Consequences—Pessimism—The Approaching Danger and its Limitations—Reflections—The Shadow of Evacuation—Obligations to Australia and New Zealand—Obligations to Russia—Superior Turkish Will-power—The Gas Question—Progress of the Evacuation Idea—Recall of Sir Ian Hamilton—General Monro’s Report—Effect on Lord Kitchener—Admiral von Usedom’s Report of October 31 to the German Emperor—The Plans of Commodore Keyes and Rear-Admiral Wemyss—Commodore Keyes returns to London—Outline of the Keyes Plan—The New War Committee—Its First Indecisions—Lord Kitchener’s Mission—I Resign from the Government—Confusion and Difficulties of the Times—A General View.
The events described in the last chapter led directly to the abandonment of the enterprise against the Dardanelles. In the first place, the impending opening of through communications between Germany and Turkey seemed to offer to the Turks the prospect of large supplies of all kinds and particularly of heavy guns and ammunition. Our troops on the Peninsula, whose positions did not allow of any local withdrawal, were threatened with a very great increase in the hostile bombardment. Secondly, the Salonika expedition must become a serious rival to the Dardanelles, drawing upon the existing strength of a harassed army and intercepting and diverting reinforcements and supplies. Apprehensions of approaching failure, if not indeed of final disaster, were rife.
I did what I could to stem the adverse movement in the Cabinet and correct extravagant pessimism.
October 6, 1915.
It is precipitately assumed that the establishment by the Germans of through communication with Constantinople and the consequent passage of ammunition, guns, etc., will render the position of our army in Gallipoli immediately untenable, and there is a tendency to jump to extreme conclusions without a detailed examination of all the intervening stages.
The first question is, Is a great Austro-German army going to strike South? When will this movement begin in force? When will the passage of the Danube take place? How long will it take after the Danube has been passed for the enemy to establish rail or water communication with Widin or Sophia? What will be the weather conditions during these operations? When rail or river communication has been established, what proportion of the rolling stock of the railways concerned, particularly in the early stages of the operations, will be available after the needs of the supply of the Austro-German armies operating have been met, i.e., how many trains of Turkish ammunition a day can be passed through to Sophia and from Sophia on to Constantinople? What damage can be done to the railroad during the operations, and how long will that damage take to repair? What further enterprises can be directed against the railroad by aerial attack on bridges and trains? In this connection it should be noted that seaplanes operating in the Sea of Marmora and replenished by submarines have many important bridges and culverts on the approaches to Constantinople within easy radius of action. The number of anti-aircraft guns possessed in the initial stages by the Turks on these railway lines will not be large. Even a culvert blown up or a train derailed by bombing may be productive of two or three days’ delay.
When Constantinople is reached, the ammunition has still to be transported to the Gallipoli Peninsula. No great quantity of it can be carried along the Bulair road. Almost the whole, particularly the heavy shells, must go by water across the Marmora. Hitherto, we have never had more than two submarines acting in the Marmora at one time, but the First Lord has informed us that nine large ones are available. It is a question whether these numbers should not be increased, in view of the great importance of their work. Submarines can operate for thirty days at a stretch in the Marmora, and therefore, if it were of great consequence to interrupt the supplies for a certain period, the whole force might be employed at once, probably resulting in the destruction by gunfire and torpedo of the bulk of the small craft engaged in the transmission of supplies. Seven or eight submarines operating at once ought to be able to establish an absolute blockade over the water exits from Constantinople. It is impossible to believe that with the resources at their disposal the Admiralty will fail to make the transportation of ammunition by water, if, not impossible, at any rate precarious in the last degree, and accompanied throughout with an enormous proportion of loss. This applies with even more force to heavy guns than to ammunition, and particularly to the heavy classes of ammunition. At present the Turks have no large number of heavy guns in the Peninsula. In particular they have no large quantity of heavy howitzers, 6-inch, 8-inch, 9-inch, etc., similar to those employed in France in great masses. The transportation of these classes of guns should be vigorously opposed. Aerial reconnaissance should detect their landing-places and the points on which they are to be mounted. A lengthy period may certainly be expected to lapse before any large addition to the enemy’s heavy guns on the Peninsula can be made. With regard to the existing guns, it is argued that they will receive a more abundant supply, but it should be remembered that the fire of the Monitors has completely quelled the Asiatic batteries, which were at one time so grave an annoyance, and there is no reason why, with the floating artillery at our disposal, combined with good aerial work by observation and bombing, the guns should not be marked down and their service rendered perilous in the extreme, if indeed they are not in many cases destroyed. At every stage in this business we have great power of opposition to the enemy’s intentions, and, if our resources are used with energy and resolution, there is no reason why the danger should not be kept within reasonable dimensions….
