By Ships Alone
Churchill and the Dardanelles
by Jeffrey D. Wallin

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

foreword by Harry V. Jaffa

Carolina Academic Press: Durham, North Carolina; 1981

216 pages; 6 maps, 11 photographs

May 2010

"What about the Dardanelles?"

I think it quite possible that neither side will have the strength to penetrate the other's lines in the Western theatre. ... my impression is that the position of both armies is not likely to undergo any decisive change — although no doubt several hundred thousand men will be spent to satisfy the military mind on the point. ...

Are there not other alternatives than sending our armies to chew barbed wire in Flanders? Further, cannot the power of the Navy be brought more directly to bear upon the German lines on existing fronts, ought we not, as new forces come to hand, to engage him on new frontiers, and enable the Russians to do so too?

Winston S. Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, to
H. H. Asquith, Prime Minister, 29 December 1914

The fumbled Anglo-French naval attack at the Dardanelles in the Eastern Mediterranean in March 1915 interrupted the soaring trajectory of Winston S. Churchill's political career. At the age of forty, Churchill was forced out of his major Cabinet position in the British government as First Lord of the Admiralty, and many thought his prospects for public service were damaged beyond repair. Though after a couple of years Churchill returned to the Cabinet in a new administration, the Dardanelles battle, dragging its baggage of the subsequent military failure on the Gallipoli Peninsula, was used to darken Churchill's reputation not only up through his becoming Prime Minister in 1940 and his Second World War leadership, but for the rest of his life and indeed to this day.

The Dardanelles was a relatively small and brief campaign in World War I, out at the southeastern corner of Europe and thus far from the tremendous fighting on the Western and Eastern Fronts. What made the Dardanelles battle so significant at the time, and why does it linger in naval and public memory?

Jeffrey D. Wallin's closely-focused narrative, By Ships Alone: Churchill and the Dardanelles, is a fascinating study of the planning and execution of the Dardanelles campaign. A prime virtue of his treatment is that at each stage, we see what the principals thought or were told or believed at the time, not what was said privately or claimed afterwards. Thus we step along with the decisions and planning by Churchill and others, rather than see the whole process as skewed by the revaluations of hindsight.

By ships alone

It was not long into the First World War before flexible-minded British strategists began looking hard for a way to turn the German flank, searching for any route to a decisive blow that did not require more of the already stolidly-entrenched carnage in France and Flanders. Two strategic approaches were considered by War Council members Churchill and Lloyd George; by Fisher, Wilson, Carden, Jellicoe, Hankey and others for the Navy; Kitchener, French, Hamilton and others for the Army, and so on. There were Northern possibilities, for instance employing the British Navy and the Russian Army in the Baltic; and Southern possibilities which would enlist the Balkan countries, detach Turkey from a German alliance, and ensure a sea route to Russia. Wallin details the shifting pros and cons of a number of proposals.

After resolution of the complex military and diplomatic factors which Wallin explains carefully, the plan that eventually found favor would be an attack by British and French naval units to force the narrow sea passage of the Dardanelles, the strait leading from the Mediterranean to Istanbul and thence to the Black Sea and southern Russia. Of course this geopolitical crossroads has been the subject of strategic attention since Jason and the Argonauts sailed through to the Black Sea. A British fleet fought through to Constantinople in 1807 during the Napoleonic Wars, but without strategic success.

Dardanelles: narrow strait in northwestern Turkey, 38 miles (61 km) long and 0.75 to 4 miles (1.2 to 6.5 km) wide, linking the Aegean Sea with the Sea of Marmara. The city of Dardanus in the Troad (territory around ancient Troy), where Mithradates VI (king of Pontus) and Sulla (the Roman general) signed a treaty in 85 BCE, gave the strait its name. ...

Encyclopedia Britannica

Successful penetration of the Dardanelles would place an Anglo-French fleet at the doorstep of Istanbul (formerly Constantinople or Byzantium), in 1915 scarcely defended on its seaward frontage. Turkey's few war-materiel factories and its rail arteries all were open to naval attack:

Since the end of the war it has been known that the Sultan, his court, and civil and military authorities had made preparations to leave Constantinople as soon as the Straits were passed. As the only arms and munitions factories in Turkey were located on the outskirts of Constantinople, where they could be bombarded by the fleet from the Sea of Marmora, it would have been difficult for the Turks to continue fighting after leaving the capital.

