An Army after all—At least Ten Divisions Available—Lord Kitchener in the Toils—His immense Power—Paralysis of the General Staff—East or West—His other Burdens—His Courage and Kindness—My Mission to Sir John French, January 29—My Report—Venizelos declines the proffered Division—The Admiralty begin to press for Troops—Quasi-political Factors—Decisions of February 16—The Day of Resolve—Conflicting Pressures upon Lord Kitchener—War Council of February 19: Lord Kitchener withholds the 29th Division—The Day of Recoil—Councils of February 24 and 26—My Memorandum of February 25—The Cancelled Transports—My Protest.
Up to this point in the story of the Dardanelles the War Council and the Admiralty had accepted unquestioningly the basis that no troops were available for offensive operations against Turkey. In his first letter to me of January 2, Lord Kitchener had said: ‘We have no troops to land anywhere…. We shall not be ready for anything big for some months.’ The first telegram to Admiral Carden of January 3 had asked: ‘Are you of opinion that it is practicable to force the Dardanelles using ships alone?’ At the evening meeting of the War Council on January 28 when the final decision was taken, Lord Kitchener repeated: ‘We have at present no troops to spare.’ It was on that foundation alone that all our decisions in favour of a purely naval attack had been taken. But henceforward a series of new facts and pressures came into play which gradually but unceasingly changed the character and enormously extended the scale of the enterprise. Under these influences in less than two months the naval attack, with its lack of certainty but with its limited costs and risks, became subsidiary, and in its place there arose a military development of great magnitude. Over this new plan the Admiralty had no responsible control. Our advice did not prevail; our criticisms were not welcomed; and even enquiries became a matter of delicacy and tact. Nevertheless, by the results of this military operation we had to stand or fall.
After all there was an Army. From the very moment when the purely naval attack had been finally resolved troops from many quarters began to come into view. From that moment the pressure to employ troops in one way or another grew steadily in every mind. The decision to abandon or postpone indefinitely the advances along the Belgian coast liberated portions of the reinforcements destined for Sir John French. The feeble character of the Turkish attack on Egypt and its repulse liberated the greater part of the Army concentrated there. The continued improvement in the training of the Australian and Territorial troops in this army increasingly fitted them for offensive operations. The suppression of the rebellion in South Africa had removed other anxieties. Meanwhile the First and Second of the New Armies (in all twelve divisions) were improving in training and progressing in equipment. A number of Territorial divisions fully equipped and in good order, whose training was now advanced, were also available at home. The large numbers of armed and organized soldiers in the United Kingdom should have removed all apprehension of oversea invasion.
At intervals during the next three months there were actually ordered to the Dardanelles:—
The 29th Division.
Two first-line Territorial divisions.
The Royal Naval Division.
A Yeomanry mounted division.
Two Australian divisions.
One extra Australian brigade.
The Lancashire Territorial Division.
One Indian brigade.
Two French divisions.
All these troops were available for moving at this moment. The transport for their conveyance by sea could readily have been procured. All, or their equivalent, and more were subsequently sent. Together they comprised an army of at least 150,000 men. This army could have been concentrated in the Eastern Mediterranean in readiness to intervene at any point selected, some time before the end of March. If at any time in January it had been deliberately decided to use such an army, according to some good plan and with a resolute purpose, in a great combined operation to seize the Gallipoli Peninsula and thus open the passage for the Fleet, few will now doubt that a complete victory would have been gained. On the other hand, apart from the 29th Division, all these troops had been raised or permanently embodied only since the outbreak of the war. To open a new campaign on a large scale was a most serious decision, in view of their partially trained character and of the general shortage of munitions. This was the justification for the naval attack. It also within its limits presented a logical and consistent scheme of war. Either plan was defensible. But for what happened there can be no defence except human infirmity. To drift into a new campaign piecemeal and without any definite decision or careful plan, would have been scouted by everyone. Yet so obliquely were these issues presented, so baffling were the personal factors involved, that the War Council were drawn insensibly and irresistibly into the gulf.
