British strategy, in both World Wars, pursued the same end: the defeat of Germany. In both wars, there was a similar debate over means. Should Germany be defeated by frontal assault in the West? Or was there a way round, by which Germany could be defeated more easily and at less cost? In the second war, the way round predominated. British troops were continuously engaged in the Mediterranean sphere from July 1940 until the end of the war. They took on substantial German forces only in June 1944. In the first war, the the bulk of the British army fought the Germans in northern France from start to finish. This strategy was advocated by nearly all the military advisers. Some political leaders did not like it. Lloyd George, when prime minister, constantly favored eastern campaigns. Though he sometimes got his way, these campaigns contributed little or nothing to the defeat of Germany. The only eastern operation of strategical significance during the first war was the expedition to the Dardanelles in 1915. This failed; and its failure relegated the later eastern campaigns to the rank of side shows. The sacrifices on the Gallipoli peninsula lingered long in British memories. The issues involved are still debated. Why was the Gallipoli campaign undertaken? Had it any chance of success? Why did it fail?
Mr. Trumbull Higgins is an uncompromising westerner. In an earlier book, Winston Churchill and the Second Front, he dealt firmly with British evasions during the second war, and made his opinion clear that Germany could be defeated only by a landing in northern France. His exciting and, in many ways, admirable book perhaps attributed too much deliberation to British policy. The British armies fought in Egypt and north Africa simply because they were there, and once started they could not stop. The first war is a rather different story. Then the British deliberately went to Gallipoli, and it should be possible to discover avowed motives. Mr. Higgins set out to find them. He had a subsidiary object in his search. Having rightly attributed most of the responsibility for British strategy in the second war to Winston Churchill, he hoped, as the title of his book implies, to find Churchill as the decisive force also in the first. Thus he would show that Churchill had pursued the delusion of the back door and the soft under-belly in both wars. This plan has not altogether worked out. Churchill was by no means alone in conceiving or in advocating the Gallipoli campaign. His special contribution was to press for stronger action, once the campaign had been decided on; and his simplemindedness made him a scapegoat for the muddles and failures of others. Churchill, being in charge of the navy, naturally advocated a naval strategy. At the same time, he was much less committed than others to a limited war; and he by no means seconded Lloyd George’s eastern enthusiasms later in the war.
Churchill was only one voice in favor of Gallipoli, and perhaps not the most powerful. Mr. Higgins has rightly shifted his ground, and has investigated the workings of British government over a wider field. He has used many secret papers, which are now being made accessible to historians, and has written a first-rate political study of the Gallipoli affair. The results are not as novel as he makes out. The confusions and misunderstandings, equivocations and deceptions were already made clear by the Dardanelles commission of enquiry in 1917; and not many historians would agree with Mr. Higgins that until now the generals and admirals have been blamed, and the statesmen acquitted. Asquith, the Prime Minister, was the man most responsible; and Gallipoli was not the least among the forces which brought him down. Mr. Higgins would have written a book above criticism if he had kept to the record of muddle. Instead, he is determined to prove a thesis. He has a clear picture in his head of the choice between limited and total war; and is firmly resolved that the men of fifty years ago were as clear about it as he is. Limited war was the traditional British stategy. In previous continental wars, Great Britain made colonial gains and occasionally nibbled at the edges of Europe, while her European allies did the serious fighting. So in the first World War, according to Mr. Higgins, France and Russia were expected to defeat the German army, while Great Britain carried off the spoils of the Ottoman empire. If this helped to defeat Germany, so much the better. In any case, it would avoid having to raise a mass army, and would give Great Britain something to bargain with when the war ended.
This makes a neat picture. Neatness in history is dangerous. Even historically, the picture is misleading. The British put great armies into Europe against Louis XIV, as Churchill, Marlborough’s descendant, knew well; and would have done so against Napoleon if there had been anywhere to put them. By 1915 the British were already committed to a mass army in France, though they had not yet appreciated all the efforts involved. The question was not: Shall we go to France or elsewhere? It was: What shall we do until the mass army is ready? The British army in France could not win the war in 1915; and could not have won it even if reinforced by the soldiers who were diverted to the Dardanelles. Mr. Higgins seems to imply that the British in 1915—as again between 1940 and 1943—should have marked time until they could strike the decisive blow. This was not a practicable alternative at the time. War demands action; and ineffective action seems better than none at all. Judging from the record, this seems to have been the simple motive behind the Gallipoli campaign. British statesmen and strategists did not draw profound lessons from history, though no doubt Wellington’s Peninsular campaign (which Mr. Higgins does not mention) was vaguely in their minds. They simply said: “We control the seas. Here, at Gallipoli, is the one effective thing which we can do in 1915.” Of course they exaggerated both the chances of success, and the rewards which success would bring. Mr. Higgins is probably right in arguing that the Gallipoli campaign could not succeed and would not have made much difference if it had. Its advocates are entitled to reply that fighting in France was equally unrewarding in 1915.
Mr. Higgins has a further thesis which he has worked out less carefully. The British rulers, he suggests, failed over policy. If they wanted a limited war, they should have had limited aims. The aim of defeating Germany completely condemned them to total war. Concealed in this argument is a lament for the lost chance of a compromise peace. This was the great illusion of both wars. The truth, however contradictory it may sound, was that even the most limited aims could be achieved only by the total defeat of Germany. This produced tiresome results, but so it was. As Kitchener rightly remarked, “We have to make war as we must, and not as we should like to.” Mr. Higgins is one of those who would like to make war on a rational pattern. This is not how wars are made. However, we can agree with him that the Gallipoli campaign was a peculiarly irrational affair, even among the irrational proceedings of war.
October 31, 1963