A century on, Gallipoli campaign should be more than just a symbol of futility

Remembering the fallen. PA

By the horrific standards of the First World War, the ten-month Gallipoli campaign of 1915-16 was not especially bloody. At about 130,000 the combined tally of fatalities on both sides was well short of, for example, the estimated 475,000 deaths suffered in total during the notorious Battle of Passchendaele, which lasted under four months in 1917. But the Gallipoli campaign has acquired a special aura of tragedy on the Allied side. It was unquestionably a comprehensive defeat, with absolutely no territory gained, and so perhaps we should not be surprised that the campaign has become an enduring symbol of futile carnage.

The Gallipoli campaign was a bold attempt by the Entente powers – Britain, France and Russia – to break the trench stalemate of the First World War. The Allies aimed to outflank their main enemies, Germany and Austria-Hungary, on a grand scale. The plan, with Winston Churchill as its chief advocate in London, was to seize control of the waterway between the Aegean and Black seas, eliminate the Ottoman Empire from the war, create a convenient, quick supply route between Britain, France and Russia, and bring neutral Balkan countries like Greece into the war on the Allied side.

The reality was a disaster. Naval attacks and infantry landings at the mouth of the Dardanelles strait were spectacular failures. Several battleships were lost, and the infantry units all failed to break inland from their landing beaches. Churchill’s reputation was badly damaged, which helps to explain why he lost his place in the British government. Ultimately the troops were evacuated during December 1915 and January 1916. Among the near 400,000 Allied casualties were some 42,000 British fatalities.

This defeat was by no means the first occurrence of heavy Allied casualties in the war. For example, the Battle of Loos in September 1915 brought casualties that proportionately matched the losses in the infamous Somme campaign of 1916. The Black Watch regiment lost so many men at Loos that the city of Dundee still marks that anniversary every year.

But the Gallipoli campaign’s result was especially troubling even at the time. Memorial services were held in April 1916 on the first anniversary of the initial landings. Subsequently, this anniversary has acquired special significance as Anzac Day, helping to shape and mark the transformation of Australia and New Zealand from British dominions to independent nations. And Gallipoli has become almost as notorious in British memory as the Somme and Passchendaele in symbolising the carnage of the war. The point is not simply the scale of the losses. It is also the fact that the campaign was so obviously a resounding defeat. What could have been more futile?

Anzac Day commemorations in Melbourne. Chris Phutully/Flickr, CC BY

Solid strategy

But it’s all too easy to focus on the defeat and futility and forget that the campaign did have purpose. As such, that sacrifice of young Allied lives wasn’t as pointless as tradition tells us. The strategy behind the campaign was solid. As we reach the centenary of the final evacuation, it’s worth pausing to reflect about why Gallipoli was fought.

The crux was Russia. With industry that was much less developed than the leading Western powers, she desperately needed to import war supplies. Yet because the enemy was blockading the Baltic and Black seas the only viable supply routes were through Archangel in the north and Vladivostok in the Far East. In both cases the goods necessarily took months to reach their destination, whereas delivery via the straits and Black Sea would be far quicker.

Britain and France, too, perceived a crucial benefit in securing this trade route. By spring 1915 they were struggling to find more grain on the international market, and they hoped to get large amounts of it from southern Russia. The Russian government was keen to sell so as to help fund its war imports.

And the removal of the Ottoman Empire from the war had the potential to transform the logistics of Russia’s war effort. For example, if most imports were routed through the Black Sea, it would be possible to use Archangel mainly for sending British coal to Petrograd for the Baltic fleet, the capital and its vital industry. That in turn would allow coal from Russia’s Donetsk basin to be concentrated on other industrial needs closer to the mines, freeing much railway track capacity as well as wagons.

Additionally, oil and cotton could move to European Russia much more easily from the southern Caucasus and Central Asia respectively. Likewise there would be scope to move at least some meat and grain from Western Siberia to European Russia. Not least, the port of Odessa could resume its role as chief conduit for imports of Ceylon tea – now a politically essential commodity given the imposition of prohibition in 1914.

Of course, we cannot say that all of these opportunities would have been seized. Other military demands might have given precedence. But Russia’s transport ministry was conscious of the potential, and would certainly have made the case to use it. And making even just some of these changes would have helped significantly to reduce the pressure on Russia’s dangerously stretched economic infrastructure.

The Gallipoli defeat ensured that the pressure on Russia’s economy continued to grow throughout 1916. By the autumn political crisis gripped the capital, and famously the storm broke in early 1917. Inflation and shortages of food and fuel spurred rioting in the capital, and these street protests became a revolution that toppled the 300-year-old Romanov autocracy – arguably the pivotal moment of the 20th century.

To claim, as did the Australian writer Alan Moorehead among others, that the Gallipoli defeat led to the Russian revolution is probably to stretch the connection too far. But we should not simply dismiss that notion, for there certainly was an important connection in the realm of Russia’s logistics. Like Germany, Russia had to fight a two-front war, and the stakes could not have been higher.

So yes, let’s remember the casualties and the mistakes, but equally let’s understand that the Gallipoli campaign did have a vital strategic purpose, even if its design and execution were fatally flawed.

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