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Churchill’s Disaster – Gallipoli
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One hundred years ago this month -April 1915 – the Allies and Germany were stalemated on the Western Front. Winston Churchill, the young, ambitious First Lord of the British Admiralty proposed a scheme first advanced by France’s prime minister, Aristide Briand.

The best way for Britain and France to end the stalemate and link up to their isolated ally, Russia, would be a daring “coup de main,” or surprise attack, to seize the Ottoman Empire’s Dardanelles, occupy Constantinople (today Istanbul) and knock Turkey out of the First World War. Though rickety, the Ottoman Empire was Germany’s most important wartime ally.

Churchill’s plan was to send battleships of the British and French navies to smash their way through Turkey’ decrepit, obsolete forts along the narrow Dardanelles that connects the Aegean and Mediterranean with the Sea of Marmara, Constantinople and the Black Sea, Russia’s maritime lifeline.

This bold naval intrusion, that some predicted would rival Admiral Horatio Nelson’s dramatic attack in 1801 on Danish-Norwegian Fleet sheltered at Copenhagen, would quickly win the war and achieve for Churchill his ardent ambition of becoming supreme warlord.

Once the Dardanelles was run, 480,000 Allied troops from Britain, France, Australia and New Zealand would land at Gallipoli and other beaches, march north and keep the strategic strait open.

The Dardanelles are relatively narrow, some 1.6 km, a mere rifle shot from the European to Asiatic side. In 1810 the British romantic poet Byron swam the Dardanelles to emulate the feat of the ancient Greek hero, Leander.

Churchill convinced his reluctant cabinet colleagues to adopt the bold plan. They should have been more cautious: the French-originated plan was unsound, and the French do not have a happy history in naval affairs.

Efforts by 18 older British and French battleships to force the strait failed miserably. Krupp cannon in the old brick Turkish forts and newly laid mines sank three Allied battleships and badly damaged three others.

The much-heralded French battleship “Bouvet” hit a mine and capsized taking 600 crewmen to their deaths.

Two British and two French battleships were put out of action. This was the last significant French naval action in the Mediterranean until World War II when the British sank the rest of its fleet at Toulon.

Meanwhile, a vast amphibious operation was underway, landing tens of thousands of Allied troops on the Gallipoli Peninsula, mostly on the Aegean side. The landing at Sulva Bay was particularly bloody: the Allied troops were caught in a withering enfilade by Turkish machine guns that turned the sea red.

Churchill’s Gallipoli expedition was a triumph of amphibious daring, a precursor to the Pacific island campaign of World War II. But it was also a planning and logistical disaster in which tens of thousands of brave soldiers were sacrificed for the glory of the politicians.

Churchill at least had seen war fighting the Dervishes up the Nile in Sudan (see his “River War”). So too his dashing colleague Lord Kitchner. Fighting natives armed with spears and swords was one thing.


Fighting Germans and Turks quite another. When Britain’s Imperial Army met the Germans on the Western Front it was savaged. The same is likely to happen if and when the US imperial army, also used to fighting natives, has to face Russian or Chinese regulars.

Churchill and his entourage had failed to properly understand Gallipoli’s torturous topography. What looked easy on maps (many of them incorrect) turned out to be deep gulches, and steep, waterless slopes that proved a nightmare for infantry. Just walking up and down them left me exhausted and winded.

With the racism typical of Imperial Britain, Churchill and the government in London dismissed Turks as backwards, cowardly Muslims. Gallipoli taught them the very opposite.

Out of this fierce battle emerged its hero, Col. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk who defeated the Allies, founded the Turkish republic eight years later, and saved his nation from invasions by Greece, Russia, Italy, Russia and France.

By December, 1915, the Allies began evacuating their troops, a humiliating and bloody defeat at the hands of the “backwards” Turks and their German advisers. The supposed “knockout” blow to the Ottoman Empire ended up knocking out Winston Churchill who was demoted but remained in cabinet for a while. His boss Prime Minister Asquith resigned.

