A tale of mud, blood, torpedoes and the sea

Curator Nick Hewitt looking at a model of HMS Ark Royal
Curator Nick Hewitt looking at a model of HMS Ark Royal
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An exhibition is shedding a new light on the Gallipoli Campaign of the First World War. Stuart Anderson went to the Portsmouth’s Historic Dockyard to find out more.

One of the most infamous campaigns of the First World War is being brought to life in a new exhibition at Portsmouth’s Historic Dockyard.

Gallipoli: Myth and Memory tells the tale of the Allied attempt to seize control of the Dardanelles from the Ottoman Empire, 100 years after it was fought.

The exhibition puts the contribution of the Royal Navy at the heart of the story, which its planners feel has long been overlooked.

Museum strategic development executive Nick Hewitt said: ‘The big myth is that this is a land battle, only fought by Australian soldiers, but actually it’s a Royal Navy campaign throughout.

‘It’s conceived by the navy, the first part of it is wholly carried out by the navy and even when the army arrive they rely on the navy to support them, supply them, move them around the battlefield and get them off at the end of it all when things go wrong.’

The exhibition is in the temporary exhibition space next to HMS Hear My Story and includes about 100 objects.

Each one gives a unique glimpse into the campaign. There is a Turkish machine gun, a sergeant’s trumpet, uniforms, shells and medals.

A large model of HMS Ark Royal takes pride of place in one cabinet – she was the world’s first aircraft carrier and launched planes on reconnaissance missions over the battlefield.

There is also a collection of water ‘chits’, or permission slips needed by soldiers who wanted to go and refill their canteens.

Information boards outline the facts of the campaign and shed a light on its lesser-known aspects, such as a section called ‘sun, snow and sickness’ which looks at the influence of the weather and disease.

Everything links into the naval story of the campaign, which, Mr Hewitt explained, was flawed from the start.

He said Gallipoli was dreamt up by Sir Winston Churchill, then First Sea Lord, as a means of breaking the stalemate on the Western Front.

‘The concept is to use old warships that are about to be retired and are not fit to stand in the line against German ships,’ Mr Hewitt said.

‘If they can pass through the Dardanelles straits and bombard Constantinople, that knocks Turkey out of the war. Without Turkey, Germany collapses and everyone’s home for tea and medals by Christmas.

‘But it’s totally pointless. It’s doubtful whether hitting Constantinople would knock Turkey out as the Ottoman Empire was so massive, and even if they had, Germany would have continued to fight the war.’

The Allied forces soon realised they would need a large army to capture the forts that defended the Dardanelles in order for the naval assault to be effective.

However, the troops soon became bogged down amid the same type of muddy trenches and barbed wire that characterised the Western Front and a stalemate set in.

By the time the Allied evacuation was carried in January, 1916 after eight months of fighting, more than half a million British, Commonwealth and French soldiers and sailors had fought against a force of about 315,000 Turks.

The exhibition will be open until January next year, when it will be replaced by another telling the story of the biggest high seas engagement of the First World War, the Battle of Jutland.

Mr Hewitt said the exhibition was the first which drew on the collections from the five branches of the National Museum of the Royal Navy, which included the Fleet Air Arm Museum, the Royal Marines Museum and the Explosion! Museum of Naval Firepower.

The exhibition coincides with the opening of a new highlight for the Historic Dockyard, the gunship M33, which is the only remaining ship that took part in the Gallipoli campaign.

Currently undergoing restoration, the ship will be opened to the public on August 6.

Shooting true

One of the fascinating objects displayed in the exhibition is a badly damaged periscope.

It was once used by Royal Navy Lieutenant-Commander Martin Nasmith, the most successful submarine commander of the campaign who sank about 200 Turkish ships.

He was also the first commander to set his torpedos to float if they missed their target, allowing him to recover and reuse the weapons.

Mr Hewitt explained: ‘Most of his targets are relatively small sailing ships. He goes alongside, captures them and blows out their bottoms with explosive charges.

‘But he does also sink a number of Turkish warships from a submerged position using torpedoes.

‘On one occasion he torpedos a Turkish gunboat and he’s watching it sink through the periscope.

‘As he’s watching, a Turkish sailor sees him, runs down the deck of the sinking ship and trains a gun on the periscope. There’s a flash and the whole thing goes black.’

The episode is recounted in one of Nasmith’s sailor’s diaries, which Mr Hewitt said sounded ‘so fantastically British’. He said: ‘It reads “Bang! The shot hit the water near us. Bang! By Jove, he’s hit us!” You really couldn’t make it up.

‘Nasmith was sufficiently impressed by this that when the submarine comes back to port, he keeps the damaged periscope.

‘It remained in the family and that’s why we’re able to display it today.’

Myths and memories

Included on the exhibition’s information panels are a series of commonly-believed myths about the Gallipoli campaign, which are countered by memories from soldiers and sailors from both sides who took part.

They include:

The myth: Gallipoli was in the Mediterranean and the main problem with the climate was the heat.

The memory: ‘I found six men had crawled back and were huddled together on a firing step frozen to death.’ - Second Lieutenant Philip Gething, 9th Battalion, Royal Warwickshire Regiment, Suvla Bay on 28 November

The myth: Gallipoli was an Allied defeat rather than a Turkish victory.

The memory: ‘Our officers and men who had love for their motherland and religion [and] protected the doors of their capital Constantinople against such a strong enemy won the right to a status of which we can be proud.’ – Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk)

The myth: The Royal Navy landed the Anzacs in the wrong place making the landings difficult.

The memory: ‘As daylight came it was seen that a landing had been effected rather further down north of Gaba Tepe than had originally been intended, and at a point where the cliffs rise very sheer. The error was a blessing in disguise, for there were no places down which the enemy could fire, and the broken ground afforded good cover’ Ashmead Bartlett, Hobart Mercury 12 May 1915

The myth: The Suvla Bay landing was unopposed, but once ashore the British sat around ‘drinking tea’ while the Anzacs were slaughtered.

The memory: ‘We were brought up by a heavy fire from the opposite side of the gap where the majority of the Turks had collected. We could see very few Turks as there was good cover for them in the broken ground… at this spot I lost in killed and wounded seven officers and about 50 to 60 men’ – Lieutenant-Colonel Bashi Wright, 11th Battalion, the Manchester Regiment, Suvla Bay

The myth: Once the landings were over, Gallipoli became a land campaign and the Royal Navy did nothing except keep the soldiers supplied.

The memory: ‘In forwarding the attached report of the services performed by HM submarine E.11 in the Marmora from August 5 to September 3, 1915, I have the honour to bring to Their Lordships notice the exceptional work performed by this boat… Commander Martin E Nasmith VC has proved himself to be a submarine officer of great skill, initiative and daring.’ – signal from Vice Admiral de Robeck to the Admiralty, September 10, 1915.