A SHORT HISTORY OF
THE GREAT WAR
A. F. POLLARD
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Sir John Nixon's success in the Mesopotamian delta was, however, but a pin-prick in a distant part compared with the blow that was aimed at the heart of the Turkish Empire in the Dardanelles; and the merits of that famous but ill-starred enterprise, and of the strategy which inspired it, have been one of the most debated questions of the war. Soldiers and civilians, writers and talkers, and even thinkers were divided into two camps, Westerners and Easterners, those who believed that the war could only be won by frontal attack in the West, and those who discerned a way round to victory in the Near or the Farther East. Volumes might be, and no doubt will be, written on this controversy, and its implications have infinite variety. It involved questions of policy as well as strategy, and therefore raised the delicate problem of the relations between civil and military authority. The soldier only deals with armies, and in the field his voice is properly supreme; but policy may be as far above strategy as strategy is above tactics; and policy may dictate a strategy which would not commend itself on military principles. The soldier has nothing to do with the policy, but policy and diplomacy may or may not bring fresh allies into the war and fresh armies into the field; and a strategy which may be unsound on purely military grounds may be completely justified by political reasons. The diversion of a force from the main field of operations where it is needed to a more distant objective, seems suicidal to the general in command; but if, without provoking disaster on the field it has left, it has the effect of turning the enemy's flank, detaching his actual or deterring his potential allies, and inducing neutrals to intervene, it may win a war although it postpones or risks the success of a campaign.
On the other hand, it was urged that the fundamental principle of strategy is to concentrate all available forces where the enemy has concentrated his, beat him there, and thus win a victory which will carry with it the desired results in all the subsidiary spheres. Germany once beaten in the West, it was argued, there would be no need to trouble about the Balkans or the amateur strategy which looked to Laibach or Aleppo as the vital spot in the situation. This principle was erected into a dogma, and dogma is a dangerous impediment to the art of war. War is an art, and therefore consists in the adaptation of varying means to conditions which are not constant. Strategy is not, apart from its mechanical adjuncts, a science in which properties are fixed, axioms can be assumed, and the results of experiments foretold; the combination of two armies and a commander-in-chief does not produce the same uniform result as the combination of two parts of hydrogen and one of oxygen; and formulae are as irrational in war as in any other human art. Dogmas deduced from the experience of some wars are inapplicable to others; and the science of wars between France and Germany becomes mere imposture when it seeks to dictate dogma to wars in which the British Empire is involved. The particular dogma about concentration had three defects: it left the initiative to the enemy, thus surrendering the advantage, secured by the command of the sea, of being able to strike in other directions; it assumed that the enemy could be beaten on that front without disturbance on his flanks or in his rear; and it abandoned the Near and the Farther East to any schemes on which the Germans might choose to employ their own or their allies' subsidiary forces.
No one, on the other hand, imagined that the Western front could be denuded of the armies required to maintain it. The question was really how to use the considerable margin of force between what was essential for defence and what was needed for a successful offensive. Should it be employed for frontal attack in the West, or flank attack in the East? Caution counselled one course, adventure suggested the other. Surplus force intended for an offensive on the West would be available, if need arose, for defence; it would not, if it were a thousand miles away, and our needs in the spring of 1918 seemed to supply an effective answer to arguments drawn from our later successes in the Balkans and in Syria. The antithesis is, however, largely a false one, due to the exigencies of popular debate and the habit of treating war as an abstract science independent of changing but actual conditions. No one denies that a diversion of our main effort from France to Laibach in the winter of 1917 would have been fatal to us in the spring of 1918, but it is not clear that the thousands of troops we lost at Loos and the French in Champagne in the autumn of 1915 might not better have been employed in saving Serbia or forcing the Dardanelles.