But even if we are to expect that after some period in the latter part of November the artillery fire directed against our positions will increase in severity, that is no reason why our troops should not be able to maintain themselves. They now hold extensive lines more than fifteen miles in length, and the number of troops in any one area is not excessive. The broken character of the ground at Helles, and still more at Anzac, affords innumerable opportunities of securing effective defilade. The steep cliffs by the seashore afford the means of making completely secure underground barracks. Had the Germans held the positions we have been holding for all these months, a system of subterranean habitations, lighted by electric light, lined with concrete, and properly warmed and drained, would have been in existence. Even now there is time to make immense improvements, both in our trenches and in our resting accommodation. For the rest, the troops will bear the shell fire as well on the Gallipoli Peninsula as they have so long in the Ypres salient, where positions subject to every military vice and not less effectively commanded have been held month after month in spite of the fire of batteries incomparably heavier and more numerous, and far more abundantly supplied with ammunition, than anything we are likely to receive in the Gallipoli Peninsula for a long time to come.
The question of the beaches and the landing of supplies requires special consideration, as a great increase in the field gunfire would add to the many difficulties which exist at present. The use of properly devised smoke screens by day, and the full employment of the dark hours, should greatly mitigate this menace. We have already more than thirty days’ supplies for all the forces. The water difficulty is passing away with the summer, and if measures are taken with sufficient energy in the next month or six weeks much larger reserves should be accumulated under perfect underground cover in the cliffs’ sides and the gulleys.
Whether it is desirable to leave an army of these dimensions indefinitely to waste By fire and sickness on the Gallipoli Peninsula without hope of an offensive or any plan to relieve it, is another question. But if it is decided to take that course, there is no reason at the present time to doubt our ability to maintain ourselves, in spite of losses, for an almost indefinite period.
When dangers are a long way off and it is desired to emphasize the need for immediate action, one is often led to speak of those dangers in exaggerated and too sweeping terms. For instance, the approach of the submarine was regarded by me with the utmost dread, and I had even gone so far as to write that their arrival would be fatal. In fact, however, when the danger came, it was successfully grappled with by the Admiralty and reduced to its proper dimensions. The landing and supply of far larger armies on the Gallipoli Peninsula has been successfully accomplished since the arrival of the German submarines than we had ever attempted beforehand. Our own resources grow with the resources of the enemy, and as the warfare in this theatre gets more thoroughly understood. We must not be in a hurry to yield to the prospect of dangers and difficulties which, when stoutly confronted, will not be found to contain any decisive element.
W. S. C.
On the same day (October 6) I circulated to the whole Cabinet my memorandum of July, predicting the Austro-German advance against Serbia. I added:—…On August 12 Sir Ian Hamilton reported the failure of his attempt and asked for large reinforcements, and for drafts to raise his units to full strength. It is now October 6.
Nearly three months have passed since the plan of sending allied troops to the Vardar was favourably entertained by the Cabinet. But the four Powers were still corresponding on the point when the Bulgarian mobilization occurred. Every suggestion made by any one of them has been pulled to pieces by the others; and the obvious remedy for this state of things, viz., that we should send a person of the highest consequence as an envoy to the Balkans—so often urged—was never adopted.
In July we were assured that the Germans were about to begin a great offensive in the West, and were actually concentrating large armies for that purpose in the neighbourhood of Cologne. So far from this being true, it is we who have taken the offensive. The wise decisions of the Calais conference were thrown to the winds by the generals. Our action in the Balkans and at Gallipoli has been paralysed at the very moment when it was most urgent and would have been most fruitful. It will soon be possible to measure what we have gained instead in France, and what those gains have cost in life and limb.
