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Fresh from previous disasters, Churchill embarks on another

What is a military correspondent to do when in the course of wartime his government is doing something sensible? Why, support it of course. But what if that government is doing something very, very stupid like launching the Gallipoli campaign? The answer, of course, is to support that too – in wartime loyalty trumps honesty – but point out the difficulties.

Which is precisely what Charles à Court Repington, Military Correspondent of The Times, does. In some detail.

The reasons in favour of this operation are overwhelming, provided that the risks and necessary preparations have been coolly calculated in advance, and such naval and military force as may be allotted to the object in view can be spared from the decisive theatre of war.

Note the use of the word “decisive”. The meaning is clear: the Western Front is decisive, this isn’t.

The defences of the Dardanelles are formidable, and nothing is gained by denying the fact. The Straits are narrow, the channels are winding and they are mined. A considerable current runs down the Straits, and the ground on both sides offers excellent sites for batteries both high and low, and for guns giving high-angle fire for the attack on ships’ decks.

The best way to attack the Dardanelles is by means of a conjoint naval and military expedition,…

Which they’re not doing… yet. By the way, I was once told that strictly speaking the word “military” refers exclusively to land-based warfare. I think this is how the word is being used here.

… and a purely naval attack can only be justified if the necessary and very large military force cannot be spared,…

Which it can’t, not least because it doesn’t exist.

… or if our information is so good,

Which it isn’t.

…and the chances have been so carefully weighed, that the success of a naval attack is reasonably probable.

But hey…

…if they can master these formidable Straits, and appear before the walls of Constantinople they will have accomplished a feat of arms which will live in the history of the world.

He’s not kidding.

And whose bright idea is this campaign? Why, Winston Churchill, of course. If you want a way of thinking about Churchill prior to “We’ll fight them on the beaches” and all that, think Tigger from the Winnie-the-Pooh books – loud, abrasive, energetic, enthusiastic, convinced of his genius and indispensability, hare-brained. Such an attitude has already caused problems but now it will cause the sort of problems that cannot be ignored. Ultimately, it will lead to Churchill’s removal from government and a stint in the trenches. It is not something that will ever be entirely forgotten. Indeed one wonders if Churchill timed his death in January 1965 to avoid the 50th anniversary of Gallipoli in the February.

About the best that can be said for Gallipoli is what would they have said had it never been tried? There would doubtless have been people claiming that here was a scheme that would have won the war much more quickly at far less cost and it was only a lack of imagination and institutional stubbornness that prevented it being pursued.

The Times 22 February 1915 p6

The Times 22 February 1915 p6

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33 comments to Fresh from previous disasters, Churchill embarks on another

  • Gallipoli – very good idea. Very bad execution. The extraction was well done though.

  • BTW. Current thinking on strategy is that you peel off the weaker allies first. Strategy of the Indirect Approach.

    All the effort in the “decisive” area was feeding men into a meat grinder. Churchill was trying to avoid more of that.

    The Italian campaign in WW2 was more effective in that respect.

  • Jeff Evans

    Not an expert, but if the Aussie film on Gallipoli is to be believed, the operation was not helped by the incompetence and lack of imagination of the senior officers involved.

    There was probably a certain amount of Western arrogance in underestimating the effectiveness of the Turkish forces, a mistake often made by strong imperial powers.

    Would it have heped to have added the forces involved to the Western Front? My guess is -probably not much.

    My guess is that the operation was driven more by the need for political “good news”; the war in France was at a standstill, and if it had been successful … although even then, what impact would it have had on the main war on the Western Front? Unlikely that Empire forces would have been able to hold that much of Ottoman Empire territory.

    I guess from Churchill’s point of view it also gave the Navy something to do.

  • Patrick Crozier

    The point is that here we have and informed observer who thought it was a bad idea well before the “bad execution”.

  • Mr Black

    Apparently the entire German High Command thought the Manstein plan to push through the Ardennes was doomed to fail. Experts of contrary opinion can always be found no matter what the scheme or outcome.

    That said, from what I have read the operation was pushed forward with such haste and incompetent planning that it would have needed a good deal of luck to have any chance at all. Still, I don’t think such incompetence was particularly noteworthy as generals everywhere struggled with the new reality of firepower and attrition. Almost all operations of the period were badly planned and made terrible assumptions.

  • Paul Marks

    I see – so if an operation is not successful, it should never have been launched.

    There is no difference between a strategic plan and the tactics employed by the commanders on the spot?

    In fact the idea of this campaign was entirely correct.

    In siege warfare (which is what World War One was – a siege, on a vast scale, of the Central Powers), one must cut off the enemy – link up the besieging forces.

    Russia was cut off from Britain and France – operating essentially on its own, and that was not going to work out well.

