Gallipoli Peninsula 1915: Failure is an Orphan

Gallipoli Peninsula 1915: Failure is an Orphan

Excerpt­ed from “The World Cri­sis (5)” on the Gal­lipoli Penin­su­la land­ings, writ­ten for the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project. For the orig­i­nal arti­cle with more images and end­notes, click here. To sub­scribe to week­ly arti­cles from Hills­dale-Churchill, click here, scroll to bot­tom, and enter your email in the box “Stay in touch with us.” We nev­er spam you and your iden­ti­ty remains a rid­dle wrapped in a mys­tery inside an enigma.

Hillsdale Dialogues: The World Crisis

The Hills­dale Dia­logues are week­ly broad­casts of dis­cus­sions between Hills­dale Col­lege Pres­i­dent Lar­ry P. Arnn and com­men­ta­tor Hugh Hewitt. In 2023-24 they dis­cuss Churchill’s The World Cri­sis, his clas­sic mem­oir of the First World War. This essay address­es the oper­a­tions on the Gal­lipoli Penin­su­la. To search for all World Cri­sis essays pub­lished to date, click here. For the accom­pa­ny­ing audio dis­cus­sion, refer to World Cri­sis World Cri­sis Dia­logue 17, Fail­ure at the Dar­d­anelles and Gal­lipoli —RML

Approach­ing the 80th Anniver­sary of D-Day, we may reflect on an ear­li­er seaborne expe­di­tion. The attempts to force the Dar­d­anelles, and the opposed land­ing on Gal­lipoli, were abject fail­ures. But many lessons were learned, not least by Win­ston Churchill. Con­tin­ued from “Dar­d­anelles Straits, 1915.”

Gal­lipoli Penin­su­la and the Dar­d­anelles, 1915. (Wiki­me­dia Commons)

Auspicious beginnings

Churchill’s hopes for Greek or Russ­ian troop sup­port had not mate­ri­al­ized. Giv­en Asquith’s dec­la­ra­tion to “take” the Penin­su­la, Churchill log­i­cal­ly asked whether there should army as well as navy action.

Again the War Min­is­ter, Lord Kitch­en­er, insist­ed that no British land forces be used. Churchill asked for his dis­sent to be record­ed. The Cab­i­net agreed to a pure­ly naval attack. There was to be a “feint” at the Penin­su­la, but no actu­al landings.

The Anglo-French naval force began bom­bard­ing the out­er forts of the Dar­d­anelles on 19 Feb­ru­ary 1915. As Churchill expect­ed, those forts were silenced and the entrance cleared of mines in less than a week. Marines land­ed to destroy the guns at Kum Kale (Asi­at­ic north coast) and Sedd el Bahr (Gal­lipoli Penin­su­la), while ships’ guns trained fur­ther in toward Kephez.

Some Turk­ish bat­ter­ies were mobile. They evad­ed the fleet’s guns and fired at a mot­ley assort­ment of minesweep­ers manned by civil­ians (a bad mis­take by the Admi­ral­ty). Still, as late as 4 March Admi­ral Sackville Car­den, com­mand­ing, said his fleet would arrive off Con­stan­tino­ple in as lit­tle as two weeks.

“Admiral de Row-back” 

Short­ly after Carden’s opti­mistic fore­cast he fell ill, and resigned on March 15th. He was replaced by Admi­ral John de Robeck, who sailed into the straits on the 18 March. For awhile it was look­ing good. Eigh­teen bat­tle­ships, with cruis­er and destroy­er sup­port and minesweep­ers in the van, advanced to mid­way through the nar­row­est part of the straits, bare­ly a mile wide. By 2 pm, accord­ing to the Turk­ish Gen­er­al Staff, “artillery fire of the defence had slack­ened considerably.”

Then mis­for­tune struck. Mines sank the French bat­tle­ship Bou­vet and dam­aged three old­er British bat­tle­ships. Some 650 sailors perished.

Oth­er ves­sels were dam­aged, and the civil­ian minesweep­er crews were ter­ri­fied. Admi­ral de Robeck, believ­ing he could not sus­tain fur­ther loss­es, issued a gen­er­al recall.

Churchill was furi­ous. In his orig­i­nal query to Car­den he had empha­sized: “Impor­tance of results would jus­ti­fy severe loss.” Angri­ly he denounced the com­man­der as “Admi­ral de Row-back.” But First Sea Lord Admi­ral Lord Fish­er sup­port­ed de Robeck and the fleet was with­drawn. It was nev­er to return.

