Review: Greg Lockharton Churchill and the Dardanelles

Churchill’s Silver Bullet: The Grand Deception by Tom Curran

We all have an idea that the Dardanelles and Gallipoli campaigns did not turn out well. Dealing with that failure has after all helped to shape the Australian identity. It has given us the Anzac tradition, which rests on a story of heroism in defeat. In The Grand Deception Tom Curran gives us a penetrating new account of the inception and failure of those campaigns, and so takes us into areas Australian historians have tended to overlook. His wider point is that nothing in history is sacred.

The usual story of the Dardanelles, which chimes with the upbeat account of the defeat in Anzac writing, has been around for 80 or 90 years. Therein, the campaign is presented as a grand vision that would have shortened the war and saved millions of lives, but was tragically undermined by various factors. The reluctance of the navy and army to cooperate and the incompetence of the British War Council are often cited. Basically though, the architect of the vision, Britain’s First Lord of the Admiralty, effectively the civilian Minister for the Navy, Winston Churchill, was ‘robbed’ by Lords Fisher and Kitchener, the head of the Royal Navy and Army respectively. Fisher is often blamed because of his fainthearted failure to resume the naval attack of 18 March 1915 and Kitchener, who was Secretary of State for War, because of his narrow-minded refusal to provide troops for the campaign before it was too late. Recent variants on this refrain, including Graham Freudenberg, Churchill and Australia (2008) and Sean McMeekin, Ottoman Endgame (2015) identify Churchill’s goals with those of Kitchener, Fisher and others including the Prime Minister H.H. Asquith. But still, they minimise Churchill’s responsibility by depicting his participation in a collective plan.

Curran’s reappraisal, which builds on a small, but discerning body of writing that has been critical of Churchill over the years, reveals how he exceeded the normal limits of his political office by meddling without any professional knowledge of ships or fleets in Admiralty affairs. We learn how Churchill’s superabundant talents combined with his taste for political deception to foist the disastrous naval advice on the British government that led to the disaster. In Curran’s convincing account, Churchill’s glittering opus The World Crisis (1923) was then central to the literary sham that followed his political one.

Curran sadly passed away in 2011, before Andrew Bonnell skilfully edited his University of Queensland PhD into the book under review. What comes through in the work’s eight tight chapters is an unusually concentrated focus on the First Lord. This suggests to me the scientific reductionism Curran would have imbibed while qualifying in pharmacy at Edinburgh University in 1961. After coming to Australia, his Army Medical Corps service in Vietnam also seems to have shaped his work. Reading it, one senses empathy for the victims of political incompetence and a real grip on political and military processes. Something special is in any case driving Curran’s penetrating reading of what he calls the ‘neglected’ primary record.

Even though most of the relevant papers on the First Lord’s role in the inception of the Dardanelles campaign were accessible to the public by the 1970s, Curran notes in his Introduction that ‘this evidence has never been subjected to an exhaustive examination by British scholars’. This is particularly so of one of his prize exhibits: Lord Hankey’s ‘magnum opus file’, (CAB 63/17-18 in the British National Archives) which he later incorporated with other papers into his memoirs The Supreme Command, 1914-1918, (1961). Indicative of the lack of bureaucratic capacity to handle a modern, total war, the War Council was a sub-committee of Cabinet and it kept no official minutes of its meetings in 1915. As Cabinet Secretary, however, Hankey kept an unofficial longhand record of all the Council’s meetings, and these are an important primary source of information on the Dardanelles. Hankey’s file also includes the documentation he prepared for the Dardanelles Commission in 1916-17 and in 1919, when it considered Gallipoli.

Early in the book, we see that Curran’s English working-class background may also have attuned him to what might be described as Churchill’s deep political cover. As a brilliant son of the house of Marlborough, we get the idea that he was born to rule in the British class system, regardless of almost any flaw. Burning ambition, impetuosity, a ‘mania’ for military glory and a preposterous sense of self-importance proved no obstacle to his early political career. Asquith, who thought he was a ‘genius’, made him First Lord in October 1911 at the age of 36.