The workings of Lord Kitchener’s mind constituted at this period a feature almost as puzzling as the great war problem itself. His prestige and authority were immense. He was the sole mouthpiece of War Office opinion in the War Council. Every one had the greatest admiration for his character, and every one felt fortified, amid the terrible and incalculable events of the opening months of the war, by his commanding presence. When he gave a decision it was invariably accepted as final. He was never, to my belief, overruled by the War Council or the Cabinet in any military matter, great or small. No single unit was ever sent or withheld contrary, not merely to his agreement, but to his advice. Scarcely anyone ever ventured to argue with him in Council. Respect for the man, sympathy for him in his immense labours, confidence in his professional judgment, and the belief that he had plans deeper and wider than any we could see, silenced misgivings and disputes, whether in the Council or at the War Office. All-powerful, imperturbable, reserved, he dominated absolutely our counsels at this time in all that concerned the organization and employment of the armies.
Yet behind this imposing and splendid front lay many weaknesses, evidences of which became increasingly disquieting. The Secretary of State for War had burdens laid upon him which no man, no three men even of his great capacity, could properly discharge. He had absorbed the whole War Office into his spacious personality. The General Staff was completely in abeyance, save as a machine for supplying him with information. Even as such a machine it was woefully weak. All the ablest officers and leading and strongest minds in the General Staff and Army Council, with the exception of Sir John Cowans, the Quartermaster-General, had hurried eagerly out of the country with the Expeditionary Force and were now in France, feeling that they ought to control the whole conduct of the war from the highly localized point of view of the British General Headquarters at St. Omer. In their place, filling vitally important situations, were officers on the retired list or men whose opinions had never counted weightily in British military thought. These officers were petrified by Lord Kitchener’s personality and position. They none of them showed the natural force and ability to argue questions out with him vigorously as man to man. He towered up in his uniform as a Field-Marshal and Cabinet Minister besides, and they saluted as subordinates on a drill-ground. They never presented him with well-considered general reasonings about the whole course of the war. They stood ready to execute his decisions to the best of their ability. It was left to the Members of the War Council to write papers upon the broad strategic view of the war. It was left to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr. Lloyd George, to discern and proclaim to the Cabinet in unmistakable terms the impending military collapse of Russia. It was left to me to offer at any rate one method of influencing the political situation in the Near East in default of comprehensive military schemes. And Lord Kitchener himself was left to face the rushing, swirling torrent of events with no rock of clear, well-thought-out doctrine and calculation at his back.
In consequence he gave decisions now in this direction, now in that, which were markedly influenced by the daily impressions he sustained, which impressions were often of a fleeting nature. As a result his decisions were sometimes contradictory. He was torn between two perfectly clear-cut views of the war, both urged upon him with force and passion, with wealth of fact and argument. All the leading soldiers in the British Army, all the august authority of the French High Command, asserted that the sole path to victory lay in sending every single man and gun and shell to the French Front to ‘kill Germans’ and break their lines in the West. All the opinion of the War Council, which certainly contained men who had established themselves as the leading figures of the public life of their generation, was focused upon the Southern and Eastern theatre as the scene for the campaign of 1915. Kitchener himself was strongly drawn in this direction by his own Eastern interest and knowledge. He saw to the full the vision of what success in this quarter would mean, but he also felt what we did not feel in the same degree—the fearful alternative pressure to which he was continually subjected from the French front.
The problem was not insoluble. The task of reconciling these apparently opposed conceptions was not impossible. A well-conceived and elaborated plan and programme could have been devised in January for action in the Near East in March, April, May or even June, and for a subsequent great concentration and operation on the Western Front in the autumn of 1915, or better still under far more favourable conditions in the spring of 1916. The successive development of both policies in their proper sequence and each in its integrity was perfectly feasible if the great authorities concerned could have been won over. However, in the event Lord Kitchener succumbed to conflicting forces and competing policies.