    The Central Powers were not really besieged when the besieging forces were not coordinated, and the Ottoman Empire was still in existence.

    Constantinople was the only Capital of the Central Powers to be on the coast – the only one that could be attacked.

    It was also blocking a logical line of naval supply to the Russians.

    The campaign, as a strategic concept, was entirely correct.

    Sadly the campaign was handed over to a bunch of clowns who should not have been in charge of a public toilet – let alone an army.

    Sulva Bay is an obvious example – 20 thousand British troops against a few hundred Turkish militia – yet the British commanders do NOTHING, whilst the Turks rush in reinforcements.

    Who were the British commanders? Stopford, Mahon, Hammerseley, and the rest of them.

    “My leg hurts I can not go ashore”.

    “I am too senior to command this force”.

    “Those men have occupied Scimitar Hill without permission – recall them”.

    My “favourite” was the commander who spent the operation in his tent crying (he had a nervous breakdown while he was still back home – but no one thought this was a bar to him being given a combat command).

    Colonel A. J. Barker (and other combat soldiers who have tried to write the history British operations in the area) have never known whether to laugh or cry about the calibre of commander sent out to Gallipoli.

    Now you know all the above Mr Crozier – but you do not say it.

    Indeed you imply the opposite – i.e. the operation was an error of judgement a “hair brained scheme” and on and on.

    You, Sir, are not an honest man.

    I used to believe that what you wrote about the First World War was based on an honest lack of information – a reliance on “academic sources” (disinformation) and so on.

    I no longer believe this to be the case.

  • staghounds

    If only the ships had attacked immediately and pressed on. Such a wasted opportunity.

    Of course then we would never have had Ataturk. Or Lenin.

  • NickM

    If you go to the Gallipoli landing beaches (I have) then they are horrendous. The beaches in themselves aren’t too bad but just a short trip-up and it is hills and the only realistic way up is through gulleys which are perfect choke-points and ambush-points for defenders at the top. Tactically it was a nightmare. Strategically… I disagree with the concept of taking out the “low-hanging” fruit first. Certainly the Italian campaign wasn’t the cake-walk MSimon seems to think. Go for the heart of the beast.

  • Jeff Evans

    On the subject of Churchill, I also read a few years ago a chapter in a book suggesting that he was responsible for the 51st (Highland) Division not being evacuated from Normandy in a timely manner in June 1940, in the hope that they would bolster French resolve not to surrender. This resulted in 10,000 men being taken prisoner.

    Churchill was obviously a charismatic leader at the time when he was needed. But maybe sometimes his decisions on military action were influenced by his need to gain political kudos.

  • Patrick Crozier

    In case anyone is interested I should perhaps explain the background to Paul’s spirited contribution. For a number of years Paul and I have been debating the merits of Field Marshal Haig. More often than not these debates have hinged on various claims made by Paul. As I have been unable to verify them myself I have more than once asked Paul to provide me with his sources. He has yet to do so.

    On the question of the strategic rationale behind Gallipoli I should point out that there’s a huge difference between saying something would be nice and saying it is possible. For instance, it would be nice if I could visit the moon tomorrow but it is not actually possible. It may have been nice had Constantinople been captured but that is not the same as saying it could have been captured. To say that the Allies employed incompetent commanders and they failed does not prove that had they employed competent commanders they would have succeeded.

    I would also question the value of shipping guns and ammunition to Russian commanders at the expense of their more competent Western allies.

  • Mr Ed

    For a number of years Paul and I have been debating the merits of Field Marshal Haig.

    I lnow it takes a long time to count the dead, but years?

  • NickM

    Patrick. Good point about supplying the Russians. The interesting point is how the Russian and Ottoman Empires might have collapsed less catastrophically if that was do-able.

  • Barry Sheridan

    The idea of taking out Turkey was based on sound strategy, it was just the execution that was a shambles. Motivating the attack were two vital elements, growing Allied concerns with the ability of Russia to survive as a combatant and secondly, the future needs of the Allies to fully concentrate all resources on the Western Front to achieve a decisive result. Had the plan succeeded, Russia could have been materially assisted via the Black Sea ports instead of just via the north, in effect close to the action on the southern flank where Russia has won success. Such support at the time may gone further by staving off the collapse of the Tsarist regime that so altered the world. That of course is a case of if’s, but’s and maybe’s, but there is little doubt that up to that time Russia had been a significant factor in diverting enough German/Austrian resources to prevent Allied defeat on the West. Of course it was the German decision to fight on two fronts, that they did so meant the German High Command could not fully exploit its early successes in the west, the fine delaying defensive actions by the British Army at Mons and the later combined French and British counter at the Marne would never had come about if the full weight of the German Army had been available. In essence we would have lost.

