It’s almost one hundred years ago to the day that a disastrous invasion plan was put into effect which would lead to eight months of horror, the deaths of 145,000 men and the complete failure of the enterprise.
The idea was to break the stalemate that had developed on the Western Front during World War One. The Gallipoli Campaign, which was thought up by then First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, started as a bid to take Turkey out of the conflict by launching an attack on its capital, Constantinople. Opening a second front 1,000 miles away would weaken the Kaiser and aid Russia, which was cut off from the Allies, or so the thinking went.
The Allies couldn’t take the Turkish straits by sea alone, so a land attack was planned. It began on April 25, 1915. Over the next eight months 559,000 Allied forces would join the battle – 420,000 British and Empire troops, 80,000 French, 50,000 Australians and 9,000 from New Zealand.
Almost half of these men would become casualties, with around 58,000 of them dying. More than 87,000 Ottoman and German forces were killed, out of more than 300,000 casualties. The figures are truly mind-blowing.
Such high casualties are due to a number of factors – troops were both poorly trained and poorly equipped, a lack of artillery, a lack of decent maps of the area, poor sanitation and poor tactical decisions by the commanders on the ground. Poor all round really.
Amid the shambles and the profligate losses, though, were acts of incredible bravery. In the first hours of the invasion, six Victoria Crosses would be won by men engaged in a life and death struggle – the ‘Six Before Breakfast’ as they became known at the time.
The attack on the peninsula at Gallipoli began at 6am on April 25 when the First Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers landed on a mined sandy cove amid murderous gunfire from the Turks who were waiting on the high ground above. Despite the hail of bullets and men falling dead before they even left the beached invasion ships, the attack continued.
Bodies piled upon bodies, but still the men advanced onto the beach and up the cliffs where, eventually, at terrible cost, they cleared the Turks out.
Let’s leave aside the small fact that the Allies failed to secure their hard-earned beachhead and, instead, allowed the Turks to regroup and hold them there for most of the campaign that would follow. Instead, let’s look at the bravery of those six men who won the ‘Six Before Breakfast’ – men who exemplified the bravery of all those others who fell by their sides.
I’m happy to say that there was an Irishman among the six. Corporal William Keneally (28), from Wexford, was a company runner with the First Battalion. He noticed that his company’s advance on the beach was being hampered by barbed wire. He took a pair of cutters and crawled through deadly gunfire to cut it. It turned out that the cutters he used were faulty and he was unsuccessful, but his bravery earned him a VC. He died two months later.
Sergeant Alfred Richards had his leg almost cut off by bullets when he hit the beach, yet he continued on, crawling over the barbed wire and urging on the men around him. He ignored his injuries and led by example. When things quieted down somewhat he was evacuated to Egypt, where his leg was amputated. He died in 1953 at the age of 73.
Captain Richard Wills led C Company at Gallipoli. AS the boats prepared to beach themselves on the sandy cove, he stood in full view of the enemy waving his cane and shouting ‘Come on boys, remember Minden’… a reference to a battle in 1759 n which the Fusiliers distinguished themselves. He died in 1966, having lived to the ripe age of 89.
Corporal John Grimshaw (19) clearly didn’t know the meaning of the word ‘fear’. As a signaller, it was his job to keep contact with the invading force and the commanders on board HMS Euryalus. Grimshaw urged on the men without considering his own safety.
The fact that his backpack and water bottle were riddled with bullets and his cap badge sot to pieces is testament to the danger he was in. Remarkably, he remained uninjured. Grimshaw was sent home in November, 1915, suffering frostbite. He served in France in 1917 and only retired from the army in 1953. He died in 1980 at the age of 87.
Sergeant Frank Stubbs (27) led his platoon through heavy fire to link up with D Company at tree on top of a hill. Stubbs was killed just yards from the tree, but his bravery and leadership earned him the highest military honour in the British army.
Major Cuthbert Bromley (36) was adjutant to the Commanding Officer at Gallipoli, Despite being wounded in the back, he refused to leave his men. It would be another three days before he reported to a medic after being shot in the knee. Throughout his ordeal, he is said to have distinguished himself under heavy enemy fire.
Two months later he was injured in the foot, but refused to leave his post until the action was won. Bromley was treated in Egypt and was being sent back to Gallipoli when his troopship was torpedoed. Eyewitnesses reported seeing him helping others before being hit by some driftwood and drowning.
Such magnificent men… risking all to obey some half-cocked orders dreamt up in a cosy office far from the front line. Men like these are testament to the loyalty, tenacity and bravery of all those others who fell around that deadly cove in 1915.
Six Victoria Crosses before breakfast might sound impressive, but at what a cost, what a terrible cost…
All VC photos courtesy of the Fusilier Museum