Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Guest post: ANZAC, a counter-argument


Did you read my piece yesterday about what the ANZAC legends were fighting for on those beaches in southern Turkey all those years ago? Robin Grapefield did, and he penned this guest post in response …

I'm going to pick away at a few things in your analysis [he begins].

(1) "...why were they doing it in Turkey, for Galt’s sakes!?"

I'm afraid that the answer for this is not to be found in a book of general WWI history [in fact, you can – Ed.] . It is found in a study of military logistics, military logic and a larger look at the strategies Britain has used to combat its continental enemies throughout the ages. [In fact however, what the guest post discusses is not really *strategy* but *tactics* – it is in those history books that one does finds the bungled geopolitical strategy that ended up in them being dumped them on those beaches largely to please Russia – Ed.]

There are two maxims of military that anyone seeking to serve needs to understand:

(1) The first is that Army (or Navy or Airforce) will never send you where you want to go nor necessarily where you are trained to go. They will send you where you are needed.
The ANZACs were closer to the scene of a military campaign than British troops in Britain. Timing was thought to be critical and so they were used along with available British and French troops. Shipping an additional British division out from England to replace the 1.5 ANZACs divisional units committed would have taken too long at the average 5-7 knot speed of WWI era cargo/troop ships to say nothing of the number of ships and escorts that would have been required and the havoc that would have played to ongoing operations in France. So, there is your reason for the ANZACs in Gallipoli. Cold, hard, boring, unexciting economics – or as the Army refers to it: logistics. [A cold, hard boring answer that, unfortunately, ignores the actual question, i.e., why were the Allies fighting Turkey at all? What did they hope to gain? – Ed.]

(2) The other maxim is simply this: if the government hands you a rifle, no matter the nature or location of your duty-assignment, if the war lasts long enough you will have to use it (see point 8).
    In other words, if your politicians declare war, then things like Gallipoli, the Somme, Stalingrad, Chosin Penninsula, Khe Sanh, and the battles for Fallujah are ~GOING~ to happen. To paraphrase Prussian Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke: “No plan survives contact with the enemy.”

(2) I want to emphasise something here: Gallipoli occurred because Britain declared war on Turkey and Germany. That was a failure of diplomacy. If we are looking for root causes for military disaster X, Y and Z that is where your blame should go. [And, indeed, that is largely where I aim it too; but the bungling occurs on virtually every level but the soldiers’ – Ed.]

Thus we go back before your narrative begins to observe that the Turks entered the war on the German side because a British Naval commanders (Milne and Troubridge) in 1914 failed to stop the German cruisers Goeben and Breslau from entering the Dardenelles. When those ships arrived in Istanbul, they placed an implied threat over the Turk government that if Turkey didn’t join the Germans, their capital would be shelled. That (along with British diplomatic bungling over two Dreadnoughts being built for Turkey but appropriated by Britain when war was declared) changed the political calculus to the Pro-German side. [In fact, scared of both Germany and Russia, the ‘Young Turks’ who had taken power had no intention of joining the war on any side, to the despair of both Von Sanders – who wrote the Kaiser that he proposed to challenge the various leaders to a duel! – and of Churchill, who wanted to send a flotilla up to Constantinople to sink both boats in order to bring Turkey into the war without them. It was only when Enver Pasha saw German victories against Russia he manouevred them into a declaration. A good account, with recent research, can be found in David Fromkin’s ‘A Peace to End All Peace’ – Ed.]

Had the British done better both diplomatically and with the pursuit of these ships (demonstrating the RN’s legendary naval prowess) then Gallipoli wouldn’t have been necessary. Of course, then we’d be lamenting the first echelon of ANZACs being slaughtered pitilessly on the Somme or Messines or wherever in France – as they were in 1916-1918.

