Gallipoli : The Dardanelles Disaster in Soldiers' Words and Photographs.

An insight into the book's origins by one of its authors, Stephen Chambers:

During research for our recent book on Gallipoli, co–author Richard van Emden and I came across some incredible personal accounts, most never before published. One of those to provide a fresh and illuminating version of events was that of Second Lieutenant David Rodger Fyffe, whose diary was kindly loaned by his daughter.

In November 1917 Fyffe trundled into action in tank H11 – nicknamed Helen – during the Battle of Cambrai and at that point any thoughts of his time spent fighting in Gallipoli were probably very far from his mind. Through Fyffe’s written word, however, we discovered an amazing story, including his eye–witness experiences of the landings on V Beach on 25 April 1915, 100 years ago.

So who was Fyffe and what exactly had he experienced on the day of the Gallipoli landings?

Dundee born, Fyffe was 20 years old when he joined the armoured section of the Royal Naval Air Service in October 1914 as a petty officer. Conceived to act in the role of motorised cavalry for reconnaissance and advanced skirmishing, the unit had seen some service, with varying results, in Belgium and France at the beginning of the war. But for the new volunteers like Fyffe, life begun with training. Preparation for war took place at Wormwood Scrubs where the unit busied themselves with general motor–car and motor–cycle instruction. They would spend hours of each day becoming thoroughly conversant with the internal economy of the Maxim gun and the 3–pounder quick–firing guns which, mounted on motor–lorry chassis, formed the heavy artillery of the armoured car brigade. Small–arms also had to be mastered, and the rifle and automatic pistol formed the subject of endless lectures until they found themselves talking in their sleep of ‘breech action’, ‘extractor horns’ and ‘trajectory’. Signalling in all its many forms had also to be worked through, until Semaphore and Morse would have driven them almost insane. One highlight would have been driving the newly–issued, and now armoured, Rolls Royce Silver Ghost. Although these would have been fun to handle during field training in Devon and Norfolk, impatience grew as the men itched for active service.

Many of us are familiar with the Gallipoli story and the failure to force the Dardanelles and capture Constantinople in early 1915.

When the failed naval attacks came to a head in March of that year the path was opened for the army to be landed. There was still every intention of forcing ships into the Sea of Marmara, but only as soon as the infantry had done its job of seizing the high ground and rendering inoperable the forts guarding the Straits. There was no thought that such a plan might not succeed; the only question was where to land sufficient troops to do the job.

The Gallipoli campaign was organised with astonishing speed, not quite on the back of the proverbial envelope but at a pace inconceivable today, when plans are made in great detail and contingencies anticipated. General Sir Ian Hamilton, the commander–in–chief, had no such luxury and later conceded that his plans were ‘very sketchy’ and entirely of his own design. This had one merit, as he recognised. His was the responsibility alone, and he was being given free rein to see ‘his’ strategy through.

V Beach Gallipoli
Map of Gallipoli Beaches

In planning the forthcoming operations, Hamilton decided to land his forces across several beaches. The Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (Anzacs) would land at Gaba Tepe to the northwest of the peninsula, on a beach codenamed Z, whilst the main British landing of the 29th Division would come ashore around Helles to the south, on a series of beaches designated S, V, W, X and Y. Diversionary attacks by the French and the Royal Naval Division were also integral to the operation.

The main British effort on 25 April 1915 would be at V and W Beaches.

The aim at Helles was to land, then capture Krithia village and the heights of Achi Baba that dominated the ground in this southern sector of the peninsula. The following day, British forces moving north would combine with the Anzacs moving east for an assault on Kilid Bahr. It does not take historical hindsight to realise that this was, in terms of pace alone, an astonishing timetable, predicated on a high degree of Turkish malleability. It is fair to say that Hamilton’s optimism was not shared by all his commanding officers, including Major General Aylmer Hunter–Weston of the 29th Division, who believed the men were not prepared for such tough objectives when reconnaissance had revealed the preparations made by the Turks at Helles.

The men would land in daylight in open rowing boats, pulled close to the shore by steam launches. At V Beach the men faced a beach shaped like an amphitheatre, defended by barbed wire and trenches, as well as by two battered forts. The potential for an immediate and serious check here was obvious. At a conference held two weeks before the attack, Commander Edward Unwin voiced his opinion that men rowing in open boats were likely to be easy targets and that a ‘specially prepared ship’ might be rammed ashore from which the infantry would pour from a series of ‘doors’ cut into the side of her superstructure. The ship, once beached, could then support the assault with machine guns while also carrying supplies of ammunition, food and water.

