Literary Thoughts edition presents Gallipoli by John Masefield ------ "Gallipoli" was written in 1916 by English writer John Masefield (1878-1967), describing what the common soldier had endured in that dreadful campaign. All books of the Literary Thoughts edition have been transscribed from original prints and edited for better reading experience. Please visit our homepage www.literarythoughts.com to see our other publications.
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Oliver said ... "I have seen the Saracens: the valley and the mountains are covered with them; and the lowlands and all the plains; great are the hosts of that strange people; we have here a very little company."
Roland answered ... "My heart is the bigger for that. Please God and His holiest angels, France shall never lose her name through me."
The Song of Roland.
A little while ago, during a short visit to America, I was often questioned about the Dardanelles Campaign. People asked me why that attempt had been made, why it had been made in that particular manner, why other courses had not been taken, why this had been done and that either neglected or forgotten, and whether a little more persistence, here or there, would not have given us the victory.
These questions were often followed by criticism of various kinds, some of it plainly suggested by our enemies, some of it shrewd, and some the honest opinion of men and women happily ignorant of modern war. I answered questions and criticism as best I could, but in the next town they were repeated to me, and in the town beyond reiterated, until I felt the need of a leaflet printed for distribution, giving my views of the matter.
Later, when there was leisure, I began to consider the Dardanelles Campaign, not as a tragedy, nor as a mistake, but as a great human effort, which came, more than once, very near to triumph, achieved the impossible many times, and failed, in the end, as many great deeds of arms have failed, from something which had nothing to do with arms nor with the men who bore them. That the effort failed is not against it; much that is most splendid in military history failed, many great things and noble men have failed. To myself, this failure is the second grand event of the war; the first was Belgium's answer to the German ultimatum.
The Peninsula of Gallipoli, or Thracian Chersonese, from its beginning in the Gulf of Xeros to its extremity at Cape Helles, is a tongue of hilly land about fifty-three miles long, between the Ægean Sea and the Straits of the Dardanelles. At its northeastern, Gulf of Xeros or European end it is four or five miles broad, then a little to the south of the town of Bulair, it narrows to three miles, in a contraction or neck which was fortified during the Crimean War by French and English soldiers. This fortification is known as the Lines of Bulair. Beyond these lines, to the southwest, the peninsula broadens in a westward direction, and attains its maximum breadth, of about twelve miles, some twenty-four miles from Bulair, between the two points of Cape Suvla, on the sea, and Cape Uzun, within the Straits. Beyond this broad part is a second contraction or neck, less than five miles across, and beyond this, pointing roughly west-southwesterly, is the final tongue or finger of the Peninsula, an isosceles triangle of land with a base of some seven miles, and two sides of thirteen miles each, converging in the blunt tip (perhaps a mile and a half across) between Cape Helles and Cape Tekke. There is no railway within the peninsula, but bad roads, possible for wheeled traffic, wind in the valleys, skirting the hills and linking up the principal villages. Most of the travelling and commerce of the peninsula is done by boat, along the Straits, between the little port of Maidos, near the Narrows, and the town of Gallipoli (the chief town) near the Sea of Marmora. From Gallipoli there is a fair road to Bulair and beyond. Some twenty other small towns or hamlets are scattered here and there in the well-watered valleys in the central broad portion of the Peninsula. The inhabitants are mostly small cultivators with olive and currant orchards, a few vineyards and patches of beans and grains; but not a hundredth part of the land is under cultivation.
The sea shore, like the Straits shore, is mainly steep-to, with abrupt sandy cliffs rising from the sea to a height of from one hundred to three hundred feet. At irregular and rare intervals these cliffs are broken by the ravines or gullies down which the autumnal and winter rains escape; at the sea mouth of these gullies are sometimes narrow strips of stony or sandy beach.
Viewed from the sea, the Peninsula is singularly beautiful. It rises and falls in gentle and stately hills between four hundred and eleven hundred feet high, the highest being at about the centre. In its colour (after the brief spring) in its gentle beauty, and the grace and austerity of its line, it resembles those parts of Cornwall to the north of Padstow from which one can see Brown Willie. Some Irish hills recall it. I know no American landscape like it.
