While the New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF) crossed the Indian Ocean, the Ottoman Empire (a multi-nation empire in which Turks and Arabs were the largest groups) entered the war, dramatically changing the strategic situation and threatening the imperial lifeline: the Suez Canal. This, and the better climate Egypt offered over wintry England for further training, led to the temporary disembarkation of the New Zealand and Australian forces. The New Zealanders camped at Zeitoun, near Cairo. Some elements of the NZEF took part in the defence of the Suez Canal against a Turkish attack in January–February 1915.
As forces on the spot, the NZEF and the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) were drawn into Allied plans to knock out the Ottoman Empire. The empire was seen as a weak link in the enemy array; its fall would open up avenues of attack on the Central Powers. The plan was to capture the narrow Dardanelles strait, which would mean naval forces could enter the Sea of Marmara and directly attack Constantinople, the capital of Turkey and the Ottoman Empire. However, over-confidence, poor planning and lack of resources dogged the Allied effort.
Following the failure of a naval attack on the Dardanelles, the Allies landed on the Gallipoli Peninsula on 25 April 1915. While British (and later French) forces made the main landing at Cape Helles on the tip of the peninsula, General William Birdwood’s ANZAC troops (the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, commonly known as Anzacs) landed 20 kilometres north. New Zealand troops, who were part of the New Zealand and Australian Division under Major General Alexander Godley, followed the Australians ashore on the first morning of the assault. Their division took responsibility for the northern sector of the battlefield.
In the face of a vigorous Turkish response, no significant Allied advance proved possible. The fighting quickly degenerated into trench warfare, with the Anzacs holding a tenuous perimeter. The troops endured heat, flies, the stench of rotting corpses, lack of water, dysentery and other illnesses, and a sense of hopelessness.
One of New Zealand’s heroes of the August offensive was Lieutenant Colonel William Malone, the 56-year-old commander of the Wellington Battalion. A Taranaki farmer and lawyer, Malone was a student of military history, who introduced the ‘lemon-squeezer’ hat into the New Zealand uniform. A strong disciplinarian, he was initially resented by his men. In the August offensive he led his battalion to the top of Chunuk Bair, but was killed, probably by friendly fire. The battalion erected a large memorial gate in his memory in Stratford, Taranaki.
An attempt to break the stalemate in August failed, though not without a stirring New Zealand effort in briefly capturing part of the high ground at Chunuk Bair. In this assault men of the Māori Contingent, recently arrived from Malta, took part in the first attack by Māori soldiers outside New Zealand. With the failure of the August offensive, the stalemate returned.
Ultimately, the Allies cut their losses and by early January 1916 all troops had been evacuated from Gallipoli. In all, 2,779 New Zealanders died.
A continuing effort
Following the evacuation the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade, which had fought at Gallipoli as infantry, joined Australian mounted units to form the ANZAC Mounted Division. This unit continued the fight against the Ottoman Empire, taking a prominent part in the Sinai–Palestine campaign of 1916–18. Some New Zealanders served in Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq, then a Turkish province). New Zealand’s cruiser, HMS Philomel, was also deployed in the region, patrolling in the Red Sea. But these operations against the Ottoman Empire became a sideshow in New Zealand’s war effort. In 1916 the emphasis shifted to Europe. The Sinai–Palestine campaign cost 543 New Zealand lives.