The First World War wound up to a deuced bloody stalemate by 1914. From the English Channel to the Swiss border, the historic trenches of World War I skeined through the countryside. Millions of men on either side were locked in a barren and unavailing bloodbath trying to break open holes in each others’ lines. Economies were suffering and struggling to finance the war efforts. Making matters worse, the Western European trade routes between France and England were blocked. Churchill lead a group of the Royal Admiralty to petition for a second front against Germany. Access to the Artic through the White Sea was a costly and operose way to attack the other side, notwithstanding the estuary that was iced in seven months of the year. The Germans blocked access to the Baltic Sea, and the Dardanelles, the only other route from Europe, to the Black Sea, and into Central Asia, was bottled up by the remnants of the Ottoman Empire. That said, the Turks were then the weakest link in a chain where the Royal imperialists in King Arthur’s Court wanted to interlope. Looking at a map, one can see the excitement of war planners imagining that a naval force could enter the seaway and cleave Turkey in two with an amphibious contingent supported by naval guns.
The Gallipoli campaign was the child of Winston Churchill. He saw it as a bold way to create a path to create a second offensive front against the Germans. On the grand left of the German front were British and French and English armies. On the German right they would then place another force on the German flanks, and this one fluid and mobile, not dug into trench lines. The unwieldy nature of the flotilla, the politics and the fault lines surrendered the element of surprise. Taking heavy fighting ships out of the Atlantic and the Mediterranean Sea could attenuate the supply line of the Western Allies. It also could not be ignored. Laurence James writes in “Churchill and Empire: A Portrait of an Imperialist:
“The whole affair gave the impression of groping round without a plan’ and gave rise to the belief ‘that the enemy… had been frustrated’. 37 Unlike de Robeck, the Turko-German high command, including Mustafa Kemal Pasha (later Kemal Atatürk) chose not to loiter. They used the breathing space provided by de Robeck to continue to strengthen Turkish positions on the high ground above and beyond the beaches where Allied forces would eventually land. When they finally came ashore on 25 April, the Turks were well dug in. Within days the Allies were faced with a stalemate like that on the Western Front. Here too the Allies were making no progress. Sir John French’s spring offensive was an utter disaster on a scale beyond that of Gallipoli. There were losses of 50,000 without what a subsequent War Office analysis called ‘compensatory gains’. 38 Morale in the War Council wilted and the knives were out for Churchill, whose passion and impulsiveness were grating on his colleagues. The Tory press weighed in on a politician who had long been the party’s bane. H. A. (‘Taffy’) Gwynne, editor of the ultra-right-wing Morning Post , wrote privately to Asquith accusing Churchill of applying to the Dardanelles ‘the same lack of study, the same desire to rush in without due preparation that had been evident at Antwerp.”
It is almost a trope that Turkey was called the Sick Man of Europe. Internal strife, 18th century technological infrastructure, intrinsic political corruption and a slow economy made Turkey a difficult partner with anyone, save for the fact that they were located in the middle of the largest most important trade route in the world.
James notes: “Gallipoli was a turning point in the history of the British Empire, although largely unnoticed at the time. A campaign undertaken to affirm imperial invincibility had been a humiliation; in 1916 the Ottoman government issued a postage stamp which showed the crescent of Islam imposed on the Dardanelles. Turkey had ended the hundred-year sequence of Muslim defeats at the hands of Britain, France and Russia. British prestige had suffered and would suffer again in April 1916, when Nurattin Pasha’s counter-offensive in Mesopotamia ended with the siege of Kut-el-Almara, where 9,000 British and Indian troops surrendered.”
John Fisher Admiral of the Fleet was the first to jump ship; on 13 May he resigned in a tantrum that may have been a symptom of a general nervous collapse. He declared that he had always opposed the Dardanelles campaign, which was unwinnable and seriously weakened home defence by taking battleships away from the Grand Fleet. A cabinet crisis followed that was resolved by admitting the Conservatives to a coalition under Asquith. There was no room for Churchill, who was replaced by Balfour. ‘I’m finished,’ Churchill told Violet Bonham Carter. He was then a guest of the Asquiths and she noticed how he stood alone at the edge of a lawn overlooking a river bank, looking ‘like Napoleon on St Helena’. 40 Churchill’s career had suffered a severe setback. The strategic decision to invade Turkey had been taken by the War Council (including Fisher) with French approval, but his relentless determination to achieve victory at all costs meant that he was an obvious scapegoat. He struck back forcefully, arguing that the offensive had been a legitimate war gamble’ that could have succeeded if the necessary ‘speed and vigour’ had been applied at the right time. Churchill insisted that ‘Energy and resolution’ were all that were needed to fracture the Turkish defences on a front that was just ten miles wide. 41 They were absent, he claimed in The World Crisis , because ‘military etiquette and military sensibilities’ were inimical to ‘flexibility and dynamism’.”
This is an interesting point about Churchill. He made a mistake that would have toppled most military commanders. It would have toppled most politicians. Thank God it did not. Had Churchill not fought back, had Churchill stopped believing in himself, or had he dropped out of politics given the fiasco, History may have taken a horrible turn.