The Buzz

Breaking Down a Disaster: The Gallipoli Nightmare

The strategic origins of the Gallipoli operation are to be found in the determination of the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, to use the navy decisively to influence the war on land, in the willingness of the British War Council and many of its advisors to believe that sea power could achieve this end, and in an underestimation by all concerned on the determination with which the enemy (Turkey) would defend its homeland.

Churchill had taken up his post in 1911 to ensure that a reluctant navy complied with the plans of the army to escort an expeditionary force to France in the event of war. By September 1914 this feat had been accomplished (without the loss of a single soldier).

Naval units were then engaged in sweeping up small squadrons of German ships in distant seas, ensuring that vital supplies carried in unarmed merchant ships arrived safely in Britain and in maintaining offensive patrols in the North Sea to keep watch on the German fleet.

None of this proved very congenial to Churchill. His restless mind had been devising a series of more offensive operations for his ships since the war’s outbreak. Although his schemes were many and various they had one factor in common: they sought not just to defeat the German fleet but to use British naval power to shorten the duration of the land war.

By early 1915 the war was entering an indecisive phase. The German assault in the west had been stymied at the Marne; the Russian armies had suffered grievously at Tannenburg and the Masaurian Lakes but were still in the field; French operations against Germany, Austrian operations against Serbia and Turkish operations against Egypt had collapsed almost at inception.

And these setbacks to the armed forces of the major powers had been accompanied by some ominous developments. Small groups of soldiers in rudimentary defenses and armed only with repeating rifles had proved capable of stopping attacks by masses of infantrymen.

The appearance of trenches and a few machine guns reduced even further the chances of advancing troops. Stalemate started to enter the vocabularies of the general staff.

Politicians and strategists on all sides greeted this spectacle of war without end with alarm. On the British side three men brought forth new strategic conceptions which were designed to surmount the problem. If there was no way through the Western Front they reasoned, there must be a way around.

First in the field was Lloyd George. He considered that Germany’s allies should be attacked—Austria-Hungary by a force consisting of the Balkan states led by Britain and France landing on the Dalmatian coast and advancing on Vienna. In addition a landing should be made on the Syrian coast to cut off the Turkish Army in the vicinity of the Suez Canal, bringing Germany down by a process of ‘ knocking the props under her’.

Lieutenant-Colonel Maurice Hankey, an ex-marine and secretary of the War Council had also conjured up an alliance of Balkan states, including Greece and Bulgaria. He thought that with these states on board it might be possible ‘to weave a web round Turkey which shall end her career as a European Power’. If Roumania and Russia could be enticed into the coalition "the occupation of Constantinople, the Dardanelles and the Bosphorus" could be accomplished. Thus communications would be restored with Russia via the Black Sea. Three British army corps combined with the Balkan and Russian forces should be sufficient to achieve these ends.

The third person to dabble in grand strategy was Lord Fisher, First Sea Lord at the Admiralty and Churchill’s chief naval adviser. He advocated a gigantic war against Turkey involving a coalition of Balkan states, a Greek army landing on the Gallipoli Peninsula and the navy forcing the Dardanelles with squadrons of obsolete battleships appearing off Constantinople and compelling the surrender of the pro-German government.

At the same time that Churchill was being bombarded by "Turkey" memoranda from various quarters, other events were directing his thoughts towards the Dardanelles. On January 1 Britain’s ambassador in Russia had telegraphed to the Foreign Office that Grand Duke Nicholas had informed him that Russian forces were being hard pressed by the Turks in the Caucasus and had asked if "it would be possible for Lord Kitchener to arrange for a demonstration of some kind against the Turk elsewhere, either naval or military [to] ease the position of Russia."

Lord Kitchener, Secretary of State for War, asked Churchill for his opinion, making the point that "we have no troops to land anywhere" and enquiring whether a naval "demonstration" at the Dardanelles might be the most effective way of preventing more Turkish troops being sent east.

Following a meeting of the Admiralty War Group on 3 January a telegram sent was by Churchill to Admiral Sackville Carden, commanding the squadron off the Dardanelles. It said:

Do you consider the forcing of the Dardanelles by ships alone a practicable operation. It is assumed older Battleships fitted with minebumpers would be used preceded by Colliers or other merchant craft as bumpers and sweepers.

Importance of results would justify severe losses

Let me know your views.

On January 8 Carden’s plan for forcing the Dardanelles arrived. In truth it was not so much a plan as a list of the order in which the Dardanelles defenses would be attacked—starting with the outer forts and working towards the series of forts at the Narrows.