Today marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Gallipoli campaign—ANZAC Day in Australia and New Zealand, since they provided the bulk of the troops for this ill-fated venture that became known as “Churchill’s Folly.” Anyone who has seen the early Mel Gibson film, Gallipoli, will know that the operation ended up with the same kind of trench warfare and appalling slaughter that characterized the Western Front. The British eventually withdrew from Gallipoli eight months later, after suffering enormous losses.
The Dardanelles became synonymous with fiasco and recklessness. It was this outcome that dogged Churchill for the rest of his life, and still clouds his reputation today. Australia’s official military historian, C.E.W. Bean, wrote that “Through the fatal power of a young enthusiast to convince older and slower brains, the tragedy of Gallipoli was born.” British historian Robert Rhodes James, in a paraphrase of Churchill’s own ill-chosen words about the matter, wrote that the Dardanelles offensive was a “wholly illegitimate war gamble.”
But these widespread judgments are not fair, because the land invasion of 100 years ago was not Churchill’s original idea. What went wrong? How had a purely naval operation with such promise and signs of early success become another exercise in “chewing barbed-wire”?
Historians and military experts will argue forever about whether the Dardanelles idea was sound or about whether the original design of a purely naval attack was properly executed by the naval commanders on the spot. The War Council met 15 times on this issue between November 1914 and mid-March of 1915, when the initial plan for a purely naval attack was abandoned in favor of an amphibious landing. Throughout this series of meetings, the War Council went back and forth about whether to commit to a purely naval attack (“by ships alone”) or whether to mount a combined offensive with an amphibious landing of army troops on the Gallipoli peninsula to back up the naval attack. At the first meeting where the idea was discussed, on November 25, 1914 (just four months into the war), Churchill had favored the idea of a combined operation. Churchill’s First Sea Lord, Lord Fisher, was enthusiastically in favor of a combined attack on Turkey. However, both Prime Minister Asquith and Lord Herbert Kitchener, who, as Secretary of State for War, headed the army, opposed the idea. Kitchener said there were no troops available for such an operation. Kitchener suggested to Churchill a few days later that perhaps a naval “demonstration” could be made against the Turkish forts. This, in part, prompted Churchill’s query to Admiral Carden about whether an attack “by ships alone” might be able to get through.
For the next two meetings, the War Council seemed to be heading toward a commitment for the purely naval attack, which had the virtue of being able to be discontinued immediately and at relatively little cost if it proved unsuccessful. But then in the fourth meeting, Lord Kitchener seemed to change his mind, suggesting that 150,000 troops might be found for an invasion at the Dardanelles. He had not, however, studied the idea with any thoroughness. Five days later, Kitchener changed his mind again and said that no troops were available. At the sixth meeting of the War Council two weeks after that, Kitchener further confused the deliberations by suggesting that the reserve 29th Division might be available for an offensive in the eastern theater, but at Salonica (on the Turkish mainland) and not at the Dardanelles. Meanwhile First Sea Lord Fisher was changing his mind on the subject, first opposing the purely naval attack, and then later adopting the idea “whole hog—totus porcus,” as he put it. (He would later change his mind back again, and his resignation would set in motion the chain of events that led to Churchill’s ouster from the Admiralty.) Over the course of the next three War Council meetings, the decision was tentatively made to send the 29th Division to the Dardanelles for a combined operation. “You get through [with the navy],” Kitchener told Churchill, “I will find the men.” Then, at the next War Council meeting just three days later, Kitchener changed his mind yet again, and said the 29th Division was not available. For this and the next two meetings the War Council argued back and forth, with Churchill and others pleading with Kitchener for the troops. Each meeting postponed a decision about the 29th Division until a further meeting. During this interlude, Kitchener canceled transport preparations for the 29th Division without informing Churchill, whose responsibility it was to oversee. Finally, at the 13th meeting of the War Council on March 10, Kitchener agreed to release the 29th Division for the Dardanelles. But this was barely a week before the navy’s attack was to be launched, and no plans had been made for landing the troops.
Amidst this indecision and divided counsel, it is not surprising that the naval commanders on the spot lost their nerve when the attack of March 18 resulted in heavy losses. (Churchill came to refer to Admiral De Robeck, the commander of the fleet on the scene, as “De Rowback.”) Even though intelligence at the time (which was subsequently confirmed as accurate) suggested that the naval attack came within a hair of success, and that an immediately renewed attack would almost surely succeed with minimal further loss, the naval attack was broken off to await the arrival of the army almost a month later. Churchill had wanted to press on with the naval attack, but lacked the authority to decide the matter. The naval operation would give way to an army invasion, and therefore pass largely out of Churchill’s ambit. But this would take more than a month to set in motion. By this time British intentions were transparent, and the delay enabled the Turks to reinforce the Gallipoli peninsula, thus setting the stage for another costly trench warfare stalemate. A quicker decision about the idea might have changed everything. Instead, the Allies suffered 252,000 casualties at Gallipoli over the next eight futile months. Throughout the summer and fall the War Council was indecisive and tentative about whether to end the operation, going back and forth once again about whether to continue or end the operation. “The Dardanelles has run on like a Greek tragedy,” Churchill wrote several months after.
The unfolding disaster was becoming evident in May 1915 when, as a result of a growing political crisis, Churchill was dismissed from the Admiralty and a new coalition government under Asquith was formed. Even though the Dardanelles idea had not been his alone, Churchill quickly became the scapegoat for the debacle. “History will vindicate the conception and the errors in execution will on the whole leave me clear,” he wrote.
The essential strategic soundness of the Dardanelles offensive has come to be more deeply appreciated as the decades have passed. Basil Liddell-Hart described the Dardanelles as “a sound and far-sighted conception, marred by a chain of errors in execution almost unrivaled even in British history.” It presents one of the great “what ifs” of history. Had Turkey been knocked out early, and the war ended sooner, perhaps the Bolshevik revolution would never have taken place. Perhaps Hitler would never have risen to power. These kinds of questions can never be answered, and it is perhaps frivolous even to indulge them. But it is a tribute to Churchill’s insight that nearly 50 years after the episode, Clement Attlee, who was Churchill’s great opponent in the Labour Party (it was Attlee who defeated Churchill in the election of 1945), remarked to Churchill that the Dardanelles operation was “the only imaginative strategic idea of the war. I only wish that you had had full power to carry it to success.”