There was much to be said for the policy, and even the strategy, which led to the Dardanelles expedition. Flanks had disappeared on the Western front; the lines extended from the Alps to the sea, and it was natural that, commanding the sea, we should seek to turn them farther afield. We had asked Russia to relieve the pressure on our Western front by using her military force in Prussia and Galicia; and it was reasonable enough for Russia to ask us to reciprocate and relieve the Turkish pressure on her flank in the Caucasus by a naval attack on Turkey. The German Fleet lay snug in port beyond the reach of naval power: could not our supremacy on the sea find an offensive function somewhere else? There was, moreover, our own position in Egypt to be defended; no one proposed evacuation, and the best defence of Egypt was a blow at the Dardanelles in the direction of Turkey's capital. It was, in fact, no more a dissipation of forces to send troops to force the Dardanelles than to send them to hold the Suez Canal, and from the point of view of policy, which was even more important, the effect of the expedition might be a concentration of power or Powers against the Central Empires. Serbia had successfully held the gate of the Balkans against Austria: Rumania's intervention would extend the lines of possible attack, Greece inclined in the same direction, and the forcing of the Dardanelles would assuredly have deterred Bulgaria from hostile intervention, and almost certainly have decided her to join a common Balkan move against the Teutons and the Turks. To the war on the Eastern and Western fronts, which was already a German nightmare, would be added one on an almost undefended Southern frontier. Austria could not long resist if Italy also intervened, and the collapse of the Hapsburg Empire would open up an advance against Germany from the south which would circumvent the Rhine and the Oder and turn the gigantic bastion she had constructed in France and Belgium into a house of cards. Well might the Dardanelles expedition be hailed in the press as a stroke of strategical genius and associated with Mr. Churchill's imagination. Easy also is it to understand the concentrated fear and force which the Germans put into Mackensen's coming drive in Galicia.
There is, indeed, less material for censure in the policy of the Dardanelles expedition than in the Allies' decision to couple with it a military offensive on the Western front and to divorce the naval and military efforts in the Aegean. Divided counsels produced divided efforts. Mr. Churchill, backed up, we are led to infer, by Mr. Lloyd George, secured his naval expedition; but he failed, until it was too late, to secure its military complement because the troops were earmarked for costly and premature attacks on the German lines in France. Deprived of this assistance, the naval expedition seems to have relied on the hope of Greek co-operation to the extent of two army corps, which Venizelos was only prevented from dispatching by the vigour of the Prussian Queen of Greece and by the veto of the King. Possibly there was precipitation, for the naval attack did not await the arrival of the military forces, which were before long on the way, extorted, it would seem, by impetuous pressure from a reluctant and unconvinced authority.
For this purely naval attack on the defences of the Dardanelles there is little to be said; for no argument of advantage from success can justify an attempt which is fore-doomed to failure, and history demonstrated beyond a doubt the strength of modern forts against the modern battleship. Nor was it in the Dardanelles a test between an ordinary sea attack and a normal land defence. The strength of the position attacked was trebled by the forts on both sides of the channel and by its twist at the Narrows, which enabled the land batteries to concentrate fire on the attacking fleet from in front as well as on both flanks. There was no room to manoeuvre in a channel less than a mile in width, and even when the mine-fields had been swept, the Turks could send fresh mines down the constant stream, and discharge torpedoes from hidden tubes along both shores. Against such formidable defences even the guns of the Queen Elizabeth were an inadequate attack, and forts that were said to be silenced repeatedly renewed their bombardment.
The first stage of the attack began on 19 February; it consisted in demolishing by concentric fire the outpost fortifications at Kum Kale and Cape Helles. This proved comparatively simple, and after a week of bad weather the mine-sweepers were able to clear the channel for four miles. It was a different matter when the real defences in the Narrows were attacked early in March. The chief bombardment was from outside in the Gulf of Saros, where it was hoped that the guns of the Queen Elizabeth and her consorts would by indirect fire dispose of Chanak and the other forts. None of them were, however, silenced with the possible exception of Dardanos, and Turkish howitzers, cunningly concealed in the scrub along the shore, provided an unpleasant surrise by hitting the Queen Elizabeth. Nevertheless, it was thought that enough had been effected to justify an attempt to force the Narrows on the 18th. Three successive squadrons of British and French ships were sent up the Straits, but the Turks had only waited till the channel was full of vessels to release their floating mines and land-torpedoes. First the French Bouvet, then the Irresistible, and thirdly the Ocean were struck by mines and sunk, the Bouvet with most of her crew. Three battleships and 2000 men had been lost in an attack which did not even reach the entrance to the Narrows; and for six weeks occasional bombardments hardly concealed the fact that the frustrated naval attack was awaiting the co-operation of the army to give it some chance of success.