Churchill was at least man enough to take up command of a Scotts infantry unit on the Western Front, unlike so many other politicians who sent men to their deaths from the safety of their private clubs in Whitehall.

It is often said that modern Australia and New Zealand were really born as independent nations at Gallipoli, just as the same is said of Canada at the battle of Vimy.

True to a degree, but we should also remember that the British Empire often used its “white troops” from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada as cannon fodder to spare British regiments from the home islands.

The Gallipoli disaster and the surrender of a British army at Kut in Mesopotamia undermined the power and invincibility of the British Empire. The usual patriotic guff aside, 250,000 Allied troops died or were wounded for no good purpose. A similar number of Turkish troops died, but the Turks could at least claim victory and the defense of their nation.

The Australian and New Zealand troops(ANZAC) who had not previously seen combat fought with honor and gallantry. But their commanders and Churchill made one grave blunder after another, recalling the devastating description of the British forces in the 1854 Crimean War, “an army of lions, led by asses.”

(Republished from by permission of author or representative)
• Category: History • Tags: Gallipoli, Winston Churchill, World War I 
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  1. Churchill was actually responsible for getting Turkey into WW I in the first place. At the initiation of hostilities Great Britain was set to deliver two battle cruisers to the Turks for which the Turks had already paid. Churchill, acting as Lord High Admiral, not only refused to deliver the ships; he refused to refund the Turkish payments. His ostensible reason was fear that Turkey would enter the war as an ally of the Central Powers. This was absurd. Turkey had already made several commitments to neutrality that had annoyed Germany intensely. Churchill’s actual reasons for this causus belli were more devious. The British fleet had recently switched from coal to oil. Britain desperately needed the oil resources of the Turkish empire. Churchill wanted Turkey to declare war, assuming that a quick allied victory would ensue and the oil riches of the Near East would be Britain’s for the taking.

    Churchill learned almost nothing from Gallipoli. In WW II he was the “mastermind” behind the disastrous Dieppe landing. One thing he did learn was to hide his involvement in case things went wrong. Lord Montbatten was the official commander of the expedition. Churchill’s ploy was successful enough that Canadians – whose troops bore the brunt of the battle — had an abiding dislike of Montbatten. I still remember, even though I was just a child, my Canadian relatives’ lack of concern when Montbatten and a nephew were assassinated in a particularly cowardly and atrocious manner by the Provisional IRA.

    • Replies: @Argos
  2. A good article; my only disagreement is that Austria-Hungary, not Ottoman Turkey was Germany’s most important ally, although it was arguably even more rickety than the Ottoman Empire.

    A history of World War II often reveals Churchill (who I still regard as a great wartime leader) advocating attacks in srategically questionable areas. The Italian campaign can be fairly debated but Churchill’s advocacy of Balkan invasions bordered on strategic lunacy. The early Pacific campaign isn’t much better. The British surrender at Singapore was arguably the greatest defeat ever suffered by British arms, and the dispatch of the battleships Repulse and Prince of Wales (which had helped to sink the Bismarck) without air cover virtually ensured their sinking, which is exactly what happened.

    • Replies: @Orville H. Larson
  3. keypusher says:

    This is a strange article.

    When Britain’s Imperial Army met the Germans on the Western Front it was savaged.

    The savaging wasn’t all one way, was it? In 1918 when the Germans were finally defeated it was the British who did the bulk of the killing.

    True to a degree, but we should also remember that the British Empire often used its “white troops” from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada as cannon fodder to spare British regiments from the home islands.

    I bet the British regiments fed into the Somme meatgrinder would have greatly preferred Gallipoli. The Australians and New Zealanders whine a bit too much about Gallipoli for my taste. There were no good billets in World War I.

    Gallipoli was a fine idea, poorly executed.

  4. Churchill’s Dardanelles strategy was brilliant. It was its flawed piecemeal execution, owing to the hesitance and cavils of the War Cabinet/Committee, Kitchener and others, that doomed the strategy.

