Victory 1918by Alan Palmer
“Victory 1918 covers all the theaters of war, not only the muck and mire of France. . . . [It] provides food for thought and reflection on the futility of war as an instrument of policy.” –Norman N. Brown, Chicago Tribune
Victory 1918 recounts the myriad tragic blunders and the unprecedented, unfathomable bloodshed that was World War I. When an armistice was finally signed in the forest of Compi”gne outside of Paris, the Great War had shuttered to an end, but not before it had been fought on three continents. Alan Palmer, while recounting the fruitless, static trench warfare of the western front, shifts the focus away from the west and explores the significance of other battlefields, showing their importance in the outcome of the war and in the shaping of the political and territorial alliances of the present day. Many of the major players of the war – Allied Generals Sir Douglas Haig, Sir Edmund Allenby, Ferdinand Foch, and John J. Pershing; Central Powers Generals Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff; and Britain’s prime minister, David Lloyd George – come alive in these pages.
Victory 1918 is rife with tales of horrible misunderstandings such as the Austrian emperor Charles’s appeal for peace on September 14, 1918, which was thought by the Allies to be a trick and, if taken seriously, could have saved as many as a quarter of a million lives. Alan Palmer heightens the already well-known dramas of the Great War by drawing on Cabinet papers, memoirs, official histories and diaries, as well as letters and reminiscences from those who fought, to show the importance of almost forgotten incidents: prowling wolves around British bivouacs in the Vardar blizzard; weary troops marching toward Baghdad, sleeping where they halted; the cooks who declined the surrender of Jerusalem; sandbags stuffed with seaweed to protect the treasures of Venice. Victory 1918 shows the intimate lives of the brave men who shaped the war and the many fronts on which they fought. In doing so, Palmer offers a fresh interpretation of the war that, more than any other, determined the character of the twentieth century.
“Victory 1918 covers all the theaters of war, not only the muck and mire of France. . . . [It] provides food for thought and reflection on the futility of war as an instrument of policy.” –Norman N. Brown, Chicago Tribune
“As he ably shifts between the diplomatic big picture and the local horrors of the trenches, Palmer presents the war in all its banality and valor.” –Publishers Weekly
“Victory 1918 . . . offers a new and broader view of the First World War. . . . Alan Palmer offers a thought-provoking analysis of a defining event of the century just past.” –John Messer, Bookpage
“Well-written and thought-provoking.” –Robert Persing, Library Journal
“The Great War was a world war fought on three continents and many seas, and this outstanding history moves the British viewpoint from the middle distance of France and Flanders to encompass the broader strategic vision of neglected campaigns in the Balkans, Iraq, Palestine, and Eastern Europe fought by many Allied forces. Palmer’s style is as good as his judgement is daring. His book is a detailed and dramatic overview of the First World War.” –Iain Finlayson, The Times (London)
Chapter One: WIDENING THE WAR
The British people went to war in 1914 with a firm clarity of intent and in expectation of early victory. The immediate occasion of hostilities for Europe as a whole might be an explosion of Balkan nationalism in distant Sarajevo, a protest at Austro-Hungarian `colonization’ of Bosnia, but that affair meant little in London. For the British public the enemy was, quite simply, the German Kaiser; his troops were on the march through `brave little Belgium’; his High Seas Fleet challenged Britannia’s divine right to rule the waves. A small expeditionary force would, it was assumed, cross the Channel and, alongside the armies of France and Belgium, push back the invader while the Royal Navy kept watch over home waters from Orkney to Dover and, more distantly, protected the `lifelines of Empire’ from ocean raiders. In the East the Russian steamroller would press forward relentlessly towards Berlin, and in the Balkans the Serbs could fight their own little war against an empire with whose ruler the British had no quarrel.
Not one of fourteen conflicts in mainland Europe over the past hundred years had led to more than eleven months of continuous fighting; in most instances peace came even sooner. There seemed no reason in 1914 why established patterns should change. But it was as well to be cautious. `It would not be safe to calculate the war lasting less than six months’, the Cabinet had been told by the General Staff in a previous crisis. Now, as the armies mobilized, the newly appointed Secretary of State for War warned his colleagues that the struggle might continue for three years. `That seemed to most of us unlikely, if not incredible’, Sir Edward Grey later recalled. `It will all be over by Christmas’, people chose to believe.
But by Christmas the unfolding war made nonsense of such easy assumptions and patterns of expectation. The Russian steamroller became set in reverse gear in Poland; German cruisers, eluding close blockade, emerged from the mists of the North Sea to shell Whitby, Scarborough and Hartlepool; the German Pacific Squadron, not the Royal Navy, gained the first victory at sea, a defeat avenged five weeks later but only after two battlecruisers detached from home waters reached the Falklands. But the greatest of shocks came, week after week, from the Western Front. For there the battles proved far more costly than the most pessimistic of forecasts. By the end of August 1914 the French had lost over 300,000 men, killed, wounded or missing as they sought to stem the German advance across Artois and Champagne while also persisting with long-cherished plans for an offensive to liberate Alsace and Lorraine. The momentum of the German thrust was blunted in early September by the series of interrelated actions along a 125-mile front which, by saving Paris, are remembered as the Miracle of the Marne. A British Expeditionary Force, originally comprising 150,000 men, had gone into action at Mons on 23 August. By the second week in November, when the Germans abandoned their first attempt to seize British-held Ypres, the BEF was reeling from the shock of 89,000 casualties in eighty-one days of fighting. As winter closed in on the exhausted armies a continuous static front ran from Belgium’s North Sea coast, through flooded fields in Flanders and the shell-pitted Ypres Salient to Armenti’res and the trenches of the Aisne and along the Chemin des Dames to the Argonne, the Meuse hills and around the Vosges down to the Swiss frontier. Over the next two and a half years this long entrenched line did not move as much as ten miles in either direction.
