Natalie Solent

Politics, news, libertarianism, Science Fiction, religion, sewing. You got a problem, bud? I like sewing.

E-mail: nataliesolent-at-aol-dot-com (I assume it's OK to quote senders by name.)

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Wednesday, April 27, 2005
"Even when there was folly, it was often not the WWI cliche kind of folly." More thoughts on Gallipoli. ARC writes:

One point always worth mentioning when Gallipoli is discussed is that the 'doomed, never had a chance' idea that is apt to creep into WWI discussions whenever one forgets to guard against it is even less true here than in some other theatres. At several points the campaign trembled on a knife edge. The ANZACs and others who went into action expecting to win were in some ways wiser than many later commentators; they did not know what would in fact happen but they were quite correct to think they had a real chance of winning and that winning could have a massive impact on the war.

As often, sometimes two valid concerns conflicted. Right at the start, when the Goeben arrived in Turkey and Churchill was wild to go in and sink her, he was overruled by Lord Kitchener on the grounds that, for the loyalty of the Moslem subjects of the empire, it was essential that Turkey strike the first blow. Churchill and Kitchener both had very good points. With hindsight, I'm tempted to think that Churchill was right but that is hindsight, knowledge of how Russia's isolation from western industry affected the war, and it assumes that Turkey's fear would have outweighed her rage; debatable, and doubly debatable that it would have gone on doing so for the next four years.

As often, it was sometimes not stupidity per se but assumptions that were the problem. During the naval attack, the Turks decided they had lost, and were astounded we called off the assault. While one can justly damn as overcautious the commander (Admiral de Robeck) who overruled his subordinate and halted the attack, the key influence was the initial minesweeper squadrons' managing just to fail to close their lines. As appalling luck would have it, the missed sliver of sea between the two sweeps contained a string of mines. The ship losses that caused were sustainable; what mattered was de Robeck's belief that the whole area had been swept, leading him to think that the Turk's were managing to float mines down the channel or that the minesweepers were incapable of clearing it. My grandfather was a minesweeper captain in the North Sea (and saw plenty of his fellow minesweepers blow up around him). From his stories, it is not too hard to see how the disastrous failure to prevent a slight gap between the two lines could have come about. The crews were all ex-fishermen and at this point in the war, they were not very experienced.

As often, pure luck turned the scale. When the army attack began, Kemal, far and away the best of the Turkish divisional commanders, chanced to be in the area and did not wait for orders; if Enver had been in charge, it would have been a walk-over. It was good luck for Turkey, of course, and not just during the war; Kemal lacked the character(lessness) of a politician and would never have acquired political power if fate had not given him this chance to show what he could do. At several points, Kemal's leadership blocked victory where a lesser general would have failed, indeed would probably have panicked and fled.

Even when there was folly, it was often not the WWI cliche kind of folly. The Sulva landing was entrusted to the 11th division fresh from the western front. By this time, those on the spot had experience of landings. The commander in chief (Hamilton) stressed the importance of heading inland instantly to take the heights and trap the Turks but the penny absolutely failed to drop for the divisional commander (Stopford) whose orders managed to lose the plot in western front style references to securing the beachhead and organising for the advance. (This reference, is a good summary, perhaps a little too kind to Stopford even amid all its criticisms. Underneath all the specific confusions he had a simple inability to grasp the difference between France and Gallipoli.) A senior commander correctly ordering impetuous advance and a junior wrongly hesitating is not the standard WWI picture. The divisional commander should have been sacked before, not after, the landing, but if Hamilton had a fault it was that he was not ruthless enough to his subordinates and allowed them too much initiative; again, not the cliched kind of WWI command failing. (Kitchener chose him for the operation because he thought Gallipoli would be tricky, requiring an intelligent, even intellectual, general, but at that moment Hamilton could definitely have done with being less of one.)

The historical effects of Gallipoli are too vast to assess easily. With Russia supplied by western arms, would there never have been a Russian revolution (or at least, not a second revolution in November 1917 bringing the communists to power)? Would Stalin never have ruled, never have killed tens of millions? With Russia still in the war, would Germany never have looked like winning in their 1918 offensive, never have survived till 1918? Would Hitler be a name noone had heard of? "Who knows? Who will say that he knoweth?"