The British at Gallipoli, August 1915 Part II

Stopford first learned of the Suvla Bay plan on July 22, fifteen days before he was scheduled to carry it out.28 His orders laid down the main objective as the “capture and retention of Suvla Bay as a base of operations for the northern army”; to do this he was to capture the low hills in the basin behind the bay quickly and then take the heights on its northern and eastern sides. Subsequent moves would “depend upon circumstances which cannot at present be gauged,” but it was “hoped” that Stopford’s troops would then be able to move southeastward to give flanking assistance to Birdwood’s main attack on the heights of Sari Bair. These instructions were faulty in that they insufficiently emphasized the primary importance of cooperating with the offensive on Sari Bair; nor did they alert the commander to the vital need to take every advantage of opportunity. A more aggressive commander might not have needed to be told so bluntly what to do—but Stopford was not such a commander, and Hamilton had good reason to suspect as much. As the task of planning passed down the chain of command, Stopford now began to take a personal hand, yet further closing down the opportunities to profit from surprise and success.

Within four days of receiving his orders, Stopford began to emphasize nonexistent difficulties. Leaning heavily on current experience in France—which bore little resemblance to Gallipoli—he argued that without a large number of howitzers, troops could not be expected to attack an organized system of trenches.30 Hamilton did not have the howitzers—but neither did the Turks in the bay area enjoy the luxury of a Western Front-style organized trench system. Rather than point out what aerial photographs showed to be the weak positions occupied by the few Turks in the area, Hamilton’s staff officers left IX Corps to discover for itself that these fears were groundless. Revised instructions issued by Hamilton on July 29 emphasized that the primary objective of Stopford’s force was to secure Suvla Bay as a supply base for all forces operating in the northern part of the peninsula; this might require all the troops at Stopford’s disposal, but if he had troops to spare they should be used to help the main Anzac attack.

In view of all the charges subsequently leveled at Hamilton, Stopford, and others for failing to capitalize on a golden opportunity, we may pause to note that the commander in chief—the source of all direction and authority—apparently never perceived the Suvla Bay landing as playing any more than a subordinate role in the push for Sari Bair and made no provision to expand it if circumstances favored such a course. For him, the greatest possibility held out by possession of the bay was that a light railway could be run up to the troops on Sari Bair more effectively from there than from the narrow and crowded beaches at Anzac Landing. Looking further ahead to operations in 1916, he saw Suvla Bay as an ideal winter base for the troops on the northern part of the peninsula. Hamilton had failed to develop a scheme that accommodated the idea of capitalizing on local success, thereby putting a heavy burden on the troops when opportunities later presented themselves.

Hamilton’s failure to perceive and emphasize the broader possibilities inherent in the operation encouraged Stopford to give further vent to his naturally pessimistic frame of mind. Writing to his commander on July 31, he warned that attaining “security” in the bay was likely to be so demanding a task as to make it “improbable” that he would be able to give Birdwood any assistance; if, however, the opposition was sufficiently slight as to allow him to free some of his troops, “you may rely upon my giving him [Birdwood] every assistance in my power.” This attitude bespoke a reluctance or inability to perceive opportunities that boded ill. It was magnified as orders were passed down from general headquarters through corps and divisional staffs to the brigades that would do the fighting. The urgency of seizing key positions quickly was watered down; the lack of precision in the orders was magnified; and what were perceived as important geographical positions simply disappeared from the orders put out to the fighting units as they filtered down the chain of command. A combination of pessimism in command and deficient staff work—evident in the chaotic arrangements for unloading water, stores and equipment on the beaches—resulted in Stopford’s taking command of a battle for which his troops were inadequately prepared.

The landings on the shore of Suvla Bay, which began just before dawn on August 7, quickly bogged down in confusion. Mistaking the shoreline in the dark, the navy landed one brigade in the wrong place; the direction of attack was altered by one of the divisional commanders not once but several times; and men began to pile up on or near the beaches in confused masses. The early omens looked good; one member of the naval landing party recorded hearing

intermittent firing accompanied by some cheering going on ashore, so that already some of our troops were in action and judging by the slackness of the fire, it looked as if we had taken the Turks by surprise.

More ominously, the same eyewitness noticed that troops met little opposition until they had penetrated about a mile inland, where they began to be held up by snipers. The demoralizing effect on the troops of a handful of Turkish sharpshooters was exacerbated by the growing heat of the day; eventually temperatures mounted until they stood at 90°F. in the shade. Over the next forty-eight hours thirst began to determine the attitudes and then the actions of many of the troops.

