04 October 1915 – Dardanelles Committee

Today, Winston Churchill has a letter delivered to the Dardanelles Committee, an ad hoc office within Prime Minister Asquith’s coalition government that has become its single most important organ during the summer-long disaster at Gallipoli. Among all those persons with roles in creating the fiasco, Churchill is undoubtedly the single most responsible man, and his letter is another transparent attempt to rebuild and repair his tattered reputation. The topic of his correspondence is a trench mortar design that has already been rescued from the rejections pile at the hidebound War Office by Minister of Munitions David Lloyd George; Churchill recommends that it be deployed to the Dardanelles immediately, suggesting that even at this late date, he still believes a victory is feasible at the edge of Europe. Mass-produced, Stokes mortars will prove very valuable in trench warfare — but not at Gallipoli.

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Churchill’s letter includes a deployment plan suggested by Col. Edward Swinton, a key figure in the development of tanks

Today’s newspapers report that Captain Harold T. Cauley, MP for Heywood in the House of Commons, was killed in action on September 23rd. The son of a baron, he is the second MP killed so far in the war and the fourteenth to become a casualty. Unannounced is that his father, who also serves in Parliament and the Asquith cabinet, has also received the dead officer’s final letter. Because the mail of MPs and their families enjoys immunity from military censorship thanks to a Lloyd George policy meant to encourage military transparency, Cauley’s sober criticisms of the mission and its leaders have already become common knowledge in Westminster and Downing Street. This unpublished correspondence helps explain why the unity government has already rerouted forces in the region to Salonika rather than the Dardanelles in the last three days.

For example, Cauley describes the failures of Sir Ian Hamilton, the mission’s commander who is also its greatest public champion. His disparagement of the general’s performance dispels Hamilton’s credibility; Lieutenant General Sir Aylmer Gould Hunter-Weston receives strong criticism for his slow learning curve and failures of leadership, too. Cauley also describes the fumbled landings and gruesome offensives which have characterized his experience at Gallipoli, and makes a realistic assessment of the enemy, acknowledging the dangerous contempt with which the expedition has been led against the Turks.

Four days after Churchill’s letter to the Committee, Hamilton is formally asked about the prospects of a safe withdrawal. In reply, the general advises against such a maneuver, insisting that it would inflict casualties on half his remaining force. He will be relieved on the 14th and replaced with General Sir Charles Monro, who quickly concludes that withdrawal is the best option. He will oversee that retreat in January, producing the most spectacular success of the entire Dardanelles campaign when he extracts 100,000 men with only three casualties. Still holding out for his dream of a breakthrough to Constantinople, Churchill will be dismissive of Munro’s achievement, sneering: “He came, he saw, he capitulated.”

Having conceived the Dardanelles disaster in the first place within weeks of the war beginning, Churchill pursued his idea to buttress his career after the abortive embarrassment of his Antwerp expedition a year ago. It was primarily at his instigation that Lord Kitchener’s early concept of a decisive campaign in the eastern theater of war was redirected from Salonika to Gallipoli in January of 1915, and it was his speech on February 19th — claiming a great naval success that was of course a failure in reality — that publicly signaled the destination of Britain’s new strategic offensive. As First Lord of the Admiralty, Churchill initiated and instigated the Admiralty’s disastrous attempt to break through Ottoman defenses with naval power alone; within the War Council, he was the primary lobbyist for landings in force weeks later, giving the enemy every opportunity to ensure an ignominious defeat for the British Empire. Shunned from the halls of power these days, Churchill is nevertheless becoming the world’s greatest Dardanelles apologist.

In The World Crisis, Churchill’s simpering, self-adulatory account of the war years, the chapters dealing with the Dardanelles expedition are padded with a misleading and carefully-edited selection of his correspondence and memoranda. Though the section features some of his most brilliant writing, Churchill glosses over the gaps in his argument that the Dardanelles campaign was lost in London. During 1916, he actually recommends a re-invasion of Gallipoli. And yet a century later, there are Churchill fans who deny his responsibility for what has happened at Sari Bair and Cape Helles, and his account of the campaign is the sole tarnish on Monro’s reputation.

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The new First Lord of the Admiralty, Arthur Balfour, pictured with Churchill in 1915 before replacing him in a cabinet shakeup