Haythornthwaite, Philip J. Gallipoli 1915.

(Modern Campaigns series, 5). London: Osprey Publishing Co, 1991.

What used to be called the Great War (before we knew enough to start numbering them) hasn’t gotten a lot of play since perhaps the mid-1930s. Not nearly as much as the American Civil War, the Napoleonic Wars, or World War II. And when the subject does arise, it’s usually with regard to the Somme, or Ypres, or Verdun, all on the Western Front. But the year the Allies spent gnawing away at the Turks on the Gallipoli Peninsula had the potential to change the entire war. The concept for the campaign was, in fact, well thought out. It was the execution that was disastrous.

Europe had been expecting the tottering Ottoman Empire to collapse for more than a generation. The last couple of sultans had been appalling people and the “Young Turks” had taken control, but they were no improvement. Enver Pasha, the half-Albanian war minister, especially, was an egotistical loose cannon, cordially hated by most of the country’s population. The problem was, Turkey’s geopolitical position was crucial, sitting astride the only passage in and out of the Black Sea, which meant the majority of Russia’s imports and exports couldn’t move without Turkish permission. And Russia being one of the Allies, Britain and France were hoping the Czar could ease the trench-warfare deadlock on the Western Front by opening a second front in the east — not unlike the later situation in World War II, actually. But to deliver the military supplies Russia needed to carry out that hope, the Allies would have to open up the Dardanelles to shipping.

It looked to be an easy thing to accomplish: Launch a naval attack on the haphazard Turkish defenses, follow that up with a series of landings by infantry divisions against the pathetic Turkish army, and it’s all over in a matter of weeks, right? Had the planning been accelerated (cutting short Germany’s efforts to train and equip the Turks), and had the Allies appointed talented and forceful military leaders to run the campaign, and had the Royal Navy been willing to supply anything better than a handful of antiquated warships, the whole thing might indeed have been completed successfully in a relatively short time. And it would have been a different sort of war. Instead, the initial naval operations early in 1915 ran into unexpected Turkish minefields and several under-armored battleships sank with all their crews in a matter of minutes. The amphibious landings that followed ran into strong opposition from Turkish troops who, though poorly equipped, were tenacious fighters. And the whole Allied advance ground down to another deadlock, not that different from the trench-warfare situation in France. The British leadership, both naval and military, was astonishingly incompetent. The ANZAC troops from Australia and New Zealand — lacking experience but arguably the best natural fighting men on the Allied side — were wasted time and again in ill-conceived offensive actions. And finally, the Allied forces had to be withdrawn entirely; the mostly secret retreat was carried out with far more success than any of the preceding assaults.

The author is a first-rate military historian who specializes in the 19th and early 20th centuries and his narrative of the campaign is masterful. He nails the personalities of the political and military leaders on both sides, explains the intended strategy, and describes clearly what worked and what didn’t and why. As one would expect from Osprey, there are many useful photographs and paintings of battlefields, trenches, weapons, equipment, and ships, and also some excellent maps. I strongly recommend this volume as a cure for the prevailing ignorance in our time regarding the first “modern” war.

Published in: on 5 October 2012 at 6:15 am  Leave a Comment  
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