Macedonian Ramble: Gallipoli as a Colonial Subdivision

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A Turkish memorial along the Dardanelles Strait in Turkey. The 1915 Allied campaign on the Gallipoli peninsula (to the right) was fought to control this stretch of water. Photo: Matthew Stevenson.

This is the thirteenth part in a series about a journey across what used to be called Macedonia, which is now divided among Albania, North Macedonia, Greece, and Turkey.

From the British sector, my guide Bulant and I drove toward what was called S Beach, where the French landed after their earlier feint at Kim Kale across the strait. Behind S Beach there was more of an empty plain than at Cape Helles, although the French had no more luck than did the British in reaching their inland objective of Achi Baba, and soon they too were entombed in their own trench lines.

Bulant took me to the French cemetery and explained that it had, of late, generated a ministerial hissy fit, when someone in the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan realized that under many French markers (metal crosses) were muslims legionaries from places such as Tunisia and Algeria.

The minister ordered the crosses lopped off by sunset, or other heads would roll and the French cemetery would be sent packing. Now in the French cemetery there are many defaced, armless crosses. (In general Aussies, Kiwis, Brits and Turks come to Gallipoli, but not the French or, more to the point, not the Senegalese or Algerians.)

France and the Dardanelles: A study in failure

The controversy over the French crosses, and French anger at the British over the entire campaign, prompted me, once I was home, to hunt around for a book on the French at Gallipoli.

I looked online, but it was in a box of books that had belonged to my father that I came across George H. Cassar’s The French and the Dardanelles: A study of failure in the conduct of war. It turned out that I had given it to him for Christmas 1974. At the time we must have been discussing the possibility of a family trip to Gallipoli, which happened two years later—at least from the deck of the Black Sea Steamship Adjaria.

The Cassar book is less than 300 pages but ranks among the best that I have read in explaining what went wrong, both in battle and diplomatically, between the Allies. In it Cassar quotes from the diary of Francis Bertie, 1st Viscount Bertie of Thame, England’s ambassador to France during the war, who wrote: “The Dardanelles Expedition is regarded by ordinary Frenchmen as undertaken in the interests of Russia materially, and of England politically, to secure her position in India and Egypt.”

Cassar is a Canadian-born historian who taught in the United States for more than fifty years and is now retired. He posits that the French approached the Dardanelles, not so much with an eye toward defeating Germany or Turkey by seizing Constantinople, but with the goal of protecting their postwar colonial claims in the Middle East. They feared that Britain would seize the straits on its own, and thus have a free hand (along with Russia) in the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire, especially in the Levant.

Churchill’s Grand Designs

At first France went along with Churchill’s grand design for rushing the straits as it didn’t have much skin in that early game—just some old cruisers. Cassar describes the reaction of one French minister to the scheme: “Remarking later, [French naval minister Jean-Victor] Augagneur listed two reasons why he acquiesced in Churchill’s proposals. First, Churchill’s assurance that this was only an experimental attack, losses would be limited and ships could be withdrawn at any time.”

Cassar is scathing in his assessment of the Churchill plan, writing:

A strategic plan must be evaluated on the strength of its achievement or merit and not on speculative consequences. The naval operation was designed as a short cut to victory and on this alone it must be judged. In this sense it was an utter failure. To quote Sir Gerald Ellison, ‘the underlying idea of the whole plan was Utopian in the extreme’….

From this welter of confusion and illusion one thing emerges quite clearly. The Allies were trying to gain the advantage of a victory without finding the means to win that victory.

The second reason for the French involvement in the Dardanelles was that they preferred the British on the ground there rather that at Alexandretta (now the port of Iskenderum in southern Turkey near Syria).

At various times in the war, a landing Alexandretta, to sever the Ottoman Empire in half, was another backdoor dream of Lord Kitchener and Churchill. Even on the day of the naval attack on the straits, Kitchener was banging the table in London, arguing for an Alexandretta landing. To the French, the forcing of the straits was less of a threat to their Middle East colonial interests than a campaign in what is now southern Turkey and northern Syria.

Winners and Losers at the Straits

Cassar’s book is astute in explaining how the real winners—in the event of a victory in the Dardanelles—would have been the Russians, who would have come out of the campaign in possession of Constantinople, in exchange for doing almost nothing to help the Allies. Cassar writes:

The Straits Agreement was a resounding diplomatic triumph for [Russian Foreign Minister] Sazonov. He had made no commitments except to undertake an attack in the Bosphorus. Even then the absence of Russian naval superiority in the Black Sea practically annulled any chance of important results. It can hardly be disputed that the Russians extorted concessions in excess of what their strength justified. For a minimal effort they had assured themselves of vast territorial gains. The real losers were the French and the English whose blood would serve to pay for that prize.

