HMS Phaeton, light cruiser which carried Sir Ian Hamilton to DardanellesOn 17 March 1915, just five days after his surprise appointment, General Sir Ian Hamilton landed at Lemnos. At first light the following morning, the day appointed for the big naval attack, he inspected the shore facilities at Mudros and found them ‘gravely wanting’. The Royal Navy cruiser Phaeton took him along the west coast of the Gallipoli peninsula to make a preliminary reconnaissance of possible landing sights. With the element of surprise gone, the Turks had been ‘furiously digging in’ [1] and every part of the coastline even remotely suitable for amphibious landings had been fortified by trenches and barbed wire.[2] Later that day Hamilton had a ringside seat on Phaeton’s bridge and observed the naval disaster unfold. He informed Kitchener by telegraph that Vice-Admiral de Robek was willing to ‘have another go’, but he personally considered it unlikely that the Dardanelles could be forced by battleships alone. A combined attack was essential, with a ‘deliberate and progressive military operation carried out at full strength’ to open a passage for the Navy. Kitchener replied that he should go ahead. [3]

This then was the situation on 21 March. Despite his losses, the naval commander believed that the Fleet could still break through the Dardanelles without help from the army, while the military commander was convinced that it could not. On 22 March De Robeck sailed the Queen Elizabeth to Lemnos for a conference with Hamilton. Much to the General’s surprise, the Vice-Admiral had changed his mind and agreed that the fleet could not prevail without military support. ‘There was no discussion’ Hamilton reported, ‘and we at once turned our faces to the land scheme.’ [4] De Robeck informed the Admiralty that he now considered a combined operation essential, but he could do nothing until the military force, scattered across the Mediterranean, was ready for action. [5]

Australian historian, Robin Prior explained that following the abortive naval operation, the War Council never reconvened to consider a military landing, which was approved by default. ‘There was no discussion, no plan, and no political authorisation’, and ‘this was in fact a worse situation than preceded the naval operation.’ [6] It certainly was, but Professor Prior, like many of his fellow academics, failed to appreciate that major decisions about Gallipoli were made, not by the War Council, but by a secret cabal. Churchill, Kitchener, Balfour, Grey, Hankey, Asquith, Haldane and others closely linked to the Secret Elite held regular meetings to decide the course of action. It would have been impossible otherwise to set the Gallipoli campaign up to fail. What mattered was that the Czar and Sazonov believed that they were trying to take Constantinople and the Straits for Russia. The crucial decisions were taken before the War Council met. Naval and military ‘advisers’ kept their counsel; their attendance was cursory.

The chaos which plagued the naval attack, overwhelmed the military operation. It was just as Churchill, Kitchener and Balfour intended. They had ‘buried’ the vast quantity of up-to-date intelligence which would have greatly assisted the commanders in the field. As General Hamilton noted in exasperation, ‘ the Dardanelles and the Bosphorus might be in the moon for all the military information I have got to go upon…’. [7] Lack of detailed information was not the only problem. The late Robert Rhodes James wrote; ‘Never, in fact, was a gallant army so miserably mishandled by its chiefs as were the British and Dominion soldiers on Gallipoli. Never was a higher price paid for such a complete misunderstanding of a strategical situation.’ [8] Absolutely, but he never questioned why those ‘chiefs’ were chosen in the first place. They had selected second or third rate senior officers, not because outstanding men were unavailable, but because lack of ability and incompetence was exactly what was required to ensure failure.

Vice-Admiral De Robek and Sir Ian Hamilton

Disheartened by the naval fiasco, the topography and the defences on the peninsula, General Hamilton crossed to Egypt on 24 March. His impossible task was to prepare a disparate force of mainly untried and untested recruits to take on the most difficult military operation in the field of warfare; landing an army from the sea in the face of an entrenched and well armed enemy. All the evidence of history demonstrated the advantage which defenders enjoyed unless the assault was accompanied by overwhelming force supported by an adequate artillery bombardment. [9] Hamilton had neither. He was additionally handicapped by the absence of his personal and logistics staff who had not even left England. [10]

