Alternative WWI: Kitchener in the Middle East II

Kitchener with General Birdwood at Anzac, November 1915

The Ottoman officials’ surprising response was to offer to destroy the two locomotives lying within the port’s radius, if the British would oblige them with the explosives and demolition experts to do so. On disembarkation of the British shore party with its gun-cotton, the torpedo-lieutenant in charge found himself faced with prevarication. ‘While they were delighted to comply, their honour and that of the Ottoman Empire meant that they could not be seen to collaborate with the enemy,’ the lieutenant told his shipmate E. V. Kinross. So, the officials argued, the lieutenant must not place the charges himself, and since no one else was trained or competent to do so, the thing could not be done. ‘I began to feel’, the lieutenant complained, ‘that they might not be entirely sincere.’ After several hours’ negotiation, the solution was found: for that one day the lieutenant must be formally transferred to the Ottoman Navy. This accomplished, Turkish cavalry rounded up the locomotives and brought them into Alexandretta, where the British party duly destroyed them, after which the Doris sailed away.

In London, this almost incredible story was repeated as proof that the Ottoman Empire was on the verge of collapse. As the New Year began, the War Council discussed many plans for the future, and Alexandretta kept appearing as an option, particularly favoured by Churchill. On 2 January there came an appeal from the Russian government for the British to make a military demonstration of some kind against the Turks. This was the last element for Kitchener to make his plan a reality. He spoke first to the king, as was his right as a field marshal, then went to BEF headquarters and talked the matter through with French and his subordinates. Only then did he speak to Asquith, followed by Churchill.

On Wednesday 13 January, Kitchener presented his plan to the War Council. Any public concerns over his giving up the War Office would be met by returning French to his old post of Chief of the Imperial General Staff; Colonel Seeley, who had been acting as a staff officer at BEF headquarters, could also return to be Secretary of State for War. Haldane would be the real power, with Seeley as the figurehead, something to which Seeley loyally agreed as long as he could take the outward credit. Douglas Haig would take over command of the BEF, which Kitchener knew he badly wanted, and in return Kitchener wanted Smith-Dorrien and Byng together with Hamilton for Egypt. Kitchener also wanted the Indian Corps and Indian Cavalry Corps, along with the 29th Division, the 42nd (East Lancashire) Division which had already been marked for Egypt, and the Royal Naval Division. They could all reach Alexandria or Cyprus in under two months’ time if the government requisitioned as troopships four big ocean liners waiting idle in British ports for want of passengers because of the risks of an Atlantic crossing in wartime: the RMS Olympic and the sister ships RMS Mauritania, RMS Aquitania, and RMS Lusitania. Supported by a substantial Royal Navy presence, led by the battleship HMS Queen Elizabeth, the pre-dreadnoughts HMS Agamemnon and HMS Lord Nelson, and the battlecruiser HMS Inflexible, with these troops Kitchener would make his first landing at Gallipoli, followed by a second landing at Alexandretta. This would leave the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet at Scapa Flow weakened against the potential threat of the German High Seas Fleet. But Churchill was not only confident that the Royal Navy could cope, but volunteered himself to go out to Egypt as the senior government representative and Kitchener’s political adviser.

There was one remaining major obstacle for Kitchener to overcome: the French. In 1912, as part of the Entente Cordiale agreements, Britain had accepted that Alexandretta and the whole of Syria were a French sphere of influence. The French were utterly opposed to any British military action that might jeopardise this agreement. On 22 January a high-ranking diplomat, François Georges-Picot, a former consul in Beirut and ardent champion of Syrian independence under French tutelage, came to London to insist that Alexandretta would be French, not British. With him was Alexandre Millerand, the French minister for war, with a further demand that all British troops should be sent to France and nowhere else. The attitude of the French commander-in-chief General Joseph Joffre was that of course British soldiers were useless when compared to his own magnificent troops, but nevertheless France demanded from the British government as many of them as possible, and quickly. As with the Royal Navy facing the High Seas Fleet, there was a real chance that weakening the BEF on the Western Front could present the Germans with the opportunity for a successful attack. But Kitchener, with both Asquith and Churchill behind him, was not to be stopped. Millerand and Joffre huffed and puffed, but at last accepted the situation. Georges-Picot’s deep suspicions were partly allayed by the undertaking that, when captured, Alexandretta would be placed under French control. To protect their own interests, and to keep an eye on the British so that there should be no misunderstanding between allies, the French agreed to provide for the venture a corps of two infantry divisions, the Corps Expéditionnaire d’Orient or CEO, together with a substantial fleet of transports and warships, including some pre-dreadnoughts.