The French had naturally refused to divert a single division from their troops on the Western front, and their contingent consisted of a detachment of some colonial troops, fusiliers marins, and the Foreign Legion. The substantial force took longer to collect, and had to be provided by Britain. Sir Ian Hamilton was placed in command, and he was given the 29th Division, the Naval Division, a Territorial Division, and the Australian and New Zealand Divisions serving in Egypt, which was now considered safe for the summer. The total amounted to three corps, or 120,000 men. The Turks were directed by the German general Liman von Sanders, and he expected the landing to be attempted near Bulair on the flat and narrow isthmus which joined the Gallipoli Peninsula to the mainland. His expectation is perhaps the best justification for Sir Ian's selection of other spots, but there were few that were practicable, and none that did not involve enormous difficulties, for Liman von Sanders' anticipation of an attack at Bulair did not preclude some effective precautions against a landing elsewhere.
The attempt began on 25 April at six different points. Some way up the outer or north-western shore of the peninsula the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps effected a landing at Gaba Tepe, later called Anzac from the initials of the force. Farther down another was made in front of the village of Krithia, and the remaining four attempts were on beaches stretching round the point of the peninsula from Tekke to Morto Bay. All prospered fairly well except at Sedd-el-Bahr, where a concentration of Turkish fire kept most of the troops from disembarking for thirty-two hours, and near Krithia, where on the 26th a counter-attack drove our forces back into their boats. Zeal carried the Anzacs nearly to the summit of the hills overlooking the Straits, and excess of it led to heavy losses in a Turkish counterattack; nor could the parties of British troops who got within a few hundred yards of Krithia on the 28th maintain their position, and the result of this first attempt was to give us possession of the extremity of the peninsula from a mile above Eski Hissarlik inside the Straits to three miles above Tekke on the Aegean, and of an exposed ridge of cliffs at Anzac. A French force had landed at Kum Kale on the Asiatic mainland, but only to destroy the Turkish batteries there.
The coup de main had obviously failed, and the struggle for Gallipoli resolved itself into a costly attack by inferior forces on land against an almost impregnable position. Never were the difficulties of invasion by sea more strikingly demonstrated, and it was a misfortune that the generals who continued throughout the war to distract the popular mind by depicting a German invasion of England, were not all sent to study the process in the Dardanelles. In front of our narrow footholds the Turks, amounting to 200,000 men, held positions rising to over 700 feet at Achi Baba and Pasha Dagh, and defended by masses of artillery and machine and elaborate systems of trenches upon which the big guns from our ships appeared to have little effect. Two British submarines did gallant work by getting up the Straits under the mine-fields and disturbing the Turkish communications across the Sea of Marmara; but there remained land-routes on either shore, and reserves arrived more quickly on the Turkish than on the British front. From 6-8 May a second attack was made up the Saghir Dere towards Krithia and the Kereves Dere towards Achi Baba, while the Anzacs created as much diversion as possible from Gaba Tepe. But the bombardment from ships and shore-batteries failed to destroy the Turkish trenches, and an advance of a thousand yards, which failed to reach the enemy's main positions, was only achieved at the cost of casualties amounting by the end of May to more than the losses in battle during the whole Boer War. A third attack on 4 June reinforced the lesson that nothing short of an army large enough for a major operation could master the Dardanelles, and meanwhile an elusive German submarine was threatening the naval supports. The Goliath had been sunk by a Turkish torpedo boat on 12 May, and the submarine disposed of the Triumph on the 26th and the Majestic on the following day. Silently the Queen Elizabeth and her more important consorts withdrew to safer waters, and the naval attempt to force the Dardanelles was gradually transformed into a military siege of the peninsula.
