Gallipoli

Today is This past Saturday was the 100th anniversary of the initial landings by the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps on the Gallipoli Peninsula.  [I started this post timely, but wasn’t able to finish it on the day.]

The invasion was the brain-child of Winston Churchill, at that time First Lord of the Admiralty.  He had realized that Turkey, so far from being a side-show which could only diminish Britain’s strength in the decisive theater (i.e., the Western Front), was in fact the fragile and barely guarded back gate to core of the Central Powers.  Take Turkey out of the war and suddenly you have year-round unimpeded supply of Russia (already acknowledged to be the weak link in the Allied camp) and you out-flank Austria.

And in early 1915, the Hellespont and the Sea of Marmara were a loaded gun at Turkey’s head.  The Gallipoli Peninsula, which runs from northeast at the landward end to southwest where it juts into the Mediterranean, was a rugged place of arid uplands, very little settlement, and — most importantly — ancient forts with antiquated guns and very limited ammunition supply.  Across the Hellespont, on the Asian side, were equally antiquated, equally poorly-supplied forts.  Not only were they critically short of ammunition (which fact was known to the Admiralty through its Room 40 decrypts, themselves a result of SMS Madgeburg‘s capture by the Russians, with its code books intact), but the guns they had were not capable of piercing the armor of a modern dreadnought . . . with which the Admiralty was richly supplied.  Even its King Edward VII class of pre-dreadnoughts were more than up to the task of running the forts.  The navy’s ability to run the forts was vital, since the Hellespont at its narrowest point is just a mile across — point-blank range for any artillerist who isn’t a cross-eyed lunatic with the delirium tremens.

Churchill and the admirals decided the Navy could do it alone.  They were right.  After a concentrated bombardment on March 18 by a combined Anglo-French fleet which pulverized the forts into powder and almost completely exhausted the forts’ ammunition supplies, the fleet was poised to strike the dagger into the heart of the Ottoman capital.  In fact the Ottoman government began to evacuate Constantinople.  [N.b.  Constantinople was Constantinople from 335 or so until 1453, just over 1,100 years.  The Turk has had the place not quite 600 years.  When they’ve had it another 500 years I’ll call it whatever the hell they want me to.  Until then, it’s Constantinople.]

And then it happened.  A Turkish mine-layer had laid a single line of mines along the shore, just at the edge of the channel.  If I recall correctly, it was only a half-dozen or ten mines; the rest of the channel had been swept by the Royal Navy’s minesweepers (navy vessels, but manned, for some incomprehensible reason, by civilians).  First a French battleship, the  Bouvet, struck a mine and sank with most of her 600 crew still aboard.  Then it was the British turn:  HMS Irresistable struck a mine, as did HMS Ocean, which had been sent to assist.  Both ships later sank.  HMS Inflexible, one of the Royal Navy’s original I-Class battlecruisers (two of the four of which came to grief at Jutland).  The navy backed off.  The minesweepers’ crews weren’t willing to brave the fire from the mobile shore batteries, which targeted them using searchlights on the shore, both to light up the sweepers and also to blind them.  The navy high command also got cold feet.  It was decided that the job was not to be done by naval power alone.  Troops would be landed.

And this is where Lord Kitchener comes into the picture.  To summarize the picture in spring 1915, nothing happened in the British army unless Kitchener signed off on it.  Nothing at all.  Lord K of K was not only the Secretary of War, in in the public mind he was the very face of the British land forces.  And Kitchener was a Western Front man, heart and soul.  He didn’t want any British soldier shot needlessly unless it was in one of his battles.  And he profoundly viewed a campaign on Gallipoli as being not his battle; in fact, he viewed it as being the Royal Navy’s battle.  He’d not approved landing troops in support of the navy’s initial efforts.  Even afterward he, too, went hot-and-cold about providing supporting troops.  The ANZACs were already in Egypt, staging and training for further transport to France.  It was hard to deny them to the campaign.  But he at first resolutely refused to consider sending in other troops, only later on to relent and send in additional divisions.  [One of them, the 29th, not only got itself shot to pieces at Gallipoli, but also got itself pretty badly knocked about on July 1 at the Somme; the Royal Newfoundland Regiment was nearly annihilated, and it was among the 29th Division that large numbers of troops in subsequent attack waves were shot down before they even could get to their own front-line trenches.]

Just about not a damned thing was done correctly on April 25, 1915, or at any time later, until the final withdrawal from the peninsula.  Between the mid-March naval attack and the landings over a month later, the Turks poured everything they could into beefing up the defenses, re-supplying the forts, and generally getting ready.  And they were ready enough, even if just barely in places.

Incredible as it seems, the British command in the field seems to have had no particular notion of what should happen once the troops and such modest equipment as they could handle got ashore.  By the end of April 25 there were literally several thousand British troops milling about on the beach because no one had thought to get them to the top of the cliffs.  Elsewhere, where individual commanders had taken some initiative, the British had made some progress up the slopes, although not uniform.  Mustafa Kemal’s troops held, however thinly; in some places they were reduced to bayonet charges when the ammunition ran out.

The overall British commander of the operation, Gen. Sir Ian Hamilton — a buddy of Churchill’s from way back in the Boer War — seems to have believed himself capable of running an amphibious operation followed by a protracted land battle from first a battleship and then the island of Lemnos.  Hamilton finally got himself fired, the new commander more or less taking over for the purpose of liquidating the front.

