April 25, 1915: The Gallipoli gambit
As Robert Burns had written, to a mouse, a mere 130 years before, “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men Gang aft agley.” So it was with the British venture into the Dardanelles. (We described this catastrophe in detail on the 100th anniversary). Described as “a brilliant idea in theory“* it was a complete botch in practice, the donkeys in British Army central-planning winging it as they went. After all, attacking fortified cliffs with minimal support, troops “pinned down on the rocky shore, unable to reach the top of the hills and move into open country…Turkish defenders crouched just above them…beaches exposed to Turkish shell fire, and beyond them the sea…no shade…ground…too hard to find effective cover in…”* – really, there is no way that could not be a great idea, right?
Eventually the expeditionary force had to clear out, having racked-up big losses in life and supplies, with nil strategic success. About the best thing to be said is that the evacuation was brilliantly done, with no lives lost, a withdrawal as neat as Dunkirk, although as Churchill said of that later effort, wars are not won by evacuations (he might have added that wars are not won by ordering audacious military operations without proper planning or support).
So why Gallipoli? The Brits knew the Ottoman Empire was on its knees; here was a chance perhaps to blow it out of the war (and scoop-up some land not held by Christians since 1453). That would allow a fresh supply route to Russia, and distract the Germans, busily turning the western front into a quagmire. And then, of course, a cynic might dare suggest that with a foothold in Asia Minor, it was a short drive east to Mesopotamia, and all that lovely oil in Mosul).[*A.J.P. Taylor, The First World War (1963) p. 84.]