Strategy of Hindenburg and Ludendorff—The Austrian Plan—Gorlice-Tarnow—The Great Russian Retreat—On the Gallipoli Peninsula—Action of June 4—Action of June 28—Failure in the Supply of British Drafts—Scarcity of Artillery Ammunition—Admiral von Usedom’s Correspondence with the German Emperor—Successful Measures against the U-boat Attack—British Submarines in the Marmora—Exploits and Adventures—Nasmith and Boyle—Losses and Achievements—The Turkish Sea Communications Cut—My July Memorandum—Appreciations and Forecasts—Increasing Danger to the Balkans—The German Point of View—The True German Objective—My Letter to Sir Ian Hamilton—The Actual Facts—Egyptian Obscurities—Ammunition Supply—The Eve of Battle.
May and June saw the beginning of the great Russian retreat. Up till the end of March the strategy of Hindenburg and Ludendorff had aimed at the encirclement and capture of entire Russian armies. They had made their first cast towards Warsaw in November, 1914, but the German and Austrian forces were not strong enough to sustain so ambitious a conception, and the attempt was skilfully frustrated by the Grand Duke. They tried a second cast in January—this time Northward against the Russian armies in East Prussia. But although nearly 100,000 prisoners were captured in the fearful winter battle of the Masurian Lakes, the bulk of the Russian armies slipped away as the Germans closed round them, and no strategic result was attained. ‘The plan was good and this time the forces employed were adequate, but the season was badly chosen and the difficulties of a winter campaign under estimated.’ By the beginning of March, 1915, the entire Eastern front had again subsided into trench warfare, and on March 22 Przemysl fell to the Russian Southern group of armies, setting free large Russian forces for the invasion of Hungary. The second Hindenburg-Ludendorff attempt to procure a supreme decision in the East had failed. But now a suggestion came from the Austrian Chief-of-the-Staff, Conrad von Hötzendorf, to force the Russians out of the trenches by a break through on a limited front. Hindenburg and Ludendorff, still intent upon repeating Tannenberg, opposed the Austrian plan, and wished in spite of their previous disappointments to achieve strategic results by undertaking another enveloping operation from the North on an even larger scale. For this the German Main Headquarters could find neither the men nor the munitions which were needed, and on April 4 Falkenhayn, who had succeeded Moltke as Chief of the German General Staff, decided to adopt the Austrian conception and to attempt a break through between Gorlice and Tarnow as Conrad von Hötzendorf had proposed. Tarnow lies in Galicia, near Cracow, at the junction of the Biala and the Dunajecs Rivers, and Gorlice, just north of the Carpathians, is about twenty-five miles south-east of Tarnow. The sector of attack lay on the south side of the Russian salient in Galicia, so that a considerable portion of the Russian front lay to the west of the German line of advance, under the menace of being cut off should it succeed. The blow was an upper-cut.
The German-Austrian attack began on May 2. It had been entrusted to Mackensen. Aided by poison gas and a tremendous artillery, the attack was immediately successful, both the first and second Russian positions being captured. The strategic instinct of Conrad von Hötzendorf was also to be vindicated, for the Grand Duke Nicholas, rather than allow the troops on either side of the gap to be taken in flank, withdrew the whole line in this part of the front. This process of attack on a limited front was repeated continuously by the Germans during the months that followed, and each time it induced large withdrawals of the Russian line, culminating in the clearance of the whole of Galicia and Poland, and the fall one after another of all the fortresses and towns on which the Russian armies had rested.
As this sombre development was recorded day after day during June and July on our maps, Lord Kitchener became increasingly anxious. He feared that Russia would collapse entirely, and that the Germans would then transfer immense forces from the Eastern to the Western front. He persuaded himself, on more than one occasion, that this transference was already in progress and that a hostile offensive in France was imminent. For reasons which have been abundantly explained I could not share these apprehensions, and I endeavoured to combat them on every occasion. I believed that the Russians would succeed in retaining very large Austro-German armies on their front for an indefinite period. I did not believe that the Germans had any intention of abandoning their drive against Russia or of going back and re-opening an offensive in the West. Lastly, I pointed continuously to victory at the Dardanelles as the sole and supreme remedy open to us for the evils of our situation.
While Ministerial changes and Cabinet discussions had been taking place at home, the situation at the Dardanelles and on the Gallipoli Peninsula had passed through several critical phases. On May 19 the Turks, having received news of the arrival of German submarines, made a most determined and serious effort to drive the Anzacs into the sea. The attack, in which four divisions comprising 30,000 Turkish infantry took part, was maintained for many hours both in darkness and in daylight. It was completely and decisively repulsed at every point. When it ceased the Turks had lost at least 5,000 men, and 3,000 of their dead lay in front of the Anzac trenches. The British loss, on the other hand, did not exceed 600. On the morrow the Turkish Commander asked for an armistice to bury the dead and collect the wounded, and this was conceded by Sir Ian Hamilton.