The Gallipoli campaign therefore dragged its weary length along throughout the torrid heat of summer, serving mainly as a demonstration of practical though ineffective sympathy with our Russian allies. Another attack on Krithia, launched on 28 June, gave us control of the Saghir Dere and led to considerable Turkish losses in the counter-attacks which Enver, defying Liman's wiser advice, had ordered; and the French under Gouraud made a corresponding advance on the eastern shore of the peninsula. Gouraud received a wound which required the amputation of his leg and his retirement to France, where he later rendered more brilliant and far more effective service. On 12 July yet another effort was made to capture Krithia without substantial success; and the much-tried armies on that forbidding and barren field then sat down to await the reinforcements demanded and the new plan which was maturing for the solution of the problem.
All eyes that could see were turned to the Dardanelles. There British troops were making the one serious counter-offensive to the German attack on Russia, and success would redeem the Russian failure and foil the hopes the Germans were building upon their victory. The immediate future of the Balkans, the Black Sea, and Asia Minor, and it might be the more distant future of Egypt and the East, hung upon the issue at Gallipoli. During July the reinforcements for which Sir Ian Hamilton had asked were gathering in Egypt and in Gallipoli; and on 6 August the new plan of attack was begun. There were to be four distinct items; a feint was to be made of landing north of Bulair, the attack on Krithia was to be renewed in order to hold the Turkish troops there and draw others in that direction, and a similar advance was planned for the Anzacs with a similar motive, but also to co-operate with the real and fresh offensive. This took the form of a landing at Suvla Bay, the extreme north-westerly point of the peninsula between Anzac and Bulair. The diversions were reasonably successful, as successful, indeed, as previous attacks had been in those localities when they were the principal efforts. The chief of them was a threefold advance north-east, east, and south-east from Anzac Cove on Sari Bair with its highest point at Koja-Chemen. Conspicuous gallantry was shown in the three days' fighting; and while, as earlier at Krithia, the summits defied the greatest valour, enough progress was made in these subsidiary attacks to justify the hope of general success if the principal effort at Suvla Bay went well.
It began without any great mishap, and General Stopford's 9th Corps was successfully landed on the shores of Suvla Bay during the night of 6-7 August and deployed next morning in the plain without serious resistance. The surprise had been effected, but it would be useless unless the attack was pressed with energy and without delay. Yet torpor crept over the enterprise during that torrid afternoon; many of the troops were in action for the first time in their lives, and, understanding that water was obtainable from the lake close by, they had drained their water-bottles by eight o'clock in the morning. A thunderstorm mended matters a little, and Chocolate Hill was carried on the right. But all next day an inferior Turkish force, assisted by a planned or accidental conflagration of the scrub, managed by skilful use of a screen of sharpshooters to hold up our advance all along the line. Sir Ian Hamilton himself arrived that night and strove by persuasion to infuse some energy into the attack. But by the 9th it was already too late, for the Turks had had time to bring up reinforcements, and an attack on the Anafarta ridge on the 10th was repulsed. Five days later General Stopford relinquished the command of the 9th Corps, to which he had been somewhat reluctantly appointed by Lord Kitchener, and the 29th Division was brought up from Cape Helles to renew the attack on 21 August. It might have succeeded had it been originally employed in place of the inexperienced troops; but by this time there could be nothing but a frontal attack on a watchful foe, and it ended like the similar efforts in May and June. Some ground was gained, contact was established with the Anzacs, and a continuous line of six miles was secured from the north of Suvla Bay to the south of Anzac Cove. But before the Turks could be expelled from the peninsula and a passage cleared through the Dardanelles there would be a long and weary struggle, in which progress would be as slow and beset by as many obstacles as it was on the Western front. Russia was to obtain no relief that way; as a counter-offensive to the German campaign of 1915, the attack on the Dardanelles had failed; and the failure produced a deeper impression upon the Balkans than if the attempt had never been made. The way was clear for the next move of German diplomacy and war.
