On the eve of the 1944 Anzio Landing the defeatist and soon to be replaced American commander Major-General John Lucas wrote in his diary, “This whole affair had a strong odor of Gallipoli and apparently the same amateur [Churchill] was still on the coaches bench.” As encapsulated in this diary entry Winston Churchill was the irresponsible politician and military “amateur” who brushed aside his professional naval advisors to plunge the British into the failed Dardanelles naval attack and ensuing disastrous army campaign on the Gallipoli peninsula. The Dardanelles was the nadir of Churchill’s political career and the campaign continues to be cited as proof of his reckless and unreliable character. He has never fully escaped the Dardanelles. As Christopher Bell writes in the excellent Churchill and the Dardanelles, “controversy has raged around the Dardanelles since 1915, and the campaign still casts a long shadow over Churchill’s reputation.”
In this new book Bell (Dalhousie and author of Churchill and Sea Power) tackles the controversy and competing mythology surrounding Churchill and the campaign. He observes that two competing narratives have grown up around the campaign, one in which “Churchill is to blame for everything” and the other in which the Dardanelles was one of World War One’s “few creative strategic concepts” and that the failure was due to the execution not because of Churchill’s initial conception. In his study Bell holds that neither narrative is accurate. Churchill did not “dupe” the cabinet into supporting the scheme, nor did the attack fail merely due to local mistakes in the theatre.
This book tightly focuses on Churchill’s role in the operation and successfully avoids getting distracted into reciting a history of the campaign itself. It considers the origins and planning of the campaign, the haphazard decision-making that plagued the British government under Asquith during the early stages of the First World War, the impact of the Dardanelles failure on Churchill, and his efforts to restore his reputation by means of his evidence to the Dardanelles Commission. The efforts regarding the commission included coordinating his evidence with colleagues and even being permitted by the commissioners to question witnesses in the commission hearings. By 1917 Churchill had restored his reputation enough for him to receive a ministerial post under Prime Minister David Lloyd George. After the Armistice, Churchill continued to put forward his interpretation of the events in his war memoirs and other writings.
The key relationship in the decision to launch a naval attack at the Dardanelles was that between Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty and Jacky Fisher as First Sea Lord. Despite his bluster, Fisher failed to clearly express his supposed opposition to the scheme at key junctures. While explaining much about the Churchill-Fisher relationship (such as their mutual need to cooperate in preparing for the Dardanelles Commission), Bell writes that “Fisher remains an enigma.” This reader continues to be puzzled by Churchill’s attraction to the erratic and ultimately incompetent Fisher, who as described by Bell was “by nature volatile, emotional, duplicitous, secretive, and inconsistent.”
In his study Bell concludes that both as First Lord of the Admiralty and Prime Minister during the Second World War, Churchill applied the lessons he drew from the Dardanelles experience. During the 1939-45 War he was more willing to accept a “no” from his professional military advisers having learned “the folly of launching a major operation with only grudging and half-hearted support.”
Churchill and the Dardanelles is a comprehensive and balanced study of the subject that refutes both the polemics about the Dardanelles and the hagiographical studies that seek to excuse Churchill’s role in the operation. Bell’s work will have to be considered in all future studies of the campaign.