Tuesday, 29 September 2015

The crushing of Serbia

Hemmed in from north, west and east, the
red and orange  arrows show the only 

direction the battered Serbian armies could take
Despite Grey’s immense diplomatic efforts to persuade Bulgaria to stay neutral, the scale of the Russian defeats on the Eastern Front increased the pressure on the Allies to achieve something out of the mess of Gallipoli. Bulgaria (correctly) saw Suvla Bay as a decisive failure by Britain, but Serbia still refused to concede any hard won Macedonian territory to Bulgarian demands – a suicidal stance. Grey also tried (unsuccessfully) with guarantees and the offer of 200,000 troops, to induce Roumania and Greece to enter the war. Once Bulgaria had committed, effectively providing an eastern pincer for the German drive into Serbia from the north, the Serbian army was doomed. In Churchill's words "On October 9th the storm of ruin burst upon the Balkans".
The desperate attempts by the allies to support and supply them from Salonika was something of a sideshow that brought no relief to the hopeless Serbian position.

Serbia’s strategic position was parlous. Effectively she was trapped in a dep salient, with German forces poised to the north; Austria controlled Bosnia to the west; and Bulgarian forces to the east. In the near inevitable event of Serbian forces being overwhelmed, the only course of retreat was south west towards unfriendly Albania, and even more unfriendly mountain ranges. Their only hope was that allied forces advancing from Salonika might turn the Bulgarian flank and stop their advance.

Mackensen’s objectives were straightforward. Unlike the Bulgarians he was more interested in securing communication lines to Constantinople than annihilating the Serbian army (already worn down by two previous major campaigns). He wanted control of the Danube waterway, and the Ottoman railway running from Belgrade eastwards. The river was easier to secure than the railway, and a huge German logistical operation went on behind the front line to enable weapons and reinforcements to be transported rapidly to Turkey for the next stages (much of the weaponry was bound for Gallipoli). To capture and control the railway line required a deeper invasion of Serbia, and control of difficult mountainous territory. It was in this regard that Bulgaria’s entry from the east produced a fatal situation for Serbia.
Bulgarian forces marshalled in 1915
On 12th October, the Bulgarians attacked with two strong columns, and rapidly drove the Serbian defenders westwards for more than 100 miles. Communications with Salonika were cut off by this move, sealing the fate of the diminished Serbian army. On the 20th, the Bulgarians reached the city of Uskub (now Skopje), the key junction of all overland routes in southern Serbia.  By 26th, Bulgarian and Austrian forces had linked with each other, and all of northern Serbia had been taken. At this stage, the remnants of the defending army were in two separated groups, totalling around 150,000 men, and were forced to fight a series of rear-guard actions and retreats to head towards the hostile Babuba pass - already deep in snow - and a retreat into Albania. They acquired many refugees on that desperate journey, and deaths from exposure, starvation and disease were numerous.
Part of the Serbian long retreat 1915
Only two pieces of good fortune attended this catastrophe. Firstly, the Germans did not join the Bulgarians in pursuit of the Serbs – they were more concerned with pressing on to Turkey. Secondly, the leader of Albania, Essad Pasha, somewhat unexpectedly, declared war in favour of the allies, and supported the eventual escape of around 130,000 Serbian troops. Remarkably, nearly all of these re-entered the conflict via Salonika. Most of the refugees were evacuated to southern Italy.

Meanwhile the Allies, unable to provide any meaningful support to the Serbs, were at least establishing a formidable beach-head at Salonika, and this would prove to be a significant development. One remarkable French excursion into Serbia, led by Sarrail (who, as we have seen, had a point to prove against Joffre) is worthy of a separate blog episode, but made no impact on the destruction of Serbia.

Final words on this from Churchill “During all this misery and destruction large Anglo-French forces assembled at Salonika… as helpless spectators, and the Allied army on the Gallipoli peninsula was left to rot”.