‘After May 19,’ said the Turkish War Office when the war was over, ‘it was realized that the British defence at Anzac was too strong to enable us to effect anything against it without heavy artillery with plenty of ammunition, and since our own position was also very strong in defence, two weak divisions were left in the trenches and the other two were withdrawn.’
The position at Anzac was henceforward unchallenged.
On June 4 a general attack was delivered by the British and French along the whole front at Helles. In this action the 29th Division, the 42nd Division, the 2nd Naval Brigade and both French Divisions took part. The Allied forces numbered about 34,000 infantry and the Turks 25,000. Despite a woeful deficiency in artillery and ammunition, the British troops stormed the trenches of the Turkish centre. The French gained ground on the right; but were afterwards driven back by counter-attacks. This exposed the flank of the Naval and 42nd Divisions who were in succession compelled to yield up the greater part of their gains. In the end the general line of the Allies was advanced by no more than two or three hundred yards. The battle was costly for both sides. The Turkish losses amounted to 10,000, and those of the British alone to an equal number. As in all the battles on the Peninsula, the issue hung in a trembling balance. The Turks were thrown into such confusion that on only two kilometres of their front no less than twenty-five battalions (or parts of battalions) were mingled in the line without any higher organization. In these straits the Turkish Divisional Commander reported that no further British attack could be resisted. In a heated conference the Turkish Chief-of-the-Staff advised the withdrawal of the whole front to Achi Baba. It was only with the greatest difficulty and by the enemy’s good luck that the intermingled troops were relieved by a fresh Turkish division on the night of June 7.
On June 21 another important action was fought by the French Corps, which attacked with great spirit on the right of the Helles Front, captured the Haricot Redoubt and made a substantial advance. A portion of these gains were wrested from them the next day by a Turkish counter-attack.
A week later, June 28, the British being reinforced by the 52nd Division, made a general attack on the left of the Helles Front. Five lines of trenches were captured, and an advance of about 1,000 yards was secured. The Turkish force engaged comprised 38,000 infantry with 16 field and 7 heavy batteries. The fire of the ships was, on this occasion, found to be most effective, and the success of the attack again led to critical discussions at the Turkish Headquarters. The German General, Weber, now commanding the Southern zone, wished to withdraw the whole front to the Kilid Bahr Plateau. Liman von Sanders, however, over-ruled him and demanded instead a speedy counter-attack. For this purpose, two fresh Turkish divisions were brought into the line, and a fierce surprise assault was delivered before dawn on July 5. The Turks were repulsed with a loss of 6,000 men.
‘The affair of the 28th,’ said General Callwell in his cool and instructed account of the Campaign, ‘following closely Gouraud’s stroke on the opposite flank seemed to suggest that if there had been a plentiful reserve to throw into the scale at this juncture on the Helles front, this might have proved the psychological moment for initiating a determined effort to secure Krithia, the high ground beyond that coveted village, and even possibly Achi Baba itself; no such reserves were, however, available.’ The paralysis of the British Executive during the formation of the Coalition Government and the education of its new ministers had effectually withheld this boon.
A third attack along the whole front was delivered with such ammunition and troops as could be found on July 12–13. The general line was advanced from 200 to 400 yards, but no important results were obtained. It had been evident from the beginning of July that considerable reinforcements were reaching the Turks. On the other hand, the British Army was woefully reduced by wastage and casualties. Already by the middle of May, after the first battles, the infantry of Sir Ian Hamilton’s five divisions were 23,000 men, or 40 per cent. below their war establishment. These deficiencies were never overtaken by the drafts supplied by the War Office. The 52nd Division and various minor reinforcements dribbled in during June, but did little more than keep pace with the wastage. While the new divisions were on the sea, the old divisions were dwindling. During the whole of May, June and July, the total of the British Forces on the Peninsula and at Anzac never exceeded 60,000 men.
Even more discouraging than depleted battalions was the scarcity of ammunition. ‘During the months of June and July,’ said Gen. Simpson-Baikie—who commanded the British Artillery—‘the total number of rounds of 18-pdr. ammunition at Cape Helles never reached 25,000. Before one of our attacks it used to reach its maximum which was about 19,000 to 23,000. The total amount of 18 pdr. therefore was limited to about 12,000 rounds, as it was necessary to keep 6,000 to 10,000 rounds in reserve to guard against Turkish counter-attacks. As there was no high explosive shell for the 18-pdr. (except 640 rounds expended on June 4) only shrapnel could be used, and it is well known that shrapnel is but little use for destroying hostile trenches.’ On July 13 only 5,000 rounds for the field artillery remained at Helles, and all active operations had, perforce, to be suspended.