Thus capture of the city should force Turkey at the very least to abandon its German alliance, likely quit the war altogether, and other repercussions would be profound.

I consider it the one imaginative strategic idea of the war on the Allied side ....

Arthur J. Marder
"The Dardanelles Revisited"
From the Dardanelles to Oran

It is crucial to understand that this campaign, despite confusion and changes of mind, was to surprise and force the Dardanelles by ships alone. Minesweepers would lead a force of battleships and other warcraft to clear the waters and engage the Turkish forts alongside the strait, destroying or suppressing the forts sufficiently to reach Constantinople. If the Naval thrust had succeeded, the subsequent Army invasion of the strait-bordering Gallipoli Peninsula would never have been needed, or rather deployed as a routine occupation.

As Lord Kitchener wrote to General Ian Hamilton, commanding the pending military invasion force,

Once ships are through the Gallipoli military position ceases to be of importance.
Admirals & ships versus forts & mines

Dardanelles defences, 1915 Wallin describes clearly some major technical considerations that had to be evaluated for the various plans. One was the latest chapter in the centuries-old debate on whether ships could reduce forts of significant sturdiness. Another was the specific sturdiness of the Turkish forts along both sides of the Dardanelles. Yet another was whether the Ottoman leadership was anticipating a near-term assault, or could be surprised.

As By Ships Alone documents in detail, contrary to most historians and biographers, even sympathetic ones,

The attempt to force the Dardanelles was in every technical respect supported by professional naval opinion.

Despite all the technical evaluations and the debates on strategy and tactics, personalities played a large and unpredictable role in the planning and execution of the Dardanelles campaign. Fisher as First Sea Lord under Churchill, and Kitchener as head of the Army, seemed to have been exceptionally secretive and changeable. Fisher's lapses of memory and logic and his public provocations, compounded with private reversals and behind-the-scenes maneuvering, was ultimately disastrous to the Admiralty's and Churchill's ability to manage the campaign.

On the spot, poor staff work resulted in minesweeping by means of old fishing trawlers (capable of three knots against the current) manned by fishermen, rather than the eight destroyers at hand. In overall command, Vice-Admiral Carden and more so his successor Vice-Admiral de Robeck, held to a determined caution that doomed the execution of the plan.

Leaders versus diplomats

Here's an example of the diplomacy whose success was essential to any regional alliances against the Ottoman Empire, an agreement so secret that Churchill and the other Dardanelles planners did not know of it. Such diplomacy's contradictory tangles doomed most combined actions — except, probably, the straightforward Anglo-French by-ships-alone operation:

As long ago as November 12, 1914, [British Foreign Minister] Grey had informed the Russian government that Russia's long standing desire for a warm water port would be gratified by the accession of Constantinople at the end of the war. This promise had followed a policy dating from 1908, which had been designed to prevent Russia from moving further south of Tabriz toward the British sphere of influence in Persia. It was also hoped that the promise of such a prize might keep Russia from making a separate peace. This policy had been confirmed as recently as January 14, 1915, although neither the British Cabinet nor the War Council was aware of it. ...

Much speculation, indeed much policy, had been directed towards drawing the Balkan States into the war against Germany and Austria on the assumption that a part of Turkey, preferably in or near the Straits of the Dardanelles, or even the city of Constantinople itself, could be offered to Greece as an inducement. Now, when it appeared certain that Greek forces would join the Allies' at the Dardanelles, Russia, in keeping with this secret agreement, took the one step that would keep the Greeks from aiding in any way at all. ...

Character and courage

Jeffrey Wallin sums up the commanding officer's conduct of the action:

Sober risk when the moment is right can be said to be the essence of military prudence, while the caution which would lose an extraordinary opportunity is the height of rashness. De Robeck ... ignored the Turkish shortage of ammunition and the need to demonstrate to Greece, Bulgaria, and Romania the military strength and staying power of the Allies. But these were vital factors. De Robeck may have thought he was proposing the surest, if slowest, method of reaching Constantinople. In fact, he substituted an extremely high risk operation for one in which very few lives and no important vessels had been lost. De Robeck almost certainly did not abandon the attack because of an unwillingness to meet the enemy in pitched battle. But in failing to take advantage of what was potentially the most important opportunity for victory since the opening month of the war, he demonstrated that though he was a good sailor, he was incapable of comprehending the highest reaches of his craft.