It went from bad to worse. The Allied forces were scattered in confusion over much of the Mediterranean, and some Battalion commanders could not trace their companies. Such was the lack of preparation that even the simplest questions could not be answered. ‘Was there drinking water on Gallipoli? What roads existed? Were troops expected to fight in trenches or the open? What sort of weapons were required? What was the depth of water off the beaches? Were there strong currents? What sort of boats were needed to get the men, the guns and stores ashore? What casualties were to be expected, and how were they to be transferred to the hospital ships? [11]

Hamilton’s spirits sank under the pressure of ridiculous expectation. His diary entry for 5 April revealed a near broken man;

‘Time presses: K. prods us from the rear: the Admiral from the front. To their eyes we seem to be dallying amidst the fleshpots of Egypt whereas, really, we are struggling like drowning mariners in a sea of chaos; chaos in the offices; chaos on the ships; chaos in the camps; chaos along the wharves;’ [12]

Hamilton’s administrative staff did not arrive in Egypt until 11 April. In Alexandria they began their task in a dilapidated former-brothel without drainage, light or water. [13] A period of hectic improvisation began. Men were sent into the bazaars of Alexandria and Cairo to buy skins, oil drums, kerosene tins – anything that would hold water. There was also a shortage of guns, ammunition, aircraft and men. Hamilton later wrote that the War Office had sent them into battle with ‘museum pieces’. [14] In theory the British Divisions should have had 304 guns, but had only 118. Ammunition supplies were minimal. There were no periscopes for trench fighting, no hand grenades or trench mortars. Material to build piers and jetties was non-existent. In the absence of maps, staff officers scoured the shops for guide-books. Hamilton sent a series of messages to Kitchener asking for reinforcements, artillery and shells, but was met either with terse refusals or no reply at all. [15] He noted in his diary: ‘Special craft are being built back home for possible landings on the Baltic coast. Each lighter can carry 500 men and has bullet-proof bulwarks. They call them ‘beetles’. Landing from these would be child’s play. … I’ve asked K for the beetles myself.’ He was curtly refused. [16] While the shiny new flat-bottomed, bullet and shrapnel proof amphibious landing craft remained unused in Britain, many of his troops were to be slaughtered at Helles in open, wooden cutters.

General d'Amade on the beach at GallipoliHamilton’s divisional commanders were far from enthusiastic. A surprise attack was clearly impossible. One officer stated, ‘To land would be difficult enough if surprise were possible but hazardous in the extreme under present conditions.’ [17] Secrecy was non-existent. The Egyptian press reported the arrivals of Allied forces and their proposed destination. [18] General d’Amade, commander of the French contingent, gave an interview in which he discussed the invasion plans at great length. [19] Indeed, he presented the enemy with a blueprint for the landings. [20] Allied activity in Egypt was closely observed by Turkish and German agents who were able to ‘deliver a complete Allied order of battle to the head of intelligence in Constantinople by the middle of March.’ [21] Sixty-five days elapsed between the first naval attack and the amphibious landings on 25 April during which time the Turkish defences were transformed. It was strategically, a ridiculous state of affairs.

The Greek government had suggested that 200,000 men would be required, and in January Kitchener had estimated 150,000, [22] but Hamilton could only count on half that number. They included 18,000 well-trained regulars (the 29th Division,) 34,100 physically fit but raw Anzac troops, a ragbag Naval division of 11,000, and a French division of 20,000. Many of these soldiers had barely completed basic training and collectively they had never worked together. Most of the senior commanders were inexperienced and their staff had little practical knowledge of the appalling problems that would face them on a daily basis. ‘This was a disaster waiting to happen.’ [23] Marshall Joffre, the French C-in-C, was profoundly opposed to the whole operation and initially refused to provide troops, but political expediency forced his hand. [24] A French army officer, Colonel Maucorps, who had spent years in Turkey also opposed the attack, but like everyone with intimate knowledge of the subject, his protests were dismissed and his intelligence reports ignored. [25]

Major-General Aylmer Hunter-Weston

After much dithering, Kitchener had finally agreed to release the 29th Division. Its commander, Major-General F Shaw, had served with distinction at Mons and was considered a highly competent and ‘impressively professional soldier.’ Two days before embarkation, when continuity was all-important, Kitchener inexplicably replaced Shaw with Major-General Hunter-Weston. The man was a snobbish boor. He refused to travel in the ship he was allocated because it lacked first class accommodation, and demanded to be transferred to the luxury liner Andania. [26] Major-General Shaw suffered the same fate as Admiral Limpus. A highly competent and knowledgeable officer was rejected in favour of the laughing-stock of the British Army. [27] It was as if the esprit de corps of the 29th Division had been neutered. Spectacularly incompetent, Hunter-Weston was considered one of the most brutal commanders of the First World War. [28]

