STRAITS British Policy towards the Ottoman Empire and the Origins of the Dardanelles Campaign © 1997-2005 Geoffrey Miller





STRAITS : British policy towards the Ottoman Empire and the Origins of the Dardanelles Campaign © Geoffrey Miller



Map of Turkey
STRAITS British Policy towards the Ottoman Empire and the Origins of the Dardanelles Campaign © 1997-2005 Geoffrey Miller



Chapter 22




The Lure of the Dardanelles




The Ottoman Empire at the outbreak of the War

The Ottoman Empire at the outbreak of the War

The foundering of the hopes of Greek participation at the Dardanelles after Admiral Kerr’s discouraging report of 9 September 1914 seemed, for the moment, to spell the end of any Allied attempt to force the Straits. Although one of the earliest dispatches to mention the possibility of forcing the Dardanelles (Ambassador Mallet’s telegram of 18 August[1]) referred only to the fleet, by September Churchill had received opinions from various naval and military sources on the spot – Kerr, Limpus, Cunliffe-Owen – all of whom agreed that any attempt must be accompanied by military operations. Churchill himself was later to argue that, at the time, he no longer considered the forcing of the Straits by ships alone a practicable proposition; yet this is precisely what he subsequently attempted to do. Although the saga of the ‘drift to the Dardanelles’ has been told before, new evidence, never before used, now makes it possible to offer an alternative interpretation in which Churchill’s main aim, initially, was to humour Fisher and so prevent his resignation at a critical juncture; and in which information about Goeben plays a far greater part than previously acknowledged.

                There is no doubt that the Dardanelles was one obvious place at which to assault the Turks; but it was not the only one. When emphasizing the dangers on 27 August 1914 Cunliffe-Owen, the British Military Attaché in Constantinople, advocated operations in the Persian Gulf or Syria, ‘where Turkish forces are almost negligible.’ What then were the attractions of the Dardanelles? For Churchill, who ascribed to the commonly held belief that, by cutting out the heart – Constantinople – the extremities would soon die, they were fourfold: first, the Straits offered the quickest route by which the Turkish capital could be threatened; second, any proposed operations re-opened the possibility of bringing Greece in; third, the fact that the navy would be involved prominently; and, lastly and more speculatively, it was the shortest distance to reach and attack Goeben. This last point should not be overlooked: as punishment for making the First Lord look a fool the Turks were subjected to the fatuous bombardment of the Dardanelles forts in early November. By then the prospect of Greek aid had withered and Goeben was busy in the Black Sea. Churchill might have written off Turkey (despite his speculative statement to Asquith on the last day of 1914 that he had wanted Gallipoli attacked on the Turkish declaration of war[2]) had it not been for a lucky shot from one of Carden’s ships. In evidence at the Dardanelles Commission Churchill later stated:

It is obvious that the ideal action against Turkey if she came into the War, was at the earliest possible moment to seize the Gallipoli Peninsula by an amphibious surprise attack and to pass a fleet into the [Sea of] Marmora …When at the end of August I formed the opinion that our diplomacy would fail to keep Turkey from joining our enemies, I immediately began to make enquiries from the War Office about the possibility of such an operation…I was perfectly well aware that the right and obvious method of putting a British fleet into the Marmora was by an amphibious attack on the Gallipoli Peninsula. This view was general at the Admiralty — all my advisers shared it. Indeed it was so obvious, that it scarcely needed discussion, but for this an army was wanted, and no army was forthcoming[3]…Like most other people, I had held the opinion that the days of forcing the Dardanelles were over; and I had even recorded this opinion in a Cabinet paper in 1911. But this war had brought many surprises. We had seen fortresses reputed throughout Europe to be impregnable collapsing after a few days’ attack by field armies without a regular siege…[4]

Furthermore, whatever else he may subsequently have said, when asked at the Commission hearings to explain the object of the November bombardment, Churchill answered that, as far as he could recollect, it ‘was to see what the effect of the ships’ guns would be on the outer forts — whether they would injure them.’[5] How much importance, Churchill was then asked, did he attach to what had happened at Liége and Antwerp? The then former First Lord, who had come in for much criticism as a result of his forlorn attempt to hold Antwerp in October 1914 at the head of the half-trained Royal Naval Division, replied, ‘Certainly the destruction of the first class fortresses in a few days by the fire of heavy howitzers was a great and surprising fact.’ Churchill also maintained that a gunnery expert at the Admiralty had examined the effect of artillery fire against the forts.[6]

                The destruction of Fort Sedd-el-Bahr on 3 November had a rousing effect not only on those who witnessed it, but also in London.[7] Churchill promptly began to press Admiral Carden for further ways of injuring the enemy; the Admiral could only suggest another bombardment, to which Churchill concurred on 16 November before, apparently, being dissuaded by Admiral Oliver who was concerned that the ships’ guns might not have enough life remaining to use full charges.[8] A week later, at what became the first meeting of the ‘War Council’ following Asquith’s desire to have ‘a small conclave on the Naval and Military situation’,[9] Churchill’s advocacy of the Dardanelles operation was confined to proposing a feint to relieve pressure on Egypt in case of a Turkish attack. An attack on the Gallipoli Peninsula, he admitted then, ‘was a very difficult operation requiring a large force.’[10] Yet, less than a fortnight later, Asquith confessed privately that Winston’s ‘volatile mind is at present set on Turkey & Bulgaria, & he wants to organise a heroic adventure against Gallipoli and the Dardanelles: to which I am altogether opposed.’[11] What had happened?

