Lions Led by Donkeys

Now that the Scotland Bill has passed its final hurdle today and will become law within a matter of weeks, we Scots can expect to be enjoined by a kaleidoscope of unionists to appreciate the multifarious benefits of that union. These will revolve around our common history and in that there are indeed things to celebrate. But let’s not kid ourselves that being integral to all that was British and its Empire was pure beneficial glory.

For today is also ANZAC day. For you non-Antipodeans, this is a special kind of Remembrance for Australians and New Zealanders for what became the first action of their recently-independent armed forces in the Allied cause during WWI. It was an example of unequalled bravery on the part of the soldiers and an example of appalling stupidity on the part of the British, who dreamed up and executed one of the least celebrated disasters that pock-mark the story of the ‘Great War’.

WWI was launched on waves of patriotic fervour on both sides. But by 1915, trench warfare had stultified progress on the Western Front. As First Sea Lord, the congenitally impatient Winston Churchill was in charge of the Royal Navy. Turkey had entered the war, blocking access to our Russian allies. Churchill glimpsed glory in forcing the Dardanelles, capturing Istanbul and knocking Turkey out of the war. Re-opening supply routes to support a hard-pressed Russia were an added bonus.

Starting on February 19th, Admiral Carden expected the breakthrough to capture Istanbul to take no more than two weeks. But the first attempt to suppress Turkish forts protecting the Dardanelles was a disaster: a combined French and British fleet of second-rate battleships traded shells with shore batteries, while dodging torpedoes and minefields. 100 years before, Nelson had said  “any captain who engages a fort worthy of the name deserves to be shot” but that lesson had been forgotten.

Instead, the French Bouvet was sunk, with Suffren and Gaulois heavily damaged. The RN lost Irresistible, Inflexible and Ocean, all in the first five miles. Sent homeward to think again, Kitchener appointed Sir Ian Hamilton to lead a Mediterranean Expeditionary Force. It was to land on the Gallipoli peninsula, clear it of Turks and their artillery, so allowing the fleet to proceed. Turkish soldiers were discounted as obstacles.

As the British Army was stretched to fill the ranks in France, Hamilton augmented his 29th Division with the Australia and New Zealand Corps (ANZAC). These had answered the empire’s call for men and were completing their training in Egypt. Aside from lacking experience, these were superb troops—fit, young, healthy, built like brick shithouses and—what is key in war—organised in cohesive units and raring to make their mark.

Being new to amphibious assault, the British Army was short on both equipment and experience. Luckily, the Turks had not expected the makeshift landing by the 29th division near Hellas at the tip of Gallipoli, while the ANZACs came ashore at Gaba Tepe, in what became known as Anzac Cove. While elements of the 29th took hundreds of casualties on defended beaches, others landed without opposition and then, against orders, drifted back and re-embarked. Although the ANZACs got ashore, they ran into stiff opposition. Within hours, all landings had been sealed off and movement reduced to the equivalent of the trench warfare then ongoing the length of France.

The Turks, far from being pushovers, had been taken in hand by a German General von Sanders and reinforced by two divisions, the one facing the ANZACs being commanded by  a Col. Mustapha Kemel, later Kemel Attaturk, regarded as saviour of his country from disintegration in the aftermath of WWI. Able to land as planned on April 25th, the ANZACs were immediately counter-attacked by Kemel’s 57th Regiment and experienced days of tough fighting where the outcome hung in the balance. Almost out of ammunition, Kemel issued a brutal order “I do not order you to fight; I order you to die. In the time which passes until we die, other troops and commanders can come forward and take our places.” Of the 3,000-man regiment, none survived. As a mark of respect, there has been no 57th regiment in the Turkish Army since.

Despite desperate fighting and heroic deeds, the ANZACs bled for no good reason. All of the beachheads into which the troops had been led blind with no reconnaissance and no artillery bombardment were going nowhere. Yet General Hamilton persisted. By the summer, the heat was atrocious. Corpses in the open were bloated and putrid and, with bad sanitation, led to so many flies that eating was misery. Dysentery spread through the beachheads.

Hamilton’s solution  to the stalemate was another landing further at Suvla Bay where 22,000 men of IX Corps (British 53rd and 54th divisions) would sweep ashore against 1,500 militia holding the area and—this was key—move swiftly inland to capture a commanding chain of hills. The ANZACs were to provide a diversion by capturing Chunuk Bair. This was assigned to the New Zealand Brigade and the Australian 3rd Light Horse Brigade (dismounted at this point). The exploits of the latter became the subject of Peter Weir’s fine 1981 film, the eponymous Gallipoli.

So fierce was the fighting around Chunuk Bair that, of the 760 men of NZ’s Wellington Battalion, 711 of became casualties. Meantime under General Stopford, the IX Corps landed and proceeded to just dig in. For over two days, the wide open Turkish flank was left untroubled by soldiers milling about on the beaches of Suvla “like an enormous anthill”. Stopford stayed aboard ship, satisfied to have got his command ashore safely.

When he eventually moved forward nine days later, the chain of hills were full of dug-in Turks under the formidable Kemel and 8,000 of his men died in futile attempts to secure them.

While there is no gainsaying the utter bravery and self-sacrifice of ANZACs from half a world away fighting for a country that was no longer theirs in a war that was not theirs, the sheer professional incompetence of the British commanders from Churchill down through Kitchener, Hamilton and Stopford was shameful. It was, if anything, worse at Gallipoli than in the unimaginative charnel house that Haig created in France.

A bon mot usually attributed to the very capable German General Ludendorff, famous for bamboozling the 1914 Russian offensive in Masuria, was that British soldiers were “Lions led by Donkeys”. But how much more difficult for Australians and New Zealanders—both fighting in the forces and anxiously awaiting news from half a world away—to thole that their lives, sold dearly with such bravery, should be wasted by incompetence rife in the mother country’s supposed professionals who’d yet to learn their butcher’s trade of war.

About davidsberry

Local ex-councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Retired in 2017.
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4 Responses to Lions Led by Donkeys

  1. Hugh says:

    Different shambles, but the same Kipling censure might be applicable:

    Mesopotamia, 1917
    THEY shall not return to us, the resolute, the young,
    The eager and whole-hearted whom we gave:
    But the men who left them thriftily to die in their own dung,
    Shall they come with years and honour to the grave?

    They shall not return to us; the strong men coldly slain
    In sight of help denied from day to day:
    But the men who edged their agonies and chid them in their pain,
    Are they too strong and wise to put away?

    Our dead shall not return to us while Day and Night divide–
    Never while the bars of sunset hold.
    But the idle-minded overlings who quibbled while they died,
    Shall they thrust for high employments as of old?

    Shall we only threaten and be angry for an hour:
    When the storm is ended shall we find
    How softly but how swiftly they have sidled back to power
    By the favour and contrivance of their kind?

    Even while they soothe us, while they promise large amends,
    Even while they make a show of fear,
    Do they call upon their debtors, and take counsel with their friends,
    To conform and re-establish each career?

    Their lives cannot repay us–their death could not undo–
    The shame that they have laid upon our race.
    But the slothfulness that wasted and the arrogance that slew,
    Shell we leave it unabated in its place?

  2. davidsberry says:

    Yes, that’s what comes of building empires, m’boy. As I understand it, that was the first of our four invasions of Iraq and drily described by the long-suffering troops described as “Townshend’s Regatta” . That general drove his troops relentlessly forward to their doom, chasing the egotistical chimera of being dubbed “Townshend of Baghdad”

  3. Pingback: Glorious and Free | davidsberry

  4. Pingback: Lions Led by Donkeys Revisited | davidsberry

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