In the brief spring the open ground is covered with flowers, but there is not much open ground; in the Cape Helles district it is mainly poor land growing heather and thyme; further north there is abundant scrub, low shrubs and brushwood, from two to four feet high, frequently very thick. The trees are mostly stunted firs, and very numerous in the south, where the fighting was, but more frequently north of Suvla. In one or two of the villages there are fruit trees; on some of the hills there are small clumps of pine. Viewed from the sea the Peninsula looks waterless and sun-smitten; the few water-courses are deep ravines showing no water. Outwardly, from a distance, it is a stately land of beautiful graceful hills rolling in suave yet austere lines and covered with a fleece of brushwood. In reality the suave and graceful hills are exceedingly steep, much broken and roughly indented with gullies, clefts and narrow irregular valleys. The soil is something between a sand and a marl, loose and apt to blow about in dry weather when not bound down by the roots of brushwood, but sticky when wet.
Those who look at the southwestern end of the Peninsula, between Cape Suvla and Cape Helles, will see three heights greater than the rolling wold or downland around them. Seven miles southeast from Cape Suvla is the great and beautiful peaked hill of Sari Bair, 970 feet high, very steep on its sea side and thickly fleeced with scrub. This hill commands the landing place at Suvla. Seven miles south from Sari Bair is the long dominating plateau of Kilid Bahr, which runs inland from the Straits, at heights varying between five and seven hundred feet, to within two miles of the sea. This plateau commands the Narrows of the Hellespont. Five miles further to the southwest and less than six miles from Cape Helles is the bare and lonely lump of Achi Baba, 590 feet high. This hill commands the landing place at Cape Helles. These hills and the ground commanded by them were the scenes of some of the noblest heroism which ever went far to atone for the infamy of war. Here the efforts of our men were made.
Those who wish to imagine the scenes must think of twenty miles of any rough and steep sea coast known to them, picturing it as roadless, waterless, much broken with gullies, covered with scrub, sandy, loose and difficult to walk on, and without more than two miles of accessible landing throughout its length. Let them picture this familiar twenty miles as dominated at intervals by three hills bigger than the hills about them, the north hill a peak, the centre a ridge or plateau, and the south hill a lump. Then let them imagine the hills entrenched, the landing mined, the beaches tangled with barbed wire, ranged by howitzers and swept by machine guns, and themselves three thousand miles from home, going out before dawn, with rifles, packs, and water bottles, to pass the mines under shell fire, cut through the wire under machine gun fire, clamber up the hills under the fire of all arms, by the glare of shell-bursts in the withering and crashing tumult of modern war, and then to dig themselves in in a waterless and burning hill while a more numerous enemy charge them with the bayonet. And let them imagine themselves enduring this night after night, day after day, without rest or solace, nor respite from the peril of death, seeing their friends killed, and their position imperilled, getting their food, their munitions, even their drink, from the jaws of death, and their breath from the taint of death, and their brief sleep upon the dust of death. Let them imagine themselves driven mad by heat and toil and thirst by day, shaken by frost at midnight, weakened by disease and broken by pestilence, yet rising on the word with a shout and going forward to die in exultation in a cause foredoomed and almost hopeless. Only then will they begin, even dimly, to understand what our seizing and holding of the landings meant.
All down the southeastern coast of this Peninsula or outlier from Europe is a channel of sea, known, anciently, as the Hellespont, but in modern times more generally as the Dardanelles, from old fortifications of that name near the southwestern end of the Strait. This channel, two or three miles across at its southwestern end, broadens rapidly to four or five, then narrows to two, then, for a short reach, to one mile or less, after which (with one more contraction) it maintains a steady breadth of two or three miles till it opens into the great salt lake of the Sea of Marmora, and thence by another narrow reach into the Black Sea, or Euxine.
