The Truth About Gallipoli

This weekend we commemorate the beginning of one of the Great War’s most (in)famous campaigns, the failed Allied effort to force the Dardanelles, remembered as Gallipoli in the West. The Turks call it the Battle of Çanakkale and since they won you’d think they would get to name it, but that’s another story. It’s strange that this battle, one among many fought futilely from 1914 to 1918, gets so much historical attention, but there are a few reasons for that.

First, Gallipoli fits what I term that war’s Anglo Privilege paradigm, meaning that battles involving English-speaking troops are deemed Very Important, and will generate books and documentaries galore, while anything else is not, to the extent that it even happened at all.

Second, there’s a movie about Gallipoli starring Mel Gibson, back when he was famous for being a hunky action star rather than an anti-Semite with a drinking problem, and many people have seen it. It fits nicely in what I call the Pommy Bastard school, where brave Australians are sacrificed by stupid British generals. If you like this sort of thing, you like this sort of thing.

Third, the whole Gallipoli story for the last fifty years has been nested comfortably in the lions-led-by-donkeys scam, which is virulent in the English-speaking world, since it portrays all generals of the Great War as fools and knaves, and there is always an eager audience for this message, no matter how inaccurate it may be.

To be fair, the Gallipoli campaign should be remembered for certain things, including its critical role in the Australian national myth. The heroic performance of the untried, all-volunteer Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) at Gallipoli is the stuff of legend, and rightly so. The near-obsession with this battle Down Under makes some sense, historically speaking, even though it comes at the expense of greater Australian efforts later in the war, and the dawn ceremony every year to commemorate the landing is a moving thing, if you ever get the chance to see it.

For the Turks, the battle is even more significant since it saw the emergence of Mustafa Kemal, an Ottoman colonel later better known as Atatürk and the founder of the Turkish Republic. Kemal’s heroic defense of the peninsula against the Allies saved Istanbul and cemented his reputation, thereby setting a path for future greatness. If you cannot be stirred by his words given to the troops of his 19th Division as he sent them into battle to resist the foreign invader — “Men, I am not ordering you to attack — I am ordering you to die” — you may be beyond hope.

The military facts of the Gallipoli campaign are clear enough. By the end of 1914, the Western Front had become static thanks to the emergence of machine guns and rapid-fire artillery, making movement difficult and costly, with troops digging trenches that stretched from Switzerland to the English Channel to get away from the pain. Even the dullest generals realized that breakthrough in the West was unlikely and everybody was in the war for the long haul.

Fortunately, the Allies had the Russians, whose supply of cannon fodder was nearly unlimited, but they lacked weapons and munitions. London and Paris liked the idea of Russians doing the dying for them, particularly because the Eastern Front was not as static as the war in France and Flanders, but they needed a way to get supplies to Mother Russia. The easiest way to do that was pushing through the Dardanelles and reaching the Black Sea.

Inconveniently, the Turks were in the way but the British and French took a dim view of the Ottoman military, and the “daring” concept became the pet project of Winston Churchill, then serving as the First Lord of the Admiralty (Britain’s Secretary of the Navy, in American parlance), and he pushed hard for the Gallipoli campaign. A brilliant but erratic man, Churchill regularly had ideas ranging from genius to madcap pop into his head, and he needed good staff officers to determine which was which: he had better helpers in the next war.

The first Allied effort to force the Dardanelles came in mid-March 1915, when an Anglo-French force of eighteen battleships and many cruisers and destroyers in support attempted to just sail up the straits. This was quickly cut short by Ottoman guns and mines that sank several Allied ships. Having severely underestimated the seriousness of Turkish resistance, the British and French navies learned a painful lesson in the lethality of modern sea mines and coastal artillery.

Undeterred by this setback, the Allies landed at the tip of the Gallipoli peninsula at the end of April, with several untried British and French divisions, supplemented by the novice ANZACs, assaulting beaches without anything resembling real gunfire support from the fleet offshore. The Turks put up a stiffer fight than anticipated, and despite great heroism, the Allies soon stalled. The fighting, with attacks being met by counterattacks at every turn, was close-quarter and savage.

Significantly, the static conditions of the Western Front were soon replicated at Gallipoli, with both sides digging in to escape the firepower of modern machine weapons. With German weapons to help him, and led by effective commanders like Kemal, the Ottoman soldier, the average mehmetçik, showed great tenacity fighting to defend his homeland against the infidel invader, much to the dismay of the Allies.

But the Allies kept pushing, and the Turks kept pushing back, all through the terrible summer. Both sides had invested pride and prestige, and for the Ottomans especially their backs were to the wall, as Istanbul was close-by. In early August, the British committed fresh divisions in an amphibious assault at Suvla Bay on the Aegean side of the peninsula in an effort to turn the Turks’ flanks, but this too quickly bogged down in the face of machine guns and rapid-fire artillery.