Sunday, 13 September 2015

Gallipoli 9. Timeline for Gallipoli and 'dramatis personae'

Lord Kitchener (L) on one of his
visits to ANZAC with General
Birdwood on his (R)
The Gallipoli Campaign played out over almost exactly a year, from the War Council decision in January 1915 to the evacuation of the last troops from Cape Helles in January 1916. Despite the heroics of individuals and several high points it was considered as a debacle - and still is. Churchill and Kitchener were the highest profile political casualties. Churchill, whose unrelenting support and pressure for continuing naval and military actions brought him long lasting unpopularity with many, went in late May, after severe naval losses. Kitchener, as War Minister, survived into 1916 but his political reputation suffered
Churchill, whose belief in
the need for Gallipoli never
severely from his indecisive and error ridden handling of the (admittedly complex) operation.

The main episodes of the timeline, with some of the key players are recorded below.  

January 1915
13th   British War Council resolves that the Admiralty should prepare for a naval expedition in February to the Dardanelles to force the straits.
28th   British Government decides definitely to make naval attack and passes the order to Admiral Carden, Commander of the Eastern Mediterranean Fleet. 

February 1915
16th    British Government, after disagreements and delays, agrees to send an army division (the 29th) to the Dardanelles to follow up and support the naval actions.
19th    The Allied naval attack on the Dardanelles forts commences.

March 1915
Otto Liman von Sanders,
Military Commander of the
Ottoman Empire 1913-18.
After the war he revealed
that at several points the
Turks had been close to
collapse and defeat.
'A close run thing'.

Eleftherios Venizelos.
One of the main statesmen
of the Balkans crisis. Three
times Greek PM and strongly
pro-allies he clashed with
his pro-neutral King,
Sir Ian Hamilton
appointed C-in-C of
British MEF aged 62.
Twice recommended for VC
in earlier career, he did not
recover from the Gallipoli

4th     French Government decide to send Expeditionary Force to the Dardanelles.
5th     Greek Premier (M. Venizelos) offers Greek fleet and troops to Entente for operations at the Dardanelles. King Constantine overruled him, prompting his first resignation of the year.
7th     New Greek PM Gounaris requests explanation of British occupation of Lemnos, and reply pleads military necessity, but guarantees Greece eventual cession of Lemnos by Turkey.
12th   General Sir Ian Hamilton appointed Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean (Dardanelles) Expeditionary Force, taking over command on 17th.
18th   A further allied Naval attack on the Dardanelles forts is repulsed. The French battleship "Bouvet" and British battleships "Irresistible" and "Ocean" are sunk with great loss of life..
25th    General Liman von Sanders is appointed to command Turco-German Forces, Dardanelles

April 1915
Col. Blimp No. 1?
Maj-Gen Aylmer
Hunter-Weston. Pilloried
post war as unthinking
and unfeeling.

25th    Allied Forces effect landings at Cape Helles at the southern tip on several beaches, S to Y. Further up the western coast the ANZAC landing takes place with Empire troops diverted from Egypt en route to the Western Front.
28th    First Battle of Krithia begins, seeking the high ground of Achi Baba. The small village at the foot of the highest point in the south was to become an attritional battleground over the next three months. Casualties were very high on both sides. The Allies tried from all side to take the village, with the French on the right, and the 29th Division, commanded by Hunter-Weston in the centre and on the left.

May 1915
6th     Second Battle for Krithia begins and continues fiercely for two days.
13th   H.M.S. "Goliath", a pre-Dreadnought battleship is sunk by torpedoes from a Turkish destroyer in the southern straits. Two other pre-Dreadnoughts, the HMS Triumph and HMS Majestic would suffer the same fate during May.
15th   Lord Fisher resigns as First Sea Lord, triggering the collapse of the British Government
27th   A British squadron leaves eastern Mediterranean to join Italian fleet in the Adriatic.
          Winston Churchill resigns as First Lord of the Admiralty 

June 1915
4th     Third Battle of Krithia begins. Again heavy losses on both sides for little gain. It ends on 6th with a Turkish counter attack. One more attack, sometimes referred to as the 4th Battle for Krithia, is made on the village and heights is made from late June to early July from the west via Gully Ravine.
7th      First meeting of Dardanelles Committee of the new British Cabinet [replaced the previous War Council until its disbandment in 1916]

August 1915


Admiral Sir Sackville Carden             Commander Roger Keyes               Mustapha Kemal with
E. Med Fleet Commander                Naval Chief of Staff, E. Med                Turkish troops at
in 1915, replaced by de Robeck         Enterprising and intrepid.                     Gallipoli during
after failed March attacks.                  Later a national hero.                                   Suvla.