When the new Government was formed the belief was widely held that some form of national service would be introduced. More than 4½ months have passed and the Cabinet has never yet ventured to discuss the subject. During the last two months our losses have greatly exceeded our recruiting, and the total of the British armies instead of growing has already begun rapidly to dwindle.
My object in now circulating this paper is not to make reproaches nor to boast superior foresight, but to implore my colleagues to rouse themselves to effective and energetic action before it is too late.
W. S. C.
On October 15 I dealt with the question of evacuation.
Nothing leads more surely to disaster than that a military plan should be pursued with crippled steps and in a lukewarm spirit in the face of continual nagging within the executive circle. Unity ought not to mean that a number of gentlemen are willing to sit together on condition either that the evil day of decision is postponed, or that not more than a half-decision should be provisionally adopted. Even in politics such methods are unhealthy. In war they are a crime. There is no disgrace in honest and loyal decisions, however the incalculable event may subsequently fall. Even withdrawals and capitulations if they are necessary should not be flinched from. But there would be enduring shame in impeding a decision, in hampering military action when it is decided on, in denying a fair chance to a warlike enterprise to which the troops have been committed, or in so acting, even unconsciously and unintentionally, that an executive stalemate is maintained until disaster supervenes. Every war decision must be forced to a clear-cut issue, and no thought of personal friendship or political unity can find any place in such a process. The soldiers who are ordered to their deaths have a right to a plan, as well as a cause.
I have done my utmost to co-operate with those who seek to bring effective aid to Serbia, and I believe that the gaining of Greece and Roumania to our side now is a more urgent and a more important objective than forcing the Dardanelles—would indeed, if attained, carry the Dardanelles with it. But whether this plan will succeed will be settled in a few days. Then we must make up our minds one way or the other about Gallipoli, without compromise of any kind.
Australia and New Zealand sent the first armies they have ever raised to fight against Germany in Europe. Without consultation with their Governments or Parliaments, these forces were sent by Lord Kitchener to the Gallipoli Peninsula. A greater mark of confidence in a single man has scarcely ever been shown. By feats of arms and military conduct of the highest order, they have seized and held at a cost of 30,000 men and cruel hardships a position close to the vitals of their enemy, from which, if properly sustained, it is probable that no force that can be brought to bear can move them. Anzac is the greatest word in the history of Australasia. Is it for ever to carry to future generations of Australians and New Zealanders memories of forlorn heroism and of sacrifices made in vain?…
Russia has lost upwards of 4½ million men in this war, and has choked nearly a million Germans in her own blood. At the beginning of the war she sacrificed her armies in premature efforts to relieve the French and ourselves. Our operations in the West have totally failed to take any pressure off her during the last five months, when she has been exposed to the main offensive of the enemy. In spite of all her difficulties and deficiencies and losses absolutely beyond comparison, she continues to make head, most stubbornly and loyally, against the common enemy, and in her continuing to do so lies the hope of a successful issue from the war. The one great prize and reward which Russia can gain is Constantinople. The surest means of re-equipping her, the one way of encouraging her efforts, is the opening of the Dardanelles and the Bosphorus. With the evacuation of the Gallipoli Peninsula that hope dies.
I do not dwell at length upon the military consequences. Turkey can be re-equipped by Germany, and the East will be thrown open to her. The Balkan Peninsula will be gone. Roumania will be permanently cut off from all allied munitions. Greece will be threatened by Turkish as well as Bulgarian armies. Our interests in Egypt, our forces advancing to Bagdad, the Russians in the Caucasus, will soon feel the weight of the Turkish divisions now nailed precariously to the Gallipoli Peninsula. A larger number of soldiers will be required over longer periods of time to arrest the Turco-German efforts in wider and more remote theatres, once the passage between Europe and Asia has been lost, than might now suffice to decide the whole matter in our favour.
History will no doubt also dwell on the extraordinary valour and tenacity of the Turkish resistance. When the secrets of all the General Staffs are revealed, we shall know how profound were the anxieties with which a renewal of the naval attack of the 18th March was regarded by the Turkish and German commanders. We shall realize the superb efforts by which Enver Pasha and General von Sanders sustained their army in spite of the utmost difficulty in obtaining food or ammunition; how they persevered in face of assaults which again and again were within an ace of succeeding, in spite of waves of despair which might at any moment have broken up their army, in the teeth of an enemy whose advance though slow had never been set back, with the sea and a capital starving into revolution at their backs, and with relief hoped for and counted on for months in vain. And the whole episode will stand as an example of the triumph of superior will-power over superior resources.