For Britain the strategic purpose of the war changed during the autumn months as drastically as did the character of the fighting. Hopes of standing aloof from the quarrels of central and eastern Europe were short-lived. The presence of token Austrian contingents along Germany’s frontier with France led to declarations of war on Austria–Hungary from London and Paris before mid-August. Within hours of Austria becoming an enemy, however, the Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office was emphasizing to the Russian ambassador that the defeat of Germany remained the prime task, and `it would be unfortunate if efforts to this end were diverted to side issues’. And so it long remained. Except for limited naval operations in the Adriatic, there was no direct confrontation between the Western Allies and Austria–Hungary during the remaining months of the year. The Serbs repelled three Austrian invasions of their kingdom; the Montenegrins remained secure in their mountain bastion; and the Russians, though thrown back by the Germans in the great plains of the Vistula basin, were able to reach the Carpathian passes before the snow fell, capturing Lemberg (then the fifth largest city in Austria–Hungary) and threatening Cracow. As yet there was no need for British or French intervention in eastern Europe.
Briefly in August 1914 it seemed in London possible that the Ottoman Empire might remain at peace, despite the mounting German influence in Constantinople. The military mission led by General Liman von Sanders had for many months been working `steadfastly and harmoniously for the Germanization of the Turkish army’ (as the Kaiser’s personal directive insisted), but there were already reports that the Ottoman officer corps resented `German tyranny’. The British and French were better trading partners for the Ottoman Empire as a whole than were the Germans. Only a fortnight before war was declared on. Germany Ottoman bonds went on sale in London to finance further British enterprises on the Bosporus. A week earlier the Turkish Minister of Marine, Ahmed Djemal, was a guest observer at French naval manoeuvres. He then visited the Quai d’Orsay where he assured the French Foreign Minister that `given the right conditions the Ottoman government “would orientate its policy towards the Triple Entente”‘. Although Enver, the Ottoman War Minister, was regarded as a Germanophile, Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, had met him on two occasions and admired his qualities as a leader of the Young Turk reformers; and on 15 August he telegraphed directly to Enver counselling him in `words of friendship’ to safeguard Turkish interests `by a strict and honest neutrality’. But Enver had already committed Turkey irrevocably to the German side, his final decision having been shaped by the First Lord’s own actions; for on 1 August the news broke in Constantinople that Churchill had ordered the seizure and `temporary’ commissioning in the Royal Navy of two Turkish battleships newly completed on Tyneside; on 2 August, while the Turkish press railed against this evidence of `English piracy’, Enver secretly concluded an alliance treaty with Germany, providing for eventual action against Russia and guaranteeing Liman von Sanders `an effective influence on the general direction of the [Ottoman] army’.
Soon the people of the Turkish capital were given visual evidence of German sympathy and support. As dusk fell on 10 August the battlecruiser Goeben and the light cruiser Breslau, having evaded pursuit by the Royal Navy, entered the Dardanelles. Two days later, as both warships rode at anchor in the Sea of Marmara, they were sold to Turkey, with their German crews still aboard as `instructors’. On 29 October these two warships and seven Turkish vessels, under German command but flying the Ottoman flag, left the Bosporus for exercises in the Black Sea in the course of which the squadron bombarded Odessa, Nikolaev and Sebastopol. Russia’s response was to declare war on Turkey on 1 November. On that same Sunday two British destroyers sank a Turkish minelayer off Smyrna; on Monday morning, in the headwaters of the Red Sea, a British light cruiser shelled the Turkish fort at Aqaba and a landing-party destroyed the signals stations there; and for ten minutes on the Tuesday afternoon British warships shelled the southernmost forts on either side of the Dardanelles, with conspicuous success. `We are now frankly at war with Turkey’, Asquith casually noted next evening in a letter to his confidante, Venetia Stanley; a formal declaration followed on Thursday morning.