Peninsula landings

Churchill nev­er gave up his belief that the Dar­d­anelles could have been forced by a renewed attack. But Asquith and the cab­i­net blinked. Those fer­vent desk-war­riors, once so san­guine about the Dar­d­anelles, were sud­den­ly timid. The naval attack, they decid­ed, must not be renewed with­out a land­ing on the Gal­lipoli Peninsula—which Asquith had tar­get­ed with­out com­mit­ting troops.

Churchill could not over­rule his naval advi­sors or admirals—let alone Asquith and the Cab­i­net. Their atten­tion was now on a plan for which Churchill was not respon­si­ble: an army assault on the Peninsula.

Land­ings began at the end of April, ulti­mate­ly gain­ing lit­tle more than a foothold. In view of the dis­pro­por­tion­ate num­bers often bandied about, the nation­al­i­ty of those brave sol­diers needs enu­mer­a­tion. There were over 450,000 British (includ­ing Indi­ans and New­found­lan­ders) 80,000 French. Added to these were 50,000 Aus­tralians and about 15,000 New Zealan­ders. The Turks mus­tered 315,000. Casu­al­ties and loss­es were hor­rif­ic: 250,000 among the Allies, a larg­er num­ber of Turks.

“Queens­lan­der,” 16 years on: Aus­tralians remem­ber. (Wiki­me­dia Commons)

“Mortal folly done and said”…

Gen­er­al Sir Ian Hamil­ton, com­mand­ing the Penin­su­la assault, plead­ed in vain for Kitch­en­er to send more artillery and bet­ter trained, reg­u­lar army troops.

So many died unnec­es­sar­i­ly that Churchill has come in for grave blame, espe­cial­ly in Aus­tralia and New Zealand. It is hard to under­stand this, since did not plan or direct the land­ing. Almost from the start of the war, he had cast around for ways to avoid using British and Empire ground forces in the Penin­su­la assault.

Nor was Churchill the sole author and advo­cate of the naval attack. It had a long gen­e­sis, dat­ing back almost to the open­ing of the war, and was approved by high-lev­el author­i­ties up to Asquith and Kitchener.

Lord Fish­er, at first all for the expe­di­tion, became increas­ing­ly hos­tile, and final­ly resigned in mid-May 1915. That cost Churchill his posi­tion as First Lord of the Admi­ral­ty, as Asquith was now pur­su­ing a coali­tion gov­ern­ment with the Conservatives.

Churchill’s anguished, hand­writ­ten let­ters to Asquith “poured out his inner feel­ings with inten­si­ty, hold­ing back noth­ing, and risk­ing the deri­sion of the Prime Min­is­ter.” But the oppo­si­tion Tories were adamant. The price of coali­tion was the First Lord’s head.. This became obvi­ous when Asquith cal­lous­ly asked Churchill: “And what are we to do for you?”

The scapegoat

In his polit­i­cal inter­ests Churchill should have resigned after the Cab­i­net refused to renew the naval attack. A less­er man would have, but res­ig­na­tion wasn’t in his make­up. It is valid to fault Churchill for fail­ing to car­ry his First Sea Lord with him in advo­cat­ing a renewed naval effort. But that rais­es the ques­tion of whether bring­ing back old Admi­ral Fish­er was a good idea in the first place.

From the end of May to 12 Novem­ber 1915, Churchill held a mean­ing­less sinecure, Chan­cel­lor of the Duchy of Lan­cast­er. His only task was the appoint­ment of rur­al judges. Frus­trat­ed over the ongo­ing fias­co, he resigned in Novem­ber to join his reg­i­ment on the West­ern Front.

“Like a sea-beast fished up from the depths, or a div­er too sud­den­ly hoist­ed,” he wrote, “my veins threat­ened to burst from the fall in pres­sure. I had great anx­i­ety and no means of reliev­ing it; I had vehe­ment con­vic­tions and small pow­er to give effect to them.… I was forced to remain a spec­ta­tor of the tragedy, placed cru­el­ly in a front seat.”

His wife Clemen­tine had a more poignant remem­brance: “When he left the Admi­ral­ty he thought he was finished.…I thought he would nev­er get over the Dar­d­anelles; I thought he would die of grief.”

Retrospectives and what-ifs

Clement Attlee, who fought on the Penin­su­la and lat­er head­ed the 1945 Labour gov­ern­ment, said the Dar­d­anelles-Gal­lipoli oper­a­tion was “the only imag­i­na­tive con­cept of the war.”

