The First World War in 261 weeks

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038 Sir Ian Hamilton and the bloody fiasco of the Dardanelles

Sir Ian Hamilton

Sir Ian Hamilton

Gallipoli ends allied lives and careers

It is Sunday 14 March 1915. It is the 38th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

The Germans detonate two mines below a British hill in the Westhoek in Flanders and then capture Sint Elooi, but this village is recaptured again by the British the following day.

Three British cruisers checkmate SMS Dresden, the last ship of the squadron of Maximilian von Spee, off Chile.

French army commander Joseph Joffre announces an offensive near the river Meuse and in the Argonne.

Loss of an eye causes general Michel-Joseph Maunoury to give up command over the French Sixth Army.

The Russians capture the port of Memel in East Prussia.

German U-boat captain and war hero Otto Weddigen perishes together with the crew of his U-29 off the coast of Scotland.

In the Dardanelles admiral John de Robeck takes over command from Sackville Carden, who could not withstand the pressure.

And De Robeck then enters the mine-covered channel of the Dardanelles with three divisions of ships and eliminates several Turkish fortresses, but eventually he goes off with five ships less, after which the success of the campaign is entrusted to the land forces of Sir Ian Hamilton.

The message is: attack is the best defence. Let the First World War be the exact exception to the rule. The defenders on both sides beat the attackers on both sides gloriously. And yet the ‘cult of the offensive’ was preserved in a deeply tragic way throughout the war by the commanders in chief.

Plenty of examples, but the textbook example appears to be the Gallipoli Campaign of the allied forces. It was a desperate undertaking, but for months on end British, Australians, New Zealanders, Indians, Newfoundlanders and French were killed by the machinegun fire of the Turks. The allied beaches were low and the Ottoman mountains further along were high. It was a shooting match for the men of commanding officer Mustafa Kemal, who after the war was to pull the new Turkey along as Atatürk. So he already built his reputation on the Gallipoli peninsula.

On the British side Gallipoli was the very cause of the loss of careers. Winston Churchill  had to give up his position of minister. And the army commander over there, Sir Ian Hamilton, had to accept a job as Lieutenant of the Tower in London, though the vice-chancellorship of Edinburgh University lay ahead of him at an old age.

Hamilton’s military failure could be called unfortunate. In the pre-war years he was actually one of the few soldiers who realized that military offensives pur sang were out of date. Hamilton had learned this lesson in the heat of the battle during the Second Boer War. But he had also paid close attention in the Russo-Japanese war, in Manchuria, when he was military attaché of the Indian Army. He learned how to fend off an attack of the infantry from entrenched positions. But he also came to notice that the cavalry belonged to the past, an understanding which ten years later in the opening phase of the Great War was shared by only few.

In his History of the First World War Basil Liddell Hart writes the following about Hamilton: ‘There is little hint, among those who were to be the leaders in the next war, that they had recognized the root problem of the future – the dominating power of the fire defence and the supreme difficulty of crossing the bullet-swept zone. Sir Ian Hamilton alone gave it due emphasis, and even he was too sanguine as to the possibility of overcoming it. His proposed solution, however, was in the right direction. For he urged not only the value of exploiting surprise and infiltration tactics to nullify the advantages of the defence, but the need of heavy field artillery to support the infantry. Still more prophetically, he suggested that the infantry might be provided with ‘steel shields on wheels’ to enable them to cross no-man’s-Land and make lodgment in the enemy’s position.’

Perhaps Hamilton was not conventional enough to be given an important post on the western front right away. However, to the surprise of many he was sent to the Dardanelles by his friend Lord Kitchener in the beginning of 1915. ‘If you succeed’, Kitchener reminded Hamilton, ‘You will have won not the battle, but the war’. Without any particular preparation 62-year-old Hamilton could start hunting down the Turks. According to some sources he had to get his local knowledge from tourist guides.

The Dardanelles is the name of the narrow waterway connecting the Aegean Sea with the Sea of Marmara. Gallipoli is the peninsula to the north of it. When you zoom out a bit more, you will also recognize the link between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. With this the strategic interest of the waterway has been pointed out. Already at an early stage of the war the idea takes hold in British government circles to open a third front for the Germans and the Austrians via the Dardanelles. It is estimated that Constantinople, a bit further along on the Bosphorus, will soon fall once the Dardanelles are taken. Sir Edward Grey, the Foreign Secretary, also predicts that a coup will take place with the Turks once the British guns roar across the Bosphorus.

It is the conviction of the British that such a casual reprimand of the Ottoman Empire will also impress the Balkans. Bulgarians, Romanians and Greeks will realize that the surrounded Central Powers have little to offer and they will soon join as allies. The Suez Canal in Egypt will no longer be under threat. British and French will close the gap with the Russians past the Turks. Russian ships filled with cereal will sail through the Dardanelles to allied ports, while ammunition and equipment will go the other way. Yes, the war game will soon be up after the fall of Gallipoli.

