A century ago this month, the Gallipoli Campaign ended as the Allied army quietly evacuated the small peninsula on which they had landed the previous April. The evacuation was well-planned and went off without a hitch. It was the only successful aspect of a campaign that had begun with high hopes but had turned into one of the worst Allied disasters of the First World War.
The campaign had been the brainchild of Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty. The Ottoman Empire had entered the war on the side of the Germans in October of 1914 and launched an offensive against the Russians in Caucasus Mountains. As Russia was already hard-pressed fighting on the Eastern Front against the Germans and Austro-Hungarians, they appealed to the British and French for a diversionary operation against the Turks. Churchill proposed a naval attack through the Dardanelles to capture the Turkish capital at Constantinople (today called Istanbul) and force the Ottoman government to surrender.
Success in such an endeavor would have had a number of positive results for the Allies. Pressure on the Russians on the Caucasus Front would have been relieved and a reliable line of supply through the Black Sea would have been established between the Russians in the East and the British and French in the West. This would not only have allowed war material from the Western Allies to flow to the Russians, but would have also allowed Russian wheat to flow to the outside world. The Balkan nations of Romania, Bulgaria, and Greece were uncertain as to whom they should support; the capture of Constantinople would surely swing them towards the Allied side, opening up another front against Germany and Austria-Hungary.
In February and March of 1915, a large naval force of British and French battleships attempted to force the straits. Although many Turkish forts were blasted to pieces, the Allies were frustrated by mobile Turkish artillery and naval mines. Several obsolete Allied ships were sunk by the mines, though with surprisingly little loss of life. The Allied commander, Admiral John de Robeck, felt he could not use his minesweepers to clear the minefields until the mobile Turkish artillery had been dealt with and this could only be done by ground troops. The attempt to force the straits by naval action alone was therefore abandoned.
Churchill was outraged and felt that de Robeck could have succeeded had he pressed his attack. Some historians have since suggested that the Turkish artillery was running low on ammunition when the decision was made to halt the attack and that a renewed naval attack might have broken through, though the evidence for this is somewhat doubtful. No one seems to have considered the difficulty of occupying an enormous city with warships that carried no soldiers.
This fiasco turned out to be only the beginning of a story filled with mishaps, mistakes, and misguided decisions. Allied troops landed on six different beaches on the Gallipoli peninsula on April 25. Fierce fighting erupted on some of the beaches, with bridgeheads only being secured after heavy casualties. On other beaches, however, there was no Turkish resistance and bridgeheads were established quite easily and with no losses. Yet the Allied commanders at those places made little effort to advance inland. This strange and inexplicable lassitude allowed Turkish reinforcements to arrive, some under the command of General Mustafa Kemal, later the founder of the Republic of Turkey. These troops were able to seal off the Allied bridgeheads after further heavy fighting and prevent any movement inland.
Then followed endless months of brutal trench warfare, equal to if not worse than the nightmare already unfolding on the Western Front in France and Flanders. Both sides suffered heavy casualties in an endless cycle of attack and counterattack, with the front scarcely moving more than a few yards in either direction. Some of Britain's finest regiments, including the Lancashire Fusiliers, the South Wales Borderers, and the Royal Scots, left their blood on the beaches and hills of Gallipoli. The Australian and New Zealand troops of the ANZAC Corps fought magnificently, earning a legendary place in military history at an enormous cost in casualties. Tens of thousands of French troops, whose involvement has been strangely overlooked by historians, also struggled and died in the Gallipoli trenches. Sikhs and Gurkhas from the Indian Raj played their part in the campaign. But nothing could break the solid Turkish lines.
A massive offensive in August, however, caught the Ottomans off guard. While the troops at the tip of the peninsula hurled themselves against the Turkish lines, a landing was made in Suvla Bay, north of the bridgehead, which came ashore against virtually no Turkish resistance. The troops at Suvla Bay were in a perfect position to outflank the Turkish defenders and collapse their entire position. For a brief moment, the prospect of an Allied victory in Gallipoli that would open the way to Constantinople suddenly seemed possible again. But the British commander at Suvla Bay, General Frederick Stopford, proved to be the very model of an absolutely inept and incompetent general. After landing, he made virtually no effort to advance inland. Turkish troops under General Kemal soon arrived and sealed off the bridgehead, just as had happened on the original landing sites in April.
The following months followed the same routine of trench warfare, boredom mixed with terror on an hourly basis. In the fall, the decision was made to evacuate the Allied forces from the peninsula. As already mentioned, the evacuation was well-planned and well-executed, the only operation of the entire campaign that was not an utter fiasco. The Allied forces left behind nearly 45,000 dead comrades, while nearly 100,000 Allied soldiers were wounded. As for the Ottomans, 250,000 of their men fell, dead or wounded, in defense of their capital city.
The Gallipoli Campaign was one of the great Allied disasters of the First World War. Not only had they suffered terrible losses for no gain, but they had been humiliated by the Turks, whom they had previously believed to be an inferior enemy. 1915 had been a year of unremitting disaster for the Allies. On the Western Front, the British and French armies dashed themselves to pieces against the German fortified positions. On the Eastern Front, the Russian armies were shattered in the Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive and driven back hundreds of miles. Serbia, despite a gallant resistance, was crushed in the fall. The Allied defeat at Gallipoli was yet another humiliation piled on all the rest.