The extent to which Asquith then indulged Churchill’s incredible behaviour makes me wonder whether Curran could have made a wider point about the sociology of power. Curran uses to some extent, but might have made more of the much read Michael and Eleanor Brock collection H.H.Asquith. Letters to Venetia Stanley (1984). Venetia was the Prime Minister’s lover and the letters make it clear that Churchill was in the Asquith family circle. The families went yachting together in the Aegean. Asquith’s wife Margot could be fond and critical of Churchill by turns. Both Asquith’s daughter Violet and Venetia were unequivocally fond of him. Writing to Venetia on 27 Oct. 1914 Asquith further mentioned that ‘I can’t help being very fond of him [Churchill] – he is so resourceful and undismayed: two of the qualities I like best’.

In the warmth of those affections, it is not altogether surprising that Churchill’s essay on Asquith in Great Contemporaries (1937) suggests that the Prime Minster concurred in his most gung-ho decisions. This happened after Churchill took the enormously provocative step of ordering the navy to war stations at Scapa Flow on 30 July 1914 without consulting Cabinet, a step that, given the great tensions in European diplomacy at the time, almost certainly contributed to the outbreak of war. After the event, Churchill apparently raised the matter privately with Asquith, who  ‘looked at me with a hard stare and gave a sort of a grunt.’. Even so, it is hard to understand how Asquith could have permitted the staggering string of Royal Navy disasters that Churchill presided over as Britain entered the war.

In early August, two German cruisers, Goeben and Breslau, escaped the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean and made it to the Black Sea, disastrously bringing Turkey into the war. On 22 September 1914, ‘the live-bait Squadron’ comprised of the cruisers Hogue, Cressy and  Aboukir was sunk in the North Sea by the same German submarine within an hour. 1400 men went down. Between 7 and 9 October Churchill committed and lost the untrained Royal Naval Division in the failed defence of Antwerp. On 1 November, the German East Asia Squadron defeated a British flotilla in the battle at Coronel off the southwest coast of Chile and 1600 men went down. This was the greatest calamity in Royal Naval history for over a century. On 2 November, the limited and pointless British-French bombardment of the outer forts at the Dardanelles alerted the Ottomans to British interest in the area. Curran argues convincingly that Churchill’s incompetent interventions into Admiralty procedures contributed primarily to this ruin. Yet one still wonders exactly what chemistry of blind ambition and amoral political capacity on Churchill’s side and of non-existent leadership and bureaucratic failure on the cabinet’s side could have permitted him to get away with all that.

Neither, of course, was that all. For whatever else Curran might have said about how power worked in Britain, he goes on effectively to point out that the widespread public condemnation of Churchill by late 1914 – a group of Tories signed a petition describing him as a ‘National Danger’ and ‘Public Enemy Number One’ – linked that string of disasters to the even greater catastrophe at the Dardanelles. Curran quotes Hankey looking back on the Dardanelles decision from March 1915: ‘In my own belief, Churchill wanted to bring off the coup by the Navy alone to rehabilitate his reputation’ – the navy alone, because it would finally place a glorious victory at his feet.

It is indeed hard to imagine any other reason why Churchill could have become so taken with the idea of a purely naval attack. The idea was unheard of. It was so far outside of naval doctrine as it had evolved since the time of Nelson a century before that no mere mortal could have seriously imagined it was anything other than a recipe for disaster. As Curran again quotes Hankey, among numerous others:

From Lord Fisher downwards every officer in the Admiralty believes that the navy cannot take the Dardanelles position without troops. The first Lord still professes to believe that they can do it with ships alone, but I have warned the Prime Minister that we cannot trust to this.