Thus the Entente allies drifted into a second war, parallel to the great conflict in France and Flanders and along Russia’s western frontiers, but posing a different set of problems for their governments. If Sultan Mehmed V as Caliph proclaimed a jihad, an Islamic holy war against the Infidel, there was a risk of rebellion, not merely in the British Empire and British-occupied Egypt, but in French colonies across North Africa and the Tsar’s possessions in central Asia as well. The team of specialist advisers left by Kitchener in Cairo – Ronald Storrs, Captain Gilbert Clayton (head of Military Intelligence), Sir Miles Cheetham (acting Consul-General) – sought to anticipate this danger by reminding their former chief of his contacts with Emir Abdullah, son of the Sherif Husseir, of Mecca. Kitchener telegraphed Storrs in the last week of September: he was to send a message to Abdullah asking whether, if Britain went to war with Turkey, `he and his father and the Arabs of the Hedjaz would be with us or against us?’. But in talks with the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary it became clear that Kitchener was not simply thinking of an armed revolt among the Arabs: the Sherif, as head of the Hashemite dynasty, was thirty-seventh in direct descent from the Prophet; this spiritual pedigree was more impressive than any Ottoman sovereign could claim. On 31 October, as the War Secretary was about to travel to Dunkirk for crucial talks with the French High Command over the German threat to the Channel ports, he found time to turn his thoughts to Mecca: `It may be that an Arab of true race will assume the Khalifate at Mecca or Medina and so good may come by the help of God out of all the evil that is now occurring’, Kitchener told Cheetham to let Sherif Hussein know. With such a prospect before him, no guardian of Islam’s Holy Cities was likely to wage a religious war for the sake of an Ottoman sultan.
The call to jihad came from Constantinople, as predicted; though not until the Ottoman Empire had been at war for a fortnight. It made less impact than the Allied governments feared. A sultan-caliph did not enjoy the spiritual authority of a medieval pope: secularists responded more readily to political and economic inducements; the zealous Shi’ites of what are today Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan ignored all calls from a Sunni pretender; and many other strict Muslim communities hesitated to obey a Caliph who owed his throne to Young Turk modernizers like Enver and Djemal. Only the Senussi tribesmen along Egypt’s border with Italian-held Libya and ex-Mahdists around Darfur in the Sudan were ready to answer the call to arms. In Egypt the British cut the last constitutional link between Constantinople and Cairo by deposing Mehmed V’s subject ruler, Khedive Abbas Hilmi (who had gone to his palace on the Bosporus at midsummer), and proclaiming his uncle Hussein Kamil `Sultan of Egypt’. At the same time Egypt became a British protectorate: Egyptians were assured that they would not be compelled to fight in campaigns against the Turks; and a cautiously phrased undertaking committed Egypt’s new protectors to examine ways of advancing self-government. Of more immediate satisfaction to Egypt’s peasants was a British move to protect the interests of the cotton producers, for whom war meant a loss of export markets, by purchasing the cotton crop, while also encouraging cereal production as a much needed and profitable alternative.
In London every issue concerning Egypt and the Arabs was automatically referred by Grey to the War Secretary for consideration and approval – the Middle East remained Kitchener’s patch. The Foreign Office was dutifully informed of military decisions he was about to impose. No one as yet questioned them. To give his Omdurman companion-in-arms General Sir John Maxwell command in Egypt seemed natural. Soon an irreverent junior officer was to observe that Maxwell took `the whole job as a splendid joke’ and mixed `a mysterious gift of prophesying what will happen’ with `a marvellous carelessness about what might happen’, but the General had nearly twenty years’ experience of Egypt and the Egyptians behind him and could write of problems and places and people in the language which the Secretary of State readily understood. Kitchener assumed he could also communicate directly with General Beauchamp Duff, Commander-in-Chief in India; in this command, ten years back, Kitchener had himself created a fighting force capable of defending the subcontinent and of providing men and material for expeditions overseas. But, within a few days of arriving at the War Office, Kitchener found to his surprise that the India Secretary (Lord Crewe) and the Viceroy (Lord Hardinge) frowned on such contact. A growl from the Field Marshal to General Duff that `I do not think you quite realise in India what the war is going to be’ was unlikely to ease mounting friction.
This dispute presaged strategic misunderstanding. British command in the Middle East was divided. The vital defence of the Suez Canal rested with the authorities in Cairo; the defence of Aden and its hinterland, and of the Persian Gulf (with its newly tapped oil resources) was the responsibility of the viceregal authorities in Bombay and of General Duff’s headquarters at Simla. The Viceroy deplored any encouragement of rebellion in Ottoman lands, especially along the Tigris and Euphrates; Kitchener and Maxwell, on the other hand, would happily exploit Arab nationalism if it held out a prospect of local levies to discomfort the Turks and their German advisers. Militarily Simla moved faster than Cairo: `Expeditionary Force D’, two brigades from the 6th Indian Division, waited aboard the transport Dufferin off Bahrain until the outbreak of the Turkish War; then, escorted by HMS Ocean, an ageing battleship from the East Indies Squadron, and smaller vessels of lesser draught, Force D sailed up the Gulf and landed at Fao at the entrance to the Shatt-el-Arab on 6 November to safeguard the oil installations at Abadan. Brushing aside Turkish resistance, the expedition advanced upriver to take Basra within three weeks of the outbreak of war. Thus, with little reference back to London, Force D opened up the longest continuous peripheral campaign of the war. When, almost exactly four years later, the campaign ended in victory amid the oilfields around Mosul, more than 600 miles up the Tigris, 31,000 officers and men of the Mesopotamian Expeditionary Force had perished in battle or from disease or amid the privation of harsh captivity.
