Gallipoli 1: Prelude

The reasons for the Gallipoli Campaign were rooted in the events of 1914 and, like many, if not most, my family were involved. It may seem self-indulgent to concentrate attention on one battalion and one family, but a true picture of war needs a close up look at the effects on individuals as well a the wide angle view of large armies on the move. The hope is that those individuals may in some measure represent the experience of those who are otherwise ignored.

As it happens, my mother’s brother, Arthur Flemming, passed through Stretton [Stretton on Dunsmore, the village where Tony lives] on the day war started. He left a diary and told how on that day he was cycling from Coventry to London. He took shelter from the rain under a railway bridge and was told the news of war’s outbreak by other shelterers. He was a reservist with the 3rd Coldstream battalion and within a few days was at the front near Mons. And, as a corporal in charge of a machine gun unit, he was deeply engaged in ferocious battle within three weeks.

Those first engagements of the war brought the military theories of three nations into bloody conflict with the new nature of modern war and hundreds of thousands died because of the gap between theory and reality.

The French climbed the learning curve at greatest cost. Before the war, their military theorists had forcefully taught that only aggressive spirit won wars: imprudence became a virtue. This was the doctrine of offensive à outrance. It reckoned not with the new reality of machine guns and barbed wire: the balance had shifted firmly in favour of the defensive. About four hundred thousand Frenchmen lost their lives in reckless attacks in those early weeks. Colonel de Grandmaison had done for them all with his plan of attack.

The German Schlieffen Plan embodied a less extreme version of the same concept. It envisaged a powerful right hook by two strong armies, passing through the part of the front held by the British, leading to the envelopment of Paris and a swift conclusion of the War. The British army — “contemptible” was the Kaiser’s word — was not held in high regard; it was thought that they had shown a lack of rifle skill against Boer farmers a decade or so earlier.

In the event, chance and practice favoured the British. Their allocated role at Mons was defensive, which was fortunate. And, precisely because of the lesson learned from the Boers, they had practised formidable rifle skills. Fifteen rounds a minute was the claim. Now, if you have ever operated the Lee Enfield 303, you will know that this is a supreme claim: up with bolt to gather the cartridge; forward to push it into the barrel; aim; take up finger pressure; fire; bolt back to eject cartridge case; bolt down to collect the next cartridge. All in 4 seconds.

Germans have testified to this murderous firepower. At Mons, the mass of grey uniforms met British bullets and recoiled. Many believed that each British soldier was equipped with a machine gun.

But at the same time the French, on the British right, were recoiling, badly mauled from their frustrated attacks. As they retreated, they left the British flanks unprotected so the British, in their turn, had to retreat. Thus began the Retreat from Mons: days of hard marching, interspersed with fierce fighting engagements, costly to both sides.

When war was declared, there had been wild cheering in the streets of London, Berlin and Paris. Not quite everyone. Lord Esher, who was to prove consistently prescient about Churchill and Gallipoli, wrote on 27th August that London Society tended to regard war as ‘a sort of picnic, chequered by untoward incident, but there will come a day when the flower of our manhood will have been gathered by the reaper, and when the casualty lists will contain nothing but plebian names that convey nothing to anyone beyond the mourners in obscure homes.’

Two days later, Arthur Flemming recorded just such an untoward incident. The Guards Division, dog-tired and foot-weary, paused to rest for the night at Landrecies. They were suddenly pulled from their rest by an urgent alarm when the small town was attacked by German cavalry. Arthur’s machine gun was set up in the main approach road and they became part of a fierce close engagement, with hastily erected barricades of carts and wagons, weirdly illuminated by the light of a burning haystack. The fighting went on till early morning when the Germans withdrew, leaving 800 dead and a badly damaged 3rd Coldstream battalion. The High Command distinguished themselves less well: Haig, the Corps Commander, sent a panicky call for help to GHQ, which caused one general to faint.

However, the German advance was no victorious strut. Thirty-two days from Mons to Marne took their toll. Their ragged, dust-covered soldiers, with boots worn thin, were suffering. And their commanders were having to face the fact that retreating French and British armies, far from being annihilated, were withdrawing in good order, powers of resistance intact, while they themselves were outrunning supply trains. The critical Battle of the Marne was about to test both sides.