The naval gunnery experts, all of whom Churchill saw no necessity to consult, were unanimous that naval gunfire alone was most unlikely to be able to deal with the fourteen fixed forts and 40 mobile howitzer batteries covering the minefields and guarding the 61-kilometre length of the Straits. Naval gunfire was low trajectory and required line of sight to the target. Even if it could have hit the guns in the forts firing from an unstable platform at a range of nine or ten miles, it could never have engaged the howitzer batteries moving around in the surrounding gullies as they covered the minefields against mine sweeping operations and brought down plunging fire on attacking ships. An army would be essential to deal with the shore defences and so support the navy in any attempt ‘to force the Dardanelles’.

On 2 January 1915, Kitchener incorporated that understanding into his response to a Russian request for a naval or military ‘demonstration’ to draw Ottoman forces away from the Caucuses that where said to be pressuring Russian troops there. The request added that it would be good if the Ottomans believed Constantinople was threatened. No military demonstration was at that moment possible, because Kitchener did not feel able to divert troops from the western front before April. After discussing the Russian request with Churchill the same afternoon, Kitchener believed a naval ‘demonstration’ consisting of a bombardment of the four outer forts at the head of the Dardanelles was feasible. Far from being an attempt ‘to force the Dardanelles’, ships firing on the outer forts would not have to deal with the mines and the field artillery batteries covering them inside the Straits. When he endorsed a ‘demonstration’, Kitchener had also added that, in the event of serious problems, the ships could be withdrawn without a loss of British prestige.

Why was Kitchener being so helpful? The answer is that he wanted to do what he could to keep the Russians in the war. They had lost 1.8 million men by December 1914 and the Germans were putting out peace feelers to them. German success in that endeavour would have meant a massive transfer of German troops from the eastern to the western front, where the French had lost almost a million men.

At the same time, the War Council and General Staff were considering various schemes that impinged on Russia’s situation and directed Kitchener’s attention generally towards the Dardanelles. Lloyd George, Churchill and Hankey had been looking for an ‘indirect approach’ to end the war. One of these approaches was to place pressure on Germany from the east, where some kind of ‘Balkan League’ might be forged with British military leadership and support. Greece and Bulgaria might be persuaded to cooperate, if the capture of Constantinople seemed possible. Serbia, Romania and Greece might be persuaded to cooperate in placing serious pressure on the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In both schemes, Germany would be weakened, pressure taken off Russia and the Western front strengthened.

Major economic issues surrounded those military ones. Indeed Nicholas Lambert, in his 2012 book Planning Armageddon, argues that economic factors are enough to explain the decision to attack the Dardanelles.  On 2 August 1914, the Ottomans had closed the Dardanelles locking Russian wheat in the Ukraine. This exacerbated economic and political problems in Russia where a wave of strikes had troubled the capital St. Petersburg in July 1914. By December bread prices soared in Britain and raised official fears of riots there.

If economic issues were not enough, the whole issue of British Empire defence was also at stake. As Ira Klein has discussed, without Russia as an ally, Britain had no way of defending the far-flung Empire, especially India, into the future. Since at least October, British leaders from the King down had assumed that, in order to encourage Russia not to place pressure on the British empire in the Near East and India, Constantinople and control of the Straits should be Russia’s in a post-war settlement. We also find Asquith confiding to Venetia on 31 October 1914 that ‘Few things would give me greater pleasure than to see the Turkish Empire finally disappear from Europe & Constantinople … become Russian (which is I think its proper destiny) …’.

Curran is in touch with the wider issues. Yet again it seems to me that he could have provided a clearer political context for understanding how Churchill got away with what he did – or Asquith let him get away with. Given that Russia seemed so essential to the war effort, so weak and yet so threatening to the British Empire, given that all the great military, economic and diplomatic problems Britain’s leaders faced in 1915 seemed to intersect in a desire to be helpful to Russia, we begin to appreciate the bottomless pit of pessimism and wishful thinking that clearly distorted their decision-making. All senior British politicians, particularly Asquith, were looking for a silver bullet. Curran could have even more effectively positioned his argument if he had observed that, in their strategic impotence, all those British leaders really needed to attack the Dardanelles was naval or military advice that such a bullet could be fired. In that sense they wanted to be deceived. Curran leaves us in no doubt that Churchill was just the man to give them what they wanted; that his ‘deception began on 3 January’ – and has never ended.

