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Six VCs before breakfast – leadership lessons from Gallipoli

April 27, 2015

Saturday saw the centenary anniversary of the morning of April 25, 1915, a day forever recognised in British Military history for one of the most courageous actions ever performed by the British armed forces, which took place at a beach close to Cape Helles on the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey. The gallantry displayed that day led to the famous ‘Six Before Breakfast’ awards of half a dozen Victoria Crosses handed out in recognition of the bravery shown by the 1st Battalion, the Lancashire Fusiliers.

By early 1915, the war on the Western Front was not going well for the Allies. The fighting had bogged down, casualties were high and all the signs were that it would not be the short conflict many predicted. The Russians, too, were struggling against the Turks in the Caucasus.

To help their ally and to try to knock the Turks out of the war, Britain’s First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, and Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener, began a campaign to force the Royal Navy through the Dardanelles. But this faltered and it was decided to land troops at Gallipoli to clear the way forward.

Unlike the Australians who landed at dawn on the beach soon to be known as ‘Anzac Cove’, the British were to land in full daylight on five beaches around Cape Helles. To make up for this loss of surprise, a heavy naval bombardment was to cover the British landing. This meant the Turks had a good idea of what was coming as the biggest amphibious landing of the war began.

As part of the wider British attack, the Lancashire Fusiliers were chosen to land on and take control of a small, sandy cove – code-named ‘W Beach’ – just 350 yards long and between 15 and 40 yards wide between Cape Helles and Tekke Burnu. It was so well defended that the Turks may have regarded it as impregnable to an attack from open boats. Nevertheless, the attack began at 6am on April 25. By 8am, the mass fatalities had occurred.

Captain Richard Willis, who led C Company during the attack, survived to record the events of the day: Not a sign of life was to be seen on the peninsula in front of us. It might have been a deserted land we were nearing in our little boats. Then crack! The signal for the massacre had been given; rapid fire, machine-guns and deadly accurate sniping opened from the cliffs above, and soon the casualties included the rest of the crew and many men.

The Lancashire Fusiliers started the day with 27 officers and 1,002 men. Twenty-four hours later, a head count revealed just 16 officers and 304 men. Initially six men from the regiment, who had been nominated by their peers, were proposed for the VC, Britain and the Commonwealth’s most prestigious award for gallantry in the face of the enemy.

But this number was turned down and only three Fusiliers were gazetted for the VC in August 1915. However, after much lobbying, nearly two years later, in March 1917, the remaining three who had originally been selected were also finally awarded the VC for their bravery at ‘W Beach’ – renamed ‘Lancashire Landing’ in honour of the Lancashire Fusiliers. Together they became known as the ‘Six Before Breakfast’ VCs.

The VC is the highest military decoration awarded for ‘valour in the face of the enemy’ to members of British, Commonwealth and Empire armed forces. It was created in 1856 and given the inscription ‘for Valour’ by Queen Victoria. All VCs are made by melting down the bronze knobs removed from two Chinese cannon taken from the Russians at Sebastopol. Some 1,355 VCs have been awarded, and three people have received them twice. There is enough bronze left to make 85 more.

The Lancashire Fusilier medals were awarded to Major Cuthbert Bromley Cpl John Grimshaw, Pte William Keneally, Sgt Alfred Richards, Sgt Frank Stubbs and Capt Richard Willis.

The allied Commander-in-Chief said that No finer feat of arms has ever been achieved by the British soldier than the storming of those trenches from open boats. The Lancashire Fusiliers have been awarded nineteen VCs, eighteen of which were awarded in the First World War, more than any other regiment in that conflict.

You must have a heart of stone not to be moved by New Zealand’s casualties at Gallipoli too. Out of 8,450 soldiers sent to fight in Turkey, 2,721 were killed and 4,752 wounded. What other nation can claim an 88% casualty rate in battle?

The invasion failed, with the Allied forces unable to advance more than a few kilometres inland. A bloody stalemate ensued which lasted until Allied troops evacuated the peninsula eight months later in January 1916.

The Gallipoli Campaign of the First World War is a valuable case study for learning about leadership qualities and styles Although it is a sad fact that close to 500,000 lives were lost in the campaign, the decisions taken and tactics adopted during the course of the battle would serve present and future generations of military and political leaders.

1. Leaders need a rational and balanced mind at all times

With the setback of the Dardanelles initiative, the British concluded that an amphibious assault was the only option left. As a result, a strong regiment of 70,000 Allied soldiers were assembled but their forward thrust met with immediate resistance and the Allies managed to hold their beach positions with great difficulty. They were stay put in that position for another 4 months. It was at this juncture that Churchill called for further reinforcements. Fortunately, his wish was countermanded which prevented further casualties.

The episode goes to show how leaders are gripped by irrationality in their pursuit of a glory that is elusive. When so much is at stake, the tendency is to take unwarranted risks. The countermand order to Churchill’s request for troops was a decision taken in a balanced frame of mind by weighing the pros and cons of the eventual course. All leaders should train themselves to preserve their rationality in the most turbulent of times.

2. Leaders have to inspire, whatever their own circumstances

One leader of men who captured the imagination of both sides is Captain Alfred Shout, his name synonymous with the battle for Walker’s Ridge. Captain Shout engaged the Turkish defence with his predominantly under-trained troops and still managed to hold ground.

