With Constantinople as Its Objective

Richard Prior and Trevor Wilson

  • Lord Kitchener and Winston Churchill: The Dardanelles Commission Part I, 1914-15
    Stationery Office, 218 pp, £6.99, April 2000, ISBN 0 11 702423 6
  • Defeat at Gallipoli: The Dardanelles Commission Part II, 1915-16
    Stationery Office, 319 pp, £6.99, September 2000, ISBN 0 11 702455 4

In the course of 1915, British naval and military forces, assisted by units from France and the British dominions, sought to gain mastery of the Dardanelles and Gallipoli. Their ultimate object was to knock Germany’s ally Turkey out of the Great War. The operation was conducted in two phases. First, an attempt was made to rush a naval force through the Dardanelles to bombard or overawe Constantinople. Then a campaign was launched to seize the Gallipoli Peninsula in order to facilitate the progress of the fleet. Both actions failed comprehensively, and at the end of 1915 the whole costly undertaking was abandoned. In mid-1916 the House of Commons indicated its dismay by appointing a committee of inquiry. The committee reported early in 1917, and its reports have been reissued in these two paperbacks.

How important are the reports of the Dardanelles Commission to an understanding of the First World War? Britain was not primarily at war with Turkey, but with Germany. The Turks had become involved only because they shared Germany’s hostility to Russia. For the Western Allies, however, the war against the Kaiser had taken an unwelcome turn by the end of 1914. Although the German Army’s drive to Paris had been halted, it had not been pushed out of France, and the stalemate of trench-warfare had been reached. The means of ending the war were not obvious, and the cost in lives was already daunting.

Prominent figures in Britain began to contemplate the possibility of operations elsewhere – either striking at Germany in a different sector, or striking at one of Germany’s allies. One advocate of the search for an alternative to what he called ‘chewing barbed wire in Flanders’ was Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty, who in December 1914 began proposing schemes which bypassed the Western Front. None found favour, so he came up with a different idea, proposing to knock Turkey out of the war using just an elderly section of the British fleet. No military forces, and none of the vessels standing guard over Germany in the North Sea, would be required. Churchill planned to send his proposed naval force through the narrow waters of the Dardanelles, bringing Constantinople (and, by implication, the Turkish Empire) to its knees.

On 13 January 1915, Churchill presented his scheme for eliminating Turkey ‘by ships alone’ to the War Council, a group of leading Cabinet ministers and military advisers who met intermittently to discuss higher strategy. The Council endorsed the plan after only cursory discussion. In words so imprecise that they would become an object of mockery, it decided that: ‘The Admiralty should prepare for a naval expedition in February to bombard and take the Gallipoli Peninsula, with Constantinople as its objective.’ This decision, if hardly to the War Council’s credit, is less bizarre than it may seem. The Council had been considering the bleak strategic options confronting it in other theatres, and was not told that Churchill’s naval advisers were ambivalent about the scheme. Dismayed by the heavy casualties that further action on the Western Front was likely to generate, it entertained, as was common, inflated estimates of the extent to which Britain’s much vaunted sea power could influence what was fundamentally a land war. Easily gulled into believing that Turkey, for so long ‘the sick man of Europe’, would crumble before an attack from even a minor naval force, the Council was, above all, attracted by the notion that naval action against it would inspire the predominantly landlocked Balkan states to combine against Germany’s other ally, Austria-Hungary.

There was a further reason why the War Council endorsed the scheme: Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War, who was still regarded as a powerful authority on strategic matters, told them that if the undertaking did not prosper, it could be called off with nothing lost. Thus, on 19 February 1915 the naval force that had assembled in the eastern Mediterranean began the bombardment of the Dardanelles forts. The result seemed impressive. The outer forts – that is, those facing the open sea – were put out of action. This was not accomplished primarily by gunfire from the ships, however, but by landing parties of marines equipped with explosives.