    So to Gallipoli. Having successfully landed, tardy movement to take the high ground by the Allied forces saw their forces trapped in very poor circumstances thanks to speedy Turkish response and redeployment, the master stroke that should have rectified the situation, the landing at Suvla Bay, simply repeated the mistake by once again making no effort to rapidly move inland to take the high ground. The only good thing about Gallipoli was the withdrawal.

  • Brian Swisher

    OTOH, if l’affaire Goeben and the fallout therefrom hadn’t been so grievously mishandled, there never would have been a need to force the Turkish Straits…

  • Not an expert, but if the Aussie film on Gallipoli is to be believed, the operation was not helped by the incompetence and lack of imagination of the senior officers involved.

    I’d not be looking to Australian anything for an accurate description of Gallipoli.

  • Rich Rostrom

    Tim Newman @February 28, 2015 at 8:36 pm:

    I’d not be looking to Australian anything for an accurate description of Gallipoli.

    Australian commentary can be very accurate – the Australians were very important participants and have lots of the official records. But it is not going to be impartial.

  • Well, most Australians seem unaware that British soliders took part in Gallipoli, let alone suffered losses well beyond their own. And I’d hardly be looking to a Mel Gibson film for accuracy.

  • Tedd

    About the best that can be said for Gallipoli is what would they have said had it never been tried?

    This is colloquially known in the military as the line between hero and zero.

  • Regional

    There were Brits, Fogs and Bogans/Kiwis at Gallipoli and all suffered appalling loses. Tardy is not the word for it, one Brit battalion even stopped for morning tea with tables laid out with white table cloth and silver tea service.

  • NickM
    February 28, 2015 at 3:05 pm

    The deal is that on the day of the landing there were no troops manning the choke point. Had the general(s) on the scene pushed on they could have been past the choke point before the Turks reacted.

    Bad intel you say? That is what skirmish lines were invented for.

    Well hind sight and all that.

    And no effect on the main action? What if the Germans had decided they needed 5 or 10 divisions to stiffen the Turks (ala Italy in WW2).

    And if taking out Turkey was of no use how do you explain Allenby?

  • NickM,

    Of course the Italian front wasn’t a cake walk. Now what if those German troops had been available in Europe on D-day? Suppose Kesselring had been available?

  • Regional

    The Dash For Rome allowed nearly 500,000 German troops to withdraw to Germany likewise the Dash for Paris allowed nearly 500,000 Germans to withdraw back to Germany.
    The Eastern Front in WW1 stopped nearly 500,000 German troops being deployed to the Western Front.

  • If you go to the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, you will get a very accurate and nuanced picture of what went on at Gallipoli. It’s a splendid museum, and the historians and researchers who work for it are outstanding and meticulous. The Australian “folk view” of what went on at Gallipoli does have some differences from reality, though, and the cartoonish view of the British officers is certainly part of this. And I am not sure that i would look for historical accuracy in a popular movie made by anyone about anything.

    When I went to Gallipoli, the Turkish tour guide had a different perspective on the Allied withdrawal than the one that is normally presented to Australians and Brits. His view was essentially that “Well, of course the Turks knew that the Allies were withdrawing. How could it be possible that so many men could withdraw without an opposing army only a short distance away knowing what was going on. However, we saw our enemy as honourable, and attacking them when they were withdrawing would be akin to shooting someone in the back”. The Turks therefore prefer an interpretation in which their intelligence was better and in which they behaved in a way that could be perceived as honourable.

  • David

    Well, most Australians seem unaware that British soliders took part in Gallipoli, let alone suffered losses well beyond their own

    I’d disagree with that. Australians with a military background or an interest in our military history know full well that we and the Kiwis were not the only ones thrown upon the altar of military stupidity.

    Churchill does not hold a high place in Australian memory. My grandfather who fought at Gallipoli in the 1st AIF and subsequently in France despised him for the waste of Allied life from an ill conceived and ill executed operation.

  • thefrollickingmole

    One 360 tonne ship defeated the combined might of the French and British navies.
    “On that day, the combined Allied fleet, now under the command of Admiral de Robeck, tried to force the straits. However, this renewed attack by sixteen Allied battleships plus many other smaller vessels turned out to be a dramatic failure, mainly due to the unsuspected drifting mines laid by the Turkish minelayer Nusrat, commanded by Maj. Tophaneli Hakkı Bey. The mines were laid there ten days ago. The diary entry of Maj. Nazmi Bey, Nusrat’s mining officer, for March 8, 1915, was as follows: “Upon the order received, at 05:30 in the morning Nusrat established a line of 26 carbonic mines between Paleokastro and Erenköy coast and safely returned home. No enemy was sighted. Mines are laid at a depth of 4.5 meters with intervals of 100-150 meters. There has been light bombardment from enemy fortifications.”
    “Nusrat had changed the course of the war. Five Allied warships were sunk or disabled by mines on March 18. These were the British Inflexible, Irresistible and Ocean; and the French Bouvet and Gaulois. Furthermore, the Allies lost two destroyers and seven mine sweepers. Their total human loss was 1,273 dead and 647 wounded against a Turkish casualty toll of 124 dead. After this failure, the Allies gave up the idea of forcing the Dardanelles only with naval force.”

