A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, August 6, 2015

"Their Lonely Graves are by Suvla's Waves": Doubling Down to Make it Worse: Suvla Bay, August 6-7, 1915

The Plan
On April 25, 1915, you will recall, the British and French allies landed troops (mostly Australians and New Zealanders) at ANZAC Cove and Sud al-Bar on the Gallipoli peninsula. More than three months later they were still trapped on narrow beaches under fire from Ottoman artillery and hemmed in by Turkish infantry entrenched on rocky ridgelines. A maneuver intended to sidestep the stalemate in the trenches of the Western Front had instead replicated it, but with most of the carnage limited to the Allied side. A military situation such as this suggests to a sane strategist two options: 1) find a way to outflank the enemy, or 2) cut your losses and withdraw from an unwinnable situation.

What did Britain do?

What part of "Gallipoli 1915" did you not understand? Let's land more troops in the same impossible positions! It worked so well on the Western Front. But the August landings added a few new twists: giving command to a general who had never commanded in battle, and landing in darkness. What could possibly go wrong?

The landings were intended to assist a breakout by the ANZACs from ANZAC Cove by having the ANZACs attack from their position against the Sari Bair mountainous ridge as additional troops landed at Suvla Bay just to their north. Another attack was to be launched from Cape Helles. The map above shows the intended plan. The new troops being landed at Suvla Bay were the IX Corps consisting of two brigades  (the 30th and 31st) of the 10th (Irish) Division and all of the 11th (Northern) Division (32nd, 33rd and 34th Brigades). These were "New Army" units formed at the outbreak of the war,  The 11th was to go ashore the night of August 6 and the 10th to follow the morning of the 7th. But little went according to plan.

The theater commander, Sir Ian Hamilton, had asked for an experienced general from the Western Front, but those considered were junior in seniority to the 10th Division  commander and could not be considered. Instead Lord Kitchener chose Lieutenant General Sir Frederick Stopford,who had fought at Tel el-Kebir back in 1882, and risen through the ranks in mostly staff and adjutant and headquarters positions. The younger son of an Earl, Stopford, despite high rank, had never commanded a large force in battle. He had retired in 1909, but returned to active duty for the war.

In a war marked by disastrous British generalship, Stopford was unusually bad.

The Ottomans knew new landings were coming, but didn't know where. They reinforced the Asian shore and other parts of the peninsula, but as the British prepared to land 20,000 troops at Suvla, only some 1,500 Turkish troops faced them. Stopford still managed to fail.

Late on August 6, the ANZAC forces launched assaults against positions at Lone Pine and Chunuk Bair in a new attempt to break out and also provide a diversion for the troops landing at Suvla Bay. (Though the Suvla troops were English and Irish, "Suvla" would become a notorious term among the ANZACs, who considered that they were sacrificed to cover the British landings.) (The final scene of the 1981 Mel Gibson film Gallipoli portrays the ANZAC August offensive, and does so in a rather anti-British way.)

Two brigades of the 11th were to go ashore south of Nibrunesi point while the 34th Brigade was to land in Suvla Bay proper, with the Irish brigades to follow. Landings were to begin at 10 pm after Australian breakout was under way.

It began with a success, if a Pyrrhic one. Two companies of 6th Battalion, the Yorkshire Regiment, drove the Ottomans off the small hill known as Lala Baba, but with the loss of a third of the men and most of the officers killed or wounded.

The 34th Brigade landing in Suvla Bay was a disaster: many had to wade ashore in neck-deep water while under Turkish fire. Stopford had decided to remain aboard HMS Jonquil, and soon went to sleep.

The Reality: Situation August 7
The landings had begun in darkness. When the moon came up, Turkish snipers began to fire. The beaches were a confused jumble of men, many landed in the wrong place, or left without orders. The Irish brigades came ashore and added to the chaos. Drinking water was in short supply. IX Corps is said to have taken 1,700 casualties in the first few hours, more than the total number of Ottoman forces opposing them. The German commander of the Ottoman troops on Gallipoli ordered two divisions to reinforce the Suvla front on the 7th. Stopford had still not come ashore. Nevertheless, he signaled Hamilton that he was going to "consolidate his position."

Sir Ian Hamilton dispatched aides to the front and then came himself. Overnight on August 8-9 he ordered an assault on the ridgeline; the Turkish reinforcements had now arrived and made mincemeat of the 32nd Brigade.

Mustafa Kemal, Gallipoli, 1915
As the British chain of command remained in chaos, Liman von Sanders replaced the local Turkish commander in the Suvla-Chunuk Bair sector with the commander of the 19th Division. This was Mustafa Kemal, the future Atatürk.

If  Liman von Sanders now had the right man in command, the British did not. It was not until the 14th that Hamilton communicated to Lord Kitchener the need to replace the Suvla commanders.  On the 15th Stopford was recalled and replaced with Sir Julian Byng. The 11th Division Commander was also replaced, and the 10th Division Commander resigned his command rather than serve under Stopford's temporary replacement. Meanwhile, the Australians and New Zealanders were heavily engaged in the Chunuk Bair region, receiving no relief.

The disaster at Suvla would find many echoes in later memory. Though the only Australians at Suvla proper were a bridging engineer unit, Eric Bogle's antiwar And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda refers to Suvla Bay, perhaps in the sense that Chunuk Bair was part of the campaign. The 1981 movie Gallipoli would contain a reference to the English drinking tea on the beach at Suvla while the Australians are thrown into battle.

The Irish also, like the ANZACs, would in years to come show ambivalence about whether their worst enemy at Gallipoli was the Turks or the British. Suvla is also invoked twice in the Irish rebel song The Foggy Dew, by Canon Charles O'Neill, about the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin, referring to the Irish Division at Suvla and Cape Helles (Sud El-Bar):
Right proudly high over Dublin town
They hung out a flag of war.
'Twas better to die 'neath an Irish sky
Than at Suvla or Sud el Bar.
And from the plains of Royal Meath
Strong men came hurrying through;
While Brittania's sons with their long-range guns
Sailed in from the foggy dew.

'Twas England bade our wild geese go
That small nations might be free.
Their lonely graves are by Suvla's waves
And the fringe of the grey North Sea.
But had they died by Pearse's side
Or fought with Valera true,
Their graves we'd keep where the Fenians sleep
'Neath the hills of the foggy dew.
Here's a version by Sinead O'Connor and The Dubliners, illustrated with scenes taken from the 1996 Liam Neeson film Michael Collins:


David Mack said...

Proving, I guess, that Celtic blood is as red as that shed by Turks and Arabs. Thanks for the music and footage of the Foggy Mountain Dew.

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