    Had the Allies succeeded from the outset in a surprise combined-arms taking of the Gallipoli peninsula concurrent with naval attack on the Dardanelles forts – before German General Liman von Sanders had reorganized and reinforced the Turkish defenses – this would have knocked Turkey out of the war, enabled Tsarist Russia to have shifted troops from the Turkish front to reinforce Russians forces pitted against Austria-Hungary and Germany, allowed Western Allied supply of munitions and food through the Dardanelles & Bosphorus to Russian forces, and most likely precluded T.E Lawrence’s rise to fame as chief Allied organizer of what would then have been the unnecessary Arab Revolt in the Hejaz – and thus also eliminated the need for General Allenby’s later offensive against Ottoman forces in the Levant.

    Also, at Gallipoli the final Allied landing was at Suvla – not “Sulva” – Bay. The landings there went off quite well. It was only after the landed forces began their advance inland that they suffered appalling losses upon confronting stout Turkish defenses entrenched on a flanking and a frontal ridge supported by sufficient artillery.

  5. Cato says:

    This was a war that Britain and France should have lost and Germany won. Chris Clark’s “The Sleepwalkers” provides the story on the diplomatic lead-up to the war–simply put, Germany was badly abused. Subsequent German resentment led to the evil of WWII.

    If there is a lesson for us today, it is that Britain attempted to suppress a rising power, and paid an unacceptable cost (in two wars). The rising power today is China, and there are also voices urging that Russia must be suppressed. Surely we have learned a lesson from bitter experience–find means to include these rising powers, consider their interests, bind them and ourselves to peaceful coexistence.

    • Replies: @Wizard of Oz
    , @didi
  6. @Diversity Heretic

    PRINCE OF WALES and HOOD engaged BISMARCK in Denmark Strait (HOOD was sunk soon after action was joined). REPULSE was in company with KING GEORGE V (the latter was flagship of Admiral Sir John Tovey, RN, the C-in-C Home Fleet).

    A bit of Churchillian meddling in this operation: During the night of May 26, Churchill drafted this signal for Admiral Tovey:

    “We cannot visualize the situation from your signals. BISMARCK must be sunk at all costs and if to do this it is necessary for KING GEORGE V to remain on the scene, then she must do so, even if it subsequently means towing KING GEORGE V.”

    Yeah, that’s right–let the Home Fleet flagship run out of fuel and risk being sunk. The First Sea Lord, Admiral of the Fleet Pound, disagreed with the signal, but it went out from the Admiralty the next morning (BISMARCK had been sunk in the meantime). When the signal was read to Tovey and his staff, they laughed out loud. Later, when they realized its import, they were angry. Tovey called it “the stupidest and most ill-considered signal ever made,” and never forgot it.

  7. Despite Mr Margolis’s omniscience the tabloid headline can’t be avoided. Well I suppose “disaster” is right at least from the Anglo-British perspective.

    Is it really plausible that the holding up of repayment to the Ottomans of the money they’d paid was the essential cause of a decision by the Ottoman Empire to go to war in alliance with Germany? Or that Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty should be responsible for that outcome?

    Still not bad. And it provides an opportunity to mention an interesting theory which I read in Peter Coleman’s column in the Spectator’s Australian edition. For Australians, though not the other element of the ANZACS, the New Zealanders, Gallipoli is celebrated as if it created the nation on 25th April each year: ANZAC Day. Why? Very plausibly because it wiped away the shame of “the convict stain”. Odd you might think since a huge proportion of the ANZACS were recent immigrants from the UK and, since the 1840s, and the 50s gold rushes in particular, free settlers swamped even the highly fertile convict descendants. But there were always plenty of Brits who sneered about bad blood and the like and I knew well four sisters, born from 1903 to 1917, privately educated, brought up in a mansion with servants and sent to finishing schools in France with upper-class English girls, who didn’t learn till they were in their 70s that their highly respectable father had a convict grandfather (eventually pardoned) who married the daughter of their convict great-great grandparents (who were not pardoned but did rather well for themselves).