While excoriated for many years — in many households in Australia and New Zealand his name is still seldom uttered without a curse — Churchill’s conception of the Central Powers’ vulnerability at Constantinople was spot-on.  I’ve seen it described as the single master stroke of strategic thinking on either side of the entire war, and while I suppose you could quibble here and there, I’ve never seen anyone else attempt to identify a plan or an operation that, had it been vigorously prosecuted and properly supported, had the potential to be a game-changer on all fronts at once, which must be something like the philosopher’s stone of military strategy.  The concept was brilliant, the execution tragically bungled.  Why?  The problem, other than on-site incompetence staggering in its blindness, must in part be laid at the feet of the British system of governance.

But first, a word on the incompetence:  In fairness it must be conceded that the Gallipoli landings were the world’s very first industrial-scale opposed landings.  No one had ever done it before.  But in truth, how much imagination was required to understand that if your landing beaches are at the foot of cliffs, you’ve got a preciously small window of time to get yourself and your artillery to the top of those cliffs, and that until you get there you’re utterly vulnerable?  The value of high ground has been known since organized warfare began.  How hard could it have been to understand that aggressive advance, always a critical component of any attack, would be all that much more crucial under the situation that they had to have known awaited them?  And while we’re on the subject of the situation they ought to have understood awaited them:  One area in which Churchill’s aggression betrayed the entire plan was in the disastrous wait between March 18 and April 25.  Had the full might of the Mediterranean Fleet and the land forces been hurled on the peninsula at once, with no advance warning, there is a good chance that, however poorly led the troops were, the objectives would have been met, the shore batteries harassing the minesweeping operations suppressed, and the fleet sailed triumphantly into the Golden Horn.  But at that time Kitchener wasn’t willing to cut loose the ground forces.  Churchill’s failure was that rather than wait it out and maneuver Kitchener into consenting, he bit down on Fisher’s claim that the fleet alone could get the job done.

This last point highlights the institutional weakness of the parliamentary/cabinet system of governance as a war-fighting structure.  Lord Kitchener was Secretary of War; Winston Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty.  Both were therefore cabinet members, and thus equals.  There was no person in the government who had coercive authority over either of them.  The British cabinet rests, even now and much more back then, upon the notion of “collective responsibility,” according to which no major decision is made until the cabinet as a whole can agree, with the dissenters having the choice to shut up or resign.  In many instances this arrangement is a positive strength; it permits ministers to resign on points of principle, without destroying their public careers (they remain members of Parliament, and in fact tradition accords the resigning minister a free shot on goal in the form of a speech on the floor of the House), and without foreclosing their re-ascent into the cabinet under other circumstances, as has happened repeatedly over time.  But where there is no agreement — as there was not on whether or how to attack the Dardanelles — and where you have a fundamentally weak Prime Minister (and Herbert Asquith was nothing if not weak; there was almost no principle he would not sell out, no colleague he would not under-bus, in order to stay in office), you get actions like the Gallipoli campaign.  In the American system a president would have had the ability to inform Kitchener that he had one of two choices: find X troops and get them to the theater, or go look for another job.  Churchill could have been forbidden to proceed without land support.  Asquith, even assuming he had had sufficient hair on his balls, could do neither.

In the aftermath of the failed campaign, the cabinet underwent a fundamental reorganization, with an inner War Cabinet effectively assuming control of the British war effort.  Churchill was made the scapegoat, and although a parliamentary inquiry more or less pinned the blame where the bulk of it lay — squarely on Kitchener and his refusal to act in good faith support of the effort — by the time its conclusions were drawn events had moved on.  Churchill was serving in the trenches in France, in the front lines and under fire.  Kitchener went down on June 5, 1916, when HMS Hampshire, carrying him to a meeting with the Russians, struck a mine and sank.  And then of course, on July 1, 1916, the Somme fiasco started.  By the time Haig finally gave it up as a bad job that November, the quarter-million dead and wounded of Gallipoli were dwarfed by the 624,000-odd of the Somme.

In Australia and New Zealand, however, the memories of Gallipoli remain.  The utter futility of the campaign repeatedly rose like a specter to haunt Churchill in all his future dealings.  It was the recollection of Gallipoli that lead General Marshall to declaim point-blank and to Churchill’s face, with FDR present and watching, “Not a single American soldier is going to die on that goddam beach,” when Churchill was plumping for an invasion of Rhodes in follow-up to the victory in North Africa.  It was at least in part the recollection of Gallipoli that made Churchill so reluctant a participant in Overlord.  How would he face the nation if a second expeditionary force was hurled back into an ocean?  The Americans, having had the luxury of observing and learning from Gallipoli, as well as much practice in the Pacific theater in their own war, were much more eager to shoot the dice.  The Americans were determined to launch a direct invasion of northern France, and Churchill could either get on board or see his role as an Allied leader further diminished.  So he got on board.

And for the Aussies and the Kiwis?  Gallipoli became their Valley Forge, and forge them it did.  Some time between April 25, 1915, and December of that same year, something happened on the hillsides in that miserable corner of hell.  While before they had been from Australia or from New Zealand, after Gallipoli they were Australians and New Zealanders respectively, on a mythical level, on a level at which nations are born.  That spirit was communicated back during the war, and brought home by the survivors afterward.  No more would Australia or New Zealand be off-shoots of some mother country.  “Back home” could never again be some island off the northern coast of Europe.

In the first episode of Ken Burns’s The Civil War, during an interview with Shelby Foote, he observes that you cannot understand the United States without a firm understanding of the Civil War, in that the Civil War “made” the United States in a way that no other trauma of our existence has.  I think you can say the same thing about the Gallipoli campaign for Australia and New Zealand.

So I hope everyone had a Happy ANZAC Day.  I sure did.  Unfortunately about the closest I could get were a few Foster’s oil cans (and those not even brewed in Australia).  Ended up being in a couple of bars that night, and not one of the bands could play “Waltzing Matilda.”  A shame.  But at least for a few moments, the memory of the ANZACs was honored, half a world away.

Well played, the ANZACs.

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