In Egypt General Maxwell’s first priority was to stand on the defensive and keep the Suez Canal open. Food and oil supplies had to come through to the Mediterranean and, ultimately, home waters. So, too, did the great imperial convoys bringing volunteers from India, Australia and New Zealand to fight ( as it was assumed) in France and Belgium. The first Indian troops left Bombay in mid-August and had suffered heavy casualties at Ypres by the end of October. Six more convoys from the subcontinent reached the canal before Christmas, although the last Indian brigade remained in Egypt, `for training’. That, too, was the fate of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, which reached Suez in a convoy of thirty-eight improvised troopships on 1 December and was known by the acronym Anzac well before Christmas. The first line of Turkish outposts lay some 130 miles east of the canal, running inland from Gaza to Beersheba. Behind them lay the historic cities of Jerusalem, Jericho, Damascus and Aleppo, garrisoned by the Turkish Fourth Army, with 60,000 well trained men. But Maxwell discounted the possibility of a major Turkish offensive to block the canal and reach out towards the Nile, and Kitchener agreed with him. For between the canal and the Sixth Army stretched the waterless undulations of Sinai, a desert barrier to invasion as reliable as the English Channel, or so it seemed. When in London the newly constituted War Council met for the first time on 26 November Kitchener could give sound assurance to the four Cabinet ministers, service chiefs and Opposition spokesman (Arthur Balfour) who were his colleagues; `At present I feel no anxiety about Egypt and the Suez Canal’, he declared.
As in early August, when Germany was the sole enemy, people in England assumed that the war with Turkey could not last long. `Are there any commissions I can do for you in Aleppo next spring?’, 2nd Lieutenant T. E. Lawrence asked a friend in late November, as he was about to set out for Cairo. Optimism lingered even among Cabinet ministers; a War Office report, drawn up in December, predicted that the German army would run short of men Within six months, long before the British need commit to battle the New Army Kitchener was raising. Unless the Germans supplied crack troops and munitions from Krupps to their ally no one thought the Turks capable of sustained resistance; in the whole of Turkey there was only one shell-producing factory, at Zeitunlik outside Constantinople, on the European shore of the Sea of Marmara. It was essential for the Allies to secure an effective barrier which could shut off Turkey from Austria–Hungary. The Danube was recognized as an international waterway and a trickle of aid reached landlocked Serbia upstream from Reni, Russia’s river-port in the Danube delta. But so long as Serb guns commanded the 200-mile stretch of the middle Danube from Belgrade downstream to the Iron Gates and the Bulgarian border at Radujevac, the waterway was denied to Serbia’s enemies; and the only link between Berlin, Vienna and Constantinople remained the railway route through non-belligerent Romania and Bulgaria. A cautious diplomatic offensive was mounted by the Foreign Office to keep Bulgaria and Romania neutral or, better still, to tempt them – and Greece, too – into the war as allies of the Entente.
The most effective way of exposing Turkey’s weakness to wavering Balkan states was by emphasizing Allied naval mastery of the eastern Mediterranean. British and French cruisers, and the Russian Askold, patrolled the seas off Palestine and Syria virtually unchallenged; Austrian submarines, though a menace in the Adriatic, had limited range; German U-boats did not reach the Aegean until late April 1915; and not until the following October did they pose a threat in the Mediterranean as a whole. Both Kitchener and Maxwell wished to take advantage of this naval supremacy. They favoured a direct assault on Alexandretta which would cut communications between the Bosporus and both Syria and Mesopotamia. As a preliminary venture a landing-party from the light cruiser HMS Doris went ashore north of Alexandretta in mid-December and blew up a bridge, rolling-stock and stores with co-operation from the Turkish soldiery, who Were content not to be carried off as prisoners; they watched a locomotive blown sky-high with interest, dutifully lining up the next engine for the big bang with aid from the beams of the Doris‘s searchlights. In all, the light cruiser lay off Alexandretta for some forty-eight hours, unmolested. `What kind of Turk is this we are fighting?’, naval chiefs Wondered in London. The Ottoman Empire seemed so vulnerable that there were hopes of turning the alliance with Turkey into a liability for Germany rather than a strategic gain.