(3) Now in the case of the British Empire there was also a failure of preparation. Britain’s failings (described below) were mirrored in Australia and New Zealand. For neither country was prepared to equip and train their combined 6-division plus assets force anywhere let alone the Middle-East and Europe. Nor were they prepared philosophically to understand what they were committing to. Had someone had the foresight to understand that NZ’s 100,000 military men would suffer 60% casualties between 1914 and 1918 they might have paused before declaring war on Germany.
Britain pre-WWI spent the Lion’s share of its defense budget on the Navy (and NZ/Australian defense plans relied on the RN too much). The Army was left at colonial levels in terms of manning. The regular army stood at 7 volunteer Infantry and 3 Cavalry Divisions with only about 70% strength (numbers prior to the BEF being landed were made up from Reservists). The Territorial force was also present but not trained nor equipped for rapid mobilisation.

The theory was that this Regular force would serve as the Cadre for an army around three to four times its size to be raised and trained in England while Continental armies battled it out. British military agreements with France and Belgium ignored this military compromise and committed the British Regular force to instant deployment. [In fact, intentionally, none of the agreements formed any kind of firm commitment that, if the Asquith Government had so chosen, necessitated any particular action on the part of Britain beyond patrolling the northern coast of France – Ed.] The BEF suffered 90% causalities between Mons and the First Ypres and Kitchener’s New Army and the Territorial force; bereft of the martial knowledge held by those dead men had to relearn the lessons on the Somme and Gallipoli and a dozen other places.

In other words, Britain’s military planners examined the options Britain had based upon its available manpower and economic power and prepared to wage a decisive Naval war with its army to play a peripheral role until it was large enough to take on the Germans in Europe. All while its diplomats committed them to both a decisive Naval campaign (the blockade) and a decisive land-campaign – and right from the opening minutes of the war! [But see my comment above – Ed.]

This is why the British General Officer Corps sucked so badly in WWI, and sucked again in WWII. Lop-sided expansion of the Army combined with a mistaken cultural heritage of selecting its officers from a narrow social class doomed thousands of Empire troops to be slaughtered until the fault could be rectified either by policy or attrition.

This was the sucking hole into which the New Zealand and Australian politicians blindly committed their men. [A good account of which is given in Douglas Newton’sHell-Bent: Australia’s Leap into the Great War’ – Ed.] Later in WWII they would install a “relief-valve” -- insisting that the ANZACs fight together as a homogenous Corps or at least under their own officers and that their governments be consulted before these troops be committed to a campaign.
(4) When fighting a continental enemy (or group of them) the British have ~always~ sought to attack them in the periphery. This is simple military logic dating back to Sun Tsu. Use your strengths (in Britain's case - maritime mobility) on their weak points. Britain has also always sought to us politics to build its own alliances against continental enemies and to break apart those that oppose them. See the Napoleonic wars. The attempt to knock Turkey out of the war early before it could get organised must be understood in this light before people jump on bandwagon of blaming Churchill. [And yet the thinking was more about what Britain could do for Russia, rather than what it could do against Turkey, about whom there was very little military respect, and far too much talk of “soft underbellies” – Ed.]

Had Churchill been strangled at birth, some other Briton would have come up with a plan like this. It’s how Britain fought back when it was a genuine super-power.

(5) I understand that you love to hate Churchill. [To be clear, I think he made the wrong call on virtually every decision in his political life but one, leading too aften for too many to spectacular and far-reaching disaster. But that does not mean what I feel towards him is hatred – Ed.] Remember this. The man is probably the most enigmatic politician of his era. He is interesting and divisive at the same time. [And too often too clearly wrong, one reason he was rejected pre-war by his colleagues, and post-war by British voters – Ed.] Retelling or reanalysing his story sells books now and newspapers then. His patronage doubtless speeded along policies both good (the tank) and bad (Gallipoli), but he wasn’t the PM and nor was he a General in charge of the campaign. For instance: (a) In General Hamilton you had a man who never visited the front. (b) Later in WWII you have two Generals (Mark Clark and Collins) who conspired to dull the usually aggressive nature of the US-Army and condemn the invaders at Anzio to being surrounded and ground down despite achieving (as was the case initially at Gallipoli) nearly complete tactical and strategic surprise.

The fact that the forces employed in both these “Churchillian follies” were not up to the task was a symptom of a disease that I allude to in (3).