The fleet then entered the Straits to destroy the forts there and move towards Constantinople. At this point, the essential flaws in the project became apparent. Turkish troops were now assembling on the Gallipoli Peninsula, making it impossible to put the marines ashore. Simultaneously, the obstacles to a naval passage of the Dardanelles became clear. Three interlocking elements of defence barred the way: the forts themselves; belts of mines in the Straits, without whose removal the British vessels could not proceed; and batteries of mobile howitzers hidden behind hills on either side of the Straits and practically invulnerable to the ships’ guns (which had a flat trajectory). These conditions meant that, even had an efficient minesweeping force been present (which was anything but the case), it would have found it very difficult to remove the mines. The ineptitude of the ‘ships alone’ scheme became obvious on 18 March 1915. Almost the entire naval force set out to overwhelm the Turkish guns and clear the mines by weight of shell and speed of action. Failure was total; not a single mine was swept. The Turkish forts and mobile howitzers were not put out of action, and one third of the naval force was sunk or so severely damaged that it had to be withdrawn.

By any sensible calculation, the attempt to eliminate Turkey through naval action alone was at an end. But although Kitchener had assured the War Council that the naval operation could be called off if necessary, this was no longer thought to be the case. On his own authority – albeit with much cajoling from Churchill, and no intervention from the War Council – Kitchener concluded that Britain’s authority in the East could not survive withdrawal from the Dardanelles, and that a land force had to be sent in.

The intention was not to inaugurate a full-scale land war against Turkey: the expedition was designed to overrun just the Gallipoli Peninsula and eliminate the Turkish guns and mines. After that the naval force would resume its passage through the Dardanelles, enter the Sea of Marmora and defeat Turkey.

The notion of launching a combined military and naval operation against Gallipoli had been around for some months. On 8 January 1915, Kitchener had told the War Council that he favoured such an undertaking in principle, but that Britain’s commitments in Western Europe left no troops available. Though he changed his mind about sending troops, the shortage of available men remained. Back in January, Kitchener had said that the taking of Gallipoli would require a force of 150,000 men. Lloyd George, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, wondered then whether that would be enough. In the end, the force assembled for the invasion was only 75,000. How, in the light of Kitchener’s earlier judgment (not to mention Lloyd George’s misgivings), could this force be deemed sufficient? The question was never asked. The War Council did not even meet following the 18 March setback, and neither Kitchener nor Lloyd George raised the matter of numbers again.

The invasion took place on 25 April. One body of men, made up mainly of the British 29th division, landed at the southern tip of the peninsula. Another, composed of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, landed halfway up, at what would soon become known as Anzac Cove. Although beachheads were established at heavy cost, it rapidly became evident that there was no possibility of advancing inland. Gallipoli, with its rugged country and commanding hills, was one of the most easily defended places in the world. Also, Turkey, having an army of half a million, could speedily transfer a significant force to wherever invasion threatened. Turkish defenders, occupying high ground and trenches, and armed with machine-guns and modern rifles, were ideally placed to stop the invaders. The conditions on the Western Front, which had so dismayed the War Council, speedily replicated themselves. Only vast amounts of artillery, on a scale not available to the British at this point even in the principal theatre, might have made a difference, but the naval force did not possess that quantity of shells, and could not fire its guns on the required trajectory. Stalemate ensued. A further major attempt was made in August, this time directed to the Anzac sector, but though imaginative in conception and conducted with great bravery, it could not triumph over geography and weaponry. After that, evacuation was the only sensible option; Britain’s reputation in the East would have to take its chance.

Much breast-beating has resulted from the failures in the Dardanelles and at Gallipoli, based on speculation that had greater forethought and persistence been brought to bear in the initiation and execution of the campaign, a great victory might have been won. The truth is that even had many things been done better, success would have remained extremely unlikely. Much has also been made of the benefits that might have flowed from a triumph at Gallipoli. It has been claimed that the elimination of Turkey would have followed from the appearance of a British fleet off Constantinople; that in consequence the Dardanelles would have become an abundant supply route for the under-munitioned Russians; that the Balkan states would have made common cause in crushing Austria-Hungary; and that, as a result, the two ‘props’ of the German war effort would have fallen away.

There is no substance to any of this. Even had a small body of British ships managed to engage Constantinople, there are no grounds for concluding that the Turkish Empire would have capitulated. Further, the defeat of Turkey in 1915 would not have provided Russia with a vast accession of weapons from the West. The weapons did not exist, and were not to become available until the great mobilisation of Western resources later on in the war. By that time Russia, beset though it was by daunting problems, was no longer crucially short of munitions.