                In truth it is hard to see: Churchill had blown hot and cold on the issue since the start of the war. His attempts to initiate planning for an attack early in September fell foul of a lack of enthusiasm at the War Office[12] and the internal struggles in Athens. Equally, his bizarre scheme to ship 50,000 Russians from Archangel or Vladivostock to Gallipoli, was quickly discounted.[13] Then, in October, following the receipt of a further appraisal from Cunliffe-Owen, in which the Military Attaché deprecated naval action alone, General Callwell, the D.M.O. (according to his memoirs) outlined the dangers in a meeting with Churchill and Fisher.[14] The preliminary bombardment of 3 November was borne as much out of frustration as for any other motive. It would not be until three days after Asquith’s comment above that Sturdee’s victory at the Falkland Islands on 8 December removed the last major German surface threat from the seas, leaving only such minor units as Dresden and Konigsberg to be dealt with. This, in turn, freed a number of British ships which were not necessarily required in the North Sea and now lacked a rôle. Nevertheless, it was clear to Churchill at this time that troops would not be available to participate in any Gallipoli operations,[15] and besides, as he admitted to Fisher when congratulating the Admiral after the Falkland Islands’ victory, ‘I am shy of landings under fire — unless there is no other way.’[16] Perhaps it was simply the case that, having mentioned the option of a Dardanelles attack, and having appreciated the difficulty involved, Churchill then set to work to overcome that difficulty.

               The Turkish cruiser Messudieh

The Turkish cruiser Messudieh

  Shortly after, however, a number of events conspired to persuade Churchill that a method might be possible. Early on the morning of Sunday 13 December 1914 the British submarine B.11, commanded by Lieutenant Norman Holbrook, set off up the Straits ‘with a view to reaching Tchanak, if possible, and torpedoing the Lily Rickmers [on which German staff officers were believed to be living] or any other hostile vessel as opportunity might offer.’ B.11, which had been selected for the hazardous attempt as her batteries had been renewed more recently that the other submarines, was fitted with special guards projecting from her side designed to throw clear ‘mooring wires of mines, or other obstructions likely to foul the boat.’ At 9.40 a.m. Holbrook sighted ‘a large 2-funnelled vessel painted grey’ which he soon ascertained was flying the Turkish ensign; thirteen minutes later he fired one torpedo at the target which turned over and sank within ten minutes. It was the cruiser Messudieh.[17] Believing the attack presaged a general Anglo-French attempt to force the Dardanelles, reinforcements and German technical officers were rushed from Constantinople, including Admiral von Usedom who spent ‘8 useless days waiting’ before returning to the capital in time for Christmas.[18] Holbrook’s exploit demonstrated what could be done; then, three days later, a confidential report was received in the Admiralty from Constantinople. According to this the Turkish fleet, including Goeben, had come off badly after an encounter with the Russian Black Sea fleet:[19] the after guns of the battle cruiser had been put out of action, her stern was riddled with shell and she had four large holes in her starboard side; casualties had been heavy and 80 of her crew were known to have been buried in the German Embassy grounds at Therapia. More important than this, it was reported that on 4 December what was described as a ‘slight mutiny’ had broken out on board a Turkish ship after the German officers had received their salary but the Turkish crew had not; Breslau had to be summoned to stand nearby, ready to open fire if necessary to quell the mutiny.[20]

                Then, beginning on the evening of 18 December, an entertaining charade was played out in the Gulf of Alexandretta by the crew of HMS Doris, under Captain Larken. Ordered to attempt to interrupt the flow of material along the Hejaz Railway which, just north of Alexandretta, ran by the sea Larken put a party ashore that, undetected, cut the telegraph and loosened some rails resulting in the derailment of a south-bound train. On the following afternoon, guided by the 1907 Hague Convention, Larken delivered an ultimatum demanding the surrender of all engines and military equipment in the town under threat of bombardment. The reply, in the name of Djemal Pasha who had been transferred from Constantinople to Syria as Commander-in-Chief, threatened, in return, reprisals against British subjects held in detention. Larken warned that such behaviour would be punished by the victorious allies at the end of the war. In the meantime another landing party had destroyed a railway bridge, effectively stopping all traffic. By the morning of the 22nd Larken’s ultimatum had been accepted — but not before the Turks had removed everything of military value from the town except two locomotives which the deputy governor was quite prepared to destroy provided the British supplied the dynamite! Larken thereupon sent a party ashore, under the command of the Torpedo Lieutenant, armed with gun-cotton which could not be entrusted to the Turks. The Governor relented and allowed the party to lay the charges but, he maintained, Turkish dignity would only be assuaged if a Turkish officer fired the charges. The stalemate which ensued was only broken after some hours by formally inducting the Torpedo Lieutenant into the Turkish service for the rest of the day, at which the engines finally met their fate.[21]

                Holbrook, Larken and the intelligence report all combined to make the Turks appear a less than formidable enemy.[22] At the same time the stalemate on the Western Front – which already seemed certain to descend into a long, bloody war of attrition – led to certain key members of the War Council considering alternative strategies which were then worked up into memoranda; finally, acting as the catalyst, came an appeal from the supposedly hard-pressed Russians. The momentum had begun. On Christmas Day 1914, in an attempt to clear his own mind, Maurice Hankey, the Secretary of the War Council, began to compose his memorandum; although not complete until the 28th, it became known as the Boxing Day Memorandum. When finished, Hankey ‘rather fancied the result’ of his effort and showed it to Callwell at the War Office and Oliver at the Admiralty, both of whom proffered criticisms. Then it went to Admiral Fisher and General Sir James Wolfe Murray, both members of the War Council; from there it went to both Churchill and Kitchener and, eventually, Asquith.[23] Independently both Churchill and Lloyd George also committed their thoughts to paper.

