left corner
The Ottoman Empire in World War I; you’ll find Gallipoli in the top left corner

The Gallipoli Peninsula makes up the northern (European) coast of the Dardanelles, one of the two straits (along with the more northerly Bosphorus) through which any ship traffic must travel to go from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean and vice versa. Pretty strategically important in 1915, particularly for an alliance between Britain, France, and Russia. Once the Ottomans entered the war on the German side, Britain and France were cut off from their eastern ally–Germany and Austria Hungary sat on any potential overland routes, the German navy blocked a Baltic Sea route, and the Ottomans were blocking the Black Sea route (and potentially an overland-through-Iran route as well). So, with the strong backing of First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, the Allies decided to make control over the straits a priority, and looked toward the Dardanelles first. As a side benefit, it was believed that a full-scale Allied attack on the Ottomans might draw Greece and Bulgaria, traditional Ottoman enemies, into the war. Well, Greece didn’t enter the war until 1917, owing to internal political divisions, but Bulgaria did enter the war in October 1915…on the German/Ottoman side. Oops.

A joint British-French attempt to breach Ottoman defenses in the Dardanelles by sea in March failed badly and clued the Ottomans in to the Allies’ military intentions, so the empire began preparing to defend against an invasion along either coast of the strait. They stationed the Ottoman Fifth Army, which was commanded by German General Otto von Sanders and whose officer corps was primarily German. But it was a Turkish officer, a lieutenant colonel named Mustafa Kemal (he wasn’t Atatürk yet at this point), who ensured that the Allied force faced resistance when it landed. Sanders believed that the Allied attack was likely to come on the southern, Asiatic side of the Dardanelles, but Kemal, who knew the lay of the land better than Sanders did, believed that the landing was likely to come along the southern tip of Gallipoli and another site slightly to the north. Kemal was put in command of a division charged with quickly responding to any Allied landing at Gallipoli–Sanders believed (probably correctly, as it turns out) that trying to heavily defend the entire Gallipoli coast would be futile, and that it would be better to station units inland to respond in force once it was clear where the landings were happening.

The Allied forces, which included for the first time the famous Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) and were commanded by British General Ian Hamilton, took a few weeks to prepare for their invasion, including retraining for a landing under fire (they had been expecting to follow up a successful naval assault, but recall that the naval assault had failed). The April 25 landings themselves, and subsequent Allied followup attacks over the next couple of days, were successful in the sense that the Allies were able to take and hold some territory, but the Ottomans under Kemal were able to stymie their advance and inflicted heavy casualties on them. As in the west, the fighting on Gallipoli settled into a trench battle, very costly but territoriality indecisive. Soldiers on both sides suffered as much from unsanitary conditions and disease (dysentery in particular) as from the actual fighting. But as the Allies were very much on Ottoman territory, this stalemate worked more to Ottoman than Allied benefit.

A new Allied landing was set for August 6 at a beach further to the north, Suvla Bay. The forces landing there encountered little resistance and this represented the Allies’ best chance to make some real progress. But a funny thing happened when the British commander, Frederick Stopford, just…stopped (no pun intended). It seems General Stopford, who had little experience despite being in his 60s, had some limited objectives for the landing, and once he’d achieved them, he elected to stop there instead of taking advantage of the fact that the Ottomans clearly weren’t anticipating his arrival. The fact that he elected to “command” the landing from a boat offshore might have contributed to his poor decision-making. The delay gave Kemal and Sanders time to shift forces to oppose Stopford’s force, and that front settled into trench fighting as well.

The Allied position on Gallipoli, tenuous at best anyway, took a big hit when Bulgaria entered the war on the Central Powers’ side on October 14 (what Allied planners didn’t consider is that, by this point, the Bulgarians’ residual hatred for Serbia–thanks to the 1913 Second Balkan War–was greater than their residual hatred for the Ottomans). Bulgaria’s entry into the war opened up overland supply lines from Germany to the Ottomans. Bored British officers back home were already drawing down reinforcements to the embattled troops on Gallipoli in favor of newer, younger, hotter strategies, like opening the Salonika Front in northeastern Greece. The decision was finally made in late November to evacuate the peninsula, and that was done in stages over the course of December, with the final rearguard on the final beachhead withdrawing after midnight on January 9. It’s no exaggeration to say that the withdrawal was by far the smartest and most successful part of the whole Allied operation.

In a war that was chock full of questionable decisions and a shocking willingness on the part of governments and top commanders to feed foot soldiers into the proverbial meat grinder for very little gain, Gallipoli ranks right up there with the most questionable, most meat grindery (?) episodes of them all. An operation of debatable chances of success before the initial naval attack flopped was all but a certain failure once that naval attack gave the Ottomans a preview of things to come. The failure contributed heavily to British Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith losing his job in favor of David Lloyd-George in December 1916, and Ian Hamilton and Frederick Stopford never commanded troops in the field again. Around 900,000 men participated on both sides, with over 100,000 of them dying (many from illness), and an estimated 500,000 total casualties. In the short run, this worked to Ottoman advantage, since they were closer to home and could reinforce and resupply far more easily. In the long run, though, these were losses that the stronger Allies could weather more easily than the Ottomans could.

The longer term implications of the Gallipoli Campaign were more interesting. The performance of the ANZAC, a rare bright spot in an otherwise disastrous effort, contributed to national sentiment in both Australia and New Zealand. April 25 is celebrated as a public holiday, “Anzac Day” in both countries today. The campaign is also viewed as a landmark event in the development of the modern Turkish republic, in that it represented a major military victory in defense of the Turkish “homeland” and because the remarkable performance of Mustafa Kemal set him on the path to becoming “Father of the Turks.”

The Battle of Rafa, in 1917, was a much smaller affair (only a single day, involving thousands of troops so I’ll only touch on it briefly. It ended the Sinai portion of the Sinai/Palestine Campaign, which began with an Ottoman attack on the Suez canal (Egypt, though still nominally Ottoman territory, had been a British protectorate since the mid-19th century) in late January 1915 and ended with the Allied capture of Aleppo in late October 1918. The initial Ottoman invasion had already been turned back by this point, and the battle consisted of British General Philip Chetwode’s much larger force surrounding and grinding down a small (~2000 soldiers) Ottoman garrison. Rafa finally drove the Ottomans out of British territory and cleared the way for the subsequent British offensive through the Levant.

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2 thoughts on “Today in World War I history: the Gallipoli campaign ends (1916), and the Battle of Rafa (1917)

  1. Thanks for that overview. Gallipoli has long been a special place of interest for me, to the extent that I have made visits to walk the sacred ground. My understanding is that the original plan, in the aftermath of the navy’s failure to neutralize the Turkish shore batteries on the south coast, was to occupy the commanding terrain (and those mountains are pretty damned commanding) and allow the artillery to destroy the Turkish forts at their leisure. Many things went awry, especially the unanticipated currents that swept the landing parties away from their intended beaches. In the viciousness of the ensuing territorial struggles, it somehow appears that the original purpose was lost: the infantry never managed to secure an adequate base for the artillery to do its work, thus the entire campaign turned pointless.

    I say this because there is a persistent idea in some quarters that the commanding officers where stupid. They had their faults, but not so much as to land at the southern tip of the peninsula intending to fight their way up to Constantinople.

    1. As far as I know, the landing at Cape Helles on the tip of the peninsula was intentional, but there were failures to recognize weak spots and instead they threw men at the best-defended landing sites. Hamilton made some mistakes, and Stopford was clearly over his head, but I think the real errors were made back in London, including by St. Winston.

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