The spread of the war to the eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean opened up a new vista of general strategy. As the year 1914 drew to a close three members of the War Council, independently of each other, searched their minds for some enterprising initiative which would ensure victory to the. Allies before the war was twelve months old. Colonel Maurice Hankey, the War Council’s acting secretary, developed his ideas in what was remembered as the `Boxing Day Memorandum’; and on 1 January 1915 the Prime Minister received memoranda from his Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lloyd George, and from Churchill at the Admiralty. Each plan accepted that the decisive theatre of war remained the Western Front; each acknowledged that impregnable defences across Flanders and France had created a war of attrition; each accordingly sought `some other outlet’, where a surprise thrust could strike the enemy. In the first week of December Churchill had (in Asquith’s words) wanted `to organise a heroic adventure against Gallipoli and the Dardanelles’ but by Christmas `his volatile mind’ had turned towards the Baltic. Hankey, on the other hand, looked to southeast Europe and beyond: `Germany can perhaps be struck most effectively and with the most lasting results on the peace of the world through her allies, and particularly through Turkey’, he argued. Among his proposals were an attempt to bring the Balkan states united into the war by commitments to `participate actively in the campaign’ and `the possibility of some co-operation with the Serbian Army against Austria’. But the Ottoman lands were Hankey’s chosen field of action: he wanted a sustained land campaign against Turkey, possibly beginning with an invasion of the Syrian coast. `Is it impossible now to weave a web round Turkey which shall end her career as a European Power?’, Hankey asked, with a fine rhetorical flourish. Lloyd George, too, thought Germany might be hit effectively through crippling Turkey, initially by a landing in Syria. But he also proposed carrying the war into Austria–Hungary, perhaps by an amphibious operation in southern Dalmatia, though he preferred to support `the Serbians, the Roumanians and the Greeks’ with `a great English force’ which could `attack Austria on her most vulnerable frontier’. `It might be advisable’, he added, `to send an advance force through Salonika, to assist Serbia’. These operations `would have the common purpose of bringing Germany down by the process of knocking the props under her’, he wrote. To that programme of action Lloyd George was to return many times before final victory was achieved.
More than thirty years ago A.J. P. Taylor poured scorn on all such `cigar butt strategy’. `Someone’, he suggested, `looked at a map of Europe; pointed to a spot with the end of his cigar; and said “Let us go there”.’ Yet this picture of amateur strategists playing a Christmas game is, at best, a half-truth. The Prime Minister who studied these memoranda hardly needed to consult an atlas. Asquith always enjoyed travel; he knew the Dalmatian coast; only fifteen months before the outbreak of war he was in Split and Dubrovnik, journeying inland as far as Trebinje and thus seeing for himself the inadequacies of the narrow-gauge railway to Mostar, and ultimately Sarajevo. He was not impressed by his Chancellor’s suggestion of a landing in Dalmatia. Yet Lloyd George, too, had some understanding of Europe; he had followed reports from the Balkan Wars in detail, day by day, and was more widely travelled than many Cabinet colleagues, notably the Foreign Secretary. Churchill had made his way up the coast of Asia Minor four years previously, going ashore at Smyrna, and passing through the Dardanelles to spend five days in Constantinople; and he, too, in 1913 visited Split, Dubrovnik and the Austro-Hungarian fleet anchorage in the Gulf of Cattaro. But the best informed of the memoranda writers was Hankey, who had spent five years in Naval Intelligence, mostly in the Mediterranean. He spoke modern Greek as well as French, Italian and German. At the turn of the century he had visited the then Turkish port of Salonika on three occasions, travelling down to the Greek border; and on a fact-finding voyage in 1907 he made a personal survey of harbours and beaches in Syria and Palestine. Twice that summer he sailed through the Dardanelles, carefully observing the forts on the Gallipoli peninsula and the humps of hills behind them from the deck of the battleship Irresistible – which was to strike a mine and sink in those same waters eight years later. The War Council respected Hankey’s judgements, even though Arthur Balfour, whose acquaintance with Balkan politics went back to 1878, thought it unlikely that the Balkan states could be induced to come together and fight Turkey once more. `Months of preliminary negotiation would be required to allay passions due to events in the past’, he patiently explained.
`We have now a lot of alternative objectives’, Asquith informed Venetia Stanley after dining at Admiralty House in the first week of the new year. Churchill was so elated by the search for new war zones that he urged the Prime Minister to convene the War Council daily as `no topic can be pursued to any fruitful result at weekly intervals’. But Asquith was not to be hurried: though the Council met on Thursday 7 January, to discuss the Western Front, the possibilities of a Southern Front had to wait for assessment until Friday afternoon. By then it was known that the Russians were under great pressure in the Caucasus, where a Turkish offensive seemed likely to overrun Armenia; the Russian commander-in-chief appealed for a diversionary attack, to threaten the Ottoman Empire so gravely that Enver would have to send troops back from the Caucasus. Kitchener thought the Dardanelles `the most suitable objective’, but he continued to press for an attack on Alexandretta to cut `Turkish communications with Syria’ and it was agreed that this possibility should be studied by the Admiralty and the War Office. On the following Monday morning a message was received at the Admiralty from Vice-Admiral Carden, commander of the naval squadron off the Dardanelles for the past sixteen weeks; he sent a detailed plan by which, without any need for troops, a large flotilla of warships would enter the Straits, silence the forts by heavy bombardment, sweep a passage through the minefields and break into the Sea of Marmara, placing the Turkish capital at the mercy of at least four battleships and two battlecruisers – and all this to be achieved before the end of February. Carden’s plan, enthusiastically expounded by Churchill to the War Council on Wednesday afternoon, carried the day; it was agreed that the naval force should be augmented by the new super-dreadnought, HMS Queen Elizabeth, whose fifteen-inch guns, propelling shells from eight or nine miles out to sea, could be more profitably tested on Turkish forts than on artificial targets in home waters. Asquith, as chairman of the War Council, proposed that the Admiralty should prepare for an expedition, which would `bombard and take the Gallipoli peninsula’ in February and have `Constantinople as its objective’.