On 3 January, the naval head of the Admiralty, First Sea Lord Admiral Fisher made a contribution to the discussion. He called for an attack on Turkey, ‘but only if it is immediate’. Ignoring Kitchener’s refusal to transfer troops, Fisher proposed an immediate joint operation, in which massive army involvement, including 70,000 Indian and other troops pulled together with armies from Greece and Bulgaria. These would assist the Royal Navy in various ways to ‘force the Dardanelles’ and take Constantinople. Fisher clearly shared with Kitchener an understanding that troops would be needed to support the navy.

What Churchill did next brought on the disaster; he arbitrarily extracted the naval part of Fisher’s proposal and began to think in terms of using old battleships ‘to force the Dardanelles’. Between 3 and 12 January he said nothing about this to Kitchener – or Fisher. Yet on 3 January he had sent a telegram to Vice-Admiral Carden, the Commander of the Mediterranean fleet: ‘Do you consider the forcing of the Dardanelles by ships alone a practicable operation?’ Admirals at sea do not provide their Ministers with negative replies. Picking up on the work of earlier Churchill critics, Curran notes that Carden’s ‘cautious’ reply of 5 January was as ‘about as non-committal as honour permitted’: ‘I do not think that the Dardanelles can be rushed, but they might be forced by extended operations with a large number of ships.’

In The World Crisis (1923), which much later began to turn public opinion in favour of his ‘visionary’ plan, Churchill says that he went to a meeting of the War Council on 5 January. Therein, The World Crisis explains,

the question of the attack on Turkey and a diversion in the Near East was one of the principal subjects discussed. Everyone seemed alive to the advantages, Admiral Carden’s telegram, which I read out, was heard with extreme interest.

The record shows that no War Council meeting took place on 5 January. While some argue that Churchill merely got the dates wrong – that the meeting Churchill described actually took place on 13 July, wherein a second telegram Carden sent on 12 July was ‘heard with extreme interest’ – doubts remain. Churchill certainly had something in mind when he contacted Carden on 3 January and Carden did sent his first cautious reply on 5 January. It is also true that Churchill said nothing to Kitchener about the matter until 12 January, the day before the next War Council meeting. The most authoritative accounts of the meeting agree that Kitchener ‘protested vigorously’ against any attempt to force the Dardanelles when Churchill raised it with him. Churchill replied that Kitchener was no expert on naval gunnery and that with eight 15-inch guns, the advent of the new battleship Queen Elizabeth ‘would revolutionise all previous estimates of naval warfare’. Churchill’s general behaviour and tendentious response to Kitchener tends to support Curran’s formulation of Churchill’s account of the non-existent 5 January War Council meeting as ‘pure fabrication’.

Then, in Curran’s excellent account of the 13 January War Council meeting, we see how Churchill lit up a dishevelled scene. Curran quotes from Hankey, The Supreme Command:

The meeting now seemed to be drawing to an end. The War Council had been sitting all day. The blinds had been drawn to shut out the winter evening. The air was heavy and the table presented that rather dishevelled appearance that results from a long sitting … Churchill suddenly revealed his well-kept secret of a naval attack on the Dardanelles! The idea caught on at once. The whole atmosphere changed. Fatigue was forgotten. … Churchill unfolded his plans with the skill that might be expected of him, lucidly but quietly and without exaggerated optimism.

The politicians had their silver bullet, and the disaster was born.

Kitchener, with Churchill’s idea of the Queen Elizabeth’s tremendous firepower still in mind, conceded it might be ‘worth trying’, repeating that ‘we could leave off the bombardment if it did not prove effective’. Lord Fisher, who strongly opposed the venture, was not asked for his opinion. The meeting would have assumed Churchill’s plan had incorporated his views. On 19 February the bombardment of the outer forts began and Churchill compromised Cabinet security by announcing the attack with great éclat to the press. On 22 February The Times, announced that ‘having begun’, the attack ‘must be successfully carried through at all costs.’ The Chancellor of the Exchequer Lloyd George, who supported an ‘Eastern strategy’, was furious with Churchill saying that ‘he broke faith with his colleagues. … Thenceforth it was of course impossible for the government to withdraw.’

