100 Years Ago: The Third battle of Krithia, 10,000 Dead, Nothing Accomplished. World War One in Miniature. We are so Much Smarter Now. Snort.
June 4th 1915. The tip of the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey. British, French, and Indian troops attempt to advance from their beachhead of about one square mile, and capture the highland dominating the end of the Gallipoli Peninsula. This was trench warfare, so the basic plan was to fire all sorts of artillery at the enemy, who would obligingly hide in bunkers, and then charge them after the artillery stopped, hopefully getting to them before they emerged from their bunkers and took up positions in their trenches again. One can see how this sort of warfare might lead to unpleasant miscalculations. In this case, since this was the third battle of Krithia, yes, the first two hadn’t gone so well.
This time was going to be different though, the British general had learned from his prior mistakes. This time his plan made sense. The artillery part was in fact very clever. They were going to fire their artillery, forcing the Turks to hide in their bunkers. Then they would stop firing, the Turks would run out of their bunkers … and the artillery would resume firing! And in fact it worked pretty well. It would have worked better, but the British artillery was low on ammunition. And worse, two British battleships had recently been sunk by a German submarine. This meant their heavy guns were unavailable, and worse, remaining battleships had to keep moving to reduce their danger to submarine attack, reducing their accuracy considerably.
Nonetheless, it worked out well. The Turks were caught by surprise by the second bombardment, and suffered terrible losses. The British, French, and Indians charged forward and overran the Turkish defenders. Well, in the centre of the front the did. The flanks, not so much. Despite heroic efforts, the Turks on the flanks held on. No worries, the troops in the centre were told to dig in. However, by four in the afternoon, the Turks were attacking them from three sides, and they had no choice but to withdraw. By the end of the day and the battle, the allies had advanced a few hundred yards. About 6500 dead to gain a few hundred yards. About ten men per foot. This was not a victory in any sense of the word.
If the British had had the troops to continue to attack the next day, they might have gotten somewhere, They didn’t. And the next two days, the reinforced Turks ferociously attacked, hoping to drive the British into the sea. The British held on, and that was that. The British never again attempted to capture Krithia and the heights above it, and eventually abandoned their beachheads on the Gallipoli Peninsula.
So why am I blogging about this minor and forgotten battle? Many reasons. Ten thousand people died this day, there must be something to learn. That’s about three times as many as died on 9/11. So pretty clearly, how many people died is only loosely correlated with how important an event is historically. Still, nowadays if the USA or its allies suffered thousands of dead in a one day battle, it would be a big deal. Proof that we are more peaceful now! No, not in my estimation. Proof that both the nature of war and the nature of propaganda has changed. Wars no longer involve (usually) the human wave attacks that characterized World War One battle. And the propaganda now is far more sophisticated and far more insulates home countries from the realities of their wars. The USA has been fighting constant wars for decades now, at a terrible cost in money and lives. And doing ghastly things abroad. And to most Americans it’s as remote from their lives as the Third Battle of Krithia.
Lastly, just to call attention to these lives lost 100 years ago. These were real people, with dreams, families, and lives. Everything they could ever have hoped to accomplish, turned into blood and dust far from their homes. Well, some of the Turks may have lived nearby, but otherwise their deaths were as pointless. At least the Turks died defending their homeland from a foreign invader, I suppose that’s something. In Manchester this battle is still remembered, it was not a good day for soldiers from Manchester.
World War One was the war to end all wars. That proved to be an optimistic assessment. As the Great War, as it was called, slides past the century ago mark, many will be remembering it. Not the participants though, they’re all dead now. Every last one. God rest their souls.
(The above image is a French colonial 75mm gun firing during the Third Battle of Krithia. It’s public domain under all laws. I used it because it is the best image I could find of the battle. These guys more than likely survived the battle. )