Mark Barnes continues his tour of Gallipoli with a visit to Seddulbahir, the scene of the tragic landing on ‘V’ Beach by the British 29th Division on 25th April 1915.
Gallipoli is not short of locations associated with sacrifice. The small beach at Seddulbahir is forever linked to a gruff fifty-two year old sailor who hoped to improvise a landing that would match speed with the chance to save lives. His name was Commander Edward Unwin. When his plan went awry he stepped up to the plate and waded into the chaos. He would earn a richly deserved Victoria Cross for his trouble.
But before we see where Unwin landed it helps to know the bigger picture. The British plan for the campaign involved using a force of around 78,000 men to capture the Dardanelles Peninsular before moving on Constantinople. The force would include the untested New Army 29th Division and imperial troops from Australia and New Zealand in addition to a number of Indian army units. A large French force also took part, but then as now the successes and hardships of the French units are barely acknowledged in France or elsewhere, but this is changing.
Access to accurate maps was practically non-existent and the planners made fateful assumptions on the ability to reach a series of objectives within a timeframe that went beyond over ambitiousness to the point of outright fantasy. This level of thinking afflicted the British on just about every level during the campaign.
The man appointed to command was General Sir Ian Hamilton. A favourite of Queen Victoria, he had been a brave and successful officer in the two Boer wars and enjoyed a distinguished career in India. He was twice recommended for the Victoria Cross but was denied by the powers that be. A prolific writer and poet, his reputation was destroyed in the Dardanelles although he continued to have the support from many army and political friends well into old age. Hamilton was multi-lingual and well travelled. As a military attaché he went to Manchuria and witnessed the shock victory of Japan over Russia in 1905 and wrote an assessment of the war for what was a relatively disinterested high command at home. A thinker and something of a philosopher, he was the antithesis of a great many of his peers at that time. To this end he was barred from high command on the Western Front by a suspicious and not a little jealous senior officer corps.
Hamilton had no experience of amphibious warfare and was to effectively implement a series of plans foisted on him. But, that aside, he was not the man for the job by any means and his own grip on events and planning were lax to say the least. The sad truth is he never got to grips with the entire campaign from start to finish and has gone down as a failure with a strong degree of truth in that assessment. He died in 1947.
And so to the landings: On the 25th of April the British army was expected to push in land at a rapid pace and capture the important heights of Achi Baba which would set them on their way to capturing the forts overlooking the Dardanelles. The Australians and New Zealanders would land further round the coast and achieve similar progress to effectively cut the peninsular off. Nobody seems to have taken the Turks into account at any point. You are left thinking that the huge degree of racial and nationalistic arrogance that frequently tripped the British up time and again had much to do with this. The Turks had not unnaturally assumed that the events of 18th March would be followed rapidly by other events but this was not the case. They had adequate time to prepare and did not waste any of it.
The 29th Division landings were handled by the much-berated Aylmer Hunter-Weston who made few friends from his work in the Dardanelles and left much to be desired later on the Western Front.
At ‘V’ Beach the old fort of Seddulbahir was pounded by the Royal Navy but this was to have little or no impact on the good fortunes of the infantry landing there.
Our hero, Unwin, had suggested beaching a ship allowing the assaulting infantry to make rapid progress ashore. Unfortunately on the day things went wrong from the start and, once grounded, one side of the ship sat too high for the specially made sally ports to be used. Turkish riflemen in the hills above the beach were able to put down very accurate fire on the limited number of exit points from the River Clyde and accounted for an increasing number of casualties. The three assault battalions of Royal Dublin Fusiliers, Royal Munster Fusiliers and Hampshire Regiment staggered into a wall of fire. The men had been expected to use a number of rowing boats and former River Thames lighters to get to shore, but the occupants of many of the boats were quickly put out of action. The lighters were to form a bridge were loose and needed fixing in place if the infantry had any hope of taking the narrow beach and moving inland. It became necessary for someone to sort the mess out. Step up Edward Unwin.