After the failure at Suvla, it was evident to the Allies that the campaign was going nowhere and it was time to stop throwing good men and money after bad. But, in typical Great War fashion, that took time and men kept dying, though by the end of 1915 the fighting had died down considerably. The Allies finally pulled out early in 1916, with a clever retreat by sea in the first week of January which thanks to well-executed deception plans turned out to be the Gallipoli campaign’s only real success for the Allies.

Eight months of ground combat on the Gallipoli peninsula won nothing for the Allies but an appreciation for how well the Turks could fight. It caused a temporary end to Winston Churchill’s political career, left in tatters by the debacle. He resigned as the civilian head of the Royal Navy and, to atone for his mistake, took command of a British infantry battalion in the trenches of the Western Front, seeing several months of frontline service in 1916. This would be like Donald Rumsfeld, after resigning as Secretary of Defense in 2006 for his appalling mistakes, leading a combat battalion in Iraq for a while.

The Gallipoli campaign is unquestionably exotic compared to the mud and muck of Flanders. One need not be a classical scholar to note that the battle was waged near many important places of the ancient world, plus the Aegean sun and sea were alluring to many. Nevertheless, the horrors of Gallipoli were just as real as anywhere during the 1914 to 1918 conflagration and romanticizing it seems unhealthy. Men were torn apart by machine guns and shrapnel, dying horrible deaths in a failed effort, at least as far as the Allies were concerned.

Speaking strategically, the Gallipoli was a bad idea from the start, since the concept took too little account of the difficult geography — forcing the Dardanelles sounded easy on the PowerPoint-equivalent of 1915 — as well as just how hard the Turks would fight on their own soil. Moreover, it should have been understood that the tactical stalemate that paralyzed operations in France and Flanders would be quickly recreated at Gallipoli. Ideas that sound too good to be true often are, and Churchill’s notion of getting guns to the Russians to win the war did not take enough reality into account. The alleged “lesson” of the debacle, that amphibious landings were just too difficult and complicated to work in the Great War was false, as the Germans pulled off an impressive one on the Baltic in 1917; but it was clearly too difficult for the Allies in 1915.

So a hundred years later we are having a something of a Gallipoli binge, with the media getting in the fray. Unfortunately, most of the media pieces have no idea what they are talking about and some are so silly they need a rebuttal. It was the appearance yesterday of this especially egregious piece at The Daily Beast that spurred me to write this. Hailing Gallipoli as the Great War’s “most disastrous battle,” the article is a list of sub-Wikipedia “facts” that ought to be laughed out of the room.

In the first place, Gallipoli was not even close to the war’s bloodiest, most mismanaged battle, not by a long-shot; it doesn’t even make the bottom ten. About a half-million soldiers became casualties there, more or less evenly divided between Allies and Ottomans, during the eight-month bloodbath; however, due to many soldiers lost due to illness in the unhealthy conditions, only about 100,000 of the casualties were killed in action.

By way of comparison, the Somme campaign of May-November 1916 inflicted over a million casualties while the roughly concurrent bloodbath at Verdun cost more than three-quarters of a million men. Which is much less than the 1.75 million men lost on the Isonzo river — today’s border between Italy and Slovenia — for no strategic gain whatsoever, in what ranks as the Great War’s biggest debacle (there’s a really good book on this, available in English and Italian, if you want the full story). The Third Battle of Ypres, popularly known as Passchendaele, inflicted some 800,000 losses, for no real gain, in the latter half of 1917, while the Battle of the Frontiers in the opening weeks of the war in the West exceeded the butcher’s bill at Gallipoli, in a fraction of the time.

To say nothing of the vast and bloody Eastern Front, which is customarily ignored thanks to Anglo Privilege (you can fight back by reading this book). In just the opening three weeks in Galicia, on today’s Polish-Ukrainian border, in the summer of 1914, the Austro-Hungarians and Russians together lost nearly 700,000 men, while in the first four months of 1915, in a failed effort to lift the siege of this fortress, the Austro-Hungarians lost an appalling 800,000 soldiers in the Carpathian mountains, while Russian losses in that campaign, arguably the most hideously futile of the Great War, were not much less.

In mid-1915 the Russians lost a million men as prisoners alone in what they termed The Great Retreat following the Gorlice-Tarnów offensive in early May, while their payback the following summer, the so-called Brusilov Offensive, cost the Austro-Hungarians almost 800,000 men and the Russians something like 1.4 million (casualty counts, particularly in the East, are difficult to determine with precision even a century later).

The Great War was by far the bloodiest conflict in European history to that point. The Gallipoli campaign, for all its horrors, was nothing special in terms of its butcher’s bill or what (little) was achieved. These are the facts. Additionally, The Daily’s Beast‘s claim that Gallipoli was an especially diverse campaign, with soldiers from all over the world, is equal nonsense; presumably the author has never heard of the Salonika campaign, where soldiers from more than a dozen countries, and a couple dozen nationalities, battled for years.

The Daily Beast has embarrassed itself here. I wrote this because I called them out on Twitter about their ridiculous piece twenty-four hours ago, suggesting a correction, and they have done nothing. The Great War centenary is bringing a lot of media coverage, which is a good thing. But we should expect even journalists to have a passing familiarity with what they are writing about.