Beside these trials and burdens, to which he was certainly not able to rise superior, stood the whole vast business of recruiting, organizing and equipping the New Armies; and behind this again there now marched steadily into view a series of problems connected with the manufacture and purchase of munitions upon a scale never dreamed of by any human being up till this period. These problems comprised the entire social and industrial life of the country and touched the whole economic and financial system of the world. Add to this the daily exposition of all military business in Cabinet and in Council—a process most trying and burdensome to Lord Kitchener, and one in which he felt himself at a disadvantage: add, further, the continuous series of decisions upon executive matters covering the vast field of the war, including important operations and expeditions which were campaigns in themselves, and it will be realized that the strain that descended upon the King’s greatest subject was far more than mortal man could bear.
It must, however, be stated that Lord Kitchener in no way sought to lighten these terrific burdens. On the contrary, he resented promptly any attempt to interfere in and even scrutinize his vast domains of responsibility. He resisted tenaciously the efforts which were made from January onwards to remove the production of munitions of all kinds from his control as Secretary of State. He devolved on to subordinates as little as he could. He sought to manage the Great War by the same sort of personal control that he had used with so much success in the command of the tiny Nile Expedition. He kept the General Staff, or what was left of it, in a condition of complete subservience and practical abeyance. He even reached out, as his Cabinet Office justified, into political spheres in questions of Ireland, of Temperance, and of Industrial Organization.
It is idle at this date to affect to disregard or conceal these facts. Indeed, the greatness of Lord Kitchener and his lasting claims upon the respect and gratitude of succeeding generations of his fellow-countrymen, for whose cause and safety he fought with single-hearted purpose and a giant’s strength, will only be fortified by the fullest comprehension of his character and of his difficulties. If this story and the facts and documents on which it rests constitute any reflection upon his military policy, I must also testify to the overwhelming weight of the burdens laid upon him, to his extraordinary patience and courage in all the difficulties and perplexities through which we were passing, and to his unvarying kindness and courtesy to me.
The War Council of January 28, besides deciding definitely and finally in favour of the naval attempt upon the Dardanelles, showed itself earnestly desirous of procuring some military force to influence the political situation in the Balkans. It was not thought at this time that any force which could be collected would be equal to the storming of the Gallipoli Peninsula, and this operation never received the slightest countenance at this juncture. All that was hoped for was to secure the subtraction from the forces in England, but destined for France, of one or two divisions, including the 29th Division (our remaining Regular Division), and the employment of this force as a lever to encourage M. Venizelos and the Greek King and Government to enter the war on our side in aid of Serbia. In the course of the discussion, Lord Kitchener suggested that I should be sent to the British General Headquarters in France by the Council to put the whole case before Sir John French, with whom my intimate and cordial relations were known.
I accepted the commission and started the next morning. On the 29th and 30th I discussed the whole situation with Sir John French and earnestly pressed him to facilitate the wishes of the Council in view of the immense possibilities open in the Balkans. The Commander-in-Chief’s view was that the naval attack on the Dardanelles, on the practicability and technical details of which he could not pronounce, was in principle a most valuable and useful operation; but that any attempt at heavy military operations in the new theatre, such as would be entailed in the forcible occupation of the Gallipoli Peninsula, would be an altogether unjustifiable strain upon our military resources, and might lead to disaster either in France or at Gallipoli through inadequate numbers and ammunition being available for both fronts. He was willing, however, to defer to the wishes of the Council by releasing in March, for political purposes in the Balkan States, two of the four new divisions which were to come to France. On my return I reported in this sense to Lord Kitchener:—
First Lord to Secretary of State for War.
January 31, 1915.
I had several conversations, as desired by the War Council and yourself, with Sir John French during the two days I was at his headquarters. He hopes very much that the arrangements he has made with Joffre will be allowed to go forward. These arrangements comprise Joffre relieving him on the frontage of one corps on the extreme right of the British line, and French relieving Joffre on the frontage of two corps from Wytschaete round the Ypres salient to Dixmude. This achieves the important object of giving the British General control of all troops, including the Belgian Army and some French detachments, from a point south of Armentières to the sea. If this arrangement were altered Joffre would be greatly disappointed. It would be useless for Sir John French to address him on the subject; and if it were decided not to send the four divisions as arranged, the matter would have to be settled between the Governments.
