The Gallipoli Plan

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 155th installment in the series. NEW: Would you like to be notified via email when each installment of this series is posted? Just email RSVP@mentalfloss.com.

November 25, 1914: The Gallipoli Plan

The tragic Gallipoli campaign, which lasted eight months from April 1915 to January 1916 and saw around half a million casualties from combat and illness on both sides, had its origins in First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill’s ambition to exploit British sea power with an attack on the flanks of the Central Powers spearheaded by the Royal Navy. Churchill and First Sea Lord Admiral Jackie Fisher believed, rather optimistically, that they could sidestep the stalemate on the Western Front and deliver a decisive blow to end the war by playing to Britain’s traditional area of strength; not coincidentally, it would also burnish the reputation of the “senior service,” which had stumbled badly in the opening months of the war with multiple defeats due to bad luck and sheer incompetence.

The Ottoman Empire’s declaration of war on the side of the Central Powers in early November 1914 vastly expanded the scope of the conflict and confronted the Allies with an array of new threats, the most immediate of which was a Turkish attack on British-occupied Egypt. Indeed, as soon as they entered the war the Young Turk triumvirate of Enver Pasha, Djemal Pasha and Talaat Pasha began planning an offensive to seize the strategic Suez Canal, connecting Britain to India and Australia, with help from a German officer, the memorably named Kress von Kressenstein. 

While they hurried troops from India, Australia, and New Zealand to Egypt to defend the canal, the British cabinet also considered ways to carry the fight to the Turks using Britain’s available resources. One obvious possibility was a campaign to wrest control of the Turkish straits and Constantinople, thus decapitating the Ottoman Empire and reopening the maritime supply route to Russia through the Black Sea.

Churchill first presented his proposal to attack the Turkish straits to the British government’s War Council on November 25, 1914, arguing that an offensive would force the Germans to send reinforcements to the Turks, drawing troops away from the Western Front. In its original form the plan was mostly a naval operation, sending a fleet of obsolete battleships and smaller ships to “force” the straits by clearing mine fields overpowering the Turkish fortresses on shore; only later would it snowball into a full-scale amphibious debacle (illustrating the phenomenon now known as “mission creep”).

Of course even in its original limited form the plan carried considerable risks, as the War Council minutes noted: “Mr Churchill suggested that the ideal method of defending Egypt was by an attack on the Gallipoli Peninsula. This, if successful, would give us control of the Dardanelles and we could dictate terms at Constantinople. This, however, was a very difficult operation requiring a large force.” The other members of the War Council were skeptical at first, but Churchill’s persistence and enthusiasm eventually won them over, and planning began for one of the bloodiest battles of the war. 

Kitchener’s Army

The First World War was unprecedented in its scale and violence, which produced huge numbers of casualties and forced both sides to begin drawing on their reserves of manpower much sooner than anyone expected. Although British newspapers were generally circumspect about the losses suffered by the British Expeditionary Force (due to strict limits on coverage and careful filtering of information by the government) by late November the bloodshed at Mons, the Marne, the Aisne, and Ypres had all but wiped out the original all-volunteer army; according to an official tally, by December 1914, out of 140,000 men the BEF had suffered 95,654 casualties, including 16,374 dead, forcing British generals to hurry troops from overseas to fill in the gaps. 

With France outnumbered on the Western Front and Russia struggling on the Eastern Front, Britain not only needed to make good these losses but quickly field a much larger army in order to even have a chance of winning the war. After shocking the public with his prediction that the war would last three years, in early August 1914 Secretary of State for War Lord Horatio Herbert Kitchener called for the creation of a vast new army numbering at least a million men. Days later Parliament quickly approved plans to recruit half a million men, with another 300,000 added by the end of September.

As events at Ypres soon showed, even this was insufficient. On November 1 Kitchener promised French chief of the general staff Joseph Joffre that Britain would have a million men in the field within eighteen months, and on November 20 Parliament voted to add another million men to the recruiting goals. Now-iconic recruiting advertisements showed Lord Kitchener pointing at the passerby imploring him to “Join Your Country’s Army!”