The weight of field-gun ammunition available to prepare and support the British assaults in any of these battles on the Peninsula never exceeded 150 tons. For the purpose of judging the scale of the artillery preparation, this may be compared with over 1,300 tons fired in the first two days of the battle of Loos at the end of September in the same year; and with upwards of 25,000 tons often fired in two days during the August offensive of 1918. The rifle and machine-gun fire of the defence on each occasion remained a constant factor. Hard tasks were therefore set to the troops in Gallipoli, and the fact that the issue hung continually in the balance is the measure of their bravery and devotion.
The fact that during all this period the British Fleet neither attacked nor threatened the forts at the Narrows nor attempted to sweep the minefields enabled the German and Turkish Commanders to draw upon the medium and mobile artillery which defended the Straits for the purpose of succouring the Fifth Turkish Army in its desperate struggle. The first transferences began on April 27. On May 23 Admiral von Usedom, who on April 26 had assumed command of the Fortress of the Dardanelles and of all the Marine Defences of the Straits, reported to the Emperor that he had up to that date, under protest, already yielded to the Army the following artillery:—
Six 8·2-inch mortars, eight 6-inch field howitzers, two 4·7-inch quick-firing field howitzers, nine 4·7-inch field howitzers, twelve 4·7-inch siege guns, and twelve field guns. In all forty-nine pieces.
These transferences took place gradually during the month.
During June and July the Fifth Turkish Army in its distress made ever-increasing inroads upon the artillery defence of the Straits. Writing to the Emperor on July 20, Admiral von Usedom again revealed his anxiety at the denudation of the marine artillery.
‘The struggle of the Fifth Army against the forces landed by the enemy entails great sacrifices and has so far resulted in no advantage to the defence. In my judgment there is no prospect of driving the enemy into the sea. In fact I believe it is only possible merely to hold him to the ground which he has already won if large supplies of ammunition and reinforcements of men are provided. As I mentioned in my telegram, the Minister of War has decided against my advice that the Army should be handed over all the fortress guns and munitions which it demands. A systematic preparation of second-line defences in case the Army should not be able to hold its ground was set aside as out of the question. What the fortress has already provided in munitions and guns the attached list shows. I forward also with all respect a copy of my appreciation of the situation addressed to the Minister of War, and of the orders issued by me.
‘Your Imperial and Royal Majesty will see from this that it was my endeavour to maintain the system of fortifications of the Straits at such a strength that it would again be self-sufficing in case of any weakening of resistance on land. Since the verdict has gone against my view I have ceded batteries to the Army, thus weakening the naval defences. The aircraft have also been removed from the sea defences. But in this case there is a partial substitute in the recently arrived German naval hydroplanes.’
‘How long the Fifth Army can hold the enemy is more than I can prophesy. If no ammunition comes through from Germany, it can only be a question of a short time. This is shown by the numerous proposals for support and relief, together with the study of their establishments and their casualties. The fortress system itself has suffered from the transfers which I have reported, and for it also the speedy arrival of German ammunition is a matter of life and death. The opinion of Turkish General Headquarters appears to me to incline to a hazardous optimism. It is certainly not clearly realized there what is involved for the supreme command of the Central Powers here in the Dardanelles if the means of war at present available are found to be insufficient. Everything must be done by Turkey, even at risk of sacrifice to herself, to get German ammunition through the Balkan countries and by that means stabilize the battle.’
These efforts met with no success and on August 16 Admiral von Usedom reported to the Emperor that ‘the attempts of bringing ammunition ordered in Germany through Roumania have all failed.’ He was therefore forced to endure his precarious situation month after month. It must, however, be observed that whereas the Turkish shortage of ammunition arose from causes beyond their control, the British shortage sprang solely from lack of decision in the distribution of the available quantities between the various theatres of war.
The measures taken to cope with the German submarine attack upon our communications followed in the main the lines which have been indicated and proved, broadly speaking, completely successful. The Fleet was kept in the shelter of Mudros harbour; battleships were only exposed when required for some definite operation, and the ordinary support of the Army by fire from the sea was afforded during June by destroyers and light vessels.
This was found to be sufficient. The observation and direction of the ships’ fire attained every week a higher efficiency. This process continued steadily until naval co-operation in land fighting on Gallipoli had become a factor of the utmost value. In July the monitors and ‘bulged’ cruisers began to arrive. Thenceforward the fire of the Turkish guns from Asia was controlled and largely quelled. The four large monitors armed with 14-inch guns, four medium monitors armed with 9·2 or 6-inch guns, and four ‘bulged’ cruisers (Theseus, Endymion, Grafton and Edgar) were all on the scene by the end of that month. Had action been taken when it was first proposed to Lord Fisher, the arrival of these vessels would have been antedated by more than three weeks. But the interval was passed without serious disadvantage to the Army: and when the whole Monitor Fleet had arrived, the Naval support of the troops was not only fully restored, but much enhanced.
