To the Dardanelles and back: The Newfoundland Regiment and the Gallipoli Campaign

[Members of the Newfoundland Regiment embarking for England, c1914-1915] Canadian Centre for the Great War 2015.02.20.00001
[Members of the Newfoundland Regiment embarking for England, c1914-1915] Canadian Centre for the Great War 2015.02.20.00001
I have written earlier on this blog about John Donald Andrews and his brother Harold, both of whom served with the Newfoundland Regiment as part of the “first five hundred”, the first full battalion to enlist after the beginning of the war. As a part of the British Expeditionary Force and not the Canadian, the Newfoundland Regiment has the dubious distinction of being the only “Canadian” regiment to fight at both Gallipoli and on the first day of the Somme. Much has been written about them, particularly their participation in the Somme, but in honour of the centennial of the Gallipoli Campaign, I wanted to take some time this week to talk about the regiment at Gallipoli.

The attempt to force the Dardanelles Strait was originally conceived as a naval battle only, making use of Britain’s large navy, which was thought to be the best in the world at that time. Guarded by forts along the two banks, the Strait was exceedingly narrow and had been mined by the Ottomans in the months leading up to the campaign. The mines and inclement weather would thwart the Allied naval plan, as 3 of the 18 battleships sent were sunk and several others seriously damaged. The attack was called off due to unacceptable losses and poor weather and plans for made for a land invasion were begun instead. Like the more successful land invasions of the Second World War (Normandy and Italy come to mind), the invasion called for a beach landing using shallow motor boats, with the attacking forces fighting their way forward out of the beachhead and into the hills behind. The two beaches chosen for the landings were at Anzac Cove and Cape Helles. The Helles landing was particularly complex, calling for occupations of 5 connecting beaches and there was little intelligence work to ascertain the strength of the Ottoman forces on the high ground overlooking the beaches, most assumed that there would be little to no resistance.

The initial landings on 25 April, 1915 took place under extremely difficult conditions as the Allies found themselves landing under heavy fire and unable to advance up the beach to the higher ground behind. Anzac Cove claimed over 2 000 casualties on the first day and Helles 6 500 as the troops wading in from the shallows were cut down by direct and enfilading fire. By the evening of 25 April it was clear that Gallipoli was going to be much more costly and dangerous than predicted, and the British and Commonwealth forces settled in for a long fight. The Newfoundland Regiment avoided the first landing, arriving instead at Kangaroo Beach in Suvla Bay in September to replace the Royal Scots. By this time, the Regiment had been training at Aldershot for most of the winter of 1915 and had spent time in the summer in Egypt before sailing to Gallipoli. They were lucky enough to be landing as well on a previously occupied beach and though there was sporadic gunfire from the Ottoman emplacements on the high ground, the regiment did not suffer the casualties that the earlier British forces did. The first casualty of the regiment during the war came on 22 September, when Private H.W. McWhirter was killed by a shell; from this point on, the regiment would find itself thrust into the trenches behind the beach and under nearly constant fire until their evacuation in January 1916.

In all Gallipoli claimed 27 men of the regiment and left many more, like John and Harold Andrews, suffering the effects of malaria, typhus and other debilitating diseases that left them unfit for active service for many months. Though small in comparison to the losses of units such as the Dublin Fusiliers, who lost all but one of their officers on the first day and more than 1 000 men during the campaign as a whole, losing those 27 men out of a force of 800 from community as small as Newfoundland must have been deeply felt. Things were only to get worse as the Regiment found itself destined for the Somme and the 90% casualty rate that has made it famous today.

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