by Peter Butterworth and Foster Summerson

Professor Dominic Tweddle, Director General of the National Museum of the Royal Navy (NMRN), welcomed the 78 members of the Gallipoli Association and other participants to the conference in the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. It was a fitting venue given that it was the home of HMS M33, the only surviving warship that had seen action at Gallipoli, and also because of the significant role played by the Royal Navy in the Gallipoli Campaign, and in the success of the evacuation.

Photo right: Professor Dominic Tweddle, Director General NMRN

Stephen Chambers, the Association’s Historian & Webmaster, who organised the conference, with the assistance of James Watson Smith, thanked the Director General for his welcome and for his assistance in bringing the conference to the Dockyard which was a superb location for this event. He welcomed those attending the conference and expressed his thanks, on behalf of the Trustees of the Gallipoli Association, to the speakers for giving up their time and for sharing their expert knowledge with those attending. Attendees this year came from all corners of the globe and not just the UK, which included countries such as Australia, Turkey, Israel and Germany. Stephen then outlined the final months of the campaign and the background to the successful evacuation from Peninsula.

Photo left: Stephen Chambers, Historian & Webmaster

The first speaker was Dr Andrew Lambert whose talk Turning Defeat into Victory: The Official History of The Evacuation focussed on the role played by Sir Julian Corbett (1854 – 1922), the naval historian who had begun lecturing at the Royal Naval College in 1902 and became the Admiralty’s principle, albeit unofficial, strategic adviser. He was also was responsible for three of the five volumes of the Official History of the War dealing with Naval Operations.

In terms of British strategy and pre-war planning, Corbett was a strong believer in the concept of limited war since Britain, unlike France, Germany and Russia did not have large standing armies. He endorsed Admiral Fisher’s strategic priorities which were to reduce the German Naval threat, and to keep the Germans away from the Flanders coast. In this respect, he was critical of the Army’s failure to co-ordinate planning and strategy with the Royal Navy prior to the outbreak of War.  

Like Admiral Fisher, Corbett argued against a purely naval attack on the Dardanelles. He was critical of Winston Churchill who took little interest in detailed planning and ignored the need for a combined military and naval operation. Ships had also been sent to the Dardanelles without adequate supplies of ammunition, much of what was available being of inferior quality. These criticisms were not Corbett’s alone; they were cited in the Report of the Dardanelles Commission and were unsurprisingly reflected in Corbett’s drafting of the Naval Operations volumes of the Official History. 

Photo right: Dr Andrew Lambert

Corbett supported the plans for the first phase of the Suvla landings which were a combined operation. He was a friend of Sir Ian Hamilton and also knew Commodore Keyes. Both Keyes and Vice-Admiral Wemyss, were, like Corbett, critical of General Monro’s recommendation to evacuate the peninsula.  In Corbett’s view, the French decision to embark on the Salonika campaign and the British Government’s willingness to send troops there impacted significantly on the Gallipoli campaign; he saw the decision to evacuate as the result of political failings resulting from a lack of understanding of the strategic imperatives, and the unwillingness to send reinforcements to Gallipoli. As to the evacuation itself, Dr Lambert pointed out that it succeeded because it was a carefully planned joint operation. He also drew attention to the effectiveness and deterrent effect of naval firepower on the Ottoman forces throughout the campaign, and he thought this was probably the reason - or at least a significant factor - why they chose to ignore the evacuations. Sir Julian Corbett continued to provide advice to the Admiralty throughout the war and played a leading role in defining British Naval Strategy; sadly he died before his work on all the naval volumes of the Official History was complete.

After a break for coffee, the next speaker, Dr Phylomena Badsey, presented a paper entitled Evacuation: Nursing and Care-Giving at Gallipoli.   At Gallipoli, hospital ships were floating Casualty Clearing Stations as well as working hospitals, not merely transport for the sick and injured (unlike their counter-parts in The Channel which mainly transported troops in a ‘stable condition’ to England for medical treatment). In the Gallipoli campaign, troops often arrived in ‘trench condition’ and were a source of infection to all. Very long chains of evacuation and time delays between injury and professional nursing care usually meant that the ‘golden hour’ had passed. The injured were often left untreated for very long periods, exposed to the weather and enemy fire before eventually being evacuated from a beach by boat and an agonising transfer by derrick to hospital ships.

Photo below: Dr Phylomena Badsey

Disease and sickness caused most casualties (climate, diet, lack of clean water, unhygienic uniforms and trench conditions as well as snakes, rats and flies). Troops suffered from extremes of cold and heat, dysentery and ‘trench fever.’ Treatment at the front was very limited so when casualties finally arrived in a hospital ship they were in a very weak condition. Those taken to a fully prepared hospital ship were very fortunate compared with many others who were sent to troop carriers (or ‘black ships’ as they were known). The latter had very small medical teams, lacked proper hygiene and medical equipment and therefore mortality rates were very high.

The hospital ships were requisitioned civilian passenger liners, fully equipped with trained medical staff to carry out their role but they did not anticipate the sheer numbers of casualties that they had to treat. When full beyond capacity they would transfer the injured to land-based hospitals in Lemnos, Mudros, Alexandria, Gibraltar and Malta.