Meanwhile the supply of the Army was maintained by the use of large numbers of small shallow-draft vessels and proceeded uninterruptedly, so that by the middle of July reserves of twenty-four days’ rations had been accumulated for all troops ashore at Helles and Anzac. The reinforcements sent from home were conveyed to their destination, although several transports were torpedoed, and in one case a thousand lives were lost. It is remarkable that neither monitors, ‘bulged’ cruisers, nor shallow-draught vessels were ever seriously attacked or threatened by submarines. Lastly, the great netted areas proved an effective deterrent against submarine attack. Although warships of every kind were continually moving about within them, they were in no case molested during the whole of the campaign. Thus, what had seemed to be a danger potentially mortal was entirely warded off by suitable measures perseveringly applied on a sufficient scale.
While the submarine attack upon the British sea communications was being frustrated, a far more effective pressure was being brought to bear upon the enemy. In December, 1914, Lieutenant-Commander Norman Holbrook had gained the Victoria Cross by diving his submarine B 11 under the minefields of the Dardanelles and sinking the Turkish cruiser Messudieh. On April 17 this desperate enterprise had been again attempted by submarine E 15 in conjunction with Sir Ian Hamilton’s impending landing. The effort failed. The vessel ran aground in the Straits near Dardanos; her Captain, Lieutenant Commander T. S. Brodie, was killed; most of her crew were captured and her carcass, after being fiercely contended for, was finally shattered by a torpedo from a British picket boat. On April 25, while the landing was in progress the Australian submarine AE 2, undeterred by the fate of her forerunner, most gallantly and skilfully dived through and under the minefields and succeeded in entering the Sea of Marmora. Here from the 25th to the 30th she attacked the Turkish shipping and sank a large gunboat. On April 30, however, being damaged and unable to dive properly, she was herself sunk, after a two hours’ fight, by a Turkish torpedo boat, but the way had been re-opened. The passage, whatever its perils, was shown to be still not impossible. The losses of these two boats, which so greatly disturbed Lord Fisher, did not prevent a sublime perseverance. On April 27, E 14 under Lieutenant Commander C. Boyle dived at 95 feet through the minefield, passed Kilid Bahr at 22 feet under the fire of all the forts and torpedoed a Turkish gunboat near Gallipoli. From this time forward, till the end, one or more British submarines continuously operated in the Sea of Marmora, and their attacks upon the Turkish water communications, almost by themselves, achieved the ruin of the enemy.
E 14 remained in the Sea of Marmora from April 27 to May 18, continually hunted by torpedo boats and other patrol craft, and fired on so constantly that she could scarcely find breathing space to re-charge her batteries and keep herself alive. Nevertheless she wrought decisive havoc on the Turkish transports. On the 29th she attacked two and sank one. On May 1 she sank a gunboat. On May 5 she attacked another transport and drove others back to Constantinople. On the 10th she attacked two transports convoyed by two Turkish destroyers, and fired at both. The second transport was a very large vessel, full of troops; a terrific explosion followed the impact of the torpedo, and the transport sank rapidly. An entire infantry brigade and several batteries of artillery, in all upwards of 6,000 Turkish soldiers, were drowned. This awful event practically arrested the movement of Turkish troops by sea. E 14 had now no torpedoes, and on May 17 she received wireless orders to return. On the 18th she again ran the gauntlet of the Forts at 22 feet, and dived, as she thought, under the minefields. She must, however, have passed right through the lines of mines in extreme danger.
Commander Nasmith in E 11 entered the Marmora on the following day. His vessel was newly equipped with a 6-pounder gun, and cruised for some days lashed alongside a sailing vessel, sinking a gunboat and several ships. On May 25 Commander Nasmith dived E 11 literally into Constantinople, and hit with a torpedo a large vessel alongside the arsenal. E 11 grounded several times and escaped with great difficulty from the enemy’s harbour. She now established a reign of terror in the Marmora, attacking unsuccessfully the battleship Barbarossa, fighting with destroyers, sinking store-ships and steamers, with continued hair-breadth escapes from destruction. On June 7 she returned through the minefield, actually fouling a mine which she carried on her port hydroplane for a considerable distance while under heavy fire from the Forts. She had been in the Marmora for nineteen days, and had sunk 1 gunboat, 3 transports, 1 ammunition ship and 3 storeships.
On June 10 Commander Boyle made his second entry into the Marmora where he remained for twenty-three days, sinking 1 large steamer and 13 sailing vessels. E 12 (Lieutenant Commander Bruce) and E 7 (Lieutenant Commander Cochrane) passed the Straits on the 20th and 30th June respectively, destroyed between them 7 steamers and 19 sailing vessels, and fired repeatedly on the roads and railways along the coast.
A new peril was now to be added to the passage. In the middle of July the Turks completed the Nagara anti-submarine net. This net was made in 10-foot meshes of 3-inch, strengthened with 5-inch wire, and except for a small gateway completely closed the passage to a depth of over 220 feet. This barrier was guarded by five motor-gunboats armed with depth charges, and by numerous guns specially placed.