If the Allied position was still precarious, the odds were changing in their favour. And in Joffre they found the man for the hour. The counter attack he organised, after days of fierce but indecisive conflict, eventually turned retreaters into advancers, advancers into retreaters. And those on both sides have recorded the profound change in morale in both armies.

Roles were now reversed. The Germans retreated to prepared defensive positions north of the River Aisne. The Allies advanced, only to be checked by the German static defences. It was the end of the short period of mobile warfare. Each side tried to outflank the other; each failed. And the line was extended until mutually repelling static defences stretched from the Alps to the English Channel.

There was still to be a time of crisis in October, before Ypres, when the Germans almost achieved breakthrough. And there, as it happened, another of my mother’s brothers, Alf Flemming, was involved in an episode of high drama, which cost him his life.

The situation was roughly as follows. The High Command of both sides still entertained unreal pipedreams of breakthrough. The ancient textile town of Ypres, an important road junction, was the key to the northern front. From Ypres, the Menin road led to the front through the village of Gheluvelt, about five miles away. Between the two was Hooge Chateau, divisional HQ. Breakthrough at Gheluvelt was a prize that could have allowed the Germans to outflank the entire British army and open the way to the Channel Ports.

In late October, a series of attacks were resisted at high cost to both sides. On the morning of the 31st, the Germans launched a massive attack with seven fresh divisions and Gheluvelt fell. One of those involved on the German side was Adolf Hitler, who had had received his baptism of fire on the Menin Road two days before. That same day, a shell hit Chateau Hooge HQ. The Commander in Chief, Sir John French, looked disaster in the face and wrote later that it was the worst half hour of his life. Haig prepared orders for retirement.

In the afternoon, 1st S. Wales Borderers had counter attacked, regaining a small part of the old position. Their position was precarious, with small chance of holding on without reinforcement.

And reinforcements there were none. No reserves left, except for one depleted battalion of 2nd Worcesters. About 350 men, a third of full strength.

It was enough. Led by Major Hankey, the Worcesters moved up and put in a charge over a thousand yards of open ground. This caught the Germans relaxing after success and drove them off. It is one of the most celebrated actions of the entire War and Sir John French said that on that day 2nd Worcesters saved the Empire.

Not without cost. More than half those in the charge were casualties. Alf Flemming died of wounds in German hands the next day. He left a young wife and infant son.

There was a strange postscript. Some time later, Alf’s wife received a letter of condolence from a German soldier, which said — when they had found someone to translate it — that Alf had died in his arms.

That day, for those with the wit to realise it, signalled the end of the dream of breakthrough, although the lesson was slow to be learned by some in command and many paid with their lives for such mental rigidity. Machine gun and barbed wire between them left only the prospect of stalemate and endless indecisive trench warfare.

The Christmas of 1914 is remembered for the account of Germans and British playing football in a Christmas truce. Arthur read of this and recorded: “Not in our part of the line they didn’t. And it would have gone hard with them if they had tried”. There had been casualties the day before and, on Christmas day, a day of hard frost, when a few Germans put their heads up and shouted “Merry Christmas!” they were immediately shot at and sniping back and forth went on all day. One of the Guardsmen wounded that day was Captain Edward George Spencer Churchill. Surely some relative of Winston’s’

And Winston was one of the few to give deep thought to the new military problem. He was looking for some alternative to what he described as sending the new armies “to chew barbed wire”. The Gallipoli campaign was the result.

A future prime minister and Churchill’s deputy during WW2, Clement Attlee, who fought at Gallipoli, once described Churchill as half genius, half fool. The astute Lord Esher said he was “bold and fertile, but wild and impractical”. A.G.Gardner, in 1912, said:

He is always unconsciously playing a part — a heroic part. And he is himself his most astonished spectator. He sees himself moving through the smoke of battle — triumphant, terrible, his brow clothed in thunder, his legions looking to him for victory, and not looking in vain. In the theatre of his mind it is always the hour of fate and the crack of dawn.

These characteristics were to be stamped on the Gallipoli campaign.

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