A view over the Gallipoli Peninsula looking towards Anzac Cove. Birdwood had the benefit of seeing for himself the steep terrain, criss-cross of tracks and the dugouts, while Kitchener had only maps and cables. Courtesy of Australian War Memorial C01507
A view over the Gallipoli Peninsula looking towards Anzac Cove. Birdwood had the benefit of seeing for himself the steep terrain, criss-cross of tracks and the dugouts, while Kitchener had only maps and cables. Courtesy of Australian War Memorial C01507 Courtesy of Australian War Memor

The Dardanelles reality begins to dawn

BY EARLY March 1915, British Vice-Admiral Sackville Carden's ships had been bombarding the forts along the coast of Turkey's Dardanelles straits for almost two weeks, to no avail.

According to Australian historian and author Les Carlyon, a familiar pattern was emerging with each attack from the mighty fleet, as it confronted not only the big guns from the forts at various distances, but also a plethora of mines laid on the sea bed.

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"The fixed guns of the outer forts were easy to deal with; that battle had been won," he wrote in his book, Gallipoli.

"The hidden guns of the intermediate defences were a problem; that battle had so far been lost.

"The unprotected minesweepers couldn't work in the current and the gunfire; that battle had been lost too."

A stalemate appeared to have been reached - it's just that no one wanted to admit to it yet.

First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill cabled Carden on March 2 for a progress report and the vice-admiral, with inexplicable precision, replied he needed only 14 fine days to reach the Sea of Marmara.

On March 4, Anzac commander General William Birdwood arrived in the Dardanelles on war minister Lord Kitchener's instructions and met with Carden.

Birdwood's task was to survey the area, get a sense for what the navy was or was not achieving, and start to form a plan on how a landing force would be used if it were needed to support the navy.

Birdwood accompanied Admiral John de Robeck, second in command to Carden, on a tour around Morto Bay - a few kilometres up the Dardanelles from the Gallipoli Peninsula - and as far up the straits as it was possible to safely go.

General Birdwood on deck a British navy ship, from where he got his first glimpse of the challenge the Dardanelles campaign would present.
General Birdwood on deck a British navy ship, from where he got his first glimpse of the challenge the Dardanelles campaign would present. Courtesy of Australian War Memor

"As we went up, we were fired upon," Birdwood said later.

"Shots fell all round us, and neither he nor I had the least idea where the shots came from, nor had anyone else."

After his perilous visit, the general cabled Kitchener to convey his doubt about the navy's prospects of success on its own: "I am very doubtful if the navy can force the passage unassisted. The forts taken so far have been very visible and easy."

From what he could see of the terrain, Birdwood proposed Cape Helles, at the tip of the peninsula, as the main landing spot - and believed all of his troops would be needed.

Kitchener reminded Birdwood the troops were intended principally for operations in Constantinople and not for a Dardanelles landing force unless absolutely necessary.

But Carlyon points out: "Kitchener was reading the situation from cables and maps; Birdwood had seen the reality from the deck of a ship."

By now, the advance party of Australian troops - led by the 3rd Infantry Brigade - had landed on Lemnos Island, 100km east of the peninsula, ready to support the navy if needed, with the remainder of the Anzacs on their way.

They would also be joined by French troops, and Kitchener had changed his mind for the third time and decided to send the British 29th Division after all. All up, they would be 80,000 men.

Using some of the terrain on Lemnos as a training ground for Gallipoli, the small band of Aussies did their best to prepare.

But they could not know then just how deceptive the Gallipoli ground would be, nor what fate awaited them once the navy inevitably failed in its mission.

Who was William Birdwood?

British general William Birdwood, commander of the Anzacs, pictured here wearing a slouch hat given to him by the Australians. Courtesy of Australian War Memorial P03717.009
British general William Birdwood, commander of the Anzacs, pictured here wearing a slouch hat given to him by the Australians. Courtesy of Australian War Memorial P03717.009 Courtesy of Australian War Memor

He was born in India in 1865, educated in England and attended the Royal Military College Sandhurst before being posted back to India, where he served on the north-west frontier.

During the Boer War, Birdwood served on Lord Kitchener's staff. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order in 1908 and, three years later, was promoted to major general.

When the First World War began, Kitchener put Birdwood in command of the Australian and New Zealand forces, initially bound for Europe but sent instead to Gallipoli in April 1915.

Birdwood impressed the men by regularly visiting the front lines and taking daily swims in the sea, heedless of the danger from Turkish shrapnel aimed at men seeking such refreshment.

Although he was opposed to the evacuation in December 1915, he oversaw it successfully.

In early 1916, when the corps was split in two, he assumed command of 1 Anzac Corps and accompanied it to France, where he directed its operations throughout 1916 and 1917. He always made a point of appointing Australians to command and staff positions.

In 1920, Birdwood was made a general in the Australian Military Forces and five years later was made field marshal.

He retired from the military in 1930 and was thwarted in his desire to become Australia's Governor-General, when then Prime Minister Jim Scullin insisted on the office being held by an Australian.

Birdwood died in England in 1951 and was buried with full military honours.
 



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