Gallipoli, by Peter Hart, Profile Books, RRP£25, 534 pages
Gallipoli should have been a brilliant military victory. It was unexpected, daring, innovative – a meticulously planned amphibious assault against a supposedly inferior enemy – and it came from the desk of Winston Churchill, then Lord of the Admiralty. But it all ended terribly badly. In Peter Hart’s Gallipoli, we learn exactly what went wrong.
Arguing against received opinion that the first world war operation was let down by bad luck and battlefield incompetence, Hart explains that it was misconceived from the start. It distracted attention from the main contest on the Western Front and did not possess enough resources to overwhelm the local well-armed troops. In fact, it was that worst of all military options – a contested landing against a modern weapons system.
Surprise had been sacrificed by naval attacks in the months before the main assault. Churchill, the diligent military historian, should have known that a similar strategic strike had been tried by the British more than a hundred years before. In the Anglo-Turkish war of 1807, the British navy had forced their way along the Dardanelles to batter the Ottoman ally of Napoleon but had been shocked by the weight of Turkish artillery fire directed at them. The result was a great many losses to no good effect – and so it was to be in 1914.
As might be expected, Hart, oral historian at the Imperial War Museum, brings together many vivid first-hand accounts of the bitter fighting but what is refreshing is that some of these voices come from the Turks themselves. “We faced them with our few weapons and our faith,” recalled Second Lieutenant Ibrahim Hayrettin. “Thanks to the devastating fire we rained upon them, within an hour’s time we had felled and destroyed so many invading soldiers that the shores were covered with their bodies.” It is a chilling view of the fate endured by so many Allied troops. A leading Turkish officer at Gallipoli was Kemal Atatürk and his presence at this decisive victory gave him the credentials to claim command over his people and take them into the modern world.
The role of the French at Gallipoli is frequently overlooked, in favour of the British and their Anzac comrades, but Hart rightfully emphasises their considerable contribution. At one point, their impressive use of artillery followed by rapid advances seemed to be turning the tide. But a break in communications meant that Turkish units regained the initiative and swept the French back before reinforcements arrived.
By drawing on such new views of the fighting, Hart has managed to combine a rigorous analysis of the strategic failures of Gallipoli with dramatic personal accounts of the day-to-day struggle to produce an excellently readable account of this tragic conflict.
Tim Newark is author of ‘Highlander: the History of the Legendary Highland Soldier’ (Constable)