Gallipoli: ANZAC, General Sir Ian Hamilton & The Truce
Posted on May 22nd, 2015
My regular readers will be only too aware that I have certain hobby-horses which it’s maybe best to avoid setting me off on! One is the circumstances of the 1914 Christmas Truce during which, most famously, some fraternising troops took the opportunity to kick a football around their piece of no-mans-land; my concern being that the truce was by no means solid along the length of even the British Western Front and that the football played was by no means a full-blown match. There would not have been enough room given that the primary object of the truce was to collect and bury the dead!
The horror for ANZAC (and British and French troops) in Gallipoli
My second hobby-horse is about the impression, still held widely in Australia, that troops of the newly-formed Australia New Zealand Army Corps (ANZACS), were the only ones to be landed on the Gallipoli Peninsular on the morning of 25th April 1915. In fact, as some of my readers will have read through in my previous blog, ‘Six VC’s before Breakfast’, British and French troops also landed on bullet-swept beaches elsewhere that morning, only to meet the same horrific death toll. All too quickly, an operation that was supposed to break the trench warfare deadlock that was destroying the armies on the Western Front in northern Europe, got bogged down in just the same way with the allied troops clinging desperately to inhospitable terrain which the opposing Turkish troops were determined to defend to the last man. Between 25th April and 18th May 1915 there was barely a silent moment on the peninsular as the unseen Turkish defenders poured down artillery fire upon the invaders ; roaring explosions were interspersed with rifle and machine gun fire. Men were killed whilst visiting a latrine whilst others were killed trying to get clean in the sea. Then during the morning of 18th May, the ANZACs noticed that periods of complete silence were both breaking out as well as growing longer. Then, at 5 pm, a most furious artillery bombardment broke out, raging for about half an hour. Barrages of this kind were usually preliminary to an infantry assault and earlier that day some naval aircraft flying reconnaissance missions had noticed huge numbers of men massing behind Turkish lines. Just before midnight a furious fusillade of rifle fire was directed towards Allied lines. But it was not until just after 3am (19th May) that Johnny Turk rose up from his front line and, en-masse, swarmed toward the ANZAC lines. Given that the Turks had to cross at least 200 yards of open ground – and in some places were coming down hill – they were horribly exposed such that very few of them survived. Indeed some reports describe the first hour of the attack as being of ‘indiscriminate killing’ until the ANZACs could bring some order to the killing. There are even some reports of fighting breaking out amongst allied troops as they fought each other for a space on the parapet from which to take aim! Although the term ‘turkey shoot’ is not derived from this assault, there is little doubt that the term describes all too painfully the superiority of allied troops and by 12 noon – when General Enver Pasha brought the assault to an end – 10,000 of his men had fallen.
General Sir Ian Hamilton: A worthy ‘butcher and bungler’?
Although there were losses amongst the ANZACS, most notably Pte John Simpson who featured in my blog last week, some Turkish soldiers having managed to jump into ANZAC trenches causing casualties before they were overcome, most of those dead and dying were Turks; now lying piled up in no-mans-land under the scorching summer sun and none from either side could risk going out to help with being shot instantly. Not surprisingly, allied medical staff advised their on-site commander, General Birdwood, that the dead should be buried as quickly as possible in order to prevent the spread of infection. But, given that the overall commander, General Sir Ian Hamilton was based on Lemnos – some five hours sail away – Birdwood was forced to send a message to him asking whether or not an armistice might be arranged! Another of my hobby-horses is that public opinion describes most British Generals as ‘butchers and bunglers’, without much in the way of understanding of the job they were being asked to do and the resources (or lack of them) with which they were being asked to do it. However, of those who might deserve public disdain, General Sir Ian Hamilton’s approach to the matter of this truce, is more than worthy. For, unbelievably, Hamilton refused to sanction any such armistice for fear that the Turks would use it for propaganda purposes. Instead he was willing to consider only a direct request from the Turkish authorities. What followed would be funny were it not so tragic.
The truce: The unromantic smell & momentary calm
Whilst there were one or two very shaky local truces under both Red Cross and White flags – and both sides still took pot shots – it was not until the German Commander, Limon Van Sanders, wrote to Hamilton on 22nd May, four days later, that a truce was considered properly between the two sides. Even then, British and Turkish Officers were blindfolded upon their separate approaches to each other’s headquarters, with each being keen to emphasise that they were not asking directly for any favours! Eventually however, it was agreed that on 24th May 1915, a full six days after the assault, a truce would take place. Between 0730 – 1630 hrs, soldiers on both sides would stand down; no weapons of any sort would be fired and for a second time an incredible silence would upon the whole length of the battlefield. Because of the fraternisation that took place on the Western Front on 25th December 1914, most of the contemporary comments are about soldiers swapping photographs and chocolate (shades of the Sainsbury TV campaign), drinking each other’s whisky and schnapps and kicking about a football. There is little mention made of the bodies that had to be buried. Almost certainly because it was Christmas Day and that, although the bodies had been lying out for a few days, the weather was cold rendering them stiff and solid. Not so on Gallipoli. Although a light rain began to fall, as the British journalist Compton MacKenzie observed, “the smell of death floated over the ridge above and settled down upon us, tangible, it seemed, and clammy as the membrane of a bat’s wing”. Suffice to say that the only way to attempt to block out the horror was to either smoke non-stop – to which end Allies troops had been supplied with two packs of cigarettes – or stuff ones nostrils with wool soaked in antiseptic as offered around by men of the Turkish Red Cross. Whilst some ANZAC troops worked through, helping their Turkish counterparts bury their more numerous dead, by 2 pm many had taken the opportunity of no artillery or bullets to bathe in the sea. Eventually, however, by just before 4.30 pm everyone had returned to their own trenches. It had been agreed that there would be a 25 minute break before fighting resumed. At precisely 4.45 pm a single shot rang out over the battlefield and the truce was over.
About the Author
Debbie Coupland is an experienced researcher and former Lieutenant of the Women’s Royal Army Corps. These days Debbie has put her passion for history into running truly bespoke WW1 battlefield tours to France and Belgium, with Great War Tours.