    In short I think Coleman has recorded a small but significant truth about Australia and its history.

  8. @Cato

    No doubt your Cato nom de guerre conveys with admirable brevity whatever one is to draw from the memory of Carthago delenda est but, apart from your perhaps wishing to sound cryptic you surely oversimplify. Setting aside the implications of “simply put Germany was badly abused” – poor little darlings: no wonder the awful paddies Kaiser Wilhelm threw had to be dealt with resolutely by von Moltke and co; the idea that Britain’s “attempt[ing] to suppress a rising power” was a proximate cause of the war so as to be an obvious lesson for the US is at best in need of considerable elaboration and qualification.

    Britain and France were by 1914 status quo powers which were no longer exploding demographically like the German and Russian empires under their autocratic rulers. Britain, though relatively more populous than the small country it was in the 18th century, and with a supporting empire, still practised as far as possible the sensible deterrent and essentially pacific policy of “balance of power”. Its forming of alliances was rationally designed to make the cost of starting a war too great for those it rightly feared were aggressively belligerent. It is a pity perhaps that it didn’t let down its alliance partners when madness broke out on the Continent. Both Britain (largely through weakness) and the US (out of naked inward looking pragmatism) have proven since WW2 that it would be dangerous to trust them against the weight of whatever buys Congressmen or moves their voters to ignorant anger, fear or enthusiasm.

    • Replies: @MarkinLA
    , @Alieu
  9. MarkinLA says:

    From an old Military History magazine, the story of the landing was somewhat different. The allies landed and were actually pushing the Turks back. The Turk were getting low on ammunition and supplies are were about to engage in a wholesale retreat which would have given the Allies a victory.

    Kamal Ataturk arrived on the scene and gave his famous order to stop the retreat: “Men, I am not ordering you to attack. I am ordering you to die”. The Turks held on long enough for reinforcements to arrive and the invasion bogged down into a stalemate.

  10. MarkinLA says:
    @Wizard of Oz

    The British did not seem to be very active in trying to keep a lid on things in Europe at the start of WWI. The Royal Navy was at a point where it was about be outclassed by the High Seas Fleet and this was Britain’s last best chance to cut it down to size. I have read that there was a lot of friction between Britain and the US prior to the Washington Naval Treaty over the same issue.

  11. Pedant says:

    That should be “Scots”. (One ‘t’, please)

  12. Alieu says:
    @Wizard of Oz

    When referring to the “autocratic” rulers of Germany and Russia, you might want to read about the actual political systems that Germany and Russia had. Britain, like Germany and Russia had a King as head of state. Likewise, all three had a Parliament with an upper house composed of aristocracy and nouveau riche who were appointed, and a lower house that was elected. The systems of all three countries were very similar (the German one in particular was almost identical to the British model). Germany had universal male suffrage, whereas only around 1/2 of Britain’s adult male population had the right to vote (tied to property ownership). I’d also like to point out that unlike Russia and Germany, Britain and France had large overseas empires with over 500 million people, none of whom had any representation in government. So their claims to be “fighting for democracy” don’t pass any serious analysis. Britain is also the only one of the three to still have an unelected “autocrat” as their head of state and an aristocratic House of Lords as their parliament’s upper chamber. It is also the only one of the three to have no written constitution.

    From 1900-1910 the UK’s population growth rate was 10%. (Virtually all of this was in England (12,5%), Scotland’s barely increased and Ireland’s actually decreased). Germany can hardly be blamed for England’s oppressive policies towards the rest of it’s kingdom which prevented population growth. Germany’s population grew by 14% during this period. I wouldn’t call that an “explosive” rate compared to Britain. Russia’s grew by 21% during this period, although their population density was still far lower than Britain or other European countries. Britain’s population density was about the same as Germany’s. It’s also important to keep in mind that both Britain and France used colonial troops during the war, and if their populations were included it would add up to several hundred million for Britain and more than 100 million for France.