The notion that a limited British naval action against Turkey would have transformed the situation in the Balkans is also fantasy. The Balkan states, far from being a potentially united force, were torn by rivalries, as the Second Balkan War of 1913 had demonstrated. In any case, their military capacities were decidedly limited, their ammunition supplies beggarly, and their railways and roads rudimentary. Further, if the Balkan states were likely to respond to any event in the war, it wouldn’t have been to a small-scale naval operation against Turkey. They were watching the actions of the huge (and proximate) German Army, which just then was delivering powerful blows to the Russians and had all along made it clear that, if needed, it would hasten to the aid of Austria-Hungary.

All this speculation, moreover, evades the fundamental reality of the First World War. Germany’s great strength was not its allies, but its imposing war machine. The Western Allies would triumph only when they had defeated that machine in the one region where it could be engaged effectively: the Western Front. Victory would never be accomplished by a hare-brained strategy directed against minor adversaries. It required the deployment on the battlefield of ever larger armies; the development of creative tactics designed to maximise the impact of offensive weapons and diminish the enemy’s powers of defence; and the thoroughgoing mobilisation for war of the vast industries of Britain and the US. Gallipoli and the Dardanelles had nothing to do with it.

The Dardanelles Commission could hardly engage these large matters. And so, to return to the question raised at the outset, its report was bound to be a minor document in the saga of the First World War. (There has been no attempt until now to make the reports available in a ‘popular’ edition.) Had the House of Commons in 1916 elected to inquire not into misfortunes at Gallipoli, which were decidedly past history, but into Britain’s setbacks in 1915 on the Western Front, which presaged much larger and even more deadly events, then its efforts might have been more worthwhile. But that was too difficult an endeavour to be contemplated by the nation’s legislators.

Do the reports of the Dardanelles Commission nevertheless reveal anything significant? In some respects the Commissioners clearly got carried away by marginal issues, such as the treatment of the wounded, the provision of water, and whether members of the Zion Mule Corps were entitled to pensions rather than gratuities. At other times they get closer to issues of moment. The first report is markedly critical of Churchill for failing to alert the War Council to reservations held by some naval experts about the ‘ships alone’ operation. And it rebuked Admiral Fisher, the First Sea Lord, for remaining silent at the Council despite his misgivings over Churchill’s proposal. (What the Commission perhaps failed to divine was that Fisher’s views were so changeable that he was unlikely to have been able to make a coherent statement.) The War Council was also criticised, having authorised the ‘ships alone’ option, for its failure even to assemble when the decision was being taken to switch to a military invasion.

The second report, which deals with the attempted capture of Gallipoli, includes some pointed remarks about military command. In particular, it expresses dissatisfaction at the performance of Sir Ian Hamilton, the overall commander, on grounds both of over-optimism and a failure to press home demands for reinforcements of men and weapons. But these comments hardly tackle the crucial issue. Was the action doomed from the start, or was it a hopeful endeavour that went wrong? Some of the adverse comments suggest the former; others hint that with more responsible decision-making, better deployment of resources, or a higher quality of command, there might have been a happier outcome. The Commissioners failed to decide.

Even less satisfactory than the reports themselves is their presentation in this new edition. The items in this series of ‘Uncovered Editions’ appear to have been assembled at random. What common thread could possibly run through a set including the Siege of Kars in 1855, the pronouncements of a judge in 1895 concerning an upper-class swindler, the British invasion of Tibet in 1904, General Eisenhower’s survey of his campaigns of 1944-45, the Profumo affair of the 1960s, and a 1979 House of Lords debate on UFOs?

More important, if original documents are to be of any real value, they need to be presented with scholarly introductions. Historical documents do not speak for themselves: we need to know about the circumstances of their production, the events with which they deal, and the identities and qualifications of those who wrote them. The first of the volumes discussed here has no introduction of any sort and the second only a single page of observations (some of questionable accuracy). We are told nothing about the circumstances in which the Dardanelles Commission was set up, or (apart from their names) about the individual Commissioners. (To say that they appear an obscure bunch, whose qualifications are far from self-explanatory, would be an understatement.) This means that the reader is deprived of information essential to judging the value of these reports. One example will suffice. It has been known for at least thirty years that two of the principal witnesses before the Commission, Churchill and Fisher, colluded as to the evidence they would present. The reader would guess nothing of this from these unsatisfying publications.