Stephen Chambers :
Based in the south-east of England, he is one of the leading military historians on the Gallipoli campaign. Even though this is his prime passion, he also has knowledge of British military campaigns from the Crimea to the Second World War.
His first book, Gallipoli – Gully Ravine (Pen & Sword 2002) had high acclaim, along with its follow-on volumes; Anzac The Landing (Pen & Sword 2008), Suvla: August Offensive (Pen & Sword 2011) and Anzac: Sari Bair (Pen & Sword 2014). British and commonwealth military history has continued to have been a successful theme, with Uniforms & Equipment of the British Army in World War One (Schiffer Books, 2005), the first serious work on the subject. Stephen has recently had his popular Anzac work translated into Turkish under the title Ariburnu Cikarma. He is currently co-authoring a book Gallipoli:The Dardanelles Disaster in Soldiers’ Words and Photographs (Bloomsbury 2015) and is also researching new material for various Great War centenary projects.
When not writing, Stephen is on the Battlefield, continuing his research and guiding groups. The best way to study a campaign is to walk in the footsteps of those involved, whether in the grasslands of Zululand, the mud of Flanders or the beaches of Gallipoli. Stephen is a member of the Guild of Battlefield Guides, Gallipoli Association, Western Front Association and Orders and Medals Research Society.
Mr. Chambers . Thank you very much for accepting our interview offer.
1- Yes, It may be cliche… First of all, I would like to know why are you interested in Gallipoli?
It stems from an interest in general with British military history, especially military disasters. Gallipoli is the most tragic British military campaign of the First World War, and because of that it makes it one of the most interesting to study. The want for me to find out more about Gallipoli became stronger and I soon joined the Gallipoli Association and read the classic books that were available at the time by authors like Robert Rhodes-James, Alan Moorehead, Joe Murray and Eric Bush. This sparked interest all those years ago still fuels the passion I have today.
2- I wonder, is your opinion one that the Gallipoli Campaign was one of the most important battles in the First World War? Or was Gallipoli just a typical WW1 struggle in which so many soldiers were killed in vain to occupy several yards terrain. For Turkey, Çanakkale Savaşı was most definitely the most important campaign in the First World War. It was here the Ottoman Empire was fighting for its survival.
It was an important, albeit unwanted, campaign for the British, but it is essential to remember that it was secondary to the main military efforts on the Western Fronts against the Germans. I believe that the importance of the campaign was not so much in securing the Dardanelles, this vital strategic waterway in the support of Russia, but in Britain and France seeing an opportunity to expand their imperial interests elsewhere in the Middle East. Knock the Ottoman’s out of the war early, and this old empire would be carved up between these leading nations. Ultimately this happened anyway at the wars end.
Militarily, the Gallipoli campaign was not going to give the quick and easy victory the British wanted, and it was most definitely not going to be achieved on the cheap. By ‘on the cheap’ I mean committing to an operation without the necessary men and materials needed to fight it. Ageing warships, dugout generals and insufficient troops had all the hallmarks of failure. Even if there was a glimmer of hope that this scheme could work, British political and military bungling soon saw to prevent that, turning Gallipoli into one of the First World War’s most disastrous and tragic campaigns. Even the Commander in Chief, General Sir Ian Hamilton, referred to the campaign after the war as the ‘Dardanelles Dustbin’.
For Turkey it is rightfully very important and it showed the world that this perceived ‘sick man of Europe’, the term first used in the mid-19th century to describe the Ottoman Empire, had been underestimated. When fighting on home soil, the Ottomans fighting prowess was a force to be reckoned with. But, even though the Ottoman Empire was fighting for its survival at Gallipoli, it was also the very same campaign that led to the empires final demise. It is therefore an important mile stone in the birth of modern day Turkey.
3- We know that you visit Gallipoli battlefield regularly as a researcher. Have you ever come across any interesting occasion?
I have been visiting the Gallipoli battlefield since the 1990’s, and each time there is something new to discover. I am often asked why I visit this battlefield so often. Well, aside from researching new stories, it is the natural beauty of this part of the country and the friendship from the Turkish people that makes each trip memorable. It is a land that has so much beauty, that has been through so much suffering and its richness in history makes walking this sacred ground today a special experience.
4- Do you think that Gallipoli battlefield gradually has lost its originality? Unplanned environmental regulations cause that some original trenches, tunnels lost. For example, several years ago, there was a big crater traces which is remnant of the exploded British mine.
