Winston Churchill reportedly once remarked that history would treat him kindly because he intended to write it. Churchill’s efforts to do so failed with respect to the Gallipoli Campaign—the allied attempt during the First World War to force the Dardanelles Strait, seize the Gallipoli peninsula, take Constantinople, force the Ottoman Empire out of the war, and open a supply route to Russia, that failed miserably one hundred years ago in 1915—but not for want of trying.
Ironically, as Churchill biographer Robert Rhodes James pointed out, Churchill in 1911 had written, “it is no longer possible to force the Dardanelles, and nobody would expose a modern fleet to such peril.” In 1906, the Committee of Imperial Defence examined and rejected war plans for forcing the Dardanelles. Churchill changed his mind as First Lord of the Admiralty, however, when he searched for a strategy to end the mindless slaughter on the Western front. In December 1914, he wrote to the Prime Minister, “Are there not other alternatives than sending our armies to chew barbed wire in Flanders?” Forcing the Dardanelles was one such alternative.
The Dardanelles, which separates Europe from Asia, is thirty miles long from Cape Helles on the Mediterranean north to the Sea of Marmara. Constantinople (now Istanbul) to the northeast guards the entrance to the Bosphorus, which leads to the Black Sea. The Gallipoli Peninsula sits astride the west bank of the Dardanelles. Long before the First World War, the region where Gallipoli and the Dardanelles are located figured prominently in world history. The ancient city of Troy was located nearby. In the fifth century B.C., the Persian Army crossed the straits to fight the Greeks. Constantinople was the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. During the nineteenth century, the region factored into the geopolitical struggle between Britain and Russia known as the “Great Game.”
In 1915, the dying Ottoman Empire straddled southeastern Europe, western Asia, and North Africa. The Ottomans entered the First World War on the side of the Central Powers in late October 1914, having previously signed a Turko-German alliance. By that time, Russia had suffered two devastating defeats by Germany at Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes, and was in need of supplies and a diversion to draw off German pressure.
Churchill initially hoped that a naval bombardment of the forts protecting the Dardanelles would be sufficient to pass through the straits, and foresaw the need for troops only to seize and occupy Constantinople. He had been greatly impressed, Rhodes James noted, with Germany’s bombardment of Belgian forts in the early stages of its attack in the west. Churchill convinced Admiral Sackville Hamilton Carden, who commanded the British warships near the Dardanelles, to support the plan. More important, Churchill’s plan was not opposed by Jackie Fisher, the First Sea Lord—who initially kept his doubts about the scheme to himself.
Churchill persuaded the War Council to approve the plan. Fisher later remarked that Churchill, with the “brain of Moses and the voice of Aaron,” carried the War council with him on this matter. Like Douglas MacArthur years later with the plan to seize Inchon in Korea, Churchill’s masterful performance overcame the doubts of political and military leaders about the Dardanelles scheme. Unfortunately for Churchill, the results of the Dardanelles operation did not match the success of Inchon fifty years later.
The bombardment of the Dardanelles’ outer forts began on February 19, 1915. It was the first of a series of failed attempts to force a passage through the straits by naval power alone. The initial failures did not affect Churchill’s vision of the plan’s ultimate success. The War Council decided that the taking of the Gallipoli peninsula would require ground forces, and a Mediterranean Expeditionary Force led by General Sir Ian Hamilton arrived at the Dardanelles on March 18. The first mass landings on the peninsula occurred on April 25. Soon the fighting between the allied army—composed of British, Australian, New Zealand, Indian, and French troops—and Turkish forces (with German advisers) settled into dismal trench warfare reminiscent of the Western front. Allied reinforcements were unable to take Gallipoli and the casualty toll rose. When it was all over in November 1915, allied armies suffered over a quarter-million casualties with nothing to show for it. The Gallipoli campaign was an unmitigated military disaster.
It also proved to be a political disaster for the First Lord of the Admiralty. Everybody, it seemed, blamed Churchill and only Churchill for the failure of the Dardanelles expedition. Prime Minister Asquith formed a coalition government and accepted Churchill’s resignation from the Admiralty on May 21. In the new government, Churchill was given a minor office from which he continued to champion further efforts to take Gallipoli. All of those efforts to reinforce failure were unsuccessful, but Churchill was no longer a key policymaker and had therefore lost all influence over events.
Churchill’s first public effort at defending his role in the Gallipoli campaign came on June 5, 1915, in a speech to his constituency. He urged his listeners to look atthe losses the allies had suffered on Gallipoli in the context of “the prize for which you are contending.” The army and naval forces at the Dardanelles and on Gallipoli, he opined, “are separated only by a few miles from a victory such as this war has not yet seen.” A victory there, he told them, would shape the destinies of nations “and shorten the duration of the war.” “Beyond those few miles of ridge and scrub” on which allied soldiers “are now battling,” he continued, “lie the downfall of a hostile empire, the destruction of an enemy’s fleet and army, the fall of a world-famous capital, and probably the accession of powerful allies.” He predicted that “the struggle will be heavy, the risks numerous, the losses cruel; but victory when it comes will make amends for all.” Victory on Gallipoli, he assured them, will be one of the “shortest paths to a triumphant peace.”