On July 21 Commander Boyle, for the third time, made the passage of the Straits in E 14. A mine scraped past her near the Narrows without exploding, and by good luck she passed through the gate of the net at Nagara. On July 22 she met E 7 in the Marmora, and both vessels together continued their depredations upon shipping. All hospital ships were spared, although their increase in numbers showed that they were being used for military transport. Commander Boyle’s final return on August 12, i.e., his sixth passage of the minefield, was thus described by him:—
‘I missed the gate and hit the net. It is possible the net now extends nearly the whole way across. I was brought up from 80 feet to 45 feet in three seconds, but luckily only thrown 15 degrees off my course. There was a tremendous noise, scraping, banging, tearing and rumbling, and it sounded as if there were two distinct obstructions, as the noise nearly ceased and then came on again, and we were appreciably checked twice. It took about 20 seconds to get through. I was fired at on rounding Kilid Bahr, and a torpedo was fired at me from Chanak, breaking surface a few yards astern of me. A mile south-west of Chanak I scraped passed a mine, but it did not check me—after I got out I found some twin electric wire round my propellers… and various parts of the boat were scraped and scored by wire.’
On August 5, E 11 (Commander Nasmith) had made her second passage of the Straits. A mine bumped heavily along her side off Kephez point at a depth of 70 feet. To break the net at Nagara she dived to 110 feet and then charged. The net caught her bow and she was drawn violently upwards. Under the strain the wires of the net snapped with a crack, and the submarine was freed. An hour later she torpedoed a transport; all day she was harassed by patrol craft, at dawn the next morning she was attacked by the bombs of an aeroplane. Later in the day she torpedoed a gunboat. On the 7th she was in action with troops on the roads along the coast. On the 8th she torpedoed and sank the battleship Barbarossa, which, escorted by two destroyers was hurrying to the Peninsula during the Battle of Suvla Bay. These adventures and exploits continued without cessation during twenty-nine days, at the end of which E 11 returned safely, having sunk or destroyed 1 battleship, 1 gunboat, 6 transports, 1 steamer and 23 sailing vessels.
The perilous duty was taken up successively by E 2, E 7, E 12, H 1 (Lieutenant Pirie) and E 20 (Lieutenant-Commander Clyfford Warren), as well as by the French submarine Turquoise. In all, the passage of Nagara was made twenty-seven times. Every one of these voyages is an epic in itself. Out of thirteen British and French submarines which made or attempted the passage into the Marmora, eight perished—four with all or nearly all hands. Besides E 15 and AE 11, whose fates have been described, Cochrane’s E 7 was caught in the Nagara net on September 4. Bombed with depth charges for 16 hours, and having tried to fall through the bottom of the net by sinking to the excessive depth of 40 fathoms, Cochrane at last rose to the surface and finding himself inextricably enmeshed, ordered his crew to jump overboard, and sank his vessel with his own hands. His subsequent escapes from the Turks and adventures in captivity, are an amazing tale of courage and pertinacity. Of the French submarines three were destroyed or captured at the entrance or in the net: Saphir in January; Joule in May; and Mariotte on July 26. The Turquoise was the only French submarine which achieved the passage, and she was disabled and captured after a brief career in the Marmora on October 30. In the Captain’s cabin of the Turquoise the enemy found his notebook, which he had forgotten to destroy. This notebook contained the rendezvous at which the Turquoise was to meet the British submarine E 20 on November 6. The German submarine U 14 was repairing at Constantinople. She kept the rendezvous, and E 20, expecting a friend, was blown to pieces by the torpedo of a foe.
In all, the British submarines destroyed in the Marmora 1 battleship, 1 destroyer, 5 gunboats, 11 transports, 44 steamers and 148 sailing vessels. The effect of the virtual stoppage of the Turkish sea communication was most serious to the enemy; and towards the end of June the Turkish army was reduced to the narrowest margin of food and ammunition. It was only by great exertions and in the nick of time that the land route was organized sufficiently to bear the strain. Henceforward the whole supply of the Peninsula was dependent upon 100 miles of bullock transport over a single road, itself vulnerable from the sea.
The Naval History of Britain contains no page more wonderful than that which records the prowess of her submarines at the Dardanelles. Their exploits constitute in daring, in skill, in endurance, in risk, the finest examples of submarine action in the whole of the Great War, and were, moreover, marked by a strict observance of the recognized rules of warfare. When one thinks of these officers and men, penned together amid the intricate machinery which crammed their steel, cigar-shaped vessels; groping, butting, charging far below the surface at unmeasured, unknown obstructions; surrounded by explosive engines, any one of which might destroy them at a touch; the target of guns and torpedoes if they rose for an instant to the light of day; harried by depth charges, hunted by gunboats and destroyers, stalked by the German U-boat; expecting every moment to be shattered, stifled, or hopelessly starved at the bottom of the sea; and yet in spite of all, enduring cheerfully such ordeals for weeks at a time; returning unflinchingly again and again through the Jaws of Death—it is bitter indeed to remember that their prowess and devotion were uncrowned by victory.
