Premier`s History Teacher Gallipoli Scholarship

Premier’s History Teacher Gallipoli Scholarship
The Gallipoli Landing—
Lieutenant General Birdwood
and the myth of the mystery current
Bruce Dennett
Baulkham Hills High School
Lest we forget.
As per my scholarship proposal, I spent my time overseas in the archives of the Imperial
War Museum, London, the Liddle Hart Collection at Kings College Library also in
London, the National Archives at Kew, the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich
and the Liddle Collection at the University of Leeds. My time at Leeds was very
important. I was the first, and to date the only, Australian to use the Metcalf Papers held
there. The Metcalf Papers are critical to any debate about the location of the Anzac
landing on the 25 April 1915.
I also conducted interviews in Canberra with the British military historian Denis Winter,
author of April 25, and with Dr Peter Stanley, Chief Historian of the Australian War
Memorial. The archives of the Australian War Memorial were also important and I spent
several days before and after my time in the United Kingdom researching the Birdwood
and Bean Collections.
As the following extract from my full report indicates, I was able to prove, finally and
conclusively, that there was no current on the morning of the landing sufficient to
influence the location of the landing. Dr Peter Stanley commented that following the
publication of the full version of my report no one will be able to write about the first
day at Gallipoli without acknowledging my work.
Since my return from the United Kingdom, I have presented my research findings at two
conferences, the State Conference of the NSW History Teacher’s Association and the
Australian History Teachers’ Conference in Adelaide. Following the normal academic
process of peer review, the Australian War Memorial will publish the full, 7000 word
version of my report in the Journal of the Australian War Memorial. The AWM has also
commissioned me to write two further articles, one based on my interview with Denis
Winter and the other on the Royal Navy midshipmen involved in the Gallipoli Landing,
for their popular magazine Wartime.
The following is an abridged version of my report summarises my key research findings.
The thesis
This article will establish conclusively that there was no current on the morning of 25
April 1915 capable of influencing the Gallipoli landing. Once that thesis is established it
becomes necessary to explore some of the possible scenarios that might account for the
invention and the durability of such a story.
It is not easy to ascertain the origin of the earliest reference to the existence of a coastal
current off the Gallipoli Peninsula on the morning of 25 April 1915. It was nevertheless a
convenient story for the commander of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps,
Lieutenant General Sir William Birdwood. Following the landing when it became clear
that the Anzacs were concentrated in difficult country, disorganised and hard pressed by
Turkish defenders, Birdwood reluctantly began to agitate for a withdrawal and reembarkation. He was overruled by the commander of the Mediterranean Expeditionary
Force General Sir Ian Hamilton, acting in part on advice from Rear Admiral Cecil
Thursby, in command of the 2nd Royal Navy Squadron supporting the landing.
It was from this time that Birdwood began referring to the twist of fate, in the form of
an uncharted current that had taken the Anzacs too far north. The story became part of
the official history of the campaign,1 becoming a ‘fact’ of history and an integral part of
the Gallipoli legend. However, we now have overwhelming evidence to refute the claim
that any current existed significant enough to have contributed to the Anzacs landing
where they did. The work undertaken by Denis Winter2 and Tom Frame,3 when
combined with my own recent review of the documents held in the United Kingdom and
at the Australian War Memorial, is more than sufficient to reject what appears to be
Birdwood’s self-serving version of events.
Tom Frame maintains that the first references to a current did not come from the navy
but from an assertion by Birdwood.4 ‘Certainly there is no mention of a current having
hampered the landings among naval officers who might have given this suggestion some
credence even after it was first proposed by Birdwood.’5
Why did Birdwood propagate the tale of a mystery current? Let us take the time to
speculate. If there was no current, what are the possible explanations for Birdwood’s
assertion? Was it perhaps the first thought that came into his head? Maybe Birdwood
couldn’t imagine any other explanation for his covering force landing where it did. Was it
a desire to protect Rear Admiral Thursby and the reputation of the Royal Navy following
a failure of navigation? Or was it Birdwood’s intention to protect his own reputation?
Birdwood had been granted significant discretion in planning the landing. He may
therefore have felt the need to deflect possible criticism when it became clear that the
operation had started badly. Birdwood was not the kind of man to express his opinions
rashly. Therefore, the responsibility for the location of the Anzac landing on the 25th
rests with errors made by the Royal Navy and/or with a series of decisions made by
Birdwood.6 In other words, when it became clear to Birdwood that he had miscalculated,
he needed a story (and a current) to explain away the predicament on the beach and to
strengthen his case for re-embarkation.
