British in Gallipoli
In early January 1915, the Russian Army was under intense pressure. The Battle of Sarikamish had reached a crisis state, and Russia begged its allies to launch a diversionary operation against the Turks. With the Western Front already a stalemate, a new front was desperately needed. Kitchener, Secretary of State for War in England, was less than enthusiastic. The British Army was fully committed in France and had suffered its own losses. However, he realized that should such an operation be undertaken, the best site would be in the Dardanelles. An attack on the Ottomans was also hoped to draw both Bulgaria and Greece into the war on the side of the Allies.
At the outset of the war in England, it was widely expected that much of the war would be decided by the Royal Navy. First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill had been eager for battle since the war’s beginning, but more action had gone to the army than the navy. The proposed opening of a third front through the Dardanelles presented an opportunity for Churchill and the Navy to show its worth.
Prior to the war, the British Navy had considered the possibility of an amphibious assault against Germany through the Balkan coast. It was a logical step to apply these plans to a proposed assault on Turkey through the Dardanelles. The project was largely guided by hopes and aspirations, but fell to a lack of practical application and operational difficulties. Churchill himself wrote in 1911 that “it is no longer possible to force the Dardanelles, and nobody should expose a modern fleet to such peril”. In order to successfully pass through the straights the navy would require a sizable landing force of 75,000-100,000 men to deal with Turkish shore defenses covering the narrower parts of the channel, while the landing force would require the force of the navy’s large guns to establish a firm hold in the first place.
The place decided for such a landing, the Gallipoli peninsula was ideal for such a diversionary effort. It was suited to the British military capabilities, and stationed on the peninsula was the Ottoman 1st Army, effectively the entire Turkish military reserve. If Gallipoli were taken, it would prevent the Turks from deploying their reserves elsewhere. Further, Kitchener suggested that the opening of the Dardanelles would open the way to Constantinople. The British foreign secretary supposed that a success in Gallipoli would provoke an uprising in the Turkish capital. Success in the Dardanelles would have further repercussions.
One of Churchill’s primary reasons for an invasion through the Dardanelles was the possibility that success there would bring Greece in on the side of the Allies. This would mean that the Greek army could be used against the Turks, while the British army could be withdrawn and redeployed to France. Further, it would lend credence to British proposals to both Bulgaria and Romania. Perhaps most importantly, if the Allies were to control the straights, Russia would have access to a warm-water port, and crucial supply lines. Both England and France were convinced of the power of the “Russian steam-roller” and it seemed that Russia had more men than arms, and if they could all be equipped properly, the Imperial Russian Army could provide a massive push through the German lines.
Despite the high-aspirations of the planners, and despite the courage of those involved, ultimately, the Gallipoli Campaign would not yield the massive rewards it promised. As with many aspects of the War, the reality did not conform with expectations.
In October 1915, the prospect was raised of the evacuation of Allied troops. The situation was further complicated by the entrance of Bulgaria into the war on the side of the Central Powers which gave the Germans a land route to the Ottomans. This meant that Germany could supply the Ottomans with heavy siege guns. In response, the British opened a second Mediterranean front at Salonika. This area would draw off reinforcements from Gallipoli. Lieutenant-General Sir Charles Monro reviewed the orders and ultimately recommended the evacuation. However, Lord Kitchener disliked the idea of evacuating the peninsula and paid a personal visit to Helles, Suvla, and Anzac landings. Eventually, In spite of Kitchener’s objections, the decision was made to evacuate.
The evacuation would occur during the winter of 1915-16 and in close proximity to the enemy. Heavy losses were expected during the operation. Suvla and Anzac were to be evacuated in late December, with the last troops departing before dawn on the 20th. Starting on the 7th troop numbers were progressively reduced. The Allied forces utilized methods to conceal their evacuation from their opposition. One such method involved a water pan tied to the trigger of rifles, into which water would drip, eventually firing the rifle. Another involved remaining silent for hours at a time, until the Ottoman troops ventured forth to inspect the Allied trenches, at which point the Allies would open fire. Despite the successful evacuation of Allied forces, large amounts of supplies and stores were captured by the Ottomans. Helles beach was retained for a while, in the event the British wished to resume offensive operations there, but eventually Helles too started evacuation on the 26th. On January 6th 1916, the Ottomans learned of the evacuation and launched an assault, but were repulsed. The last of the British forces were withdrawn on the 9th of January. During these operations, only 2 soldiers were wounded.
Following the Allied defeat and withdrawal from Gallipoli , and after the Russian defeat at the battle of Gorlice-Tarnów, Bulgaria’s King Ferdinand signed a treaty with Germany and began mobilizing for war in September 1915. Prior to this, the Austro-Hungarian Empire had invaded Serbia in July 1914. The Serbian Campaign lasted until late 1915, ending with the formation of the Macedonian Front. When Bulgaria assaulted in coordination with its Austro-Hungarian allies, the Serbian Army could no longer withstand the attack alone. The order was given to withdraw to the Greek islands. At the time, Greece was a neutral power, and wasn’t even friendly to the Allies. Further, the northern border of Greece offered superior defensive positions for the Bulgarian Army. When the Austro-Hungarians attacked the Serbian ally of Montenegro, the Montenegrin Army offered stiff resistance allowing the Serbian Army time to withdraw.
In an attempt to save their Serbian allies, the Allied Powers gathered a substantial force of 6 Serbian, 5 British, 4 French, and 1 Italian infantry divisions, along with 1 Russian infantry brigade totaling between 369,000 and 400,000 men, 1,025 artillery pieces, and 1,300 machine guns. In opposition, the Central Powers could only initially deploy the Bulgarian First and Second Armies, the 10th Bulgarian Infantry Division, and the German Eleventh Army, in total only 172 infantry battalions and 900 artillery pieces.