The first few months saw hundreds of thousands of young (and many not-so-young) British men heeded the call, with groups of friends flooding recruiting centers to join up together in “pals” regiments. As in so many other war-related areas, the huge response seemed to catch British authorities completely unprepared, as reflected in the rudimentary or simply non-existent food, lodgings, uniforms, and equipment that welcomed new recruits. One 21-year-old British recruit, Robert Cude, noted in his diary: 

… no steps were taken to receive us, and so no food awaited us, and no sleeping accommodations… Very little breakfast awaited us. Was one of the unlucky ones myself. Could not stomach the fight for a bit of greasy bacon. Still, to add insult to injury, am told to wash up the plates of those who had been fortunate… We are to help form another new division, remainder go to Dover… No food, manage to sleep a little with someone sleeping on top of me. Breakfast arrived at last, one sausage per man, no bread, then beginning to resent treatment… camp in uproar, armed pickets on gates, only infuriated men more. Boys demand food, failing this, leave to go home and get some. 

In the same vein James Hall, an American who volunteered to serve in the new British army, recalled:

Although we were recruited immediately after the outbreak of war, less than half of our number had been provided with uniforms. Many still wore their old civilian clothing… We did not need the repeated assurances of cabinet ministers that England was not prepared for war. We were in a position to know that she was not… Our deficiencies in clothing and equipment were met by the Government with what seemed to us amazing slowness.

In any event the response was hardly one of uniform, unalloyed patriotism. Unsurprisingly Britain’s ever-present class tensions manifested here as well, as some working class men believed they detected a certain hypocrisy among their social betters when it came to joining up. In a scene which could be right out of “Downton Abbey,” in one rural village Reverend Andrew Clark noted at the beginning of September: “Village lads are not very pleased at pressure put by the Squire to compel his two footmen to enlist. To use the phrase of one of the lads, the ‘idle sons’ of the house ought to have set the example of going, though married, with children and something over the age.”

Meanwhile the overseas troops, mostly Canadians, Australians, and New Zealanders, were training in Salisbury Plain in southwest England, which – aside from the chance to see Stonehenge – they generally viewed as a dismal bog, especially when rain turned it into a vast expanse of mud (which was excellent preparation for Flanders). One Canadian recruit, J.A. Currie, summarized the training regimen in Salisbury Plain: “The battalion soon settled down to a hard syllabus of training and instruction, beginning with squad drill. It was drill, drill, drill, all day long, rain or shine, and it was almost always rain.” And an anonymous Australian recruit noted wryly: “Barring the heavy frosts, the rain, and foot-deep mud, things weren’t so bad in camp.” Marches were another favorite pastime, according to the same Australian: “After lunch we usually went for a route march… On most days we did about ten miles, but twice a week or so we put in a fifteen to twenty mile stunt…”

Although the overseas troops were all volunteers apparently eager to serve “King and Country,” and many even identified themselves as “British,” national identities had already begun forming within the Empire and these, along with inevitable class tensions and rigid army discipline, inevitably gave rise to personal conflicts.

J.A. Currie recalled the case of one Canadian recruit who was found drinking whiskey outside the camp by military police, who testified: “When we told him that it was our duty to take him into custody, he became very abusive, calling us ‘Thick-headed John Bulls,’ ‘Fat-headed Englishmen,’ ‘Mutton heads,’ ‘Blasted Britishers,’ etc. He had also abused the English people in very violent terms.” 

According to another Canadian recruit, Harold Peat, British authorities were confused by the Canadians’ relatively egalitarian social relations: “The military authorities could not understand how it was that a major or a captain and a private could go on leave together, eat together, and in general chum around together.” Of course at the same time the overseas troops had their own views on social graces, and often professed to be shocked by the behavior of the British lower classes. Ever opinionated, the anonymous Australian had mixed views on British Tommys: “Tommy Atkins can fight… but compared with the Australasian bushman… he is in many respects an uncivilised animal.” 

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Take Two: When Kim Jong-il Raised North Korea's World Cinema Profile By Kidnapping Two South Korean Stars

Kim Jong-Il, Choi Eun-hie, and Shin Sang-ok in a scene from Ross Adam and Robert Cannan's The Lovers & the Despot (2016).
Kim Jong-Il, Choi Eun-hie, and Shin Sang-ok in a scene from Ross Adam and Robert Cannan's The Lovers & the Despot (2016).
Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Choi Eun-hee knew there was trouble even before the needle sent her into unconsciousness.

