Despite facing only light opposition, the landing at Suvla as part of the August offensive was hopelessly mismanaged by an aged commander with little combat experience in charge of untried troops. It starkly symbolised the British failure to provide effective leadership in its military.
Promotions based on class, connections and seniority created a layer of generals with little ability and no comprehension of modern warfare.
Lt. Gen. Sir Frederick Stopford emerged from six years of retirement, aged 61 but more elderly than his years. Despite Stopford having a largely administrative career, Lord Kitchener used seniority ranking to appoint him to command the Suvla landing by the newly formed IX Corps. He had seen little combat, had never commanded men in battle and lacked energy, enthusiasm and comprehension of his task.
Historian J. F. C. Fuller wrote that Stopford (pictured) had ‘no conception of what generalship meant’, going to sleep aboard the sloop Jonquil as the landing became muddled during the night of August 6.
Ships anchored too far from shore, lighters struck reefs, men were pinned near shore by snipers and shelling, confused units became mixed and officers were unable to locate their positions or objectives. Captain Cecil Aspinall-Oglander, who was on Hamilton’s staff, wrote in the official history that in ‘broad daylight and the situation in Suvla Bay was verging on chaos’.
The 20,000 British troops, opposed by only 1500 Turks, were supposed to advance to seize the heights in the hills surrounding Suvla Bay. No defence fortifications were in place and it was calculated it would take 36 hours for Turkish reinforcements to arrive.
Instead Stopford had decided to limit the objectives: General Ian Hamilton failed to stop him. The final orders required only that a beachhead be established and the high ground be taken ‘if possible’.
British war correspondent Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett noted on the transport Minneapolis shortly after dawn that he could hear the fighting at Anzac but Suvla was comparatively quiet and ‘no firm hand appeared to control this mass of men suddenly dumped on an unknown shore’.
Stopford’s IX Corps had suffered 1700 casualties in the first 24 hours, a figure exceeding the total six of the defending Turkish detachment led by German officer Willhelm Willmer. At 7 pm, Willmer – who had no machine guns and few artillery pieces – reported to his commander Liman Von Sanders: ‘No energetic attacks on the enemy’s part have taken place. On the contrary, the enemy is advancing timidly.’
Stopford did not leave Jonquil on August 7. By the end of the day, the chain of command had completely broken down but he was content. He cabled Hamilton the next morning that that his troops ‘deserve great credit for the result attained against strenuous opposition and great difficulty. I must now consolidate the position held’.” When he received Stopford’s signal, Hamilton decided to see Suvla for himself.
Hamilton had already been dismayed by the lack of progress and the lack of any drive from Stopford or his subordinates. Captain Aspinall had been sent to see what was happening and thought the relaxed inactivity on the beach meant troops were fighting far away in the hills. He was astonished to be told to keep his head down because the front line was only a few hundred yards away – and that Stopford was still aboard the Jonquil.
Aspinall found Stopford ‘in excellent spirits’, well satisfied with progress. When Aspinall pointed out that the men had not reached the high ground, Stopford replied, ‘No, but they are ashore.’
Aspinall and Hamilton met at Suvla and finally on the afternoon of August 8, nearly two days after the landing began, he gained a clear picture of events. He went to the Jonquil to confront Stopford, who had finally been ashore to consult with Hammersley.
Stopford planned to order an advance the following morning, 9 August. Hamilton insisted that an advance be made immediately and so, at 6.30 pm, the 32nd Brigade was ordered to march two and a half miles to the Tekke Tepe ridge. The march, in darkness over unfamiliar, rough terrain, was difficult. The brigade did not approach the summit until 4 am on August 9.
Turkish reinforcements had reached the ridge before them and charged the exhausted British infantry with bayonets. The 32nd Brigade was virtually annihilated in a matter of minutes and the remnants of the battalions scattered back towards the beach.
Hamilton had watched the battle from the Triad. He wrote in his diary: ‘My heart has grown tough amidst the struggles of the peninsula but the misery of this scene well-nigh broke it… Words are of no use.’
The intensity of the fighting escalated at Suvla on August 9 but the opportunity for the British to make a swift advance had now disappeared. Around midday the gunfire set scrub alight on Scimitar Hill and Ashmead-Bartlett, watching from Lala Baba, saw the British wounded trying to escape the flames:
‘I watched the flames approaching and the crawling figures disappear amidst dense clouds of black smoke. When the fire passed on little mounds of scorched khaki alone marked the spot where another mismanaged soldier of the King had returned to mother earth.’
The command remained paralysed. Some of the reasons that Stopford reportedly gave for his inaction were surreal, such as that the Ottomans were ‘inclined to be aggressive.’
Hamilton finally cabled Kitchener that the IX Corps generals were ‘unfit’ for command. Kitchener swiftly replied on 14 August, authorising him to fire three generals. Stopford was sent home immediately but by then Turkish defenders were well in place to block attempts to open a northern front.
The Suvla front was reorganised and reinforced for an assault on August 21. The Battle of Scimitar Hill, alongside the attempt to capture Hill 60 to the north, was the largest battle of the Gallipoli campaign.
Scimitar Hill was a catastrophe. Many of the casualties, estimated at 5000, were caused by British artillery setting the bush on fire.
Northern cities and towns in England, who had waved off bands of their sons and their pals to join Kitchener’s New Army, were devastated by the Suvla Bay disaster. The British IX Corps had been formed from the fresh northerners, who were sent out to be tormented in the August heat with insufficient water.
Suvla subsided into sporadic fighting until it was evacuated by the British in late December.
Sir Frederick Stopford’s official biographic details do not mention Gallipoli.