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.
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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