Journal of the Australian War Memorial - Issue 36
Tim Travers, Gallipoli 1915, Tempus Publishing, Stroud, Gloucestershire, 2001, 287 pp., illustrations, maps, appendixes, bibliography, endnotes, index, hard cover, rrp $39.99
Reviewed by: Ashley Ekins, Military History Section, Australian War Memorial
Continuing historical debate over the Gallipoli campaign suggests a corollary to Clausewitz's overworked dictum that war is a continuation of politics by other means: military history is often the continuation of war by other means. "No single military campaign of modern times has been the subject of such intense and prolonged attention and controversy as the Gallipoli Campaign of 1915", wrote Robert Rhodes James in 1965 in the preface to his classic study of the campaign. The flow of published accounts and interpretations has scarcely slowed since James made his judgement almost forty years ago. Debate continues over the campaign's strategic basis, its tactical shortcomings and its chances for success.
The lingering fascination with Gallipoli owes much to the failure of the allied offensive. The shock of the allied defeat generated an indestructible belief in the strategic opportunities the campaign supposedly offered and the victory which many continue to believe was almost grasped by the allies on several occasions. Tim Travers (a Canadian First World War scholar, well-known for his influential volumes and numerous articles on warfare on the Western Front), takes the allied failure at Gallipoli as his central theme in this fresh study. Travers seeks to find solutions to what he terms the "riddle of Gallipoli": why the allies, with their apparently superior resources, strength and technological power, failed to achieve victory in the campaign.
The book is based on extensive archival research: the 220 pages of text are supported by over 30 pages of endnotes. Travers has assiduously trawled the principal archival collections in the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, France and Turkey - notably the archives of the Turkish General Staff headquarters in Ankara. Some of this Turkish source material provides a welcome perspective on the campaign "from the other side".
But does Tim Travers offer a "startling new interpretation of the 1915 conflict", as promised on the book's dust jacket? This is certainly more than merely another narrative account of the campaign. Travers recounts the main phases of the campaign in chronological sequence: from its genesis in London as a purely naval assault on the Dardanelles defences, to the multiple amphibious landings on the Gallipoli peninsula; through the climactic breakout push, leading to the exhaustion and eventually the withdrawal of the allied forces. The author's approach is primarily through engagement with the main questions which have occupied historians of the campaign, such as: whether the allied naval assault could have succeeded if pressed more vigorously; how the landings were handled and why they failed; why the August offensive assaults to break out of the Anzac enclave failed; and whether the Turks were aware of the allied "secret" evacuation.
Some of the conclusions Travers draws from his sources in answer to these central questions will not satisfy all readers but the depth of his research ensures that his arguments are always interesting. His use of Turkish sources offers a particularly interesting insight into Turkish awareness of allied intentions prior to the landings in April. Travers also provides evidence that in late November Liman von Sanders, commander of the Turkish 5th Army, anticipated an allied withdrawal.
Travers also dispels the long-standing myth, still repeated in modern accounts, that the Turkish defenders were desperately low in ammunition after the major combined allied naval assault of 18 March (pp.31-2). This knowledge is not new to most scholars, as Robin Prior first established it in his 1983 work, Churchill's "World Crisis" as History; more recently it received further confirmation from Turkish sources in an article by Edward J. Erickson, "One more push: forcing the Dardanelles in March 1915", The Journal of Strategic Studies, (September 2001). Travers' evidence now makes the case irrefutable that further naval assaults upon the Dardanelles defences would have been folly.
Curiously, in assessing the reasons for the failure of the naval assault, Travers adopts a strangely old-fashioned explanation. The roots of the problem, he believes, lay in a lack of proper planning and staff work due to the poor quality staff who were a product of the British class system (pp.35-6). He makes little mention of the limitations of naval gunnery or of the detailed study by the British Admiralty in 1919 which identified serious technical deficiencies (he does not even cite the Mitchell Report until over one hundred pages later). He dismisses these technical failings with the statement that "the problem of indirect naval fire was very difficult to solve" (p.35). In fact, the problem had no solution in 1915, as he acknowledges in a later chapter on technology (p.164).
While Travers recognises the limitations of allied artillery and naval gunnery in the Gallipoli campaign, he regards this as only a minor factor contributing to the failure of the campaign. Yet the British were at a comparative disadvantage from the outset. Turkish expenditure of shells at over 1,600 per day, virtually from the day of the landings, soon exceeded their production capacity and led to a shell shortage (according to Turkish accounts he cites); but this Turkish weight of fire was vastly superior to anything the British and ANZAC divisions could expend. At the conclusion of the main August offensive, the British daily ration was reduced to two rounds per gun at Helles; shortly afterwards, the same restriction was re-imposed on the Anzac and Suvla fronts. This led the French troops at Helles, who were much better provided with both guns and ammunition, to jokingly disparage the British artillery, and its commander, with the epithet "un coup par pièce" (one shot per gun).
Travers also argues that the allies failed to exploit their opportunities to advance immediately after securing their landings on 25 April and in early August while Turkish forces - according to Turkish records he cites - were in disarray. The failure was due to inferior allied commanders, he believes. What often tipped the scales, he writes, was superior military leadership on the Turkish and German side - this was the "final factor" which overcame allied advantages (p.176). To reinforce this argument, under photographs of Turkish soldiers the reader is informed that "The officers and men look casual but efficient" (p.171); and of a group of unidentified Turkish officers, the caption reads: "Their strength of purpose comes through in the picture, reflecting Birdwood's argument to the Dardanelles Commission about the Turks being too strong for the Allies" (p.209).
Leaving aside the dubious nature of much of the evidence given to the Dardanelles Royal Commission (produced through collusion between senior commanders, as Travers shows in chapter 11), this is a curious argument. It is also contradicted by much of the evidence Travers himself produces. Interestingly, it runs counter to his own view expressed in an earlier article. Travers then argued that the military failure at Gallipoli was largely due to a continuity on Gallipoli of the unimaginative Western Front approaches to offensive warfare and the nature of the British army command structure, rather than individual command mistakes. Although personalities were undoubtedly important, he argued, this has led to a "tendency to explain the failure of the Gallipoli campaign by focusing solely on the conduct of particular individuals … without reference to other constraints" ("Command and leadership styles in the British Army: the 1915 Gallipoli model", Journal of Contemporary History, July 1994, pp.403-442, 403).
In his conclusions Travers repeats his criticism of the weakness of British commanders and the command structure, but then opts for a four-fold explanation (pp.228-9): the allies failed because of their inexperience of modern warfare and the application of defective tactics (although this is contradicted by his acknowledgement that the campaign took place early in the war, before the developments in military technology provided solutions to the dilemmas of 1915); structural and systemic problems which were beyond the control of individual leaders (also contradicted by claims elsewhere in the book that the Turkish and German victory was due to their leaders being "stronger" and more resolute); the fact that, just as on the Western Front, the technology of modern war heavily favoured the defence; and finally, the much stronger Turkish defence and greater Turkish numbers than the allies anticipated.
Despite this reviewer's misgivings about some of Travers's conclusions, this is an important book about an enduring subject. Tim Travers challenges many of the accepted historical accounts and his interpretations will stimulate debate on a range of issues. This book will not stop the historiographical war, but it will provide further ammunition to those waging it from all sides.