Turkey’s entry into World War I on the side of the Central Powers seemed to provide an ideal opportunity for the Allies to exploit their naval superiority in the Mediterranean: an assault on the Turkish Dardanelles, gateway to the Bosporus and the capital city of Constantinople. More to the point, it was also seen as an alternative to the costly trench deadlock that had gripped the Western Front since the end of 1914. But this was a dangerously flawed strategic vision that evaded the central requirement of defeating the German Army on the Western Front to secure overall victory.
If the Allied strategic proposal was unsound, then its inept execution only made matters worse. All element of surprise was lost when British and French naval forces attempted to force the Dardanelles; they were repulsed with heavy losses. As the Allies subsequently prepared for an amphibious landing, the Turks were given time to bring up reinforcements and improve their defences.
When British, Anzac and French troops hit the beaches on 25 April 1915 they faced determined Turkish opposition, and lacking any special equipment for amphibious operations were only able to secure tenuous footholds at Cape Hellas and Anzac Cove. In August, further landings were made at Suvla Bay, but command failures and general inexperience prevented any break out from the beach-head. Ironically, a Western-Front stalemate was replicated on Gallipoli, and continuing losses and the failure to make any headway led to the Allied evacuation of the peninsula in December and January, bringing the whole episode to an inglorious close.
Peter Hart – an authority on Gallipoli – has written a well-argued and highly readable account of the campaign. He includes British, Australian and New Zealand sources but also draws upon new French and Turkish accounts to provide a wider and more detailed picture of the fighting. He makes it clear that the whole operation was ‘lunacy’ from the start, and that an opposed amphibious landing – the most difficult of military operations – was quite beyond the capabilities of the British Army of 1915.
Making extensive use of personal testimonies, Hart describes the bravery of the troops on both sides as they endured terrible climatic conditions while ravaged by disease. In the many circles of hell encountered by frontline soldiers in World War I, Gallipoli must be considered among the most dreadful. For the Allies it was an abject defeat, but for the Turks it was a hard-fought victory that helped seal the reputation of a relatively junior officer, who as Kemal Attaturk would emerge as the founder of modern Turkey.
Profile Books, 544 pages, £25 (h/b)