WWI Centennial: Stalemate At Suvla Bay

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The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 196th installment in the series.  

August 6, 1915: Stalemate At Suvla Bay 

The repeated failure of Allied attacks against Turkish defensive positions at Cape Helles on the tip of the Gallipoli peninsula in June and July 1915 convinced the Allied commander at Gallipoli, Sir Ian Hamilton, that a fresh approach was required to shake up the strategic situation. The result was the second amphibious assault of the campaign, with four new British divisions wading ashore at Suvla Bay, about 12 miles north of the original landing sites, in an attempt to outflank the enemy and roll up Turkish defenses from behind (below, looking north towards Suvla Bay from ANZAC). This offensive came tantalizingly close to achieving its objective, but in the end “a miss was as good as a mile,” and the Turks were able to rush forward reinforcements, ending in yet another stalemate.

By the beginning of August 1915, the opposing forces on the Gallipoli Peninsula were roughly evenly matched. The Ottoman Fifth Army, repeatedly reinforced since April, now consisted of sixteen divisions numbering 250,000 men, but about a third of these were deployed across the straits, guarding the Asiatic side, or further north at the peninsula’s narrowest point on the eastern end of the Gulf of Saros. At the main battlefields of Cape Helles and ANZAC, eleven Turkish divisions (many under strength following hard fighting) occupied the trenches or were held in reserve nearby, facing the nine Allied divisions of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force with around 150,000 troops. 

However by late summer fresh British troops were finally becoming available with the mobilization of the first divisions from “Kitchener’s New Army,” formed from hundreds of thousands of volunteers who responded to Secretary of State for War Lord Kitchener’s patriotic call to duty beginning in late 1914. Kitchener agreed to send two of the new divisions, the 10th (Irish) and 11th (Northern), to Gallipoli to carry out the amphibious landing, as well as the 53rd (Welsh) and 54th (East Anglian Divisions) to reinforce them once on shore. Another New Army division, the 13th (Western), was already ashore at the ANZAC position. The other Allied forces on the peninsula would stage diversionary attacks to distract the Turks and tie down their forces during the landings. 

“Mechanical Death Run Amok”

The landings took the Turks by surprise: although the Ottoman and German commanders guessed a new amphibious assault was coming, they disagreed as to where it would fall, thanks in part to elaborate ruses by British intelligence agents. As a result Essat Pasha, commanding the Turkish III Corps in the center of the peninsula, believed it would hit further south near the promontory called Kabatepe, while Liman von Sanders, the German general commanding the Fifth Army, was convinced they would strike further north, near the town of Bulair on the Gulf of Saros.

Only one Turkish officer, 19th Division commander Mustafa Kemal (later Kemal Atatürk) correctly predicted that the Allies would land at Suvla Bay – but his colleagues dismissed the idea, arguing the Allies would never attack in an area with such strong natural defenses, with rugged hills looming over a wide, exposed coastal plain whose only feature was a shallow salt lake that was dry for most of the year. Consequently there were virtually no troops actually holding these wonderful defensive positions, with a thin covering force of just 1,500 Turks facing around 25,000 attackers in the first wave. 

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The operation began at 2:20 pm on August 6, 1915 with a diversionary attack by the British 29th Division on the Turkish 10th Division at Cape Helles; for reasons that aren't clear, this "feint" snowballed into another actual attempt to capture Krithia on the hill range called Achi Baba. The British suffered thousands of casualties but continued the assault the following day with a fresh attack by the neighboring 42nd Division and the two French divisions against the Turkish 13th and 14th Divisions, again resulting in major casualties.

Meanwhile the ANZAC forces also staged diversionary attacks, beginning with an attack by the First Australian Division on the Turkish position called Lone Pine, near the southern tail of the Sari Bahr hill range, on the evening of August 6. Approaching via a tunnel secretly extended to within yards of the Turkish frontline, the Australians advanced about a thousand feet, but the attack ground to a halt after Essat Pasha sent the Turkish 5th Division to reinforce the 16th Division, then mount a counterattack. Over the next few days Lone Pine was the scene of incredibly fierce fighting, as described by William Tope, a soldier in the Australian First Division who sheltered behind the dead bodies of the first wave of attackers: 

It was about that spot where I got caught with a hail of bombs… and it was the pile of bodies there that sheltered me, otherwise I wouldn’t be here today… I thought the best thing would be for me to be down in this trench that had no men in it at all, where these bodies were, because I felt that the counterattack could come at any time. I’d hardly got into position before a positive avalanche of bombs fell, puncturing these bodies, and up on top you’d hear the air coming out of the ones up there. I think they were aiming for the bodies that they could see. I was sheltering behind them, and I was there for all that day and the next night… 

At the same time the British 13th Division and the combined New Zealand and Australian Division attacked first north and then east, up the slopes of the Sari Bahr hills, with the goal of reaching Hill 971 (above, New Zealand troops resting during the advance on Sari Bahr). These attacks served to tie down Turkish forces while the British 10th and 11th Divisions landed at Suvla Bay almost unopposed, from the evening of August 6 through the morning of the following day.

