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Gallipoli

The Gallipoli campaign is always painted as folly: folly in a distracting sideshow from the real anvil of the war, the Western Front: folly by Churchill in one of his many romantic flights of fantasy and folly by the donkey generals and admirals in its execution. It is seen as a waste of life and a failure both in concept and execution. All of these, with the possible exception of the donkeys and the execution don’t add up. The problem was it was a failure and failures are always orphans.

The original sin was that Turkey was in the war at all – and on the German side. This was certainly not pre-ordained and there were none of the interlinking treaties that famously sucked in most of Europe like collapsing dominos.  Diplomacy  - badly played by France and Britain and forcibly conducted by Germany, a quasi-fascist government under Enver Pasha, and events, bought Turkey in and presented the Allied powers with a strategic dilemma – how to link up and supply Russia who now had no ice free-port facing west.

The problem was the Dardanelles, or more precisely, the Narrows where the Dardanelles becomes less than a mile wide for about ten miles around Çanakkale –pronounced  Charnakaleh. Here the straight was covered by forts and could easily be mined making it impassable to a battleship – any one of whom could, once in the Sea of Marmara, bombard Istanbul and put Turkey out of the war at a stroke. It seems to me hardly ill-conceived  - rather the opposite – to regard forcing these straights as a strategic imperative. The prize was huge and if it had succeeded the ‘what ifs’ are legion: the war shortened by years, no Russian revolution and all its baleful consequences.

The first attempt was naval in February 1915. It was to be a sledgehammer blow with a bombardment by the fleet, naval troop landings and hard-pressed minesweeping. Bad weather and the sinking by mines of three battleships – forced the Allies to withdraw. Reading the accounts it seems as if a really determined push with a clear weather window could have carried the day – with major casualties but a handful compared to those accepted on other fronts.

The attack, now with no element of surprise or attempt at secrecy, had now to be amphibious, taking the Gallipoli peninsula in order to dominate the high ground above the Narrows and so force the straights by land rather than sea. The Australians and New Zealanders only got involved because they happened to be in Alexandria on their way to the Western Front. And here it becomes, to me anyway, a matter of chance or mischance.


Visiting Anzac cove and Cape Hellas by boat today you are amazed at the smallness of the battlefield – neither more than a couple of miles wide. And also, in the case of  Anzac cove how they managed to land there of all the places. It is the one place where the ground rises steeply from the beach putting any defenders at a huge advantage. A mile either side and it would have been a different story. A dark night, misjudged currents and sods law played their part. Even then the result might have been different but for one man, Colonel Mustafa Kamel, Attaturk, one of the trulygreat men to emerge from the 20th century who just happened to be the commander of the Turkish forces above the landing. With suicidal bravery and ruthlessness, exceeding his authority many times that day, he held the heights and saved the day – and the battle as the Allies never got out of their beachhead.

So was it folly and was Churchill an irresponsible adventurer? I don’t think the facts or the prize to be gained support that. Was it wasteful of lives? All wars are -  and none more than the First World War - and failure makes the loss even harder to contemplate. But given a little bit of luck going the other way it could have made it one of the greatest strategic triumphs.

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