Gallipoli campaign was a disastrous mistake from start to finish – An Exclusive Interview with a leading Military Historian Peter Hart ( M. Onur Yurdal )


Hello Mr. Hart I would first like to thank you on behalf of our readers at for agreeing this interview. You have a lot of research, critics and books on the Great war but we want to discuss with you about Gallipoli Campaign since the majority of our subscribers are most interested in this subject.

                                           Peter Hart  ve  M. Onur Yurdal


  Turkish readers of history first had a chance to know you on the occasion of your book “Defeat at Gallipoli” which you co-authored with Nigel Steel and has later been translated to Turkish. Will you kindly introduce yourself to our readers?


I am the oral historian at the Imperial War Museum (1981-2013) . I was lucky enough to work on interviewing Great War veterans in the 1980s and 1990s. As part of this we did a big project on Gallipoli veterans which we later used in the ‘Defeat at Gallipoli’ book. I had always been interested in Gallipoli since reading Joe Murray’s book, ‘Gallipoli as I saw it’. I later did a 21 hour interview with Joe as part of our project – it was a fascinating experience!


  My first question will be on your Book ‘Gallipoli’ about which we have read a lot of positive comments on social media. I hope it will be translated to Turkish. Why a new book on Gallipoli and what differentiates it most from other works on this subject?


Defeat at Gallipoli was the first book I had ever written and I had learnt a great deal more about the campaign from people like Kenan Çelik, Bill Sellars, Sahin Akdogan and Haluk Oral who taught me a great deal of the Turkish side of the campaign. British myths of large numbers of Turkish machine guns at the landings were soon exposed by their detailed rebuttals. My own studies had taught me a lot more about the campaign from a British viewpoint and introduced me to a lot of new sources. I had become ever more sceptical as to any realistic chance of success. Then again I greatly admired the French contribution at Helles and wanted to reflect that as it had largely been omitted from most books on Gallipoli.


  Where would you fit the Gallipoli battles within the framework of the Great War in relation to its significance? Did it make an impact on the course of the War?


I think the Gallipoli campaign was a disastrous mistake from start to finish. The war had to be won either by the British and French on the Western Front, or by the Russians on the Eastern Front. In the end the Western Front would prove to be the prime front where the war was won or lost. The Gallipoli campaign had no tenable objectives. When the Turks attacked the Russians in the Caucasus Mountain in December 1914 the Russians came to their Allies requesting help. The British were already fully committed but a group of politicians led by Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, sought to help Russia by an attack on the Gallipoli Peninsula to gain control of the Dardanelles. This it was boasted would remove one of the Allies ‘propping’ up Germany, influence the wavering Balkan states and open the sea route to the Russian Black Sea ports for the export of munitions to feed Russian guns on the Eastern Front. Much of this is sheer nonsense. There was no backdoor to Germany; no easy route to victory, no Allies that propped her up. Germany operated on interior lines of communications and even in the event of a Turkish defeat would merely have rushed reinforcements to her Austrians Allies to make the Balkan mountain ranges all but impregnable. Finally, in 1915 Britain did not even have enough munitions for her own armies, never mind supplying the Russians! Britain had to fight the war as it was; not how visionaries dreamt it might be. The German Armies were deep in France and Britain could not just abandon her ally to her fate. The priority of the Western Front meant that the Gallipoli expedition could never be given insufficient men and guns to have any real chance of success. As such it should never have been started. All it did was give the Turkish Army the opportunity to kill thousands of British soldiers and sailors. In the end when the British won the war on the Western Front they won in the east as well: Turkey surrendered and the whole of the Gallipoli Peninsula was occupied by the British and French until 1922.


The Gallipoli Campaign started with a number of simultaneous landings. You had commented in the History section of the BBC website that the D-Day operation in Normandy was a success based on lessons learned at Gallipoli. Could you elaborate further on this?