And on October 20:—
More imminently dangerous than the arrival of German guns and ammunition at Constantinople is the arrival of large German gas installations. Some time ago our troops on the Peninsula were provided with the earlier patterns of respirators, but for three or four months this danger has receded, and it seems very probable that the respirators have deteriorated and that the men have not been practised in their use as are our troops in France. Unless these apprehensions are groundless, we ought without delay to send out a complete new outfit of the latest helmets and to make sure that during the period of inactivity while we are making up our minds the troops are duly practised in their use. This is a danger which can certainly be provided against if steps are taken now.
I trust that the unreasonable prejudice against the use by us of gas upon the Turks will now cease. The massacres by the Turks of Armenians and the fact that practically no British prisoners have been taken on the Peninsula, though there are many thousands of missing, should surely remove all false sentiment on this point, indulged in as it is only at the expense of our own men. Large installations of British gas should be sent out without delay. The winter season is frequently marked by south-westerly gales, which would afford a perfect opportunity for the employment of gas by us.
None of these recommendations produced any effective results. Our policy diverged increasingly from the conceptions I had formed of the conduct of the war. Only the fear of a massacre on the Beaches and of the loss of a large proportion of the Army delayed for a time the evacuation of Gallipoli and the abandonment of the enterprise. As a first step, on October 11, Lord Kitchener telegraphed to Sir Ian Hamilton:—
‘What is your estimate of the probable loss which would be entailed to our forces if the evacuation of the Gallipoli Peninsula was decided upon and carried out in the most careful manner? No decision has been arrived at yet on this question of evacuation, but I feel I ought to have your views. In your reply you need not consider the possible future danger to the Empire which might be thus caused.’
Sir Ian Hamilton, who had already declared evacuation to be ‘unthinkable,’ replied on the 12th that—
‘It would not be wise to reckon on getting out of Gallipoli with less loss than that of half the total force, as well as guns which must be used to the last, stores, railway plant, horses… We might be very lucky and lose considerably less than I have estimated.’
On October 14 it was decided to recall Sir Ian Hamilton and to send out in his place General Monro, an officer who had already commanded an army in France and was deeply imbued with Western ideas. He belonged to that school whose supreme conception of Great War strategy was ‘killing Germans.’ Anything that killed Germans was right. Anything that did not kill Germans was useless, even if it made other people kill them, and kill more of them, or terminated their power to kill us. To such minds the capture of Constantinople was an idle trophy, and the destruction of Turkey as a military factor, or the rallying of the Balkan States to the Allies, mere politics, which every military man should hold in proper scorn. The special outlook of General Monro was not known to the Cabinet. His instructions were moreover exclusively military. He was to express an opinion whether the Gallipoli Peninsula should be evacuated, or another attempt made to carry it; and on the number of troops that would be required (1) to carry the Peninsula, (2) to keep the Straits open, and (3) to take Constantinople. No reference was made to any part which might be played by the Fleet in this essentially amphibious operation. Very large masses of troops were now moving from France to the Eastern theatre, and the whole question of their employment was left open. In these circumstances General Monro’s report was awaited with the utmost anxiety.
There was however no need for suspense. General Monro was an officer of swift decision. He came, he saw, he capitulated. He reached the Dardanelles on October 28; and already on the 29th he and his staff were discussing nothing but evacuation. On the 30th he landed on the Peninsula. Without going beyond the Beaches, he familiarized himself in the space of six hours with the conditions prevailing on the 15-mile front of Anzac, Suvla and Helles, and spoke a few discouraging words to the principal officers at each point. To the Divisional Commanders summoned to meet him at their respective Corps Headquarters, he put separately and in turn a question in the following sense: ‘On the supposition that you are going to get no more drafts can you maintain your position in spite of the arrival of strong reinforcements with heavy guns and limitless German ammunition?’ He thus collected a number of dubious answers, armed with which he returned to Imbros. He never again set foot on the Peninsula during the tenure of his command. His Chief-of-the-Staff, also an enthusiast for evacuation, never visited it at all. On October 31 General Monro despatched his telegram recommending the total evacuation of the Gallipoli Peninsula and the final abandonment of the campaign. According to his own statements he contemplated, in addition to the ruin of the whole enterprise, a loss of from thirty to forty per cent. of the Army, i.e., about forty thousand officers and men. This he was prepared to accept. Two days later he left for Egypt, leaving the command of the Dardanelles Army temporarily in the hands of General Birdwood.
