24-30 April 2015 #755

Gurks vs Turks

This is the first installment of a series of flashbacks of the involvement of Gurkhas in the First World War
David Seddon

In April 1915, Nepali Gurkha battalions (‘Gurks’) and Allied forces were deployed in what would prove to be a disastrous campaign to take control of the high ground of the Gallipoli peninsula in order to threaten Constantinople, the capital of the Ottoman Empire. This is the first installment of a series of flashbacks of the involvement of Gurkhas in the First World War.

Timeline by Ayesha Shakya

The First Landings

Late April 1915

By the end of 1914, the war on the Western Front was deadlocked. There were strong arguments for an offensive through the Balkans or even a landing on Germany’s Baltic coast, instead of more costly confrontations in France and Belgium.

These ideas were initially sidelined, but in early 1915 the Russians found themselves threatened by Ottoman forces in the Caucasus and appealed for some relief. The British government, encouraged by Winston Churchill, decided to mount a naval expedition to bombard and take the Gallipoli Peninsula on the western shore of the Dardanelles, with Constantinople as its objective. The British hoped to link up with the Russians, knock Turkey out of the war and possibly persuade the Balkan states to join the Allies.

The naval attack began on 19 February 1915, but bad weather caused delays and the attack was abandoned after three battleships were sunk and three others damaged. Military assistance was clearly required, and General Kitchener appointed an old friend from the Boer War, General Sir Ian ‘Johnny’ Hamilton, to command the proposed amphibious operation.

On 12 March, Kitchener told Hamilton: “We are sending a military force to support the fleet at the Dardanelles, and you are to have command. You will be given the 29th Division from the regular British Army, two divisions of Australian and New Zealand troops currently in Egypt, the Royal Naval Division and a French contingent in all, about 70,000 men.” Hamilton and his staff left London that afternoon at 5pm on Friday 13 March by train, crossed the Channel in a destroyer and travelled to Marseilles where the light cruiser Phaeton was waiting. 

At sea, Hamilton considered the brief instructions he had been given and a few rough notes, together with a textbook on the Ottoman army, written in 1912, and two small guide books. He comments in his Gallipoli Diary 'that his knowledge of the Dardanelles at this point, as headed towards the eastern Mediterranean, was nil. Of the Turks, nil. Of the strength of his own forces, next to nil.'

As he sailed east, renewed efforts to sweep the Straits of the Dardanelles clear of mines began on 18 March, but several vessels were sunk by gunfire from the Ottoman batteries, while others hit mines. The operation was suspended on 19 March and cancelled the next day due to weather. The enemy proceeded to strengthen their defences.

On 24 March, Hamilton arrived in Alexandria. He reviewed the situation and came to the conclusion that he was likely to be outnumbered and outgunned. He wrote to Kitchener, requesting more men and more ammunition and asking in particular for the deployment of the 29th Indian Brigade under Major General Vaughan Cox, a request he likened to ‘going up to a tiger and asking for a small slice of venison’.

‘I am very anxious’, he wrote, ‘if possible, to get a brigade of Gurkhas, so as to complete the New Zealand Divisional Organisation with a type of man who will, I am most certain, be most valuable on the Gallipoli peninsula. The scrubby hillsides on the south-west faces of the plateau are just the sort of terrain where these little fellows are at their brilliant best… each little “Gurk” might be worth his full weight in gold at Gallipoli.’

Kitchener eventually agreed, and Lieutenant General Sir John Maxwell, the British Commander in Chief for Egypt, grudgingly handed over the 29th, which he referred to as ‘the Gurkha brigade’. In fact, as originally constituted in October 1914, the brigade consisted of the 14th King George’s Own Ferozepore Sikhs, the 69th Punjabis, the 89th Punjabis and the 1/6th Gurkha rifles. It had sailed from Karachi for Egypt on 2 November 1914 under the command of Brigadier General Cox.

For the next six months it was engaged in the defence of the Suez Canal. Orders were received on 24 April, to embark at Port Said on s.s. Dunluce Castle for the Dardanelles. The ship sailed east with its contingent of Gurkhas and Sikhs, arriving eventually to anchor off Sedd-al-Bahr at 12.30 on 30 April. The troops disembarked and landed in Cape Helles at the beginning of May, five or six days after the invasion of the peninsula had begun. In the meanwhile, the allied forces of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force -– consisting of British and ANZAC (Australian, New Zealand and Canadian) troops, together with a Division of French and North African troops, known as the Corps Expeditionnaire d’Orient -- largely unaware of the substantial numbers of troops manning the defences, prepared to land. The landings were initially planned for 23 April, but bad weather caused a two-day postponement and when they did take place, the operation did not go according to plan.

Eventually, by the end of the day on 25 April, the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force had succeeded in establishing a beach-head, with the ANZAC at Anzac Cove and the rest of the force on Helles, but at the cost of many thousands of men.

The objective now was the capture of the hills which ran roughly north-south along the main axis of the Gallipoli Peninsula. This was to be achieved by moving up the ravines that extended from the hills down to the sea. Hamilton proposed an approach march, by night, up three of main ravines (Sazli Beit, Chailak and Aghyl). From the heads of these ravines the allies would attack and capture the peaks of Chunuk Bair and Hill Q, and having secured these two, attack Battleship Hill, Baby 700 and Plateau 400 (all of the geographical features considered strategically significant had by now been given names).

In the last few days of April, while the Ottoman forces attacked the ANZACs, the British and French began to advance up the peninsula to where the enemy was holding a line in front of the hill of Achi Baba, around Krithia. In the first battle of Krithia on 28 April, the Allies under Major General Hunter Weston launched their assault with 13,500 men. As darkness descended, they had failed to achieve their objective and suffered some 3,000 dead, wounded or missing. Three days later, Allied casualties numbered at least 6,500 and possibly as many as 8,000, nearly a third of the men engaged.

Nowhere had the progress made been more than 600 yards and the Allied forces remained for the most part on or near the beaches.

To be continued in #759 ‘Reinforcements Arrive: Early May 2015.'

Read also:

Double centennial, Editorial

The Pashmina War, Kunda Dixit

100 years of platitudes, Sunir Pandey

The Gurkhas: An Interactive Timeline, Ayesha Shakya