During the first day Stopford put some 20,000 men ashore. His force enjoyed a massive ten-to-one superiority, for it faced an opposition that amounted to no more than 2,000 Turks under the command of a determined Bavarian, Major Willmer, backed by eleven guns. Willmer’s men fought well, using to full effect the advantage of defending ground that was clothed in dense, thorny ilex scrub. The odds were heavily against them; the outcome of the battle depended on one commander reacting faster and more effectively than the other to the unexpected.

A general Allied attack on the enemy line, which had started the previous day, distracted the Turks’ attention from Suvla for a while, but on August 7 Liman von Sanders decided—wrongly—that Suvla Bay was the main British objective. By misunderstanding his enemy’s plan, he put himself in a position to snuff out the unexpected opportunity offered to Stopford. But his quick mental reaction was not matched by physical action: Turkish reinforcements were 30 miles away at Bulair, and the local commander, Feizi Bey, was listless and incompetent. On August 8, Liman replaced him with the energetic but as-yet-unknown Mustafa Kemal (later, as Kemal Atatürk, the father of modern Turkey) and ordered an attack the following morning. Reinforcements were ordered up on the double, and meanwhile Kemal prepared to defend to the last. For forty-eight hours, though, the way to the heart of the Gallipoli peninsula was there for the taking, barred only by a handful of resolute Turks.

On August 7, the British lines should have been alive with movement and activity. Instead, they were a picture of tranquility. An anonymous artillery officer recorded being “struck by the restfulness of all around. There appeared to be little going on, a good many infantrymen sitting about or having a bathe.” Stopford lay off shore on board the Jonquil and there he stayed throughout the day. He sent one telegram to Hamilton at 7:30 A.M. reporting that one of the hills in the plain behind the bay—Hill 10—had not yet been captured, ending his message “As you see, we have been able to advance little beyond the edge of the beach.” Hamilton—one hour’s steaming away on the island of Imbros—received this message about noon; some four and a half hours later his chief of staff replied to Stopford: “Chief glad to hear enemy opposition weakening, and knows you will take advantage of this to push on rapidly. . . . take every advantage before you are forestalled.” At the front, his commanders were getting into a hopeless tangle. Major General Frederick Hammersley of the Eleventh Division ordered one of his brigadiers, W. H. Sitwell, to support an attack on another of the objectives that had originally been labeled vital—Chocolate Hill—by Brigadier General Hill. Sitwell promptly began to dig in. Hill arrived and failed to get any support from Sitwell for his attack. After a dispute between the two brigadiers over Hammersley’s orders, Hill began the weary trudge back through the sand to divisional headquarters in search of a ruling. When, at length, an attack was launched on Chocolate Hill, none of the three units involved was accompanied by its brigadier.

On the evening of August 7 Stopford wanted to press on but was told by his two divisional commanders that their men were exhausted and short of water and that any further movement was impossible for the time being. Accordingly, he postponed any further attack for twenty-four hours. His troops, far from being in a position to seize the hills surrounding the bay, were barely masters of the plain. Stopford lacked the resolution to push them forward. His first priority was the safety of the landing place, and he issued orders early the following morning to select and entrench the best possible covering positions; his intentions were first to consolidate his position and then to land much-needed stores and supplies. Later that same morning he urged his troops to “push on as far as possible” but not to launch frontal attacks on positions held in strength. As yet, no enemy position confronting him was held in any strength.

On the second day of the Suvla Bay landing, after first dispatching an unjustifiably optimistic congratulatory telegram to the Jonquil, Hamilton began to grow perturbed at the lack of progress and sent a staff officer—later to become the official historian of the campaign—to find out what was going on. The scene that met Colonel Aspinall’s eyes was later summed up by Churchill thus:

the placid, prudent, elderly English gentleman with his 20,000 men spread around the beaches, the front lines sitting on the tops of shallow trenches, smoking and cooking, with here and there an occasional rifle shot, others bathing by hundreds in the bright blue bay where, disturbed hardly by a single shell, floated the great ships of war. . . .

Seeing Stopford still aboard the Jonquil and little happening on shore, Aspinall sent an urgent wireless message to GHQ: “Feel confident that golden opportunities are being lost and look upon the situation as serious.” At last Hamilton decided to go and see for himself, but by one of the many malevolent twists of fate that seemed to scar the face of this battle, the ship the navy had allotted him had to put out her boilers to make repairs and was unable to take the commander in chief anywhere.

At 4:30 P.M., after a five-hour wait, Hamilton finally found a ship to take him to Stopford. Once there, he learned that Stopford planned to attack the following day but felt unable to get his troops moving any sooner due to a lack of water and of artillery. Pressed by Hamilton to attack that day, he demurred. Hamilton then went ashore—unaccompanied by Stopford, who excused himself on the grounds that he had a bad knee. Once there, Hamilton heard the divisional commander, Hammersley, report that no advance was possible until the next day; his troops were too scattered, the ground in front of them was unreconnoitered and bad, and orders could not be passed around in time for junior officers to be able to study them. “Hammersley’s points,” Hamilton recorded,

were made in a proper and soldierly manner. Every general of experience would be with him in each of them, but there was one huge danger rapidly approaching us . . . we might have the hills at the cost of walking up them today; the Lord only knew what would be the price of them tomorrow.

