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The British at Cape Helles

The British at Cape Helles

With French troops engaged in a diversionary landing on the Asiatic side of the Dardanelles, the main British force landed at the foot of the Gallipoli peninsula after dawn.

Supported by British Navy guns, the British troops were to advance 10 km along the peninsula on the first day and seize the heights of Achi Baba. The British were then to go north, with the Anzacs coming from the west, to capture the forts guarding the Dardanelles.

The Helles landing of the 29th British Division at five beaches was mismanaged by the British commander, Major General Aylmer Hunter-Weston. V and W beaches became bloodbaths, despite the meagre defences, while the landings at other sites were not exploited. The British gained a foothold but plans were in disarray.

The covering force from the Royal Munster Fusiliers and Hampshires landed from a converted collier, SS River Clyde, run aground so troops could disembark via ramps. Troops emerging one by one from sally ports were mown down by machine-gunners. Of the first 200 soldiers to disembark, only 21 men reached the beach.

The Royal Dublin Fusiliers landing at ‘V’ Beach from open boats suffered 70 per cent casualties. Six Victoria Crosses were awarded at V Beach landing and three more the next day as soldiers and sailors fought their way off the beach. Only one Dubliner officer survived the landing. Of the 1012 Dubliners who landed, just 11 survived the Gallipoli campaign unscathed.

At W Beach, the Lancashire Fusiliers also landed in open boats, on a shore overlooked by dunes and obstructed with barbed wire. Six Victoria Crosses were won as they overwhelmed the defences despite 600 casualties among 1000 men.

On both beaches, the Turkish defenders occupied strong defensive positions and inflicted many casualties on the British infantry. As at Anzac, the Ottoman defenders were too few to defeat the landing but contained the attack close to the shore.

At Y Beach, the Allies landed unopposed under confused orders. The village of Krithia at the base of Achi Baba was lightly defended but neither of the two colonels knew who was in charge or what to do. Telling their men to brew tea and rest, they requested information and directions throughout the day from Hunter Weston but received no response.

General Hamilton, passing Y Beach on Queen Elizabeth, saw the men ‘quite peacefully reposing … probably smoking’ but did not want to send in more troops without Hunter-Weston’s consent. Eventually, Hunter Weston refused. That was as close as Allies came to capturing the village that blocked the way to their target and the failure to seize the advantage would be one of the painful lessons of Gallipoli.

A battalion of the Turkish 25th Regiment raced to Krithia and seized vantage points around the village and Achi Baba. By the morning the Allies at Y Beach had more than 700 casualties. Thousands of Allied soldiers would die trying in vain to reach Krithia as Hunter-Weston ordered attacks in daylight over open land. Its approaches became the bloody graveyard for Allies who interrupted the stalemate over the next four months with repeated assaults on the strategic position.

Dvr Charles Hemming of Maryborough, onboard a ship near Cape Helles:
On the 25th of April – a day never to be forgotten in Australian history. About 4.30 am I was leaning over the ship’s rail when I was brought to my senses by a flash and an awful boom from a warship close by. Within a few minutes, it was a living hell, for dozens of battleships had started on their day’s work. As daylight came troops began to land.

Our ship was now in the entrance of the Dardanelles. No longer than half an hour had passed from the time the first troops began to land when we saw drifting fast towards us a boat.

When the boat was some 50 yards from us, an English bluejacket stood up in the cutter’s bow and semaphored to us “All wounded aboard here; can we come alongside”, and as the boat drew alongside a sailor was seen to hold the ship’s tiller in the right hand while the left had been blown away by shrapnel, and our ship’s officer shouted, “Port your helm” and the bluejacket answered “Aye Aye sir!” with a forced smile. It was a pitiful sight that met our eyes..
The boat was half full of water and wounded were lying half-drowned. We soon had them aboard. One had his eye blown out, another shot in the leg; others shot in the lungs etc.

The forts on Cape Helles were soon blown to pieces when Queen Elizabeth started with eight 15 inch guns.

The French troops began on the Asiatic side, and the British on the Peninsula side, under the forts of Cape Helles, and the Australians and New Zealanders at Gaba Tepe, some 15 miles from the British.

We left the point where the English were and went to where our boys had landed in the early morning. All that day the ships were bombarding the hills with shrapnel. That night at dark, the hospital ship and two of the troopships left full of Australian wounded. – M.C., Letters from the Front Line, Maryborough WBB Historical Society.