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  • The Myths of Gallipoli
  • Robin Prior (bio)

In 1915 the British and the French undertook a joint effort to seize Constantinople and secure a sea route to Russia. The attempt failed and is widely considered to be one of military history's greatest strategic blunders. Yet myths about the Gallipoli campaign persist. Indeed, the myths surrounding the Gallipoli campaign are so numerous that they easily exceed the mythology of all the other campaigns of the Great War combined. The Gallipoli myths range widely. They cover such issues as whether particular incidents in the campaign represented potentially victorious turning points, whether the campaign if successful could have shortened the war, whether inadequacies of the men and their leaders led to failure, and whether it laid the foundations of two modern nations, Turkey and Australia.

It is hard to say why such a range of myths grew up around the Gallipoli campaign. But certainly some very strong-minded individuals who wrote histories of the campaign had vested interests in the propagation of these myths. Winston Churchill, who presents himself in The World Crisis as the instigator of the campaign, believed that its ruination brought about the (temporary) ruination of his own career. So he sifted through the evidence to find instances of military bungling and opportunities thrown away. C.E.W. Bean, the Australian official historian, sought out moments where the bungling of the British cost Australians victory. He was the first to see how the birth of an Australia no longer subordinate to the mother country could originate on the beaches of Gallipoli. C. Aspinall-Oglander, the British official historian of the campaign, and a member of General Ian Hamilton's staff at Gallipoli, sought moments where sloth and incompetence in lower-order commanders brought to nothing many of the plans he had devised.

The myths abound, but here I will focus on the major ones.

The first involves the naval attack on the Dardanelles. This came to be the overture of the land campaign but was initially intended to make the landing of soldiers unnecessary by sending a fleet through the Narrows and forcing the surrender of Constantinople by ships alone. This attack commenced on February 19, 1915, and reached its culmination in the great attack of March 18. It failed, with three Allied ships sunk and three crippled. But it is said that if the naval attack had been resumed, the Turkish forts would have been unable to resist the fleet because they were running so short of ammunition. There are many studies that show that the Turkish forts actually had plenty of ammunition left. But to concentrate on the state of the forts is to miss a more important point: it was not the forts that were the main obstacle to the fleet but the rows of Turkish mines that lay in the Narrows. Despite almost a month of endeavor the minesweepers failed to clear a single mine, either because they could not make headway against the Dardanelles current or because they were deluged with shells from the concealed and mobile batteries on both sides of the Straits. With over 350 mines presenting an impenetrable barrier to the fleet, it mattered little if the forts had sufficient ammunition or not.

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A 1915 German print showing soldiers advancing under fire at night on the Gallipoli Peninsula.

Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [reproduction number, LC-USZ62-12134].

The second myth relates to the timing of the military campaign. Just over a month passed from the time that the navy conceded that they could not force the Straits to the time that the military landed. During this period the Turks reinforced their defenses on the Peninsula. If the landings had taken place earlier, so the argument runs, they would have proved successful. This myth ignores the weather in the Eastern Mediterranean in spring. Even if troops had been immediately available to follow up the naval failure, the weather would have prohibited a landing. The seas were too rough for most of the period between operations to land sufficient troops to force their way through to the Straits. The last of the storms...


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pp. 33-35
Launched on MUSE
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Ceased Publication
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