River Clyde approaching V Beach
The converted collier River Clyde approaching V Beach on 25 April 1915

The idea of using this modern day Trojan Horse was immediately accepted and a ship – the ten–year–old 4,000–ton collier named the River Clyde – was handed over for the works to be undertaken. On the decks, casements were made for the protection of machine guns and fired by men under Unwin’s command. Of course the ship might run aground before it reached the beach and so a steam hopper and three lighters were to be towed alongside, ready to be drawn forward to bridge any gap between ship and shore. One of those who volunteered to serve under Unwin was Lieutenant The Hon. Arthur Coke, Fyffe’s very own section commander, who wrote home excitedly in a letter dated 19 April:

‘[The General] said he wanted some marines to man the first troopship that lands. Isn’t it splendid, we have got the job – Wedgwood, Illingworth, Parker and myself. Forty men were taking ten Maxims and putting them all round the fo’c’sle of the ship and we are to cover the landing of the first troops, who are 2,000 Irish Fusiliers (regulars). Captain Unwin of the navy is in charge of the ship with only twelve men (crew). He is going to beach her and has cut holes under the fo’c’sle for the men to immediately jump out and land … I cannot think of anything more exciting, also we shall see the whole thing. We shall have the fleet behind us so if the Turks do shell us I don’t think it will be for long although she is a pretty big target. Today we have been very busy building shelters over our guns. I believe we start the landing this week, I think it will be short but sharp to take Gallipoli.’

The plan was quickly put into action and the River Clyde was soon ready to take on her human cargo. David Fyffe’s account records what happened next:

‘About six o’clock at night, a big tug drew up alongside and the first of the two thousand troops began to come on board. They were the Irish Brigade, the 1st Dublin and Munster Fusiliers, splendid fellows and some of the best of our crack regular regiments. By 9.30pm the last of the soldiers was on board and the eight big holds were crammed with men packed as close as they could stand. They were mostly the Irish Brigade, but there are also several hundreds of the Hants and Worcesters. These are the first I have seen of our first line regular troops, as fit as fiddles, trained to the inch and splendidly equipped. If the landing can be effected, these men will do it. I have never seen such a collection of splendid manhood, and the very sight of them gives one confidence in our success. These famous regiments have been splendidly chosen for this, the most difficult and hazardous enterprise of the war. When they have cleared the way, lesser men may follow. But I do not envy them their night in the stuffy, uncomfortable holds. The lower ones must be a pretty fair reproduction of the Black Hole of Calcutta, and we have been doing our best to keep them going by making enormous cauldrons of coffee in the galley and handing it round. They are big, rough fellows these, but kindly and generous to a degree and it is a pleasure to be among them. Of a truth the British Tommy has a heart of gold under his rough and rather unattractive exterior, and it gave one a queer, choking feeling when one watched these big, light–hearted schoolboys and thought of what might be awaiting them within twelve short hours.

‘About midnight the anchor was weighed and we stood out to sea. Sleep was impossible; such was the crowded state of the ship, not to mention the intense excitement of our mission. It was a glorious night. The big silver moon made fretted silver of the glassy, ink–black waters as we glided slowly between the jutting headland and the island which formed the outer gateway to the Dardanelles. Now we were fairly embarked on our perilous enterprise and one thought with a thrill that dawn would bring our baptism of fire. One felt somehow as if one were clasping hands across the centuries with the great adventurers of ancient times. Was it on such a night as this that the Roman fleet put out from the Gallic shore toward the unknown cliffs of Britain? Did Norman William gaze at that same silvery moon when his flotilla set out on their great enterprise? And the old crusaders: were their warlike spirits watching eagerly the start of this new crusade against the ancient foe? We felt, that night, on the old River Clyde, that we were living history over again as we forged ahead toward the Turkish coast.