When this operation of relieving the two French corps has been completed, Sir John French will have five British corps, strengthened by twenty-four territorial battalions, in the line, and two corps and the cavalry in reserve. With this he would feel secure. He cannot recommend any weakening of this force; nor on strategic grounds does he favour a diversion in South-Eastern Europe. But if the Government wish him to hold two of these four divisions of reserve at their disposal from the middle of March onward, he would do so, and the divisions could be withdrawn if required, provided, of course, that no great emergency, either defensive or offensive, was occurring on his front. I pointed out at this stage that by March 15 we should be within measurable distance of the reinforcements provided by the new army, and that therefore the withdrawal of the two divisions would only make it necessary to bridge over a gap of from three to five weeks during which the reserve would be weakened before they would be replaced. He agreed that this could be accepted, subject to emergencies. I consider, therefore, as the upshot of my conversations, that we should be justified in counting on two divisions being available from the Expeditionary Army from March 15 on, in the absence of emergencies, though it would be most necessary to replace them as soon as possible.
I was very much impressed with the Field-Marshal’s great desire to meet the wishes of the Government, even when he could not share our views.
In view of this prospect, at the War Council of February 9 it was decided to offer the 29th Division (which was still in England) to Greece, together with a French division, if she would join the Allies. I thought that this offer, taken by itself and apart from any effects which might result from the naval attack on the Dardanelles, was wholly inadequate. I did not believe that Greece, and still less Bulgaria, would be influenced by the prospects of such very limited aid. Indeed, the exiguous dimensions of the assistance were in themselves a confession of our weakness. This view was justified, and the offer was promptly declined by M. Venizelos.
Meanwhile the preparations for the naval attack had been steadily moving forward. All the ships assigned to the task were already on the spot or approaching it. By an informal arrangement with M. Venizelos the island of Lemnos, containing the spacious harbour of Mudros, had been placed at our disposal as a base for the assembling fleet, and two battalions of Marines from the Royal Naval Division had already been despatched thither. The sole object of this small force was to provide landing parties for Admiral Carden’s fleet, in case during his operations the opportunity should offer of destroying guns or forts already disabled in parts of the Gallipoli Peninsula where the enemy’s resistance had virtually ceased. But once it began to be realized that troops in considerable numbers were becoming available, Sir Henry Jackson and Lord Fisher began to press for their employment in the Dardanelles operation. ‘The provision of the necessary military forces,’ wrote Sir Henry Jackson on February 15, ‘to enable the fruits of this heavy naval undertaking to be gathered must never be lost sight of; the transports carrying them should be in readiness to enter the Straits as soon as it is seen the forts at the Narrows will be silenced…. The naval bombardment is not recommended as a sound military operation, unless a strong military force is ready to assist in the operation, or, at least, follow it up immediately the forts are silenced.’ There was much mixed thinking in this. The difference between ‘assisting in the operation’ and ‘following it up immediately the forts are silenced’ was fundamental. Fisher on the other hand was perfectly clear. He wanted the Gallipoli Peninsula stormed and held by the Army. This idea neither Lord Kitchener nor the War Council would at this time have entertained.
‘I hope you were successful with Kitchener,’ wrote the First Sea Lord to me on the evening of February 16, ‘in getting divisions sent to Lemnos to-morrow! Not a grain of wheat will come from the Black Sea unless there is military occupation of the Dardanelles, and it will be the wonder of the ages that no troops were sent to co-operate with the Fleet with half a million soldiers in England.
‘The war of lost opportunities!!! Why did Antwerp fall?
‘The Haslar boats might go at once to Lemnos, as somebody will land at Gallipoli some time or other.’