Yes, and this is a real threat to the battlefield today. The area is special because it is so well preserved, and I have visited many battlefields across the globe, and few come close to Gallipoli. There is a fine balance between catering for the ever increasing visitors and the historical preservation of the area. Already we have seen changes for the worse; coach parking over Turkish Quinn’s to cater for the hoards of visitors to 57 Regiment Memorial, the road widening that has changed the look of Anzac Cove forever, and numerous trenches, shell holes, tunnels and mine craters inadvertently destroyed. That said, it would be naive to state that everything has to be left exactly as it was, but there needs to be a balance so vital roadwork’s and construction to support the large numbers of visitors can occur, but not at the detriment of the battlefield. I fear that tourism will be Gallipoli’s nemesis.
5- You have four books about the Gallipoli Campaign, about the different battlefield areas on the peninsula. Firstly Gully Ravine, Anzac: The Landing, Suvla: August Offensive and the last and new one Anzac: Sari Bair. Isn’t it so much for a front? Or on the contrary, less than it deserves?
Including the Naval attacks, the Gallipoli campaign lasted a year in which over half a million men became casualties. The land campaign has many different facets and many different battles that makes a single volume history difficult to write to the level of detail that I believe needs to be given. There are some very good single volume histories available today, from authors like Les Carlyon and Peter Hart, but I did not want to re-write what has already been done very well. What is different in my approach is to concentrate on a small geographical area of Gallipoli, telling its story through both official and first-hand accounts from both sides and, providing a battlefield guide for those who may want to visit the area. You will be pleased to hear that there are plans for a ‘Walking Gallipoli’ and also a ‘Krithia’ volume in the near future.
I have also just finished a book with co-author Richard van Emden, called ‘Gallipoli The Dardanelles Disaster in Soldiers’ Words and Photographs’. This presents more than 130 never-before-published photographs of the campaign, many taken by the soldiers themselves, together with much unpublished written material from British, Anzac, French and Turkish sources. So still today, there is much to discover about Gallipoli 100 years on.
6- We mentioned your published books. I want to ask a question about Anzac landing, maybe your Anzac Landing book includes the answer? When the original Anzac Cove landing maps and plans analyzed we see that the Anzac Landing signed as “Feint” or “Strong Feint”. What do you think about this. The Anzac landing was the first objective on Gallipoli or feint? Which one?
The Anzac landing was not a feint, it was a strong diversionary attack to help take the pressure off of the main British landing at Helles. The Anzac objective was to capture the high ground of Sari Bair before cutting across the Maidos plain, at its narrowest point, to take Mal Tepe. By cutting the Peninsula in half, the two Anzac divisions would be engaging the Turkish reserves, whilst also severing the lines of communication to those fighting the British at Helles. The idea was for the British 29th Division to have joined up with the Anzacs in little more than two days. The whole landing plan was just too complicated and wildly over ambitious.
7- We all know why you’re here. Of course, for the Gallipoli Battlefield Tours and research. Approximately when did you start to Gallipoli Battlefield Tours. And what was the most interesting thing you encountered on the battlefield?
I have been visiting Gallipoli for research since 1996, and leading tours to study the campaign, which in the most part have been walking tours. On every tour I try to bring the battlefield alive by using first-hand accounts of Gallipoli by veterans who were there. These historical vignettes do work well. The most interesting tales are often those from people on the tours who bring their own family stories with them. An original letter, a soldier’s diary or an object like a medal or maybe an officer’s compass, sometimes illustrates these. It’s amazing to stand on the same ground today with an object that connects the past to the present. The most poignant items are not those we bring with us, but those we may find lying in the fields. When walking the battlefield you occasionally come across bones of the fallen, shrapnel and broken pieces of barbed wire or earthenware pottery. All these relics of the past make the words of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk all the more poignant when he said “those heroes that shed their blood, and lost their lives. You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country … “. Sadly, this soil still reveals the past, its scars and the sacrifice made by so many.
8- What can you say about allied forces objectives on Anzac Sector?
After the failure of the Anzac landings to capture their objectives on the 25 April 1915, and the repeated heroic attempts later in April and early May, Anzac became little more than a ‘holding pen’, as one author described it, for two Anzac divisions. After the subsequent failures at Helles when the battles of Krithia failed to produce the results needed, and trench warfare set in, the focus was redirected to Anzac. If the Allied forces could land enough troops at Anzac, facilitated by a new landing at Suvla Bay, they could try once more to break out of the perimetre, capture Sari Bair and make a drive to the Dardanelles. The objectives were basically the same, but the plan was still flawed and overly complicated. Even though Hamilton had more resources in terms of men and guns, it was still not enough to complete the operation. Capturing Sari Bair was a remote possibility, but then what? There was no plan to for the next phase. So this attack had no chance of reaching the Narrows that August. More resource would have been needed which history tells us was never going to happen after the August failures.
9– What do you think about Anzac plans? According to Peter Williams, actually Anzacs 25 April landing plans aimed to take on Turkish reinforcements deployed north of Peninsula . They did it so they were successful. Do you think that Anzacs were successful on 25 April Ariburnu Landing?