Looking for answers—Birdwood and Thursby
It is fair to say that the commanders, particularly Birdwood, displayed both skill and
energy in defence of their reputations. By contrast, in planning, staff work, and
supervision of the actual operation, they appear to have been less assiduous. But
Birdwood and Thursby were creatures of their time, and as Denis Winter pointed out,
‘an appreciation of the need for absolute precision in battle planning only came in 1917.’7
The lack of quality staff work for the Anzac landing and the Gallipoli operation as a
whole was reflected in Major General Walter Braithwaite’s testimony before the
Dardanelles Commission on 25 January 1917. Braithwaite and Hamilton only went out to
Gallipoli on 13 March 1915. When asked at the Commission whether Hamilton had
received much in the way of useful information, Braithwaite replied that ‘there was
nothing of which turned out to be of real value.’ 8 A lack of adequate planning and
coordination clearly contributed to misunderstanding and confusion once the operation
As we look for answers it is important after a review of decades of research and
comment to reject absolutely any idea that a current played a part in the location of the
landing. Unfortunately, this myth is so deeply ingrained in the public consciousness that
it has been difficult to shift. As recently as 2001 Les Carlyon tempered his rejection of
the current with the words, ‘We can probably forget about the current.’ 9 We need to be
more emphatic: there is no probably about it, unless you accept the miraculous. The
current, if it is to be believed, influenced the movement of some of the tows but not
others. Metcalf and the tows near him, excluding tow one, veered north, while Dix at the
northern end of the line held course. Such a current had to be utterly random, capricious,
and idiosyncratic, choosing to influence some, but not all of the tows. This was not an
element of nature; it was a product of human imagination.
Tom Frame offered a powerful argument in 2000, when he consulted the Turkish Navy
and their oceanography specialists. They revealed that the prevailing current, if any,
operating off Anzac Cove was 0.25 to 0.5 knots to the northeast and that it was ‘certainly
not of sufficient strength to have resulted in the Anzacs being landed one mile or more
to the north of their intended location’.10
This should be enough, but there is more. Following a conversation with Denis Winter
before leaving for the United Kingdom to undertake my own research, he prompted me
to look closely at the records of the Royal Navy’s Hydrography Department. It turned
out that Winter had already seen and cited a key document without pursuing its
implications. The document in question is part of the Bush Papers at the Imperial War
Museum; it is a report from a Royal Navy warship, HMS Humber, that served off the
Gallipoli coast between Gaba Tepe and Niebruniessi Point, immediately to the south and
north of Anzac Cove, for six months between July and December 1915. The report was
sent by the navigator of the Humber’s Lieutenant, HEB Haselfoot, and co-signed by
Commander AL Snagge, the Humber’s commanding officer. It states that HMS Humber
had, ‘considerable facility for observing the direction of the currents’. This facility was
the result of the length of time spent off that stretch of coast and by reference to ‘the
numerous submarine indicator nets 500 yds. in length and moored at one end.’ The
report concluded that the normal set of the current off Anzac Cove ‘is to the NW about
1½ knots’, but that it could be influenced by ‘the direction and force of the wind’.11
It should be remembered that primary source accounts from the morning of the landing
are unanimous that there was no wind and that the sea was calm. In fact, if winds and
storms did play a part, it had to be from the residual effect of the storm on 21 April that
lasted for 24 hours and caused the postponement of the landing planned for 23 April.
According to Orlo Williams, a captain attached to Hamilton’s staff, the gale blew out of
the northeast.12 The implications are that according to the Humber’s report, ‘A strong NE
wind will cause a set to the SW of about
2 knots.’13 In other words, the current off Anzac Cove on the morning of 25 April at
most would have been 1½ knots to the north,14 but given the strength of the gale that
blew for 24 hours and caused a delay in operations, any current was likely to have been
negligible or been still running slightly to the southwest.
If this isn’t enough, Peter Liddle conducted an interview in 1974 with Anzac H Bachtold,
who had been part of the First Field Company of Engineers. On the afternoon of the
25th Bachtold was part of an operation to deliver three, 100-foot-long pontoons or
floating jetties to the beach. With a small steam pinnace and rowboats, the engineers had
to manoeuvre the jetties into position. Bachtold commented that the Royal Navy beach
master at Anzac Cove told them to ‘go further south and off we pushed and went down
south and then just as we were getting ready to push in to the shore he came along and
said go further north, so off we went.’15 Manoeuvring the jetties was a difficult process,
but at no stage did Bachtold mention a current. Clearly such an operation would have
been complicated had a current of the kind invented by Birdwood existed.