There is no doubt that the lessons of the Gallipoli landings were at the forefront of the minds of the men that planned D-Day and the Allied landings earlier in the Second World War. By then they had grasped the vital necessity for an adequate period of planning for all three services – the Army, Royal Navy and RAF. Experts of all kinds were required for all phases of the planning and operations. These needed to communicate properly with each other to ensure that everything was ready for use as and when required. The importance of accurate intelligence was now understood – not just accurate maps, but detailed information on local topography, offshore navigational details, prevailing sea currents, ground conditions, water supply, prevailing weather patterns and the exact nature and strength of enemy dispositions. The flexibility of sea power would be used to transport a huge force to attack the identified point of weakness in Normandy, to maximise surprise and thereby to secure a temporary local superiority. Meanwhile sophisticated deception schemes would draw away and delay the deployment of German reserves. During the landing hundreds of modern landing craft crashed onto the beach simultaneously to minimise their vulnerability in the final assault. Special floating tanks and specialist armoured vehicles would deal with beach obstacles and strongpoints. The slaughter on the Helles beaches had taught the planners the necessity of smothering the immediate beach areas with massed fire from rocket ships and mortars to neutralise German defensive positions. One of the lessons of Anzac was that geographical features and strongpoints which could dominate or threaten the beaches had to be captured by coup de main at the earliest possible stage in the operation – on D-Day this was to a large extent left to the parachutists, glider units and commandos. Both Helles and Anzac taught the Allied planners the vital importance of seizing a viable beachhead, spacious enough to contain an army capable of fighting face-to-face with the full strength of the Germans on a new Western Front, once the impact of the initial surprise of the landings had faded. Finally, the chaos caused by bad weather on the coasts of Gallipoli during the campaign had emphasised the importance of a secure harbour, and of ensuring that evermore troops and supplies could get ashore even in stormy seas. This led to the wonders of the prefabricated Mulberry harbours and flexible Pluto oil pipeline. I would however sum up the Gallipoli landings as a lesson in how not to do it!

                                             Kayıhan Kabadayı ve Peter Hart

When Gallipoli is mentioned, for most of the World it is a reminder for the Anzacs. Are British happy with this? Is there a big difference of perception on Gallipoli between Australians and New Zealanders on the one hand and the British on the other.


The British have been involved in many wars, many campaigns, many victories, many defeats. Gallipoli was where the Australians and New Zealanders fought their first big campaign, where a sense of national identity was forged and the two countries together began to create not just a ‘legend’, but a formidable fighting force which became the benchmark for quality during the decisive campaigns of 1918 on the Western Front. In no way do I begrudge them anything.


Again in connection with the previous question, how do you assess the outlook of the Turkish people towards Cannakale since you have been visiting the area for years?


I have never encountered anything but friendship and hospitality from the Turkish people in the Cannakale area over the 15 years I have been visiting the Gallipoli area. I am fortunate to count many Turkish guides and scholars as my friends.


How do you rate the Turkish commanders in the Battle esp. Mustafa Kemal? How do you react to statement of ‘Turkish soldiers led by German commanders’ as quoted in many western sources?


The Turkish commanders were generally of a high standard – and if they fell from those standards they were swiftly replaced! Mustafa Kemal certainly had a touch of genius, the knack of being at the right place at the right time, the intelligence to quickly grasp what as important in any tactical situation and the ability to inspire his troops to great deeds. There were many other competent Turkish generals and the British accounts have perhaps over-exaggerated the importance of Liman von Sanders and other German commanders. This is partly due to an over-literal acceptance of some of the statements in the English-translated versions of books by Kannengeisser and von Sanders. The myth of omnipresent German officers, as a malevolent controlling force directing the Turkish troops in the field, so common in British veterans’ recollections, is surely nonsense given their very restricted number. It can probably be explained by the different cut and quality of the uniform of Turkish officers which provoked unwarranted assumptions that they were German.


In one of our previous discussions, you had qualified Sefik Aker as “My Hero”, now my question is what qualifies him with this distinction in your assessment?


I may have over-stated there! But I do believe that Colonel Sefik Aker was an extremely competent officer who led the 27th Regiment brilliantly during the landings at Anzac Cove. He held his nerve in very difficult circumstances and he set the scene, if you like, for the arrival of the Kemal and the 57th Regiment. Sefik certainly performed better than any of the ANZAC officers on 25 April. I am surprised that he is not better known in Turkey. He and Kemal were both great commanders.


There are many who rate British Command a failure in the Campaign. In what aspects were they successful and were they or not generally speaking in your assessment?


