Blame for the Dardanelles Failure

The Report Of The Special Commission Headed By Lord Crimer

[The Independent, April 1917]

There was issued in London, March 8, 1917, a comprehensive report by the special commission appointed by Parliament to investigate the ill-fated Dardanelles campaign. The report is an ad interim one dealing exclusively with the origin and inception of the attack on the Dardanelles. It is signed by the late Lord Cromer, who was Chairman of the commission; Andrew Fisher, representing Australia; Thomas McKenzie, representing New Zealand; Sir Frederick Cawley, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster; James A. Clyde, Lord Advocate; Stephen L. Gwynn, Nationalist Member of the House of Commons; Rear Admiral Sir William H. May, Field Marshal Baron Nicholson, and Justice Pickford.

There were two minority reports—a dissent by Andrew Fisher, Australian High Commissioner, on one of the findings, and by Thomas McKenzie, New Zealand High Commissioner, on the same; and a separate report by Walter Roch, Liberal Member of the House of Commons from Pembrokeshire.

The signing of the report was the last act performed by Lord Cromer; his death followed a few days later. There has been some discussion as to why a document revealing the inner history of an ill-fated campaign should be published by the Government in time of war, and it is charged that it was done for political effect to discredit the Asquith Administration; in fact, in the discussion in the House of Parliament a few days after it was made public, the findings of the commission were quoted as a direct reflection on the Asquith Cabinet. Some influential English newspapers have gone so far as to demand proceedings against Asquith and other members of the Cabinet responsible for the campaign.

The report is remarkable for its candor. It blames in frank terms the late Earl Kitchener, Secretary of War; Winston Spencer Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty; Lord Fisher, then First Sea Lord; Prime Minister Asquith, and other members of the War Council.

Kitchener a Dominant Force

The report begins with a general synopsis of the organization of the War Cabinet calling attention to the fact that the management in November, 1914, devolved upon a War Council of the Cabinet, consisting of Premier Asquith, Earl Kitchener, and Mr. Churchill, with Sir Edward Grey, Mr. Lloyd George, and the Marquis of Grewe, then heads of the Foreign, Treasury, and India Offices, participating, but with comparatively inactive advisory functions. Sea Lords Fisher and Wilson were with Mr. Churchill, and Chief of Staff General Murray with Earl Kitchener, theoretically as technical advisers, but in practice, according to the report, usually playing silent parts. The commission was "struck with the atmosphere of vagueness and want of precision which seems to have characterized the proceedings of the War Council."

Mr. Churchill testified that Mr. Asquith and Earl Kitchener "settled matters," although he had the same authority. The commission thought his view was overmodest. The Cabinet as a body placed all responsibility on the council, sometimes requesting that it was not to be told of occurrences on the ground that the fewer who knew of them the better.

Earl Kitchener's dominating influence pervades the testimony. The commission says he would not impart full information of his plans, even to the War Council. His action in holding troops back for three weeks without consulting the Admiralty greatly compromised the probability of success. Mr. Churchill described him as "all powerful, imperturbable, and reserved," adding, "he dominated absolutely our councils at this time. The belief that he had plans deeper and wider than any we could see silenced misgivings."

The report discusses the political aspects of the campaign, saying it was also designed to influence Bulgaria and Italy, then neutrals, and relieve pressure on Russia. General Hamilton said Earl Kitchener thought the operation would be successful in staving off Bulgaria's entrance into the war, in occupying 300,000 Turks for nine months, and in heartening Russia.

Designed to Defeat Egypt

The report summarizes the conclusions reached as follows:

The question of attacking the Dardenalles was, on the initiative of Mr. Churchill, brought under the consideration of the War Council on Nov. 25, 1914, as the ideal method of defending Egypt. It may reasonably be assumed that inasmuch as all the authorities concerned were prima facie in favor of a joint military rather than a purely naval attack, such an attack, if undertaken at all, would have been of the former rather than of the latter character had not other circumstances led to a modification of the program. A communication from the Russian Government of Jan. 2 introduced a fresh element into the case. The British Government considered that something must be done in response to it, and in this connection the question of attacking the Dardanelles was again raised.

The Secretary of State for War declared that there were no troops immediately available for operations in the East, and his statement was accepted by the War Council, who took no steps to satisfy themselves by reports of estimates as to what troops were available then or in the near future. Had this been done the Commissioners think it would have been ascertained that sufficient troops would be available for a joint military and naval operation at an earlier date than supposed, but this matter was not adequately investigated by the War Council. Thus the question before the War Council on Jan. 13 was whether no action of any kind should for the time being be undertaken or whether action should be taken by the fleet alone, the navy being held to be the only force available.

