- - Friday, November 18, 2011

By Peter Hart
Oxford University Press, $34.95, 534 pages, illustrated

”Whether success or failure attends you,” wrote British admiral Sir Edward Seymour in the late 19th century, “England nearly always approves an officer who has evidently done his best. You have only to do what seems proper, and if it turns out badly, it is the fault of Nature for not having made you cleverer.” Adm. Seymour was not involved in the Franco-British campaign against Turkey in World War I, but his spirit was very much present.

By the end of 1914, the fighting in France had become stalemated trench warfare. At the same time, Russia was under assault from invading German armies, and the czar was urging the British to undertake some action that would relieve the pressure on his country.

Britain had its hands full in France, but the czar’s requests found a respectful audience in London. Lord Horatio Kitchener, the secretary of state for war, wrote to Winston Churchill, the first lord of the admiralty, that it might be possible to mount a demonstration against Turkey in the Dardanelles, the narrow 30-mile-long passage from the Mediterranean to Istanbul. Churchill made the project his own. In both world wars, Churchill was attracted to the possibility of attacking Germany’s periphery, as opposed to confronting its formidable armies in Europe. As for the Dardanelles, he reasoned, battleships alone might force their way past the decrepit Turkish forts that lined the Gallipoli Peninsula.

Churchill carried the day. March 18, 1915, saw an advance by a vast Franco-British armada, including 16 battleships. Alas, things went badly from the start. The naval guns fired in a flat trajectory that proved ineffective against forts. At the same time, Turkish mines took a heavy toll on the advancing warships. The Allied commander, Gen. Ian Hamilton, agreed that nothing more could be done without the assistance of landing parties to neutralize the Turks’ artillery.

The result was mission creep. Ignoring the fact that the war would be won or lost on the Western front, the British proceeded to land troops at scattered beaches on the Gallipoli Peninsula, and they became easy targets for the Turkish defenders. “Negative” intelligence was ignored. One intelligence officer was amazed “to find that the Army had decided to land at nearly all the places which we had reported as being either difficult or impossible.”

At Helles, Suvla, and Anzac beaches, the story was essentially the same. The Turks occupied the high ground, and the exposed British, Australian and New Zealand troops, once landed, could think only in terms of survival.

The Gallipoli campaign has been studied extensively in Britain, and most historians have come to similarly dismal conclusions. What sets Peter Hart’s narrative apart is his extensive use of firsthand British and Turkish accounts to flesh out his story. A New Zealand medical officer told of a truce in which both sides retrieved their wounded and dead. “The Turkish dead lay so thick that it was almost impossible to pass without treading on their bodies,” he wrote. “The stench was awful. The Turkish doctor gave me some pieces of wool on which he poured some scent and asked me to put them into my nostrils…. Everywhere lay the dead - swollen, black and hideous - and over all a nauseating stench that made one feel desperately sick.”

The occasional truces allowed Western soldiers to study the enemy. A British soldier wrote, “We stood together … quite friendly, exchanging coins and other articles, and in some cases were able to communicate. A Turk gave me a beautiful Sultan’s guard belt buckle made of brass … with the Sultan’s scroll in Arabic. All I had to give him in exchange were a few coins.”

Occasionally there were touches of gallows humor. A British soldier wrote of one action, “Captain Croly was wounded at about this time … but what he had to say about the Turk could be heard over the battlefield. In a torrent of invective, he traced the ancestry of his assailant through a series of irregular liaisons right back to the time of the Prophet.”

By year’s end, Hamilton had been removed from command, and the entire campaign had been written off as a costly failure. Britain and its colonies suffered 115,000 killed, wounded or missing, plus an additional 90,000 evacuated for illness. In Mr. Hart’s view, the undertaking was a disaster waiting to happen, a campaign marked by “a lack of realistic goals; no coherent plan; the use of inexperienced troops; … negligible artillery support; inadequate logistical and medical arrangements; [and] a gross underestimation of the enemy.”

He concludes additionally that the Allies were fortunate not to have been penalized more severely for the Gallipoli disaster. “By diverting resources to Gallipoli the Allies exposed themselves to a greater possibility of defeat by the Germans on the Western Front. They also ran the risk of the Turks’ … soundly thrashing them, with negative consequences for British standing across the Islamic world - exactly what happened.”

The debacle also would cost Winston Churchill his job, but he would be back.

• Biographer and historian John M. Taylor lives in McLean.

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