The Dardanelles Campaign was proposed as a pure naval operation at the very beginning to solve the early stalemate of the First World War in the Western Front after a ‘demonstration’ request – either naval or military – made by Grand Duke of Russia in early January 1915 to relieve his troops in the Caucasus. Since there was no troop to spare anywhere, according to British Secretary of State for War Lord Kitchener, the only option on the table was a naval demonstration at the Dardanelles in which the Allies could easily threaten the Ottoman capital. Then First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, who was already eager to use his ‘inactive’ Royal Navy waiting in the North Sea for the German High Seas Fleet threat, immediately embraced this opportunity. By the scheme of forcing the Dardanelles, it was confidently predicted by the authorities in London that the Ottomans would have surrendered, neutral Balkan states would have joined the war against the Teutonic Alliance, and the Russian armies would have been aided via Black Sea route. In other words, the Great War would have been swiftly and easily shortened. Therefore, the Dardanelles project was favourably accepted by the War Council. The enterprise, however, ended with a disaster for the Allies after the fleet’s unsuccessful attempt to force the straits on 18th of March 1915 and subsequently a series of Allied troops’ unsuccessful assaults in the Gallipoli Peninsula.
Churchill’s career as the First Lord of the Admiralty had ended much earlier than the Allied evacuation of the Peninsula by the collapse of Prime Minister Asquith’s government in May 1915. Since that time Churchill has been always in the centre of the debates of Gallipoli because he, — in the eyes of some authors, politicians, and journalists — as a careless adventurist who ignored his naval advisers and colleagues, has been seen sole responsible for the disaster. Professor Christopher Bell’s (Dalhousie University in Halifax/Canada) recent, balanced, and well-analysed study of Churchill and the Dardanelles, however, has evidently changed the ‘conventional wisdom’ about the Churchill’s role in the Dardanelles by clearly stating that he was neither a hero nor a devil.
Bell has skilfully exploited variety of archival materials. In addition to the official documents such as Cabinet papers and memorandums, Professor Bell demonstrates personal opinions of Churchill and other prominent figures in London or in the field by exploiting their diaries and personal letters. It can be easily observed in the Bell’s book that all archival documents were treated “with forensic care” as Richard Toye says.[i] Bell narrates all of these documents, which are well-footnoted, in a quite readable way for the readers, even for laypeople.
In the first part of his book, Professor Bell elucidated how and why the naval phase of the Dardanelles expedition had failed. We learn with this study that Vice-Admiral Carden’s fruitless bombardment campaign of the Turkish forts in the Narrows, commenced on 19th of February 1915 and continued thereafter, was in fact a forerunner of the incoming catastrophe of 18th March. Since the War Council was kept in the dark by mainly Kitchener and Churchill, however, serious problems about the naval operations could not be properly learnt by the officials in London. Additionally, the author explicitly emphasised some ‘little-known’ but vital facts regarding the origins and implementation of the campaign. One of these facts is about the First Sea Lord John Fisher’s role in the Dardanelles. It was Fisher, not Churchill, who “had raised the possibility that pre-dreadnought battleships could force a passage through the Dardanelles on their own” for the first time in early January 1915.[ii] Fisher, furthermore, supported the proposal of adding the gigantic, brand new HMS Queen Elizabeth to the Carden’s fleet in the mouth of the Dardanelles. The Sea Lord, moreover, had never voiced his opposition for the naval operations as well, and never believed that the fleet would fail to accomplish the task owing to the impracticability of the operation. His only concern was the possibility of weakening of British Grand Fleet in the North Sea. Bell also pointed out that it is not fair to say that Churchill dominate the Britain’s decision-making process, ‘like a dictator’, at the War Council because “his Cabinet colleagues frequently challenged his proposals and rejected his advice.”[iii] On the other hand, the Dardanelles enterprise, Bell notes, showed some weaknesses of Churchill as a war leader such as his “habitual overconfidence; his impatience and willingness to run unnecessary risks; his tendency to disregard or downplay professional advice he did not like.”[iv] Bell’s other contribution is that he described how the Britain’s decision-making mechanism was “haphazard, chaotic, and amateurish” in the first year of the war, which affected the operations seriously. Some decisions such as landing troops on the Peninsula after the 18th March failure were taken by an informal meeting without informing all of the members of the War Council.
After analysis of the reasons of the failed naval offensive in the Dardanelles, Professor Bell scrutinised the ‘Dardanelles Commission’, which was established to inquire the operations conducted in Dardanelles/Gallipoli and Mesopotamia. The author did not only study the Commission report itself, he also analysed transcripts of interviews and correspondences of main figures. In this part, readers can evidently see Churchill’s efforts to get rid of the label of the sole responsible for the naval offensive for his future political career. Professor Bell’s another significant contribution is explanation of Churchill’s influence on the Gallipoli literature, and the Dardanelles Campaign’s effect on the former’s career and his decisions. During the interwar period particularly, Churchill had attempted to intervene – did succeed to some extent actually – the literature of the Gallipoli/Dardanelles campaign in order not to be remembered as a reckless politician, who was solely behind the catastrophe. During the Second World War, Churchill, as the First Lord of the Admiralty and later the Prime Minister, was more inclined to say ‘no’ for schemes of major enterprises, particularly when his professional advisors thought on the contrary. Another lesson that Churchill derived from the Dardanelles Campaign, as Bell indicates us with Churchill’s own words, is that it would be a mistake to commence an enterprise “without being sure that all the means & powers to make it successful” are in one hand.[v]
Professor Bell concisely concluded about the reason of the Dardanelles failure and the Churchill’s role in it that the campaign was initiated because not just Churchill but also his advisers and other members of the War Council ‘collectively’ “underestimated the obstacles the Allied fleet would encounter; …believed little risk was involved as long as the operation could be called off; and none of the principal actors foresaw the dangers of escalation.”[vi]
With its well-considered analyses and detailed footnotes, Christopher Bell’s study of Churchill and the Dardanelles would be an indispensable book, first, for future Dardanelles studies, and later for other topics such as civil-military relations, Churchill studies, and British decision-making mechanism in the First World War.
Yusuf Ali Ozkan
PhD Researcher at Brunel University London
Churchill and the Dardanelles
Oxford University Press, 2017