What Events Led to the Battle of Gallipoli?
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What Events Led to the Battle of Gallipoli?

Military History

What Events Led to the Battle of Gallipoli?

The Allied troops at Gallipoli believed they fought for democracy, but few realized that the Turks were fighting for a higher ideal—their country’s future.

The Allied troops at Gallipoli believed they fought for democracy, but few realized that the Turks were fighting for a higher ideal—their country’s future.

by Victor J. Kamenir

In the English-speaking world, most students of military history would be hard-pressed to identify the time, place, or antagonists of the Canakkale Campaign. However, they would readily recognize it by its English name—the Battle of Gallipoli. The Allied troops who went ashore at Gallipoli believed they were fighting for democracy. Few Westerners realized (or at any rate admitted) that their Turkish opponents were fighting for an even higher ideal—they were defending their country. A significant portion of the Turkish soldiers who fought in the Canakkale Campaign were recruited from the towns and villages of the Gallipoli Peninsula. With their families close behind the battle lines, these soldiers were literally fighting for their homes. To them, the Allied soldiers were invaders who had come to defile their country and their Muslim faith.

All Eyes on Turkey

In 1915, World War I was in its second year. On the Western Front, the inexorable meat grinder of trench warfare had replaced the early war of maneuver. Stalemated British, French, and German armies stared at each other across the scarred Belgian and French countryside. Meanwhile, on the Eastern Front, where operations of Austro-German and Russian armies still maintained some measure of fluidity, things were beginning to bog down there as well. The eyes of both sides turned south, toward the Ottoman Empire. With the Turks firmly in command of both the Dardanelles and Bosporus Straits, a vital supply route between Russia and Western Europe had been cut. Russia needed weapons and munitions from England and France. In turn, those two countries needed Russian food shipments. To England and France, Turkey seemed like the soft underbelly through which a serious blow could be delivered at Germany. The Germans, for their part, were looking for a place to divert British and French efforts and relieve some of the pressure on the Fatherland.

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For more than a decade, the German and Ottoman empires had maintained close ties, especially in the military sphere. Shortly before the start of the war, a German military mission of almost 100 officers arrived in Turkey, invited there to overhaul the creaking Ottoman war machine. One of the most senior members of this mission was General Otto Liman von Sanders, who was destined to play a key role in the Gallipoli campaign. When the war started, Turkey initially maintained its neutrality. Then, in an act of either calculated effrontery or callous arrogance, England withheld two battleships it had been building for Turkey. The Turks’ indignation was understandable, since they had already paid for the battleships. Not only was England keeping the vessels, it also refused to return its client’s money.

Deutschland Uber Allah

The Allied troops at Gallipoli believed they fought for democracy, but few realized that the Turks were fighting for their country’s future.German warships soon entered the picture. On August 10, 1914, hotly pursued by combined British and French squadrons, two German vessels, Goeben and Breslau, took refuge in Turkish territorial waters. In a sham sale, Turkey acquired the ships from Germany. Re-flagged under Ottoman colors and bearing the new names Midilli and Yavuz, the two ships were still manned by their German crews, who went through the ridiculous charade of wearing fezzes and pretending to be Turks. A rueful pun made the rounds: “Deutschland uber Allah.”

Turkey decided to enter the conflict on the German side. On October 27, the two newly acquired warships sailed into the Black Sea, bombarded several Russian cities on the north shore of the sea, and sank two merchant vessels. Although damage was minimal, Russia immediately declared war on Turkey. Great Britain and France quickly followed suit, and on November 3 combined British and French squadrons bombarded Turkish military installations near the entrance to the Dardanelles Straits, heavily damaging two small forts. Turkey, in turn, formally declared war on England and France. Another country had been drawn into the European bloodbath.

The Ottoman Empire was separated into the European portion and the Asian portion by the narrow Sea of Marmara. The Dardanelles Straits formed the gates to that British lake, the Mediterranean Sea, while the Bosporus Straits guarded the entrance to the Black Sea, dominated by Russia. The Gallipoli Peninsula (anglicized name of the small town of Gelibolu on the European side of the Dardanelles) gave its name to the upcoming campaign in the English-speaking world. The Turks named the enduring, bloody campaign that followed after the town of Canakkale, on the Asian side of the straits.

Originally Published April 27, 2014

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