From Gallipoli to Aleppo

The timing of the War Council’s agreement on Kitchener’s plan on 13 January could not have been better. Within days, news had reached London that the ambitious Ottoman 3rd Army envelopment of the Russians at Sarakamis had fallen apart in the winter snows and been heavily defeated. On 4 February an attack by the Ottoman VIII Corps on the Suez Canal line was also crushingly defeated by 10th and 11th Indian divisions and fell back through the Sinai to Gaza. This episode convinced Kitchener that the Suez Canal was safe, and that he could use his troops gathering in Egypt for the planned landings, starting with Gallipoli. On 18 February the combined British and French fleet began a bombardment of the Turkish forts on the Gallipoli peninsula, in the expectation that this would reinforce the Ottoman perception that the Allies planned to force their way through the Dardanelles.

While Kitchener with Churchill’s help gathered his forces at Alexandria, Sir John French in Whitehall made sure that all ran smoothly, with Haldane’s help behind the scenes. Asquith’s government confidently rejected in March a Russian demand that Constantinople should be handed over to them when it was captured. Asquith also had confidence in Haig as the new BEF commander. Lacking the Indian Corps, Haig cancelled a proposed attack by the BEF at Neuve Chapelle in support of a French attack on Vimy Ridge. Well known for his stubbornness, Haig was adamant that no British attack would take place against the Germans until his arriving Territorial Force and New Army divisions were quite ready, probably in the early autumn.

Joffre was furious once more, although slightly mollified when on 22 April the expected German counterattack came at Ypres, including the first large-scale use of poison gas on the Western Front. A much stronger and better-prepared BEF helped the French inflict a severe defeat on the Germans, driving them back as far as the otherwise unimportant village of Passchendaele. On the same day, Russian forces captured the key town of Przemysl from the Austro-Hungarians on the Eastern Front, and began a major offensive in the Caucasus. In Mesopotamia, in the ‘miracle of Shaiba’, the 6th (Poona) Division, now under the newly arrived Lieutenant General Sir John Nixon, shattered a counterattack by the Turkish 35th Division aimed at driving them back into the sea. Everything seemed to be swinging the Allies’ way.

Meanwhile, on the docks and in the harbour of Alexandria, all was chaos as Kitchener and his staffs worked to prepare their landing forces. With the naval bombardment of the Gallipoli forts already in progress, Hamilton was alarmed to find crates and boxes stencilled ‘Constantinople Expeditionary Force’. Kitchener let the blunder stand; knowing that he could not keep the presence of his forces secret, he chose the other option by intentionally letting the Turks and the whole world know where he would attack and why. Across the southern Mediterranean and the Levant, and as far away as India and South Africa, the call went out that K of K needed ships and craft of all descriptions to come to Alexandria, to sail under the protection of the Royal Navy, and to be paid in gold. ‘Kitchener from the Mediterranean and Egypt,’ Haig commented with rueful admiration, ‘Wherever he is, by his masterful action he will give that sphere of operations undue prominence in the strategical picture.’

On Sunday 25 April, with both Kitchener and Hamilton watching from warships, Smith-Dorrien led the landing boats of the Constantinople Expeditionary Force ashore at Gallipoli into a lethal hail of well-prepared Turkish fire. The 29th Division landed at the southern tip of the Gallipoli peninsula on designated beaches that were barely more than cliff-faces, the 1st Lancashire Fusiliers famously winning ‘six VCs before breakfast’ in the face of murderous fire. ‘The trenches on the right raked us and those above us raked our right,’ recalled one officer of the battalion, ‘while trenches and machine guns fired straight down the valley. The noise was ghastly and the sights horrible.’

Meanwhile, the Royal Naval Division made a brief diversionary landing to the north before re-embarking and joining in the real landings. Between this and the 29th Division beaches, the ANZAC divisions landed at what later became equally legendary as ‘Anzac Cove’. The French 1st Division of the CEO landed on the mainland to the east of the Dardanelles narrows. In a matter of hours, in the gullies and crags of the peninsula, the entire landing force had been pinned down only a few miles inland by a brave and resolute Turkish defence. It was grim war, but the continuing threat to Constantinople was enough for Kitchener for now, holding the Ottoman 5th Army in its place; the British had never intended this to be anything more than part of a larger strategy. There had been hopes that Gallipoli by itself would be enough to prompt intervention by other countries, but as Hamilton – who had exhorted the Australians to ‘Dig, dig, dig until you are safe!’ – noted with disgust in his diary, ‘The landing has been made but the Balkans fold their arms, the Italians show no interest, the Russians do not move an inch to get across the Black Sea.’