                The spectre that drove them all was simple: ‘I agree, and I fear that everybody must agree,’ Arthur Balfour informed Hankey, ‘that the notion of driving the Germans back from the West of Belgium to the Rhine by successfully assaulting and capturing one line of trenches after another seems a very hopeless affair.’[24] Aware that great forces – the new armies then being raised and trained – would become available by March 1915, Hankey looked for some other outlet for their effective employment. To circumvent the impasse on the Western front Hankey investigated two methods: either some new invention which would give the Allies the upper hand, or else an attack at a subsidiary point which would compel the enemy ‘so to weaken his forces that an advance becomes possible’ against his main forces. Of the former, Hankey put forward a number of suggestions — the development of large, heavy, motorized rollers driven by a caterpillar which would crush the barbed wire and allow troops to advance in its wake; bullet proof shields or armour; grapnels powered by rockets to snare the enemy barbed wire; and a special pump or catapult to throw oil or petrol into enemy trenches.

                Turning to his second method, the subsidiary attack, Hankey was forced to admit that ‘the great Russian diversion has not proved sufficiently powerful to cause the enemy to denude his forces on the western front to a dangerous extent’, while the ‘greatest asset’ Britain possessed in the war – the ability to exert economic pressure – was not only slow to operate but was hindered by the enormous trade Holland and Denmark were conducting with Germany. ‘Germany can perhaps be struck most effectively and with the most lasting results on the peace of the world’, Hankey argued, ‘through her allies, and particularly through Turkey.’ Turkey would be the perfect illustration that any country choosing to ally herself with Germany against the ‘great sea power’ would be doomed to disaster; this would be a salutary object lesson for the Balkan states in trying to overcome their mutual distrust. Hankey continued:

…21. But supposing Great Britain, France, and Russia, instead of merely inciting these races to attack Turkey and Austria were themselves to participate actively in the campaign, and to guarantee to each nation concerned that fair play should be rendered. If the whole of the Balkan States were to combine there should be no difficulty in securing a port on the Adriatic, with Bosnia and Herzegovina, and part of Albania, for Servia; Epirus, Southern Albania, and the islands, for Greece; and Thrace for Bulgaria. The difficult Dardanelles question might perhaps be solved by allowing more than one nation to occupy the north side and by leaving Turkey on the south, the Straits being neutralised.

22. If Bulgaria, guaranteed by the active participation of the three Great Powers, could be induced to co-operate, there ought to be no insuperable obstacle to the occupation of Constantinople, the Dardanelles, and Bosphorus. This would be of great advantage to the allies, restoring communication with the Black Sea, bringing down at once the price of wheat, and setting free the much-needed shipping locked up there.

23. It is presumed that in a few months time we could, without endangering the position in France, devote three army corps, including one original first line army corps, to a campaign in Turkey, though sea transport might prove a difficulty. This force, in conjunction with Greece and Bulgaria, ought to be sufficient to capture Constantinople.

24. If Russia, contenting herself with holding the German forces on an entrenched line, could simultaneously combine with Servia and Roumania in an advance into Hungary, the complete downfall of Austria-Hungary could simultaneously be secured.

25. Failing the above ambitious project, an attack in Syria would prove a severe blow to Turkey, particularly if combined with an advance from Basra to Bagdad by a reinforced army.

The insuperable problem with Hankey’s ‘ambitious project’ remained the difficulty of getting the Balkan States to act in concert.[25] Hankey also tacitly admitted that the war would end in stalemate so that, ‘Failing the invasion of Germany itself, which, in accordance with correct strategical principle, has hitherto been our aim, it is suggested that we should endeavour by the means proposed to get assets into our hands wherewith to supplement the tremendous asset of sea power and its resultant economic pressure, wherewith to ensure favourable terms of peace when the enemy has had enough of the war.’[26]

                Churchill’s memorandum took the form of a letter to Asquith on 29 December in which he posed the same question as Hankey: with the Allies’ growing military power ‘Are there not other alternatives than sending our armies to chew barbed wire in Flanders? Further, cannot the power of the Navy be brought more directly to bear upon the enemy? If it is impossible or unduly costly to pierce the German lines on existing fronts, ought we not, as new forces come to hand, to engage him on new frontiers, and enable the Russians to do so too?’ As opposed to Hankey, however, Churchill’s suggestion for a flanking operation involved Britain gaining command of the Baltic after first having invaded Schleswig-Holstein and forced the accession of Denmark to the allies. This, in turn, depended upon the capture of an advanced base for which purposes, Churchill argued, the island of Borkum was ideal.[27]