Amid some confusion (some brigades ended up landing on the wrong beaches) the British troops began advancing on both sides of the dry salt lake, with some crossing over the dried lakebed itself (below), but soon ran into stiffening resistance from the massively outnumbered but well-entrenched defenders in the hills above the plain. John Hargrave, a member of the British ambulance service, witnessed the advance from a ship just offshore: 

Puffs of smoke hung on the hills, and the shore was all wreathed in the smoke of rifle and machine-gun fire. A deadly conflict this—for one Turk on the hills was worth ten British down below on the Salt Lake. There was no glory. Here was Death, sure enough—Mechanical Death run amok—but where was the glory? Here was organised murder—but it was steel-cold! There was no hand-to-hand glory… The crack and crash was deafening, and it literally shook the air... it quivered like a jelly after each shot. 

Despite this the British had every chance of overwhelming the thinly-held Turkish positions here, clearing the way for an advance to the first day’s objective – the strategic hilltops of Kavak Tepe and Tekke Tepe, located just a few miles inland. From here they would be able to join forces with the ANZAC troops breaking out to advance up the Sari Bahr hills, capture the central heights of Hill 971, and proceed to the final objective of Mal Tepe on the other side of the peninsula. This would force the Turkish Fifth Army to withdraw before it was trapped, finally giving the Allies control of the Dardanelles and setting the stage for the conquest of Constantinople. 

Illustrated London News, via Illustrated First World War

But now disaster – or rather disastrous incompetence – struck. The British officer in charge of the Suvla Bay landings, Lieutenant-General Sir Frederick Stopford, had never commanded troops in combat before; he soon turned out to be one of the worst commanders of the war. After getting his two divisions ashore (he remained aboard his command yacht), instead of immediately pressing on to Kavak Tepe and Tekke Tepe, Stopford let the troops rest while supply teams finished unloading all their food, tents, mules, and other not-particularly-crucial items on shore.

As the men bathed in the sea and sunned themselves on the beach, precious hours passed, giving von Sanders a chance to rush two divisions (the 7th and 12th) south from Bulair to bolster the meager defensive force. On August 8 the British divisions gradually moved forward and captured one of the first defensive positions, called Chocolate Hill (below, British troops on Chocolate Hill), and on August 9-10 they were reinforced by the 53rd and 54th Divisions. One new arrival, John Gallishaw, later recalled the journey up to the front lines: “Under cover of darkness we moved away silently, until we came to the border of the Salt Lake. Here we extended, and crossed it in open order, then through three miles of knee high, prickly underbrush, to where our division was entrenched... From the beach to the firing line is not over four miles, but it is a ghastly four miles of graveyard.”

But it was already too late: 72 hours had passed and two more Turkish divisions, the 4th and 8th, had arrived from the southern part of the peninsula. In short, Stopford had frittered away the element of surprise for no good reason at all. His incompetence would cost thousands of lives. 

“Like Corn Before a Scythe” 

With the Suvla Bay landings inexplicably stalled, after its initial success on August 6 the ANZAC breakout ran into serious trouble in the days that followed, as the Turkish 5th, 9th, 16th, and 19th Divisions arrived and strengthened their defensive positions in the rough, broken terrain of the Sari Bahr hills. Nonetheless at dawn on August 7 the Australians continued to press the attack with an all-out assault on “The Nek,” a narrow ridge connecting two hilltops. The result was one of the bloodiest engagements of the Gallipoli campaign, as recalled by Lieutenant William Cameron, who saw the dismounted Australian 3rd Light Horse Brigade charging the Turkish positions on foot: 

We saw them climb out and move forward about ten yards and lie flat. The second line did likewise ... As they rose to charge, the Turkish Machine Guns just poured out lead and our fellows went down like corn before a scythe. The distance to the enemy trench was less than 50 yards yet not one of those two lines got anywhere near it.

