By the end of 1914, conflict on the Western Front had reached military stalemate. British High Command sought for a new campaign. A plan was hatched to knock Germany's ally, the Ottoman Empire, out of the war. This centred on breaching the Dardanelles Straits, launching an attack on Constantinople and opening up a warm water route to Russia, Britain's hard-pressed ally.
To this day, the Dardanelles campaign has been a byword for strategic and logistic folly. For the Turks however, the campaign has possessed mythic status as a costly victory which heralded the rebirth of their nation from out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. Amongst the dead, injured and missing of the campaign were thousands of Irishmen, whose story would be banished along with most other Great War narratives, as post-colonial Ireland sought to establish a new identity.
The British First Sea Lord, Winston Churchill, suggested the idea of a naval assault on the Dardanelles Straits towards the end of 1914. By February of the following year the French had been co-opted and a joint naval barrage had begun. In March, a fleet of battleships, cruisers and destroyers, assisted by minesweepers, attempted to enter the narrows. The result was swift and costly failure, involving the loss of several prestige vessels in the Royal Navy's fleet.
The Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener appointed a well-respected general, Sir Ian Hamilton, to command a 'Mediterranean Expeditionary Force'. It was almost 80,000 strong, and it would land on the Gallipoli peninsula, to the north of the Dardanelles Straits, in April. British and French troops gathered on the Greek islands, a short distance from the Turkish coast. There they prepared to embark for Gallipoli.
Two main sectors for their disembarkation were selected. The first was Cape Helles, on the southern tip of the peninsula, where a number of small beaches and inlets were thought to be suitable. The second location was further north on the Aegean coast, near Gaba Tepe. The landings occurred on 25th April and in both sectors there was a host of unanticipated difficulties. Landing several thousand infantrymen on an unfamiliar shoreline proved difficult enough but matters were made much worse by that fact that the Turks had modernised their much-maligned army with the help of the Germans and were able to inflict heavy losses on the invaders. They were capable of accurate gunfire and they had a sound defensive strategy.
At Cape Helles, the allied forces managed to push several miles inland but a stalemate developed which was comparable to the one on the Western Front. The Australian and New Zealand forces who landed at the infamous sector further north, now known as 'Anzac', faced impossible odds, when trying to scale the cliffs and dislodge the Turks who had fortified their positions on the heights above the sea. In each sector the casualties mounted for both defender and attacker. The invading soldiers were hampered by poor supplies, they were often sacrificed due to dogged, unimaginative decision making and they were weakened by bad health, caused by woeful hygiene.
In early August, an attempt was made to rejuvenate the campaign. This time, soldiers landed at Suvla Bay, to the north of Anzac. Once again, there were lamentable military failures. Above all, the Turkish defenders knew their own landscape, including the location of wells and springs, containing much needed water. Added to the risk of sudden death from Turkish snipers was the danger of bush fires which swept the tinder-dry plain.
By the autumn it was clear that the Gallipoli experiment was a costly failure. Generals with little knowledge of how to conduct modern warfare would receive much blame. By the end of December, almost all the British and French troops had departed. They left behind the bodies of former comrades in scattered, often unmarked graves. The war still had three long years to run and other epic battles would be fought. Few matched the Dardanelles campaign for utter failure.
Irishmen served and died at the Dardanelles right from the start of the campaign. A number of Irish sailors perished when British vessels in ships such as HMS Goliath. However it is almost impossible to give exact figures for the Irish dead in the overall campaign. Irish infantry regiments contained large numbers of non-Irish troops. Émigré Irishmen fought with units from all across the British Empire. My own assessment is that at least 4,000 men who would have considered themselves as Irish died at the Dardanelles.
Of course, the dead are not the whole story in the casualty list for any battle. Apart from those who suffered physical injuries, there were men who had been mentally traumatised. They had been exposed to fear and danger, and they had had to kill their fellow human beings- a new experience for the vast majority of Irish troops. Then they returned after the war to an Ireland that was undergoing a political transformation. That change altered the meaning of their costly wartime service, in which a British army uniform was now seen as an emblem of dishonour.