                The Baltic scheme had long been a pet project of Fisher’s,[28] but now Churchill discovered that his First Sea Lord had gone cool on the idea — in almost daily contact with Jellicoe, Fisher had become imbued with the latter’s caution,[29] while complaining at the same time of Churchill’s monopoly of the initiative and threatening, vaguely, about having to clear out.[30] Besides, Fisher was already aware of the great flaw in the scheme. On 14 December, over lunch in the Admiralty, Fisher had informed Sir Julian Corbett, the naval historian, of his Baltic proposals and, five days later, Corbett forwarded a memorandum on the subject. A cardinal feature of the scheme was that the whole of the battle fleet would be required, which would then leave the North Sea denuded. To overcome this, it was proposed to ‘sow the North Sea with mines on such a scale that naval operations in it would become impossible.’[31] As Corbett pointed out in an accompanying letter:

I have endeavoured to state your case for the Baltic as well as I can — setting out such objections as occurred to me and meeting them — to show the difficulties had been considered. There is one — unfortunately rather obvious — objection which I have not mentioned because I don’t see how to meet it. It is this — if it is possible for us to make the North Sea untenable with mines, is it not even more possible for the Germans to play the same game in the Baltic? Perhaps you can see a way of meeting this — it is sure to be taken by those who have no stomach for your plan.[32]

Fisher therefore knew, by the end of December, that the game was up as far as his version of the Baltic scheme was concerned. Churchill later maintained that,

although the First Sea Lord’s strategic conceptions were centred in the entry of the Baltic, and although he was in principle favourable to the seizure of Borkum as a preliminary, I did not find in him that practical, constructive and devising energy which in other periods of his career and at this period on other subjects he had so abundantly shown. I do not think he ever saw his way clearly through the great decisive and hazardous steps which were necessary for the success of the operation. He spoke a great deal about Borkum, its importance and its difficulties; but he did not give that strong professional impulsion to the staffs necessary to secure the thorough exploration of the plan. Instead, he talked in general terms about making the North Sea impassable by sowing mines broadcast and thus preventing the Germans from entering it while the main strength of the British Fleet was concentrated in the Baltic. I could not feel any conviction that this would give us the necessary security…Therefore, while the First Sea Lord continued to advocate in general terms the entry of the Baltic, I persistently endeavoured to concentrate attention upon the practical steps necessary to storm and seize the island of Borkum, and thus either block in the German Fleet or bring it out to battle…[33]

Fisher, having become only too aware of the suicidal nature of the Baltic scheme, and despite Corbett’s reservations, had put forward the mining counter-proposal in an attempt to divert Churchill. However, as Jellicoe later admitted, ‘We had not a hundredth part of the mines necessary for such a scheme’.[34] Exasperated, Churchill patiently informed Fisher on 22 December that ‘You must take an island and block them in, à la Wilson; or you must break the [Kiel] canal locks, or you must cripple their Fleet in a general action. No scattering of mines will be any substitute for these alternatives. The Baltic is the only theatre in which naval action can appreciably shorten the war. Denmark must come, and the Russians be let loose on Berlin.’ There would be, Churchill added plaintively, four good Russian dreadnoughts to assist.[35]

                On the morning of 29 December Hankey had a twenty minute talk with Fisher, who complained that both Churchill and the C.O.S., Admiral Oliver, were so strongly opposed to the mining operation that he could do nothing. Fisher therefore asked Hankey ‘to write something on the subject’ — however, not only did Hankey not wish to intervene ‘in so domestic an Admiralty question’, he had, of course, just completed his own strategical analysis.[36] In any event, Admiral Oliver, who had seen Hankey’s memorandum in draft, soon became a convert to his cause after having been dismayed by the discussions of strategy at the Admiralty. Churchill, Oliver declared, wanted to capture Borkum and Emden; Fisher to send the Grand Fleet into the Baltic to convey a Russian Army from Petrograd to land on the Pomeranian coast and march on Berlin; Wilson to bombard Heligoland with pre-Dreadnoughts prior to capturing it. ‘I hated all these projects’, Oliver later admitted, ‘but had to be careful what I said. The saving clause was that two of the three were always violently opposed to the plan of the third under discussion.’[37]

                ‘There are three phases of the naval war,’ Churchill had informed Asquith on 29 December: ‘first the clearance of the seas and the recall of the foreign squadrons, that is nearly completed; second, the closing of the Elbe — that we have now to do; and third, the domination of the Baltic — that would be decisive.’ The First Lord also pointedly referred to the difficulties involved in co-operation between the Admiralty and War Office of which Asquith was ‘fully aware’.[38] The Prime Minister received ‘the very interesting memoranda’ of Churchill and Hankey on 30 December. ‘There is here’, he wrote to Venetia Stanley while on the train to London to attend a Cabinet, ‘a good deal of food for thought. I am profoundly dissatisfied with the immediate prospect — an enormous waste of life & money day after day with no appreciable progress…I don’t see the way to a decisive change before March, but I am sure that we ought to begin at once to devise, in consultation with the French & the Russians, a diversion on a great & effective scale.’[39] By the following day Churchill had seen Hankey’s memorandum and discussed it with him, finding that they were ‘substantially in agreement and our conclusions are not incompatible.’ Nevertheless, although admitting that he had always favoured an attack on Gallipoli, Churchill spent the rest of the day composing a justification for the Borkum operation.[40]