In a way, By Ships Alone can be looked at as a case study in leadership, with Churchill as the principal subject throughout. It is a superb case study of the qualities required and the effect on action when they are present or hobbled or absent. This is what statesmanship looks like, not in speeches but in the crucible.

Why was the Dardanelles campaign critical to the evaluation of Churchill's career, and why does it remain so? Harry V. Jaffa in his Foreword points out that

Churchill's detractors have shown a certain perspicacity in their concentration upon the Dardanelles, in their attempts to discredit his judgment. They rightly perceive that the principles that guided him then — at that summit where politics and strategy become one — were principles that guided him throughout his career. By taking it as proved that the failure at the Dardanelles was a failure of Churchill's fundamental conceptions concerning the conduct of war, they think that they have thereby discredited the positions he took in the great strategic decisions of the Second World War.

It is one of the merits of Professor Wallin's book that it meets these critics on their own grounds. That there was failure at the Dardanelles is undeniable. But that what happened was a failure of Churchill's policy or Churchill's judgment, is denied categorically.

What if a Dardanelles victory?

Although it is not part of Wallin's design in By Ships Alone to consider the great consequences of the failure to push home the Dardanelles attack in March 1915, Harry Jaffa in his Foreword writes:

... the failure to persevere may have been a necessary condition, if not the sufficient condition, of many of the worst evils of the twentieth century. It will not be fashionable to suggest that greater perseverance at the Dardanelles, might have averted the vast disasters of the Bolshevik and Nazi revolutions.

Not only the succor of Russia and an earlier victory in the war would have been likely, but I'll add that the recapture of Constantinople by the West — lost to the Turks in 1453 — would have completed the expulsion of Islam from Europe, perhaps founding a dominant position for Western values in the Middle East.

Jaffa's overview continues:

The losses, both of ships and men, were well within the bounds of what had been anticipated. ... The losses in men were trifling, compared even to a minor action in the Western front. What happened was a loss of nerve compounded by political treachery. In fact, the naval assault upon the Dardanelles ... in the true sense ... was never attempted.


© 2010 Robert Wilfred Franson

Some additional resources

There is a great deal of material available on the Dardanelles campaign and its historical environs. Below are important references, all excellent; but bear in mind that Jeffrey Wallin's study is I believe the best book-length account devoted to the campaign: clear and detailed, with careful analysis and evaluation. Wallin's deliberate perspective from what was known to the principals at the time allows him to critique the works below. The Dardanelles certainly repays our study.

Winston Churchill's own history of the war and his role in it, The World Crisis, particularly Volumes I and II: 1911-1914 and 1915.

Winston Churchill's history, The World Crisis, 1911-1918; Abridged and Revised, with some additional private information pertinent to the Dardanelles that was not available to him at the time.

Randolph Churchill and Martin Gilbert's biography, Winston S. Churchill, particularly Volume III: The Challenge of War, 1914-1916, with its documentary Companion Volume, Part I.

Arthur J. Marder's history of the Anglo-German naval rivalry and the war at sea, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow: The Royal Navy in the Fisher Era, 1904-1919, particularly Volume II: The War Years: To the Eve of Jutland.

Arthur J. Marder's afterthoughts and answers to criticism in a chapter of From the Dardanelles to Oran.

What the Dardanelles might have prevented

Quite aside from vast strategic gains with the Russian Alliance and in the Middle East, Winston Churchill realized by the end of 1914 what most British and French leaders took several more years to recognize: that successive mass attacks against machine guns and other entrenched defenses on the Western Front resulted only in massive carnage. The 271,000 French casualties along the Chemin des Dames Ridge and elsewhere in the Second Battle of the Aisne in Spring 1917, leading to mutinies in many involved French units, helped finally to enlighten the French High Command.

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