Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Kitchener and the Dardanelles Campaign: A Vindication

By George H. Cassar
Helion and Company, 2022
Michael Hanlon, Reviewer

Field Marshal Kitchener with General Birdwood
at Gallipoli, 13 November 1915

Prolific World War I historian and retired professor George H. Cassar has written a valuable top down look—emphasizing the politics and policies over details of the fighting—at the Dardanelles/Gallipoli failure of 1915. The author is eminently qualified to produce such a work, having previously published histories on other aspects of the Dardanelles Campaign and the wartime leadership of both France and Britain, as well as a biography of Horatio Kitchener, the central figure in this work.

Before proceeding, however, this reviewer, would like to place his one gripe about Kitchener and the Dardanelles Campaign: A Vindication up front. It's over the title the publisher selected. I think it's misleading. The first part "Kitchener and the Dardanelles Campaign" is a bit too narrow. Further, I question whether "A Vindication" needed to be tacked on. It suggests the entire work is dedicated to overcoming a century of persecution and blame of K of K for the whole sea/land campaign.  I'm just talking about matter of proportionality here. It's clearly an important matter for Professor Cassar. And, for me, he makes a convincing argument that although the endeavor was originally championed and stage managed by Winston Churchill, a decisive level of malfeasance by Kitchener was later made historical "fact" in Churchill's The World Crisis and carried into the present day by succeeding generations of Winston's biographers.  This discussion simple does not constitute the whole book.  Now we will outline some its other main points below.

News Report of Earliest Action at the Straits
Based on Admiralty Press Release

Kitchener and the Dardanelles Campaign includes—besides a nice biographical sketch of Kitchener and thorough details about his involvement in every stage of the expedition—much information I've never encountered before about the Dardanelles Campaign.  This includes the early cabinet deliberations, the thinking behind the naval actions at the mouth of the straits in February, the decisive and ill-fated battleship assault of March, and the almost automatic sliding into a land assault that was doomed from the start. One of the author's best sections cover the Field Marshal's visit to the battlefield, after which everyone accepted the operation needed to be shut down before enough German-provided heavy artillery to blow the invaders off the beaches arrived in theater.

Now, back to Kitchener vs Churchill and the Historians. According to the author it was really a political blame game. Recall, Kitchener—by conveniently dying in June 1916—could not have been more helpful to anyone trying to bury their own mistakes from view. Of course, Winston Churchill was the most interested party in laying things at Kitchener's grave. Cassar's critique of his conduct starts with errors of strategy and feasibility Churchill made in selling the plan and adds other errors that compounded the earlier misjudgments as the operation unfolded. For instance, after the initial shelling of the forts at the mouth of the Dardanelles, the Admiralty produced a press release (shown above) describing the bombardment in great detail (some of which were deleted in the version shown), thus revealing the Allies were planning a major operation in the area. Consequently, strategic surprise and any "wiggle room" for backing out of the commitment without a loss of face vanished. The story of the press release and its impact was apparently just one of blunders buried after the war. On a longer timeline, the author argues that Churchill wrote a misleading defense of his strategy and recommendations in the second volume of The World Crisis and hid key details behind the protections of the Official Secrets act. Most unfairly, Churchill fingered Kitchener as acting alone to authorize the land campaign. The decision, although not wise and made with Kitchener's participation, was made by a consensus of the Cabinet.

Winston Churchill and Horatio Kitchener

I can't say Professor Cassar's "Vindication" portion of  Kitchener and the Dardanelles Campaign will persuade all readers. Churchill devotees will certainly be resistant. Nevertheless, I'd estimate that that portion is but 25 percent of the book. If you have any interest in those great events of 1915, then George Cassar's latest is well worth reading. The rest of it is solid history, well written, and based on up-to-date research.

Michael Hanlon

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