What was the Gallipoli disaster really all about?

A new book on Gallipoli – The War Lords and the Gallipoli Disaster: How globalised trade led Britain to its worst defeat of the First World War by Nicholas A. Lambert – has some exceptional features

For instance, the index contains no listing for Australia, Anzacs, Keith Murdoch or anyone or anything else Australian. The bibliography is a dense list of archival sources with the only Australian ones being the Birdwood papers in the Australian War Memorial and Andrew Fisher’s in the National Library of Australia. Charles Bean gets an honourable mention in the text and Alan Moorehead is mentioned less enthusiastically.

The first chapter describes in detail the state of the grain market at the end of what we now term the long 19th Century which lasted up to the start of the War. It looks at pricing, financial systems, sources of wheat and barley, how the market operated and potential impacts on food prices.

The second chapter examines war in the context of the British Admiralty’s “interest in the transformation of the global economy wrought by globalisation.”  This led the Admiralty to revisit all its strategic assumptions about internationally agreed rules and laws, the interdictions of ships and goods in wartime and blockades.

Meanwhile the government was considering the findings of a pre-war Royal Commission on Food Supplies and the fact that “wheat (was) by far the most important imported commodity measured by weight, cost or calorific value.” That wheat came from seven countries with, in the five years before the war Russia, providing 30% of the crop followed by Argentina. In 1910-11 the Russian share of world wheat exports was 40%.

Shades of today and Ukrainian and Russian impacts on world prices and inflation.

The third chapter deals with Turkey in the context of the ‘sick man of Europe belief and the tail end of the long debated Eastern Question – a debate about who could get what out of a crumbling Ottoman Empire engaged in unsuccessful wars and facing nationalist uprisings in many countries within the Empire characterised by emerging nationalism.

The fourth chapter focusses on Russia – The Beggar Giant as Sir Francis Bertie characterised it in September 1914. Lambert says: “The Cabinet’s decision to join the war in August 1914 had been predicated upon the assumption of a short war and minimal expenditure of resources. Ministers had envisioned British grand strategy being limited to using the navy to wage economic warfare against Germany, showing solidarity with the French by providing a token military commitment to the Continent, while maintaining at home that everything was business as usual.”

The goal was to keep France in the war for “long enough to permit the massive Russian steamroller Russia to crush Germany from the east.”  Despite Tannenberg the British were still confident of ultimate Russian success. This turned out to be as big a mistake as Gallipoli – even before the Germans put Lenin on a train and facilitated his passage to Russia.

There have been countless books written by participants, historians and others on what went wrong at Gallipoli. Many have blamed Churchill whose plan to force the Dardanelles has gone down in history along with the huge loss of life caused by his belief that attacking Italy was attacking the Axis’ ‘soft underbelly’ and finding that instead of facing a demoralised Italian Army they were facing crack German troops entrenched in mountains and determined to delay any Second Front in France.

But the final post war report of the Dardanelles Commission focussed mainly on the operational failings of the Army in the land campaign. Generals and Churchill vociferously denied this and claimed that if only there had been more support and more men it might have all turned out differently. Meanwhile the Generals and Churchill also heaped blame on the dead Kitchener instead. The losing side in Vietnam echoed such claims.

Lambert quotes Charles Bean: “From the moment when the demonstration at the Dardanelles was suggested to him (Churchill) his mind seemed to be fixed with ever-growing enthusiasms upon the results which would follow if the Allies could only seize the Straits and dominate Constantinople.” Bean said: ‘through Churchills’ excess of imagination, a layman’s ignorance of artillery, and the fatal power of young enthusiasm to convince older and more cautious brains, the tragedy of Gallipoli was born.”

Bean was right in one narrow respect but Lambert adds another dimension. He says: “at the crucial moment the question of whether or not to approve Churchill’s operation became entwined with two parallel policy matters: the first was political and concerned the necessity to contain a brewing domestic crisis over the rising price of food; the second was diplomatic and involves a looming international row over British reluctance to fulfil a Russian request for massive financial assistance.”

“Briefly stated, the War Council perceived that a solution to both problems lay in a resumption of the flow of wheat through the Dardanelles.”

How were these connected? First, Black Sea grain provided a third of global supply in 1914-15 and the flow of wheat it would enable would lower global wheat prices and the price of bread in Britain. Second, the resumption of exports from Ukraine would enable Russia to earn the foreign exchange it needed and obviate the need for a British loan.

Lambert stresses this this is not a retroactive application of concepts unavailable to officials at the time but instead places the Dardanelles decision in the context of the globalised world economy of the time and the government’s understanding of the relationship of the British economy to “international flows of commodities, goods, information and money.”

He says the strategic debate over war policy in the British Government shows “how tightly interwoven throughout were economic and political considerations with military and diplomatic concerns. They show that the Gallipoli campaign originated in economic necessity not perceptions of strategic opportunity. This book demonstrates the entanglement between the forces of economic globalisation and the conduct of war.”