Leaving Smith-Dorrien to manage the fight at Gallipoli, Kitchener and Hamilton returned to Egypt to ready the first wave of the Alexandretta Expeditionary Force (AEF). This now consisted of the two divisions of the Indian Corps, the 42nd (East Lancashire) Division, and the 2nd Division of the CEO, plus the 2nd Mounted Division from the Territorial Force, renamed the Yeomanry Division on its arrival in Cyprus. For the Allies, the strategic timing was now critical, including the few weeks remaining before the onset of the blistering heat of the full Arabian summer.

To emphasise the fragility of the brief Allied advantage, at the start of May a great German offensive at Gorlice-Tarnow drove the Russians back on the Eastern Front. But against the Ottoman Empire the story was different. The Russians scored a further success in the Caucasus, while Nixon resumed his advance up the Tigris, forcing the two weak Turkish divisions back. On 19 May a substantial Ottoman counterattack at Gallipoli, meant to sweep Smith-Dorrien’s troops off the peninsula, was heavily defeated. Italy, more impressed than Hamilton realised, had signed a secret treaty to enter the war on the Allied side at the end of the month.

On Friday 14 May the War Council met and gave formal approval to the second phase of Kitchener’s strategy, including the dispatch by the ocean liner fleet of six further infantry divisions, three of the Territorial Force and three of the New Army. In fact sending these divisions was a bluff: they were still very raw, badly under-equipped, and would be unfit for combat for some months. But what leaked to the Turks was the dispatch of a powerful British strategic reserve assembling at Alexandria, threatening to reinforce either Maxwell or Smith-Dorrien. The result was to pin both 5th Army at Gallipoli and VIII Corps facing the Sinai in place. By now, rumours of Kitchener’s intentions were flying around London. The chief military correspondent of The Times noted privately, ‘I hear of mad schemes for him joining Nixon via Damascus and plunging into the centre of Asia Minor.’

The Times’s information was almost correct. On Sunday 23 May, the very day that Italy entered the war on the Allied side, troops of the 42nd (East Lancashire) Division rowed ashore to start an unopposed landing just north of Alexandretta. A delighted Churchill pointed out to all he could that it was also the anniversary of his ancestor the Duke of Marlborough’s victory at the Battle of Ramilies. The local authorities promptly surrendered to the British, who equally promptly handed the town except for its port facilities over to the French under Georges-Picot.

Three days later Maxwell’s 10th and 11th Indian divisions arrived to threaten Gaza unexpectedly from across the Sinai, and started to shell the Turkish positions. In Mesopotamia the Turkish XII Corps was already retreating before the 6th (Poona) Division, which reached Amara on 3 June. With their 3rd Army barely holding the Russians in the Caucasus, their 5th Army defending Gallipoli, and their 1st and 2nd armies facing an increasingly hostile and confident Bulgaria and Greece, there was no military response that the Ottomans could make. The 27th Division at Damascus was rushed north by rail to help the 23rd Division defend Aleppo. But it was more than two weeks after the first British landings that both divisions started a tentative advance towards Alexandretta. They found a well-prepared defence by the Indian Corps and 2nd Division of the CEO, dug in along the lower ridges of the Amanus mountain range that protected Alexandretta to the east, their fire augmented by artillery and offshore naval gunfire, including the 15-in guns of HMS Queen Elizabeth. The Battle of Alexandretta, fought on Friday 18 June (the anniversary of Waterloo, as Churchill politely explained to Georges-Picot in his terrible French) was a one-sided massacre.

The Ottoman defeat acted as a signal to the Arab leaders, with whom Kitchener had kept in close contact. Across the peninsula a major revolt began, with Bedouin horsemen raiding out of the desert, hitting supply routes and the rail lines from Aqaba to Amman, and from Samarra to Baghdad. Meanwhile, at Alexandretta harbour and across the nearby beaches, the frantic unloading of the second wave of the AEF continued, using anything that could float and carry horses and men.

None too soon, by 28 June, what was now named the Desert Mounted Corps under Major General Julian Byng was ready to begin its advance: the 1st and 2nd Indian cavalry divisions, the ANZAC Mounted Division, the Yeomanry Division, and the composite 1st Spahi Regiment as a token French contribution. Byng had forty thousand horsemen with just over sixty miles to cover, against the few reserves that the Ottoman VIII Corps could assemble, between them and Aleppo. ‘A remarkable sight,’ enthused one British regimental commander, ‘ninety-four squadrons, all hurrying forward relentlessly on a decisive mission – a mission of which all cavalry soldiers have dreamed.’