Political arguments, which were adduced to the War Council in favor of a prompt and effective action if such were practicable, were valid and of the highest importance, but the practicability of whatever action was proposed was of equal importance. Mr. Churchill appears to have advocated an attack by ships alone before the War Council, on a certain amount of half-hearted and hesitating expert opinion which favored a tentative or progressive scheme, beginning with an attack upon the outer forts. This attack, if successful, was to be followed by further operations against the main defenses of the Narrows. There does not appear to have been direct support or direct opposition from the responsible naval and military advisers, Lord Fisher and Sir James Wolfe Murray, as to the practicability of carrying on the operations as approved by the War Council, viz., to bombard and take the Gallipoli Peninsula, with Constantinople as the objective.

Fisher Made No Objection

The First Sea Lord and Sir Arthur Wilson, who was the only naval adviser present at the War Council, expressed no dissent. Lord Kitchener, who occupied a commanding position at the time the decision was taken, was in favor of the project. Both Lord Fisher and Sir Arthur Wilson would have preferred a joint naval and military attack, but they did not express to the War Council and were not asked to express any opinion on the subject, and offered no objection to naval operations, as they considered them experimental and such as could be discontinued if the first results obtained were not satisfactory. The Commissioners think that there was an obligation, first on the First Lord, secondly on the Prime Minister, thirdly on one other member of the War Council, to see that the views of the naval advisers were clearly put before the council, and that the naval advisers should have expressed their views to the council, whether asked or not, if they considered the project which the council was about to adopt was impracticable from a naval point of view.

Looking at the position which existed on Jan. 13, 1915, the Commissioners do not think the War Council was justified in coming to the decision without much fuller investigation of the proposition which had been suggested to them. The Commissioners hold that the possibility of making a surprise amphibious attack on Gallipoli offered such great military and political advantage that it was mistaken and ill-advised to sacrifice this possibility by deciding to undertake a purely naval attack, which from its nature could not obtain completely the object set out in the terms of the decision.

The decision taken on the 16th to mass troops in the neighborhood of the Dardanelles marked a very critical stage of the whole operation. It ought to have been clear that when this was once done, even if troops were not actually landed, it would be apparent to the world that a serious attack was intended, and a withdrawal could no longer be affected without running serious risk of loss of prestige. At that moment, as time was all important, no compromise was possible between making an immediate and vigorous effort to insure success at the Dardanelles by joint naval and military occupation and falling back on the original intention of desisting from a naval attack if the experiences gained during the bombardment were unsatisfactory.

Troops Delayed by Kitchener

On Feb. 20 Lord Kitchener decided that the Twenty-ninth Division, part of the troops which by the decision of Feb. 16 were to be sent to the East, should not be sent at that time, and Colonel Fitzgerald instructed the Director of Naval Transport that transports for that division and the rest of the expeditionary force would not be required. This was done without informing the First Lord, and the dispatch of troops was thus delayed three weeks. This delay greatly compromised the probability of success of the original attack by land forces and materially increased the difficulties encountered in the final attack some months later.

We consider that in view of the opinions expressed by the naval and military authorities on the spot the decision to abandon the naval attack after the bombardment of March 18 was inevitable. There was no meeting of the War Council between March 19 and May 14. Meanwhile important land operations were undertaken. We think that before such operations were commenced the War Council should have carefully reconsidered the whole position.

In our opinion the Prime Minister ought to have summoned a meeting of the War Council for that purpose and, if not summoned, other members of the War Council should have pressed for such a meeting. We think this was a serious omission. We consider that the responsibility of those members of the Cabinet who did not attend the meetings of the War Council was limited to the fact that they delegated their authority to their colleagues who attended those meetings.

We are of the opinion that Lord Kitchener did not sufficiently avail himself of the services of his General Staff, with the result that more work was undertaken by him than it was possible for one man to do, and confusion and want of efficiency resulted.

We are unable to concur in the view set forth by Lord Fisher that it was his duty, if he differed from the chief of his department, to maintain silence at the council or to resign. We think that the adoption of any such principle generally would impair the efficiency of public service.

We think that although the main object was not attained, certain important political advantages, upon the nature of which we have already dwelt, were secured by the Dardanelles expedition. Whether those advantages were worth the loss of life and treasure involved is and must always remain a matter of opinion.

