Lions Led by Donkeys Revisited

This week the centenary of the launch of the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign of WWI reminded us all that butchery and senseless loss of life was not confined to the trenches of the Western Front and the massed Russian cannon-fodder of the Eastern. As with the opening of the ‘War to End All Wars”, it is right that the bravery and sacrifice of those who died there is acknowledged, if not celebrated.

But news pieces in the UK media of uniformed royalty making speeches and laying wreaths at Cape Hellas were rather long on glorification and short on reality. As with so many military operations, the expediency of the war effort, national morale and self-interest results in far more glorious victories being toasted when they were actually disasters. WWI seems to specialise in particularly pointless disasters.

The motive to launch Gallipoli was to break the deadlock of the new trench warfare on the Western Front with a strategic blow that would take one of the four Central Powers out of the war. Winston Churchill hatched the scheme during his first tenure at the Admiralty, his attention having been drawn there by the RN’s botched effort to prevent the German battlecruiser Goeben from escaping to Turkey when war broke out.

With frustration rising that the propaganda-touted Home Fleet was unable to bring the German High Seas fleet out to deal with it and unable to prevent embarrassing raids on North Sea ports, Churchill’s brilliant but Boys Own mind thought using the Allies’ superior navies to force “the Sick Man of Europe” (as the tottering Ottoman Empire was known) out of the war was the very dab to rekindle the sense of adventure he had relished against the Boers and at Omdurman.

They would force the Dardanelles against a much weaker Turkish Navy (Goeben notwithstanding), seize their capital Constantinople (not yet called Istanbul), thus forcing their surrender. This would open access to the Black Sea and to hard-pressed Russian and Rumanian allies.

As an example of inadequate intelligence, abysmal planning, inappropriate equipment, ad hoc muddling and tactical incompetence, Gallipoli has few equals in a war where Imperial jingoism seems to have trumped sensible evaluation and deployment every time. Having fought mostly spear-wielding natives and little else over a century of empire-building, the British mind set and training was geared to conflicts such as depicted in the film Zulu.

Turks were clearly not ‘British’ (cultural overtones of superiority intentional) and so could obviously be dismissed as similar to the Mahdi’s troops, slaughtered so comprehensively at Omdurman. The officers, many of whom had served in colonial roles, all of whom had grown up inculcated sons of the world’s first superpower, were particularly racist in  dismissing enemies.

The Turks—aware that an attack on the Dardanelles was a strong possibility greatly improved their defenses in the region. From February 1915, the Allies had bombarded and destroyed the Turkish forts right at the entrance to the 50-mile-long Dardanelles before making their attack proper. This revealed that the straits were heavily mined, forcing the Allied navy to sweep the area before its fleet could safely enter, but also alerting the Turks.

For an account of the various unedifying military missteps that characterise this best-forgotten pointless disaster, consider reading the original Lions Led by Donkeys blog. Suffice to say that it cost three dreadnoughts and 250,000 casualties on each side. By 1916, all troops and ships left were withdrawn with nothing positive to show for the utter waste.

However brave and resolute the troops were on both sides, it is hard to accept acknowledgement of that without parallel acknowledgement that the Admiralty planners, the Admirals and Generals in command, their considerable staffs of supposedly well trained, “top-notch” officers who dined well and passed the port in their comfortable messes on Lemnos or aboard ship of an evening were incompetent, verging on the criminal. Even now, they have not been brought to book. Consider:

  • On February 19th, Admiral Carden expected the breakthrough to capture Istanbul to take no more than two weeks. In one day his fleet of ten was halved.
  • Kitchener appointed Sir Ian Hamilton to land a Mediterranean Expeditionary Force of first the ANZACs (then training in Egypt) and the British 29th Division to silence the forts. But there were no landing craft, bombardment or support vessels provided and they were landed on scattered beachheads on the side of the peninsula away from the forts they were to capture.
  • The rapid, fierce Turkish response was countered by digging trenches and repeating the same unimaginative charging-barbed-wire-and-machine-guns tactics that had already made the Western Front such a bloodbath. So fierce was the fighting around Chunuk Bair that 711 of the 760 men of NZ’s Wellington Battalion were casualties.
  • Hamilton’s sensible attempt to outflank the Turks by landing IX Corps at Suvla Bay was botched by appointing the overage (if not senile) General Stopford to command it. His troops met no resistance and could have walked to the Dardanelles but were told to dig in and brew tea, which they happily did while Turks arrived to hem them in.
  • Because of poor logistics, summer heat and decomposing bodies, day-to-day life was intolerable, quite apart from Turkish snipers and artillery. Dysentery, disease, lice, flies and sores were endemic. Even water was scarce, tepid and reeking of chemicals.

Other than the courage and unbreakable spirit of those who survived this hell, there is little positive to be salvaged from the colossal folly. The former undoubtedly deserves to be remembered. But, even more tragic than their forlorn sacrifice is the depth of stubborn incompetence in the jingoistic imperial mindset of those who sent them into such futility in the first place.

It’s time that was remembered too.

About davidsberry

Local ex-councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Retired in 2017.
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