The political situation in Greece at this time was uncertain. Officially neutral, the Greek King Constantine I was pro-German, while the Prime Minister Venizelos was pro-British. Initially, Greece supported the Allied efforts to salvage the Serbian army. This changed however, when the Allies occupied Thessaloniki. Venizelos resigned, and the Royalist Government officially condemned the occupation, but was unable to oppose the superior Allied armies. Germany, in an effort to keep Greece neutral, never crossed the border. In May 1916, the French General Sarrail demanded the demobilization of the Greek Army, and though it complied, this pushed Greece further towards the Central Powers.
General Sarrail then began preparations for an assault on Bulgarian forces. By this point it had become apparent that Romania would join the war on the side of the Allies. However, Germany had many Greek supporters and drew plans for their own preemptive attack utilizing the Bulgarian Armies. This attack came on August 17th, three days before the French plan was scheduled to begin. After two weeks, despite early gains, the Bulgarian assault was halted. In September, the Allies staged their own counter-attack and made slow gains against the tenacious Bulgarian defenders. Throughout October and early November the Allies gained ground. Despite German reinforcements deployed to bolster the Bulgarian forces, by mid-November, the French and Serbs had captured the highest peak of the Nidže mountains, forcing the Central powers to abandon the city of Bitola.
A Bulgarian advance into Greek-held Eastern Macedonia caused a massive upheaval in Greece. In an effort to remain neutral, the Greek government ordered its troops (then the demobilized IV Corps) not to resist, and withdraw to Kavalla to be evacuated. However, no vessel presented to evacuate the Greeks, and as such the majority of the IV Corps, including their commander surrendered to a token German force and would spend the remainder of the war in Görlitz, Germany.
This surrender of hard-won territory was seen as the last straw to many Greek Army officers loyal to Venizelos. These officers, in August 1916 rose up, despite Venizelos’ own reservations. The only major force to declare itself openly for the movement was the Cretan Gendarmerie. In order to end skirmishes between the rebels and the 11th Division under Colonel Nikolaos Trikoupis which left 3 dead, the French intervened, and under General Sarrail’s orders, the Greek government was dismissed, along with those officers still loyal to it, to Athens. The remaining loyalist troops were disarmed and interned. The rebels soon took control of Thessaloniki and were quickly reinforced by the remnants of the Serres Division which lent credibility to the movement.
When Venizelos arrived in Thessaloniki, the “Revolutionary Committee” handed over power to him. In mid September he established a “National Triumvirate” along with General Panagiotis Danglis and Admiral Pavlos Koundouriotis with the purpose of the formation of a government. This new government’s first tasks were the establishment of an army to aid the Allies and the consolidation of power over as much of Greece as possible. On November 24th, 1916, the Provisional Government declared war on the Central powers and set out to recruit men for the Macedonian Front.
However, the two Greek governments could not coexist for long. In June 1917, the Allies issued an ultimatum forcing King Constantine to abdicate in favor of his second son Alexander. With the rest of his family, the former Greek King left the country for Switzerland and Venizelos returned to Athens as the head of this superficially reunified Greek state.
The Invasion of Crete
December 15th, a large force landed on the northern beaches of Crete at Agia Pelagia. From there the German 9th Army marched south and east to capture Heraklion, the capital of the island. However, due to intercepted information, the Allied Powers had been able at the last minute to supplement the Cretan Gendarmerie around the capital with contingents from all of the Allied nations. Quickly, the conditions of the Western Front were replicated on the small island. The German Navy, in a coordinated attack with its Ottoman allies, struck against the British Navy drawing them away from the contested island.
Without naval support, the Allies were unable to assist the western half of the island as Central Powers poured men and supplies in from their beachhead in Agia Pelagia. Soon the small garrisons in the west fell and the conflict on Crete soon mirrored mainland Europe with an ironic reversal of east and west. Two weeks of stalemate later, the German 9th is planning a large offensive to breakthrough just south of Heraklion. The German advance is to utilize “Hutier tactics” with the support of gas and artillery strikes. Allied forces however, are prepared to meet this attack in kind, thanks largely to informants on the Greek island. The night of December 27th is eerily silent. The typical shelling has ceased, and men on both sides wait anxiously for the nights events.
Men in the trenches talk amongst themselves about the purpose of the conflict on a seemingly unimportant island. Further, they talk about the truly unusual amount of men along the line. It isn’t simply that there are more men than usual, it’s that there are men from the four corners of the world; British, French, Japanese, Russian, Belgians, Italian, Greek, Serbian, Irish, Anzacs, Indians, South Africans, Portuguese, Brazilians, Romanians, even Montenegrin and American soldiers are on the line. Facing them, are Germans, Austro-Hungarians, Turks and Bulgarians in such numbers as none had seen before.
The Attack Commences and the Story Begins
Just after dawn, the attack commenced. Elements from the Allied Powers went over the top and charged just south of Agia Pelagia. At the same time, German, Austro-Hungarian, and Bulgarian forces charged the Allied lines five miles east of Tympaki. Neither side effected a breakthrough, both assaults failed, and nearly 100,000 men were lost on both sides. While the Allies had expected the assault in the south, they had not been prepared for the heavily fortified positions, put in place seemingly overnight.
The story begins two days later, still in the stalemate, without any positive results. A looming doubt has settled over the island. Though the dead are buried, their pall seems to have been irrevocably cast over all those and a deep depression has taken hold in many parts of Crete.