Written by Dr Jack Binns
On January 8, 1915, Prime Minister Herbert Asquith presided over a vital meeting of the War Council. On the agenda was the strategical conundrum of the future British conduct of the war against the Central Powers, Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Turkish empire.
By the beginning of 1915, the Western Front, consisting of nearly 600 miles of trenches and fortifications running continuously from the North Sea coast in Belgium to the frontier with neutral Switzerland, was deadlocked. Advantage lay overwhelmingly with the defence and neither side had the superior manpower and firepower to break through. What was to be done next?
The two leading military professionals disagreed fundamentally. Field Marshal Sir John French, commander-in-chief of the British Expeditionary Force in Belgium and France, was confident that the Allies had a combined advantage on both the Western and Eastern battlefields, in infantry, artillery and cavalry. But the Germans had another 800,000 soldiers in training so that by the summer their inferiority in numbers would be wiped out. It was therefore imperative that to win victory the Allied armies should take the offensive “at the earliest possible moment with all our available strength”.
French’s figures were more wishful than factual and were immediately challenged by Lord Kitchener, Secretary of State for War, and effectively his senior. He acknowledged that their French military allies were naturally impatient to drive the German invaders out of their home country, despite the appalling losses they had already experienced. (On one day alone, August 22, 1914, 27,000 Frenchmen had been killed, far many more than the fatalities to be suffered by the British on the first day of the Somme, July 1, 1916). However, it would be many months yet before his new “citizen army” of volunteer recruits were ready to fight on any front and Sir John could not have the 50 battalions he demanded for an offensive in the spring. Not only did the BEF lack sufficient strength in infantry, it had neither the guns nor the ammunition for them to provide the “tremendous volume of artillery fire” needed to smash the German defences.
Secretary to the Committee of Imperial Defence, Maurice Hankey, had already furnished the War Council with some experimental ideas of his own that might help to break the stalemate. To screen advancing troops they could throw “smoke balls” towards the enemy trenches and to protect them against rifle and machine-gun fire they might carry bullet-proof shields or wear armour plates! He told them that French troops were already trying out rocket-propelled grapnels which could be hooked on to barbed wire entanglements. Yet the most promising and practical solution could be an armoured landship, propelled by motor engines and running on “caterpillar” wheels. Hankey informed the cabinet that a “landship committee” had begun to work on this new weapon and was holding field trials, but it would be some time before the War Office could approve production of a prototype.
However, it was the Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George, who said most to scupper Sir John French’s proposal. Never short of many emotive words, he treated Asquith’s War Council to a lengthy and persuasive warning. Kitchener’s half a million volunteers must not be “thrown away in futile enterprises...against impregnable positions”. After all, this potential army was “new” in a social as well as a military sense. Hitherto, Britain’s imperial wars had been fought thousands of miles away by a small number recruited mainly from “the underworld of Victorian slums”.
Now, for the first time, it was to be drawn “almost exclusively from the better class of artisan, the upper and the lower middle classes”. In intelligence, education and character it was vastly superior to any army ever raised by the nation. Therefore, nearly every city, town and village in the land was represented in its ranks and there would be no forgiveness for any government that needlessly wasted such fine men only to gain a few yards of Flanders mud.
To reinforce his argument, Lloyd George added that to incur heavy casualties without the certain prospect of victory would “inevitably destroy the morale of the best of troops” and thereby prolong the war. Without a predominance of at least three to one there could be no guarantee of success and such an advantage could not be secured by the deployment of only an extra fifty battalions. It would make much more sense, he said, to send Kitchener’s volunteers to Salonika to fight with the Serbs against the Austrians or even open a new front against the Turks. “I can see nothing but eternal stalemate on any other lines”, he concluded.
Kitchener agreed with the Chancellor. When it was fully prepared, his army would be best employed in other theatres of war, particularly against Germany’s weaker ally, Turkey. He suggested that they should direct Australian, New Zealander and Indian troops to land in Asia Minor and favoured the city of Alexandretta (now Iskendrum) on the Mediterranean coast.
Finally, after further discussion, Asquith’s council decided to accept the plan put forward by the energetic and enthusiastic First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill. Like Lloyd George, he believed that there must be an alternative to sacrificing thousands of men against the bulwark of the Kaiser’s army and that Turkey was the weakest and most vulnerable of the Central Powers. Instead of Salonika or Alexandretta, Churchill argued that a blow should be struck directly at the head of the Ottoman empire, its capital at Constantinople. There would be no need to redirect British troops from the Western Front: the Royal Navy alone could break through the Dardanelles.
Having recently received a personal appeal for assistance from the Grand Duke Nicholas, the Russian army’s commander-in-chief, Kitchener saw another reason to support Churchill’s proposal. Accordingly, on January 13, 1915, the War Council unanimously resolved that the Admiralty should make ready to bombard and capture the Gallipoli peninsula “with Constantinople as its objective”. A fortnight later the Admiralty’s plan was approved, though Lloyd George was the only member to insist that no troops should be sent if the navy failed to force the Straits. Otherwise, he was satisfied that Churchill’s scheme was a stronger runner than Hankey’s smoke balls, bullet-proof vests or even armoured landships.