His­to­ri­ans have long debat­ed Attlee’s view. Jef­fery Wallin, one of the few ear­ly authors to take Churchill’s side, argued that the con­cept was strate­gi­cal­ly sound and would have worked. When de Robeck broke off his attack, Wallin wrote, the Turk­ish forts were almost out ammunition.

Crit­ics coun­tered that the Turk­ish mobile bat­ter­ies made up for the loss of fixed can­non, cit­ing their effi­cien­cy against the minesweep­ers. But still oth­ers ques­tion how much ammu­ni­tion even the mobile bat­ter­ies had left. The minesweep­ers assigned were insuf­fi­cient, and should not have been crewed by civil­ians. That detail mis­take was the Admiralty’s, thus ulti­mate­ly Churchill’s.

A fur­ther ques­tion which has nev­er been answered is: What would have been the effect of the Allied fleet appear­ing, with guns trained, off Con­stan­tino­ple? Would Turkey have sur­ren­dered, as the British thought?

Christo­pher Har­mon wrote that “few ana­lysts, then or now, with the ben­e­fit of long hind­sight, com­mit them­selves to that assur­ance. Lord Kitch­en­er, in charge of the War Office, and Churchill, in charge of the Roy­al Navy, both said at var­i­ous times that ships alone could suf­fice. But at oth­er times, each thought otherwise.”

Failures of high command

The record sug­gests that the imme­di­ate fail­ures of the Dar­d­anelles and Gal­lipoli were owed to gross errors by the com­man­ders. De Robeck was wrong to break off the attack with four­teen of his eigh­teen bat­tle­ships intact and some about to pass through the nar­rows. Hamil­ton was fault­ed for land­ing troops on the Penin­su­la with uncer­tain objec­tives. Pro­fes­sor Har­mon summarizes:

Churchill cor­rect­ly under­stood the futil­i­ty of fur­ther offen­sives in the West until some new approach or tech­nol­o­gy could be ready. He was also cor­rect to want to devote the some­what inac­tive Roy­al Navy to this oper­a­tion; and with or with­out troops, he sup­pot­ed the naval campaign.

But Kitch­en­er, who offered, then with­held, then pro­vid­ed too late, the 29th Divi­sion from Egypt, made a sham­bles of Admi­ral­ty plans to trans­port the unit, and elim­i­nat­ed any chance of suf­fi­cient man­pow­er to sweep away the Turks…. He should have seen that noth­ing was more impor­tant than that this new expe­di­tion not fail, not embar­rass the Allies, and not waste pre­cious lives of trained men.

Inquiry and conclusions

In 1917 a Com­mis­sion of Inquiry into the Dar­d­anelles and Gal­lipoli oper­a­tions issued its pre­lim­i­nary report. Churchill, it con­clud­ed, was “car­ried away by his san­guine tem­pera­ment and his firm belief in the suc­cess of the oper­a­tion.” But its main crit­i­cism was of Asquith. The Prime Min­is­ter had held no War Coun­cil meet­ings from 19 March to 14 May. He fos­tered an “atmos­phere of vague­ness and want of precision.

Kitch­en­er “did not suf­fi­cient­ly avail him­self of the ser­vices of his Gen­er­al Staff, with the result that more work was under­tak­en by him than was pos­si­ble for one man to do, and con­fu­sion and want of effi­cien­cy result­ed.” Per­haps Kitch­en­er might not have escaped so light­ly, but he had become a mar­tyr, drown­ing on his way to Rus­sia in June 1916.

What a sto­ry! A prime min­is­ter unwill­ing to be prime; a war min­is­ter reluc­tant to make war; back­bit­ing among col­leagues; idle bab­ble to out­siders and the press; dai­ly changes of tune; dream­ing about unre­al­is­tic spoils of war; unwill­ing­ness to hear those who under­stood the real needs.

It doesn’t sound so far removed from the crit­i­cism now thrown at West­ern gov­ern­ments who have inher­it­ed the mis­takes of a gen­er­a­tion, and are expect­ed to mend them overnight.

More on Gallipoli

“Dar­d­anelles Straits, 1915: Suc­cess Has a Thou­sand Fathers,” 2024.

“Get Ready for Churchill’s Anti-Sesqui­cen­ten­ni­al,” 2024.

“Dar­d­anelles-Gal­lipoli Cen­te­nary,” 2015.

“Churchill’s Potent Polit­i­cal Nick­names: Admi­ral De Row-Back to Wuther­ing Height,” 2020.

Keara Gen­try, “Lessons of the Dar­d­anelles and Gal­lipoli,” Hills­dale Col­lege, 2024.

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