General Monro’s telegram of ‘Evacuation’ fell like a thunderbolt upon Lord Kitchener; and for the moment and under the shock he rose in all the strength which he commanded when he represented the indomitable core of our national character.
Lord Kitchener to General Birdwood.
November 3, 1915.
‘You know the report sent in by Monro. I shall come out to you; am leaving to-morrow night. I have seen Captain Keyes, and I believe the Admiralty will agree to making naval attempt to force the passage of the Straits. We must do what we can to assist them, and I think that as soon as our ships are in the Sea of Marmora we should seize the Bulair isthmus and hold it so as to supply the Navy if the Turks still hold out.
‘Examine very carefully the best position for landing near the marsh at the head of the Gulf of Xeros, so that we could get a line across the isthmus, with ships at both sides. In order to find the troops for this undertaking we should have to reduce the numbers in the trenches to the lowest possible, and perhaps evacuate positions at Suvla. All the best fighting men that could be spared, including your boys from Anzac and every one I can sweep up in Egypt, might be concentrated at Mudros ready for this enterprise.
‘There will probably be a change in the naval command, Wemyss being appointed in command to carry through the naval part of the work.
‘As regards the military command, you would have the whole force, and should carefully select your commanders and troops. I would suggest Maude, Fanshawe, Marshall, Peyton, Godley, Cox, leaving others to hold the lines. Please work out plans for this, or alternative plans as you may think best. We must do it right this time.
‘I absolutely refuse to sign orders for evacuation, which I think would be the gravest disaster and would condemn a large percentage of our men to death or imprisonment.
‘Monro will be appointed to the command of the Salonika force.’
Here was the true Kitchener. Here in this flaming telegram—whether Bulair was the best place or not—was the Man the British Empire believed him to be, in whom millions set their faith—resolute, self-reliant, creative, lion-hearted.
Unhappily the next day:—
Lord Kitchener to General Birdwood.
November 4, 1915.
‘I am coming as arranged…. The more I look at the problem the less I see my way through, so you had better work out very quietly and secretly any scheme for getting the troops off the peninsula.’
We may now once again exercise our privilege of crossing to the enemy’s lines and of learning how the situation was viewed by the responsible German authorities. On the same October 31 that General Monro despatched his telegram of evacuation to Lord Kitchener, Admiral von Usedom who, it will be remembered, commanded the fortress of the Dardanelles and all the marine defences of the Straits, completed a despatch to the Emperor dealing with the events of the past month.
‘The great attack,’ he wrote, ‘which we have been expecting on the land front has not taken place since the advance inaugurated by the new landing on August 7 north of the Ariburnu front was brought to a standstill. At the end of September reports of moves of troops and vehicles increased. Information from Salonika confirms that troops are being drawn thither from the Dardanelles front. I do not, however, consider it probable that the enemy will evacuate his position without hard fighting. In order to drive him out a very thorough artillery preparation is necessary, and for this the munitions on the spot or which can be brought up are insufficient.’
He proceeded to dwell upon the dangerous manner in which the fortress defences of the Straits had been weakened through the repeated withdrawals of the mobile artillery, particularly the howitzers, on which his whole system depended. In addition to the forty-nine howitzers and mobile guns with their supplies of ammunition withdrawn in May and June, he had during August and September been forced to cede another twenty-one of his most valuable howitzers and mobile guns. The whole of the vital Intermediate Defences of the forts contained at this time only twenty mobile howitzers and mortars. To quote Admiral von Usedom:—
‘Owing to the transfer of the eight 6-inch howitzers and three 8·2-inch mortars, there remained only in fortress “D” of high-angle guns the following:—
(1) On the European side:
|One 6-inch howitzer battery of four howitzers.|
No mortar batteries.