    Amazing little ship, its still preserved as a floating museum I believe.

    There is some old footage of one of the balleships going down in seconds after it strikes the mine, cant seem to spot it on youtube though. Horrible, the whle ship just spears itself underwater by the bow.

    With the benefit of hindsight I still think it was a reasonable idea, badly executed. The Austro-Hungarian empire was bad enough to have its teeth kicked in by the Russians so an attack on the 2 wobbliest supporters of the Germans should have been a no-brainer.

  • PeterT

    Churchill diverted troops from Egypt to Greece just as the Italians were on the backfoot in Libya. Greece was a disaster for the UK (although a Pyrrhic victory for the Germans, at least in Crete) and the decision also allowed Rommel to arrive in Libya to recommence fighting the Brits in North Africa. BTW, Australians and New Zealanders were very important in this theatre of war.

    I am currently reading ‘blood, tears and folly’ by Len Deighton. It is a history of WW2 with a focus on the machinery of war. Highly readable. One of the comments on the back page says, ‘he has a novelist’s eye for the sort of facts that bring a narrative to life’. I find that very apt.

  • PersonFromPorlock

    Out of curiousity, can anyone name a major war (in modern times) where the first year hasn’t been spent discovering how incompetent the senior staff are?

  • Alsadius

    I generally side with the “good idea, poorly executed” side. If it’d been launched with some real celerity, it would have succeeded. If it had been held back and planned out properly, it would have succeeded. But throwing bits and pieces in for a year without any plan or motivation was rank insanity, and doomed to fail.

    Imagine if the Allies had taken the same amount of force that was eventually used in the Gallipoli campaign, and landed it all at once, before the Turks could call up hundreds of thousands of reinforcements into the area. Bluff an attack on some other coastal target – Churchill mentions Alexandretta as a good secondary choice – and then drop off a few divisions one morning. It wasn’t Omaha Beach over there, the defences were poor and thinly manned. They could have gotten ashore easily and turned all those great defensive positions to their advantage. Take the peninsula, and you can supply it indefinitely – heck, worst case you can tie up half the Turkish army attacking down a narrow isthmus, and unload all the troops to attack somewhere else.

  • Mr Ed

    Out of curiousity, can anyone name a major war (in modern times) where the first year hasn’t been spent discovering how incompetent the senior staff are?

    The Six Day War? (Well, on one side).

  • Out of curiousity, can anyone name a major war (in modern times) where the first year hasn’t been spent discovering how incompetent the senior staff are?

    Probably the Korean War. General Walker was by no means in incompetent, ditto MacArthur.

  • To state the obvious, in the case of the Korean war there had already been ample previous opportunities to discover who the competent generals were.

  • JohnK

    The diary entry of Maj. Nazmi Bey, Nusrat’s mining officer, for March 8, 1915, was as follows: “Upon the order received, at 05:30 in the morning Nusrat established a line of 26 carbonic mines between Paleokastro and Erenköy coast and safely returned home. No enemy was sighted. Mines are laid at a depth of 4.5 meters with intervals of 100-150 meters. There has been light bombardment from enemy fortifications.”

    I wonder if the Turks were using the metric system before WWI, or has this diary entry been updated?

    Be that as it may, the point to note is the small number of mines laid, just 26. Allied minesweepers could not operate because of the artillery fire from Turkish positions, which the pre-Dreadnought battleships had difficulty engaging. However, I have read that the Turks had almost run out of ammunition for their artillery, and were resigned to defeat when the allied fleet returned, except it did not return. This is perhaps one of the few occasions in the Great War when “one more push” would have been successful, but it did not happen. Losing five battleships in a day was too much for the Anglo-British fleet to take, and they could not risk losing another five the next day.

    Forcing the Dardanelles and knocking Turkey out of the war would have transformed the situation on the Eastern Front. Materiel from Britain and France could have kept Russia in the war, and transformed the situation. Churchill’s strategic vision was sound, but the execution of it was lamentable.

  • […] and knock the Ottoman Empire out of the war alone. Repington thought – or at least, I think he thought – that this was […]