Gallipoli

Turkey, a European country once described as ‘the sick man of Europe’, decided to unite with the Central Powers in the First World War; by January, 1915, the Western Powers thought it might be prudent to kick Turkey right out of the War. There would be a combined operation of British and Commonwealth and friendly naval and land forces to do the job. By 19 February the Gallipoli Campaign had started.

Winston Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty at thirty-nine years of age; he was convinced that the military stalemate on the Western Front would not be broken without decisive action somewhere else. Gallipoli is the gateway to the Dardanelles, and therefore far enough away from the hopeless bloodbath in the Flanders mud. British and French battle fleets would destroy the Dardanelles defences; troops would then secure the Gallipoli peninsula. After this was successfully concluded the land forces would move on to Constantinople, later known as Istanbul. It was reckoned that with the fall of Turkey’s capital she would withdraw from the fighting.

It seems that the British were not as certain of victory as Churchill was, and they rather aimlessly slid into the amphibious operation without sufficient planning. Whose fault this was is uncertain, but Churchill was not popular, and some generals were loud in their criticism.

Any attempt at secrecy had been lost when an uncoordinated bombardment made in late 1914 assured the Turks their defences were weak. They did something about it, but even so the naval bombardment in February and March 1915 was partially successful, as the Turks discovered they had not enough shells for their guns. Sadly, British Intelligence failed to report on this and they made no attempt at this precise and crucial moment to force entry into the Dardanelles. He who hesitates is lost.

Three British capital ships were lost to sea mines, and three more put out of action. Military landings were nevertheless planned to support the Navy. At the end of April, nearly eighty thousand Australian and New Zealand troops (Anzacs) were put ashore on the Gallipoli peninsula at the same time as British invading soldiers. By some masterpiece of bad planning these three potent forces were unable to keep in touch with each other. The Anzacs had been landed at least a mile north of their proposed position and faced precipitous cliffs. Command suffered from mistakes, blunders and indecisive orders. The soldier who would later be Field Marshal Sir William Slim was there as a young officer; he later wrote that the Allied commanders at Gallipoli were the worst since the Crimean War (q.v.). The result was that both British and Anzac forces were pinned down by accurate and murderous fire. Of all things, trench warfare began (the Western Front had been bogged down by trench warfare) and would continue for twelve months.

Another landing was made at Suvla Bay in August. It was not contested but the British commander was incompetent and the Turks had time to bring up reinforcements. Meanwhile the Navy withdrew from the scene because of losses brought about by mines and the (then) novel use of submarines.

Back home in Britain the press led the strong resentment and opposition to the whole campaign. By December 1915 and January 1916 the allied forces were withdrawn, and this at least was successful. The Dardanelles had to be seen as a total failure. It smashed up the Liberal Government, and a coalition replaced it in which there was no place for Churchill. This was the moment for Bulgaria to decide to join the Central Powers, as Bulgarian leaders considered that Germany was winning the war.

Everybody decided to blame Churchill as responsible for the whole fiasco. He resigned from his post at the Admiralty and went off to command a battalion briefly in France. Then Lloyd George brought him back as Minister for Munitions. In the Russian Civil War (1918-21) he urged British intervention against the Bolsheviks, but was overruled. By then he had gained the unfriendly reputation of being a warmonger that stayed with him all his life, but the basic idea of the Dardanelles Campaign had been a good one ruined by bad planning, logistics and poor command.

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