Sean McMeekin agrees in his history of the Ottoman Empire, writing of the negotiations that led to the British and French ground assault: “Still, [Foreign Minister Sergei] Sazonov’s triumph was complete: the partition of the Ottoman Empire was now formal Allied policy, with Russia getting her great prize.”

Like the naval attack, the ground campaign at Gallipoli was largely “a British show,” and its commanders had little interest in incorporating a French take on strategy, because the English saw France as hopelessly mired on the Western Front, without any other ideas on how to solve the stalemate. That said, all that the British generals at Gallipoli managed to accomplish was to export the senseless slaughter of the trenches to Asia Minor, where before villages such as Krithia they managed to lose as many men as were lost on the Somme or at Loos.

Cassar writes:

If [French General] Joffre was bent on pursuing the slaughter in the West it was certain that he would receive no encouragement from the English. Reviewing the general military situation in mid-June, Churchill observed that since April the Anglo-French forces on the main front had cleared about eight square miles of territory which was of little strategic value and, in the process, had suffered 320,000 casualties, while enemy losses amounted to less than a third of that number.

After I had first seen Gallipoli in summer 1976, I was open to the idea that Churchill’s end run through the straits had some military merit, in the context of World War I, and that a successful Balkan front might have shortened the duration of the war.

Reading Cassar dispelled those illusions, as he repeatedly makes the point that even if the English and French warships had been successful in the original attack on the Dardanelles, there was no guarantee that Turkey would drop out of the war or that the British could have held on to Constantinople without a full army behind the naval crews. He concludes:

If Churchill understood the far-reaching consequences of the capture of Constantinople, there is little evidence that he fully realized the gigantic odds the ships would first have to overcome. As far as he was concerned the fleet’s supreme test was to get through the Narrows and he was confident that this could be done. The Germans had demonstrated the power of mobile guns against fortresses in the destruction of the emplacements at Liege and Namur, and Churchill had mistakenly concluded that there was an analogy between the Belgian experience and the forts at the Dardanelles. Once the fleet broke into the Sea of Marmara, Churchill looked forward to the evacuation of Gallipoli by the Turks, thus negating the necessity of an army, and to the surrender of Constantinople.

It was a straits’ dream.

Allied Territorial Dreams

Perhaps more than any other theater of the war, Gallipoli laid bare the extent to which World War I was fought for territorial aggrandizement, even by the Allies who presumably went to war to defend Serbia and Belgium from German aggression.

In attacking the straits, Churchill was a latter-day crusader, intent on liberating the holy lands (Constantinople among them) from the infidel, and France’s participation was to insure that it would have a say after the war in defending its Christian (and economic) interests in the Levant. Cassar concludes by writing:

The Straits Agreement had the effect of changing the avowed purpose of the naval assault by focusing the attention of the Allies on the dismemberment of Turkey, rather than on forcing her to withdraw from the war. It thus jeopardized whatever chance there was of a successful naval operation by introducing the Imperial ambitions of the Allies, which a purely maritime enterprise did not have the capacity to fulfil. With each Entente Power bent on improving its position, even against its present partner, one vital question was overlooked. Since the three conferees intended to carve out slices of Ottoman territory, it is difficult to imagine how they could have ignored the reaction of the new Turkish regime to such a proposition.

The land battles of Gallipoli only ended when the French, worn out from its losses and the stalemate on the peninsula, decided to commit their forces to the Balkans front at Salonika. In many ways, the history of Gallipoli might well be included in the accounts of the Balkan Wars, as it was yet another fratricidal assault in Macedonia at the expense of the Ottoman Empire.

Here’s how Cassar describes the Treaty of London, signed on April 26, 1915, the day after Allied troops came ashore at Cape Helles:

The Allies quite naturally were free to offer more. Russia was slow to give her consent for she was loath to promise Italy territory which the Southern Slavs hoped to acquire. Eventually the Italian Government, under Premier Salandra, came down on the side of the Entente. By the secret Treaty of London, signed on April 26th, it was agreed that if the Allies won the war, Italy should receive the Trentino and Tyrol up to the Brenner Pass, Trieste, Istria, part of Dalmatia, the Dodecanese and certain islands in the Adriatic. She was also promised Libya and Somaliland if France and England increased their territorial holdings in Africa; and the port of Adalia [now Antalya] and its hinterland in Asia Minor in case Turkey was divided.

So much for it being a “war to end all wars.” It was the land grab to begin all land grabs, although that’s only apparent if you visit S Beach, at the mouth of the Dardanelles, with a copy of Cassar’s book under your arm.

Next: Anzac Cove, and the fate of Australia and New Zealand at Gallipoli. Earlier installments can be found here.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, and The Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent book, about traveling in France and the Franco-Prussian wars, is entitled Biking with Bismarck.