Lessons Learned from Gallipoli

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by Dr DAVID MORGAN-OWEN

Both at the time and since, the natural reaction to the Allied failure to capture the Gallipoli Peninsular has been to interrogate the records in search of lessons to be learned. The numerous shortcomings in planning and execution evident in the operation have provided ample opportunity for those searching for ways to improve future amphibious assaults. Comments made by US observers present during the campaign, which my colleague Dr. Robert T. Foley’s discussed in this recent post, were representative of the consensus that ‘the Dardanelles Campaign as a whole…stands out as one of the most disastrous failures with which British forces have ever been involved.’ The shortcomings witnessed by the US representatives went on to inform the writing of Marine Corps’ doctrine in the 1930s as that service adopted a more maritime role. The British, too, sought to use the lessons of Gallipoli to improve future operations. In the wake of the successful Allied landings in Normandy in 1945, Admiral Sir T.H. Binney, who had taken part in the bombardment of the Dardanelles forts on board HMS Queen Elizabeth, questioned with a sense of evident satisfaction, ‘is it too much to claim that the sees of this successful effort were planted on our failure on 25th April, 1915?’

Yet, whilst lauding the planners of Operation Overlord for having ‘thoroughly learnt the lessons of history and our own failures in 1915’, Binney was critical of the authorities at the time for their failure to apply the lessons of the Dardanelles to the remainder of the War. In particular, he condemned the government for having withheld troops to repel a German invasion in 1917-18, reasoning that the ineffectiveness of naval gunfire at Gallipoli would have militated against the success of any assault upon Britain. However, the records reveal that the retired Admiral’s accusations were misplaced. Senior military and naval officials were quick to modify their opinions based upon events at the Dardanelles. In doing so they reached the opposite conclusion to that which Binney alluded to; namely that the Allied landings demonstrated that a German invasion was more realistic proposition than had hitherto been acknowledged.

The feasibility of a hostile invasion had been an issue of considerable controversy in Britain before the War. One of they key issues at stake was that of the practicalities of landing a force sufficient to subdue to the country. Whilst the military authorities tended to consider that troops might be landed across an open beach, the Admiralty was quick to highlight the practical obstacles to the rapid disembarkation of men, horses, guns and supplies without first seizing port facilities. Writing in early 1904, Vice-Admiral Sir John Fisher stated definitively that ‘no rational commander would rely on landing on an open beach. Hence, some sort of harbour must be used.’ Given the highly politicized debate as to the feasibility of invasion and its implications for army reform and the division of funding between the services, Fisher’s views must be treated with a degree of caution. In private, he was prepared to concede that lightly equipped troops might disembark rapidly onto an open beach. Yet, they remain broadly representative of the consensus of naval opinion at the time.

Where the two services did agree was that such an operation would be extremely problematic in the face of determined opposition. In the wake of the 1904 Clacton Sands manoeuvres, during which a force of 12,000 men, 42 guns and 2,700 horses was landed on the Essex coastline, a joint conference was convened to discuss future combined operations. The report of this body concluded that ‘modern weapons had greatly added to the difficulties of a force attempting an opposed landing.’ On these grounds, the assembled military and naval experts were satisfied that ‘enough has been said, I think, to demonstrate the impracticality of landing troops now-a-days in the face of opposition.’ The representatives of the press who had witnessed the landings concurred in this assessment, The Times noting that the exercises had taught the observing foreign military attachés ‘how difficult a task the invasion of England really would be.’ These conclusions were to inform the War Office’s Manual of Combined Operations (1913), which embodied the inadvisability of attempting opposed landings into British doctrine.

Unfortunately, the Clacton manoeuvres did not prove to be a catalyst for reconciling the opposing views of the two services regarding the feasibility of conducting a major landing on an open beach. For the remainder of the pre-war period the Admiralty remained wedded to the idea that such an operation was extremely problematic and that no enemy seeking to invade Britain was likely to attempt it. Instead, the naval authorities tended to focus on the vulnerability of the numerous small, relatively undefended ports on the east coast at which troops might be disembarked. The naval views received official sanction in April 1914, when the Committee of Imperial Defence concluded that:

The uncertainty of securing favourable weather conditions, the delay which might be caused by the cyclist patrols allotted to watch the coast line, and the probability of being attacked by the naval patrols before a landing can be completed, combine to provide a very strong deterrent to any attempt to land an invading army on an open beach.

That this consensus of opinion did not form an insuperable barrier to the decision to land troops on the beaches of the Gallipoli Peninsula some twelve-months later was a measure of the over-confidence with which the British approached the operation. Nevertheless, whilst adequate operational analysis before the decision to order the landings was lacking, a greater degree of critical thought appears to have been devoted to assessing what lessons might be drawn from their conduct.

In January 1916, less than a month after the evacuation of Allied troops from their positions on the Peninsular, a conference was held in London to discuss the possibility of a German attack on the United Kingdom. This body departed from the Admiralty’s pre-war position regarding the feasibility of landing troops on an open beach, specifically on the basis of operations at Gallipoli. The representatives pointed out that ‘a force of 29,000 men with seven days’ supplies, but without artillery and transport, was disembarked on the Gallipoli Peninsula in 13½ hours’ and that ‘the force had to land in the face of most determined opposition from an equal, if not larger force, fighting behind defences erected with the sole object of denying the beaches to a landing party.’ The conference therefore concluded that since a German expedition was unlikely to encounter any opposition across large swathes of the relatively undefended British east coast, it was likely that ‘the enemy, by disembarking at a number of landing places, could land the maximum force he is able to embark for such an enterprise’. Combined with the prevailing naval situation in the North Sea, this necessitated a significant revision to the pre-war estimate of the number of troops that the Germans might successfully land in Britain, which was increased to 150,000 men.

By the time the Admiralty and War Office reached this assessment, Fisher had been out of official planning circles for over six months. The combustion of his relationship with Churchill had seen the old Admiral resign his post as First Sea Lord in what many regarded as a failed attempt to exert his authority over naval affairs. However, his retirement had been short lived. In July 1915 Fisher took up the chairmanship of the Board of Invention and Research, tasked with ‘organizing and encouraging scientific effort in relation to the requirements of the naval service.’ Referring to Fisher’s on-going politicking, the Admiral’s critics uncharitably re-christened this body the ‘Board of Intrigue and Revenge’. Yet, it is interesting to note that during one of his attempts to influence the course of government policy in the spring of 1917, Fisher chose to invoke the experience of Gallipoli to support his arguments. In a letter to the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir William Robertson, Fisher confided that:

The Gallipoli landing (and its shores never free from hostile gunfire till its evacuation) has tumbled down the Walls of Jericho of the Blue Water School, of which I was formerly Chief! I’ve been to Damascus like St. Paul, and [am] converted.

These words may have been penned in support of political objectives, yet they serve to demonstrate that Britain’s military and naval authorities drew a counter-intuitive lesson from the experience at Gallipoli; namely that opposed landings on an open beach were possible under modern conditions. This goes some way to explaining why the Admiralty gave support to plans for landings against the Belgian coastline during 1917-18, whilst condemning as futile the isolated bombardment of coastal installations from the sea. Failure at Gallipoli provided numerous lessons for the British. The impracticality of amphibious operations under modern conditions was not one of them.

Image: The SS RIVER CLYDE which, loaded with troops, was run ashore on ‘V’ beach at Sedd el Bahr on Cape Helles during the Gallipoli landing, courtesy of the Imperial War Museum, IWM (Q 13236): http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205248472.

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