Home / Heritage / March 1915 – defeat snatched from the jaws of victory and the legend of ANZAC began taking shape

March 1915 – defeat snatched from the jaws of victory and the legend of ANZAC began taking shape


Part two of a three part series tracing the road to ANZAC Cove on 25th April 1915 and the beginning of the ANZAC legend.

Contrary to popular myth, the Gallipoli campaign was not a wild idea by Winston Churchill, at that time the First Lord of the Admiralty.

In fact, Churchill’s brainchild was to use the Navy to smash the Turkish forts on either side of the Dardanelles. There was no suggestion of landing armies on Gallipoli. The Dardanelles is a narrow strip of water between the south eastern coasts of the Gallipoli Peninsula and the Turkish Coast. They allow ships to sail from the Aegean Sea to the Sea of Mamora, on the northern show of which stands the Turkish capital Istanbul (Constantinople as it was then called).

Having joined the war in 1914, the Turkish military activated a string of forts on the Gallipoli Peninsula and on the far shore of the Dardanelles. With big guns covering the narrow straits from both sides, any ship trying to get through was almost certain to be destroyed.

Churchill’s idea was very simple. Use battleships to destroy the forts. Naval forces could then sail through the Dardanelles and across the Sea of Mamora to Istanbul. Only then would armies land in order to take the capital of the then Ottoman Empire (centred on modern Turkey).

This would almost certainly take Turkey out of the war and relieve pressure on Russia’s southern border. It would also free-up the passage of thousands of tonnes of wheat from Russia’s Black Sea ports to the bakeries of Britain and Western Europe.

Churchill asked Vice Admiral Sackville Hamilton Carden if the idea was feasible and Carden created a bold, three-stage plan to send up to 10 battleships (mostly obsolete and expendable) to do the job.

This purely naval campaign began in February 1915 and for a month went like clockwork. It looked bound to succeed and if it had, world history could have been dramatically different. Certainly, the ANZAC legend would not have been born on the blood-soaked beaches and hills of the Gallipoli Peninsula. Possibly the war would have been shorter and possibly Germany may not have been able to sponsor the Russian Revolution of 1918 which took Russia out of the war and made her a communist state.

It was coincidental that Australian and New Zealand divisions were training in Egypt at this time and it was purely coincidence that it was decided to put them in the same camp together to begin to work as a single unit. As they were doing this the British and French sent their battleships and the Australians sent some destroyers, to smash their way through the Dardanelles and the two stories of the naval force and the ANZAC forces began to go forward together.

Throughout February, 1915, the battleships relentlessly poured fire on the forts. The massive and modern Dreadnought HMS Queen Elizabeth was also brought in, with 15 inch guns she could sit in the Aegean Sea and fire right over the peninsula and over the Dardanelles, pulverising the forts on both sides.

But then a desperately ill Carden who would have pressed on regardless, was replaced by Admiral John de Robeck.

Initially, de Robeck continued the naval campaign and was nearly successful, but on 18 March he suffered a shocking, unnerving, blow when after going six weeks with barely a scratch, three battleships hit mines and sank in a single day.

Despite the fact that the loss of battleships had been accepted from the very start, a distraught de Robeck insisted that no further attempt be made by ships to pass up through the straits until ground troops had been landed and given time to capture the high ground around the Narrows.

The navy was so close to completing the campaign it was heartbreaking and de Robeck’s chief of staff, Commodore Roger Keyes begged for the navy to carry on. de Robeck was heavily criticised in London by Churchill and others for dooming the whole Dardanelles campaign to failure but it was to no avail; the British Admiralty also lost their way and their nerve.

So, in one afternoon, defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory by one Admiral who seemingly didn’t know that it was acceptable to lose his battleships. It was only now that the decision was made to compound the tragedy.

In a meeting held with de Robeck on 22 March, Sir Ian Hamilton, Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force agreed to attempt to capture the land on Gallipoli that overlooked “the Narrows” where ships were most vulnerable. When this decisions was confirmed, available a short distance away were the ANZAC forces in Egypt, along with British and French divisions.

Thus, 100 years ago this month, the final pieces fell into place for the ill-fated landings at Gallipoli that were to become forever part of the history of our nation and add the word ANZAC to our lexicon.