‘About two o’clock we slowed down to a mere crawl and we knew that we were near our goal. But now the moon had set and the night was black as pitch. We could see nothing save the streak of creamy foam at our bows and the myriad stars that studded the velvety blackness of the sky overhead. My duties now took me below decks and I was busy at the Maxim belt–filling machine when the dim thunder of guns brought me up on deck. It was about 3.30am and the pearly–grey light that precedes the dawn was chasing away the night. Clearly now could we hear the guns, although as yet we could see nothing of the ships. The dull thudding drew nearer and nearer and more distinct as we slid slowly ahead, until, all on a sudden, away to starboard, we saw a red flash through the murk, and the rolling boom that followed told us we were nearing the fleet and that the bombardment had begun. Now as we clustered on deck watching the dim flashes that came and went at frequent intervals on both our bows and straight ahead, and listening to the dull thudding and rumbling of the bombardment, there loomed up suddenly out of the grey obscurity the long black shape of a battleship, silent and motionless. Hardly had we passed it when a long low destroyer, her knife–like bows slicing the water into two great foaming rolls that surged along her sides, slid alongside and a hoarse megaphone bawled orders from the dim bridge. Almost at once the Clyde began to speed up and soon we were forging ahead toward the booming guns.’

The landing at V Beach proved the hardest fought of all the engagements that day.

Barbed wire and defensive trenches threatened to disrupt severely any advance from the shoreline, while Turkish soldiers lodged in the castle of Sedd el Bahr and Fort No. 1 had a clear field of fire from which to make V Beach a death trap. The wide, gently sloping beach offered an inviting place to pull boats ashore, but it was also overlooked. If the Turks put up a stiff defence, then a sandbank yards from the beach and around five feet high would provide the only shelter. The first men due to land would be 1/Royal Dublin Fusiliers, brought into shore on strings of rowing boats pulled by steamboats. Behind them would come the River Clyde. In its hold were men of 1/Royal Munster Fusiliers and 2/Hampshire Regiment.

‘It was now light enough to discern the black shapes of warships lying on both sides of us and ahead, and soon we could dimly make out a darker grey line along the horizon that showed the land. Nearer and nearer we grew, passing between lines of great ships that flashed and smoked and thundered, and all of a sudden the dawn ran along the eastern horizon in streaks of scarlet and gold and we saw that we were almost in the midst of the fleet. And there, away to port, was a line of shore, undulating in rows of round–topped hills, that was spangled with sudden flashes of scarlet flame … It was the Turkish coast and the guns of the fleet were preparing our way. Now we were right in the midst of the battleships and the thunder of their guns seemed to rend the firmament. Once we passed close under the quarter of the Lord Nelson just as she loosed off both the 12–inch guns of her fore barbette. There was a sheet of scarlet flame that spurted fiercely from the grey muzzles, a great cloud of yellowish smoke that drifted slowly over our decks, and a terrific ear–splitting roar that seemed to burst one’s head …

‘The old castle and the village were receiving full attention and it was fascinating to watch the fountains of stones and dust that shot into the air as the big shells burst against the already battered walls of the fort, or demolished the few remaining houses of the ruined village that nestled at its base. It was just as we came opposite Sedd el Bahr, steering slowly up the channel through the lines of ships, that we on the Clyde got our first surprise in the shape of a big splash in the water a few yards astern. A friend and I, by virtue of our position as ‘bargees’, were now on the poop along with two sailors, standing by the hawsers that were towing the barges alongside and we had scarcely time to mark the spreading rings that circled in the water close to our stern, when all of a sudden there were two more ‘plops’ in the water a few yards short of the ship, and we were now fully conscious that shells were being fired at the Clyde from somewhere or other and falling uncomfortably close too. We ducked hastily behind the flag house on the arrival of two more visitors that shrieked close overhead and splashed into the water on the far side of the ship ‘… We had now passed Sedd el Bahr Bay and turning round, the ship steered a diagonal course toward the Asiatic side. When once more opposite the destined landing place, the ship was turned round and, with safety valves screwed down, headed at full speed toward Sedd el Bahr. Never had the old ship attained such a speed, and with her whole hull quivering under the straining engines, and the smoke pouring in oily black clouds from her funnel, she dashed towards the little bay. Nearer and nearer she grew, and as she approached the land the ships ceased firing and an uncanny silence reigned.

The tows carrying the Dublin Fusiliers were meant to land at 5.30am, but embarkation delays, and a strong current running out of the Straits, delayed their approach and the River Clyde had overtaken them. Even the best–laid plans rarely survive first contact with the enemy, but this one appeared to be unwinding even earlier than that. Commander Unwin had no idea if the tows had landed or not so he had turned the Clyde around. He was concerned that there would be hellish confusion if both forces landed simultaneously. With so many ships close by, this manoeuvre proved extremely difficult. Still he couldn’t see the tows, so he decided to head straight for shore.