The British commander was General Sir Ian Hamilton – who at 61 years old was one of Britain’s greatest soldiers. He was no fool, but his plans proved fatally over-complicated. He launched multiple attacks, each dependent on another’s success, but too far apart to actually help each other when things went wrong. Taken as a whole his schemes were utterly unrealistic and took no account of the terrain. Everything had to go just right and his plans demanded incredible feats of heroism. To achieve success then raw troops would have to perform like veterans and inexperienced commanders would have to act like veritable Napoleons. Above all his plans presumed that Turks put up the little or no resistance. In the final analysis, the landings of the 29th Division and the ANZAC Corps may have been the first landing to be made in the face of modern weapons, but Hamilton and the British could hardly have done worse; or indeed the Turks much better, on 25 April 1915. Throughout the campaign the British high command over-exaggerated the numerical strength and machine guns of the opposition while simultaneously underestimating the collective military skill and resolve of the Turkish soldiers. Mistakes were made at every level of command at Gallipoli and any brief localised tactical opportunities were routinely missed. This endemic military incompetence was then lethally combined with troops that had little or no experience of modern warfare in 1915. The lesson was clear to those who would heed it – raw courage was not enough to combat bolt-action rifles, machine guns, trench systems, barbed wire and above all artillery. Amateurism was doomed and the British Army would need a far more professional approach if it was to triumph in the Great War.


                                            M. Onur Yurdal ve Peter Hart

So far I had questions on the Commanders of either side of the conflict. Now I have a question relating to both sides. A famous commander of World War II viz. General Patton produced his work evaluating the Gallipoli Campaign in the perspective of military history while he was based in Hawaii in 1936. In the ‘Lessons’ chapter of his Book ‘The Defence of Gallipoli’ he states that “It was neither that the Turks won, nor that the British were defeated. Interchange the commanders, it could have been a huge success instead of a failure.” on his assessment of the Suvla operation of 6 August. He especially crowns Lieut. Col. Wilmer with words of praise. Do you agree?

No I totally disagree. The adverse strategic and tactical situation facing the British could not be overthrown by a mere exchange in leadership. Patton was basing his views on a shallow survey of secondary sources – Hawaii is a long, long way from the realities of Gallipoli! I accept that Colonel Wilmer did perform well at Suvla, as did many of the Turkish leaders. I also accept that the British leadership at Suvla was dreadful, but my main thesis is that there were there were many things wrong with the British campaign – not just the quality of leadership. And many things right with the Turkish campaign!


On an issue still disputed, is Gen. Stopford to blame for not having acted fast enough? How do you react to Aspinall-Oglander putting the blame on the former in the official history?


Not solely to blame – partially to blame! Consider also that the operational plans were not clear or realistic, the poor standard training of the British troops available, the poor leadership at every level in IX Corps, the difficult tactical situation, the nature of the terrain and of course the excellence of the Turkish resistance.


Now follows a more recent question but which has its roots in the past which I know you are familiar. Recently there has been a live controversy in UK regarding the competence of British High Command remembered best by ‘Lions led by donkeys’ theme. When was this label first introduced and by whom? Why is it that it is hotly disputed again nowadays?


The label came into use in the 1960s and is used by those who think the Great War generals were lacking in intelligence. It is very commonly used with connection to Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig. I don’t subscribe to this view at all being more sympathetic to the enormous problems in fighting the German Army, which was by far the finest force in the whole world. Sadly, there was no easy way to victory for ether of the great power blocks. If there was a ‘madness’ then it surely lay in the decision to go to war, not in the tactical decisions of the commanders in the field. Whatever they did the war would still have bitten deep, killing millions, as millions fought to the death. This was the modern industrial age and flesh and blood would have to face new weapons of war deployed in an ever-changing tactical clash between attack and defence. The military history of the Great War is often misrepresented by easy clichés such as the ‘butchers and bunglers’ – it was far more complex than that. I believe Haig to have been a great commander in chief who fought in difficult circumstances and finally achieved a notable victory in 1918 using the ‘All Arms’ Battle tactics’ developed over the previous four years.


I thank you so much on behalf of our readers. Lastly I would like to have your views on the Centenary of the Great War and therefore the Gallipoli Campaign. In projects relating to the commemoration what deserves to be emphasized, e.g. is it the Victory of the Allies or the Peace today?


Neither. I would prefer to treat the Great War and Gallipoli as historical events to be studied and understood rather than celebrated or commemorated. Centenaries are mere excuses for morbid sentimentality; they have no meaning other than an arbitrary number of years since the event concerned.




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