Historical Notes: A traumatic attempt to free Constantinople

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THE RECENT 80th anniversary of the Armistice drew attention, not unnaturally, to the immense casualties sustained on the Western Front, where the combatants were deadlocked for nearly three years. But in 1915 an attempt was made to untie the Gordian knot by forcing the Dardanelles, inserting an Anglo-French fleet into the Sea of Marmara, and using its guns to force Turkey out of the war, gain access to the beleaguered Russians via the Bosphorus, and collapse the Austro-Hungarian empire.

Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty in Asquith's Liberal Cabinet, was fervently in favour of this strategy of indirect approach. His professional head of the Royal Navy, the astonishing septuagenarian Jacky Fisher, was decidedly not, resigning in high dudgeon in June 1915, by which time a purely naval attempt to overwhelm the Chanak defences had failed disastrously and an Allied expeditionary force under General Sir Ian Hamilton was stranded and wilting under ferocious Turkish opposition.

Hamilton had been sent to the eastern Mediterranean by Kitchener, Asquith's improbable choice as War Minister, with hopelessly inadequate resources; all priorities went to the Western Front. In August, three raw divisions of the so-called Kitchener Army were sent to Gallipoli, landing in Suvla Bay to divert Turkish attention from what Hamilton hoped would be the decisive assault on the commanding high ground of the Chunuk Bair ridge. At the same time the remnants of the British 29th Division bravely attacked at Helles; they were mown down. Two weeks later a last-gasp attack failed bloodily; hundreds of our wounded, lying before the enemy trenches in the scrub, were incinerated when it took fire. Naval gunfire support fell away after two British battleships had been torpedoed off the beaches in full view of the appalled troops ashore. Only the supreme gallantry of British and French submarine crews redeemed what the army saw as their desertion by the fleet.

British participation at Gallipoli has tended to be marginalised by the performance of the Australian and new Zealand troops - the Anzacs - whose astonishing gallantry and endurance rightly gained the admiration of all who saw it. However, the British and French lost over 40,000 men between them.

It is hard to see what would have resulted had the Allies reached Constantinople; almost certainly an unseemly struggle between Greeks and Russians over the reinstatement of the Orthodox Patriarchate in Saint Sofia and this alone would have diverted Allied attention from the aim of destroying Germany's allies in the Balkans. As it was, Romania rashly plunged into the war on the side of the Entente months after the Anglo-French force had been successfully and bloodlessly evacuated from Gallipoli; a move for which she paid a bitter price.

The Allied attempt to free Constantinople failed on many grounds. The fighting capacity of the Turks was dismissed. In London, intelligence had been pigeon-holed and ignored. There was no joint control from Whitehall over naval and land operations. Hamilton was thus Commander-in-Chief in name only. There was a chronic shortage of field artillery and ammunition. Several of the generals turned out to be insensitive brutes, others were duds. Disease wrought havoc in the ranks; an unexpected cold spell in the autumn caused thousands of casualties.

Yet all was not disaster; not all the generals were hopeless old fools. Lessons were learned which (even if the errors were paraded again in Norway in 1940) enabled the success of Overlord in 1944. And this traumatic affair is still seen as the birthplace of three national identities: Australia, New Zealand and above all, Turkey.

Michael Hickey is the author of `Gallipoli' (John Murray, pounds 15.99)