Six VCs before breakfast


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By Chris Staerck

The expedition to the Dardanelles was a direct result of the deadlock which arose on the Western Front with the onset of trench warfare, but its origins lie in the confused nature of Balkan politics. By the early part of 1915 the BEF had been exhausted and the men in the territorial divisions were slowly being churned up in France and Belgium. It was obvious that the war in the west would be protracted, and with Russian reverses at Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes victory for the Allies would not be forthcoming in the east. Keen to knock Turkey out of the war as quickly as possible, to re-open an invaluable supply line to Russia, and to keep pressure off the Russians from Turko-German forces, the Allies embarked upon the Dardanelles campaign.

The plan, which has been termed the only truly innovative strategic concept of the entire war, met with approval from both politicians and military authorities; Kitchener's approval was doubtless greatly influenced by the fact that few military resources were envisaged, and thus the effort on the Western Front would not be compromised. He selected Ian Hamilton (his old friend and trusted colleague) to command and allocated him forces accordingly. Before the landings were sanctioned, the navy would attempt to blast its way through. However, the failure of the navy to force the Dardanelles (at a loss of 6 battleships; 3 sunk, 3 badly damaged) meant that if the plan was to succeed then the army would have to land on the peninsula. Hamilton's force comprised the British 29th and Royal Naval Divisions (17,600 and 10,000 men), the 1st Australian and Australian and New Zealand Divisions (30,500 men - although the latter included c.4,000 men of the 29th Indian Brigade) and the 1st French Division (16,700 men).

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Extract of a letter from Hamilton to Kitchener 30/4/1915 (Public Record Office - PRO 30/57/61)


He planned for two main landings, the ANZAC's at 'Z' beach (Ari Burnu) on the Aegean coast, and 29th Division at 'S', 'V', 'W', 'X' and 'Y' beaches (Cape Helles), with two further diversionary landings by the Royal Naval Division (Bulair) and the 1st French Division (Kum Kale). The whole operation was to be possibly the greatest amphibious landing ever attempted.' The Turkish defenders numbered 80,000 men in 6 divisions, with the 9th Division centred in Krithia at Cape Helles, and the 19th Division (designated by Liman von Sanders as the mobile reserve) located around the Sari Bair ridge, not far from Anzac Cove.

W Beach: Lancashire Landing


At Cape Helles the four Fusilier battalions of the 86th Brigade were largely entrusted with the main efforts on 'V', 'W' and 'X' beaches. The Turks of the second and third battalions, 26th Regiment, had sited their defences well, were suitably protected by wire, and ably supported by machine guns. Though comparatively very few in number (only two companies of the 2/26th were deployed to cover V' and 'W' beaches) most of the defenders survived the naval bombardment intact and were ordered not to open fire until the enemy were 100 metres away. The 1st Lancashire Fusiliers landed on 'W'beach, mostly in boats from HMS Euryalus. The men were jammed together tightly so that movement was virtually impossible. Consequently, when the Turkish machine guns opened fire, raking the boats end to end, many soldiers just sat there dead and upright as their bodies could not topple. For the survivors of the initial shock, some jumped from the boats and attempted to cut through the wire, others sank in too deep water, and yet more were shot down as theywaded waist deep in water up to the wire. The action which passed has been burned forever into military folklore. Major Shaw vividly recalls the day,

I looked back. There was one soldier between me and the wire, and a whole line in a row on the edge of the sands. The sea behind was absolutely crimson, and you could hear the groans through the rattle of musketry. A few were firing. I signalled them to advance. I shouted to the soldier behind me to signal, but he shouted back 'I am shot through the chest'. Then I perceived they were all hit.

Thankfully a small party tore a breach in the Turkish wire and the Lancastrians charged through, though as Sir Ian Hamilton remarked only to be 'mown down as by a scythe'. In the face of this fierce assault the Turkish fire began to falter, but in spite of the valour and spirit of the Fusiliers, things might have gone badly wrong had not Brigadier-General Hare personally directed some of his men to the left of the beach, out of the fire of the Turks, to positions from which they were able to advance and take the Turks in the flank. Despite the severity of the Turkish machine gun fire which caused high casualties, the 1st Lancs struggled through the wire in an operation described by Hamilton as unsurpassed in British military annals. The Turkish fire discipline was exemplary, holding themselves in check until the fusiliers were actually landing, thus ensuring that they were trapped on the beach. The three Turkish platoons inflicted 533 casualties on the 950 strong 1st Lancs that day (6 officers and 183 men killed, 4 officers and 279 men wounded, and 61 men missing) That they managed to get off the beach at all is testament to their courage and determination in the face of withering fire from, unexpectedly, an enemy who was handling his defence in a truly professional manner. Together with the attack from the River Clyde, probably the most enduring image of the initial assault is Lancashire Landing in which action the 1st Lancashire Fusiliers won 'six VC's before breakfast' by carrying the enemy trenches despite the intense enemy fire.

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All six VC holders were finally gazetted together on 13 March 1917. It is interesting to note that Sgt Grimshaw was previously awarded the DCM for the same action (taken from the London Gazette PRO ZJ1/642)

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