‘There was a soft jar that quivered from end to end of the ship, and she was aground. All was now excitement on board and we had our work cut out to ease off the hawsers quickly enough as the train of barges was jerked forward by the collision. Hardly had the ship come to rest when the little steam hopper with her tow of barges rushed out from under the Clyde’s quarter and made for the sandy shore some eighty yards distant. Up till now not a shot had been fired from the shore, and indeed we had begun to wonder whether the landing was to be unopposed, but hardly had the hopper’s bow appeared beyond her huge consort when the whole slope leapt into a roar of firing, and a tempest of lead poured down upon the devoted craft and her gallant crew. Disaster overwhelmed her in an instant. Nothing could live in such a torrent of lead and in a moment the middy at the wheel and every sailor on the deck of the little ship was shot down. Devoid of guidance, the hopper went astray and beached side–on while the barges all went out of line, the connecting ropes broke under the strain, and they came to rest in a hopeless muddle with the farthest barge lying helplessly in deep water about twenty yards from the shore. The bridge of boats had failed and the officers hastily met to construct a new plan.’

River Clyde Beached
The view from the beached River Clyde. The view from the deck of the River Clyde after beaching

Minutes after the Clyde beached, the rowing boats appeared crammed with the Dublins, their oarsmen pulling towards the shore but the dead weight in each boat made progress painfully slow. Huddled together and unprotected, the men were easy targets.

‘Out of six boats that formed one tow, only one reached the shore and beached side–on, and out from among the crowded benches only about a dozen men leapt into the water and rushed for the sand. Their comrades still crouched upright in the boats but they were strangely still, shot dead where they sat. The other four boats never reached the shore. One by one the oars fell from the dead hands of their occupants and drifted slowly away, and the big white boats lay rocking idly on the shot–torn water many yards from the shore, with not a movement amid the huddle of khaki figures that filled them to the gunwales. As we watched in wordless horror, one of the boats floated slowly past us, bumping along our side, and we could look straight down into her motionless cargo. It was a floating shambles. A mass of corpses huddled together in the bottom of the boat and lying heaped above one another across the crimson benches. Here an arm and hand hung over the gunwale, swaying helplessly as the boat rocked on the waves. There a rifle stuck upright into the sunlight out of a mass of shapeless khaki figures. And everywhere crimson mingling with the brown, and here and there a waxen–white face with draggled hair staring up into the smiling heavens. Slowly the ghastly boat scraped along our sides and slowly drifted out to sea leaving us frozen with a nameless horror and an overpowering dread. Such was our introduction to the glories of war, and when one big fellow turned his drawn white face to us with a slow ‘Good God!’ as we stared at the vanishing boat, we could only look at him in a queer tight–throated silence and wonder what in Heaven’s name it all meant.’

The Dublins’ commanding officer was dead, the second–in–command mortally wounded.

A few of the Fusiliers managed to make a dash for the shore and the sandbank. Those lucky enough to reach it lay low with no opportunity to hit back, while just yards behind them men were cut down in the water and drowned, pulled under by the weight of their equipment. Between the drowning men, boats floated helplessly in the water with their dead and dying crews. Only where one or two boats had been taken into shore below Sedd el Bahr Fort was a landing effected without catastrophic loss. None of the infantrymen from the River Clyde had landed. The grounded ship was powerless, and the bridge of boats had to be formed manually if the men were to run down improvised gangways and over the boats to the beach. It was intended that the steam hopper accompanying the Clyde was to move to the ship’s port side and move lighters into position. It was a Heath Robinson idea and, given the circumstances, impossible to execute.

Through bravery and grim determination that would win the Royal Navy six Victoria Crosses that morning, the gap to the shore was finally bridged. The men of 1/Royal Munster Fusiliers could now exit through the opened doorways cut into the superstructure and run down the gangways towards the lighters.