But what brought Alfred Shout enduring recognition and a place in the history books is his unsurpassed dedication to his men. Shout helped save several lives through his courage and determination. In spite of being hit by several bullets, Shout continued to carry wounded men away from the line of fire. He is said to have saved a dozen lives, but what makes the endeavour all the more remarkable is that Shout himself was severely wounded while performing these brave acts – his arm was made useless by the impact of an artillery and his lung punctured by one of the bullets. The severe strain would ultimately claim his life, but still, his commitment to his men helped inspire others in the thick of battle.

Captain Shout’s story is one of leading by example. To gain the respect of your team, a leader will have to set an example through his actions. And Captain Shout’s heroics will remain a worthy lesson for all leaders.

3. Good leaders listen to their team

The decision to attack Turkey was advocated by the then First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill. He argued that a surprise attack on Turkey would debilitate them from further participation in the War and facilitate an Allied march into Constantinople. The capture of Constantinople would give the allies the much coveted access to the Black Sea, via which they can send supplies to their allies in Russia.

Theoretically, it was a sound idea, but Churchill failed to take into consideration practical factors like terrain and enemy strength. Interestingly, the Officers did not share the same enthusiasm that their leaders did, and there was scepticism about the feasibility of the project. In hindsight their fears proved true.

This demonstrates that front line personnel in the thick of action possess a better sense of ground realities than the view offered to the leaders from a higher perspective. Here is a lesson for all leaders – heeding to the feelings and voice of others who have a closer contact to the reality can provide valuable clues which can be used in devising more suitable plans of action.

4. Leaders always strategise with foresight

A wave of New Zealand soldiers were sent to back up the already inland Australian regiment at would later be named the Anzac Cove, but chaos and confusion ensued as the Anzacs had to move inland. Without a clear vision of the objectives, the operation failed miserably. But indifferent to the general consensus, General Hamilton ordered his men to move on irrespective of enemy hostility.

The fiasco at Anzac Cove would lead to General Ian Hamilton losing his job. Here is an important lesson for all leaders. No amount of ambition can act as a substitute for strategy and methodical, meticulous planning. The damages at the cove could have been averted or substantially reduced had Hamilton prepared and coordinated more carefully.

There were other significant factors as well that undermined Allied efforts. The infantry were not properly trained, and some serious technical difficulties were overlooked in preparation for the campaign – for example, the capability of the Royal Navy in the unique geographical conditions of the Dardanelles Straight was never tested

5. Leaders respect the competition & take lessons from failure

Gallipoli will always be remembered for the Allied defeat. The Allies came very close to gaining some strategically important victories in the course of their year long ordeal in Turkey, but the defeat is all the more surprising, given their superior technological know-how and greater numbers.

Inaccurate maps, poor decision making, loss of momentum and landing on the wrong beach near the start of the campaign all led to its failure. The Allies should have known that the terrain was not ideal for an offensive, and should have focused their troops somewhere else.

It is evident that British officials underestimated the Turkish military infrastructure and sophistication too. One of the qualities of good leadership is gaining sound understanding of the competition. The British leadership apparently failed in this regard. All these factors, when combined, offers a recipe for disaster.

6. Leadership dysfunction can consume legitimacy

The shortcomings of political and military leadership were experienced on the ground as management failures. The notorious acceptance of mass casualties prompted widespread mutinies in the French and Russian forces. The very name of Gallipoli conjures up visions of unimaginable, unnecessary slaughter, with industrial age weaponry blasting row after row of young bodies into bloody bits. Confidence in the authorities was swept away. This would hasten the emergence of anti-colonial movements and strip the legitimacy of military, social, and political leadership.

7. The fog of conflict is lethal

Entering a war has been compared to walking into a pitch-black room and shutting the door behind. World War I was triggered by violence in the Balkans, The Armistice did not resolve the issues that prompted the outbreak.

The same principles hold for conflicts in all settings. War, or its parallels in business and civilian life, can take on a life of its own. The enveloping ‘fog’ that descends can take the participants far from any outcome they would have foreseen, much less desired.

8. Leaders do not stand still

Technology, culture, economics, trade, and finance were driving Europe in extraordinary new directions through nearly a century of peace prior to the fateful summer of 1914. Political and social structures, reflecting the values of earlier times, failed to keep pace.

Looking past wistful renderings such as Downton Abbey, one recognises the tragic shortcomings of a European aristocratic and political leadership brought ruin to the nations it was intended to serve. The tides of history can be ignored for a time–but to do so is to risk being overwhelmed soon enough.

Leadership must act in the now, as well as securing a future. Resting on your laurels brings complacency and inertia, leaders have a responsibility to be active at all times, and not to stand still.

A remarkable spirit of reconciliation that brings the Gallipoli story to a conclusion, is the post-war message from Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, leader of the Turkish army and it’s founding president, now inscribed on a large monument at ANZAC Cove, in answer to the pressing requests of the parents of ANZAC soldiers who wanted the remains of their sons to be shipped home for burial.

Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives… You are now lying in a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where, they lie side by side here in this country of ours. You, the mothers, who sent their sons, from far away countries, wipe away your tears, your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our Sons as well.

As we celebrate the centenary of Gallipoli, this week at the Lancashire Fusiliers Museum in Bury for the first time, all ‘Six VCs before breakfast’ awarded to the Lancashire Fusiliers on the first day at Gallipoli are in the same place, at the same time, an apt tribute to their heroism. http://www.fusiliermuseum.com/.

My own definition of leadership is this: The capacity and the will to rally people to a common purpose with the character to inspire confidence. I also like the quote from French bishop, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord: I am more afraid of an army of 100 sheep led by a lion than an army of 100 lions led by a sheep.

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