Let us use the classically dry understatement of Unwin’s VC citation to illustrate the bare bones of what must have been a horrific experience.
“While in SS River Clyde, observing that the lighters which were to form the bridge to the shore had broken adrift, Commander Unwin left the ship, and under a murderous fire attempted to get the lighters into position. He worked on, until suffering from the effects of cold and immersion, he was obliged to return to the ship, where he was wrapped up in blankets. Having in some degree recovered, he returned to his work against the doctor’s order and completed it. He was later attended by the doctor for three abrasions caused by bullets, after which he once more left the ship, this time in a lifeboat, to save some wounded men who were lying in shallow water near the beach. He continued at this heroic labour under continuous fire, until forced to stop through physical exhaustion.”
He was not alone. Midshipman George Drewry, Midshipman Wilfred Malleson, Able Seaman William Williams and Seaman George Samson were also awarded the VC, Williams posthumously. Severely wounded at ‘V’ Beach, young George Drewry was killed in a tragic accident at Scapa Flow in 1918. Wilfred Malleson died in 1975 and George Samson succumbed to pneumonia in 1923. Edward Unwin died, aged eighty-five in 1950.
What this hellish experience was like for the assaulting infantrymen can only be imagined. They advanced into a hail of fire carrying packs weighing sixty pounds. It is no surprise that many were drowned in a beautiful blue sea that became blood red. I would imagine our impressions of Omaha Beach come closest to it. The Dubs suffered 149 men killed on the gangway leading from the River Clyde to the lighters alone.
The beach today is a beautiful place of white sands and an azure sea. The old battered fort of Seddulbahir can be explored with care and a boat trip around the Helles peninsular from The Camber is a delight. It is the home of a pilot boat station and there is always a lot going on. Just along the sands is ‘V’ Beach cemetery. When you look around at the commanding heights of Helles it is not difficult see how so many casualties were inflicted by relatively few Turks on that terrible day.
It is inevitable that the British command system has to be called into question. One facet of this was the propensity for valuable senior officers to recklessly put themselves in harms way in displays of an old fashioned valour misplaced in the modern warfare they were fighting.
One of these was Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Hotham Montagu Doughty-Wylie. Our man is the classic imperial soldier with conflict experience in India, Africa and China under his belt. In addition to this he had considerable experience of Turkish affairs and had been decorated by the Turks for his work with the Red Cross helping their casualties during the Balkan War. He can also take credit for halting massacres of Armenians during the period when the Young Turks deposed the sultan. With his background in mind it was something of a no brainer (even amongst certain strata of the British officer class) for him to be attached to Ian Hamilton’s staff.
On the day after the landings Doughty-Wylie was unwisely but bravely leading from the front when he was shot dead along with Captain Garth Walford. They had been leading the attack to take Seddulbahir village. Both men were awarded the VC, however their deaths should have been avoidable considering both the brigadier-general and brigade major of their formation had been killed earlier and it was vital to maintain a chain of command. This sort of situation happened far too often in Gallipoli and the officer casualty rate was high.
Doughty-Wylie has a lone grave above the village; the only one of it’s kind for Commonwealth casualties on the battlefield. It is a nice place to visit, offering a fine view of the huge Turkish martyrs memorial above what was ‘S’ Beach on Eski Hisarlik Point. One of the lingering stories about Doughty-Wylie concerns the mystery woman who visited his grave shortly before the British evacuated the peninsular in 1916. She was almost certainly Gertrude Bell with whom he was having what has been described as a platonic affair. Bell remains a controversial figure for her involvement with the post war administration and mapping of modern day Iraq and Syria. A link to all the modern day troubles of the region can be found on a Turkish battlefield. Doughty-Wylie came from Theberton in Suffolk and a large memorial stands in the churchyard of the village. By coincidence it was the location of a Zeppelin crash after it was shot down by home defence fighters in 1917.
Words and images by Mark Barnes for War History Online. All material copyright: Mark Barnes 2014 All Rights Reserved.