I still adhered to the integrity of the naval plan. Knowing what I did of the military situation and of the state of our armies, I did not underrate the serious nature of a decision to commit British troops to severe and indefinite fighting with the Turks on the Gallipoli Peninsula. I had of course thought long and earnestly about what would follow if the naval attack succeeded and a British fleet entered the Marmora. I expected that if, and when, the Turkish forts began to fall, the Greeks would join us, and that the whole of their armies would be at our disposal thenceforward. I hoped that the apparition of a British fleet off Constantinople and the flight or destruction of the Goeben and the Breslau would be followed by political reactions of a far-reaching character, as the result of which the Turkish Government would negotiate or withdraw to Asia. I trusted that good diplomacy following hot-foot on a great war event, would induce Bulgaria to march on Adrianople. Lastly, I was sure that Russia, whatever her need elsewhere, would not remain indifferent to the fate of Constantinople and that further reinforcements would be forthcoming from her. It was on these quasi-political factors that I counted in our own military penury, for the means of exploiting and consolidating any success which might fall to the Fleet. The reader will see how far these speculations appear to have been well founded.
But of course, if after all Lord Kitchener and the War Council saw their way to form a substantial British army in the East, the prospects of a great and successful combination were vastly more hopeful. Such an army assembled in Egypt and the Greek islands might well be the motor muscle which would decide and animate all the rest. It could either seize the Isthmus of Bulair if the Turks evacuated the Peninsula after the Fleet had passed the Straits; or if a Convention was made with Turkey, it could occupy Constantinople promptly. Incidentally, if landing parties on a larger scale were needed during the passage of the Fleet, they could be supplied from this source. Thus a considerable unity was established on the immediate step of sending troops to the East between persons who on the further steps held very different views. Amid the conflicting opinions, competing plans and shifting exigencies of the situation, the desirability of concentrating the largest possible army in the Eastern Mediterranean with extreme promptitude, and placing at its head a supreme general, seemed to all of us at the Admiralty to be obvious. Therefore we at all times, in all discussions, supported everything that would expedite this concentration.
February 16 was a Day of Resolve. At a meeting of the principal Ministers on the War Council, including the Prime Minister, Lord Kitchener and myself, the following decisions, eventually incorporated in the Decisions of the War Council, were taken:—
(1) The 29th Division to be despatched to Lemnos at the earliest possible date, preferably within nine or ten days.
(2) Arrangements to be made to send a force from Egypt, if required.
(3) The whole of the above forces, with the Royal Marine battalions already despatched, to be available in case of necessity to support the naval attack on the Dardanelles.
(4) Horse-boats to be taken out with the 29th Division, and the Admiralty to make arrangements to collect small craft, tugs and lighters in the Levant.
The decision of February 16 is the foundation of the military attack upon the Dardanelles. ‘It had not,’ say the Dardanelles Commissioners, ‘been definitely decided to use troops on a large scale, but they were to be massed so as to be in readiness should their assistance be required.’ On this day Admiral Carden was informed that Mudros harbour could be used by him as a base, and Rear-Admiral Wemyss was appointed as senior naval officer there. In the evening of the 16th in pursuance of the decisions which had been taken, I directed Admiral Oliver, Chief of the War Staff, to have transports collected with the utmost speed for the 29th Division, and he issued orders to this effect on the same day. The resolve to concentrate an army undoubtedly carried with it acceptance of the possibility of using it in certain eventualities. But these were not as yet defined.
During the 17th it appeared that great pressure was being put upon Lord Kitchener from General Headquarters not to divert the 29th Division from France. In fact, as has been justly observed by the Official Naval Historian, the use of the 29th Division became a cardinal issue between what were beginning to be called in our secret circles ‘The Western’ and ‘The Eastern’ policies. Lord Kitchener became the prey of these contending opinions and forces, and he was plunged into a state of most painful indecision between them.