Preparations blundered on. Ships arrived from Britain without specific destinations. [29] Supplies were packed in the wrong order and chaos ensued [30] Hamilton had no choice but to order some supply ships back 700 miles to Egypt to be unloaded and properly repacked. [31] Reorganisation of the equipment took more than a month, and partly explains why the Army was unable to land on Gallipoli soon after the naval disaster of 18 March. The blame for most of this chaos rested with Graeme Thomson, Director of Transport at the Admiralty. Churchill had personally appointed Thomson despite protests by senior officers. Admiral Oliver stated that Thomson knew all about the City but nothing of warfare. Had the far abler Vice-Admiral Slade been given the job, as recommended by admiralty insiders, ‘the transports for the Dardanelles would have been properly loaded and arrived in the proper order.’ [32] Yet again, an incompetent was deliberately appointed over a man fitted for the task.

The long delays made it impossible for Hamilton to co-ordinate a joint attack. While there was only one Turkish division based on Gallipoli during the naval assault, General Liman Von Sanders, the German military advisor in Turkey, increased the defensive strength to six divisions over the following months. [33] The Peninsula might have been taken by a combined operation in March, but the failure of the naval bombardments only served to warn the Turks that the Dardanelles had become a pressing target for the allies. Consequently, they reinforced the defences and held the upper hand. Confusion reigned supreme about the future roles of the army and navy. [34] In the end, the Navy was confined to a subsidiary supporting role, and a combined operation, the only approach which might have succeeded, [35] never materialised.

As widely advertised across the western mediterranean, a horror-show was on its way to Gallipoli.

[1] Harvey Broadbent, The Fatal Shore, p. 38.

[2] Dan Van Der Vat, The Dardanelles Disaster, p. 145.

[3] Robin Prior, Gallipoli, The End of The Myth, p. 68.

[4] Alan Moorehead, Gallipoli, p. 88.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Prior, Gallipoli, The End of The Myth, p. 68.

[7]Sir Ian Hamilton, Gallipoli Diary, vol. 1, 15 March, 1915 http://www.gutenberg.org/files/19317/19317-h/19317-h.htm#Page_127,

[8] Robert Rhodes James, Gallipoli, p. 21.

[9] Ellis Ashmead Bartlett, The Uncensored Dardanelles, pp. 39-40.

[10] Michael Hickey, Gallipoli, p. 77.

[11] Prior, Gallipoli, p. 242.

[12] Hamilton, Gallipoli Diary, vol. 1, 5 April 1915 http://www.gutenberg.org/files/19317/19317-h/19317-h.htm#Page_127,

[13] James, Gallipoli, p. 80.

[14] J Laffin, The Agony of Gallipoli, p. 258-9.

[15] James, Gallipoli, p. 79.

[16] L A Carlyon, Gallipoli, p. 105.

[17] Moorehead, Gallipoli, pp. 117-118.

[18] Arthur J Marder, From Dreadnought to Scapa Flow, vol 11, p. 258.

[19] Robert Rhodes James, Gallipoli, p. 79.

[20] Laffin, The Agony of Gallipoli, p. 40.

[21] Hickey, Gallipoli, p. 87.

[22] Marder, From Dreadnought to Scapa Flow, Vol. 11, p. 212.

[23] Peter Hart, Gallipoli, p. 56.

[24] Laffin, The Agony, p. 35.

[25] Edmond Delage, The Tragedy of the Dardanelles, p. 109.

[26] Hickey, Gallipoli, pp. 57-58.

[27] Denis Winter, Haig’s Command, p. 140.

[28] Prior, Gallipoli, p. 80.

[29] Laffin, The Agony, p. 31.

[30] Martin Gilbert, Winston S Churchill, vol 111, p 297.

[31] Moorehead, Gallipoli, p. 90.

[32] Marder, From Dreadnought to Scapa Flow, Vol. 11, p. 238.

[33] Laffin, The Agony, p. 44.

[34] Tim Travers, Gallipoli, p. 38.

[35] Dan Van Der Vat, The Dardanelles Disaster, p. 136.