In the middle of July I prepared and printed the following general appreciation, and ventured upon a forecast of the action of Germany and Bulgaria which, alas, proved only too true. After paragraphs reciting events with which the reader is already familiar, this memorandum proceeded:
‘Until the decision of June 8 had been satisfactorily taken and ratified by the Cabinet on June 9, I did not dare to raise the question of further reinforcements, though they were obviously necessary, but on June 12 I wrote to the Secretary of State urging that the two first-line Territorial Divisions which still remained in England should be sent to the Eastern Mediterranean. After repeated discussions at the Cabinet and at the War Councils, this was eventually settled on July 6, and Sir Ian Hamilton was definitely informed. It is now perfectly obvious that both these Divisions will be required, but the Cabinet, in assenting to the despatch of the second of the two, stipulated that it should be kept at Alexandria, and, as I understand it, the Commander-in-Chief has not yet been given full liberty to use this Division as he may think best.
‘While this long delay in the despatch of troops available all the time has been taking place, the enemy has not been idle, and the situation has been continually modifying itself to our disadvantage. The Turks have been able to bring up in succession one Division after another from different parts of their Empire, and to raise new levies of men. Although this process has been powerfully counteracted by the vigorous action of our army, continually harassing and wearing out the enemy, he has now been able to bring up reserves, of a strength we cannot accurately measure, which would not have been available a month ago.
‘…There was no military reason why the original attack of April 25 should not have been delivered before the end of March with all the troops that were employed on the latter date and the addition of several other Divisions sent subsequent to that date. In this case a complete victory might have been won.
‘Secondly, there was no military reason that the attack which is now impending should not have been delivered at the end of June or the beginning of July. The only reason for the delay is that the governing instrument here has been unable to make up its mind except by very lengthy processes of argument and exhaustion, and that the divisions of opinion to be overcome, and the number of persons of consequence to be convinced, caused delays and compromises. We have always sent two-thirds of what was necessary a month too late.
‘We are now on the eve of a most critical battle in the Gallipoli Peninsula. If we are successful, results of the greatest magnitude will follow, and the fall of Constantinople will dominate the whole character of the great war and throw all other events into the shade. If we fail to obtain a decision and only make some progress, but not enough, then some of the gravest and most painful problems will arise. The precious time that has been lost can never be retrieved. The German is drawing nearer from the north, the windy weather is coming on, Roumania may succumb to German pressure and release munitions to Turkey, Serbia may be smitten down and pierced, and Bulgaria (now almost within our reach) may realize that her aspirations can only be satisfied at German hands. Although we have all along had resources available which would have placed the issue of this battle beyond doubt, it can now only be regarded as one of the great hazards of war. The chances are not unfavourable, but where we might have had a certainty we now have a hazard. We are leaving to the exertions of the British troops a problem which a few clear decisions of the Government, taken even since the formation of the Coalition, could have rendered infinitely less hard and costly.’
After reviewing the misfortunes which had attended our undecided diplomacy in the Balkans, due largely to the interplay of the hesitations of two and latterly three other great Powers, the memorandum continued:—
‘Opportunity after opportunity, military and diplomatic, has been lost in the South-East of Europe. Risks have been run in the name of prudence before which hardihood itself would pale; yet so good are the cards, moral, military, and political, that we hold and have held through the war in this theatre, if only we choose to play them, that one great opportunity still remains. It is the last.
‘Time is very short, but we still have time and power to retrieve all previous mistakes.
‘1. We ought now, without delay, to make all preparations to send the Third Army to Turkey as soon as possible. All transport arrangements ought to be made for that purpose, preparations being begun now. If the battle goes in our favour we need not send them. Whether these troops, if sent, should be used on the Gallipoli Peninsula, on the Asiatic side, or in Thrace is a purely military question, which cannot, and need not, be settled until the result of the next battle is seen. We should then have at least 18 Divisions available for the capture of Constantinople.
‘2. We must get Bulgaria now. Bulgaria is strong, her army is ready, her people are wounded by the Russian defeats, her territorial claims are rightful and harmonize perfectly with the principle of nationality, which ought to guide us. The oppression of the Bulgarian districts of Macedonia by the Serbians is in itself a great wrong. The taking of Kavalla from Bulgaria by Greece after the second Balkan war was, as was recognized at the time, a most impolitic act. There is nothing in Bulgarian claims as now put forward which is not reasonable and honourable.’
I proceeded to discuss the reactions which such a policy would produce in Serbia and in Greece, but this is scarcely suitable for publication. The memorandum concluded:—
‘The accession of Bulgaria would, of course, carry with it that of Roumania, and the union of all the Christian States of the Balkans against their natural enemies, Turkey and Austria, will be complete.