Rather curiously, the significance of this historic decision was not perceived at the time: in the minutes of the Council it holds second place, below instructions to the Admiralty to `consider promptly … action in the Adriatic, at Cattaro, or elsewhere’ to bring Italy into the war as a partner and so create a new front, threatening Austria–Hungary from the south-west. It was also accepted that, if the stalemate persisted in France and Flanders throughout the spring, British troops would be sent `to another theatre of war’, preferably Salonika. But, in early February, as preparations were being completed for the naval assault at the Dardanelles, it seemed momentarily as if the initiative in opening up the war had passed to Germany. A plan, prepared in Berlin the previous August, was presented to Djemal soon after he became commanding general of the Fourth Ottoman Army in Damascus in November. The German plan proposed to take advantage of winter rains to send across the central Sinai desert a force of 25,000 Turks, with ten batteries of artillery, pontoons and rafts; the Suez Canal would be crossed between Ismailia and the Great Bitter Lake; it was believed that the Egyptians would then rise against the British. Unusually heavy rain and brilliant staff-work by the Bavarian Colonel Kress von Kressenstein enabled the Turks to fulfil the first stage of the plan, confounding Kitchener and Maxwell’s predictions by crossing Sinai successfully in the first days of February 1915.
Fortunately for the canal’s defenders, the Turkish presence was spotted by French Nieuport seaplanes, based on Suez and flying for dangerously long hours over the inhospitable desert. When the Turks reached the canal, in the early hours of 3 February, they were met by Indian troops along the west bank covered by warships, which served as floating artillery batteries and pierced the night sky with powerful searchlights. Only one pontoon bridged the canal, and the invading force was soon rounded up. Djemal and Kress withdrew their men, pursued for ten miles by Maxwell’s troops. Daylight traffic through the canal was suspended only on invasion day itself; within a week vessels were moving again at night as freely as by day. Yet, though the Turkish attack failed, it made nonsense of any strategic assumption of a desert no-go area protecting Egypt from the east. Colonel Kress remained at Beersheba, occasionally sending out night raiders with mines to block the canal. They claimed only one victim: on 30 June 1915 a Holt Line ship on the India run was sunk in the Little Bitter Lake. At the time, Kress’s activities seemed of small value to the Turks; ultimately, however, they were of great significance to the strategy of the war as a whole. A land campaign to clear the Turks from Palestine and Syria became a political necessity for the Allies. More than any other individual, the Bavarian Colonel brought action to the stage of the Egyptian theatre of war. The drama that opened under naval searchlights on the Suez Canal was to end less dramatically three and a half years later with the signing of an armistice aboard a battleship in Mudros harbour.
For the moment, however, in these opening months of 1915 Cabinet ministers and Service chiefs in London still looked for a short cut to victory in the East. Gradually it was realized that the Dardanelles operation, if a spectacular success, would make Italy and the uncommitted Balkan neutrals hasten to join the Allies, in a rush for the spoils of victory; there would be no need for a naval demonstration at Cattaro, nor indeed of bargaining with Greece over Salonika. `In war words count only so far as they are backed by force and victories’, Grey was to write ten years later; and during the last week of February 1915 it seemed as if Britain enjoyed this advantage. The naval bombardment of the outer defences of the Dardanelles began at 8 a.m. on Friday 19 February. Militarily it caused less destruction than had been anticipated; and bad weather, with poor visibility, prevented any further shelling until the next Thursday, to be followed on the Friday by attacks on the second line of forts and the landing of marines, who completed the destruction of batteries on both shores of the Dardanelles with only two casualties before being re-embarked. But it was the political effect of the assault which aroused the intense interest of the Allied governments.
Reports of the bombardment caused a sensation in Constantinople, 150 miles away, at the Golden Horn, where the Sea of Marmara meets the Bosporus. The US ambassador noted a wave of `fear and panic’ in the city and reported that his German colleague had asked whether he could transfer his personal effects to the US embassy if the situation deteriorated. Two trains with steam up stood ready at Haydar Pasha, the capital’s Asiatic railway terminus, waiting to take the Sultan, his ministers and the diplomatic corps to Eskishehir in Anatolia, whether the gold reserves had already been evacuated. On the other hand, prayers were being offered up in some mosques for the coming of the British fleet and picnic parties went out to Prinkipo Island south of the capital to watch for the first sign of Allied vessels entering the Sea of Marmara. Further afield, the Bulgarians – who had recently secured a substantial loan from Germany – showed a new interest in any proposals British diplomats in Sofia might have to offer; the Greek Prime Minister, Venizelos, offered three divisions for an advance on Constantinople; the Italians opened negotiations in London, ready for war on the right terms if victory was assured; and the Russians held out the prospect of an assault on the Bosporus once Allied warships were inside the Marmara. The bombardment was backed by triumphant Admiralty communiqu’s. Though meant to influence wavering neutrals, they inevitably raised expectations at home. `Peace is almost in sight’, the Prime Minister’s daughter, Violet, believed; and she `indulged in romantic daydreams’ in which her brother, her friend Rupert Brooke and other close companions in the Naval Division were marching through the streets of Constantinople `to the sound of silver trumpets’.