Parenthetically the ANZACs were initially supposed to be committed to a supporting attack. The main attack on the toe of the peninsula was entrusted to Regular British and French forces, more numerous than, and (supposedly) more reliable and better trained than the ANZACs. There was a navigational screw up and the ANZAC landing ground was too far North to support the British thrust against the critical town of Krithia and the rest is history.
(6) Had Krithia fallen and the coastal forts been destroyed by the Royal Navy [but it is precisely because the Royal Navy failed in this task that the landings were being undertaken! – Ed.] then the story of Gallipoli might well be viewed like the story of Beda-Fomm. There the Western Desert Force defied over-whelming odds and destroyed an Italian army many times their own size. Sometimes they who dares actually does win. Battles and wars can be won and lost by luck alone. The Battle of Midway turned the US way because a broken catapult failed to launch the very Japanese search plane that was assigned to cover the sector in which the US carrier force was hiding. Seen in this light, if Gallipoli had been undertaken by a force fully assembled, and trained and equipped as a contingency before the naval end-run gambit was attempted, thereby giving away all surprise, then it may very well have succeeded -- had they also been blessed with a leader as decisive as Mustafa Kemal was on the Turkish side.

(7) In that vein, I do wish that pundits would examine the war from the German side in order to learn about how they screwed up. If they did, they might get a better appreciation for what I want to emphasise here in point 7: That is war is unpredictable. For instance, I’m positive that the Germans would (or should) view their 1914 campaign as a ghastly failure. They sacrificed god knows how many men only to be checked first at the Belgian forts, then at Ypres and then repulsed at the Marne. This forced them into a defensive war in the West while they wrestled with the Russians in the East until they resorted to undermining Russia culturally by sending Lenin through their lines to sow confusion and chaos and take Russia out of the war. And while that got them a respite in 1917, it bit them in the arse between 1943 and 1990(ish). Western histories often paint the Germans as more than implacable enemies. They have a tendency to portray them as unerring Gods of War. They had superior armies initially. But the enemy misses opportunities too by both chance and mismanagement – these being called Allied Victories -- further encouraging the impression that a war between major powers can be done “clinically” like a smoothly practiced back-line move in Rugby. It can’t. And to demonstrate why, try playing rugby (substitute whatever civilian – emphasis on civil – physical team pursuit you choose) with a hand-grenade as the ball, the full-back is manning a 105mm howitzer and the half-back equipped with a machine-gun…

(7) So war is unpredictable, chaotic, violent, mindless destruction and death. And when men have not experienced this for several generations, they begin to delude themselves that their generation is the one that has mastered the art of containing or sanitising war. Be it because they have an impenetrable rampart (France before the fall of the Maginot line) or an invincible military force (Germany’s army in WWI and WWII, or Britain’s Navy in WWI) or an impenetrable geographical barrier (America’s Pacific and Atlantic ramparts prior to Pearl Harbor and the U-Boat campaign along its coasts in 1942). This delusion leads people to predict that war will be “Over by Christmas.” How many cemeteries have been filled by that phrase?

(8) The only real way to wage a war IMHO is to do the following: If you want peace, prepare for war. And if, in the last resort, you are forced into war – wage it the way Sherman did when he marched from Atlanta to the Sea: quickly, pitilessly and decisively. Because the longer a war lasts, the more awful it becomes. Many hate Sherman. But by grinding the South into the dust in 1864-’65 he and Grant utterly destroyed the prevailing Zeitgeist of Southern martial superiority and with it any realistic hope that the South would rise again. Setting aside the initiation of the war, the next real pity of WWI was that the Allies stopped in 1918 and didn’t drive a stake through the heart of Prussian militarism in 1919. That doomed the following generation to an even more destructive blood-letting.

(9) You want the final overall answer to your question of why? It is simply this: those who seek out war generally get more than they bargain for. The culture of the time was geared up for war. Well, they got almost all of it that they could handle and more. As to the moral question as to whether they should have gone: that’s a question for them. Something impelled them to volunteer and then fight like demons once they were there. Maybe it was for their mates. Or maybe they made a value judgement between the imperfect British Empire and the proto-fascist(?) leanings of the Kaiser et al. and decided to back the former. I haven’t decided on that one yet. It is difficult to look into the hearts of the dead through their writings and diaries. With this much water under the bridge I wonder if there is anything to gain from the attempt.

