73,485 British and Irish troops lay dead and the Ottoman Empire still stood firm. There can never be conflict without consequence, and although the Gallipoli campaign may now be 100 years behind us, its legacy lives on. The operation is well known for the brave Australian and New Zealand (ANZAC) soldiers who arrived from Australasia to serve the Triple Entente. These men have been written into history, but what about the British?
This disastrous loss of life and objectives shattered the opinions of British military minds on the ‘Sick Man of Europe’ and the effectiveness of amphibious landings in war. As the war raged on, what was the outcome back in Blighty? Would Prime Minister Asquith pay for the ill-fated expedition and would the commanders be punished for their poor leadership?
Changes in command and cabinet
There is a theory that Gallipoli was lost before it even began. The political crisis in Britain sidelined the campaign meaning key decisions could not be made quickly or correctly. Winston Churchill was the driving force behind the idea but he soon lost confidence as his colleagues became uninspiring and unhelpful. David Lloyd George distanced himself from Churchill, while Lord Kitchener, vulnerable and unfocused since the shells scandal, maintained his silence. General Hamilton, who led the majority of the campaign, was too timid to press Kitchener for the amount of men and arms he needed while Asquith was distanced from the decision-making. This melting pot would result in disaster.
The generals responsible for the diabolical venture were not treated lightly. Hamilton and Lieutenant General Frederick Stopford were recalled to London and both effectively dismissed, Lieutenant General Aylmer Hunter-Weston was given another chance while Kitchener was deemed too popular to be punished and let off scot free. He, however, became increasingly sidelined and would die aboard HMS Hampshire in June. Churchill, who had put forward the idea of this supposed ‘easy option’, lost his highly regarded political reputation and was attacked for ignoring the advice of military experts.
For years afterwards his speeches were punctured by cries of “What about Gallipoli?”, but Churchill did have his allies, and some believe that if his methods were followed more closely, the campaign could have succeeded.
Lord Slim gave the most scathing remark, describing the generals as the worst since the Crimean War. The defeat was seen as so catastrophic that an organisation was set up specifically to debrief over what had happened. The Dardanelles Commission was established and reported that the operation was badly planned and the difficulties of such a gamble underestimated. It highlighted the shortage of ammunition and the personality clashes between the commanders.
Hamilton in particular felt that the Commission was out to get him and firmly believed that his mistakes could and would have been made by anybody. Even the prime minister himself, HH Asquith, was not spared in the wake of Gallipoli. Consistently the focal point for the blame, he delayed the evacuation and politically was often outmanoeuvred by Andrew Bonar Law and old sparring partner Lloyd George. ‘Squiffy’ was increasingly sidelined in military matters and the disaster along with the shell crisis were more nails in the coffin for his failing government. By the end of 1916 he had resigned.
Effect on the British war effort
Forever remembered as a complete failure, the fighting at Gallipoli actually came quite close to breaking the back of the Ottomans who themselves had lost 87,000 men to a combination of disease and bullets. However, the facts couldn’t be ignored, Gallipoli was lost and every regiment sent to reclaim it was one less on the Western Front. After evacuation, the regiments regrouped in Egypt and planned their next move. The ANZACs were sent to the Western Front and the remaining men were incorporated into an all new Mediterranean Expeditionary force (MEF) and an Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF) and sent for duty in both the Middle East and Europe.
With the Ottoman Empire reeling but still in the war, they were still a threat to the Entente. Joining with Bulgaria, they continued to wage war until 1918 when Constantinople was occupied by a combined effort of British, French, Italian and Greek forces. The failure to win at Gallipoli essentially made the war last longer for the British and strengthen Turkish morale to fight on. However, the death toll on Ottoman forces cannot be underestimated, and the loss of 86,692 was a hammer blow to their already perilous military position.
The legacy continues
The ghosts of Gallipoli rose again after the withdrawal from Dunkirk in June 1940. All in the British military hierarchy were aware that an eventual return to the continent to break down Fortress Europe would be through a landing not too dissimilar to Gallipoli. Churchill was once again in charge and a repeat of 1916 simply wouldn’t do. He was determined to make amends, especially after his 1922 book The World Crisis was dominated by the memory of Gallipoli.
The failure of Dieppe in 1942 aside, the attack was planned much more carefully than Gallipoli ever was and only considered when the Soviets opened up a second, Eastern Front. It was made sure that all three services, army, navy and air force, were to play a part and communicate effectively with correct and up-to-date intelligence. Nothing was left to chance – accurate maps, sea currents, ground and weather conditions and the strength of the enemy were all taken into account. When D-Day got under way in the summer of 1944, mortars and rocket ships kept the German fortifications at bay while the men stormed the beaches.
A secure floating dock known as Mulberry Harbour was created to ferry men and supplies ashore. These were just some of the aspects not heeded at the slaughter of Gallipoli. The eventual success of Operation Overlord ensured that Churchill had mended his broken reputation. As well as D-Day, the 1944 Battle of Anzio in the Italian Campaign showcased the improvements made in amphibious landings since Gallipoli.
Gallipoli was still at the forefront of military minds as recently as the 1982 Falklands War. During one of the amphibious landings during the war, one commanded remarked that the coming landing might be just like Gallipoli. As well as the British, other powers such as the USA and Japan studied the campaign closely to analyse the potential capabilities of amphibious attacks. It undoubtedly influenced many of the landings in the Pacific war and the memory of the campaign weighed heavily on the Australian troops during the 1943 Huon Peninsula Campaign.
Gallipoli was an experiment that went badly wrong. It was a shock to the system for the British and inadvertently led to the doubling up of planning on future amphibious operations. It did not shorten the war by a single day and the loss of life for the soldiers was frighteningly high. That said, the awful conditions endured by the British shook the cobwebs off the colonial ways of old and introduced a new breed of general and military thought that would help Britain emerge victorious in the two world wars of the 20th century – heroism alone doesn’t win battles.
- Hamilton and Gallipoli: British Command in the Age of Military Transformation by Evan McGilvray
- Churchill and Australia by Graham Freudenberg