    Britain’s policy of preventing any one country from becoming too powerful was one of the main causes of the war. They were paranoid that Germany was going to overtake them and decided that it would be better to instigate a war in order to get rid of their main rival. Britain and the US unfortunately still act this way, with the “pivot to Asia” to surround China and the whipped-up hysteria against a mildly resurgent Russia. Britain is only happy when every other major country except the US is kept down. As Lord Ismay, the first Secretary General of NATO said, it was created “to keep the Americans in, the Russians out and the Germans down”. Germans must feel great pride at being part of such an alliance. I’m not saying this to demonise Britain. The truth is that all sides share responsibility for ww1. But whereas Germany and to a lesser extent Russia and France have since avoided war, Britain and the US seem to always be leading the call for endless wars around the world – usually against third world countries thousands of miles away. British and American people, like the Germans have, need to take a more unbiased look at the role their countries played in the two disastrous World Wars, rather than just naively parroting the official government line that everyone else was to blame but that their intentions were pure – about spreading freedom and democracy to the world.

    We have seen since the Cold War and especially recently that the US/UK is now trying to rewrite the official history that actually Russia was just as bad as Germany in the two World Wars and are emphasising Russian/Soviet war crimes. Russian and Soviet war crimes should be acknowledged, but so should the crimes of the Western Allies. Were the barbaric holocausts inflicted on cities in Germany, Japan and even allies like France and Czechoslovakia not monstrous crimes? Were the dropping of atomic bombs on two defenceless Japanese cities not the biggest single war crimes in history? But instead we still constantly hear the self-righteous British and Americans condemning the crimes of every other side in the war, while conspicuously ignoring their own. The Germans were evil. It turns out the Soviets were also just as evil. But it’s okay because America and Britain won the war (even if 80% of the fighting was on the Eastern Front). We were the good guys! And now we’re gonna show those Russians just like WE did with Hitler!

  13. Argos says: • Website
    @Jus' Sayin'...

    Do not forget he sent many soldiers to their death and we do not need a reminder of what w.s Churchill did to Dresden among other war crimes.

  14. Anonymous [AKA "jojo archers"] says:

    Speaking of Churchill(Jewish roots)– In 1938 England/France declared war on Germany for the invasion of Poland. Churchill ordered massive aerial bombings of German cities. Millions died in evil Chrchill’s commands–spanning decades..

    • Replies: @abj_slant
  15. Didi says:

    Churchill was one of the worst PM’s that Britain has ever had. No, it is not because of Gallipoli. It is because of his refusal to make India a strong ally by allowing its independence before the war began, a policy favored for exactly that reason in the late 1920’s by…Neville Chamberlain. Even after WW2 Churchill remained an obstinate colonialist when he vowed that he would not preside over the demise of the British empire at a time when it was clear that the old colonialism was dying everywhere. Yes, it might have been difficult then to sell that to the British nation (and its crown and aristocracy) but Churchill was surely the one British leader who could have pulled that one off. It is because of his obstinacy that the granting of independence to India was postponed much too long.

    • Replies: @abj_slant
  16. didi says:

    Cato. At the turn of the 19th to the 2oth century the greatest threats for the ruling classes of Germany, France, Austria-Hungary, and Russia were the home-grown socialist labor movements and organizations. Evidence: the Russian Revolution of 1917. If those organizations had heeded the call for solidarity of Jaures, Lenin, Luxemburg, Liebknecht, and others there might not have been a WW1. The great tragedy of WW1 was that what was perhaps the strongest of these labor movements of the time, the German SPD and the German unions collapsed before the pied piper of imperial war. It is sad that most narratives of WW1 completely overlook this aspect and write only in terms of whole nations such as Germany vs. France.
    The principal British objective of Gallipoli was not to end WW1 but to relieve German-Ottoman pressure on the Suez Canal. The principal military threat of the Ottoman Empire/Germany was not in Europe but in Egypt and adjacent lands East of the canal.
    Surely, ending the war would have been a welcome bonus but it was not the major impetus for Gallipoli. That was and still is a post-Gallipoli fib.