(2) On the Asiatic coast:
|Three 6-inch howitzer batteries, each of four howitzers.|
One 8·4-inch howitzer battery of six mortars.’
Meanwhile Commodore Keyes, Chief of the Staff to Admiral de Robeck, could endure the position at the Dardanelles no longer. He had been throughout convinced that the Fleet could at any time with proper preparation force the Dardanelles and enter the Marmora in sufficient strength. During the summer detailed plans for this operation were prepared under his direction by the Naval Staff. These plans were now completed, and Commodore Keyes declared himself confident of their success. In this opinion he was most strongly supported by Rear-Admiral Wemyss. This officer was actually senior to Admiral de Robeck, but in circumstances which have already been explained he had accepted the position of Second-in-Command upon the eve of the action of March 18. The qualities of character and judgment which he displayed during the war were destined to raise him from a Rear-Admiral to the position of First Sea Lord. In this supreme capacity he was eventually to sustain the burden of the last fourteen months of the struggle. His opinion therefore is retrospectively invested with very high authority. The joint representations of the Chief of Staff and of his Second-in-Command were not, however, acceptable to Admiral de Robeck. Commodore Keyes thereupon asked to be relieved of his appointment in order that he might return home and lay his plans before the Board of Admiralty. Admiral de Robeck, with a magnanimous gesture, asked him to retain his position and accorded him leave of absence, full liberty and ‘a fair field’ to state his case, making it clear, however, that he could not himself in any circumstances become responsible for a further naval attempt. Commodore Keyes therefore repaired to London forthwith, where he arrived on October 28.
The Keyes plan was remarkable for its audacity. It discarded all the gradual methods around which it had alone been possible hitherto to rally naval opinion. The Fleet would be divided into four squadrons, three of which were to take part in the attack, while the fourth provided the support for the Army. The Second Squadron comprised about eight old battleships and cruisers, four very old battleships acting as supply ships, as many of the dummy battleships as possible, and a number of merchantmen carrying coal and ammunition. All these vessels were to be fitted with mine-bumpers. Preceded by four of the best sweepers and accompanied by eight destroyers and two scouts, this Second Squadron was to enter the Straits shortly before dawn, keeping below the illuminated area until dawn was about to break, when it would proceed to steam through the Narrows at its utmost speed. Commodore Keyes proposed to take command of this squadron himself. It was his firm conviction that with the improved sweepers and the mine-bumpers, and aided by smoke screens, darkness and surprise, certainly more than half of this squadron would arrive above Nagara. The battleships which survived were immediately to attack the forts of the Narrows from their rear, which would have been completely exposed.
Meanwhile at dawn the First Squadron, composed of the Lord Nelson, Agamemnon, Exmouth, two King Edwards, four French ships, the Glory and the Canopus, accompanied by eight sloops and ten destroyers for sweeping, would simultaneously attack the forts at the Narrows from below the Kephez minefield. The Third Squadron, consisting of two Monitors, the Swiftsure, and five cruisers or light cruisers, was to cover the Army and co-operate from across the Peninsula in the attack upon the forts at the Narrows. The bombardment of the forts at the Narrows by all three squadrons, and the sweeping of the minefields already deranged by the passage of the Second Squadron, were to be pursued continuously without slackening for a moment. An elaborate memorandum had been prepared by the staff, regulating every phase of this main attack which might well have been continued for two or even three days if necessary before the final advance of the First Squadron through the Narrows was ordered. In short, the Keyes plan was in principle the old plan of pinning down the forts in close and continuous action while the minefields were swept, but in addition it was to be preceded by a furious surprise rush of the oldest vessels to dislocate the defence, to sweep and break up the minefields and secure positions whence the forts could be taken in reverse. ‘The action recommended (in the staff memorandum),’ wrote Commodore Keyes, ‘taken in conjunction with the preliminary rush and determined military offensive, generally represents the views of a number of experienced officers who strongly advocate a naval attack on the Straits and are confident of success. If success is achieved, the Turkish Army in Gallipoli will be entirely dependent on the Bulair Isthmus for supplies. This line of communication can be harassed day and night.’ Finally the plan comprised detailed arrangements for maintaining the successful ships in the Marmora while they were operating against the Turkish communications.
