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gallipoli

17 february 2013

Gallipoli – the Allied invasion of Turkey in 1915 – was a complete failure; that much is no myth. The myths that Robin Prior punctures in Gallipoli are those that find potential turning points for the campaign and indeed the entire First World War in a few highly-magnified mischances of battle.

Prior starts by noting that few historians give any First-World-War moments the want-of-a-nail treatment. Most aspects of the war strike us as inevitable (and tragically meaningless in their inevitability). But at Gallipoli, some continue to insist, the next hill, the next set of trenches would have brought about the fall of Constantinople, the end of the Ottoman empire, and the collapse of the Central Powers like a giant domino run starting in the Balkans and ending in Berlin. Prior demurs.

It's not just that the Gallipoli campaign could have had a better outcome for the Allies. It's that no possible outcome to the campaign could have had the slightest impact on the course of the war, human history, or the Universe. Prior's narrative makes clear that if even if nails were wanted at some point, the result was that for want of a nail, something pointless happened.

The campaign had its origins in the sense held by several in the wartime British government that the Royal Navy could be better employed than just blockading Germany and waiting to destroy its dreadnoughts. Winston Churchill was an advocate of indirect action, but Prior notes that Churchill was hardly alone; Gallipoli was neither his idea nor his cause. In fact, Churchill's pet strategy was to seize some North Sea Islands and then send the Navy around Denmark to break into the Baltic in support of a huge amphibious invasion of Hither Pomerania. When he learned that there were no troops with which to invade Pomerania, Churchill said he'd use Russian troops. He forgot to ask the Russians. They had no troops either.

Only then did Churchill really start backing an alternative scheme: to force passage through the Dardanelles, sail a fleet into the Constantinople harbor, and demand the surrender of Turkey. Planning for this operation takes on a kind of dorm-room quality in Prior's narrative; the planners seem totally devoid of political or military common sense. I guess things have to be read in context. In 1915, both PR and quite tangible successes had recently been won by American navies sailing into foreign harbors like Manila – or just sailing around harmlessly, as with Teddy Roosevelt's Great White Fleet. The Russo-Japanese War had been full of the drama of long-distance showings of the flag. Why not WWI? Wave the Union Jack at the Turk, they figured, and the sick man of Europe will bow to our terms, or something like that.

Unfortunately for Churchill, the Turks were all about common sense. They had mined the Dardanelles and placed numerous heavy guns along its shores. The British naval offensive produced no results except a number of sunk British ships. That would have been waste of life enough, but the British seemed convinced that another push would topple an empire. Tens of thousands of men lost their lives in the push.

It's hard to explain without Prior's excellent maps and narrative, but the troop landings at Gallipoli could never have produced anything much better than what they did: an appalling waste of life for no military gain. The British, French, and imperial forces landed on tiny beaches, facing terrain that rose quickly into canyon-riddled hills. Study where Gallipoli is on a map. Invading Turkey there with the notion that you were going to march into Constantinople – even that you were going to make much of an impression on the naval defenses of the Dardanelles – is a little like invading California and hoping to march on San Francisco by landing your troops at Cape Mendocino.

The results were predictable, tragic, and well-known. Slaughter was general on both sides, and the front lines moved very little after the Allies were ashore. Prior's excellent, detailed operational history of the campaign is short on melodrama and long on prosaic failure.

Prior, Robin. Gallipoli: The end of the myth. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.

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