1st.      Constantinople harbour raided by a British submarine.
6-15th Operations of the landing at Suvla. The main battle, for control of the heights of Sari Bair was from 7-10th.
8th      Turkish battleship "Barbarousse-Hairedine" sunk by British submarine "E.-11" in the Dardanelles.
21st     Battle of Scimitar Hill is the last serious effort to gain a significant bridgehead at Suvla Bay

October 1915

Sir Charles Monro. Appointed
to replace Hamilton in October
His rapid appraisal of the mess at
Gallipoli prompted the Churchill
rebuke "He came, he saw, he
                                 Col. Blimp No 2?                               
                           Frederick William Stopford.              
                           The principal scapegoat for the
                           August failures, he slept, allegedly,
                          during the Suvla Bay landings. He
                         was quickly replaced by Gen Byng.

2nd      Prime Minister for the second time, Venizelos  asks British and French Governments to land troops at Salonika as soon as possible in response to the advance of German and Austrian forces in the Balkans. Within days allied troops arrive at Salonika, many of them had been destined for Gallipoli.
15th    Hamilton, Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, is recalled to London. General Sir Charles Monro is appointed to succeed, and Birdwood is placed in temporary command of MEF. Monro arrives to take charge on 28th.

November 1915
4th      Lord Kitchener leaves England for the Dardanelles. On arrival, he accepts Monro's assessment and immediately puts him in command of the new Salonika Force. Birdwood is left in command on Gallipoli to prepare for evacuation. 

December 1915
8th        The evacuation of Suvla and Anzac is ordered.
19-20th Evacuation of Suvla and Anzac completed successfully without casualties.
28th      Orders given for the evacuation of the remainder of forces at Cape Helles in the south.

January 1916
7-8th     Evacuation of Cape Helles successfully completed with minimal casualties.
9th        Monro vacates command of the MEF and Birdwood vacates command of the Dardanelles army.

July 1916
18th      Prime Minister Asquith announces the setting up of a Commission of Enquiry into the failed campaign - The Dardanelles Commission.

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Gallipoli 8. The Human Tragedy

ANZAC Truce to collect and bury dead comrades
May 1915
My Gallipoli posts have focused on the strategies and tactics of the campaign; the politics; the decisions that were made by the commanders - many of them bad ones - and the indecisions of commanders and governments. As in any sporting contest when the favourite loses, the focus of analysis is on why they failed, or how, and insufficient credit is given to the underdogs - in this case the Turks, who fought with great bravery and commitment.
By the end of the saga in early 1916, the cost to both sides was very high, around a quarter of a million casualties each. There is insufficient space to convey the devastating aspects of human experience suffered by hundreds of thousands of individuals. 
By and large, the troops of both sides at Gallipoli were inexperienced and under-resourced. Many were naive in military methods; some panicked and fled under pressure; many more showed amazing courage and resilience. They did not endure the heaviest of artillery barrages, compared to the Western Front, but instead constant naval bombardments, machine gun and sniper fire. Much of the close quarters action was with knives and bayonets. In addition to their traumatic experiences, these men suffered from just about every privation known to man: sunstroke from extreme heat; frostbite from extreme cold; severe hunger and thirst, and - above all - disease. Infectious (particularly dysentery) and heat related disease predominated, but many just broke physically and/or mentally after weeks of unrelieved hardship. This post gives just a small sample of the suffering of the many thousands on both sides.
I really feel for those brave men - officers and troops. They endured a hellish existence through 1915.

