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Book Review


Peter Hart, Gallipoli. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. Pp ix + 534. $34.95 (hardcover).


     The Allied campaign to capture the Gallipoli Peninsula ranks as one of the most iconic battles of the First World War. For over eight months soldiers from four continents fought and died in what proved ultimately a futile effort by the British and French militaries to open a sea route to Russia and force the Ottoman Empire to surrender. Though many people have viewed the campaign as a missed opportunity to end the stalemate of the Western Front, Peter Hart is having none of it. Gallipoli, he states in the very first sentence of his book on the campaign, "was a lunacy that never could have succeeded, an idiocy generated by muddled thinking," (vii), and he proceeds to spend the next several hundred pages proving his point by chronicling that lunacy in all of its horrors.

     Hart sees Winston Churchill as the instigator of the Gallipoli campaign. While the campaign itself was indeed his brainchild, Hart also lays at his feet the alienation of the Ottoman Turks at the start of the war, with his impulsive decision as First Lord of the Admiralty to seize the two battleships being constructed in Britain for the Ottoman Navy. Here Hart overstates Churchill's culpability, exaggerating it further by barely mentioning the Ottoman-German alliance that was signed on August 2 and glossing over the Ottomans' opportunistic intent to enter the war on whichever side they judged was best positioned to win. This is the weakest part of Hart's narrative, one that reflects the British-centric focus of the book as a whole.

     The Ottoman entry into the war in October 1914, created problems for the Russians on their southwestern flank at a time in which they could ill afford the distraction. Their request to their western allies for relief provided Churchill with the opportunity to propose a plan to force the Dardanelles Straits using a force of obsolete battleships. That Churchill and the other members of the British War Council believed naval action alone would be enough to bring about the Ottomans' capitulation is viewed by Hart as reflective of a dismissive view of the fighting ability of the Turks. That such attitudes were unjustified should have become evident with the failure of the naval efforts in February and March 1915 to subdue the fortifications guarding the straits, yet the plans for a full-scale landing by five divisions to seize the heights and thus permit the minefields blocking the straits to be cleared was premised on a similar underestimation of their foes. Nor was this the only flaw in British thinking: Hart is scathingly critical of both the decision by the British commander, General Sir Ian Hamilton, to divide his forces and conduct five separate landings, thus diluting their effectiveness, and of the "'can do' mentality" (70) of the senior officers, who instead of expressing their concerns would simply try and make the best of their situation.

     The result was a series of bloody and disastrous landings on April 25 which quickly trapped thousands of soldiers on the peninsula's narrow beaches and rocky hills. Here Hart brings his mastery of personal narratives to bear, using contemporary reports, memoirs, and oral histories to recount the harrowing experiences of the men on both sides of the battlefield. While he pays tribute to the legendary role of the Australian and New Zealand troops, his focus is on the more significant landings by British and French forces at Cape Helles. Though admiring their courage displayed by the soldiers, he makes a convincing case for the failure of British command, with officers often abandoning their proper roles as coordinators of their men to engage in fatal displays of bravery. Their deaths in the face of the Turkish rifle fire deprived their men of the leadership they needed in the chaos of the battlefield, turning Hamilton's already unrealistic plans into a hopeless muddle.

     The Turkish success in largely containing the landings posed a challenge for the allies, one that contributed to the crisis that resulted in the formation of a coalition government in Britain. Its leaders decided to supply Hamilton with four new divisions, which he decided to use in a new landing at Suvla Bay further up the coast. Though the landings on August 6 enjoyed initial success against light opposition, British command failures and the rapid deployment of Turkish reinforcements resulted in the same bloody stalemate as the previous efforts. As the men on the battlefield despaired of the increasing pointlessness of their efforts, Hamilton's requests for further reinforcements were met with a mounting degree of skepticism by the government in London. Hamilton's dismissal on October 14 ultimately proved the first step towards the decision to abandon the entire campaign and evacuate the allied forces from the peninsula, an operation that demonstrated the sort of ingenuity and success that had been lacking from the expedition until then.

     Overall Hart's book is a damming study of the futility of the Gallipoli campaign. As is typical of his other histories of the war he relies heavily on the personal accounts of the men who survived to bring the battles to life; while they tend to blur together over time, this effect underscores the monotony and futility of the campaign itself. Yet the book is too narrow in its focus, as Hart's narrative fails to incorporate the Ottoman perspective with anywhere near the degree of detail that he provides for the British. This may reflect a relative lack of sources, but it is a flaw that is also evident in his overall analysis, as Hart fails to take into account the long-term impact of the campaign on the Ottoman army, which in opposing the assault sacrificed many of its best units. While this was hardly a goal of the campaign it proved to be one of its most important legacies, as the weakened Ottoman forces subsequently found themselves unable to offer as vigorous a defense against British offensives in Palestine and Syria. The absence of such assessments demonstrates that while Hart's book provides a powerful narrative account of the campaign, it is far from the final word on the subject.

Mark Klobas teaches history at Scottsdale Community College in Scottsdale, Arizona. A graduate of Texas A&M University, he is the author of several book reviews and is currently at work on a biography of the 20th century British newspaper editor James Louis Garvin. He can be contacted at


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