Revisiting the Dardanelles Disaster

Competing narratives on Churchill’s role in the tragedy of Gallipoli have confused the man with the myth.

Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, on board the Royal Yacht, 1912.

The Gallipoli campaign of 1915 was one of the great military disasters of the First World War. The initial plan was to send a flotilla of old warships through the Straits of the Dardanelles and into the sea of Marmora. Naval guns would demolish the Turkish fortresses on both sides of the straits, while minesweepers cleared a path for the ships. Once through the straits, they would blockade or bombard Constantinople, precipitating the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. When the naval operation stalled, an expeditionary force was sent to capture the Gallipoli peninsula. But the landings ended in stalemate, with allied troops confined to precarious beachheads, where conditions were as grim as those on the Western Front. 132,000 British, French, New Zealand, Australian and Indian troops were killed or injured before the campaign was called off.

A particularly controversial aspect of the affair was the part played by Winston Churchill. As First Lord of the Admiralty, he was a key figure in the genesis of the campaign and its most passionate advocate. When everything went wrong he made a convenient scapegoat, but the extent to which the blame should be laid on him has been a matter of dispute ever since.

In this latest study, Christopher Bell points out that Gallipoli gave rise to two competing narratives, one of them deeply hostile to Churchill, the other very favourable. Bell explores the subject afresh and does so with such mastery that the tenor of his judgments rings true. He argues that both narratives were simplifications of a more complex reality. Churchill’s detractors claimed that he was a reckless amateur strategist who seized on the idea of a naval assault with no comprehension of the difficulties involved. Ignoring the warnings of his naval advisers, he bamboozled the War Council into agreement by assuring them that the admirals were fully in support of the plan. Eventually he overplayed his hand by provoking the First Sea Lord, Admiral Fisher, to resign in protest. Henceforth, Churchill was a politician with a glaring blot on his record.

Bell offers a corrective. Asquith, Kitchener and Fisher all bore a share of the responsibility, as did some of the naval staff and the admirals commanding at the straits. However, Churchill alone paid the price.

The anti-Churchill version would have carried all before it but for the indefatigable resistance of Churchill himself. Summoning up his formidable skills as an orator, journalist and historian, he launched into a relentless campaign of self-justification. He argued that the naval attack was launched with the support of the admirals and would have succeeded but for the tardiness of others. More ambitiously still, he claimed that, potentially, Gallipoli was a war-winning stroke that could have averted the tragedies of the Somme and Passchendaele. Bell is unconvinced. The naval flotilla never had the capacity to knock out the Turkish guns, nor were they ever in danger of running out of ammunition. Bombardment from the sea, though, alerted the Turks to the danger of assaults by land and gave them time to reinforce the peninsula.

Both pro- and anti- Churchill narratives were based on patchy and sometimes dubious evidence.Ultimately, however, the pro-Churchill version was the flimsier of the two. Set out at length in the second volume of Churchill’s The World Crisis (1923), it won a measure of sympathy for his case, but a hard core of sceptics remained.

It was the transformation of Churchill into a national hero in the Second World War that silenced the doubters and established him in popular memory as the thwarted genius of the Dardanelles.

In clearing away a mass of historical debris from the scene, Bell has achieved for Churchill and Gallipoli what David Reynolds accomplished for Churchill and the Second World War, the excavation of a man from the myth that he created.

Churchill and the Dardanelles
Christopher M. Bell
Oxford University Press 464pp £25

Paul Addison’s books include No Turning Back: The Peacetime Revolutions of Postwar Britain and Churchill: The Unexpected Hero (both Oxford University Press).