Things weren’t going much better elsewhere. Gerald Hurst, an officer with a battalion of Manchesters, described a futile assault on the Turkish positions at Cape Helles on August 7: “It was at once obvious that our guns had been unable to affect the strength and resisting power of the enemy's front line. Each advancing wave of the Manchesters was swept away by machine-gun fire. A few of them gallantly reached the Turkish trenches and fell there.” 

In fact the battle was only just beginning. By the morning of August 8 the Turks had created a very strong defensive position on top of the second tallest ridge in the Sari Bahr range, called Chunuk Bahr, which the ANZAC forces and British troops of the 13th Division had to capture for the rest of the plan to work. The New Zealand Brigade of the New Zealand and Australian Division carried out the main assault uphill against the Turkish positions and suffered severe casualties, but finally managed to dig in near the hilltops as reinforcements from the 13th Division began to arrive. One British officer, Aubrey Herbert, witnessed part of the battle from a distance: 

We saw our men in the growing light attack the Turks. It was a cruel and beautiful sight, for it was like a fight in fairyland; they went forward in parties through the beautiful light, with clouds crimsoning over them. Sometimes a tiny, gallant figure would be in front, then a puff would come and they would be lying still… Meanwhile, men were streaming up, through awful heat.

In the afternoon of August 8 a naval bombardment forced the Turks off the hilltops, which New Zealand, British, and Indian Gurkha troops now occupied. From here they could see the glinting surface of the Dardanelles and "The Narrows" on the other side of the peninsula; their goal was in sight. But they wouldn’t hold their hard-won prize for long: the Turks, fully aware of Chunuk Bahr’s strategic importance, were determined to get it back whatever the cost.

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On August 10, Mustafa Kemal (now in charge of several divisions) launched a furious counterattack by the Turkish 8th and 9th Divisions, supported by artillery on the nearby Hill 971. The attack culminated in a dramatic charge by the Turkish infantry, while British naval bombardment rained shells on the blood-soaked hilltop. Kemal later recalled:

Chonkbayir [Chunuk Bair] was turned into a kind of hell. From the sky came a downpour of shrapnel and iron. The heavy naval shells sank deep into the ground, then burst, opening huge cavities all around us. The whole of Chonkbayir was enveloped in thick smoke and fire. Everyone waited for what Fate would bring. I asked one commander where his troops were. He replied, “Here are my troops – those who lie dead around us.” 

The British and ANZAC units holding the hilltop were simply wiped out of existence by the Turkish artillery and repeated infantry charges. Herbert noted the incredible cost of the battle: “The N.Z. Infantry Brigade must have ceased to exist. Meanwhile the condition of the wounded is indescribable. They lie in the sand in rows upon rows, their faces caked with sand and blood… there is hardly any possibility of transporting them… Some unwounded men almost mad from thirst, cursing.”

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Sir Compton Mackenzie, an official observer with the British forces at Gallipoli, recorded similar impressions after the battle for Chunuk Bahr: “I went back outside the hospital, where there were many wounded lying. I stumbled upon poor A.C. (a schoolfellow), who had been wounded about 3 a.m. the day before, and had lain in the sun on the sand all the previous day… It was awful having to pass them. A lot of the men called out: “We are being murdered.” 

After achieving initial surprise, the British landings at Suvla Bay and the coordinated attack from ANZAC had once again resulted in stalemate, at a cost of 25,000 British casualties versus 20,000 for the Turks in just the period August 6-10 alone. Attacks and counterattacks would continue into late August, as both sides received reinforcements at Suvla Bay and ANZAC, (above, part of British 2nd Mounted Division forms up at Suvla on August 18; below, a New Zealand machine gunner at Sari Bahr in late August) – but there would be no significant changes in the frontline from now until the end of the Gallipoli campaign. 

The failure of the landings at Suvla Bay spelled not only doom for the Gallipoli campaign, but also the demise of any hope for a quick victory over the Central Powers. It was clear now that the Allied generals and politicians were out of ideas, and that the war would go on for years, spelling the end of the old way of life. Mackenzie recalled:

There was no vestige of hope left in my mind that the Suvla Landing could now succeed. I felt as if I had watched a system crash to pieces before my eyes, as if I had stood by the deathbed of an old order… The war would last now until we had all turned ourselves into Germans to win it. An absurd phrase went singing through my head. We have lost our amateur status to-night.

See the previous installment or all entries.

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