  17. Yes, it was a disaster. Yes, Churchill did it. Yes, he ought to have known better in time to avoid the worst of it.

    However, it wasn’t as completely unreasonable as it is usually painted. Until shortly before the attack, the idea would have worked.

    The Germans arrived to help with the defenses. They found no ammo for the big guns defending. They found the sights missing, the crews unready. They found complete vulnerability. If Churchill’s plan had attacked what the Germans found, it would have worked.

    With surprising speed, the Germans put those defenses in order. Since the guns were mostly Krupp, they were able to supply ammo. They sent mines. They sighted and calibrated the guns. They drilled the gun crews.

    Most of all, the Turks actually cooperated with the Germans, not something one could take for granted. Perhaps they were willing to listen because the Italians had so humiliated them in the 1911 war, or the Balkans in 1912-3, leading to the rise of the Young Turks by the assassination of the leadership that had lost those wars.

    Churchill or Fisher ought to have realized rather early that things were not as they had assumed, not as they had been until very recently. They stubbornly drove ahead despite new facts.

    But we must not forget in all this that they had reason. Their mistake was not in the plan, it was in not adapting to what they ought to have learned, that things had changed very recently, since Fisher had commanded in the Med, since the reports they’re relied upon.

  18. abj_slant says:

    Wasn’t Chamberlain PM when England declared war on Germany?

    Also, I thought the bombings of German cities happened in the second half of the war, partially in retaliation for Germany bombing England during the first half of the war (subsequently dubbed the Battle of Britain).

    • Replies: @Bill Jones
  19. abj_slant says:

    Churchill was not PM during most of India’s struggle. He first became PM in 1940. He didn’t want to lose India, that’s true, but the bulk of Ghandi’s protests and fasts occurred in the 20s and 30s, when England was not paying much attention to Churchill (deliberately).

  20. The biggest empire in history was lost to history.Churchill as custodian of that empire presided over that event.His duty was to preserve that empire and not defeat of Hitler.There were ways in which he could have preserved the empire without losing . But his obsession was defeating Hitler and Germany, not his most important responsibility. Still why did he took to the destructive path? Stories about his lifestyle which was supposed to have been much beyond his known sources of income and the proximity of certain groups to him, group which was not interested in England’s victory as much as the destruction of Germany, have been raised in the past which can not be dismissed off as canards. With the “Blood,Toil and Sweat” of his people he he brought destruction and demise of the empire.Normal Angel had said in modern warfare the victor is as much a loser as the vanquished(Great Illusion). In the present scenario it is an irony to see the contrast or comparison of two time winner Britain with two time loser Germany.
    Churchill is the biggest loser in history. He might be an agent tool or fool

  21. @abj_slant

    James M. Spaight (1877-1968), CB, CBE, Principal Secretary to the Air Ministry in his book Bombing Vindicated:

    “Hitler only undertook the bombing of British civilian targets reluctantly three months after the RAF had commenced bombing German civilian targets. Hitler would have been willing at any time to stop the slaughter. Hitler was genuinely anxious to reach with Britain an agreement confining the action of aircraft to battle zones… Retaliation was certain if we carried the war into Germany… there was a reasonable possibility that our capital and industrial centres would not have been attacked if we had continued to refrain from attacking those of Germany… We began to bomb objectives on the German mainland before the Germans began to bomb objectives on the British mainland… Because we were doubtful about the psychological effect of propagandist distortion of the truth that it was we who started the strategic bombing offensive, we have shrunk from giving our great decision of May 11th, 1940, the publicity it deserves.”

  22. BDoyle says:

    “This was the last significant French naval action in the Mediterranean until World War II when the British sank the rest of its fleet at Toulon.”

    Ummm, no. The British didn’t sink the French fleet at Toulon, the French did. Germany was trying to seize the ships for it’s own purposes, and the Vichy officers scuttled instead.

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