Some of the forces had already been transferred to Salonika, and the evacuation was to be completed in two stages, the first at Suvla Bay and Anzac and the last at Cape Helles. Success depended upon weather suitable for embarkation and skill in organizing transport and concealing our intentions from the enemy. No one dared to hope for so complete a co-operation of these factors as that which characterized the enterprise on 18-19 December. The weather was ideal in spite of the season, an attack from Cape Helles diverted the attention of the Turks, and the whole force at Suvla Bay and Anzac was embarked during two successive nights with only a single casualty. Marvellous as this success appeared, its repetition at Cape Helles on 7-8 January was even more extraordinary, although a Turkish attack on the 7th threatened to develop into that rearguard action which had been considered almost inevitable. But it was a mere incident in trench warfare, and they were as blind to our real intentions at Cape Helles as they had been three weeks before at Suvla Bay and Anzac--unless, indeed, with true Oriental passivity, they were content to see us leave their land in peace and had no mind to seek a triumph of destruction which would inure to the benefit of their uncongenial allies.
The brilliant success of the withdrawal from the Dardanelles provided some solace for the failure of the campaign, but did nothing to relieve from responsibility those who had designed its inception and directed its earlier course; and a Commission, which was appointed in the following summer, produced on 8th March 1917 an interim report which threw a vivid but partial and biased light not only on the Dardanelles campaign, but on the governmental organization which was responsible for the failures as well as the successes of the British Empire during the greater part of the war. Both were largely the outcome of that autocracy in war with which popular sentiment and the popular press had invested Lord Kitchener. It swallowed up everything else: the Cabinet left the war to the War Council and the War Council to a triumvirate consisting of Mr. Asquith, Lord Kitchener, and Mr. Churchill; but of these the greatest was Lord Kitchener. "All-powerful, imperturbable, and reserved," said Mr. Churchill, "he dominated absolutely our counsels at this time.... He was the sole mouthpiece of War Office opinion in the War Council.... When he gave a decision it was invariably accepted as final." He occupied, in the words of the Report, "a position such as has probably never been held by any previous Secretary of State for War," though it cannot compare with the elder Pitt's in 1757-61. Oriental experience had not improved his qualifications for the post; secretiveness, testified the Secretary of the War Council, made him reluctant to communicate military information even to his colleagues on the Council; the General Staff sank into insignificance, and the regulations prescribing the duties of its Chief were treated as non-existent. Mr. Churchill was debarred from a similar dictatorship at the Admiralty mainly because he was not a seaman and had Lord Fisher as his professional mentor; while Mr. Asquith busied himself with keeping the peace between his two obtrusive colleagues, neither of whom expressed the considered views of the Services they represented.
Thus the Dardanelles campaign was less an active expression of policy or strategy than the passive result of conflicting influences and opinions. As early as November 1914 Mr. Churchill had suggested an attack there or elsewhere on the Turkish coast as a means of protecting Egypt, but the idea was not seriously considered until on 2 January 1915 an urgent request was received from Russia for some diversion to relieve the Turkish pressure in the Caucasus. There was a corresponding need to deter Bulgaria from casting in her lot with the Central Empires, and on 13 January the War Council resolved upon the "preparation" of a naval attack on the Dardanelles. Its members were in some doubt as to what was meant by their resolution. Lord Fisher was averse from the scheme because he preferred another sphere of action, possibly the Baltic or Zeebrugge, with which Jellicoe's mind was also occupied; and he hoped that preparation did not involve execution. Lord Kitchener warmly supported the idea of a naval attack, but most of his colleagues assumed that the operation would automatically become amphibious and involve the army as well; at any rate this impression was clearly stamped on their' minds after the purely naval attack had failed. Lord Kitchener, however, was strongly opposed to military cooperation; a great advantage of a purely naval attack was, he thought, that it could be abandoned at any moment, and he maintained that he had no troops to spare. Meanwhile Russia enthusiastically welcomed the notion, France concurred, and Mr. Churchill had secured an uncertain amount of naval backing for an expedition, the nature of which was not defined. But Lord Fisher grew more pronounced in his opposition, and when on 28 January the War Council proceeded from preparation to execution, he accepted the decision with a reluctance that nearly drove him to resign.