The report says that Lord Kitchener's premature death and the death of his secretary, Major Fitzgerald, render it impossible to state with the same confidence as in the case of living witnesses the opinions and aims of Lord Kitchener at different periods of the proceedings. The commission does not believe, however, that even deference to the memory of the illustrious dead justified it in abstaining from complete revelations of his course. The report adds: "It is necessary to do justice to the living as well as to the dead."

Colonel Churchill testified that Lord Kitchener's personal qualities and position played a very great part in the decision of events, the report says. It continues: "He was the sole mouthpiece of War Office opinion in the War Council. When he gave a decision it was invariably accepted as final. He was never overruled by the War Council or Cabinet in any matter, great or small. Scarcely any one ever ventured to argue with him in the council."

Major Gen. Charles E. Callwell, who was Director of Military Operations at the War Office at the time of the Dardanelles expedition, testified that the General Staff virtually ceased to exist, because it was not consulted.

The principle of centralization was pushed to the extreme point by Lord Kitchener. It proved successful in the minor operations in the Sudan, but in larger operations it threw on one man more work that any individual could cope with.

Australian Commissioner Dissents

Andrew Fisher, Australian High Commissioner in London, in a note issued with the Dardanelles report dissented from the findings of the majority that the naval advisers should have expressed their views at the War Council; and from the opinion of the majority that Lord Fisher was not justified in remaining silent. Mr. Fisher says:

I dissent in the strongest terms from any suggestion that departmental advisers of a Minister, in his company at council meetings, should express any views at all other than to the Minister and through him, unless specifically invited to do so. I am of the opinion that it would seal the fate of responsible government if servants of the State were to share the responsibility of Ministers to Parliament and to the people on matters of public policy. The Minister has command of the opinions and views of all the officers of the department he administers on matters of public policy. Good stewardship demands from Ministers of the Crown frank, fair, and full statements of all opinions of trusted and experienced officials to their colleagues when they have direct reference to matters of high policy.

Thomas McKenzie, High Commissioner of New Zealand in London, took a similar stand regarding Lord Fisher and the naval advisers. Mr. McKenzie also expressed the opinion that the commission was not yet justified in coming to a decision as to the results of the enterprise. To do so, he said, it would be necessary to investigate the conduct of the offensive on the Gallipoli Peninsula and of the subsidiary operations.

A separate report was presented also by Walter F. Roch, Liberal member of the House of Commons from Pembrokeshire. Mr. Roch made an exhaustive exposition of the attitude of Lord Fisher, who, he said, vigorously opposed the Dardanelles enterprise and on Jan. 28 actually left the council table declaring he would resign his office.

"Lord Kitchener," he continued, "took Lord Fisher aside and urged him that his duty to the country was to continue in office. Lord Fisher reluctantly yielded to Lord Kitchener's entreaty and resumed his seat."

Lord Fisher, continues the Roch report, in his evidence before the Commissioners said he had "taken every step to show his dislike of the proposed operations," and replying to a question as to why he had made no formal protests at the meetings of the War Council, told the Commissioners: "Mr. Churchill knew my opposition. I didn't think it would tend toward good relations between him and myself, nor to smooth working at the Admiralty, to raise an objection in the War Council's discussions."

Lord Fisher's Point of View

After the decision of the War Council had been taken and the expedition begun, Lord Fisher, the report continues, did everything in his power to assist. His whole theory of the use of the British sea power in the war, Mr. Roch states, was embodied in a memorandum submitted to Premier Asquith in January, as follows:

The Germans have already endeavored, without success, to scatter our naval strength by attacks on our trade and by submarines and mines. The pressure of sea power is a slow process and requires great patience. In time it will almost certainly compel the enemy to seek a decision at sea. This is one reason for husbanding our resources. Another reason is that the prolongation of war at sea tends to raise up fresh enemies for the dominant naval power, owing to the exasperation of neutrals. This tendency is only checked by the conviction that an overwhelming naval supremacy is behind the nation exercising the sea power.

The sole justification of bombardments and attacks by the fleet on fortified places, such as the Dardanelles, is to force a decision at sea. As long as the German High Sea Fleet possesses its present strength and splendid gunnery efficiency, so long is it imperative that no operation be undertaken by the British fleet calculated to impair its superiority, which is none too great in view of the heavy losses already experienced in ships and men, which latter cannot be filled in the period of the war, in which the navy differs materially from the army. Even the older ships should not be risked, for they cannot be lost without losing men, and they form the only reserve behind the great fleet.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013.



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