It was 1978, and Choi, one of South Korea’s most prominent actresses, was struggling to regain the success she had achieved earlier in her career. A promise of a possible film partnership by a man claiming to be from Hong Kong had lured her to Repulse Bay, a waterfront locale in the southern part of Hong Kong Island, where she exited a vehicle and noticed a group of men standing near a boat. Choi sensed something wasn't quite right, but before she could consider it any further, she was grabbed, sedated, and thrown onboard.

When she awoke, Choi found herself in the captain’s quarters. Above her was a portrait of Kim Jong-il, then the chief of North Korea’s Propaganda and Agitation Department. Kim’s father, Kim Il-sung, was the leader of the country, a communist regime that had now seemingly absconded with Choi—for reasons the actress couldn't imagine.

Roughly eight days after being kidnapped, Choi found herself in Pyongyang, where Kim greeted her not as someone who had been forcibly subdued and delivered to him, but as an honored guest. In a way, she was. In Kim’s mind, Choi and her ex-husband, award-winning film director Shin Sang-ok (who would soon join them, also involuntarily) were the very people the country needed to spearhead a new era in North Korean filmmaking, one that would make the entire world sit up and take notice.

That both Choi and Shin would be captives of the state was of little concern to those in charge. Regardless of how their guests got there, they were there. And Kim had no intention of letting them leave.

 

Kim, who eventually succeeded his father as leader of North Korea and ruled from 1994 until his death in 2011, was a movie buff. He reportedly owned more than 30,000 films—including a great deal of pornography—and ordered traveling diplomats to bring back copies of international films for his enjoyment. Kim even authored a book, 1973’s On the Art of Cinema, that was intended as an instructional guide for filmmakers in the country. He preached a devotion to a singular, unified vision and bemoaned that North Korean films had too much ideology and crying in them. All but ignored by the rest of the film world, Kim wanted the North producing features that would be embraced by film festivals.

Kim Jong-il loved movies so much he decided to abduct some talent.Getty Images (Kim Jong-il) // JurgaR/iStock via Getty Images (Movie Theater). Photo composite by Mental Floss.

At the time, it was not uncommon for North Korea to fill a need for trained workers simply by kidnapping them. It had worked for the country when they wanted to learn more about South Korea; between 1977 and 1978, they abducted five South Korean high school students who became instructors for future undercover Northern operatives. They also once attempted to kidnap a concert pianist, who grew wise to the situation when he arrived for his private appointment and heard several people speaking with North Korean accents. (He fled.) Even so, Kim used a similar strategy when he decided that kidnapping an actor and director would be the most effective way to achieve his movie aspirations.

Choi was only one part of the plan. Once she was grabbed, Shin began a desperate search for her. The two, who had once been considered a “golden couple” in South Korea, had divorced in 1976 following Shin's affair with a younger actress, but they remained close.

Of course, Shin was a cinematic superstar in his own right. Though his career had also recently cooled off, he was a celebrated director who had once been referred to as "the Orson Welles of South Korea." Though there are different stories as to how Shin ended up in North Korea, the official version is that he wanted to help locate his missing ex. And when that trail eventually led him to Hong Kong, Shin, too, soon found himself with a bag over his head, being hustled to Pyongyang. While Choi had resigned herself to some acceptance of her fate—she was living in a luxurious villa surrounded by guards—Shin was more combative. After numerous escape attempts, he was sent to prison.

For four years, Shin subsisted on a diet of grass, salt, and rice, never once seeing Choi or getting any update about her safety. As far as Shin knew, she was dead. Finally, in 1983, Shin was released and “invited” to a reception. To their mutual shock, the former couple was reunited, neither one knowing the other had been there the entire time.

Kim apologized for the delayed meeting, saying he had been busy. On the subject of Shin being imprisoned for four years, he dismissed it as a misunderstanding. It was only then that Kim explained why the two were there: North Korean filmmakers had no new ideas, he explained, so he wanted Shin and Choi to make films that would establish North Korea in the movie business.

None of it was presented as a choice. That same year, the couple remarried—also reportedly at Kim's suggestion.

