Today in Middle Eastern history: the Gallipoli campaign ends (1916), and the Battle of Rafa (1917)

There are two World War I battles that have anniversaries today. Of them, Gallipoli is far and away the larger and more famous. But while we’re here I figured we could at least mention the other one. Technically this is anniversary of the end of the Gallipoli campaign, which lasted eight and a half months starting from late April 1915. The date is also a bit misleading–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.

Map - Ottomans in WW I
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 Bosphorus further north and east) through which any ship must travel to go from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean and vice versa. This was a pretty important location 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 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 positioned the Ottoman Fifth Army, which was commanded by German General Otto von Sanders and whose officer corps was primarily German, to meet any attack. Sanders was in overall command, 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 as soon as 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 (and history would seem to agree) that trying to defend the entire Gallipoli coast would be futile, and that it would be better to station units inland that could respond 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 (the failure of the earlier naval assault having changed the expected conditions for the operation). 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 inflict heavy casualties upon them. As in the west, the fighting on Gallipoli settled into a trench battle, very costly from a personnel standpoint 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 call it a day instead of pressing his immediate advantage. The fact that he chose 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 their troops around 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 hadn’t considered was that the Bulgarians’ hatred for Serbia–thanks to the 1913 Second Balkan War–was greater and more immediate than their hatred for the Ottomans. Bulgaria’s entry into the war opened up overland supply lines from Germany to the Ottoman Empire. Bored British officers back home were already diverting reinforcements that should have gone to Gallipoli in favor of newer, younger, hotter operation, like the Salonika Front in northeastern Greece. The Allies finally decided in late November to evacuate the peninsula, which 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 officers to feed (generally lower class) 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 whose chances of success were dubious before the initial naval attack flopped was all but a certain failure once that naval attack let the Ottomans know what to expect. The failure of the campaign contributed heavily to British Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith losing his job in favor of David Lloyd-George in December 1916, and for their troubles 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 was better for the Ottomans, 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 far more easily than could the empire.

The longer term implications of the Gallipoli Campaign are 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 helped start him on the path to becoming the founder of modern Turkey.

The Battle of Rafa, in 1917, was a much smaller affair (only a single day, involving a few thousand troops) so as I say it only really rates a short mention. 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 this battle consisted mostly 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 Egypt and cleared the way for the subsequent British push into the Levant.

Author: DWD

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One thought

  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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