‘In my opinion,’ wrote Admiral Lord Charles Beresford to Leo Maxse, the editor of the British conservative magazine National Review in April 1915, ‘Churchill is a serious danger to the State. After Antwerp, and now the Dardanelles, the Government really ought to get rid of him.’ Six months later and after much more blood had been shed in the disastrous Dardanelles campaign, Herbert Asquith’s Government did indeed get rid of Winston Churchill, in what was easily the worst moment of Churchill’s extraordinarily long career.
Nothing, even in the Second World War, affected Churchill so personally and profoundly badly as the Dardanelles – also known as the Gallipoli – disaster, which would have destroyed many a lesser man. Yet instead the catastrophe inserted much of the steel into the mettle of the man who a quarter of a century later was to lead Britain into the crises of 1940-41, who was by then older and, largely because of the Dardanelles, considerably wiser.
Beresford’s reference to the Antwerp expedition was to an adventure of Churchill’s in October 1914 when in his capacity of First Lord of the Admiralty (the political chief of the Royal Navy), Churchill crossed the English Channel to take personal control of the defence of Antwerp as the German army bore down on the strategically-vital Belgian inland port. According to anti-Churchillians, Antwerp was a disaster that led to the internment of thousands of men of the Royal Naval Division; according to pro-Churchillians it was the crucial five days in which Antwerp held out that saved the Channel ports further down the coast, such as Boulogne and Calais, from falling into German hands.
Either way, the controversial First Lord of the Admiralty was unrepentant and unbowed when in January 1915 the Russian Government – then in an existential struggle with the German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman (Turkish) Empires– asked Britain and France for help in diverting Turkish attention in the north-eastern Mediterranean. Churchill hit upon a plan that has been lauded as inspired but also denounced as deranged, which was to attempt to force a British and French fleet through the narrow straights of the Dardanelles which divided Europe from Asia, which could then train its guns on the Hagia Sofia and the Sultan’s Topkapi Palace in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) and thereby force Turkey out of the war, possibly bringing Bulgaria onto the Allied side and opening up the opportunity for military campaigns against Austria-Hungary in the Balkans.
In fact, however, the Fleet failed to make it past the Turkish minefields, artillery and mortar fire and battery fire from the forts on either side of the Straits on 18 March 1915, where three warships were sunk and a further three badly damaged. An amphibious assault on the Gallipoli peninsula then failed to make much headway five weeks later, on 25 April, and was supported enormously over the following eight months. The fact that Beresford was writing to Maxse even before the land assault had taken place was a sign of the animus of the Conservatives against the Liberal minister Churchill, which went back over a decade after Churchill had crossed the floor of the House of Commons.
There are myths aplenty about Churchill and the Dardanelles, both contemporary ones about his supposedly overruling all his Admiralty advisors and political colleagues, but also others that dogged him throughout his career, to the extent that hecklers would shout ‘What about the Dardanelles?!’ at him for years afterwards. Equally, there are those who have claimed that Churchill virtually did no wrong throughout the entire debacle, and instead lay all the blame on others, such as the Minister for War, Lord Kitchener, or the First Sea Lord, Lord Fisher, or the naval commanders Admirals Carden and Roebuck or the military commander General Sir Ian Hamilton.
The blame-shifting, name-calling and finger-pointing was not stilled by an exhaustive Dardanelles Commission inquiry and report in 1916-17, but should now finally come to an end a century later with the publication of this well-researched, very well-written, but above all judiciously objective book by the distinguished naval historian Christopher M. Bell, Professor of History at Dalhousie, Nova Scotia, and the author of the acclaimed Churchill and Sea Power (2012).
Astonishingly for so well-combed a controversy, there is a great deal here that is new. This is the first account to examine the press campaign against Churchill and uncover details of the behind-the-scenes plotting against him while he was First Lord. It is also the best and fullest account of Lord Fisher’s scheming to undermine both the campaign and Churchill himself. There are no comparable studies that look at how Churchill attempted to shape perceptions of the campaign and rehabilitate his reputation afterwards; and few specifically on how the Dardanelles disaster – which ultimately led to over 300,000 Allied casualties – influenced his strategic thinking in World War Two. Interestingly, Bell concludes that Churchill’s opposition to opening up an early Second Front in 1942 and 1943 were not particularly influenced by his experiences of 1915.
Bell is particularly good in his dissection of the Dardanelles Commission, and proves conclusively how much of the testimony given in evidence, especially by the admirals, cannot be trusted. Too many anti-Churchill writers have used this material without allowance for its obvious biases and what Bell shows was widespread collusion. Furthermore, much of the testimony that might have helped Churchill was ignored or buried, which would have proved that there was no strong or united opposition from the Admiralty when the scheme was first considered.
Bell also concentrates on the efforts that Churchill went to in putting together his own case for the Dardanelles, especially in the later revisions to the second volume of his book The World Crisis. It was a compelling and persuasive case that Churchill convinced himself was entirely true, but Bell exposes how it involved manipulating and ignoring a lot of inconvenient evidence, and involves a combination of ‘truths, half-truths and dubious assertions’. Churchill attempted to spread the blame, not least onto those who certainly did deserve much more of it, such as Asquith and Kitchener. ‘It is not for me with my record and special point of view to pronounce a final conclusion,’ Churchill wrote, describing it merely as ‘a contribution to history’, yet in his book he essentially claimed that the Ottoman forts had almost run out of ammunition, the minefields were not a continuing threat, Russia was not collapsing but Turkey was, and his plan might have saved hundreds of thousands – perhaps millions – of lives if he had not been let down by vacillating, cowardly colleagues. By the mid-1920s, the public had become receptive to a narrative about how the slaughter on the Western Front might have been avoided.
Bell’s excellent book cuts through a century of pro- and anti-Churchill writing to reach remarkably balanced conclusions. He shows where the myths of both sides came from and why they are both problematic, and concludes that there is no simple verdict on the expedition, except insofar as virtually nobody on the Allied side came out of the campaign looking good. Nonetheless, Churchill did learn valuable lessons from those few mistakes he admitted to, but also from others which he publicly couldn’t bring himself to admit to, and as a result was far better prepared as a war leader when he – fortunately for all of us – got another chance in 1940.