One hundred years ago, families spread across the whole of Ayrshire were mourning the loss of loved ones. News was arriving of the heaviest loss of life the county had yet suffered in the Great War. On 12 July 1915, Scottish soldiers of the 52nd Lowland Division rose from their trenches and charged part of the Turkish lines at Cape Helles on the Gallipoli Peninsula. They included the 4th and 5th Territorial battalions of Ayrshire’s county regiment, the Royal Scots Fusiliers. This was the latest of the many attacks which had been launched since British, Australian, New Zealand and French troops landed on the peninsula in April. The aim of the campaign was to force the passage of the Dardanelles Straits, knock the Turkish Ottoman Empire out of the war, and open up Black Sea supply routes to Russia and, via the Danube, to Serbia. This apparent opportunity to break the stalemate of the Western Front was faltering due to resolute Turkish resistance.
The allied bombardment which preceded the 12 July attack had reduced the Turkish positions to a confusing maze of shattered trenches. As officers and NCOs were killed and wounded, command and control began to break down in the face of Turkish shellfire and counter-attacks. The ‘trench’ chosen from aerial photographs to be the final objective turned out to be just a shallow scrape, and many men pressed on beyond it. Few of them returned. Others had been given the hazardous task of digging communication trenches from the British front line to the captured positions. This meant standing in the open exposed to enemy fire, and losses were heavy. Fighting continued through the night. Some isolated groups fell back to avoid being cut off and surrounded. This resulted in the withdrawal of others who thought that a general retreat must have been ordered. However, with the help of reinforcements from the Royal Naval Division, the captured trenches were secured by the end of 13 July. The operation would be officially referred to as the Action of Achi Baba Nullah. The British commanders judged it to have been a successful limited attack, but the offensive capability of the 52nd Division had been destroyed. Turkish losses were also heavy, but were more easily replaced.
The two RSF battalions had lost over 200 dead, including 12 officers, and 300 more were wounded. There are few of Ayrshire’s public war memorials which do not bear the names of men who fell at Gallipoli on 12 and 13 July 1915, or died of wounds in the following days. Ayr’s memorial has 15 such names, and Troon’s 10. The battalions of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers which attacked alongside the RSF suffered even more severely.
It was not only in British Army units that Ayrshiremen fought and died at Gallipoli. They were to be found in the ranks of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, among the British emigrants to these countries who made up a significant proportion of their army volunteers. Ayrshire local newspapers published letters which they had written from Gallipoli to their relatives in the county, and news of those killed and wounded also appeared.
The most prominent and controversial Ayrshireman at Gallipoli was the head of one of the county’s oldest landowning families. Major General Sir Aylmer Hunter-Weston of Hunterston, who had been born at Hunterston in 1864, was placed in charge of operations in the Cape Helles sector. He would be criticised for ordering a succession of mis-managed and costly frontal attacks in the early part of the campaign. Learning from these, he later changed to more carefully-prepared assaults with concentrated artillery support and limited objectives, of which the 12 July attack was one. He was typical of British commanders at this stage of the war in being inexperienced in modern methods of warfare, and in command of officers and men similarly inexperienced and often inadequately trained.
Reinforcements for the 52nd Division which arrived in the autumn included men of the Ayrshire Yeomanry, the county’s Territorial cavalry unit. They left their horses behind and served as infantry. By this time major assaults had ceased, but they were engaged in several sharp actions and lost 18 killed.
Reluctant acceptance that the campaign had failed, and that the troops could be better employed elsewhere, led to the evacuation of Gallipoli. The ANZAC/Suvla sector was evacuated in December 1915, and the Cape Helles sector in January 1916. This was so well-managed that in both cases, the Turks did not realise what was happening until the last men had embarked. The 52nd Division with its Ayrshire units fought on against the Ottoman forces in Egypt and Palestine until transferred to the Western Front in the final stages of the war.