On November 2 the Prime Minister reconstituted the War Council or Dardanelles Committee as it had hitherto been styled. In its new form it was called the ‘War Committee’ and was limited to the Prime Minister, Mr. Balfour, Lord Kitchener, Sir Edward Grey and Mr. Lloyd George. Mr. Bonar Law was added ten days later under Conservative pressure. I was excluded. It was announced that this Committee would be responsible to the Cabinet for the whole direction of the war. On November 3 the new Committee met to consider the question of evacuating the Dardanelles. Lord Kitchener’s views have been fully exposed in his telegram to General Birdwood of that day. He had previously telegraphed to General Monro asking whether his opinions were shared by the Corps Commanders on the Peninsula. He had been answered that General Byng favoured evacuation and considered that Suvla could be evacuated without much loss, provided the attempt were made before German reinforcements arrived; that General Davies, commanding at Helles, concurred with General Monro; but that General Birdwood at Anzac was opposed to evacuation. General Maxwell, commanding in Egypt, had also independently telegraphed urging that a further effort should be made to hold on. Thus the military opinions were divided. The Committee had also before them the plans of Commodore Keyes, endorsed by Admiral Wemyss, in regard to which the Admiralty War Staff had pronounced no decided opinion. Keyes was still only a Captain with the rank of Commodore. He was known as a daring and gifted officer, but he had no record of high command behind him, and he did not carry the authority necessary to override Admiral de Robeck’s negative view. Could he at this juncture, with the fame of the leader of the Dover patrol, have laid upon the Council Table the credentials of Zeebrugge, the history of the Great War might have been much curtailed.
In the circumstances which existed the new War Committee found no difficulty in deciding to postpone the evil day of decision. Lord Kitchener proceeded to the Dardanelles to survey the situation on the spot and make further recommendations. The Secretary of State left London on November 4, apparently in great sympathy with Commodore Keyes’s plan. He spoke on his way through Paris in an exceedingly resolute manner, and directed Commodore Keyes to explain the scheme to the French Minister of Marine, now Admiral Lacaze, and then follow him with all speed. Admiral Lacaze was wholly favourable to the plan, and immediately promised a reinforcement of six old French battleships to execute it.
Lord Kitchener arrived at the Dardanelles on November 9. His personal inspection of the troops and the defences convinced him that the troops could hold their positions unless confronted with very heavy German reinforcements of which there was no immediate prospect. His conferences with Admiral de Robeck led him however, in the absence of Commodore Keyes, to discard the idea of a renewed naval attempt. Instead he devised a plan for a new landing at Ayas in the Gulf of Alexandretta, with the double object of barring the path of a Turkish invasion of Egypt and of covering the effects of an impending withdrawal from Gallipoli. This plan did not commend itself either to the Admiralty or to the War Committee. With Salonika as well as the Dardanelles on their hands, they were naturally reluctant to commit themselves to another new and entirely separate enterprise which could at the best only achieve subsidiary objects. They therefore informed Lord Kitchener of their dissent from his views and announced that they had decided that the final decision about Gallipoli was to be relegated to a Conference to be held in Paris a few days later.
In accepting an office in the new Government after leaving the Admiralty at the end of May, I had been actuated by the feeling that it was my duty to sustain the Dardanelles enterprise to the best of my ability, and by the hope that with a seat on the War Council I should be able to do so. It was on this condition alone that I had found it possible to occupy a sinecure office. That condition had now disappeared. I was out of harmony with the views which were prevailing and to which the Prime Minister had at last submitted. I was also distressed at the methods of indecision arising from conflicting opinions which at this time pervaded and paralysed the conduct of the war. The rejection of the plans of Commodore Keyes and Admiral Wemyss filled me with despair. I was convinced that the evacuation of Gallipoli was intended and must follow as a consequence of what had taken place.
