Against popular belief the Britishers have done two things, never won a cricket World Cup and made many military blunders, just like the Gallipoli Campaign. In London today, Queen Elizabeth along with Prince William and David Cameron, marked the centennial of the Gallipoli Campaign, what many call Britain’s greatest military loss during World War I. Earlier in the day in Turkey, Prince Charles and Prince Harry, along with Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott and New Zealand premier John Key joined Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to commemorate the campaign where more that 150,000 soldiers were killed or wounded.
The Gallipoli campaign, which started in April 25, 1915 was an eight month battle between the Allied forces which were made up of the British and the Comonwealth soldiers, and the Ottoman Empire. The Allied forces were trying to make an ice-free supply route to Russia, while the crumbling Ottoman Empire was trying to regain its former provinces and had aligned itself with Germany. The campaign was fraught with setbacks from the very beginning as the Allies had an erroneous report on the strength of the Ottoman troops.
When the British Royal Navy first entered the straits of Dardanelles they were unprepared for the underwater mines which had been laid recently. Three of the ships sank or were rendered useless and this remained the trend for the following months. By the time the troops finally landed on the Turkish shore, they were bombarded with machine gun fire. The French troops had landed too far to provide any reprieve and water and food scarcity further lowered morale. The Allied troops went in with poor planning, inaccurate intelligence, insufficient equipment and suffered heavy losses because of it. The Ottoman troops did not fare any better at the Gallipoli Campaign as their estimated losses were around 56,000 to 68,000 soldiers.
Despite these figures, the Gallipoli Campaign was not the first British military blunder. These are some of the other famous wars and battles lost by them after the formation of Great Britain in 1707.
- Battle of Cartegena de Indias, 1741 – During the era of colonialism, Britain and Spain were two competing naval powers. Britain wanted to enter the Spanish controlled South America and wanted to capture the port of Cartagena de Indias. With that objective, they sent 26,400 men and 186 ships to fight against the 4,000 Spanish troops and six ships. The two month campaign ended with the withdrawal of the British troops with a loss of over 10,000 men to both the war and tropical diseases.
- Siege of Yorktown, 1781 – This was the deciding battle of the American revolution. The combined American and French army continuously bombarded the British occupied city of Yorktown. After five days of bombardment, British forces surrendered which led to the resignation of Prime Minister Lord North and eventually to the Treaty of Paris.
- Battle of Isandlwana, 1879 – Questionable intel led to this loss too when two weeks into the Anglo-Zulu War, Lord Chelmsford decided to attack, what he believed, was the primary Zulu base. He split his 15,000-strong force and told the main column to set camp at Isandlwana. The 1,700 men who were guarding the camp were annihilated by the 20,000-strong main Zulu army which was hidden near the camp. The spear and shield wielding Zulu army then proceeded into the camp and killed whomever they found.
- Fall of Singapore, 1942 – The Singapore naval base was considered impregnable, but it became the scene of Britain’s greatest loss during the Pacific War. The base was suffering from budgetary cutbacks, but still had a garrison of 85,000 British soldiers. U.S. aid to the Britishers was unable to reach because of the loss at Pearl Harbor. Within a week the British army had surrendered to 36,000 Japanese troops making it the “largest capitulation” in British history according to Sir Winston Churchill. It was not as bloody as the Gallipoli Campaign but most of the captured troops never made it back home.
- Dieppe Raid, 1942 – During World War II, the Allies wanted to gain a foothold in German occupied France so they decided to attack Dieppe, a port town. Of the 6,000 Allied troops, only 1,000 were British but there was support from the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force. The largely Canadian force had inadequate aerial and artillery support and were trapped on the beach. The German troops easily managed to keep them at bay and the Allied troop was cut by more than half when they finally retreated nine hours later. The Royal Air Force lost 106 aircrafts and the Royal Navy lost a destroyer and 33 landing crafts.
The list is not exhaustive. The British military has made many other blunders, but the Gallipoli campaign is considered one of the bloodiest campaigns. It formed the basis of the Turkish War of Independence when the Ottoman Empire finally broke up. It became a defining moment in the history of the Middle East as it heralded the rise of a young Turkish officer, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. He founded the Republic of Turkey and became the first president of the country after their World War I defeat. The Gallipoli Campaign loss led to a growing national consciousness in Australia and New Zealand as they emerged from under British wings. The Gallipoli Campaign thus, was more than just a battle.
By Anugya Chitransh
Photo by Archives New Zealand – Creativecommons Flickr License