                Lloyd George had also been busy. In a memorandum as wide-ranging as Hankey’s, the Chancellor attempted to reconcile the stalemate on the western front with what, he admitted, was the political and military necessity of ‘winning a definite victory somewhere’. Labelling the Baltic Scheme (‘This proposal is associated with the name of Lord Fisher’) as being ‘very hazardous’ he proposed instead two independent operations ‘which would have the common purpose of bringing Germany down by the process of knocking the props under her.’ It was typical of the man that Lloyd George had been seduced by this common fallacy as, far from being props, the German satellites were instead a drain on her resources; unaware of this, he advocated an attack upon Austria, in conjunction with the Serbs, Greeks and Roumanians, combined with an attack on Turkey. For the latter, Lloyd George isolated a number of conditions that would have to be fulfilled: the force employed should not be so large as to weaken the offensive in the main theatre; lines of communication should be short to conserve troops, which necessitated an attack near the sea; conversely Turkish lines of supply should be made as long as possible; there should be a chance of winning a dramatic victory; and ‘it would be a great advantage from this point of view if it were in territory which appeals to the imagination of the people as a whole.’ Lloyd George was aware of the latest intelligence which indicated that the Turks had amassed a force of 80,000 troops in Syria ready to march upon the Suez Canal. He suggested therefore that once the Turks had entangled themselves in this venture, a force of 100,000 allied troops should be landed in Syria, behind the Turkish Army, to cut it off: ‘A force of 80,000 Turks would be wiped out and the whole of Syria would fall into our hands.’ The Chancellor did not speculate on what view the French might take of such a scheme.[41]

                Asquith was impressed with this memorandum — so impressed he decided to take it, along with Churchill’s ‘Baltic’ memorandum, to Venetia Stanley to ‘talk it all over’ with his paramour. Almost incidentally it would seem, he decided to summon the War Council for Thursday 7 and Friday 8 January to review the situation.[42] Nothing could better epitomize the higher conduct of the war under Asquith’s tutelage. Churchill had argued, rightly, on 31 December, that the issues to be decided were so important that the War Council should meet daily ‘for a few days next week. No topic can be pursued to any fruitful result at weekly intervals.’[43] Yet, while Asquith agreed to convene the War Council for two consecutive days, he seemed more pleased that this would necessitate his return to London from Kent, where he had been staying; he would, therefore, be near to Miss Stanley for most of the week, as there was also a Cabinet scheduled for the Wednesday. ‘I love the prospect’, he wrote, ‘for I shall be in close touch with my dearest & wisest counsellor.’[44]

                Hankey, keen to recruit allies to his cause, sent Balfour his ‘invitation’ to the meetings on 2 January. ‘I think’, he enthused, ‘the discussion will be of great importance’, adding,

I find that there is a very general feeling that we must find some new plan of hitting Germany. You have already received my own ideas on the subject. The First Lord has also written a paper or a letter to the P.M. pressing his own favourite plan with some important extensions. Mr Lloyd George has also written to the P.M. urging developments, — rather on my lines, I gather. Meanwhile my information is that Italy and Greece are rather cooling down. It seems to me that we ought first to make up our own minds & then to invite our allies to a round table conference. I am fairly certain that the Prime Minister means to ventilate the various proposals at Thursday’s meeting, with a view to making up the Government’s mind, so I feel sure that you will think it worth while to attend…[45]

As the time approached in London for a decision to be made, another fillip to the growing clamour for operations in the East was provided by events in Russia. On 30 December 1914 the head of the British Military Mission in Russia, Major-General Sir John Hanbury-Williams, was summoned by the Grand Duke Nicholas and informed that the situation in the Caucasus was serious; the Turks, having pushed back the initial Russian advance in November, now stood poised with an army of 100,000. The Russian C-in-C requested ‘help by a demonstration of some kind which would alarm the Turks, and thus ease the position of the Russians on the Caucasus front.’ Williams, with a ‘pretty shrewd idea’ that ‘our armies were not yet strong enough to spare sufficient men for a military expedition’, asked instead if a naval demonstration would be of any use. When the Grand Duke ‘jumped at it gladly’[46] the General went immediately to Sir George Buchanan who telegraphed Grey on New Year’s Day, 1915. The Turks, Buchanan explained, had commenced an enveloping movement and the Russian commander in the field was pressing most urgently for reinforcements, a plea the Grand Duke was forced, for the moment, to resist as he was ‘determined to proceed with his present plans against Germany and keep them unaltered.’[47] As Grey’s paramount aim was to keep the Germans pinned down in the East, the implications of Buchanan’s report became frighteningly apparent — a serious reverse against the Turks might compel the Russians to weaken the Allies’ Eastern front by diverting troops to the Caucasus, especially the Fourth Siberian Army Corps which was on its way to Warsaw but which, Grey was warned, ‘in ordinary course it would be natural to send…to Turkish front.’

