Monday, 18 January 2021

On 25th April 1915, Allied forces approached the Gallipoli peninsula. These men were beginning a daring undertaking: one of the first significant modern amphibious operations where the invading force had to contend with machine guns and modern artillery.

The operation was the result of a quest to find a way to break the deadlock. Land operations on the Western Front had bogged down into the stalemate of the trenches, and some members of the Liberal government looked at how British naval power might be able to influence events on land more. Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty, proposed to establish a base on the island of Borkum near Belgium and to mount an Allied amphibious landing on the German coast. Other ideas included attacking Germany’s allies: Austria-Hungary or the Ottoman Empire, the latter either through the Dardanelles or in Syria.

The Borkum proposal was deemed too risky (although Churchill continued to advocate it), and therefore the government’s attention turned to Turkey. With an initial Russian request in early January for help to distract the Ottomans in the Caucasus, the prospect of opening a communications route with Russia, the possibility of distracting the Ottomans from the Suez Canal, and the potential of attracting Balkan states to the Entente, the War Council agreed on an operation in the Dardanelles.

The naval campaign

Lord Kitchener, since Secretary of State for War, was reluctant to commit land forces, the operation began as a purely naval affair. The plan involved a British-French force, comprising mostly of outdated vessels, sailing through the Dardanelles up to Constantinople. There was even the hope that it might overawe the Turks into withdrawing from the war. The naval campaign began on 19th February 1915. The Allied ships and Royal Marine Light Infantry were unable to inflict any major damage on the Ottoman guns, and the converted fishing trawlers which were used as minesweepers struggled against the strong currents. The main attack began on 18th March, but the force was struck by Ottoman mines and guns. Three battleships were sunk and a further three were badly damaged.

The Gallipoli Landings

The failure of the naval operation confirmed the need for amphibious landings on the Gallipoli peninsula. A force of 75,000 men was assembled, comprised of British, Australian, New Zealand, Indian, and French troops. The Mediterranean Expeditionary Force (MEF) was commanded by General Sir Ian Hamilton and was to land on six different beaches. The British 29th Division (commanded by Major-General Aylmer Hunter-Weston) would land on five beaches (named S, V, W, X, and Y beaches) at Cape Helles on the southern tip of the peninsula, while the Anzac (Australian and New Zealand) Corps (commanded by Lieutenant-General William Birdwood) would land further north around Gaba Tepe on the western coast of the peninsula (Z beach). There would also be diversionary landings at Bulair and Kum Kale. Facing them was the Ottoman Fifth Army commanded by the German General Liman von Sanders.

After delays, the landings were made on 25th April. The Australians, Canadians and New Zealanders landed at Ari Burnu (which would be known as Anzac Cove), over a mile north from their intended landing objective. Although they managed to establish a beachhead, the Ottomans counter-attacked and blocked their advance. At Cape Helles, the central attacks at V and W beaches encountered fiercely defended positions. The men who attacked V beach were also landed from the converted collier, River Clyde. While Hunter-Weston’s force landed successfully and inched inland, it did not to make a breakthrough. His attempts at capturing Krithia and the hill of Achi Baba by early June failed. Ottoman counter attacks also failed to drive the British back into the sea. The Gallipoli Front now resembled the trench warfare on the Western Front. The Allies lacked the vital artillery support required for any successful attack and were still in its early stages of trying to master modern trench warfare.

In London, Herbert Asquith, the Prime Minister, formed an all-party coalition government in May. The Conservatives demanded Churchill’s demotion, and he was moved from the Admiralty to the post of Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Churchill would leave government in November).

The Suvla Bay Landing and the August Offensive

The coalition government decided to continue the campaign and send reinforcements. Birdwood and Hamilton’s headquarters devised a plan to undertake a new offensive in the Anzac area and mount a new landing. The Anzacs would capture Sari Bair Ridge, while the new IX Corps (commanded by Lieutenant-General Sir Frederick Stopford) would land at Suvla Bay to the north of Anzac Cove. The operation began on the night of 6th–7th August. Although the Anzac Corps were able to gain footholds on Hill Q and Chunuk Bair, they failed to capitalise on their successes, and were pushed back. Meanwhile, IX Corps successfully landed at Suvla. However, Stopford focused on consolidating his beachhead and failed to seize an opportunity to capture the Anafarta Hills. Instead, the Ottomans were able to send reinforcements and the subsequent British attacks failed. Stopford was swiftly sacked.

