Review by WARREN DOCKTER
Christopher M. Bell, Churchill and the Dardanelles, Oxford University Press, 2017, 464 pages, $34.95. ISBN 978–0198702542. Get your copy at Amazon.com here.
The ill-fated attempt during the First World War to force the Dardanelles Straits by naval vessels alone began on 18 March 1915. By April, it had become painfully obvious to the War Council in London that the operation could not succeed. Exasperated First Sea Lord Jacky Fisher wrote to Churchill at the Admiralty on the 5th to voice his concerns directly exclaiming, “You are just simply eaten up with the Dardanelles and can’t think of anything else! Damn the Dardanelles! They will be our grave!”
This portentous warning has served as evidence for numerous narratives concerning the failure of the naval operations and indeed the entire Gallipoli campaign that followed. It has been used to paint Churchill as an enthusiastic but reckless amateur strategist who neglected the advice of his professional advisors. Alternatively, it has provided evidence for a narrative in which Churchill is seen as the visionary architect of a brilliant strategy to knock out the Ottoman Empire, aid Russia, and rally the Balkans to the Allied cause. It would have succeeded, the argument runs, if Churchill had not been undermined by the erratic Fisher and the tepidity of his admirals. These competing narratives have long obscured how historians examine the Dardanelles. Additionally, many of the precise details are difficult to follow, often confusing, and even contradictory.
Thankfully, Professor Christopher M. Bell has written a clear and authoritative account about Churchill’s role in the Dardanelles offensive. Bell’s style is easily accessible for the armchair strategist but is equally thorough and well footnoted for the weathered naval historian. Everyone can appreciate the enormous efforts and herculean tasks Bell undertook to disentangle the reality of the Dardanelles from its various narrative myths.
Bell divides his study into two parts. The first examines Churchill’s role, why the operation failed, and who—if anyone—was at fault for the failure. The second part examines how the different narratives of the Dardanelles developed in various political contexts and evolved to serve or detract from Churchill’s own political aspirations.
The first part is admirably balanced. Bell is neither a Churchillian apologist nor a revisionist bent upon besmirching the great man’s legacy. The book highlights Churchill’s original low-risk strategy, which might alleviate the “futility of large offenses on the Western Front.” Bell asserts that Churchill was “probably justified” in taking the proposal to the War Council, with the stipulation that it remained on the periphery “where better results might be obtained at a lower cost.” The book also grapples with the “Churchill Legend” and reveals some of Churchill’s weaknesses such as his “habitual overconfidence, his impatience and willingness to run unnecessary risks” as well as “his tendency to disregard or downplay professional advice he did not like.”
One of the major myths Bell deconstructs is the notion that Churchill “completely dominated the decision making process at the Admiralty and in the Cabinet and War Council.” It is important to remember that the First Lord was part of an ensemble cast of major figures led by Prime Minister Henry Asquith and including David Lloyd George, Lord Kitchener, and Jacky Fisher. All played a role in pushing the operation forward while Fisher also acted to discredit Churchill immediately after the failure.
In exploring Churchill’s experience in the War Council, we discover just how difficult successfully navigating these titanic personalities must have been. Bell describes Kitchener as “a law unto himself,” largely free from oversight, reluctant to share information and dismissive of his general staff, while Fisher remains “an enigma” who was “volatile, emotional, duplicitous, secretive, and inconsistent.” These characters combined with Churchill’s personality and Asquith’s seeming indifference (he stopped convening the War Council for eight weeks while the critical decision to use the Army at Gallipoli was taken) effectively show the system itself to be the culprit in the operation’s failure. As Sir Maurice Hankey argued in 1915, “the British system such as it was, was not suited to the demands of modern global warfare.”
The second part of the book relies on the pioneering work of historians like Robin Prior, David Reynolds, and John Ramsden to reveal how powerfully Churchill’s own memoirs helped to shape public opinion during the interwar period. Bell’s contribution here is superb. He enthusiastically traces attacks on Churchill’s reputation from the Northcliff press during 1915 and reveals the sources to be the indiscretions of Fisher and others. What is perhaps more remarkable is how Churchill was able to coordinate with his allies to control evidence presented to the Dardanelles Commission in 1916–17 and how during the 1920s he was able to shape official histories published by the government in addition to pleading his own case by penning his memoirs. In this way, Churchill insured that history would be kind to him, and, with a couple of notable exceptions, it has been.
Bell’s study should be the final word on the matter of Churchill’s culpability for the failed campaign in the Eastern Mediterranean. Yet it simultaneously opens other avenues of research such as examining broader issues around civilian/military relations and the impact of the press on how we remember and study the past. We will never hear the end of the Dardanelles debate.
Warren Dockter is Lecturer in International Politics at Aberystwyth University and the author of Churchill and the Islamic World (2015).