Robert Grapefield is a scientist and military historian with an enthusiasm for cricket and a penchant for reverse sweep.



  1. An interesting alternative that I believes helps understand why Britain did what it did - it simply made sense at the time. Its easy to examine history and find faults in decisions made a 100 years ago but that won't really help considerations of the next opportunity to make a hash of something. In my view the British problem was then, and remains today - to a lesser degree perhaps, the class system. This sees an enforced distance between senior officers (who were often incompetent in objective terms), junior officers and NCO's that discourages a review of plans on the battlefield. At Singapore the British wouldn't initially allow use of incendiary ammunition, to which Japanese aircraft were very vulnerable, by the RAF because it wasn't considered sporting.

    I'm not sure about the given reason for the Japanese disaster at Midway on the basis I didn't think the Japanese had developed a catapult by that stage of the war. They were looking for a decisive battle and a rapidly changing tactical position at Midway saw them caught, due to indecision, with aircraft refueling and rearming on the flight decks which led to chain reactions in ordnance and fuel creating infernos that could not be controlled. There was very poor decision making by commanders and that reflects the very structured command chain Japanese culture encourages. Just like the British perhaps?


  2. "A cold, hard boring answer..."

    What do you expect from something written in my lunch-hour in-between reverse sweeping science etc.?

    The problem is that Gallipoli was a symptom of a far larger disease. I'll quote David French:
    "In the course of the long eighteenth century, the British developed a grand
    strategy that was designed to minimize their weaknesses and play to their
    strengths. Labelled in the 1930s by the journalist and strategist Sir Basil
    Liddell Hart as ‘the British way in warfare’, it has been dismissed as a strategy
    of avoidance. The British expected their European allies to raise large armies
    to defeat their common enemies on the Continent, while the British
    employed their powerful navy and small army to protect and enlarge their
    overseas empire. But in reality, the strategic culture that the British
    developed after 1688, as they emerged as one of the European great powers,
    was more complex. In the eighteenth century, the British did pour millions of
    pounds into maintaining a large and technologically sophisticated navy. But
    the navy did not just exist to enlarge the empire. It also served to deter
    continental powers from invading Britain, and prevented the nation from
    starving. Unable to feed their population from their own resources, the
    British developed a worldwide system of maritime trade, which had to be
    protected in wartime if the British were to be able to continue fighting.
    But confronted by a power with ambitions to fasten its hegemony over
    Western Europe, such as France under Louis XIV or Napoleon, or the
    Kaiser’s Reich, the British knew that they could not avoid becoming
    involved in European affairs. However, their own relatively small population meant that they could not hope to prevail unless they fought alongside
    continental allies, who could make good their own deficiencies in manpower, and binding such allies into a secure relationship required the British
    to take on a share of their common burden. Maritime power alone would
    not suffice."

  3. [ Pt 2 ]

    [The URL is but it's probably behind a paywall. The quote is from a Chapter on British Military Strategy from a Capmbridge Press Book detailing the History of WWII. If you want to read it I'll email the PDF.]

    Now observe something that French glosses over because WWI isn't his target in this piece.

    The RN, as technologically advanced and lavishly equipped as it was in 1914, failed. It failed in 1914 to stop the German cruisers. It failed to breach the Dardenelles. It did jail up (for the most part) the German fleet until Jutland where the Germans assaulted their jailor -- giving the RN a black eye before running back to the safety of their cell never to emerge in anger again. It did run an effective blockade. But the blockade did have an effect but it wasn't decisive and it wasn't fast acting.

    The actual arm of decision in WWI was to be the Army -- poor neglected, wedded to the fickle French, undermanned at the beginning and green as grass all thanks to the Cadre being committed to France in 1914 and wiped out.

    So the Brits revert to type (as French outlines better than I) and attacks the weaker partner. But here again the Army is forced to pick up the slack that the Gold Plated RN cannot.

    And it isn't up to the job with respect to leadership, doctrine (tactics), and organization. And ~even~ if you could have prevented Gallipoli, the ANZACs -- had they been committed to France -- would have suffered heavily?
    How do I know? Because an equally green, leadership and doctrine-impaired British army was committed to battle on the Somme in ~1916~ and got the snot beat out of it.

