Peter Hart Military Historian
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SO WHY HAVE I WRITTEN ANOTHER BOOK ON GALLIPOLI? The best answer is that I wanted to! I still had lots to say, material I wanted to share and arguments I wanted to air in public. My publishers gave me the opportunity, waved a reasonable cheque at me and I couldn't resist the chance - be honest who could?
The underlying frustration is that Gallipoli is still often touted as a panacea to all the problems encountered by the British Army on the Western Front. I wanted to show just how lunatic the whole concept of the campaign was. Winston Churchill, the individual who most responsible for the attack on the Gallipoli Peninsula in 1915, was the same man who cared little as to how the Turks would react when he ‘stole’ their battleships from them in August 1914. Yet, when Turkey joined the German side, Churchill suddenly found it vital to knock them out; indeed he came to believe that the whole secret of beating the Central Powers lay in knocking Turkey out of the war. But he and the other the ‘Easterners’ were totally and utterly wrong in their dangerous fantasies. The war against Turkey was arguably an unnecessary consequence of Churchill's buffoonery at the Admiralty and secondly it was an irrelevance to the real battle being fought with Imperial Germany on the Western and Eastern Fronts. Gallipoli was just one of a series of military adventures seeking an ‘easier’ route to victory launched in 1915. Of these Gallipoli was surely the most doomed, the most pointless. Apologists for the campaign have pointed to the benefits of knocking Turkey out of the war, thereby removing one of the Central Powers ‘propping’ up Germany and influencing the wavering Balkan states into joining the Allies. It is claimed that pressure would thereby be released from Russia, while the opening of the sea route to the South Russian ports in the Black Sea would allow the export of desperately needed munitions to feed the Russian guns on the Eastern Front. This is sheer nonsense.
Germany would never be beaten by an ill-conceived adventure launched against Turkey. There was no backdoor to Germany; no easy route to victory, no Allies that propped her up, the removal of which could trigger a sudden collapse. Germany operated on interior lines of communications and even in the event of a Turkish defeat would merely have rushed reinforcements to the Austrians to make the Balkan mountain ranges all but impregnable. The Balkan states were never going to act together in support of either side: to be a friend to one was to be the enemy of another. There were no guns or munitions to export to Russia and German submarines lay in wait should by some miracle Russia arrange large scale exports of foodstuffs to Britain. The 'Easterners' great strategic concept for the Great War was just bloody stupid.
If Germany was to be defeated, then better by far on the Western Front where the British and French could fight side by side and with a minimum of logistical problems. Britain had to fight the war as it was; not how visionaries dreamt it might be. Germany was encamped in France, occupying a good part of the industrial heartland, with armies poised ready to strike at the French capital and to seize the Channel ports. Germany had managed to grab the initiative and the realities of Alliance warfare meant that Britain could not just abandon France to her fate whilst pursuing quixotic adventures in the Middle East. The defeat of France would recast the map of Europe for a generation or more. To any British statesman worth his salt it was axiomatic that no one country could be allowed to secure hegemony over Europe. And it was equally crucial to prevent Germany from gaining control of the Channel ports which would raise the spectre of an invasion of Britain. Above all the 'Easterners' forgot the sound principle of war that in order to achieve worthwhile success you need to concentrate on the main enemy on the main front.
From the British perspective few military operations can have ever begun with such a cavalier disregard of the elementary principles of war: Gallipoli was a campaign driven by wish-fulfilment rather than a professional assessment of the strategy and tactics required. Right from the beginning it was a distraction from what should have been the main business of the war: concentrating scarce military resources on defeating the Germans. Surprise is usually crucial to a successful campaign, but at a strategic level this was meekly surrendered by allowing small scale naval attacks months before the main assault, while any brief tactical possibilities were dissipated by plans that failed to focus sufficient force to secure any significant objective whilst carrying out the first contested landings against modern weapons systems in the whole history of warfare. Logistical incoherence was guaranteed by the decision to try and wage a major campaign thousands of miles away from Britain without either the resources of the infra-structure that were necessary. Then again the British units sent out to fight were for the most part only half-trained, lacking in any experience of modern combat and poorly led; in sharp contrast to the better trained, battle-hardened and well-led Turks. This truly was a disaster in the making.
Crucial to understanding of the failure at Gallipoli is that the Turks were facing the British Army of 1915. The military technology, staff work, logistics, weaponry and tactics at Hamilton’s disposal were totally inadequate for the task at hand. It is plain that there were simply not enough guns at Gallipoli for the Allies to have any chance against Turkish troops once they were well dug in, with barbed wire, machine guns and artillery support. It was a campaign that to have succeeded needed hundreds of guns that did not exist, fired by gunners not yet trained, using complex artillery techniques that had not been invented, firing hundreds of thousands of shells as yet not manufactured. It required infantry tactics not yet painfully developed in the heat of battle and support weapons not yet imagined. It needed a logistical infra-structure that did not and probably never could exist in the eastern Mediterranean. It needed an experienced body of general and staff officers operating in a coherent fashion at all levels from army, right through the corps, divisions and down to the brigades who could analyse any prospective operations for practicality and pitfalls before issuing the orders in good time to allow lower echelons to carry out their own operational planning.
But it was 1915. Gallipoli shared the failings of every campaign launched in that benighted year. Indeed it provided a checklist of the defining characteristics common to the other British ‘Easterner’ military adventures in Mesopotamia, Salonika and East Africa in 1915: a lack of realistic goals, no coherent plan, the use of inexperienced troops, a failure to comprehend or properly disseminate maps and intelligence, negligible artillery support, totally inadequate logistical and medical arrangements, a gross underestimation of the enemy, easily disrupted communications, incompetent local commanders and all overlaid with lashings of misplaced over-confidence leading to inexorable disaster. Gallipoli was damned before it started, every day merely prolonged the agony and it ended in such a level of catastrophe that it could only be disguised then - and ever since - by the vainglorious blustering of Churchill and his acolytes.