It is a deep water channel, with from 25 to 50 fathoms of water in it throughout its length. The Gallipoli, or European, shore is steep-to, with a couple of fathoms of water close inshore, save in one or two beaches, where it shoals. On the Asian shore, where the ground is lower and the coast more shelving, the water is shallower. A swift current of from two to three knots an hour runs always down the channel from the Sea of Marmora; and this with a southwesterly gale against it makes a nasty sea.
This water of the Hellespont is the most important channel of water in the world. It is the one entrance and exit to the Black Sea, the mouths of the Danube, Dniester, Dnieper and Don and the great ports of Constantinople, Odessa and Sebastopol. He who controls the channel controls those ports, with their wealth and their power to affect great conflicts. The most famous war of all times was fought not for any human Helen but to control that channel. Our Dardanelles campaign was undertaken to win through it a free passage for the ships of the Allied Powers.
While the war was still young it became necessary to attempt this passage for five reasons: 1. To break the link by which Turkey keeps her hold as a European Power. 2. To divert a large part of the Turkish army from operations against our Russian Allies in the Caucasus and elsewhere. 3. To pass into Russia, at a time when her northern ports were closed by ice, the rifles and munitions of war of which her armies were in need. 4. To bring out of Southern Russia the great stores of wheat lying there waiting shipment. 5. If possible, to prevent, by a successful deed of arms in the Near East, any new alliance against us among the Balkan peoples.
In its simplest form the problem was to force a passage through the defended channel of the Dardanelles into the Sea of Marmora, to attack the capital of Turkey in Europe, to win through the Bosphorus into the Black Sea, securing each step in the advance against reconquest by the Turks, so that ships might pass from the Ægean to the Russian ports in the Black Sea, bringing to the Russians arms for their unequipped troops and taking from them the corn of the harvests of Southern Russia. The main problem was to force a passage through the defended channel of the Hellespont.
This passage had been forced in the past by a British naval squadron. In February, 1807, Sir John Duckworth sailed through with seven ships of the line and some smaller vessels, silenced the forts at Sestos and Abydos and destroyed some Turkish ships; and then, fearing that the Turks, helped by French engineers, would so improve the fortifications that he would never be able to get back, he returned. On his return, one of his ships, the Endymion frigate, 40 guns, received in her hull two stone shot each 26 inches in diameter.
The permanent fortifications guarding the Channel were added to and improved during the nineteenth century. At the outbreak of the war with Italy, four years ago, they were equipped (perhaps by German officers) with modern weapons. An attempt made by Italian torpedo boats to rush the Straits by night was discovered by searchlights and checked by a heavy fire from quick-firing and other guns. All the torpedo boats engaged in the operations were hit and compelled to return.
When Turkey entered the war against the Allied Powers, her officers had every reason to expect that the British or French fleets would attempt to force the Channel. The military prize, Constantinople and the control of the Black Sea (whether for peace or for offence), was too great a temptation to be resisted. Helped by their German allies they prepared for this attack with skill, knowledge and imagination. The Turks had no effective battle fleet, as in the sixteenth century, when they sought their enemies upon their own coasts; and had they had one they could not have passed the British fleet blockading the Dardanelles; but they prepared the channel and its shores so that no enemy ship might pass to seek them.
More than the two great wars, in South Africa and Manchuria, the present war has shown:
(a) that in modern war, defence is easier and less costly in men and munitions, however much less decisive, than attack;
(b) that the ancient type of permanent fortress, built of steel, concrete and heavy masonry is much less easy to defend against the fire of heavy modern howitzers and high explosives than temporary field works, dug into the earth and protected by earth and sandbags;
(c) that the fire of modern long range guns is wasteful and ineffective unless the object fired at can be accurately ranged, and the fire controlled by officers who can watch the bursting of the shells on or near the target;
(d) that in restricted waters the fixed or floating mine, filled with high explosive, is a sure defence against enemy ships.
Beginning with proposition (a), the Turks argued that (unlike most defences) a defence of the passage of the Dardanelles against naval attack might well be decisive (i.e., that it might well cause the attack to be abandoned or even destroy the attacking ships) since ships engaged in the attack would be under every disadvantage, since:
(b) Their guns, however heavy, would not be overwhelmingly successful against temporary field works and gun emplacements.