                The enveloping movement mentioned by Buchanan had commenced on 21 December when Enver himself took command of the Third Army with the intention of cutting the Russian line of communication to their main base at Kars, before taking Kars itself, then Ardahan and Batum, as a preliminary to a full scale invasion of the Caucasus. The key position was Sarikamish; by 26 December, in appalling weather conditions, the Turks had managed to occupy the town. Victory was almost theirs until Enver attempted one manoeuvre too many, a wheeling movement in the teeth of a blizzard which gave the Russians the chance to counter-attack. In the ensuing battle almost a third of the Turkish force froze to death; only 12,000 men (including, inevitably, Enver himself) managed to escape. The danger to the Russian army had been obliterated in the snow, but this information was not available in Petrograd when the Grand Duke made his appeal to General Hanbury-Williams.[48] There was even a suggestion that the Grand Duke’s appeal was designed more to excuse the inability of the Russians to attack on the Eastern Front.[49]

                Kitchener and Churchill both became aware of Buchanan’s telegram on Saturday, 2 January. Later that day Kitchener saw Churchill at the Admiralty to ascertain whether the Navy could do anything to help. Churchill subsequently maintained that ‘All the possible alternatives in the Turkish theatre were mentioned …We both saw clearly the far-reaching consequences of a successful attack upon Constantinople. If there was any prospect of a serious attempt to force the Straits of the Dardanelles at a later stage, it would be in the highest degree improvident to stir them up for the sake of a mere demonstration…’[50] Churchill then put forward various options – a demonstration at Smyrna or Alexandretta or the Syrian coast – but Kitchener demurred, arguing that troops could not be found. Kitchener then returned to his lair;[51] meanwhile, Churchill consulted his advisers at the Admiralty who, presumably, had little more to offer.[52] Having confirmed at the War Office that troops could not be spared, Kitchener thereupon penned a pessimistic note to Churchill:

I do not see that we can do anything that will seriously help the Russians in the Caucasus. The Turks are evidently withdrawing most of their troops from Adrianople and using them to reinforce their army against Russia probably sending them by the Black sea. In the Caucasus and Northern Persia the Russians are in a bad way. We have no troops to land anywhere. A demonstration at Smyrna would do no good and probably cause the slaughter of Christians. Alexandretta has already been tried and would have no great effect a second time.[53] The coast of Syria would have no effect. The only place that a demonstration might have some effect in stopping reinforcements going East would be the Dardanelles — particularly if as the Grand Duke says reports could be spread at the same time that Constantinople was threatened. We shall not be ready for anything big for some months.[54]

Kitchener also wrote the same day to Sir John French of the feeling gaining ground in London that, while it was essential to defend the line in the West, surplus troops could be better employed elsewhere; the question remained, where to exert this additional pressure? Russia, Kitchener reported prematurely, was hard pressed in the Caucasus and only just holding her own in Poland.

                In writing so, Kitchener was presumably only too well aware of what French’s reaction would be — that troops could not be spared, which would, of course, support the assertion that Kitchener had just made to Churchill. French duly swallowed the bait and replied in the expected fashion: ‘the impossibility of breaking through the German line’, he declared vigorously, ‘is not by any means admitted.’ It was largely a question of the sufficient expenditure of high explosive ammunition: ‘Until the impossibility of effective action in France and Flanders is fully proved, there can be no question of employing British or French troops elsewhere.’ French was also dismissive of operations in Gallipoli, Asia Minor or Syria: ‘Any attack on Turkey would be devoid of decisive result. In the most favourable circumstances it could only cause the relaxation of the pressure against Russia in the Caucasus and enable her to transfer two or three Corps to the West, a result quite incommensurate with the effort involved. To attack Turkey would be to play the German game, & to bring about the end which Germany had in mind when she induced Turkey to join in the war, namely, to draw off troops from the decisive spot which is Germany herself.’ In the margin of this letter French added, correctly, that the latest reports indicated the Russians were now not unduly harassed in the Caucasus.[55] This was confirmed by Hanbury-Williams, who wrote to Kitchener on 3 January that he had called at the Russian War Office the previous day and found that ‘the position in Caucasus is at present somewhat better & the immediate danger of a bad reverse there seems to have passed.’ Nevertheless, he added conscientiously if fatefully, ‘they will, I know, be much relieved if the Turkish pressure can be eased a bit.’[56]


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[1]    Mallet to Grey, no. 562, 18 August, PRO FO 371/2138.

[2]    Churchill to Asquith, 31 December 1914, WSC Comp. vol. III, pt. i, p. 346.

[3]    Although Grey had asked the Russians to consider joining in an attack on Turkey they already had enough on their hands: the decisive Battle of the Masurian Lakes was about to begin, following the Russian rout at Tannenburg. Not that things were decidedly better on the western front: the dire strategic position in France, where the Battle of the Marne had begun on 5 September, but whose outcome would be uncertain for some time, meant that the receipt of a cable from Petrograd, in which the Russians threatened to ditch Greece, threw Grey into despair. If the Germans won at the Marne, Italy might be tempted out of neutrality and the French fleet ‘paralysed’; Grey did not ‘like the prospect in the Mediterranean at all, unless there is some turn of the tide in France.’ Churchill, convinced that Turkish neutrality was a sham, hoped to bolster both Grey’s and Sazonov’s confidence: his method of doing so, however, was to propose that Russian troops could be taken from a quiet front – Archangel, Vladivostock or Port Arthur – and shipped to the Dardanelles! This would obviate the need for Greek participation: ‘A good army of 50,000 men & sea-power,’ the First Lord sanguinely maintained, ‘that is the end of the Turkish menace.’ Grey responded to this crazy scheme by showing Churchill that morning’s telegram from Petrograd: the Russians had no help to give. Grey to Churchill, Churchill to Grey, 6 September 1914, PRO Adm 137/800; Miller, Superior Force, p. 230.