The main naval assault on the Dardanelles took place on 18 March. In The World Crisis Churchill described a scene of ‘terrible majesty’. This was ‘under a cloudless sky in all the jewelled serenity for which the Agean is famous at best’. Sixteen British and French battleships, 12 cruisers and 22 destroyers entered the Straits in four battle lines firing salvo after salvo. The French battleship Bouvet was the first to hit a mine. Almost simultaneously an artillery shell smashed into it. The battleship sank within three minutes, so quickly that virtually its entire 640-man crew went to the bottom with it. Hitting the same belt of mines as the Bouvet, the British battleships HMS Ocean and HMS Irresistible also sank. Three more battleships were crippled and a further 60 sailors killed. The Allies had lost a third of their battle array. The Ottomans had lost 100 men and four guns destroyed.

Churchill tried desperately, but failed to have the naval attack resumed. He claimed to have special intelligence that the forts were almost out of ammunition. No one believed it. Neither did anyone else think another attack would be any more successful than the first one.

Troubled by the effect that loss of British prestige would have in the Muslim world, Kitchener was also confident, indeed, too confident, that an army could rectify the situation. George Cassar in his 2004 book Kitchener’s War suggests that ‘the almost casual manner’ in which Kitchener drifted first into he Dardanelles and Gallipoli disasters, was related to an underlying assumption that the Ottoman Empire was a feeble military power. Kitchener had been wary of a purely naval attack on the Dardanelles. Like other key British war leaders, however, he had also assumed that with a few salvos the Ottoman defences would crumble in the face of British power. When the navy’s salvos failed he simply assumed that the army would do the job. Once he was in a position to release the British, Anzac and Indian troops to support the navy, he thus appointed General Ian Hamilton to command the prospective invasion force on 11 March.

Even so, Curran reminds us of Hankey’s original observation that it was still Churchill who was the driving force behind the military invasion. A long-standing Dardanelles Commission finding, repeated by many historians, was that, since no War Council meetings were held between March 19 and May 14 it is not possible to ascertain the exact date following the failure of the naval attack, on which the troop landings at Gallipoli was decided. The Grand Deception tells us that finding was ‘erroneous’.

A short, informal, but legal War Council meeting attended only by Asquith, Churchill, Kitchener and Hankey did take place on 6 April, ‘to consider the questions of the military attack on the Dardanelles now being prepared in Egypt’. Both Lloyd George and Arthur Balfour who opposed a military operation were conspicuously absent. And if there is any doubt that Churchill drove the military decision, as he had the naval one, it was dispelled at a Cabinet meeting the next day. One participant asked on whose authority the invasion was being undertaken and ‘Churchill declared that he was willing to take the whole responsibility himself.’ Curran says that in the absence of leadership from Asquith, Churchill’s will prevailed. I would suggest that was the Prime Minister’s position too.

Lambert (2012) quotes Lord Fisher’s own words after the 28 January 1915 War Council meeting. Fisher said: the attack on the Dardanelles had been decided for ‘political reasons’, that ‘the politicians took the bit by their teeth and decided it was a Cabinet not an “expert” decision.’ Fisher maintained that view, which can be readily extended to the Gallipoli campaign, until at least his testimony at the Dardanelles Commission in October 1916. It may then be little wonder that Churchill’s political deceptions merged so readily with those of that highly political Commission, as it overlooked much of the information Hankey provided it. The Commission was never going to reveal in wartime – or perhaps at any time – government incompetence at the highest levels. Scapegoats were needed and found: chiefly Fisher, who had resigned in May in anger and frustration at Churchill’s mismanagement of the campaign, and Kitchener, who was killed on 2 June 1916 while on board HMS Hampshire when it was sunk by a mine in the North Sea.