‘In order to gain this supreme advantage, the risk must be run that, having offered everything to Bulgaria, she will not move. In this case, as we are frequently warned, we shall have offended Serbia and Greece without gaining any compensating advantage. But, after all, we have offended them already by the offers made; once those offers are definitely rejected by Bulgaria the substantive cause of offence dies, and if other circumstances did not intervene we could, after an interval, address ourselves again to Greece.
‘But other circumstances will intervene in the Balkans unless we can gain Bulgaria to our cause or attack Constantinople before the end of September without her, and these other circumstances may be fatal to the issue of the war and disastrous in a peculiar degree to Great Britain.
‘To appreciate these circumstances, it is necessary to look at the main military situation from the German point of view. I do not believe in the immediate resumption of a great German offensive in the west. As stated by me in writing on February 25, in reply to alarmist reports, and again in my memoranda circulated to the Cabinet on June 1 and 18, there is no likelihood of the Germans being able to transfer from the eastern to the western theatre during the next two months from 500,000 to 1,000,000 men for an offensive in the west, and even if they did so, it is the thing we ought to welcome most. During the last few weeks we have had repeated statements that a great offensive is going to begin in the western theatre, and, as on three or four previous occasions, when the same wrong arguments have been used with the same potent effect, nothing has followed. The Germans habitually spread false reports, and we are habitually deceived by them. As far back as February, the 29th Division was stopped sailing for three weeks for fear of a renewed German offensive in the west following on a Russian collapse. In the present case the announcement made in all the German newspapers that the foreign attachés had left for the western front was a blind of the most obvious kind. It is undoubtedly in the German’s power, by the calculated indiscretions of officers and agents, to colour and confuse the whole of the intelligence information we receive through many sources.
‘In these circumstances it is the safest guide to consider what is the enemy’s true interest. It is clear that his first interest is to press his advantage against Russia to the full to some point where the military situation of that country is definitely and fundamentally altered. How far he means to go against Russia we cannot measure, but that he should relax his pressure upon her in time to enable him to bring back his troops and begin a great offensive in the west within the next two months is impossible, and even in the next three months almost impossible. It is probable that he will not have done what he intends to do to Russia for at least two months, and if fortune turns in favour of the Russians he may be entangled there for a much longer period.
‘But, on the assumption that in six weeks or two months from now 20 or 30 Divisions of German troops can be withdrawn from the Russian front, where would Germany be wise to send them? She might send them to Holland in case that country should turn against her later at an unfavourable moment. She might send them to Italy, where there are rich provinces to be conquered and to be held as security for a satisfactory peace. But, far more attractive to her and dangerous to us than all of these, she might break through Serbia, seduce Bulgaria, establish a through route to Constantinople, gain full control of the Turkish Empire with power to organize it for war on the Prussian model, and open to herself avenues to Persia and India. We must not suppose that Germany, encouraged by victory, will stop short on the path of conquest, or that the Napoleonic dreams of Eastern domination as an offset to England’s colonial gains have no place in the minds of her military leaders. In these regions immense and easy prizes await the sword of the conqueror, and comparatively small armies could achieve the reduction of enormous territories. It is noteworthy in this connection that in spite of all pressure of this war upon Germany the construction of the Bagdad Railway has been hurried forward with German material at the greatest speed. The one thing it would not pay the Germans to do is to break themselves in sterile efforts to pierce the lines in France. Here they would encounter very numerous, well disciplined, and well supplied armies, far stronger proportionately than those they fought at the outset of the war, and here they have already pegged out for themselves a very large conquered area comprising the whole of Belgium and Antwerp and some of the best departments of France. Is it not their game to stand on what they have won and leave us, if we are foolish enough, to break our strength in trying to turn them out, while they gain further territories easily elsewhere?’
These conclusions were soon to be sustained by the march of events.
At the end of the first week in July, Lord Kitchener resolved to add the 53rd and 54th Territorial Divisions to the reinforcements that were going to the Dardanelles, and I took occasion to write a letter to Sir Ian Hamilton more encouraging in tone than my Cabinet memoranda.
Mr. Churchill to Sir Ian Hamilton.
I rejoice to say that on Monday (after 3 weeks’ work) the War Council definitely decided to add two Territorial divisions to your army, making in all six divisions not yet engaged. I rejoice also at the punishment you are inflicting on the Turks, at the evident distress of their army and their capital, and at the progress made in gaining ground. My confidence in the future and in the wisdom of the policy which has launched this operation remains unshaken. Well done and with good luck, or mistakenly done and with bad luck, if done in the end, it will repay all losses and cover all miscalculations in the priceless advantages it will win for the Allied cause.
It has been a remarkable experience to me watching opinion slowly and steadily consolidating behind this enterprise, and to see the successive waves of opposition surmounted one after another. Ignorance, pessimism in high places, the malice of newspapers, the natural jealousies and carping of the Flanders army and of the French soldiers, have all failed to prevent the necessary reinforcements by land and sea from being sent. And now [that] you are equipped with all that you have asked for, and more, the next great effort can be made.