[4]    Churchill, Statement to the Dardanelles Commissioners, PRO Cab 19/28.

[5]    Proceedings of the Dardanelles Commission, qu. 1220, PRO Cab 19/33.

[6]    Ibid., qus. 1237, 1241.

[7]    James, Gallipoli, p. 14.

[8]    Admiralty to Carden, no. 620, 9 November 1914; Carden to Admiralty, no. 295, 12 November; Admiralty to Carden, no. 638, 13 November; Carden to Admiralty, no. 323, 15 November; minutes by Churchill and Oliver, 16 November 1914, PRO Adm 137/96.

[9]    Asquith to Lloyd George, 24 November 1914, WSC Comp. vol. III, pt. i, p. 275. Present for the inaugural meeting were: Asquith, Lloyd George, Churchill, Fisher, Grey, Balfour, Kitchener, Wolfe Murray and Hankey in his capacity as secretary. Note: on 5 and 6 August 1914 Ministers and senior officers gathered to decide on whether to send an expeditionary force to France. These two meetings were described as ‘councils of war’ and should not be confused with the War Council which sat from November 1914 to May 1915.

[10]  Minutes of the War Council, 25 November 1914, PRO Cab 42/1/4.

[11]  Asquith to Venetia Stanley, 5 December 1914, Asquith Letters, no. 222, p. 327.

[12]  Churchill had originally approached Kitchener on 31 August 1914 to discuss the question of operations against Gallipoli, however the next day, when Churchill sought to involve the War Office more generally, arranging a conference between senior War Office and Admiralty Staff, Kitchener was absent in Paris and Callwell from the W.O. was, initially, less than enthusiastic. Hankey, The Supreme Command, vol. I, pp. 222-3.

[13]  As a further option, the Russians could be dispatched from Port Arthur, though only with Japanese consent. See footnote 3 above.

[14]  Cunliffe-Owen’s report did, however, state that a combined operation might be successful if attempted before the increasing amount of German ordnance arriving at the Dardanelles made the task impossible. General Charles Callwell, Experiences of a Dug-Out, cited by Gooch, Plans of War, pp. 310-1.

[15]  Churchill, Statement to the Dardanelles Commission, para. 1, PRO Cab 19/28.

[16]  Churchill to Fisher, 10 December 1914, PRO Adm 116/3454. It should be pointed out that Churchill was here referring to a proposed landing at Zeebrugge; the point holds good generally, though.

[17]  Lieutenant N Holbrook, Report of Proceedings; Carden to Admiralty, 24 December 1914,  PRO Adm 137/HSA367. After a hazardous return journey Holbrook and crew returned safely. Holbrook was awarded the Victoria Cross, his second in command the D.S.O., and every member of the crew a D.S.C. or D.S.M. Ten officers and 27 men were killed on the Turkish ship, which sank in shallow water allowing her guns to be salvaged and used on shore for minefield defence. Carden had canvassed the idea of a similar sortie against Goeben but British submarines were not powerful enough to overcome the long dive up the Dardanelles. See also, Corbett, Naval Operations, vol. II, pp. 72-3.

[18]  Von Usedom, Report of 23 December 1914, PRO Cab 45/215.

[19]  In the so-called Battle of Cape Sarych on 18 November 1914 Goeben was hit by the ranging salvo of the Russian pre-dreadnought Sv. Evstafi. Aboard the battle cruiser casualties amounted to 9 officers and 105 crew killed and 7 officers and 52 crew wounded. Nekrasov, North of Gallipoli, chapter 6.

[20]  Report of Mr J. Bowman, late of the Seaman’s Home, Constantinople, dated 9 December 1914 (received 16 December), PRO Adm 137/881.

[21]  Corbett, Naval Operations, vol. II, pp. 74-6; Liddle, The Sailor’s War, 1914-1918, p. 53.

[22]  On 19 October 1916 Churchill sent Admiral Oliver a letter, coaching him in the evidence that the Admiral was to give before the Dardanelles Commission. Churchill admitted that ‘…the degree of Turkish resistance which would be encountered was an incalculable factor, though there were good reasons (vide Doris’ proceedings on the Syrian Coast, etc.) for believing that the Turkish resistance would not immediately be of the most efficient character.’ Churchill to Oliver, 19 October 1914, Oliver mss., NMM OLV 5.

[23]  Hankey, The Supreme Command, vol. I, p. 244. Hankey explained that the “Boxing Day Memo” was so called ‘because it took the whole of that day to touch up and get typed’. Hankey to Liddell Hart, 3 April 1948, quoted in, Roskill, Man of Secrets, vol. 1, p. 148.

[24]  Balfour to Hankey, 2 January 1915, Balfour mss., BL Add MSS 49703 f.137.

[25]  In Hankey’s next paragraph mention was made of ‘the possibility of some co-operation with the Servian Army against Austria’, but this, he admitted, pre-supposed Greek entry into the war and even then the campaign would not be easy to carry out.

[26]  Hankey, Memorandum of 28 December 1914, The Supreme Command, vol. I, pp. 245-50.

[27]  Churchill to Asquith, 29 December 1914, WSC Comp. vol. III, pt. i, pp. 343-5.

