A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, November 16, 2015

November 1915: Britain Decides to Evacuate Gallipoli

Lord Kitchener visits the trenches at Gallipoli, November 1915
Late last month in our continuing discussion of events a century ago, we noted the replacement of General Sir Ian Hamilton as overall commander of the Dardanelles expedition with General Sir Charles Monro, a Western Front general.

Following the failure of the Suvla  landings and the August offensive to alter the status quo on he Gallipoli Peninsula, and with Turkish defenses strengthened under new commander Mustafa Kemal, much of the British Government was eager to disengage from Gallipoli, feeling the troops would be better used in the West or the Salonika Front in the Balkans. At the end of October the Dardanelles Committee of the Cabinet was disbanded, and with it went the most pro-Gallipoli voice, Winston Churchill's. He had lost the Admiralty earlier in the year when the coalition government was formed, but had remained on the Dardanelles Committee. The War Committee that replaced it did not include him, and Churchill would quit the government to rejoin the Army.

The Gallipoli adventure still had an advocate: Lord Kitchener at the War Office. The hero of Khartoum and veteran of India and Egypt still favored an Eastern Strategy, but despite his popularity with the troops and the public, Kitchener had few fans in the Asquith Government, nd dispatched Monro to assess the situation in his new command, and also resolved to visit the battlefield himself.

Gen. Sir Charles Monro
In March of 1916, months after the last troops had been evacuated, Monro issued a sort of final report on his mission, and he remembered his instructions as follows:
To the Secretary of State for War, War Office, London, S.W.
Headquarters, 1st Army, France, 6th March, 1916.

MY LORD,- I have the honour to submit herewith a brief account of the operations in the Eastern Mediterranean from the 28th October, 1915, on which date I assumed command of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, until the 9th January, 1916, when in compliance with your directions, I handed over charge at Cairo to Lieut.-General Sir Archibald Murray, K.C.B., C.V.O., D.S.O.
On the 20th October in London, I received your Lordship's instructions to proceed as soon as possible to the near East and take over the command of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, My duty on arrival was in broad outline: -
(a) To report on the military situation on the Gallipoli Peninsula.
(b) To express an opinion whether on purely military grounds the Peninsula should be evacuated, or another attempt made to carry it.
(c) The number of troops that would be required, (1) to carry the Peninsula, (2) to keep the Straits open, and (3) to take Constantinople. Two days after my arrival at Imbros, where the headquarters of the M.E.F. was established, I proceeded to the Peninsula to investigate the military situation.
Monro arrived at Imbros on October 28 and reached Gallipoli on October 30. Monro was already dubious about the prospects and saw nothing to change his mind:
The impressions I gathered are summarised very shortly as follows: - The positions occupied by our troops presented a military situation unique in history. The mere fringe of the coast line had been secured. The beaches and piers upon which they depended for all requirements in personnel and material were exposed to registered and observed Artillery fire. Our entrenchments were dominated almost throughout by the Turks. The possible Artillery positions were insufficient and defective. The Force, in short, held a line possessing every possible military defect. The position was without depth, the communications were insecure and dependent on the weather. No means existed for the concealment and deployment of fresh troops destined for the offensive-whilst the Turks enjoyed full powers of observation, abundant Artillery positions, and they had been given the time to supplement the natural advantages which the position presented by all the devices at the disposal of the Field Engineer.
Another material factor came prominently before me. The troops on the Peninsula had suffered much from various causes.
(a) It was not in the first place possible to withdraw them from the shell-swept area as is done when necessary in France, for every corner on the Peninsula is exposed to hostile fire.
(b) They were much enervated from the diseases which are endemic in that part of Europe in the summer.
(c) In consequence of the losses which they had suffered in earlier battles, there was a very grave dearth of officers competent to take command of men.
(d) In order to maintain the numbers needed to hold the front, the Territorial Divisions had been augmented by the attachment of Yeomanry and Mounted Brigades. Makeshifts of this nature very obviously did not tend to create efficiency.
Other arguments, irrefutable in their conclusions, convinced me that a complete evacuation was the only wise course to pursue.
(a) It was obvious that the Turks could hold us in front with a small force and prosecute their designs on Baghdad or Egypt, or both.
(b) An advance from the positions we held could not be regarded as a reasonable military operation to expect.
(c) Even had we been able to make an advance in the Peninsula, our position would not have been ameliorated to any marked degree, and an advance on Constantinople was quite out of the question.
(d) Since we could not hope to achieve any purpose by remaining on the Peninsula, the appalling cost to the nation involved in consequence of embarking on an Overseas Expedition with no base available for the rapid transit of stores, supplies and personnel, made it urgent that we should divert the troops locked up on the Peninsula to a more useful theatre. Since therefore I could see no military advantage in our continued occupation of positions on the Peninsula, I telegraphed to your Lordship that in my opinion the evacuation of the Peninsula should be taken in hand.
The Asquith Cabinet was mostly eager for disengagement but decided to send Kitchener himself to investigate. Meanwhile Kitchener on November 4 dismissed Monro as Commander of the whole Mediterranean Expedition and named him to command the Salonika Expedition, with General William Birdwood, whom we've met before, taking over at Gallipoli.  Kitchener left England on November 5, but en route changed his mind about removing Monro before his visit, and canceled it, reaching Mudros November 10. As Monro recalled:
Subsequently I proceeded to Egypt to confer with Colonel Sir H. McMahon, the High Commissioner, and Lieut.-General Sir J. Maxwell, Commanding the Forces in Egypt, over the situation which might be created in Egypt and the Arab world by the evacuation of the Peninsula. Whilst in Egypt I was ordered by a telegram the War Office to take command of the troops at Salonika. The purport of this telegram was subsequently cancelled by your Lordship on your arrival at Mudros, and I was then ordered to assume Command of the Forces in the Mediterranean, east of Malta, and exclusive of Egypt.
Kitchener & Birdwood at Mudros, Nov.  10
Monro proceeded to Mudros, along with McMahon and Maxwell from Egypt,  and met with Kitchener aboard the troopship Aragon, which housed the Headquarters Staff of the campaign, at Mudros. Monro and the Army generals favored withdrawal, while Kitchener and the Navy favored operating through the winter.

