The disastrous WWI Gallipoli campaign

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A war memorial for British soldiers fallen as part of the Gallipoli campaign during World War I is pictured in Canakkale on January 29, 2014

A war memorial for British soldiers fallen as part of the Gallipoli campaign during World War I is pictured in Canakkale on January 29, 2014 (AFP Photo/Bulent Kilic)

Istanbul (AFP) - A century ago, Allied troops waded ashore on the Gallipoli peninsula at the start of an ill-fated land campaign to wrest the Dardanelles Strait from the Ottoman Empire.

The disastrous World War I battle began on April 25, 1915, and pitted troops from countries including Australia, Britain, France and New Zealand against the Ottoman forces backed by Germany.

By seeking to force their way through the Dardanelles Strait separating Europe from Asia the Allies hoped to take Constantinople, now Istanbul, and secure a sea corridor to the Russian Empire.

It ended in a costly defeat for the Allies after nine months of gruelling warfare, in which more than 100,000 were killed, according to different estimates.

The battle on the 80-kilometre-long (50-mile-long) peninsula was seen as a founding moment for the modern nations of Australia, New Zealand and Turkey.


- The southern front -

Six months into World War I, the western front was blocked from the North Sea down to the Swiss border.

To unblock the situation, British commanders decided to prise open a southern one by seizing the strategic Dardanelles.

On March 18, 1915, joint British-French naval forces sought to force their way through the Strait.

The plan was conceived by Winston Churchill, later Britain's World War II prime minister.

But, lacking equipment and manpower, the naval attack was repelled, forcing the Allies to begin a land campaign on the Gallipoli peninsula.

As defenders, the Ottomans, perched on the cliffs, had the advantage over attacking Allied troops who were left exposed on five Gallipoli beaches.

As on the western front, the combatants dug trenches to protect themselves and all attempts to break the Ottoman stranglehold failed over the coming months.

Australian historian Les Carlyon says around 56,000 died on each side in the conflict.

Officials in Ankara say that 86,692 died on the Ottoman side and 44,000 on the Allied side.

However, the losses are very much higher if deaths from disease are included. Both sides suffered from the heat, flies attracted by rotting corpses, a lack of water, dysentery and typhoid.

As winter approached, storms and landslides destroyed the trenches, leaving new victims in their wake.

The last Allied troops were evacuated on January 8, 1916 and the southern European front was frozen until late 1917.

- Baptism of fire -

With some 11,500 dead in their ranks, the loss was most keenly felt in what at the time were the young and sparsely populated nations of Australia and New Zealand.

They committed more than 60,000 troops to the campaign, and on some days lost up to 90 percent of their manpower.

ANZAC Day has become a memorial day for all fallen troops and both countries' most revered national holiday.

For Turkey the victory, acquired at considerable loss, signalled the emergence of Mustafa Kemal, who became Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and in 1923 became the founding father of the Turkish republic.

Many of the victims are buried in 32 cemeteries and the 28 communal graves that line the peninsula.

Ataturk paid tribute in 1934 to enemy soldiers who had lost their lives.

"There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side now here in this country of ours," he wrote.

"You, the mothers, who sent their sons from faraway countries wipe away your tears... After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.