The 8th April 1915 brought to a head the long and bitter struggle between the Turkish citizens and the Armenian subjects living in Eastern Turkey. Early 1915 saw the Russians countering the potential threat of Turkish invasion of Southern Russia on the border with Eastern Turkey. Despite dreadful weather the Russians defeated the Turkish army. The Turkish Government sought revenge by rounding up hundreds of thousands of Armenian citizens, and shot approximately 50,000 men. The remaining Armenians either were force-marched into the mountains of Turkish Mesopotamia and the remainder of the population slaughtered. Approximately one million Armenians died 400,000 of the 500,000 during the forced march and another 500.000 massacred. 200.000 Armenian citizens had been forcibly converted to Islam.
Russia, France and Britain denounced the massacres as acts against “humanity and civilisation”. The charge was rejected by the Turkish Government on the grounds the allies had fermented Armenian unrest in the first place.
The Armenian massacre was to be the First Genocide of the 20th Century.
On the 16th April 1915, the price paid for the Secret Treaty of London was that Italy announced the end of her neutrality and joined forces with the British, French and Russian allies. Like the German Empire, Italy was a newly united European state. She had a growing population of 36 million citizens and was desperate to acquire additional territories. The country was facing wide rural poverty and mass illiteracy. The Government was economically backward and the Parliamentary system hardly functioned. Social reforms were either staggeringly inefficient or shelved.
In 1914, Italy remained neutral between the two opposing forces but over a period she conducted a diplomatic auction promising to join forces with the highest bidder. Germany and Austria-Hungary yielded too slowly to Italian demands for substantial additional territories. The Triple Alliance promised everything Italy requested.
The Second Battle of Ypres commenced on the 22nd April 1915. The Ypres Salient followed the Yser Canal and bulged East around the town of Ypres. The Belgian army held the line from the coast of the English Channel to the Yser Canal. The French army held the Northern section of the Salient. British and Canadian forces held the Eastern sector. The attack commenced with the German army releasing 5,370 gas cylinders, each weighing 90lb. (41kg) along a 4 mile (6.5km) sector of the front line. The gas cylinders were carried by hand to the front line position. At approximately 5.00pm the cylinders were opened releasing the contents of chlorine gas against the Northern section of the salient defended by the French troops. The prevailing wind drove the gas-laden air drifted towards the Allied lines. However, whilst carrying out this operation a large number of German soldiers were injured or killed. The French army, consisting of French Territorial and Colonial Moroccan and Algerian troops suffered more than 6,000 casualties when the gas-laden air reached the trenches. Within 10 minutes many had died, mainly from damage to the lungs or asphyxiation. The chlorine gas blinded many troops. When chlorine gas mixes with moisture, it destroys the soft tissue of eyes and lungs. The denser than air gas quickly filled the trenches. Many French troops abandoned their trenches straight into enemy fire. The front line sustained a 4-mile gap, upon which the Germans were not able to capitalise. Not having foreseen the effectiveness of the gas attack the German High Command did not have sufficient reserve forces to exploit this advantage. Most of the available German reserve forces had been transferred to Russia. Canadian troops were able to fill the gap created by the French Moroccan line collapsing. To counter the effects of the gas the Canadian troops used urine saturated cloths over their nose and mouth. The demands of securing the left flank and being enveloped on three sides by the Germans the 13th Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force took very heavy casualties.
Two battalions of the Canadian army were ordered to counter-attack Kitchener’s Wood to close the gap created by the gas attack. Forming up and advancing in two waves the two battalions ran into small arms fire whilst they were still only halfway to the wood. This resulted into a bayonet charge, finally clearing the wood of the Germans but at a cost of 75% casualties.
Before the gas attack the village of St. Julien had been behind the lines in the British sector. After the gas attack St. Julien was the front line. Despite the stand by Lance Corporal Frederick Fisher employing a machine gun to halt the German advance, a further gas attack enabled the Germans to secure the village. For his gallant defensive action Fisher was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross. Between the 8th May 1915 and 27th May 1915 the German army forced the British to retreat and established a straightened but shortened front line salient to the East of Ypres.
All combatants took huge casualties:-
The German army almost 35,000
The French army almost 21,000
The British army almost 60,000
The Canadian army almost 6,000
During the 2nd Battle of Ypres, the Canadian Lieutenant Colonel John McRae MD wrote his memorable poem “In Flanders Fields” which established the poppy as the symbol of sacrifice.
Landings on Gallipoli began on the 25th April 1915. The Mediterranean Expeditionary Force (MEF) consisting of British, French and Anzac troops. Awaiting them were 84,000 Turkish troops. The French mounted a diversionary attack at Kum Kale on the Southern, Asiatic side of the Dardanelles. British forces landed at Cape Helles at the south end of the Gallipoli peninsular. Their orders were to destroy the forts defending the narrow entrance to the Dardanelles. In the meantime, the Anzacs attacked the Western coast to cross the peninsular and cut the lines of communication to prevent any Turkish re-enforcements reaching the defenders.
Despite the British landing on 5 points at Cape Helles Point and the Anzacs landing at Ari Burnu (known as Anzac Cove) the landings were not successes. Hamilton’s plans for invasion had caused some confusion to the Turkish defenders as regards the MEF strategy; however the British did not exploit any advantage offered. Well-defended Turkish defensive positions trapped the attackers on the beach but the Anzac landings met with limited resistance. Confusion occurred because the Anzacs had inferior maps of the area, which gave the Turkish troops time to re-organise their defences. Some Anzacs forces moved quickly inland and reached the high ground of Chunuk Bar but they were soon in retreat from a Turkish counter attack. By dusk, the Anzacs had retreated to the beach having taken very heavy casualties.
By the time darkness fell on the 25th April 1915, the allies had attained little more than establishment on the beaches. Stalemate transpired as the Turkish defenders took up positions on the high ground.
Hamilton did try to break the stalemate and get his forces inland but necessity forced both sides to dig in. Trench warfare had begun at Gallipoli, not dissimilar to that on the Western Front.
On the 26th April 1915, the Treaty of London commits Italy to take-up arms against Austria-Hungary on the side of the Entente Powers.