So far, not a shot had been fired at the Dardanelles, but we were on the eve of the attack on the outer forts. When we met in Council again on the 19th, it became clear that Lord Kitchener had changed his mind. He informed us that he could not consent to the despatch of the 29th Division to the East. He gave as his reason the dangerous weakness of Russia and his fear lest large masses of German troops should be brought back from the Russian Front to attack our troops in France. I cannot believe that this argument had really weighed with him. He must have known that, apart from all other improbabilities, it was physically impossible for the Germans to transport great armies from Russia to the French front under two or three months at the very least, and that the 29th Division—one single division—could not affect the issue appreciably if they did so. He used the argument to fortify a decision which he had arrived at after a most painful heart-searching on other and general grounds.
The Council bowed to Lord Kitchener’s will, though its wishes and opinions were unaltered. It was decided to postpone the departure of the 29th Division, but the Admiralty was instructed nevertheless to continue the preparation of transports for it and other troops. On the 20th I minuted to the Director of Transports: ‘All preparations are to be made to embark the 29th Division with the least possible delay. The despatch of this division is not, however, finally decided.’
The 20th was a day of Recoil. Lord Kitchener had refused to send the 29th Division. He even seemed opposed to any large concentration of troops in the East. ‘The French,’ he wrote to me (February 20), ‘are in a great way about so many troops being employed as you told them of. I have just seen Grey and hope we shall not be saddled with a French contingent for the Dardanelles.’ He deprecated my gathering transports at Alexandria for 40,000 men as a precautionary measure, to which he had previously assented. He went further. He sent his Aide-de-Camp, the brave and accomplished Colonel Fitzgerald, over to the First Sea Lord and the Admiralty Transport Department to say that the 29th Division was not to go. The First Sea Lord and the Director of Naval Transport thereupon assumed that the question had been finally settled by agreement between Lord Kitchener and me. The orders for the collection and fitting of the transports for this Division, which had been operative since the 16th, were accordingly cancelled, and the whole fleet of twenty-two vessels was released for other duties and dispersed without my being informed.
The discussion was resumed on February 24 and 26, but we now met under the impression of the actual attack on the Dardanelles. The bombardment of the Outer Forts had begun on February 19, and although the operations had been interrupted by bad weather a favourable impression had been sustained. Moreover, open action had now been taken. If the 16th had been a day of Resolve, and the 20th a day of Recoil, the 24th and 26th were days of Compromise and Half-measures. On the 24th Lord Kitchener said that he ‘felt that if the Fleet could not get through the Straits unaided the Army ought to see the business through. The effect of a defeat in the Orient would be very serious. There could be no going back.’ Thus, at a stroke, the idea of discarding the naval attack, if it proved too difficult, and turning to some other objective, was abandoned and the possibility of a great military enterprise seemed to be accepted. On this I again argued strenuously, both on the 24th and on the 26th, for the despatch of the 29th Division, and I used to the full the hopes and interest which the naval attack was increasingly exciting.
Lord Kitchener notwithstanding his pronouncement adhered to his refusal. He had sent General Birdwood, an officer whom he knew well, and in whom he rightly had confidence, from Egypt (where he was commanding the Australasian Army Corps) to the Dardanelles to report on the prospects and possibilities of military action. On February 24 the War Office requested the Admiralty to send the following telegram, which was drafted by Sir Henry Jackson, to Admiral Carden:—
‘…The War Office consider the occupation of the Southern end of the peninsula to the line Suander-Chana Ovasi as not an obligatory operation for ensuring success of the first main object which is to destroy the permanent batteries. Though troops should always be held in readiness to assist in minor operations on both sides of the Straits in order to destroy masked batteries and engage the enemy forces covering them, our main army can remain in camp at Lemnos till the passage of the Straits is in our hands, when holding Bulair lines may be necessary to stop all supplies reaching the peninsula. You should discuss this operation with General Birdwood on his arrival before deciding any major operations beyond covering range of ships’ guns and report conclusions arrived at.’ Yet two days later, on February 26, Lord Kitchener authorized General Birdwood to draw upon the Australasian Army Corps ‘up to the total limit of its strength’ for the purpose of aiding the Fleet.