No sooner, however, had the War Council decided on a purely naval expedition than it found itself involved in an amphibious enterprise. "We drifted," said the Director of Military Operations, "into the big military attack"; and on 16 February it was resolved to send out the 29th Division and to reinforce it with troops from Egypt. The naval bombardment did not begin till three days later, and therefore it was no naval failure that produced this resolution; it was rather an unconscious reversion to the Council's original idea which had been dropped out of deference to Lord Kitchener. The same influence delayed the execution of the plan of 16 February: the 29th Division was to have started on the 22nd, but on the 20th it was countermanded by Lord Kitchener. Animated discussions ensued at the War Council on the 24th and 26th, but Lord Kitchener could not overcome his anxieties on the score of home defence and the Western front, and the Council yielded to his pressure. It was not till 10 March that the ill-success of the naval attack, advices from officers on the spot, and reassurances about the situation nearer home overcame the reluctance to dispatch the 29th division and other forces under Sir Ian Hamilton. Lord Kitchener now desired haste, and complained that 14 April, the date suggested by Hamilton, would be too late for the military attack. It was not found practicable until the 25th, and according to Enver Pasha the delay enabled the Turks thoroughly to fortify the Peninsula and to equip it with over 200 Austrian Skoda guns. Enver's further statement that the navy could have got through unaided, although it agreed with Mr. Churchill's opinion, is more doubtful. Out of the sixteen vessels employed to force the Dardanelles by 23 March, seven had been sunk or otherwise put out of action.
The same hesitation that characterized the inception of the military attack marked its prosecution, and forces which might have been adequate at an earlier stage were insufficient to break down the defences which delay enabled the Turks to organize. Nevertheless the enterprise might have succeeded but for errors of judgment in its execution, notably at Suvla Bay; and success would have buried in oblivion the mistakes of the campaign and its initiation just as it has done similar miscalculations in scores of precedents in history. There were, moreover, vital causes of failure which could not be canvassed at the time or even alleged in mitigation by the Commission of Inquiry; and the publication of its report on 8 March 1917, without the evidence on which it was based or reference to these other causes, was a masterpiece of political strategy designed to concentrate the odium of failure on those who were only responsible in part and to preclude their return to political power. Of these hidden causes there were two in particular: one the possibly justifiable refusal of Greece to lend her army to the scheme when a comparatively small military force might have been sufficient, and the other the far more culpable failure of Russia to co-operate with the 100,000 troops which were to have been landed at Midia and would have either found the northern approaches to Constantinople almost undefended or have diverted enough Turkish forces from the Dardanelles to give the southern attack a reasonable prospect of success. As it was, the British Empire had to content itself with the idea that 120,000 military casualties, apart from the French and the naval losses--which might have bought the downfall of Turkey shortened the war by a year at least, and saved a greater number of lives--had the minor effect of immobilizing 300,000 Turks and facilitating the defence of Egypt and the conquest of Mesopotamia and Syria.
The failure of the larger hope was a blow to the "Easterners" who discerned in the Dardanelles the strategic key to victory in the war and expected to turn the argument against divergent operations by pointing to a converging advance from the Balkans upon the Central Empires. But the "Westerners," who maintained that the war could be won and could only be won in France and Belgium, were not much happier at the end of 1915. The British and French commands alike had subordinated the Dardanelles and Salonika expeditions to the needs of an autumn offensive on the West; and the argument between the two schools of thought is narrowed down, so far as the autumn of 1915 is concerned, to the question whether the troops we lost in September and October at Loos and in Champagne might not have been more effectively employed at the Dardanelles or Salonika. That they were not needed for defence in the West is obvious, since the line was held in spite of their loss. They were, in fact, mortgaged to an offensive which produced less strategical effect than the casualties in the East; for without the Salonika expedition, at least, Greece would have fallen completely under German dominion, and our control of the Ęgean and our communications with Egypt would have been seriously imperilled. The controversy was an idle one so far as it was conducted on abstract principles, because war is an art in which success depends upon changing conditions which dictate one sort of strategy at one time and another at another. There were times when neglect of the West would have been fatal; there were others at which neglect of the East was almost as disastrous, and the autumn of 1915 belonged to the latter rather than to the former category. Neglect of the East would, indeed, have been not merely excusable but an imperative duty, had the situation in the West been what it was in the autumn of 1914 or spring of 1918. But there was no such necessity in September 1915: troops were not then withheld from the East to defend our lines in the West against a German offensive, but to take the offensive ourselves; and illusory hopes of success were based upon the known inferiority of German numbers in France due to their concentration in Russia.