What of Birdwood? What did he say at the Dardanelles Commission? Birdwood thought
long and hard about the commission. Between January 1916 and December 1918
Birdwood and Hamilton conducted a lengthy and familiar correspondence. Birdwood
addressed his letters to ‘My dear General Johnny’, while Hamilton was no less personal
opening his letters with, ‘Dear Birdie’. The correspondence reflects a desire to get their
stores straight for the commission. On 27 November 1916 Hamilton wrote to Birdwood,
‘I am sending you to-day my own reply to Dardanelles Commission. It should help you
in framing yours.’16 Then on 31 January 1917 Birdwood wrote to Hamilton, ‘I much
hope it may be possible to see you before I give evidence, and shall look forward to a talk
with you about it.’17
The letters also reflect a desire to shift the focus of the commission away from them and
blame the failure of the campaign on supply and shortages of ammunition. In evidence,
on 6 March 1917 Birdwood repeated his preoccupation with the threat posed by the
Turkish artillery at Gaba Tepe. The key moment, however, came when Birdwood was
asked did his force land ‘exactly at the spot you intended to land?’ He replied ‘not
exactly’, and went on to explain, referring to a map, that he had intended to come ashore
‘opposite the capital “K” in Kurija Dere’.18 For clarity Birdwood used the same words
again a little later in his statement.
This is interesting. Looking at the maps, including the chart used by HMS Chelmer, one of
the destroyers involved in the landing,19 and others it is clear that if Birdwood intended
to land opposite Kurija Dere then his force should have come ashore where he planned,
not a mile and a half north as he claimed. If the ‘K’ in Kurija Dere marked the point
where tow one was meant to come ashore and allowing for the planned separation of
150 yards between the twelve tows, the bulk of the Anzac force would be spread across
almost a mile and therefore right across Anzac Cove. If Birdwood meant that the ‘K’
marked the centre of the line of tows, then at least half of the initial landing would have
found itself in Anzac Cove. The only way for Birdwood’s comment to have made sense
would have been had he thought that tow twelve was meant to come ashore opposite
Kurija Dere; but then why was tow one the guide? The place where the Anzacs came
ashore and the place where Birdwood indicated to the Dardanelles Commission that he
intended to land are one and the same. Birdwood testified that he had warned the navy
that if his troops were heavily shelled from Gaba Tepe after coming ashore that he
would move north.20 Did Birdwood simply jump the gun and incline to the north sooner
rather than later?
Aside from the perennially valid explanation, attributing all errors and confusion to ‘the
fog of war’, we are left with no current and hence no excuse. The Anzac landing was due
either to design arising from Birdwood’s well attested fears of getting too close to Gaba
Tepe or to mismanagement. Faulty navigation cannot be ruled out and we must also
acknowledge that Birdwood and Thursby certainly didn’t micro-manage the landing. The
Anzacs came ashore in accordance with their orders between Gaba Tepe and
Fisherman’s Hut, almost exactly half way between the two, in fact. Remember, precision
wasn’t necessarily thought to be critical; the main landing was, after all, meant to take
place at Helles. The lack of precision and having landed at Anzac Cove only became
problems for Birdwood after the landing. From that time, Lieutenant General Sir William
Birdwood’s reputation and career required an excuse and a ‘mystery current’.
1. CEW Bean, The Story of ANZAC, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1939, preface to the
9th edition, p. xi.
2. Denis Winter, 25 April 1915: The Inevitable Tragedy, University of Queensland Press, St
Lucia, 1994.
3. Tom Frame, The Shores of Gallipoli: Naval Aspects of the Anzac Campaign, Hale &
Iremonger, Alexandria, 2000.
4. Ibid, p. 195.
5. Ibid, p. 196.
6. Denis Winter, 25 April 1915: The Inevitable Tragedy, op.cit., p. 149.
7. Denis Winter, 25 April 1915: The Inevitable Tragedy, op.cit., p. 98.
8. Transcript from the Dardanelles Commission in the Hamilton Papers, 8/2/10-11
(Braithwaite), Liddle Hart Collection, Kings College, London.
9. Les Carlyon, Gallipoli, Macmillan, Sydney, 2001, p. 142.
10. Tom Frame, The Shores of Gallipoli: Naval Aspects of the Anzac Campaign, op.cit., p.200.
11. Report from HMS Humber found in the Bush Papers Bush Papers, 75/65/2 Anzac
Day Folder, Imperial War Museum.
12. Dr Orlo Williams, Private Papers 69/78/1, War Diary, vol. 1, Dardanelles Imperial
War Museum.
13. Report from HMS Humber found in the Bush Papers Bush Papers, 75/65/2 Anzac
Day Folder, Imperial War Museum.
14. At 1½ knots, still not strong enough to account for a northerly movement of up to a
mile or a mile and a half.
15. ANZAC (Aust) Bachtold, H, Tape 244, Interview conducted by Liddle May 1974,
Liddle Collection, Leeds University.
16. Hamilton Papers, 8/1/51-57 (Birdwood), Liddle Hart Collection, Kings College.
17. Ibid.
18. Birdwood’s Evidence before the Dardanelles Commission in the Hamilton Papers,
8/2/7, Liddle Hart Collection, Kings College.
19. Papers of Rear-Admiral HT England, in command of the destroyer HMS Chelmer at
Anzac 76/43/1.
20. Birdwood’s Evidence before the Dardanelles Commission in the Hamilton Papers,
8/2/7, Liddle Hart Collection, Kings College.