I have to disagree. The Anzacs achieved some remarkable feats of arms on 25 April 1915, but they failed to capture the main objectives of the plan, which meant the Ottomans controlled the field of battle, and not the other way around. The Anzacs most certainly did engage the Ottoman reserves in the area, but they did not prevent the movement of further reserves from travelling south to fight the British at Helles. The Anzac position was precarious to say the least, and the beachhead established became a barrier for both sides. The Anzacs found themselves pinned in, unable to breakout out, whilst the Ottomans, despite their valiant attempts, could not break in to push the Anzacs back into the sea – a classic impasse.
10- You have an interest in the Gully Ravine battles. Why Gully Ravine, and why was this area important to British 8th Corps?
Gully Ravine was of interest to me because there was so little written about the battles in this area. The British Official history barely has more than a dozen pages dedicated to the action in its 850 page total. So this drove me to research the story of Gully Ravine. Although the battle was only a minor operation with limited objectives, it was hugely successful and showed that the British learned many lessons from its earlier failures. Its importance, on this extreme left flank, was tactically valuable as it flanked both Krithia and Achi Baba, the very same positional advantage that was thrown away so carelessly with the Y Beach evacuation. The Gully Ravine action was a classic ‘bite and hold’ style tactic, and although there was success, sadly there was no real plan, or resources, to immediately follow up the attack. As with all things Gallipoli, there was never enough man or firepower to sustain a large-scale attack, and anyway, by July 1915 the focus of the campaign had already been moved from Helles to Anzac. The next attempt of a breakthrough would be the attack on Sari Bair and Suvla Bay.
11- Do you think that Y Beach landing could be successful to realize Allied forces plan on 25 April?
Y Beach is an interesting landing to study, and although it was very much an afterthought during the planning process, it presented so much promise on the day of the landings. Unfortunately the initial success gained here was not exploited. If more men from 29th Division were re-directed to Y, and also at S Beach, the British forces would most certainly have advanced from V Beach much earlier. This flanking movement would have encircled the Ottoman defenders at SeddelBahr, cutting off their retreat and engaging the Ottoman reserves that would soon be heading south. There would have also been a realistic chance of capturing Achi Baba from the western flank, and a combined effort with the French could then have planned an advance to the Kilid Bahr Plateau. The final Allied line would have been more advanced with both Krithia and Achi Baba consolidated into the British line. However I believe that the vitally important objective of the Kilid Bahr Plateau would have still been denied to the British. The Ottoman soldiers were not going to give up easily, so the outcome of the campaign would probably have been little different.
12- In your opinion What were the problems on Gallipoli Campaign? Non realistic plans? Incompetent commanders? Lack of ammunition? Rough terrain ? etc?
Gallipoli was flawed at many levels, but ultimately let down by poor planning and execution, and as mentioned previously, it did not have the resources needed to give it any chance to succeed. That said this operation was never going to have the resources it needed to be made available, and because of that the operation should never have be allowed to start
13- As a Gallipoli expert, what do you want to know about Gallipoli Campaign for Turkish side?
There is much to learn from the Turkish side, and I do hope that during the centenary, more Ottoman material will become available. Turkish historians like Sahin Akdogan, Haluk Oral and Kenan Ҫelik do much to share the Çanakkale Savaşı story and over the years they have certainly opened my eyes to the Ottoman side of the story.
If there was one thing that I would like to know, it is, If the Turks knew that the British and Anzacs were planning an evacuation, would they really had let them go without a fight?
14- What do you think about Turkish people’s interest on Gallipoli Campaign and what do you know about their bus tours? Is it enough to understand battlefield?
I think it is good that the Turkish people are learning about this period of history, so it is pleasing to see so many visit the Gallipoli region. Gallipoli is as an important place of pilgrimage for the Turkish people as it is for the Australians and New Zealanders. Saying that, I would like to see more study and understanding of the historical events being taught, but as a historian, I am going to say that anyway!
15- Finally so this year centenary of the Gallipoli Campaign. What are your expectations of the Turkish Government, Turkish People and advisory committee of the centenary events? What should they feature about Gallipoli Campaign?
I know that the hospitable Turkish people will be very welcoming to the mass of visitors that will be descending upon Gallipoli during the centenary year. My hope is that there will be an accurate portrayal of the campaign without the popular media perpetuating the old myths about the campaign. Myths are more potent than history, and as J.F.Kennedy once said, “The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie, deliberate, contrived and dishonest, but the myth, persistent, persuasive and unrealistic.” We owe it to our ‘Gallpoli’ ancestors to educate a generation about the true story of Gallipoli, which in reality is far more dramatic than the fiction!