In a belated attempt to impose a sense of drive and purpose on a battle that had so far been conducted without either, Hamilton ordered Hammersley to attack the heights of Tekke Tepe that night with one of his brigades. No one told Stopford of this change of plan. In the event, it took the brigade selected for the task most of the night to sort itself out, and when it finally launched its assault on the hill early on the morning of August 9, it was too late; Kemal, reinforced by troops who had carried out an exhausting forced march, attacked first. Seizing the heights, he caught the advancing British troops spread out below him on the steepest part of the hillside. The British attack was easily broken, and with it went all hopes of levering the Turks off the commanding heights of the peninsula. A major attack at Suvla launched twelve days later in an attempt to redeem the situation proved totally fruitless. The “outstanding opportunity of the whole campaign,” which had presented itself on August 7 and 8, had been wasted.


Shortage of Water

Both at the time and afterward the commanders actively involved in the Suvla Bay landings laid great stress on the shortage of water as a major cause—some tried to suggest the major cause—of the failure to take the heights before the Turks occupied them in force. An eyewitness recorded on the second day of the battle:

The water question is acute, the whole corps having to be supplied from lighters and the arrangements are at present hopelessly inadequate and it is most pathetic to see men down from the firing line having to wait in the sun for sometimes as long as four hours before they can get their water bottles filled. Everything has to be improvised and why it wasn’t thought of before, I don’t know.

The scenes that occurred at the beaches certainly suggest that lack of water was a major factor in determining the fate of the battle: Troops rushed into the sea and cut the hoses from the water lighters to the shore in order to slake their thirst, while further inland some units undoubtedly went very short of water. Stopford believed that want of adequate water supplies was severely restricting his troops’ capacity to fight; on August 8, as has been seen, he accepted without demur his divisional commanders’ reports that their men were too exhausted by fighting and thirst to push on that day, and afterward he claimed that the want of water was so bad that men were reduced to drinking their own urine.

After the campaign Hamilton held that shortage of water had not been a problem, and his view was backed up by evidence from Hammersley and his two brigade commanders, Sitwell and Haggard. Sitwell, who had lived in Rhodesia, pointed out that there were Turkish wells in the area and that with a little effort water could be found. However, no proper arrangements had been made to look for it. To some extent the shortage of water suffered by the troops was their own fault; it is unlikely that Australian or New Zealand troops would have allowed such conditions to develop without doing something. One of the witnesses to the Dardanelles Commission of Inquiry, Lieutenant Colonel A. J. A. Hore-Ruthven, V.C., put the contrast in attitudes between the two armies well:

if there is any water to be got anywhere they [the Anzacs] will get it. The English soldier, till he has had a bit of experience on active service rather waits till the water is brought to him, and if it is not he says “I have no water.” It is just those little things that make the difference.

Behind the disagreements over the significance of the water shortage for the outcome of the battle lay a failure to exercise command responsibility adequately. Stopford assumed that his responsibility for water supply only began once water had been landed on the beach, as did Deputy Assistant Quartermaster General Major-General Poett. Until then, the two saw the problem as one to be solved jointly by Hamilton’s headquarters and the navy. Delays in landing the mules that were to carry the water to the front line, an inadequate supply of water lighters, a lack of receptacles to receive water once it had been landed on the beach, and the absence of any alternative arrangements in case the mules failed to arrive all bespeak a failure of foresight and coordination. Hamilton and Stopford failed to sort out the issue in advance, and at the front Hammersley took no steps to secure or even to ascertain the source of his supply. A cavalier attitude and incompetence combined to make the water problem appear much more serious than it really was—with unhappy consequences.

The way Birdwood prepared for the Anzac landing on April 25 shows how differently things could have been managed. He began to make arrangements to secure his water supplies nearly two months before the attack, buying 2,000 kerosene tins and a number of donkeys to carry them. He also ensured that special parties of field engineers were detailed to search the gullies for water as soon as the landing had taken place; the result was that within forty-eight hours twenty wells had been sunk and were providing 2,000 gallons a day. In his general plan for the attack on Sari Bair in August, Birdwood made equally careful provision to secure his water supply. His example could easily have been followed and his experience utilized, but his advice was never sought. British generals preferred to rely on their own blinkered interpretations of administrative responsibility at different levels in the military hierarchy. As a result, a difficulty was magnified until it assumed the proportions of a major setback—and, later, an explanation for failure.