One of the most poignant stories is that of the 1st battalion of the Munster Fusiliers. Made up of men who had soldiered in far-off parts of the empire, the battalion had been in Upper Burma when the Great War broke out. They made their way from Asia by boat and train and were sent to a depot at Coventry in the English Midlands for an update in their training.
Coventry had an Irish community who forged strong links with the men during their stay. A green flags bearing the words Erin go Bragh were presented to the battalion. Then in March, the Fusiliers travelled to Avonmouth and boarded troopships that would take them across the Mediterranean to the Greek island of Lemnos. On the night of 24th April they sailed for Gallipoli, where they were tasked with landing in the dawn at a location known to the commanders as V beach.
Along with thousands of other infantrymen, including soldiers from other Irish regiments, the men of the 1st Munster Fusiliers were devastated by enemy fire as they attempted to come ashore. Out of the first landing party of 400 only 60 were left unscathed. Witnesses spoke later of how the sea at V beach was red with Irish blood, shed by the Munster men and the nearby Dublin Fusiliers.
The campaign at Suvla involved the men from the 10th Irish Division. If the soldiers in the V beach landing were professional infantrymen, the men in this division were mostly civilians who had recently volunteered for the army for a variety of reasons. The poet Francis Ledwidge was at Suvla, a Nationalist whose head still filled with the lore of Slane and his native County Meath. He would survive Gallipoli but die later in Belgium. Brian Desmond Hurst was present at Gallipoli, having signed the Ulster Covenant then forsaken a factory job to be a soldier. He would survive Gallipoli and indeed the entire war. In fact he would go on to be a successful film director in Holywood.
One of the most moving narratives from the story of the 10th Division is that of the Dublin Pals — a story recently retold by the Anu Theatre company in a gripping site-specific performance at the former Royal Barracks. This barracks is where the men once trained. The Pals were largely made up of rugby footballers. Having gathered at Lansdowne Road they headed off to Gallipoli, where many of them met a cruel fate, discovering that war is not in any shape or form a mere sport or game.
While it is right that the story of the Irish at Gallipoli should have re-merged from the shadows, we must put Irish participation in this campaign within a strict geopolitical and historical context. These Irishmen were part of an attempt to bring down the Ottoman Empire. At the same time as the attacks from the west at Gallipoli, the Russian were attacking the Ottoman border on the north-east. This is the context for the terrible fate that befell the Armenian population, who were seen as the internal enemy of the besieged Ottoman Empire and became victims of a ghastly and extensive pogrom.
Despite the defeat at Gallipoli, the allied aim of unseating the Ottomans was fulfilled. British troops marched into Constantinople at the end of the war. In due course, amidst much regional instability and bloodshed a new, smaller Turkish republic emerged and the Caliphate came to an end. Meanwhile the former Ottoman Empire in the Middle East had been carved up by the British and the French. The legacy of that carve-up is with us still, in a region where the national frontiers drawn by the Great War’s victors are being supplanted by new demarcations, amidst much chaos, suffering and strife.
I have undertaken few journeys more memorable than the one that I made to Gallipoli a few years ago. To stand in the V beach cemetery and read the names on the memorial stones is a heart-breaking experience. Cape Helles is on the eastern edge of Europe and the shores of Asian Anatolia are plainly visible in the distance.
On the stones are so many Irish names — the names of men who hailed from the western edge of the continent. The Munster Fusilier home depot was in Tralee, after all, on the brink of the wild Atlantic. Some men travelled across the width of a continent to die here.
By dwelling on that pan-European journey and by recognising that Irish soldiers took part in a campaign whose echoes are with us still, we gain a valuable perspective. Ireland’s military history under the British Empire is not just a narrative to be politely acknowledged as a recently retrieved memory of courage, despite this island’s colonial subjection. It is also a stark confirmation that both for good and for bad, Ireland has always been enmeshed in a much wider world.