Warfare at Gully Ravine


At the time of the Gallipoli landings, in early 1915, trench warfare was the inevitable practice, the immediate result of ballistics that could penetrate portable shields.

Before the advent of musket balls and bullets, whilst armies would of course shelter from arrow storms behind battlements and personal shields, ultimately they had to meet hand-to-hand to conclude a battle with swords and other close-quarter weapons. As soon as technology allowed rounded pieces of lead to be propelled at great speed by gunpowder however, hand-carried wooden shields became useless and opposing soldiers literally went to earth to shelter from this new death-dealer from a distance. Trenches were used in the Napoleonic wars and in the American Civil War.

Tanks were not deployed in warfare until the British employed their MK1’s at the battle of Flers-Courcelette during the Somme offensive in September 1916, nine months after the Gallipoli evacuations. This very first trial of ‘landships’ was only modestly successful, but by 1918 warfare was changing rapidly. Whilst trenches and foxholes were (and still are) used as temporary refuge for infantry, armoured vehicles meant that the stalemate of static facing trenches and the horrible inevitability of throwing successive waves of troops without personal armour against rifles and machine guns was replaced by rapid movement. Aircraft and helicopters further changed the nature and potential mobility of armed conflict.

The Great War therefore, and the Gallipoli campaign in particular, stands in a relatively narrow window of military history. Trenches were a consequences of the state of technology in conflict.

The ongoing plan after the Gallipoli landings was for a rapid advance. The ANZACs were to sweep eastward down the wide valley from Gaba Tepe to Maidos (modern Eceabat) and the British intention was to take Achi Baba hill and then move on to dominate the Kilid Bair Plateau overlooking the Dardanelles Straits. Instead, after just a few days of modest advances, both forces were halted or at best slowed to a snail’s pace by entrenched Ottoman defences. By June 1915 the Gallipoli theatre resembled the Western Front, with complicated networks of front line, reserved and communications trenches riddling the landscape.


The significance of high ground at Gully Ravine

Terrain and topography have always been significant factors in military strategy and tactics.  They remain so today, although technical developments such as helicopters, satellite guided missiles, GPS and drones have arguable reduced the severity of their impact on campaigns.

Hills have been especially important throughout military history. The obvious advantage is that they offer better sight-lines –  in short, you can see your enemy coming. Also, at least before the era of guided missiles, jets and helicopters, whether the available weapons were bullets, arrows or even rocks, holding the higher ground allowed a relatively smaller force to resist a larger one below.  Castles and fortified locations have always been built on raised ground where possible for this purpose. This military principle has been understood since antiquity.

In 1915, without support from helicopters and advanced aircraft, entering and moving through a valley or over plains dominated by high ground demanded that the raised areas were also controlled by infantry. The relevance of this simple fact to the fighting at Gully Ravine is clear; at Gurkha Bluff on the seaward side and at the Boomerang to landward, the Ottoman forces established strong redoubts, and progress through the gully was held up until the Gurkhas to the left, in mid-May, and elements of the Border Regiment to the right at the Battle of Gully Ravine in late June, finally overran these high-ground positions.

There is some evidence however that at Gully Ravine, the principle was overlooked after Gurkha Bluff on at least one occasion.  Reginald Savory, a British officer attached to the Indian Brigade at Helles, commented in one of his letters after the 4th June attacks in the ravine at the 3rd Battle of Krithia that to advance up a gully was a thing one had always learned should not be done, until all the ground commanding it is first seized.‘ (1).  The context of his writing makes clear that this very thing had been attempted!


Obstacle or advantage?

There is no doubt that the depth and extent of Gully Ravine came as an unpleasant surprise to the allied forces, and it was quickly evident that its capture and command was essential.

The obverse is that the gully’s presence can be considered an advantage, in the sense that it runs north eastward to within a few hundred metres of the village of Krithia (modern Alcitepe), which, along with Achi Baba, was the allies’ first major objective. The story of how the Y beach landings might have led to the rapid and early capture of Krithia is told here.  

Although it was named by many troops as ‘the valley of death’ due to the number of burials there, advancing through the gully’s secured parts, was, if not exactly safe, certainly less hazardous than advancing over the open land above.

Gully Ravine was simultaneously an obstacle and an opportunity. Ultimately, it had to be secured along with the spurs on either side for safe advance, and this prosaic fact underlies the allies’ bitter experience in this area.

To balance this, the Ottoman forces defended every foot of the gully, and the 2009 memorial on the western side of the gully near Border Barricade remembers 10,000 martyrs who fell in the Battle of Gully Ravine from 28th June to 3rd July alone.

Gully Ravine remains, in my opinion, one of the most distinctive and unusual locations of the Great War.


(1). Quoted in ‘Die in battle, do not despair: The Indians on Gallipoli 1915’. Pub. Peter Stanley. Helion and Co, 2015. Page 137.
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