**Peter Hart's book Gallipoli is replete with vivid eye witness accounts. The following samples the experience of Ivone Kirkpatrick, 2nd Lieutenant with the Inniskilling Fusiliers in the 10th Division. His platoon was part of an attack on the Kiretch Tepe ridge from Suvla Bay, following a naval bombardment (p362):
"If the fire [the bombardment] had any effect, it was to wake the Turk from his siesta. At 1.15 we started off at a brisk walk.... Gullies of irregular shape and size ran at right angles to our line of advance and the ground was covered with scrub, very thick and prickly in places.... We came under fire at once... the only course was to press on... It was only by dint of much labour and running hither and thither that it was at all possible to keep in touch with one's platoon, let alone the rest of the company.
Suddenly I felt a terrific blow on the left shoulder blade, as if someone had driven a golf ball through me at close range. I thought I had been shot from behind and looked around angrily for the careless fool... I found that I had a puncture in front, above my heart, and concluded that the bullet had gone through my lung. I had hardly sat down when I noticed that I seemed to be in an unhealthy spot, and I started to crawl up the hill to my left. At once, what seemed to be a heavy projectile hit me in the stomach, and I sank to the ground...For a moment I felt weary and discouraged... On further reflection I decided it would be folly to give in and I cast about for a means of escape...As a preliminary I crawled into a hollow and tried to dress my wounds... I managed to get a little iodine in the wounds... A few yards away from me lay a wounded soldier of my platoon. He started to crawl back to our trenches and I asked him to get me a stretcher later if he could."
Eventually picked up by stretcher bearers, he was evacuated by another tortuous journey from the field casualty station: "Two stretcher bearers took hold of my stretcher and carried me away.... The journey was something of an ordeal (sic) On we went over the rough ground, sometimes a bearer would stumble, sometimes let the stretcher drop... On the way I was violently sick, all over my chest, as I could not move. My wounds began to bleed again, as I lay in a pool of greasy blood which covered me from my head to my boots. It was over an hour before I reached the beach". Kirkpatrick survived!

This description from Travers' Gallipoli 1915 (Ch 6) describes one of the advances from ANZAC  by New Zealanders during the August offensive:
The ordeal of these men is difficult to imagine, but the diary of Trooper Law gives an idea of the situation. Moving up to replace the Wellington Battalion, Law started his journey the night before, early on 8 August. He ran "over the side of a hill with bullets raining around us like hail from machine-guns". Law found a hollow to shelter in, but "Men were killed and wounded all around me. Legs, arm and other portions being blown off…" Law waited there for over seven hours, without moving, and then "from this Valley of Death (6-700 dead and wounded here) on into the mouth of Hell, charged up the side of Chunuk Bair… our men fell like apples in a gale, the Turks rushed us with bombs only to be mowed down by us. One came up with a white flag and a party [of] bomb throwers behind him. They all fell…"

John Masefield (p139), on the agonies of thirst imposed on the attacking troops:
During all this day of the 7th of August all our men suffered acutely from the great heat and from thirst. Several men went raving mad from thirst, others assaulted the water guards, pierced the supply hoses, or swam to the lighters to beg for water. Thirst in great heat is a cruel pain, and this (afflicting some regiments more than others) demoralised some and exhausted all. Efforts were made to send up and to find water; but the distribution system, beginning on a cluttered beach and ending in a rough unknown country full of confused fighting and firing, without anything like a road, and much of it blazing from the scrub fires, broke down, and most of the local wells, when discovered, were polluted with corpses put there by the Turk garrison. Some unpolluted wells of drinkable though brackish water were found; but most of these were guarded by snipers, who shot at men going to them. Many men were killed thus and many more wounded, for the Turkish snipers were good shots, cleverly hidden". God!

Finally, after heat, flies and disease, the irony of harsh winter conditions, in Hart's Gallipoli (p406):
"Lower and lower went the temperature, every bone in my body ached with cold and my hand wound became most painful. Sleeping and living in miserable dugouts under such circumstances has to be gone through to be fully appreciated and understood... The cold was just intense and I have never seen such courage as I saw through this blizzard. Men found at the parapet facing the Turk with glassy eyes and stone dead, who gave up their lives rather than give in. Imagine the death of slow accepted torture... ( a Major of the Gurkha rifles)
When I returned along the trench, which was still unfit to stay in, I found six men had crawled back and were huddled together on a firing step frozen to death. (a 2nd Lieutenant of the Royal Warwickshires)


** Please see Bibliography post for these sources.