Of course, the Allies went on to win the First World War. They eventually crushed the Ottoman Empire and defeated Germany in 1918. But the price was horrific. Literally millions of people died. Russia collapsed into a chaotic revolution that eventually gave birth to the nightmare that was Soviet communism. Germany was put on the path that eventually gave rise to Nazism and set the stage for an even greater conflict twenty years later.
But what if the Allies had won at Gallipoli?
There are any number of ways in which an Allied victory in the campaign might have been achieved. Perhaps if Admiral John de Robeck had had the gumption to press on with his attack, the British battleships would have anchored off Constantinople in late March and dictated terms to a cowed Ottoman government. If the Allied commanders on some of the beaches on April 25 had shown a bit more initiative, or if Mustafa Kemal had not been on the top of his game, the Turkish defense could have fallen apart. If General Stopford had shown the least but of aggressiveness in August, the Allied could have turned the Turkish defensive position and bagged the entire Ottoman army. There are probably many more "point of divergence" that would have given the Allies, rather than the Turks, victory in the Gallipoli Campaign. What then?
There can be no doubt that an Allied success at Gallipoli would have been an enormous victory, perhaps even a war-winning one. By knocking Turkey out of the war, the Allies would have freed up hundreds of thousands of troops for service on the Western Front, who would otherwise have had to be deployed in Palestine or in Mesopotamia, while the Russians would have similarly been able to shift soldiers from the Caucasus Front to fight against the Germans and Austro-Hungarians. Allied control of Constantinople would have allowed munitions and supplies to flow to Russia from the British and French, while allowing Russian wheat to flow in the opposite direction, to the mutual benefit of both. This would have allowed Russia to escape from many of the shortages of military munitions that bedeviled it in actual history, while greatly easing the price of food in the markets of London and Paris (which might not sound important but which was essential for the winning of the war).
When the Gallipoli Campaign was launched, the Balkan nations of Greece, Bulgaria, and Romania were sitting on the sidelines, waiting to see whether the Allied powers or the Central Powers would emerge the victors in the conflict. In 1915, having witnessed the Allied bungling at Gallipoli, Bulgaria would opt to side with the Central Powers. Romania would side with the Allies in 1916, in the wake of the seemingly successful Brusilov Offensive, only to be smashed by the Central Powers later in the year. Greece would eventually wait until 1917 to cast its lot with the Allies.
Needless to say, the situation would have been very different had the Allies won at Gallipoli. With a Turkish surrender, it is entirely possible that Bulgaria, Romania, and Greece would have cast their lot with the Allies before the end of 1915. Serbia, which historically was crushed by a combined German, Austro-Hungarian and Bulgarian invasion in late 1915, might have been kept in the war. Combined with a British and French expeditionary force, this would have constituted a powerful third front in the war against the Central Powers. A fourth, the Italian Front, was also about to open.
Putting all these factors together - more manpower available to the British and French on the Western Front and the Russians on the Eastern Front, the entry of the Balkan powers on the Allied side in 1915, the easy shipment of war material through the Dardanelles to Russia - it is easy to imagine that Germany and Austria-Hungary could have been brought to their knees in the middle of 1916, rather than late 1918.
Think of the momentous consequences of this. If the war ended more than two years before it did historically, many millions of people who died during the conflict would have still been alive in 1918. Into this number we should include the million or so Armenians who were ruthlessly slaughtered by the Ottomans in the wake of the Allied failure at Gallipoli. Saving all these lives would not only have been a miracle from any humanitarian point of view, but consider how many potential scientists, statesmen, engineers, poets, artists, and composers died in the trenches of the war. What might they have contributed to human knowledge and culture had they survived?
If the war had ended in 1916, Russia will quite possibly avoid the Russian Revolution and the Russian Civil War. This would not only mean that a Romanov Tsar might have still been on the throne of Russia today, but it would mean that Russia would have avoided the nightmare of Soviet Communism. Thanks to the "butterfly effect", which always must be considered when we ask ourselves serious alternate history questions, we can assume that Nazism would never have arisen in Germany, since it would not have had Russian communism to use as a bogeyman, nor would Maoism have arisen in China, since it would have not had the Soviet Union to serve as an inspiration. There would have been no Holocaust and no Cultural Revolution, sparing yet more millions of lives. As with the war itself, this would not only have been good in and of itself, but we have to stop and ask how many geniuses who would have lived to fulfill their potential were lost in those nightmarish massacres.
Gallipoli was the only major opportunity for an Allied victory in the First World War before the actual victory was achieved in late 1918 (and that only with the help of the United States). None of the French offensives on the Western Front in 1914 or 1915 were going to break the German line. Neither was the British offensive on the Somme in 1916. In 1917, both the French (at the Aisne) and the British (at Passchensdaele) launched massive attacks against the German lines and were thrown back yet again, suffering such heavy casualties that the French army mutinied and refused to fight further. Throughout the war, the Russians and the Italians proved so inept that they presented no serious threat to the Germans. If the Allies were going to win the war earlier than they actually did, Gallipoli had been the place to do it.
Speaking for myself, if they had succeeded at Gallipoli, we'd all be a lot better off today.