Was such early publicity for the bombardment wise? The lasting effects could not be verified from ships out at sea. Within the War Council, there was frequent disquiet over the operation and disconcerting vacillation, particularly over the use of troops to exploit the fleet’s apparent successes. Kitchener and Churchill clashed on several occasions, most seriously over the War Secretary’s reluctance to allow the 29th Division to sail from England for the Dardanelles; and the septuagenarian First Sea Lord, Admiral Fisher – who first saw the Dardanelles as a midshipman at the end of the Crimean War – increasingly and openly disapproved Of the whole project, insisting that the decisive naval `theatre of war’ remained the North Sea and the Baltic. Yet there were moments of exhilaration, too, around the Council table, especially after reports reached the Foreign Office confirming the deep impression made in neutral capitals by this proof of British seapower. On 2 March the indefatigable Colonel Hankey circulated a seven-page memorandum, `After the Dardanelles, The Next Steps’, which was discussed at the War Council on the following day. He had no doubt that, once the Royal Navy entered the Sea of Marmara, the Ottoman Empire would be forced out of the war and he outlined twelve stages by which this victory could be accomplished and a satisfactory armistice imposed. Nor did Hankey’s vision stop short at Constantinople: he foresaw Germany’s map of Europe being rolled back from the East by a united offensive against Austria–Hungary; Greeks would join Serbs in penetrating Bosnia and Herzegovina; Romania would come into the war, linking up with the Russian armies in the Carpathians; and a British expedition, transported from the Bosporus to harbours in the Danube delta and supported by a powerful naval flotilla on the river itself, would form the centre of this Allied Grand Army as it thrust onwards and upwards through the Fruska Gora highlands to the open plains of Hungary, following the trail to Vienna blazed (literally) by the Ottoman armies in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
The Hankey memorandum understandably excited the War Council. For the first time since the start of the war British politicians gave thought to the shape of an eventual peace settlement, though only in the vaguest terms. An end to Turkey in Europe? The Gallipoli peninsula internationalized or handed to Greece? Serbia to have Bosnia–Herzegovina? Bulgaria, if joining the Allies, to recover lost land in Macedonia? And what if the Turks turned about, tempted (as Kitchener suggested) by a proclamation that Great Britain came as `an ancient friend’? The speculation seemed endless. Churchill, perhaps piqued at being upstaged as a persuasive general strategist, was against making the Danube a main line of advance: British troops should not be used in this theatre of war except `to induce the Balkan States to march’. But the Admiralty had already shown some interest in the Danube: on 28 January the War Council urged work to begin immediately on twelve shallow-draught gunboats for the Danube; and in early January eight 4.7-inch naval guns, with seaman gunners and Royal Marines, reached Belgrade, apparently with the connivance of Greek port and railway authorities at Salonika. It was a pity that the guns’ telescopic sights went missing in transit. After Hankey’s memorandum was circulated, the Admiralty issued five pages of `Notes on the Transport of Military Forces to Serbia’ (25 March), to be followed a few days later by a hydrographic survey of the Danube from Budapest to Braila. Rear-Admiral Troubridge was established in Belgrade as head of a naval mission and the War Office sent Captain L.S. Amery – a Harrovian contemporary of Churchill and a Conservative MP for the past four years – to Romania and Serbia for Intelligence assessments of Galatz, Braila, Prahovo and the Iron Gates. The eventual reports of both Troubridge and Amery emphasized logistical problems along the Danube over which Hankey’s pen had readily leapt in his enthusiasm to strike at the heart of Europe. By the time they circulated in London they had lost their urgency, for there was no sparkle of victory at the Dardanelles. Three and a half years later they were to prove of value to the Allies, though not to the phantom expeditionary force which Hankey envisaged. Only two battalions of British troops ever reached the banks of the Danube.
It long seemed puzzling that such a discreet observer as Hankey should have written so optimistically of policy `after the Dardanelles’ on 1 March, especially as a fortnight later he was warning Asquith that `a serious disaster may occur’. The publication by Captain Stephen Roskill in 1970 of passages from Hankey’s diary helps to explain the inconsistency. For it is clear that, in the first week of March, Hankey had hopes of success for a secret enterprise which he `proposed earlier’ to his successors in Naval Intelligence at the Admiralty and which would have brought the fleet up to Constantinople unopposed: it was confirmed to him that two British agents were in contact with the former Turkish Finance Minister, Nail Bey, ready with an offer of four million pounds to buy Turkey out of the war (a transaction unauthorized by any member of the Cabinet). The current Finance Minister, Mehemet Talaat, the most influential Young Turk politician in Constantinople itself, was highly interested in the proposal. The agents travelled to the Bulgarian port of Dedeagach and met Turkish representatives, but the talks were protracted. Even as they opened, intercepted wireless messages to Berlin from Constantinople indicated that the Turks were desperately short of shells for the Dardanelles forts and, as soon as he heard of the Dedeagach exchanges, the First Sea Lord ordered the talks to be abruptly broken off: the Goeben, Admiral Fisher said, might be worth two million pounds and the Breslau one million, `but nothing else’. The War Secretary, with his long experience of the East, might have treated the strange affair with the seriousness it merited; but the Admiralty was keeping cards close to the chest at that moment in the war, and Kitchener heard nothing of it. There would be later attempts to bribe Turkey into peace, but so good an opportunity never came again.
