- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 21, 2010

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

GALLIPOLI: THE END OF THE MYTH

By Robin Prior

Yale University Press, $35,

252 pages

Reviewed by Vice Adm. Robert F. Dunn

The first impression on seeing “Gallipoli: The End of the Myth” on the bookshelf might well be a question, “What and where is Gallipoli?” The second would be, “What is the myth?” Robin Prior does a good job of describing the what and where, but even a close read does not disclose the myth. One might assume that the myth is that Winston Churchill engineered the whole operation, because Mr. Prior does a good job of exonerating him. What Mr. Prior also does well is expose the ill-thought-out plans, poor intelligence, haphazard leadership ranging from London to the front lines and all levels in between, and the sacrifice of the common foot soldier and junior officer on both sides.

It’s a well-written book, complete with a great bibliography and some of the most outstanding maps to be delivered with any account of war and battle. That the author could assemble such a plethora of information and then distill it into such a readable account would be a story unto itself. For anyone who wants to know where, when and what Gallipoli was, this book is for you.

The Gallipoli Campaign was conceived in the halls of the British government. By late 1914, the Western Allies - Britain, France and Belgium - had gotten bogged down in France. Trench warfare offered solutions of only retreat to the sea or continued stalemate. Casualties piled up, and any movement was desultory at best. While English papers published increasingly long lists of the dead and wounded, pressure mounted both in and out of government for some sort of second front. Adding to the mix was that Germany was dealing harshly with the Russian allies on the Eastern Front and Ottoman Turkey was moving on the Caucasus and in the Black Sea.

Almost invitingly, the British and French were making progress against the Ottomans in the Near East. Why not strike directly at the capital of the Ottoman Empire, Constantinople? If Constantinople fell, so it was felt, all of Turkey would fall, and the empire would break up. Much of the Middle East would be Britain’s, Syria would be French, the pressure on the Russian allies through the Caucasus would be removed, and success even might open up an avenue for an allied thrust from the south, through the Balkans, against Germany’s ally Austria-Hungary.

To sea power-oriented Britain, a campaign centered on a Royal Navy charge up the Dardanelles through the Sea of Marmora was made to order. There were problems with this approach, however. In no way would the British War Office consent to any first-rate ships from the world’s most modern and capable navy leaving its watch on the German High Seas Fleet for an adventure in the Dardanelles.

In the end, only one fairly new battleship, HMS Queen Elizabeth, was added, and that as a fleet flagship. All the rest sent down were pre-dreadnought. On top of that, planning was haphazard, amounting to little more than giving an order and trusting the on-scene commanders to “muddle through.” The initial attempt to reduce the Turkish coastal defenses through concentrated shelling began in February 1915, but that plan went awry from the start. The weather was poor, the accuracy of the old battleships was insufficient to take out the guns, not enough ammunition was on hand, and the extensive mine barrage in the channel was more than enough to discourage any idea of gallant charge through the straits by naval action alone. Thus began a land campaign.

The Allies assembled a division of British troops from England. They also brought up Australians, New Zealanders, British Indian troops and French from the Middle East. Once assembled in the Aegean Sea, they made their first assault on Gallipoli on April 25, 1915, the French landing on the Asian shore and the others at two points on the peninsula itself. Having been alerted to a coming assault by the earlier naval bombardment, the Turks were ready. Not only that, but the beaches were small and poor, and because of inadequate intelligence, the terrain was a difficult surprise. Later, a third landing was made farther up the Aegean Sea side of the Gallipoli Peninsula, but the troops ran into the same difficulties there.

At all three lodgments, the Turkish defenders were tenacious and well-led and the Allies made little headway at great cost. The balance of the book covers the various battles and the attendant difficulties as the Allies attempted to make headway across the peninsula in order to take out shore batteries inhibiting fleet passage up the Dardanelles. Mr. Prior’s research into the individual stories of commanders, junior officers and troopers is exemplary. The reader feels a part of every action and gets to know on a fairly personal basis many of the participants, but it was all in vain.

Terrain, the difficulties of logistics, a tenacious foe and the onset of winter weather prompted the Allies to pull out. The last one evacuated in January 1916. Sadly, many lives were lost: 26,000 British, 8,000 French, almost 8,000 Australians, 2,500 New Zealanders and 1,600 Indians. There probably were as many Turks killed as well, but those numbers are not known. There were casualties of another sort at the higher levels, of course: Generals, admirals and even Winston Churchill were tarnished because of their roles.

Churchill came back again in World War II, as we all know, but during the Gallipoli Campaign, a Turkish hero was made as well: Lt. Col. Mustapha Kemal, later known to the world as Kemal Ataturk. Gallipoli is a great lesson for politicians and military planners at all levels and is highly recommended in that context. Of particular interest toward the end of the book is an author’s analysis of the leaders, an analysis that would be of great study value today.

Unfortunately, the book does not come without flaws. Twice the author refers to the Battle of Yorktown having taken place in 1776. More important, for some inexplicable reason, he failed to mention the success of British submarines that actually made it into the Sea of Marmora, causing some chaos in Turkish movements. Those few shortcomings notwithstanding, “Gallipoli” is a good and interesting read and a worthy addition to anyone’s military or history library.

Vice Adm. Robert F. Dunn is the president of the Naval Historical Foundation and resides in Alexandria.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide