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Gallipoli: History Is Rhyming Again

Gallipoli: History Is Rhyming Again

Today’s decision-makers are direct descendants of the officials described by Nicholas Lambert in his new history of the tragedy of Gallipoli.

Andrew Krepinevich

They say history doesn’t repeat itself but sometimes rhymes. If so, Nicholas Lambert has tapped into its rhythms. His first book, Sir John Fisher’s Naval Revolution (1999), anticipated the challenges that the U.S. military faces today, now that its military dominance—like that of the Royal Navy in Admiral Fisher’s time, at the dawn of the 20th century—is rapidly fading. Lambert’s next work, Planning Armageddon: British Economic Warfare and the First World War (2012), detailed the trials confronted by Great Britain in attempting to wage economic warfare against Germany during World War I. That book attracted the attention of the U.S. Navy’s senior leaders, who invited Lambert to talk to them on the topic. When he had finished, one senior admiral likened it to an “intervention,” a demonstration of the way history illuminates contemporary problems for those inclined to seek them.

Lambert’s latest book, The War Lords and the Gallipoli Disaster, offers still more lessons, while providing a new, compelling and insightful interpretation of one of history’s most famous ill-fated expeditions: the 1915 British-led attempt to force the Dardanelles Strait at Gallipoli during World War I, where British Empire forces suffered roughly two hundred thousand casualties. Lambert’s focus, however, is not on the battlefield. Instead, he locates the reader among Britain’s “war lords” as they debate high strategy in the months following the dashed hopes that the war would be over before the autumn of 1914.

Lambert shows how factors beyond the purely military led the British army, the Royal Navy, and the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) to their ill-fated assault at Gallipoli. In so doing, he rejects the two most common explanations for the British pursuit of the campaign: (a) the Russians’ January 2, 1915, request for British action against Turkey to relieve pressure against Russian forces in the Caucasus; and (b) the campaign as a form of horizontal escalation, meant to avoid the bloody stalemate on the Western Front.

Lambert argues compellingly that the primary driving rationale behind the operation was the need to address pressing social and economic perils weighing on the British War Council before and during its January 1915 strategic review. The former dangers stemmed from fears of a spike in the price of food; the latter centered on Russia’s demand for an enormous loan from Britain of some £100 million to keep Russia from making a separate peace with Germany. It was these complex and interrelated forces, more than military necessity, that burdened the War Council members as they debated their options.

Gallipoli occurred during the first era of economic globalization, which reached its climax in 1914. Many nations, including Britain in particular, exploited its efficiencies to their economic benefit. But the war fractured this global trading network, exposing its complexity and fragility.

Once it became clear the war would not end quickly, the government of Prime Minister H. H. Asquith became increasingly concerned over Britain’s ability to secure wheat supplies at a reasonable price. The average British family was spending more than half its income on food—of which wheat, in the form of bread, was a principal component. A spike in its price could trigger social unrest and undermine the war effort.

When Turkey entered the war on the Central Powers’ side in October 1914, it closed the Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits, cutting off the Black Sea trade route for Russia, among the world’s leading wheat exporting nations. This sent a massive shock to the global grain market.

Britain’s leaders increasingly feared a perfect storm among the world’s primary grain suppliers. Australia was experiencing a drought, Argentina a wet summer. Colder-than-normal temperatures threatened North American crops. India was withholding wheat, concerned that a spike in prices could trigger instability or even revolt.

Further complicating matters, Russia’s prospective loss of wheat revenue threatened to collapse its rickety finances. St. Petersburg informed London that it could not withstand the stress of a protracted modern war without a £100-million infusion of new capital. A sum of this size threatened to weaken Britain’s own financial standing.

These dangers elbowed themselves to the forefront of the concerns facing the Asquith government as it explored its options after the stalemate emerged on the Western Front in France.

A Council Divided

In November 1914, Asquith formed a War Council, a cabinet subcommittee charged with setting war policy and strategy. It comprised the country’s most senior defense and economic leaders: former Prime Minister Arthur Balfour; First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill; Chancellor of the Exchequer David Lloyd George; Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey; and the head of the War Office, Field Marshal Lord Kitchener.

One option, pressed by Field Marshal Sir John French, head of the British Expeditionary Force in France, called for sending additional British troops to support a Western Front offensive. French contended that a successful offensive was possible if he received the lion’s share of the new army units then being mobilized. Lloyd George preferred sending these troops to the Balkans to open a second front against Austria-Hungary, with an eye to encouraging Italy to enter the war on the Allies’ side. Kitchener, for his part, wanted to use any new troops to put pressure on the Turks through a campaign in Syria.

There was yet another option, considered a long shot: using the fleet to breach the Dardanelles Strait and advance on Constantinople, thereby triggering, it was hoped, the collapse of the military clique leading Turkey. The fleet’s guns would be used to silence the forts along the adjoining Gallipoli Peninsula, and the strait would be cleared of anti-ship mines. Ground forces, kept to a minimum, would be used primarily to occupy Gallipoli once the fleet had chased the Turks off.

The idea had little military merit: Fleet Admiral Fisher, the Royal Navy’s First Sea Lord, adamantly opposed it. Kitchener was not enthused, either; indeed, all the senior army officers expressed strong doubts.

The operation’s strongest advocate on the War Council was Churchill, who argued that the battleships involved would enjoy a range advantage over the guns of the forts guarding the strait. He conceded only that an old battleship or two might be lost to “lucky” shots.