A more historic missed opportunity was soon to follow. On 15 March Vice-Admiral Carden, who two months previously drew up the plans to force the Dardanelles, collapsed under the strain of command, was put on the sick list with `atonic indigestion’, and returned to England, never again to serve at sea. Carden was succeeded by his deputy, Rear-Admiral John de Robeck. Three days later Robeck led the main naval attack on the Dardanelles. The tragic tale of confusion and hesitancy on that Thursday (18 March) has been recounted many times. The Turkish intermediate batteries were silenced and even the forts at the Narrows; but mobile batteries, hidden in gullies, maintained steady fire on minesweeper trawlers close inshore. But the attack was broken off when success was close at hand (as the Turks subsequently admitted) after three Allied battleships were lost and a battlecruiser badly damaged by Turkish mines unexpectedly laid parallel to the Asiatic shore rather than across the Straits, and therefore missed by the British minesweepers. The War Council expected the naval attack to be resumed after further minesweeping, as indeed Robeck intended. But on the Thursday night a gale blew up from the south-west; there were high seas and squally visibility for the next ten days. Robeck accordingly chose to await the arrival of the expeditionary force, already gathering in Mudros harbour and at Alexandria. But it was the Turks who benefited most from the lull in the fighting. On 24 March Enver entrusted command of the Ottoman Fifth Army, with headquarters in Gallipoli town, to the head of the German military mission, General Liman von Sanders. He had a month in which to prepare plans to safeguard both shores of the Dardanelles from the British, French and Anzac troops whose movements Turkish agents reported without any need for subtle spying. `The Constantinople Expeditionary Force’ could be readily seen encamped in Egypt, with little attempt to conceal its destination, nor its embarkation at Alexandria early in April.
Meanwhile at Westminster the War Council and the Cabinet continued to distribute spoils from a victory not yet won. Kitchener thought the King-Emperor might fittingly take over the protection of Mecca from the Ottoman Sultan – and, indeed, there were many more Muslims who owed allegiance to George V than to Mehmed V. While Kitchener insisted that `Palestine would be of no value to us whatsoever’, Lloyd George thought its annexation would `give us prestige’ and Herbert Samuel, the minister responsible for local government, wanted Palestine brought into the Empire as a Jewish homeland. This particular proposal amused the Prime Minister – `What an attractive community!’, Asquith wrote derisively to Venetia Stanley (herself to convert to Judaism within four months). The India Office coveted Basra, as an outpost of the Viceroy’s domain; and on the day Liman von Sanders first travelled down to his Gallipoli headquarters, the Colonial Secretary, Lewis Harcourt, proposed that the British might annex Mesopotamia and solve the traditional Great Power rivalry over the Holy Places of Jerusalem, Nazareth and Bethlehem by placing them under the mandated protection of the United States (whose ambassador Harcourt had not consulted).
This proleptic carving-up of Turkey came abruptly to an end. For soon after dawn on 25 April 30,000 British, Australian and New Zealand troops went ashore at six beaches on the Gallipoli peninsula; five hours later 3,000 Frenchmen landed at Kumkale, on the Asian shore. So intense was the fighting on the peninsula during the first hours that twelve Victoria Crosses were awarded for valour; six were won by the Lancashire Fusiliers who, with 950 officers and men going ashore at the southernmost tip of Teke Burnu at dawn, were reduced to 407 active survivors when they cleared the beach as the full sun broke through. In all, on the first two days of fighting, 20,000 Allied troops were killed or wounded. Not one of the Allied objectives was reached although, as with the naval attack, there were moments when victory came very close. Lack of experience in co-ordinating an amphibious operation; a rigid command structure, ill-prepared for the terrain; ineffectual leadership by Kitchener’s own nominees; a shortage of specialist equipment; disdainful dismissal of any possibility of prolonged Turkish resistance – all these weaknesses combined to bring to the Dardanelles the inconclusive futility of fighting on the Western Front, that `chewing on barbed wire in Flanders’ which Churchill, Lloyd George and Hankey deplored.
Widening the war did not bring the promised quick and decisive victory. What started out as a vindication of seapower at `the centre of world empire’ was degenerating into yet another land campaign, rapacious of troops and shells and shipping. Four more divisions were needed at Gallipoli. When the War Council met on Friday 14 May, for the first time in five weeks, Kitchener raised the possibility of abandoning the project. Then, on reflection, he insisted that the moral effect of withdrawal could provoke an anti-British `rising in the Moslem world’: better persevere and push through, he advised, unhelpfully. The reality of war had grimly dispersed the elation of earlier months. No silver trumpets from Violet Asquith’s daydream would echo that summer across the waters of the Golden Horn.
©1998 by Alan Palmer. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.