Churchill defended his record again in the House of Commons on November 15, 1915, in a speech announcing his resignation from office. He wanted to make it clear, he said, that the decision to force the Dardanelles was “profoundly, maturely, and elaborately considered … by expert and technical minds,” and was not undertaken “with carelessness or levity.” The naval attack on the Turkish forts, if successful, would have led to “far-reaching” results. All key officials in the Admiralty and the admirals involved in the operation believed in the plan. The Dardanelles expedition was not, he assured the House, a “civilian plan, foisted by a political amateur upon reluctant officers and experts.” Churchill accepted “the fullest personal responsibility” for the naval operations. He did not make the plan, he noted, but did approve and support the plan. “It was,” he said, “a plan that ought to be tried.”
He did not accept responsibility, however, for what he called the “military” (i.e, non-naval) aspects of the plan. “The naval attack finished on the evening of the 18th March,” he said. “The military attack did not begin until the 25th of April.” “If in that period,” he continued, “we had known what we now know of the course of military operations, I cannot conceive that anyone would have hesitated to face the loss of prestige in breaking off the attack on the Dardanelles.” The naval and military decisions, he insisted, were separate, but he acknowledged that he both induced the War Office to make the landings of ground troops on Gallipoli and supported them for doing so. He criticized the “long intervals between the attacks” which enabled the Turks to “draw reinforcements from their whole Empire.” But, he claimed, “on the Gallipoli Peninsula, our Army has stood all the summer within a few miles of a decisive victory. There was no other point on any of the war fronts, extending over hundreds of miles, where an equal advance would have produced an equal, or even a comparable, strategic result.”
He admitted that he had throughout the year offered the same counsel to the Government: “take Constantinople; take it by ships if you can; take it by soldiers if you must; take it by whichever plan, military or naval, commends itself to your military experts, but take it, and take it soon, and take it while time remains.”
His final words to the House about Gallipoli were a stirring defense of the operation. “[I]f there were any operations in the history of the world which, having been begun, it was worth while to carry through with the utmost vigour and fury, with a consistent flow of reinforcements, and an utter disregard of life, it was the operation so daringly and brilliantly begun by Sir Ian Hamilton in the immortal landing of the 25th April.”
Churchill’s most elaborate defense of the Gallipoli campaign appeared in Volume 2 of The World Crisis, his magnificent history of the First World War, where in eighteen chapters he recounted the planning, decision-making, and execution of the operation. It is part history and part defense brief. In the book’s preface, Churchill noted that,
Upon me more than any other person the responsibility for the Dardanelles and all that it involved has been cast. Upon me fell almost exclusively the fierce war-time censures of Press and Public. Upon me alone among the high authorities concerned was the penalty inflicted—not the loss of office, for that is a petty thing—but of interruption and deprivation of control while the fate of the enterprise was still in suspense.
In late December 1914, Churchill surveyed the general situation of the war and concluded that the Near East was the “true field for our action and initiative in 1915.” He recalled that he had wanted to seize Gallipoli at the outset of the war. In January 1915, he sensed a “great convergence of opinion in the direction of [an] attack upon the Dardanelles …” “At the War Council,” he noted, “[e]veryone seemed alive” to the advantages of “influencing the Eastern situation in a decisive manner …” The War Council discussed the proposed operation for twenty days, he noted, and all opinions were favorable.
Churchill believed that the naval attack at the Dardanelles could have changed the history of the world by cutting the Turkish Empire in two, paralyzing Constantinople, uniting the Balkans against the enemy, helping Russia in its war effort, and shortening the duration of the war. “Searching my heart,” he wrote, “I cannot regret the effort. It was good to go as far as we did. Not to persevere—that was the crime.”
He supported a naval attack alone, he wrote, because he believed that no significant army was available to launch a combined operation. He insisted, however, that had such a combined operation been effected with a resolute purpose, “few will now doubt that a complete victory would have been gained.”
The execution of the Gallipoli campaign, Churchill further noted, lacked the two essentials for success: surprise and intensity. After the initial assault, strategic surprise was gone, but the choice of landing beaches still allowed for tactical surprise. “The more Surprise was absent,” he continued, “the more Intensity was vital.” The path to victory, Churchill wrote, was as follows:
To descend upon the Peninsula in the greatest possible numbers and the shortest possible time; to grapple with the local Turkish forces; to fight them day and night with superior numbers till they were utterly exhausted, to thrust in fresh troops and renew the battle unceasingly, to grip and racket the weaker enemy till the life was shaken out of his smaller organism.