Churchill, along with Asquith, would be accorded the lion’s share of the blame following the operation. In his defense, however, Lambert points out that he was perhaps the least influential member of the War Council at the time, primarily because of his earlier attempts to promote impractical strategies and his overbearing personality.

But if the Gallipoli expedition was so unattractive, and if its chief supporter was the council’s least influential member, what explains its adoption?

At the time, Lambert notes, the government’s efforts to moderate prices by manipulating the wheat market were meeting with little success. Moreover, the global transportation system was fracturing, as the widespread desire for maximum efficiency had left little slack. For example, supplying British forces in France entailed the Royal Navy’s appropriating many coastal colliers that normally transported coal. When Britain’s railroads tried to take up the slack, they were less available to move other cargo, including cargo arriving at the country’s ports. This found some merchant ships waiting weeks outside ports before delivering their freight. Simply put, the delivery of wheat was compromised by the demands of wartime logistics.

On January 20, 1915, Asquith established a cabinet committee on food prices. Its first meeting, two days later, was dominated by the prospect of a major spike in food prices. No less an economist than a young John Maynard Keynes, the committee’s secretary, found the British leaders taking the counsel of their fears rather than the true wheat stock levels. Keynes concluded that this was the greatest factor influencing their deliberations.

Although Asquith had been leaning strongly toward supporting Lloyd George’s idea of mounting a Balkan expedition, the wheat issue now began dominating his calculations. Less than a week later, on January 28, the issue was presented before the War Council, giving additional force to arguments supporting the need to open the Dardanelles through the Gallipoli operation. Asquith gave his approval—albeit tentative—to the enterprise.

After the January 28 War Council meeting, the situation remained dynamic. Kitchener offered to support the Gallipoli operation with a division of British troops and the ANZAC; then he reneged. Admiral Fisher, Churchill’s senior military advisor, remained opposed to the scheme. Things finally came to a head on February 18, 1915, when the War Council received news of a major German success on the Eastern Front, renewing fears of a possible Russian collapse. At this point, the Dardanelles operation got the green light. The campaign was launched the following day.

Thus, Lambert concludes, it was the intertwining of military, political, economic, and social factors; the highly dynamic environment in which the government’s deliberations occurred; and the interplay of the council members’ views and personalities that make it “impossible to identify the exact moment when the government decided to force the Dardanelles or to identify a consistent set of reasons why it made the decision.”

The Dominoes Begin to Fall

The rest, as they say, is history. The naval bombardment seemed at first to achieve great success. Then things began to unravel. The troops that might have aided the fleet’s efforts were not there. Efforts to clear the mines that threatened the ships’ progress up the strait proved more difficult than anticipated. A close-in bombardment on March 18 to suppress the Gallipoli forts saw the fleet lose one-third of the battleships assigned to the assault, primarily to mines.

Belatedly, Kitchener provided ground forces. Asquith then approved an amphibious assault on April 25. What might have succeeded in February failed miserably thanks primarily to the arrival of Turkish reinforcements and poor British leadership at nearly all levels of command. Still another major offensive was launched on August 6 from the beachheads on the Gallipoli Peninsula. It, too, failed. By mid-January 1916, the last British Empire soldier had departed.

What had originally been envisioned as a low-risk naval bombardment of the fortifications guarding the strait, employing older warships surplus to requirements, had metamorphosized into a high-risk, large-scale combined operation requiring nearly all the best uncommitted forces in the empire.

The Gallipoli fiasco led to the downfall of Asquith’s government, which turned out to be the last government headed by Britain’s Liberal Party. Asquith then formed a coalition government with the Tories but was himself forced out in December 1916 in favor of a new government with Lloyd George as Prime Minister. Admiral Fisher resigned, while his boss, Churchill, was eased out of the War Cabinet and the Admiralty. Kitchener emerged relatively unscathed, only to perish in June 1916 when a ship on which he was heading to St. Petersburg was sunk by a mine laid by a German submarine.

Ironically in the end, the free market prevailed. With fears of a price spike, more acres were planted in North America, Australia, and India; the harvests more than offset the loss of Russian wheat supplies. The fears of a disastrous North American crop proved wrong; instead, the region enjoyed a bumper crop. Adding insult to injury, by June the British realized that even if the Dardanelles were opened, little grain could be exported because of the war’s strain on Russia’s transportation system, principally its railways. Just as the war had disrupted the operation of Britain’s cargo system, it had visited the same maladies on Britain’s Russian ally.

As the ongoing Russo-Ukraine war threatens raw material exports from both countries—wheat among them—Lambert’s cautionary tale of Britain’s war lords can be read with great profit by senior U.S. policymakers today as they struggle with the challenges of waging war during the second great age of economic globalization. Over a century ago, a complex combination of factors found the British government conducting a military operation widely viewed as a forlorn hope out of economic and social necessity. Today questions are already being raised regarding Russia’s ability to avoid the West’s economic sanctions, and the willingness of Americans and Europeans to suffer real hardship to support the Ukrainian people. Like policymakers in the fall of 1914, today’s American war lords may find themselves facing a choice between greater involvement in a war they hope to avoid or incurring unacceptable economic and social discontent at home. As the U.S. admiral remarked about the relevance of Lambert’s previous book to current events, raising the possibility may constitute a wake-up call. If so, the sooner the better.

Andrew Krepinevich is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. His forthcoming book, A War Like No Other, is to be published by Yale University Press this fall.

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