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 212th installment in the series.
November 27-30, 1915: Huge Storm Lashes Gallipoli
Following the failed landings at Suvla Bay in August 1915, regular trench warfare took a steady toll of casualties on the Gallipoli Peninsula throughout the autumn, with thousands of men on both sides killed or wounded by snipers, trench mortars, or more or less random shelling. However Allies and Turks both faced a third fierce adversary as well – the environment itself.
Since ancient times the Aegean Sea has been famous for its unpredictable weather, immortalized in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and responsible for the destruction of Persian invasion fleets in 492 and 480 BCE. After the scorching summer months with their plagues of flies, in November 1915 the elements turned on the ill-prepared invaders yet again, as British and French troops suddenly found themselves confronting hurricane-strength winds, freezing rain, snow, and flash floods, in addition to their human foes in the opposing trenches.
After weeks of dropping temperatures, the first major storm landed on November 17 and caused the most damage along the shore, smashing the piers built by the Allies to land food, ammunition and other supplies and evacuate sick and wounded. William Ewing, a Scottish chaplain, recalled the frightening scene as the storm pounded the beach near the landing sites:
Later in the afternoon the sea rolled shoreward in tremendous, foaming billows that plunged in white cataracts over the hulks, sending jets and spray more than mast high… The timbers of the piers gave way, under the impact of the mighty waves; the structures crumpled up, and were hurled in wreckage on the beach. A stone jetty built by our enterprising Allies, the French, was dashed to ruins… The sun set over a scene of turmoil and fury. The darkness lent an element of dread to the voices of the tempest, and the crash of tumbling waters on the wreck-strewn beach.
The storm continued through the night, with scenes that could have come directly from Homer:
The night drew on with heavy rain, and loud rolling thunder. The lightning was beyond description splendid. The night was very dark, the light of the moon being quite obscured. The sea was roaring like a vast monster under the lash of the tempest. Then a mighty sheet of flame would flash across the heavens, torn by gleaming, twisted, and broken lines, and for a moment the wide welter and turmoil of foaming waters, with the white hospital ships riding at anchor, leaped into view.
However this was just a taste of the huge storm that would sweep the peninsula from November 27-30, with rain forming cataracts that swept away Allied encampments and drowned 200 unsuspecting troops. One British officer, F.W.D. Bendall, was chagrined to discover that his dugout lay directly in the path of a dry seasonal streambed running south through the middle of the peninsula (his experience also proves that the phrase “flash flood” doesn’t necessarily entail exaggeration):
As I fished about underneath for gum-boots I heard a strange sound. I could have sworn it was the sea, washing on the beach! But the sea and the beach were four miles away. I stood in the doorway and listened. And as I listened in the flickering light there was a curious slapping noise in the slit outside, and a great snake of water came round the curve – breast high – and washed me backwards into the dugout. I was off my feet for a moment and then, sodden and gasping, I was in the doorway again… The water was at my throat, waves of it licked my face. I reached both hands to the top of the walls, but I could get no hold there. My fingers tore through the mud. Slowly I forced my way along the slit… I do not know how long it was before I turned the last corner… Thank God! there was the ledge. A great heave and I was on it.
As temperatures fell over the following days rain gave way to freezing rain and snow, and floodwaters soon turned to ice. This was even more dangerous, as wet and hungry soldiers now faced the possibility of freezing to death as well; overall around 5,000 men died or had to be evacuated due to frostbite. Bendall recorded the pathetic sights he witnessed as he tried to round up his troops with a young junior officer following the flood:
On our way back to Headquarters we saw a number of men who had obviously died of cold and exhaustion. Two brothers of “C” company had died together. The arm of one was round the other’s neck, the fingers held a piece of biscuit to the frozen mouth. It seemed a strange and inexplicable thing that these men who had come there to fight, and fought bravely, had been killed by the elements.
The conditions were especially grueling for Australian troops who were used to rough conditions in the outback but had little experience of cold weather so far. However there was a silver lining, according to Ewing, who note that the Turks seemed happy to observe an informal truce during this period:
The Australian Corps, indeed, suffered heavily. Many of the men, accustomed from infancy to do battle with heat and dust, now saw snow for the first time… As the rain gathered on the hills, it poured down in cataracts, turning the dugouts into swirling pools and the trenches into raging torrents… Friday evening brought sleet and frost… If the Turks had cared to attack they might have had the position for the asking. But probably they also were suffering, and may have been thankful to be left unmolested.
On the other side of No Man’s Land the Turkish soldiers were also approaching the limits of their endurance, according to Mehmed Fasih, an officer in the Ottoman Army, who wrote in his diary on November 27, 1915: “10.30 hrs. We find Agati [a fellow officer] distraught. Even though he prodded his men with bayonets, some of them refused to leave the trench and started crying like women. Those who did go suffered heavy casualties from the enemy fire and shells. The entire unit is demoralized.”
Now the inclement conditions, lice, bad food, and lack of clean water contributed to the other great scourge of the troops at Gallipoli – disease, especially typhus and dysentery. W.H. Lench, a British soldier who arrived with fresh reinforcements in November, described the epidemics that raged over the peninsula, inflicting casualties even when the Turkish guns were silent:
Everyone was demoralized; everyone was sick, waiting, waiting for the stretcher bearers who never came… There was not much sudden death, but there was slow death everywhere. The body was slowly dying from the inside. We talked to each other; we laughed occasionally, but always the thought of death in our minds – our insides were dying slowly. The water was death; the bully beef was death; everything was death. It terrified me; it made me feel dead. A man would pass me holding his stomach, groaning in agony, and a few minutes later I would take him off the latrine, dead. The men contracted dysentery and fever every day. The bullets did not take a big toll. It was the death of germs.
Another British soldier, Edward Roe, wrote in his diary on December 10, 1915:
I am personally aware that at least a dozen of the men in my company sleep every night in the latrine; when the reach the last stages they are sent to hospital by night. The hospital is 3 miles from our position. Some may reach hospital and some may fall into a trench of water – where they remain. We are all aware that if every man were sent to hospital that is sick, it would be impossible to carry on.
And an Australian soldier, Frank Parker, remembered: “The sickness was just as bad as the casualties, the wounded and the killed. I was pretty crook myself, I had the greatest quadrille you ever saw in your life. I had yellow jaundice, dysentery, hives and lice. I was lousy. Anyone that wasn’t lousy was never on Gallipoli.”
As it happened the storms came just a week after Secretary of State for War Kitchener had visited Gallipoli (since October under the command of a new general, Sir Charles Monro) to see if there was any hope for the failed campaign. The news of the worsening weather would help make up his mind and those of the Allied commanders: it was time to throw in the towel and evacuate the peninsula.