Victory, he wrote, was denied to the allies by failure to timely supply Ian Hamilton’s army with sufficient shells and reinforcements and by rendering the navy mere spectators at the scene of action. What followed was “a long and lamentable series of disasters incurred and of opportunities for ever thrown away.” “Initiative and Opportunity,” Churchill noted, “had passed to the enemy. A long, costly struggle lay before us and far greater efforts would now certainly be required.”
Time, Churchill wrote, was the crucial factor in the allies’ inability to take Gallipoli. “Three divisions in February could have occupied the Gallipoli Peninsula with little fighting,” he opined. “Five could have captured it after March 18. Seven were insufficient at the end of April, but nine might just have done it. Eleven might have sufficed at the beginning of July. Fourteen were to prove insufficient on August 7.” The reinforcements were always too little, too late.
Churchill nevertheless supported the effort to the bitter end, but he refused to accept sole blame for its failure. The Gallipoli campaign, he claimed, “had been starved and crippled at every stage.”
He concluded by noting the consequences of the failure at Gallipoli. The abandonment of the Dardanelles, he claimed, “led to the diversion of the Allied military forces on a scale far larger than its most ardent advocates ever contemplated.” Turkish forces freed from the grip of allied troops and warships launched campaigns from Salonika, Egypt, and Mesopotamia that further drained British resources until the end of the war. “The maintenance of these three great expeditions,” he explained, “threw a strain upon the maritime resources of Great Britain which, combined with the unlimited ‘U-boat’ warfare, came near to compassing our complete ruin in the spring of 1917.” In addition, all hope of opening continuous, direct contact with Russia faded, while Rumania was crushed by the Central Powers. “It was not ordained,” he solemnly noted, “that the world should escape easily from Armageddon, that victory should bring triumph and profit to any of the combatants, or that old systems should endure unchastened among men.”
Churchill’s defense of the Gallipoli campaign in The World Crisis, though eloquent and brilliant, was not the last word. Although most historians and biographers agree that he was not solely to blame for the debacle, they do not absolve him of his share of responsibility for the tragedy. Carlo D’Este describes the Churchill of 1915 as “an ego-driven, self-assured man, secure in his beliefs and unmoved by dissent.” A. J.P. Taylor wrote that the Dardanelles operation “showed Churchill at his best and worst.” Churchill, according to Taylor, “exaggerated both the ease with which it could be carried through and the rewards it would bring.” Roy Jenkins, while conceding that the Dardanelles strategy was “bold and imaginative,” nevertheless blamed Churchill for failing to integrate the naval and military forces for the operation. Robert Rhodes James wrote that while Churchill “cannot bear full responsibility” for the failure of Gallipoli, “he cannot be fully exonerated for his part” in the failure:
[H]e overestimated his own knowledge and capacities; once enamored by an idea and a plan, his total concentration on it and devotion to it hindered him from a cooler appreciation of the facilities available for its execution and the probable hazards that it would face; he made insufficient use of the professional advice and experience that was available to him, and too often beat down criticism by argument rather than heeding it an utilizing it.
Churchill’s approach to the Gallipoli campaign, Rhodes James concluded, was “too personalized, too dramatic, and too imperious.” Paul Addison has noted that while it is unfair to make Churchill the scapegoat for Gallipoli, it was his own “egotism and impetuosity” that contributed to its failure. “Gallipoli,” concludes Addison, “was a cross to which he nailed himself.”
Churchill has also had his defenders, including biographer William Manchester and military historian B. H. Liddell Hart. Manchester wrote that Churchill’s conception of the Dardanelles operation “was on a plane so extraordinary that others simply could not grasp it.” Gallipoli, he concluded, “was a good gamble” given the potential it had for breaking the stalemate on the Western front. Liddell Hart described the Gallipoli campaign as a “sound and far-sighted conception, marred by a chain of errors in execution almost unrivaled even in British history.”
Gallipoli haunted Churchill for the rest of his political career. It was one reason, among many, why he was so distrusted by his own party in the 1930s and kept in the political wilderness for so long. Even during the Second World War when he was Prime Minister, after events in Europe had vindicated him time and again, British and allied political and military leaders would question his judgment and proposals, mindful of his role in the Gallipoli disaster.
One hundred years later, the debate over Churchill’s responsibility for the failures of Gallipoli continues. Churchill himself wrote that it is easy “to dress up a tale in the light of its results,” but much harder to judge the actions of responsible statesmen while the results “were lapped in the mysteries of the unknown future, while every fact was doubtful and disputable, while hazard intervened at every stage and even the most hard-wrought conclusion was little more than a guess.”
Francis P. Sempa is a contributor to Population Decline and the Remaking of Great Power Politics (Potomac Books), and the author of Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century (Transaction Books). He has written on historical and foreign policy topics for Joint Force Quarterly, American Diplomacy, Strategic Review, The National Interest, The Washington Times, and other publications. He is an attorney, an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University, and a contributing editor to American Diplomacy.
Sempa looks at Winston Churchill’s attempts to defend the strategy of the Gallipoli offensive in World War I—and his role in it—a century after the disastrous campaign cost a quarter of a million lives.