(c) Their officers, unable in the first place to locate the guns hidden on the shore, would be unable to observe the effect of their fire, and therefore unable to direct it, and this disadvantage would become greater as the ships advanced within the channel and became shut in by the banks.
(d) They would be unable to enter the channel until the waters had been dragged for mines by mine sweepers. The batteries of field guns hidden on the coast would perhaps be sufficient to stop the progress of the mine sweepers. If not, floating mines, alongshore torpedo tubes, and the accurately ranged and directed fire of heavy howitzers would perhaps sink the ships of war as they advanced.
(e) A ship, if damaged, would be five hundred miles from any friendly dock and seven hundred miles from any friendly arsenal. Replenishments of ammunition, fuel, food and water would have to be brought to the attacking fleet across these distances of sea, past many islands and through one or two channels well suited to be the lurking grounds for enemy submarines.
On the other hand, there was the possibility that the heavy naval guns would make the field works untenable, that observers in aeroplanes and seaplanes would locate, range and observe the fire upon the hidden batteries, that thus the mine sweepers would be able to clear a passage up the Straits without undue interruption, and complete the task demanded of them without military assistance.
Before operations could be begun by the Allied fleets it was necessary to secure some harbour, as close as possible to the Straits, to serve as what is called an advanced or subsidiary base, where large stores of necessaries, such as fuel and munitions, could be accumulated for future use by the ships engaged.
The port of Mudros, in Lemnos, was selected as this subsidiary base. This great natural harbour, measuring some two by three miles across, provides good holding ground in from five to seven fathoms of water for half the ships in the world. Two islands in the fairway divide the entrance into three passages, and make it more easy for the naval officers to defend the approaches. It is a safe harbour for ocean-going ships in all weathers, but with northerly or southerly gales, such as spring up very rapidly there in the changeable seasons of the year and blow with great violence for some hours at a time, the port is much wind-swept and the sea makes it dangerous for boats to lie alongside ships. Mudros itself, the town from which the port is named, is a small collection of wretched houses inhabited by Levantines, who live by fishery, petty commerce, and a few olive gardens and vineyards. It has a cathedral or largish church, and a small wooden pier, without appliances, for the use of the native boatmen. The town lies to the east of the harbour, on some rising ground or sand which stands up a little higher than the surrounding country. Behind it, rather more than a mile away, are barren hills of some 800 or 900 feet. The port is ringed in with these hills; it looks like a great extinct crater flooded by the sea. Over the hills in fair weather the peaks of Samothrace can be seen. When the spring flowers have withered the island is of the colour of a lion's skin. Its only beauty then is that of changing light.
Mudros in itself offered nothing to the Allied fleets but a safe anchorage. It could not even supply the ships with fresh water, let alone meat, bread and vegetables. The island produces little for its few inhabitants; its wealth of a few goats, fish, olives and currants could be bought up in a week by the crew of one battleship. Everything necessary for the operations had therefore to be brought by sea and stored in Mudros till wanted. When this is grasped, the difficulties of the undertaking will be understood. There was no dock, wharf nor crane in Mudros, nor any place in the harbour where a dock or wharf could be built without an immense labour of dredging. Ships could not be repaired nor dry-docked there, nor could they discharge and receive heavy stores save by their own winches and derricks. Throughout the operations, ships had to serve as wharves, and ships' derricks as cranes, and goods were shipped, re-shipped and trans-shipped by that incessant manual labour which is the larger half of war.
