As we get closer to November 11, Veteran’s Day in the United States and Remembrance Day in the UK, we need to remember those have sacrificed their lives so we can live in freedom. One hundred years ago the Great War was being fought in Europe and the Middle East. As I do every year at this time, I remember my uncle, Patrick Morrison, who served in the Seaforth Highlanders and survived the Great War, both on the western front and at Gallipoli, which is the subject of this blog!
Followers of my blog will have deduced by now I am a admirer of Winston Churchill. I have in my personal library most of his important works of history and a lot of books written about him. The one book of Churchill’s I was missing and wanted was his The World Crisis , a four volume history of the Great War. A few months ago, I thought about buying the one volume paperback edition of his abridgement, but before I could, a co-worker found a hardback copy at an estate sale and presented it to me without knowing how much I desired that particular volume.
In the earlier world war, Churchill was not the hero he was to the British people he was in the Second World War. To be sure he was in the top ranks of the government, but not as prime minister. He started out the conflict as First Lord of the Admiralty (the political head of the Royal Navy), running the most powerful arm of the British armed forces, scattered all over the world; working with the sea lords, the professional commanders of the fleet.
For more than a century the enemy lay just across the English Channel in France, but now the foe was the German High Seas fleet based on the east side of the North Sea, and the ally was the French. Accordingly, when the threat of war became clear in August 1914, the fleet was dispatched to a base at Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands just north of Scotland, where it could easily confront the Germans on the North Sea. Great Britain was drawn into the war by guaranteeing the neutrality of Belgium from invasion by the Huns, as the Germans were called then. An ultimatum was sent to the German government, due to expire at midnight August 4, 1914. Churchill describes the final minutes leading up to that fatal midnight thusly:
“It was 11 o’clock at night–12 by German time–when the ultimatum expired. The windows of the Admiralty were thrown open in the warm night air. Under the roof…were gathered a small group of Admirals and Captains and a cluster of clerks, pencil in hand, waiting. Along the Mall from the direction of the Palace the sound of an immense concourse singing ‘God Save the King’ floated in. On this deep wave there broke the chimes of Big Ben; and, as the first stroke boomed out, a rustle of movement swept the across the room. The war telegram, which meant ‘Commence hostilities against Germany’ was flashed to ships and and establishments under the White Ensign all over the world. I walked across Horse Guard’s Parade to the Cabinet room [at 10 Downing Street] and reported to the Prime Minister and the Ministers who were assembled there that the deed was done.”
Churchill’s main contribution, and perhaps downfall, at the Admiralty was the Dardanelles campaign. The Dardanelles is the body of water that connects the Aegean Sea with the Sea of Marmara in northwest Turkey. As long as the Dardanelles was in the hands of the Turks, the Russians were blocked from a southern all year route out of Black Sea past Constantinople and westward to the Aegean Sea. Of all the Allies’ ill gotten attacks against Germany and its supporters, the Dardanelles was one of the most unfortunate and Churchill was at the heart of the planning of this fiasco.
At the heart of this unfortunate plan was the fact that the land war on the Western Front had reached a stalemate barely four months into the war. Churchill wanted, as he did in World War II, to advance allied forces in the Mediterranean, this time against the Austrians and Turks, who were both a part of the Central Powers. According to Churchill, the planning for attacks against what was left of the Ottoman Empire (Turkey) began in January 1915. Churchill convinced the First Sea Lord, Admiral Fisher, of his plan to use an Allied fleet made up partially of older dreadnoughts and some modern ships to force their way up the Dardanelles toward Constantinople. There were differing opinions as to whether this could be accomplished by the Navy alone or whether troops would be needed to land on the Gallipoli Peninsula which bordered on the left side of the Dardanelles.
After two months of planning, the Royal Navy, along with a smaller group of French ships, attacked the Turkish forts along the waterway. The Turks, expecting a attack, mined the Dardanelles between its opening to the Aegean Sea and the Narrows, which guarded to entrance to the Sea of Marmara. The modern battleships of the British fleet were out of range of the Turkish forts until they entered the Dardanelles and came in contact with the Turkish mines, some of which the Allies did not know the location of. The French admiral’s flagship was sunk with virtually all hands lost. Some of the British ships were severely damaged and retreated. The War Council, at Churchill’s behest, voted to use troops to invade the Gallipoli Peninsula. The causalities from the invasion were horrific and Churchill was the scapegoat and he was sacked from the Admiralty.
Reading Churchill’s version of events while he was First Lord of the Admiralty reminded me of a Max Hastings quote I used before when I was the discussing Churchill’s role in the Dardanelles/Gallipoli affair: “Churchill believed himself exceptionally fitted for the direction of armies, navies, and air forces. He perceived no barrier to such a role in the fact that he possessed neither military staff training nor experience of higher field command.” Comparing his activities in both the world wars, he made his greatest errors in the Mediterranean theater. When you are reading Churchill’s account of both wars, Hastings’ opinion is very apt.