‘We could hear splash after splash as the gallant fellows fell dead from the gangway. A few however reached the nearest barge, raced across her open deck and crouched for shelter in the adjacent open boat. One after another the devoted fellows made the dash down the deadly gangways until a considerable number gathered in the bottoms of the open boats or were lying prostrate on the deck of the barge. Then the order was given and up they leaped and rushed for the rocks while a hail of rifle and machine–gun fire beat upon them. Wildly they leaped from boat to boat in that gallant rush while we on the ship cheered wildly at the sight, until they reached the last boat when they leaped down into the water and started wading towards the rocks that were their goal, holding up their rifles high above their heads. But to our horror we saw them suddenly begin to flounder and fall in the water, disappearing from view and then struggling to the surface again with uniform and pack streaming, only to go down again never to reappear as the hailing bullets flicked the life out of the struggling men … We almost wept with impotent rage. Nonetheless some fifty or more survivors had reached the edge of the rocky point and were crouching up to their necks in the water behind this slight shelter waiting for a chance to rush over the rocks to the beach.’

Further attempts were made to land men and three further strings of boats, packed with infantrymen, made for the shore.

This time more were able to land but a number were cut down by the burst of three shrapnel shells overhead. More men were sent from the beached collier but all were forced to head for the sandbank so that by 9.00am a few hundred men were huddled there for protection. The extent of the disaster unfolding on V Beach was unclear to Major General Hunter–Weston and his staff on board HMS Euryalus as this second assault wave met with a similar fate.

‘The price to be paid was too awful and at slightly less than two hours after the Clyde had run ashore, operations were suspended and it was decided to wait till nightfall before a further attempt at landing should be made. The beach now presented a terrible spectacle, being strewn with dead bodies, some lying half in the water, others high up on the sand, while from the corpse–strewn spit of rocks on the right, crimson streaks ran out into the bay. Word was sent to the fleet of the failure of the operations and the ships recommenced with increased vigour their bombardment of the slopes above the beach and the old castle and village of Sedd el Bahr.

Our huge protectress [HMS Queen Elizabeth] turned her attention to the old castle on the right. There, in a chamber in the walls, a Maxim gun was spluttering busily through a small window, and not all our painstaking efforts could get at that gun. It was situated opposite my gun position on the forecastle and Lieutenant Coke was devoting all his energies to putting the nuisance out of action. But although the bullets from his gun were knocking little spurts of dust off the walls all around the look–hole, the aperture was too small and the belts rattled through the breech all in vain. Then suddenly one of the ‘Lizzie’s’ six–inch presents blew the top off the wall just above the hated window and with a fervid ‘At last’, Coke crawled out of his steel cubby–hatch and crouched behind the rail, glasses glued on the spot. Again the ‘Lizzie’ fired and again the battlemented parapet dissolved as if by magic above the window. ‘Too high, you blighters, too high!’ came in muttered accents from the officer, now flat on his face on the deck, for the air was full of whining bullets. Again came the crash behind us, again the shell groaned over our heads and this time the whole face of the wall disappeared in a cloud of flying masonry and dust and yellow fumes. For a second nobody spoke, and then suddenly ‘Got him! Got him clean! Beautiful oh beautiful!’ came in cries of ecstasy from behind the rail, and our worthy lieutenant danced upon the deck as the dust blew away and we saw that a huge hole gaped in the wall where before the window had been. But nothing the fleet could do seemed to daunt the defenders. The village with its huddle of partially ruined houses was a very nest of snipers and from behind the tree–clad garden walls and the corners of the narrow streets came a never–ceasing hail of deadly fire … Such of us as were not engaged working the guns, would crouch with ready rifle waiting to catch a snap–shot from behind the bulwarks at the dim figures that flitted from house to house as the shells smashed and wrecked the buildings. And that was all we saw of the enemy that day.’

River Clyde landed
The River Clyde sometime after the landing

In the days that followed Fyffe was going to see his fair share of the enemy, but his luck was to run out on 8 May 1915 when he was wounded, leaving Gallipoli for good. Commissioned into the Tank Corps he served out the rest of his war on the Western Front.

Read more of Fyffe’s Gallipoli story along with other harrowing, moving but sometimes darkly humorous personal accounts written by soldiers on both sides, in Gallipoli: The Dardanelles Disaster in Soldiers’ Words and Photographs by Richard van Emden and Stephen Chambers (Bloomsbury 2015).

Gallipoli Dardanelles Disaster cover
From 'Gallipoli. The Dardanelles Disaster  in Soldiers' Words and Photographs. Richard Van Emden and Stephen Chambers