All these half-measures, which nevertheless were assuming serious proportions and marked a change in the whole character of the operation, appeared so perilous to me that at the Council on the 26th I formally disclaimed responsibility for the consequences of any military operations that might arise. My disclaimer was entered in the records. Then the Prime Minister, making a marked intervention, appealed most strongly to Lord Kitchener not to allow the force available in the East to be deprived of the one Regular Division so necessary to its effective composition. It was useless. After the Council I waited behind. I knew the Prime Minister agreed with me, and indeed the whole Council, with the exception of Lord Kitchener, were of one mind. I urged the Prime Minister to make his authority effective and to insist upon the despatch of the 29th Division to Lemnos or Alexandria. I felt at that moment in an intense way a foreboding of disaster. I knew it was a turning-point in the struggle, as surely as I know now that the consequences are graven on the monuments of history. The Prime Minister did not feel that anything more could be done. He had done his best to persuade Lord Kitchener. He could not overrule him or face his resignation upon a question like this, for the whole military opinion of the General Staff and of the French authorities would be upon his side.
On February 25 I had prepared an appreciation of the general situation and I had used this to argue from in the War Council of the 26th. It was now printed and circulated to the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and Mr. Balfour. I reprint it here as it explains my position more clearly than any other document of this period.
1. Russia.—We must not expect Russia to invade Germany successfully for many months to come. But though the Russian offensive is paralysed, we may count on her not only maintaining a successful defensive, but effectively containing and retaining very large German forces on her front. There is no reason to believe that Germany will be able to transfer to the West anything like 1,000,000 men at any time; nor anyhow that German forces large enough to influence the situation can arrive in the West before the middle of April.
2. The Anglo-French lines in the West are very strong, and cannot be turned. Our position and forces in France are incomparably stronger than at the beginning of the war, when we had opposed to us nearly three-fourths of the first line of the German Army. We ought to welcome a German assault on the largest possible scale. The chances of repulsing it would be strong in our favour; and even if its success necessitated retirement to another line, the superior losses of the Germans would afford good compensation. The issue in the West in the next three months ought not to cause anxiety. But, anyhow, it is not an issue which could be decisively affected by four or five British divisions.
3. For us the decisive point, and the only point where the initiative can be seized and maintained, is in the Balkan Peninsula. With proper military and naval co-operation, and with forces which are available, we can make certain of taking Constantinople by the end of March, and capturing or destroying all Turkish forces in Europe (except those in Adrianople). This blow can be struck before the fate of Serbia is decided. Its effect on the whole of the Balkans will be decisive. It will eliminate Turkey as a military factor.
4. The following military forces (at least) are available immediately:—
5. All these troops are capable of being concentrated within striking distance of the Bulair Isthmus by March 21 if orders are given now. If the naval operations have not succeeded by then, they can be used to attack the Gallipoli Peninsula and make sure that the fleet gets through. As soon as the Dardanelles are open, they can either (a) operate from Constantinople to extirpate any Turkish forces in Europe: or (b) if Bulgaria comes in at our invitation to occupy up to the Enos-Midia line, they can proceed through Bulgaria to the aid of Serbia; or (c) if Bulgaria is merely confirmed as a friendly neutrality, but Greece comes in, they can proceed through Salonika to the aid of Serbia.
W. S. C.
February 25, 1915.
And on the 27th:—
‘I must now put on record my opinion that the military force provided, viz., two Australasian divisions supported by the nine naval battalions and the French division, is not large enough for the work it may have to do; and that the absence of any British regular troops will, if fighting occurs, expose the naval battalions and the Australians to undue risk.
‘Even if the Navy succeed unaided in forcing the passage, the weakness of the military force may compel us to forgo a large part of the advantages which would otherwise follow.’
I still hoped after the meeting of the 26th that in a day or two Lord Kitchener’s mood would change, that the Prime Minister would manage to bring him round to the general view, and that the 29th Division would be allowed to start. The War Council, while deferring to his decision, had decided that the transports were still to be held together in readiness for it. After the meeting of the 26th was over I inquired from the Transport Department as to what exact state of preparation the transports were in, expecting to find that they were ready. I then learned that on the 20th they had been countermanded and were now utterly dispersed. I was staggered at this, and wrote at once to Lord Kitchener in protest.