I never look beyond a battle. It is a culminating event, and like a brick-wall bars all further vision. But the chances seem favourable, and the reward of success will be astonishing.
Your daring spirit and the high qualities of your nature will enable you to enjoy trials and tests under which the fleshly average of commonplace commanders would quail. The superb conduct and achievements of the soldiers would redeem even a final failure; but with a final success they will become a military episode not inferior in glory to any that the history of war records. Then there will be proud honour for all who have never flinched and never wavered. God go with you.
I did not understand how far the actual performances of the War Office were to lag behind their paper programmes. The actual facts were far less satisfactory than I knew.
There is no principle of war better established than that everything should be massed for the battle. The lessons of military history, the practice of great commanders, the doctrines of the text-books, have in every age enjoined this rule. We see Napoleon before his battles grasping for every man he can reach, neglecting no resource however small, cheerfully accepting risks at other points, content with nothing less than the absolute maximum which human power can command.
This high prudence cannot be discerned in Lord Kitchener’s preparations at this time. He did not decide to add the 53rd and 54th Divisions to the reinforcements that were going to the Dardanelles until it was impossible for the second of them to arrive before the battle had begun, thus having to go direct into action from a three weeks’ voyage. The position of the troops in Egypt continued until the last moment undetermined. Including the Dardanelles details nearly 75,000 men were accumulated in Alexandria, Cairo and along the Canal. As long as we were threatening Constantinople there could be no danger of a serious Turkish invasion of Egypt. It should have been possible to organize from General Maxwell’s troops at least 30,000 additional rifles as a reserve which could be thrown into the Gallipoli operations at the decisive moment and for a limited period. If General Maxwell had been ordered to organize such a force, and if Sir Ian Hamilton had been told that he could count it among the troops available for the battle, it would have been woven into the plans which were being prepared and would have sensibly improved the prospects. Lord Kitchener’s treatment of the question was, however, most baffling. His telegraphic correspondence with Sir Ian Hamilton, which has been published, shows him at one moment counting large numbers of troops in Egypt as available if necessary for the Dardanelles, and at another chiding Sir Ian for attempting to draw on them. In consequence the British garrison of Egypt played no part in Sir Ian Hamilton’s calculations and plans, and was only thrown in, like so much else, too late.
When on the eve of the battle, July 29, Lord Kitchener telegraphed to Sir Ian Hamilton informing him that he had ‘a total of about 205,000 men for the forthcoming operation,’ the General replied: ‘The grand total you mention does not take into account non-effectives or casualties; it includes reinforcements such as the 54th and part of the 53rd Divisions, etc., which cannot be here in time for my operation, and it also includes Yeomanry and Indian troops which, until this morning, I was unaware were at my unreserved disposal. For the coming operation the number of rifles available is about half the figure you quote, viz., 120,000.’ This figure was not effectively disputed by the War Office. Lord Kitchener had specifically included in his total of 205,000, 8,500 Yeomanry and 11,500 Indian troops and artillery stationed in Egypt. But when Sir Ian Hamilton attempted to draw on these, Lord Kitchener telegraphed:—
‘Maxwell wires that you are taking 300 officers and 5,000 men of his mounted troops. I do not quite understand why you require Egyptian Garrison troops while you have the 53rd Division at Alexandria, and the 54th, the last six battalions of which are arriving in five or six days, on the Aquitania.
‘When I placed the Egyptian Garrison at your disposal to reinforce at the Dardanelles in case of necessity, Maxwell pointed out that Egypt would be left very short, and I replied that you would only require them in case of emergency for a short time, and that the risk must be run. I did not contemplate, however, that you would take troops from the Egyptian Garrison until those sent specially for you were exhausted. How long will you require Maxwell’s troops, and where do you intend to send them? They should only be removed from Egypt for actual operations and for the shortest possible time.’
I was not able to discover the shortage of drafts, nor was I aware of the ambiguous conditions under which the garrison of Egypt was available as a reserve. But a young Staff Officer from the Dardanelles, who reached London in July, disclosed to me the shortage of ammunition and suggested that consignments sent by rail to Marseilles instead of by sea might still reach the Army in time for the battle. I therefore urged Lord Kitchener to send the whole of the latest weekly outputs by this route. Usually most kind and patient with my importunity, he took this request very much amiss. I declared I would demand a Cabinet decision, and we parted abruptly. I spent the afternoon and evening marshalling opinion, and informed the Prime Minister of my intention to raise the issue. However, when the decks were cleared for action and I was invited to state my case, Lord Kitchener ended the matter by stating that he had now found it possible to issue the necessary orders. Three train-loads of high explosive shell went accordingly.
Upon such preludes the event was now to supervene.