[28]  Fisher wrote to Esher in April 1912: ‘…I walked the sands of Scheveningen with General Gross von Schwartzhoff in June 1899…I had done him a very good turn indeed, so he opened his heart to me. There was no German Navy then. We were doing Fashoda; and he expatiated on the role of the British Army — how the absolute supremacy of the British Navy gave it such inordinate power far beyond its numerical strength, because 200,000 men embarked in transports, and God only knowing where they might be put ashore, was a weapon of enormous influence, and capable of deadly blows — occupying perhaps Antwerp, Flushing…or landing 90 miles from Berlin on that 14 miles of sandy beach [in Pomerania], impossible of defence against a Battle Fleet sweeping with devastating shells the flat country for miles, like a mower’s scythe…’ Fisher to Esher, 25 April 1912, F.G.D.N., vol. II, pp. 453-6.

[29]  Mackay, Fisher, pp. 470-2.

[30]  Churchill’s ‘power of work is absolutely amazing’ wrote the 73 year old Admiral. Fisher to Jellicoe, 20 December 1914, F.G.D.N., Vol. III, p. 99.

[31]  Corbett’s memorandum is printed in Fisher, Records, pp. 217-22.

[32]  Corbett to Fisher, 19 December 1914, quoted in, Mackay, Fisher, p. 473; see also, Mackay, “Hankey on Fisher’s Baltic ‘Chimera’ ”, in The Mariner’s Mirror, vol. 82, no. 2 (May, 1996). Corbett hand-wrote the memorandum as a security measure.

[33]  Churchill, The World Crisis, pp. 272-3.

[34]  ‘[A]nd in any case,’ Jellicoe added, ‘passages can always be swept through an undefended minefield. Before the fleet could pass the Belts it was necessary that the adjacent shores could be held by us. The idea was not seriously put forward.’ Undated memorandum by Jellicoe quoted in Marder, Dreadnought, vol. 4, p. 241.

[35]  Churchill to Fisher, 22 December 1914, F.G.D.N., vol. III, p. 107 [my emphasis]. Note: In reproducing this letter in The World Crisis Churchill conveniently omitted the final two sentences quoted — see p. 274.

[36]  Hankey to Balfour, 29 December 1914, Balfour mss., BL Add MSS 49703.

[37]  ‘I was glad when the Dardanelles project came along’, declared Oliver, ‘as it took the old battleships out of the North Sea Picture.’ James, A Great Seaman, pp. 137-8; Goldrick, The King’s Ships Were at Sea, p. 229; Mackay, Fisher, p. 468. Hankey, of course, did not specifically mention the Dardanelles in his Boxing Day Memorandum but referred to ‘a campaign in Turkey’.

[38]  Churchill to Asquith, 29 December 1914, WSC Comp. vol. III, pt. i, pp. 343-5 [my emphasis].

[39]  Asquith to Venetia Stanley, 30 December 1914, Asquith Letters, no. 245, pp. 345-6.

[40]  Memorandum by Churchill, 31 December 1914, WSC Comp. vol. III, pt. i, pp. 347-9.

[41]  Lloyd George, War Memoirs, vol. I, pp. 219-26.

[42]Asquith to Stanley, 1 January 1915, Asquith Letters, no. 245, pp. 356-8. Asquith finished this letter to Miss Stanley after midnight, ending, ‘I must go to bed — with your dear letter under my pillow. Good night – most dear – never more dear, or so dear, as on this first night of a New Year.’

[43]  Churchill to Asquith, 31 December 1914, WSC Comp. vol. III, pt. i, p. 346.

[44]  Asquith to Stanley, 1 January 1915, Asquith Letters, pp. 356-8.

[45]  Hankey to Balfour, 2 January 1915, Balfour mss., BL Add MSS 49703 f.142.

[46]  Hanbury-Williams, The Emperor Nicholas II. As I Knew Him. (London, 1922), pp. 23-5.

[47]  Buchanan to Grey, 1 January 1915, WSC Comp. vol. III, pt. i, p. 359.

[48]  Shaw and Shaw, History of the Ottoman Empire, vol. II, p. 315; James, Gallipoli, pp. 17-8.

[49]  Buchanan to Grey, 2 January 1915, cited by French, British Strategy and War Aims, p. 69.

[50]  Given the opprobrium that later greeted his decision to bombard to outer forts in November 1914, this would seem to be a clear case of hindsight. The important General Staff appreciation of December 1906 had clearly foreshadowed the problem: ‘[I]t seems inconceivable that a state of tension between Great Britain and Turkey, followed by the dispatch of an expeditionary force to the Mediterranean, would not synchronize with the construction of elaborate earthworks on ridges of the Gallipoli Peninsula…’

[51]  Churchill, The World Crisis, p. 323.

[52]  In answer to question 3046 at the Dardanelles Commission Sir William Graham Greene read out a prepared statement. He omitted however two paragraphs, recorded in his draft, which included the following: ‘…there was a meeting on the 2nd January at which the subject [operations against Turkey] was brought forward by the First Lord.’ Graham Greene mss., NMM GEE 11.

[53]  This refers to the deeds of Captain Larken and the saga of the locomotives, see above.

[54]  Kitchener to Churchill, 2 January 1915, Letter appended to Churchill’s Evidence before the Dardanelles Commission, PRO Cab 19/28.

[55]  French to Kitchener, 5 January 1915, Kitchener mss., PRO 30/57/50, WA65.

[56]  Hanbury-Williams to Kitchener, 3 January 1915, ibid., PRO 30/57/67, WN9.



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