Awful as were the risks of this decision, it was inevitable unless further efforts on a great scale were to be made by sea or land. Even evacuation was better than leaving the Army to moulder piecemeal without support or purpose. If a British Cabinet or Admiralty were unable to face the responsibility of a naval attempt, there was still time for further military efforts. The important new armies gathering in the Near East, in Egypt and at Salonika, could have been landed at Besika Bay to advance along the Asiatic shore, or alternatively at some point in the Gulf of Xeros to cut the Isthmus of Bulair. Both these operations would have required a large number of additional small vessels—trawlers, lighters, beetles, etc.—but either could have been carried out before the position of the Allied Army holding the Gallipoli Peninsula became untenable through the arrival of great supplies of German artillery and ammunition. In neither case had the Turks sufficient reserves available to meet the new invasion. In both cases victory would have carried with it the destruction or capture of the whole Turkish Army of twenty divisions now concentrated on the Gallipoli Peninsula and the consequent liberation as a new factor of our own fourteen divisions. Bulgaria had joined our enemies; Serbia was overrun. But Greece and Roumania could still have been gained; Constantinople could still have been taken; communications could still have been reopened with Russia; and Turkey would have been driven out of Europe, if not indeed altogether out of the war.
But it would have been useless to advocate such a policy in the teeth of the opinions which were now prevailing, even had I been accorded a seat on the War Committee. It was better that other schemes of strategic and political thought now dominant should have their chance and be applied in their integrity by those who believed in them. I knew too much and felt too keenly to be able to accept Cabinet responsibility for what I believed to be a wholly erroneous conception of war. I therefore in the middle of November sought permission to retire from the Government.
It was impossible at that time to discuss in Parliament any of the grave and tormenting controversies which these pages expose. I had nothing but the friendliest personal feelings towards my colleagues and the Prime Minister, and I would not speak a word which might add to their difficulties or those of the State. I was content to base myself upon a desire to relinquish a well-paid sinecure office which I could not bear longer to hold at this sad juncture in our affairs.
I have tried to show what I believe to be the interplay of forces and sequence of events in this tragedy. Masses of documents can be produced which illustrate and elaborate all the phases of the story, and there are many minor episodes which it would have been only confusing to include. But from what has been written, the appalling difficulties and cruel embarrassments of those who, whatever their views, were endeavouring loyally and earnestly to discharge their great responsibilities can be readily understood. I have recorded my counsels at the time. The future was then unknown. No one possessed plenary power. The experts were frequently wrong. The politicians were frequently right. The wishes of foreign Governments, themselves convulsed internally by difficulties the counterpart of our own, were constantly thrusting themselves athwart our policy. Without the title deeds of positive achievement no one had the power to give clear brutal orders which would command unquestioning respect. Power was widely disseminated among the many important personages who in this period formed the governing instrument. Knowledge was very unequally shared. Innumerable arguments of a partial character could be quoted on every side of all these complicated questions. The situation itself was in constant and violent movement. We never at any time regained the initiative; we were always compelled to adapt ourselves to events. We could never overtake or forestall them. All the time, clear and simple solutions existed which would speedily have produced the precious element of victory.
I may perhaps close this chapter by reprinting some words of general import which I used in explaining my resignation to the House of Commons:—
There is no reason to be discouraged about the progress of the war. We are passing through a bad time now, and it will probably be worse before it is better, but that it will be better, if we only endure and persevere, I have no doubt whatever. The old wars were decided by their episodes rather than by their tendencies. In this war the tendencies are far more important than the episodes. Without winning any sensational victories we may win this war. We may win it even during a continuance of extremely disappointing and vexatious events. It is not necessary for us in order to win the war to push the German lines back over all the territory they have absorbed, or to pierce them. While the German lines extend far beyond her frontiers, and while her flag flies over conquered capitals and subjugated provinces, while all the appearances of military success attend her arms, Germany may be defeated more fatally in the second or third year of the war than if the Allied Armies had entered Berlin in the first.
…It is, no doubt, disconcerting for us to observe that the Government of a State like Bulgaria are convinced on an impartial survey of the chances that victory will rest with the Central Powers. All the small States are hypnotized by German military pomp and precision. They see the glitter, the episode, but they do not see or realize the capacity of the ancient and mighty nations, against whom Germany is warring, to endure adversity, to put up with disappointments and mismanagement, to recreate and renew their strength, and to pass on with boundless obstinacy through boundless sufferings to the achievement of their cause.