On the 18th February and following days, the Allied Fleets attacked the forts at the entrance to the Straits and soon silenced them. These were old-fashioned stone structures of great strength, they were knocked about and made untenable by the fire from the ships, but not destroyed. After this first easy success came delay, for the real obstacles lay within the Straits, between Cape Helles and the Narrows. Here, at intervals, very skilfully laid, commanded by many guns, ranged to the inch, were eight big mine fields, stretching almost across the navigable channel in different directions. No ships could pass this part of the Straits until the mines had been groped for and removed. In thick and violent weather, under heavy fire, and troubled by the strong current, the mine-sweepers began to remove them, helped by the guns of the fleet. But the fleet's fire could not destroy the mobile field guns and howitzers hidden in the gullies and nullahs (invisible from the ships) on the Asian shore and to the east of Achi Baba. The Boers, and later, the Japanese, had shown how difficult it is to locate well-concealed guns. Even when sea- and aero-planes had seen and signalled the whereabouts of the hidden guns, the ships could only fire at the flashes and at most hit some of the gunners; if their fire became too accurate the gunners would retire to their shelters, or withdraw their guns to new hidden emplacements. These hidden guns, firing continually upon the mine-sweepers, made the clearing of the mine fields towards the Narrows a slow and bloody task.
On the 18th March, the ships developed a fierce fire upon the shore defences, and in the midst of the engagement the Turks floated some large mines upon the attacking ships and by these means sank three battleships, one French, two English, the French ship with all her crew.
Heavy and unsettled weather which made mine-sweeping impossible broke off serious operations for some days. During these days it was decided, though with grave misgivings among the counsellors, that an army should be landed on the Peninsula to second the next naval attack.
It was now a month since the operations had begun, and the original decision, to leave the issue solely to the ships, had delayed the concentration of the troops needed for the task. The army, under the supreme command of General Sir Ian Hamilton, was assembling, but not yet concentrated nor on the scene. Some of it was in Egypt, some in transports at sea. When it was decided to use the army in the venture, much necessary work had still to be done. The Turks had now been given so much time to defend the landing places that to get our troops ashore at all called for the most elaborate preparation and the working out of careful schemes with the naval officers. The Germans boasted that our troops would never be able to land; possibly at first thought, many soldiers would have agreed with them, but English soldiers and sailors are not Germans; they are, as Carlyle says, "far other"; our Admirals and General felt that with courage and a brave face our troops could land. It was true that the well-armed Turks were amply ready and could easily concentrate against any army which we could land and supply, a far larger force, more easily supplied and supported. But in the narrow Peninsula they could not move their larger forces so as to out-flank us. Our flanks could be protected always by the fleet. And besides, in war, fortune plays a large part, and skill, courage and resolution, and that fine blending of all three in the uncommon sense called genius, have often triumphed even where common sense has failed. It was necessary that we should divert large armies of Turks from our Russian Allies in the Caucasus; it was desirable to strike the imaginations of the Balkan States by some daring feat of arms close to them; it was vital to our enterprise in Mesopotamia and to the safety of Egypt that we should alarm the Turks for their capital and make them withdraw their armies from their frontiers. This operation, striking at the heart of the Turkish Empire, was the readiest way to do all these things.
The army designated for this honourable and dangerous task consisted of the following:
A division of French soldiers, the Corps Expeditionnaire de l'Orient, under M. le General d'Amade. This division was made up of French Territorial soldiers and Senegalese.
The 29th Division of British regular troops.
The Royal Naval Division.
The Australian and New Zealand Army Corps.
The French Division and the 29th Division of British Regular soldiers were men who had been fully trained in time of peace, but the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps and the Royal Naval Division, who together made up more than half the army, were almost all men who had enlisted since the declaration of war, and had had not more than six months' active training. They were, however, the finest body of young men ever brought together in modern times. For physical beauty and nobility of bearing they surpassed any men I have ever seen; they walked and looked like the kings in old poems, and reminded me of the line in Shakespeare:
"Baited like eagles having lately bathed."
As their officers put it, "they were in the pink of condition and didn't care a damn for anybody." Most of these new and irregular formations were going into action for the first time, to receive their baptism of fire in "a feat of arms only possible to the flower of a very fine army."
Having decided to use the army, the question how to use it was left to the Commanding General, whose task was to help the British fleet through the Narrows. Those who have criticised the operations to me, even those who know, or pretended to know the country and military matters (but who were, for the most part, the gulls or agents of German propaganda) raised, nearly always, one or both of the following alternatives to the attack used by Sir Ian Hamilton. They have asked:
(1) Why did he not attack at or to the north of Bulair in the Gulf of Xeros, or
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