Mr. Churchill to Lord Kitchener.
February 27, 1915.
The War Council on the 19th instructed me to prepare transport inter alia for the 29th Division, and I gave directions accordingly. I now learn that on the 20th you sent Colonel Fitzgerald to the Director of Transport with a message that the 29th Division was not to go, and acting on this the transports were countermanded without my being informed. It is easy to see that grave inconvenience might have resulted from this if it had been decided at Friday’s Council to send this division at once.
I have now renewed the order for the preparation of the transports, but I apprehend that they cannot be ready for nearly a fortnight. It now seems very likely that the passage of the Dardanelles will be completed before the end of March, and perhaps a good deal earlier.
May I ask also to be informed of any instructions given to the French Division. I understand that the War Office do not wish them to come to Lemnos. The absence of any British regulars seems to make the presence of the French specially necessary, and I trust they may not be prevented from coming until at any rate the matter can be discussed in Cabinet.
I immediately renewed the orders to the Transport Department, but it was not found possible to reassemble and fit the necessary vessels before March 16.
The actual opening of the bombardment and the success of the Navy at the outer forts, which will be described in the next chapter, induced a further change of view. ‘Another meeting of the War Council,’ to quote the report of the Dardanelles Commission, ‘was held on March 3. By this time Lord Kitchener’s opposition to the despatch of the 29th Division had apparently weakened. On the question being raised by Mr. Churchill he said that he proposed to leave the question open until March 10, when he hoped to have heard from General Birdwood.’ General Birdwood, however, arrived at the Dardanelles before the 10th. On the 5th he telegraphed to Lord Kitchener: ‘I am very doubtful if the Navy can force the passage unassisted.’…
This was followed on the 6th by a telegram to the following effect: ‘I have already informed you that I consider the Admiral’s forecast is too sanguine, and though we may have a better estimate by March 12, I doubt his ability to force the passage unaided.’ On March 10, Lord Kitchener, being then somewhat reassured as regards the position in other theatres of war, and being also possibly impressed by General Birdwood’s reports, announced to the War Council that ‘he felt that the situation was now sufficiently secure to justify the despatch of the 29th Division.’
‘…The decision of February 16, the execution of which had been suspended on the 20th, again became operative on March 10. In the meanwhile, three weeks of valuable time had been lost. The transports, which might have left on February 22, did not get away till March 16.’ We shall soon be forced to face the consequences of this delay. The repeated changes of plan were baffling in the last degree. But even after decision was at last taken to send an army including the 29th Division, the use to which that army was to be put remained a Secret of the Sphinx. When Lord Kitchener had decided in his heart that if the Navy failed to force the Dardanelles, he would storm the Gallipoli Peninsula, he ought to have declared it to his colleagues. Failing this he should at any rate have so moved and organized his troops as to leave the different alternatives of action open to him. Most of all should he have set his General Staff to work out plans for the various contingencies which were now plainly coming into view. It would have committed him to nothing to have had the military problem studied scientifically, or to choose a commander in good time.
‘From the time the decision of February 16 was taken,’ say the Dardanelles Commissioners, ‘there were really only two alternatives which were thoroughly defensible. One was to accept the view that by reason of our existing commitments elsewhere an adequate force could not be made available for expeditionary action in the Eastern Mediterranean; to face the possible loss of prestige which would have been involved in an acknowledgment of partial failure, and to have fallen back on the original plan of abandoning the naval attack on the Dardanelles, when once it became apparent that military operations on a large scale would be necessary. The other was to have boldly faced the risks which would have been involved elsewhere and at once to have made a determined effort to force the passage of the Dardanelles by a rapid and well-organized combined attack in great strength. Unfortunately, the Government adopted neither of these courses…. We think that Mr. Churchill was quite justified in attaching the utmost importance to the delays which occurred in despatching the 29th Division and the Territorial Division from this country.’