    The reason -- again -- is that the British were committed to a fight they were woefully unprepared for. They were prepared for a Naval fight. They were not prepared with respect to organization, equipment, man-power, leadership, tactics, strategy to fight the main German army in Europe either with or without the French and Russians.

    In this circumstance disaster was courted and duly delivered.

    With respect to Turkey, they were reverting to their age old war-time strategy of attacking the fringes. And the ANZACs were conveniently located at the time.

  4. [3]

    If you view the post 1914 stages of WWI this way you can see clearly that the British Army/Politicians are experimenting with ways to solve a problem they never anticipated.

    So they start experimenting with ways to break the deadlock. Trying multiple things multiple times.

    (1) Frontal attack in 1915. Fail
    (2) Peripheral attack on Turkey to weaken the Central Powers while strengthening the Allies by opening up a direct supply route to Russia and the man-power reserves they need to compete with Germany. Fail.
    (3) Build massive army, strengthen the artillery arm, co-ordinate with the French, preparatory bombarbment for a week then all out attack. Fail.
    (4) Try again, add tanks. Fail
    (5) Try again, attack at night. Fail
    (6) etc...
    (7) Undermining operation at Messines. Fail.
    (8) Support flagging Italian allies (peripheral gambit again). Fail.
    (8) Attack via Euphrates River. Fail.
    (9) Support Arab revolt (peripheral attack on Turkey gambit). Mild Success.
    (10) ...
    (11) ...
    (12) Try incorporating silent registration of guns, concealed build-up, sudden creeping barrage with night attack incorporate overwhelming tank force and support with staffing aircraft on section of front yet to be attacked (Cambrai). Initial success with failure to exploit.
    (13) Use Cambrai as a template for combined arms assualt to break the lines in 1918 combined with increasing American man-power... Victory.

    If you look at the sequence of events that way it becomes apparent that the British High Command and Politicians - Churchill & Lloyd George et al. are thrashing around -- often blindly -- in order to learn how to build an Army that can beat the Germans...

    Something that hitherto 1915 they hadn't seen the need for. And that is the root cause for everything you (and I) hate about WWI right there.

    Now I personally question whether Britain shouldn't have just declared neutrality in WWI.

    But let's assume that their strategic outlook (that they must prevent European hegemony at all costs) was correct.

    If you thought you could form some-sort Gordian Knot of Alliances that would protect the peace in Europe you should have anticipated that if someone built a sword big enough to cut it (e.g. the Imperial German Army) then you'd better have a sword of your own capable of parrying that blow.

    And they didn't. They had a shield (the Navy), but no sword. The result of that folly (buried in Flanders and Gallipoli etc.) was ~inevitable~ given the nature of war.

  5. I think you are wrong to say senior officers were 'often incompetent in objective terms'. That seems to me be a hangover from the 1960s Oh What A Lovely War attitude to the conflict.
    Re Singapore, do you have a source for the story about incendiary ammunition? The RAF, including NZ's 488 Squadron, was overwhelmed by numbers of experienced pilots. The British had chosen not to reinforce aircraft numbers in Malaya - preferring to strengthen other theatres.

  6. [4]

    So that was Britain. What of the NZers? Well as individuals they swapped their freedom for a uniform. That means they put themselves at the mercy of the NZ government who without pausing to think transferred responsibility to the Brits in the name of duty to the Empire.

    I can't blame the Brits for their grand strategy -- as David French points out, that is their way. I blame them for not thinking that through and taking appropriate actions: E.g. a NATO-like alliance with the Frogs complete with multi-national military exercises with a beefed up Pre-war British army at the expense of the RN only being large enough to say on the next largest navy in the world.

    And I can blame the NZ government for not demanding conditions out of its alliance partners. Gallipoli might still have happened -- but if the WWII conditions were in place, the NZ government would have had to approve the inclusion of NZ troops first -- as they did in Crete and Greece in WWII...

    So even that isn't a guarantee; see my attempt to explain why war isn't something you enter into lightly.

    So now I have a question for you Peter: Would you have volunteered to defend the Empire in 1914? Was it worth defending with your life?


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