Both Kitchener and Fisher had their limitations. After the 13 January War Council Meeting, both changed their minds and seemed to make contradictory statements, as Churchill did under the enormous pressure and complexity of the changing situation. But as Cassar said of Kitchener, he was ‘drawn into the Dardanelles miasma piecemeal and against his better judgement.’ Fisher was too. There was furthermore no serious basis for the various claims that Churchill did much to promote both in the Dardanelles Commission and later in The World Crisis that the two were ‘weak and vacillating’. As these ‘slanders’ are a part of the grand deception, they are subjected to detailed refutation in Curran’s book.

After Fisher resigned on 15 May, he exclaimed that ‘Churchill is a bigger danger than the Germans!’ So he should have been relieved – and perhaps somewhat satisfied – to learn that his resignation had led to Churchill’s downfall. On 17 May the Cabinet was officially informed that ‘Churchill had been ordering ships and fleets about without consultation, much less [the] concurrence of Lord Fisher.’ That afternoon Asquith informed a stunned Churchill that he would no longer be in control of the Admiralty in the forthcoming coalition, which had been agreed to by himself and the conservative leader Bonar Law. Provoked by Churchill’s behaviour, Fisher’s resignation had brought down the Liberal government.

The final chapters explain, again in fascinating depth, how the political deceptions became political-literary – or how readily allegedly unofficial culture conforms to the politics of its time. To protect his battered reputation Churchill was now instrumental in the literary charade. Flouting the Official Secrets Act (1911) with impunity, he used the primary official record, which would be unavailable to other historians before the 1960s, to write The World Crisis (1923). Brimming with boundless enthusiasm and brilliant, slightly archaic prose, it was back to ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’. The work greatly appealed to a readership that was ready to be distracted from the awfulness of the war. In Britain (and Europe), World Crisis became a textbook. The doyen of Great War historians in the 1930s Captain (later Sir) Basil Liddell Hart, who excoriated British generals and applauded the alleged ‘indirect approach’ of Churchill’s strategic concept at the Dardanelles, used World Crisis uncritically as a major source for his own influential book The Real War (1930).

Such sway further promoted the idea of the former First Lord’s ‘visionary’ leadership. So in very large measure did Churchill’s personification of British resistance against Nazism in the second world war. After that, Martin Gilbert’s biography Winston S. Churchill (3 Vols. 1971) was the major vector of the great man’s reputation. Gilbert mistakenly pictured Churchill’s participation in a collective plan for the naval attack on the Dardanelles, which is in scholarly fashion today. Significantly, Gilbert also missed both Churchill’s fabrication of the fictional War Council meeting on 5 January and the occurrence of the 6 April meeting.

My sense is that Asquith wanted a silver bullet but that, as Curran’s original and insightful book reveals, he would not have had one without the unscrupulous special pleading and disastrous intervention of his 39-year old First Lord of the Admiralty in naval and military affairs.

Neither then, Curran also happens to be showing, would we have the Anzac narrative in the form we have it today.

Acknowledgements. Thanks to Douglas Newton, who made valuable comments on the first draft, and to Peter Cochrane’ s words ‘The past is not sacred’ in Griffith Review 48: Enduring Legacies (2015)


George H. Cassar, Kitchener’s War: British Strategy from 1914 to 1916, 2004.
Winston S. Churchill, The World Crisis, 2 vols, 1923.
David French, ‘The Origins of the Dardanelles Campaign Reconsidered’, History, vol. 68, No. 223 (June 1983), pp. 210-224.
Graham Freudenberg, Churchill and Australia, (2006).
Ira Klein,‘The Anglo-Russian Convention and the Problem of Central Asia, 1907-14’, Journal of British Studies, November 1971.
Arthur J. Marder, From the Dardanelles to Oran: Studies of the Royal Navy in Peace and War, 1974.
Robin Prior, Churchill’s ‘World Crisis’ as history, (1983).