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.

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