The backbone of the plan was the maritime superiority of the British. It opened up almost infinite horizons. Around the first turn of the year of the war various invasion plans were on the table in London. Initially Churchill was particularly in favour of the Baltic Sea, with the Danish Schleswig-Holstein as the landing basis. Also the idea to disembark three quarter of a million men on Dutch beaches was rather concrete. But on 8 January 1915 the War Council opts for the Dardanelles as the lever for the war that had got stuck on the western front.

In all their optimism the military planmakers assume that the navy alone will get the job done. They have already done a couple of finger exercises. In November 1914 British ships did some shellings at the entrance of the waterway. And far into the Dardanelles a British submarine succeeded in eliminating a Turkish ship in December. But the Turks decided that that would not be so easy any more. They lay out a carpet of seamines and position launching tubes for torpedoes in the Dardanelles. Besides, heavy artillery is placed along the coastline.

On 19 February 1915 the attack on the Dardanelles is started with the bombardment of Turkish fortresses by allied warships. It is not easy for the British. Six days later the attack is repeated more successfully, though the Turkish howitzers struggle fiercely. Meanwhile British troops start going ashore at Sedd el Bahr on the tip of the Gallipoli peninsula. They succeed in eliminating dozens of pieces of artillery, which generates great enthusiasm at home in England.

On 18 March 1915 it appears that the path leading to the Russians remains paved with mines and framed by guns. A combined British-French fleet of sixteen battleships sails into the Dardanelles. Super dreadnought Queen Elizabeth, the most powerful ship in the world, is stationed in a division with a battleship carrying the historically very apt name Agamemnon. After all, the ruins of Troy are only a few yards away at the other side of Gallipoli.

It is an ominous sign that commander Sackville Carden reports ill on the eve of the large-scale campaign. Apparently he is on the brink of a breakdown. It is John de Robeck who can take stock as his deputy on 18 March. It is true, Turkish fortresses are badly battered, but the allied losses weigh much heavier. Three ships have been sunk, one has run aground, two have been severly damaged. And the minefield of the Turks is still intact. What the British, however, do not realize is that the Turks have almost used up their ammunition. Enver Pasha, strong man of the Ottomans, prepares to leave Constantinople.

The allies do not press ahead as they are deeply impressed by their losses. The navy cannot do it alone. That is also Sir Ian Hamilton’s conviction, who already telegraphed Lord Kitchener in London on 9 March with the following message: ‘I am being most reluctantly driven to the conclusion that the Straits are not likely to be forced by battleships as at one time seemed probable and that, if my troops are to take part, it will not take the subsidiary form anticipated. The Army’s part will be more than mere landings of parties to destroy Forts, it must be a deliberate and progressive military operation carried out at full strength so as to open a passage for the Navy.’

In the months to follow Hamilton will try again and again at full force. But the rule of Gallipoli appears to be that the Turkish artillery cannot be silenced until the minefields have been cleared. And that will only succeed if first the artillery is annihilated. In other words, the navy and the army on the side of the allies are not able to help each other.

Hamilton continues to believe in a success on the Gallipoli peninsula, whether or not against his better judgement. But in October 1915 London does not believe in Hamilton any more and he is called back as a scapegoat. His successor can start preparing the evacuation of Gallipoli. The Dardanelles Campaign has turned into a ‘bloody fiasco’ in the eyes of British war correspondent Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett, who in quite a roundabout way holds Hamilton responsible for the bloodshed on Gallipoli’s beaches.

It is interesting to compare Sir Ian Hamilton’s career with that of Sir Winston Churchill, the greatest Brit ever, according to a national poll in 2002. In 1900 Churchill publishes a collection of newspaper reports entitled ‘Ian Hamilton’s March’. As a war correspondent he described the battles Hamilton fought in the Second Boer War. Gallipoli brings both together again, but the outcome is a lot less heroic. Churchill is politically held responsible and resigns as minister. As a soldier Hamilton has to pay the price for the failure.

Churchill’s and Hamilton’s political routes diverge in the decades after. When in the thirties a new danger is imminent in Germany, Churchill is one of the very few to sound the alarm bell vigorously. He argues that Mister Hitler has to be stopped now. A voice crying in the wilderness. The British hate to think of another war. One  butchered and damned generation is more than enough.

Sir Ian Hamilton is a representative of this mood. In 1934 the octogenarian lends his voice to the prologue of the film ‘The Forgotten Men – the war as it was’. Peace propaganda as it were. Using the old general the documentary explains the horrors of war to the youngsters of Britain. Again four years older, Sir Ian Hamilton travels to Germany in the company of British war veterans. Hamilton, who is not completely free of anti-Semitic sentiments himself, has an interview of several hours with Adolf Hitler at Berchtesgaden. He brings back the following message to England: Germany’s Führer is a peace-loving gentleman.

Hamilton did not die until 1947, old enough to regret his error of judgement. But what he wrote in the preface of his Gallipoli Diary stood the test of time: ‘There is nothing certain about war, except that one side won’t win.’

Next week: Colmar von der Goltz

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

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