Dr Badsey argued that the courageous and very significant contribution of the nurses and medical staff at Gallipoli needs to be fully recognised in accounts of the Campaign: Queen Alexandra’s Royal Naval Nursing Service for example included civilian volunteers and Reservists who had very high levels of medical responsibility and skill and worked impossibly long hours with poor facilities in hazardous and distressing conditions.

After an excellent buffet lunch it fell to our old friend, Peter Hart, the Imperial War Museum’s Oral Historian and prolific author, to take the next session – often referred to by speakers as the ‘graveyard shift’! Peter’s chosen subject was Stealing Away: the RND and the Evacuation of Helles. Peter is not known for his love of poetry and it came as a surprise to many of us who know him that he began his talk with an extract from a poem ‘Evacuation’ by Lt. Ivan Heald: 

‘As we stole down to Sedd-el-Bahr

Or dead mates heard us go.

which must have been in the mind of many during all the evacuations.

Photo right: Peter Hart

Peter explained that the Royal Naval Division was in bad condition in mid-December 1915 when it took over positions vacated by the French in the Kereves Dere sector on the right of the Helles front. The RND evacuation order was issued on 30 December and transmitted to each brigade the following day. Broadly the same evacuation plan used at ANZAC and Suvla was relied on; this involved a gradual thinning of the battalions, removal of stores and ammunition together with quiet periods and heavy retaliation in the event of enemy bombardments, or where patrols were spotted. Much of the RND was evacuated from ‘V’ Beach without difficulty on the nights of 6/7 and 7/8 January leaving almost 17,000 infantry, artillery and medical units to be evacuated on the final night of 8/9th. However, the final night was not to be straightforward; it was a long way to the beach and many of the communication trenches had been blocked in the final days to hinder any advance by the Turks after the final withdrawal. This caused problems and delays for some units who were faced with unexpected detours before they reached the beach. The wind had also increased making the sea rough but the evacuation was successfully completed although much valuable equipment and stores – enough to feed 30,000 men - had been left behind. 

In reply to questions about the lack of a Turkish response, Peter thought that the measures taken, notably strong retaliation in the event of a threatened Turkish attack (such as that which occurred elsewhere at Gully Spur on 7 January), were undoubtedly factors in the caution exercised by the enemy but there was some evidence to suggest that the Turks did know that evacuation from Helles was going on but chose to let the British go.

After another coffee break, we welcomed Dr Jochen Schrader from Germany whose talk The Other Side: the story of Wolfgang Schrader was a brilliantly researched account of his grandfather Wolfgang’s experience at Gallipoli. This was based on his personal diary running to over a 100 pages and gave a fascinating and unique insight into the campaign from the perspective of a German sailor. Dr Schrader entertainingly described Wolfgang’s cosmopolitan upbringing in Istanbul, his civilian life as a horticultural engineer and university lecturer and his decision, aged 20, to join the German Imperial Navy as a translator in December 1914.

Photo below: Dr Jochen Schrader

From his position as translator on board the collier SS Irmingard, supplying the SMS Goeben, Wolfgang closely observed the naval strategy and tactics in the early stages of the conflict. In July 1915, he transferred ashore with the Marine Landing Division to the Gulf of Saros and then set up shore-ship communications links at Kilia Tepe, listening in to British communications traffic.

Wolfgang’s experience on the peninsula included many key events including the landings at Suvla Bay and the Evacuation of January 1916, recorded in photographs. From 1916 onwards, his role involved the arrival of German submarines by rail, their construction and launch to patrol Marmara, The Black Sea and eastern Mediterranean. He also played a role as translator for the many VIPs who visited Turkey including The Kaiser and Emperor of Austria and (1917-18) was personal translator for Kapitänleutnant Kurt Böcking, the Commander of the Naval High School in Turkey.

At the end of the war, German and Austrian subjects were expelled from Turkey and Wolfgang’s journey through war-torn Ukraine, along the frontier of the newly formed USSR via Poland and to finally into Germany was as miraculous as it was perilous.  

The final session was a short talk by Dave Hartley, Duty Manager at the NMRN entitled The Lucky Ship: Monitor M33. This outlined the history of Monitors and the M33 in particular; and how the ship came to be acquired by the Hampshire County Council, brought to Portsmouth and eventually taken over by the NMRN and opened to the public in August last year – the centenary of the Suvla landings. He also dealt with work that had been necessary to restore the ship and told us about some of those who served of the M33; one being Henry Mulligan, a Signalman, who served on the M33 for 2½ years during which time he kept a diary that had been donated the museum.

We learnt more about the M33 during our private tour of the ship which followed Dave’s presentation.

Photo right: Dave Hartley, Duty Manager at the NMRN

Brigadier James Stopford CBE, the Association Chairman, brought the conference to a close. He thanked everyone who attended and extended his particular thanks to the speakers who had made the day so special. He also thanked Stephen Chambers and James Watson Smith for organising the conference which had been a tremendous success. He also echoed the thanks which Stephen had expressed at the start of the conference to Dominic Tweddle and the staff at the NMRN for making us so welcome at the Historic Dockyard.

Photo below: Brigadier James Stopford CBE, the Association Chairman

Photos below: HMS M33 "The Lucky ship"

Photograph credits and thanks to Thomas Iredale and Ian Philliskirk