Kitchener wanted to see the Front himself, and on November 12, 13, and 14 he visited the landing sites at Cape Helles,/Sudal-Bahr (Nov. 12), Anzac (Nov. 13), and Suvla (Nov. 14). He was well received by the troops.

The question of whether a winter campaign was possible was soon given new evidence from winter itself. On November 17 a gale mashed piers at Cape Helles and Anzac Cove.

The designation of Monro as Commander in the Mediterranean eat of Malta and excluding Egypt was clarified as follows, again quoting Monro:
Consequent on these instructions,
I received approval that the two Forces in the Mediterranean should be designated as follows: -
(a) The original Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, which comprised the Forces operating on the Gallipoli Peninsula and those employed at Mudros and Imbros as the "Dardanelles Army," under Lieut.-General Sir W. Birdwood, K.C.B., etc., with headquarters at Imbros.
(b) The troops destined for Salonika as the "Salonika Army," under Lieut.-General Sir B. Mahon, K.C.B., with headquarters at Salonika. The Staff of the original M.E.F. was left in part to form the Dardanelles Army, and the remainder were taken to make a General Headquarter Staff for the increased responsibilities now assumed. Other officers doing duty in this theatre with the necessary qualifications were selected, and, with no difficulty or demands on home resources, a thoroughly efficient and adequate Staff was created. Mudros was selected as being the most suitable site for the establishment of headquarters, as affording an opportunity, in addition to other advantages, of daily consultation with the Inspector General, Line of Communications. The working of the services of the Line of Communications presented difficulties of an unique character, mainly owing to (a) the absence of pier and wharfage accommodation at Mudros and the necessity of transferring all Ordnance and Engineer Stores from one ship to another; (b) the submarine danger; (c) the delay caused by rough weather. Close association with General Altham was therefore most imperative, and by this means many important changes were made which conduced to greater efficiency and more prompt response to the demands of fighting units.
In the meantime Winston Churchill, the unapologetic architect of the campaign,  resigned his remaining governmen position as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in order to join the Army on the Western Front. He made a last defense of Gallipoli on the floor of Parliament.

On November 22, Kitchener himself recommended withdrawal from Gallipoli.

Kitchener, after his visit to Gallipoli, visited the Salonika Front and Italy, and returned to England November 30.

If there were any lingering doubts, on November 27 a fierce Mediterranean storm hit Gallipoli from the southwest, driving small boats ashore, flooding the trenches, and crumbling fortifications. Then the wind shifted to the north and a fierce blizzard devastated the battlefield for days. Turkish and Allied troops were immobilized, hundreds died and thousands took ill. Snow at Anzac Cove:
On December 8, 1915, General Monro ordered Admiral Birdwood and the Navy to withdraw the troops from Gallipoli.

There were some 93,000 men, 200 guns, thousands of horses and mules and other equipment to withdraw from under the guns and in sight of Turkish forces only a few hundred yards away in every case.

The one great Allied success at Gallipoli would be the successful withdrawal, over several weeks, without a disaster on the beaches. But that's a story for another day.

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