A further intention in writing Gallipoli was a desire to rebalance the history of the campaign. You wouldn't think it, but Gallipoli was a truly international campaign that involved a multi-national Allied task force of British, French, Australian, New Zealand and Indian troops. In particular I wanted to emphasise the role of the French - indeed there is a very real argument that they were the most effective fighting unit at Gallipoli. Well trained and supported by a sufficiency of artillery batteries armed with the highly regarded 75mm guns, they proved a formidable fighting force. But they were cruelly hamstrung in their efforts on the right flank at Helles by the threat of flanking fire from the Asiatic coast just across the Dardanelles combined to lethal effect with the terrible ground configuration that thwarted their efforts in the Kereves Dere sector. In contrast to the British, the French have always rather ignored the campaign : to them it was always a British affair. Their more pressing concerns were rather closer to home and while their losses at Gallipoli were painful, they were dwarfed by the incredible casualties they suffered on the Western Front. Perhaps one day French historians will re-evaluate their role at Gallipoli; one can only hope so.
I also wanted to kick about some of the potent myths relating to Gallipoli. First of these is the construct of Australian and New Zealand popular opinion that places their two nations firmly at the centre of the campaign and at times ignores the contributions of the British, French and Indian troops. The reality is the ANZAC Corps played a very important, but secondary role. The total British and French forces were much larger, the main effort was firmly centred at Helles, and only with the August Offensive did the emphasis shift to Anzac and Suvla. Even then the larger British numerical contribution was manifest. Overall the campaign involved nearly half a million troops across the eight month campaign of which 410,000 were from the British Empire with a further 79,000 from France and her North African colonies. Of these the British Empire lost 205,000 (115,000 killed, wounded and missing; 90,000 evacuated sick) while the French had 47,000 casualties (approximately 27,000 killed wounded and missing with some 20,000 evacuated sick). This compares with the 251,309 Turkish casualties (186,869 killed, wounded and missing; 64,440 evacuated sick). Of the dead it seems the British themselves lost 29,134, the French approximately 9,800, the Australians 8,520, New Zealanders, 2,806 and the Indians, 1,891. Within this all-consuming bedlam the real significance of the ANZAC Corps involvement in the Gallipoli campaign was not in its actual achievements in battle as an inexperienced formation. After all in the end the Turks won the day in 1915. Rather it lay in the development of a powerful spirit of comradeship, a determination in battle and a growing military competence which would help create a burgeoning sense of nationhood in both Australia and New Zealand. This would be the real legacy of Anzac Cove.
The underlying British myth has always been more pernicious, a far more dangerous construct riddled with self-delusion and the kind of boastful assumption of racial superiority that had been responsible for the Gallipoli disaster in the first place. The landings of the 29th Division and the ANZAC Corps have been hailed as a military achievement of the highest order. Much is made of numerous Turkish machine guns, the streams of lead, heroism beyond measure and of struggles against almost insuperable odds. Their heroism is undeniable: but at Helles and Anzac on 25 April the insuperable odds were faced by the Turks not the British. It may have been the first landing to be made in the face of modern weapons, but the British could hardly have done worse; or indeed the Turks much better, on 25 April. Throughout the campaign the British over-exaggerated the numerical strength and machine guns of the opposition while simultaneously underestimating the collective military skill and resolve of the Turkish soldiers. Mistakes were made at every level of command at Gallipoli: operational planning was woeful and any localised tactical opportunities that flittered before them were routinely missed. This endemic military incompetence at command and staff level was then lethally combined with troops that had little or no experience of modern warfare in 1915. The lesson was clear to those who would heed it – raw courage was not enough to combat bolt-action rifles, machine guns, trench systems, barbed wire and above all artillery. Amateurism was doomed and the British Army needed a more professional approach if it was to triumph in the Great War.
Yet we must also beware the potent Turkish mythology which is centred on their successes at Gallipoli and seeks to forget the dénouement of the wider hostilities. For in the longer term the Turks comprehensively lost the war and had been totally defeated when they surrendered on 30 October 1918. There was even a second, totally unopposed and now forgotten, landing of British troops at V Beach on 10 November. By the end of 1918 all those potent symbols of Turkish resistance: Krithia, Achi Baba, Third Ridge, Chunuk Bair, the Kilid Bahr Plateau, the Narrows forts and even Constantinople itself, were all under the iron grip of the Allies. The French were back in occupation of Sedd el Bahr and a British Division was encamped in the plain adjoining Maidos. That was the real result of the war - Allied victory and total Turkish defeat.
In the end Gallipoli was just a small staging post, one of many, in a global conflict that would ultimately be decided on the Western Front. By diverting resources to Gallipoli the Allies not only exposed themselves to a greater possibility of a catastrophic defeat by the Germans, but also allowed the Turks to soundly thrash them with negative consequences for British standing across the Islamic world – the very result that Kitchener for one dreaded. The military operations achieved little other than to give the Turks the opportunity to kill, wound and expose to widespread sickness those hundreds of thousands of British and French soldiers. Beating the Turks would have had no impact whatsoever if the Germans had triumphed elsewhere.
Peter Hart 29 January 2011
Gallipoli will be published on 2 February 2011. The price is £17.50 on Amazon UK