The filmmakers spent years trapped in North Korea.NatanaelGinting/iStock via Getty Images

There was discussion of escape, particularly when the couple was allowed to travel to Berlin to scout locations for productions, but Shin dismissed it.

"What's the matter with you?" Shin recalled telling Choi in his 1988 memoir, Kingdom of Kim. "I will not make an attempt unless it's 100 percent certain. If they caught us, we'd be dead."

Instead, Shin pondered the opportunity. Kim gave him the equivalent of $3 million as an annual salary, for both personal and professional use. His production offices grew to more than 700 employees. Aside from some firm edicts—Kim wanted to project an image of North Korea as a political titan, while somehow softening its image as a totalitarian terror—Shin had a large degree of creative freedom. He filmed North Korea’s first onscreen kiss. He made Runaway, a 1984 film about a wandering Korean family in 1920s Manchuria, that Shin believed was the best film of his career.

Most famously, he directed Pulgasari, a monster movie clearly inspired by Godzilla that featured an oversized monster aiding an army of farmers looking to overthrow a cruel king. Kim even convinced several filmmakers who worked on the Godzilla films to come to North Korea to assist with the production by guaranteeing their safety. Kenpachiro Satsuma, who was the second person to wear the Godzilla suit, performed as Pulgasari. Thousands of North Korean soldiers were used as extras.

 

Kim was very happy with the work Shin and Choi were producing, which grew to seven films. Some had even made it to festivals in the Eastern Bloc. Gradually, he gave them more and more freedom to travel, eventually allowing them to take an escorted trip to Vienna in 1986 to help stir up a possible European distributor that would make a North Korean film easier to circulate. As they were preparing to leave for Austria, the two decided to act.

"To be in Korea living a good life ourselves and enjoying movies while everyone else was not free was not happiness, but agony," Shin wrote.

Choi Eun-hee and Shin Sang-ok in The Lovers & the Despot (2016).Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

The two got in touch with a Japanese film critic they knew and met him for lunch. With North Korean guards in pursuit, Shin and Choi took a taxi to the American embassy and explained their eight-year ordeal as creative captives of Kim. Within a week, they were telling their story to reporters in Baltimore, Maryland, as well as the CIA.

North Korea denied that the two had been there against their will, arguing that they simply wanted to escape the restrictive nature of South Korean filmmaking. But Choi had seen to it that they came back with evidence. She had snuck an audio cassette recorder into her handbag during one meeting with Kim, who advised that if they were ever asked what they were doing in North Korea, to say that they were there voluntarily. She had even managed to have the tape smuggled out of the country before escaping, a stunt that could have resulted in her death if the betrayal had been discovered. For those in the U.S. government gathering intelligence on North Korea, it was the first time Kim’s voice had ever been heard.

Shin and Choi remained in the United States, where they had been granted political asylum. Shin even directed the 1995 film Three Ninjas Knuckle Up and produced several more movies under the pseudonym Simon Sheen. They eventually returned to South Korea in 1999, though some South Koreans believed Shin had gone to the North and pledged allegiance to communism voluntarily and treated him with suspicion.

"I could not dare return [to South Korea] without evidence that I had been kidnapped to the North," Shin said in an interview. "If [the Seoul government] charged me with entering the North on my own and cooperating with the North Koreans, I would have had no evidence to deny it."

Shin and Choi's story was explored in depth in Ross Adam and Robert Cannan's documentary The Lovers & the Despot, which was nominated for a Grand Jury Prize at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.

Shin died in 2006, Choi in 2018. In a 2015 interview with Korea JoongAng Daily, Choi said that she still had nightmares about being pursued by North Korean agents. "Even though [Kim Jong-il] did not use the right means to get what he wanted, I understood his desire to develop the North Korean movie industry," she said. "He mentioned that he wanted to bring about change to North Korean movies, all of which were similar in terms of directing and acting. But please don't misunderstand that my forgiveness of him means that I agree with the North Korean system, because I don't."

Though North Korea never did admit to abducting the pair, in 2002 Kim Jong-il did come clean about snatching several Japanese tourists in the late 1970s and 1980s, and issued a formal apology.

When it finally received a wider release, Pulgasari was dismissed as silly. Now under the leadership of Kim Jong-un, North Korea has yet to make any impact on the international film scene.