The government first considered evacuation in October. Hamilton was replaced by General Sir Charles Munro, and he recommended withdrawal. The Allies left Gallipoli by 9th January 1916. This part of the campaign was carried out most efficiently, and the Allies did not suffer a single loss during the evacuation. Overall, it has been calculated that there were 132,000 Allied battle casualties and 390,000 overall Allied casualties during the whole campaign. The Dardanelles Commission was formed in 1916 to investigate why the campaign went awry. It published its first report in 1917 and its final report in 1919. The Admiralty also conducted an investigation.

Lessons

Although Gallipoli took place in particular circumstances – during a ‘total war’ where the main British priority was fighting Germany – it nevertheless provides important lessons, and many of these were reflected in the post-campaign reports. Firstly, the campaign highlighted the importance of setting clear strategic objectives. There needed to have been a serious consideration of the operational, strategic, and political implications of the Dardanelles proposal. There was no guarantee that reaching Constantinople would have resulted in Ottoman surrender and withdrawal from the war. The operation was also a compromise with those who wished to maintain focus on the Western Front, and as a consequence was under-resourced and carried out by a largely inexperienced force. Furthermore, the critical importance of intelligence was missed. Intelligence about Ottoman defensive capabilities was not taken into account, and the Allied armies ultimately underestimated the calibre of the Ottoman army. Geographical and topographical intelligence were poor, and this was reflected in the production of inadequate maps. Lastly, the campaign highlighted the need for a more efficient command and control system. At Gallipoli, the command system was hampered by the limits of the technology of the day, inexperienced staff officers, differing interpretations of objectives, cultural rigidity, and individual failures such as the failure to exploit the landing on Y Beach, or the failure to exploit successes at Suvla and Sari Bair. Army and navy co-ordination during the landings were also mixed.

Nevertheless, some lessons had also been learned and applied during the campaign. For example, the Allies began to set less ambitious objectives and improved their artillery co-ordination during June and July. The Suvla landing also used purpose-built amphibious landing X Lighter vessels, known as ‘Beetles’. The British and their allies were, therefore, at the start of at least three broad learning processes: a modern amphibious warfare learning process; a trench warfare learning process, which itself contained a whole sub-set of learning curves including infantry and artillery tactics, communications, and intelligence gathering; and an environmental learning process which involved adapting to the particular conditions of the Gallipoli theatre. It is also worthy to note that although Gallipoli was costly for the Allies, it also resulted in serious loss for the Turks, and it is estimated that there were 218,000-251,000 Ottoman casualties, including many of their best men. The impact of attrition would catch up with them in late-1917 and 1918. British units and commanders carried their experiences into other theatres, and the amphibious operational lessons would inform post-war doctrine and the successful operations in the Second World War.

While the memory of the Western Front will inevitably overshadow the peripheral theatres, it is the defeat at Gallipoli, and not the later victories over the Ottomans in Palestine and Mesopotamia, that is most remembered in the UK. It is also regarded as an important milestone for Australia and New Zealand and 25th April, Anzac Day, is a national day of commemoration for both countries. Nevertheless, Gallipoli was a failure. Although British command of the sea was an essential precondition for Entente victory over the Central Powers, that victory would ultimately be secured through the steady attrition of German resources and manpower by land.


This article was made possible due to the kind support of the Engelsberg Programme for Applied History, Grand Strategy and Geopolitics at the Centre for Geopolitics, supported by the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation for Public Benefit.

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A small ceremony held at the end of March in both Brussels and Skopje, involving the striking of the North Macedonian and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) flag respectively, marked the formal accession of the Western Balkan nation into the Atlantic alliance. What in any other circumstance would have been a cause for public celebration of NATO’s 30th member, just months after the alliance’s 70th anniversary, was an understandably sombre affair in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Equally noticeable was Russia’s thinly-veiled attempt to exploit the understandable lack of international media coverage for the occasion, in an effort to shape the narrative into one of insignificance for both North Macedonia and the alliance itself. A Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson stated that ‘Despite the emergency in North Macedonia, its leaders still took time out to rhapsodise on…the country’s accession to NATO, which supposedly will ensure stability and security to Skopje.’

Attempting to undermine North Macedonia’s accession into the alliance has not come as a great surprise to anyone following Russia’s propaganda campaign in the region. Moscow immediately proclaimed the NATO accession invalid, due to low voter turnout in the national referendum in 2018 which sought public approval for the move to NATO.

Whilst 94% of voters approved the NATO referendum in 2018, voter turnout represented only 37% of the electorate. However, due to the referendum being non-binding, in addition to including constitutional matters – namely changing the country’s name – it was subsequently chaired at the National Assembly where it received the required two thirds of MPs votes to be passed into law. The following of national legislative and democratic practices did not stop Moscow from attempting to shape the NATO accession process as one of invalidity, seeking to undermine its international credibility.

