Virtually since he was sacked by the British Admiralty for his role in the disastrous Gallipoli Campaign in 1915, Winston Churchill has been slandered for mastering one of Britain's worst defeats in World War I. The whole plan for the failed campaign has long been seen as Churchill's conception, launched to put an end to the mud and blood of Flanders. For Australians and New Zealanders whose troops had just arrived in Europe and suffered a fatal baptism of fire on the beaches of the Gallipoli Peninsula in what is now Turkey, the episode – and Churchill's role in it – remains a bitter memory. Even during World War II, the ongoing Australian anger at Churchill helped underpin Canberra's determination to wrest Australian troops from the hands of the then Prime Minister and bring them home to fight for Australia, not the Empire.
However, according to Nicholas Lambert in The War Lords and The Gallipoli Disaster, the deadly fiasco was not all about Churchill – and it was not a strategic alternative to escaping the stalemate on the Western Front. Rather, Gallipoli was all about wheat. Specifically, Russian wheat grain that Moscow had to export to earn hard currency to stay at war, and food that UK leaders badly needed as the world (and its island nation) faces skyrocketing prices and fears of scarcity were. Since the Ottoman Empire joined the Central Powers Germany and Austria-Hungary at the end of 1914, the Turkish Straits, which were controlled by the Ottomans, had been closed to merchant shipping. The Russian empire, which had become one of the largest suppliers of wheat on the world market (and in Great Britain) in the years before the war, suddenly got stuck with no sales.
At the beginning of 1915 this became a problem for British leaders who were already aware of the need to import most of their food. Worldwide shipping had largely left the high seas due to the war. Bad harvests seemed threatened in North America, South America and India. A wheat crisis came – and with it the prospect of, if not downright famine, ruinously expensive bread that could trigger great social and political upheaval in Britain.
Indeed, since the fall of 1914, word had gotten around the British War Cabinet about various ideas for an operation in the Middle East – be it a naval operation to open the strait, a landing in Syria or a new British front in Greece. then still neutral in the war. But nothing came together until the British government formed a food price committee in January 1915, chaired by Prime Minister H. H. Asquith himself (with the assistance of a very young tax officer named John Maynard Keynes). For the first time, writes Lambert, the government has unified the "war strategy and the food problem".
The food problem was also a money problem: Russia was burdening Britain with massive loans and there were fears that Moscow would make a separate peace with Germany if it could not afford to import ammunition. The only thing Russia had to export was wheat, and that wheat had to be shipped through the Black Sea and the Strait. In Britain's eyes, the only way to simultaneously combat Russia's financial problems, alleviate the wheat shortage and stave off unrest on British roads was to open the Dardanelles – as the cabinet more or less decided at the end of January.
"Asquith appears to have recognized that the two main problems the War Cabinet faced" – where to fight and how to fight rising food prices – "had a single solution," writes Lambert. "He expressed the operation's appeal in his statement that it would be" easier "and" much cheaper "to" storm the Dardanelles "than any other alternative to avert social and political unrest over food prices at home."
The decision-making was solid and was excellently reconstructed by Lambert, rummaging through mountains of contemporary documents to give a picture by slice, sometimes hour by hour, of how it all came together. But ironically, in the end, none of that mattered – and not just because both the British naval attack and the British-Australian land attack on Gallipoli had failed completely. Gallipoli, even if it had been successful, would not have been the silver bullet the government had been looking for. Unexpected record wheat harvests, especially in North America, miraculously solved the wheat problem as summer began. And it turned out that Russia had no wheat ready for export anyway, even if the British could have reopened the strait.
What fascinates about The War Lords and the Gallipoli disaster are today's echoes of what Lambert characterized as compromises that arose from the first great era of globalization in the late 19th century: “(D) efficiency, convenience and inferiority The consumer prices enabled by globalization have increased strategic vulnerability. “Whether it's trade wars, tariffs, disrupted supply chains, or a pandemic destroying the delicate gears of global trade – or even the brief, recent closure of the Suez Canal – modern leaders hardly need a refresher on what the double edge of globalization can feel like.
Lambert, who made a name for himself before and during World War I with a number of earlier books on British naval strategy, has done a remarkable job of linking the changes in shipping, finance and agriculture of the 19th century to the bloody garbage at Anzac Cove and Cove Suvla Bay. The War Lords and the Gallipoli Disaster may not be quite right for the casual reader who shudders at exegeses of duels with government memoranda. But for any serious history student, and especially WWI, it's great read – and a timely reminder that politics and economics always influence military decisions, then and now.