World War I's 'D-Day' Disaster: The Gallipoli Tragedy

April 29, 2015 Topic: History Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: World War IGallipoliGallipoli Anniversary

World War I's 'D-Day' Disaster: The Gallipoli Tragedy

Although Gallipoli was fought with WWI-era weaponry upon a radically different map of the world, the ideas that drove it to folly do not belong to a particular time or place.

Things got worse. Because Entente forces only occupied a sliver of land, they were perpetually in range of Turkish artillery. There was no groundwater; all supplies had to be transported by sea. Water and food were extraordinarily scarce. There was little land available for latrine pits and no way to retrieve or bury the dead. Disease proved as dangerous as shellfire. By August, some 80 percent of ANZAC soldiers were incapacitated by dysentery. The battle became desperate. Men fought hand to hand through dark, interwoven tunnel networks. As soldiers were wounded or pushed past the brink, they would be rotated out, only to return to the meat grinder a few weeks later. Casualties would ultimately balloon to nearly 250,000 on each side.

Hamilton sought to break the stalemate in early August 1915 with a bold new landing attempt. The result was 25,000 additional casualties and complete loss of momentum within two days. By October, word arrived that the British government was considering a full evacuation. Hamilton angrily refused to countenance retreat, requesting more men and claiming that an evacuation would lead to a 50 percent casualty rate. He was relieved of command three days later. Hamilton’s replacement, Sir Charles Monro, began immediately planning an evacuation operation. That evacuation, concluded by January 9, 1916, would be the most successful leg of the entire campaign. 140,000 soldiers were saved, virtually without incident, all while deceiving 100,000 watchful Turks.

Not everyone agreed with the decision to withdraw. “He came, he saw, he capitulated,” grumbled Churchill of Monro. Churchill had been out of power since May, fired for his own part in Gallipoli.

Gallipoli’s Ghosts

In 1917, a special tribunal, the Dardenelles Commission, released its first assessment of the planning and conduct of the Gallipoli campaign. It censured Churchill and Hamilton, concluding that the operation’s planning had been rife with unsubstantiated assumptions; that “the difficulties of the operations were much underestimated.” Nonetheless, the consequences of Gallipoli would be borne mostly by its fighters and their families. These consequences would barely brush its architects.

Hamilton would enjoy a long and peaceful retirement in relatively high regard. Churchill, of course, would restore his political fortunes and shepherd his nation through a second world war just twenty years later. The successful D-Day landing of June 6, 1944—what remains the largest amphibious landing in history—would owe much to the bloody lessons learned at Gallipoli. It was a strange twist of history that Churchill would play a pivotal role in both operations.

Much has been written about the bravery of the British, French, and ANZAC soldiers who struggled for eight months through Gallipoli’s unforgiving terrain. It is also important, amid solemn memorials for Gallipoli’s fallen, to reflect on the campaign’s other legacy: that of widespread strategic and operational failure, characterized by intellectual complacency and contributing to one of the most preventable defeats in British military history.

Although Gallipoli was fought with WWI-era weaponry upon a radically different map of the world, the ideas that drove it to folly do not belong to a particular time or place. In 2015’s age of global strike and networked adversaries, defense planners are just as susceptible to the dangers of confirmation bias, myopia, assumption, political pressure, and underestimation of the enemy as they were a century ago. Overwhelming strength, technology, and noble intention are no replacement for basic facts and planning. They were not in 1915; they are not today.

This piece was first posted in CFR's Blog Defense in Depth here

Image: Creative Commons 3.0.