The 2018 referendum was, however, plagued by widespread interference from Russia – a consequence of Moscow’s desperation to halt further NATO enlargement. James Mattis, then United States (US) Defence Secretary, claimed that there was ‘no doubt’ that Moscow had been funding pro-Russian groups during the referendum, transferred money, and conducted a broader influence campaign inside North Macedonia.

Russian attempts to buy regional influence and sabotage national democratic practices were evident prior to this, however. In July 2018 Greece expelled two Russian diplomats accused of supplying funds to pro-Russian groups opposing the North Macedonian referendum, in addition to attempting to bribe both Greek and Macedonian officials.

Using money and violence as means to bring about political ends favourable to Russian interests in the Western Balkans is no new strategy to Moscow. Prior to Montenegro joining NATO, a coup plot identified in 2016, including allegedly assassinating Milo Djukanovic, then Prime Minister, was purportedly funded and organised by Russia according to senior Whitehall officials. Among those sentenced by a Montenegro court in 2017 were Eduard Shishmakov and Vladimir Popov, two suspected Russian agents, both tried in absentia.

In the face of this Russian propaganda and influence campaign in North Macedonia, NATO members have sought to shore up Skopje’s resilience against Russian interference. In 2018, during a visit by James Mattis, the US announced it would assist against Russian cyber activities. He announced that the US planned to expand its cybersecurity cooperation with Macedonia ‘to thwart malicious cyber activity that threatens our democracies’.

To this end, the very nature of Russia’s malign behaviour, witnessed across the Western Balkans over the last years, demonstrates how the region is important to the United Kingdom.

In addition, in November 2019 NATO’s new Counter-Hybrid Support Team went to the aid of Montenegro, at the Montenegrin government’s request. The team was specifically designed to help with the wide range of so-called ‘hybrid’ attacks, a mixture of overt and covert operations, combining military and non-military means of aggression. This is the sort of practical assistance which NATO can offer its members, like North Macedonia, which are subjected to repeated Russian interference.

Even as the NATO flag now flutters over North Macedonia’s capital, Russia’s Foreign Ministry sought to ‘deposition’ the country as a NATO ally. In an intervention on 31 March 2020 it announced: ‘It is evident that Skopje’s membership in the alliance yields no added value to European, regional or national security’. In fact, national security was directly enhanced through US cybersecurity cooperation in 2018 and the NATO Counter-Hybrid Support Team visit in 2019, in addition to being indirectly enhanced through NATO’s Article 5 clause.

Regional and European security has been enhanced through long-term (North) Macedonian military deployments to both NATO’s missions in Kosovo and Afghanistan, where a mechanised infantry company was deployed, in addition to several medical teams. Collective burden sharing, an alien concept to an authoritarian regime like Russia with few international military allies, has been the backbone of the NATO promise for the last 70 years.

Despite a small though growing economy, the Macedonian defence budget rose by 10% in 2017, and by 5% in 2018 – in line with the commitment allies agreed in 2014 to raise their defence spending closer to 2% of Gross Domestic Product, a commitment Macedonian officials claim their country will meet by 2024.

Unilateral assistance from NATO allies, in addition to NATO’s own institutional expertise, in conjunction with North Macedonia’s ongoing military commitments to NATO and rising defence spending, ensure – contrary to recent Russian remarks – continued stability and security for Skopje.

A secure Western Balkans should also be of keen interest to British policymakers. At a time when the world’s democracies are pre-occupied, even from a distance, with the ongoing civil wars and conflicts in Syria, Libya and Yemen, in addition to Iranian aggression in the Gulf and Chinese revisionism in the Indo-Pacific, Russia has been attempting to make inroads into the Adriatic.

For one, this allows use of geostrategically important ports of the Western Balkans which lead to the Mediterranean, an area of increasing Russian naval activity. But also, and more immediately, the delicate history of NATO in the region is a factor which the Kremlin is eager to exploit to the detriment of the alliance. This observation is shared by Sir Michael Fallon, then Secretary of State for Defence, who claimed that Russia is ‘clearly testing NATO and the West’ by ‘seeking to expand its sphere of influence, destabilise countries, and weaken the alliance.’

To this end, the very nature of Russia’s malign behaviour, witnessed across the Western Balkans over the last years, demonstrates how the region is important to the United Kingdom. If allowed to indulge in subversive and disruptive actions in friendly European, and now NATO, states, Russia will only continue to press its luck in attempting to create fractures in the alliance, sowing propaganda, discord, and ultimately, threatening the British interest.

Seen from another angle, so ineffective has Russia’s propaganda in North Macedonia been in attempting to hide the true character of a mutually beneficial partnership between NATO and its members, that it has actually served to highlight just how robust the Atlantic alliance continues to be in the face of continued threats, both old and new.


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