It was a wild ride, in which the cavalry’s horses far outdistanced their artillery and supply vehicles. The Australians were particularly impressed by the Indian lancers’ method of ‘harpooning’ enemy infantry with a single thrust as they rode past. Although some Ottoman battalions or batteries put up a brief resistance, most broke and ran. On 1 July, the first Indian troopers clattered through the streets of Aleppo, and within two days Byng’s soldiers were holding the town and its environs in a solid dismounted perimeter, with the Australians and New Zealanders sitting on Muslimie Junction. A week later, to the astonishment of the tiny local garrison, the Yeomanry Division, who had followed the rail line eastwards, arrived at Ras-el-Ayn. When next morning, Friday 9 July, Kitchener entered Aleppo in triumph, Arabia was lost to the Ottoman Empire forever.

Hamilton’s already great admiration for Kitchener overflowed at this astonishing feat of arms. ‘He is the idol of England, and take him all in all, the biggest figure in the world,’ he wrote. Hindenburg added his own praise for Kitchener’s identification of ‘this critical weakness at the Gulf of Alexandretta’, adding that, ‘If ever there was a prospect of a brilliant strategic feat, it was here,’ in a campaign that ‘made an enormous impression on the whole world, and unquestionably [had] a far-reaching effect on our Turkish Ally’.

Kitchener’s victory certainly helped the Allied cause with Bulgaria, Greece, and other neutral Balkan countries that were wavering in their choice of sides, and did much to hearten hard-pressed Serbia. But in truth, with the fall of Aleppo, Kitchener’s campaign had shot its bolt. The same mountains and ramshackle rail system that prevented the Turks reinforcing Arabia also posed massive difficulties for any proposed Allied offensive northwards, while neither the British nor the French had any interest in dismembering Turkey itself. The Anglo-French landing at Gallipoli could achieve nothing without other countries joining in, and was a strategic dead end.

The critical issue now was whether the Turkish government, facing the strong possibility of an imminent attack by Bulgaria and Greece as well as Russia, would decide to cut its losses while it still could. Any peace with the Allies would mean the Ottoman Empire accepting the loss of Arabia, and the opening of the Black Sea route to Russia, allowing the British and French to concentrate their forces within Europe, against Germany and Austria- Hungary. The world now well knows the decisions taken in Constantinople in June 1915, and their consequences down to the present day.

The Reality

This account follows the informal rules and conventions of accurate counterfactual history as developed since just after the First World War, and which I have helped codify. The modern name for Alexandretta is Iskenderun, lying in Turkey close to the Syrian border.

Quotations from real people are all genuine, including the views of Kitchener, T. E. Lawrence (‘of Arabia’), Haig, and Hamilton, although in some cases the dates and the context have been changed. The assessments of the vulnerability of Alexandretta from Enver Pasha and Hindenburg appear in Hindenburg’s postwar memoirs. François Georges-Picot was the leading French opponent of British involvement in Alexandretta and Syria, although he did not accompany Millerand to London on 22 January; he was later one of the authors of the Sykes-Picot Agreement on the future of Arabia. Of others mentioned in passing or in the end-notes, Francis Aylmer (‘Frank’) Maxwell, nicknamed ‘The Brat’, was a prominent ADC to Kitchener earlier in his career, but by the First World War he had moved on and held various field commands, being killed in action as a brigadier general in 1917. Colonel J. E. B. ‘Galloper Jack’ Seeley, Secretary of State for War 1912–14, was a highly controversial figure, but it is likely that he would have agreed to serve again as a figurehead for Haldane. In reality, after serving at BEF headquarters he commanded the Canadian cavalry brigade on the Western Front 1915–18. Sidney Reilly (not his real name) was a legendary British spy of the period, but had no direct connection to Kitchener or to the Ottoman Empire. Captain E. V. Kinross and HMS Torrin are famously fictional.

A British landing at Alexandretta was debated and rejected in London over the winter of 1914–15 because of strong French political opposition, the risks to the Western Front and the Grand Fleet as described, and the shortage of available trained troops. The idea remained a British strategic option up to the end of the war. Real events up to early 1915 took place as described, including the comic-opera raid on Alexandretta by HMS Doris. But Kitchener gave up his position as consul general in Egypt in January 1915, and the various command changes described, which would have greatly improved the British management of the war, are fiction.

The War Council of 13 January 1915 approved a purely naval bombardment of the Dardanelles forts, so starting the real and disastrous Dardanelles campaign. The naval bombardment began on 18 February and the Gallipoli landings, commanded by Ian Hamilton, began on 25 April. The Lusitania was sunk on 7 May while making a commercial passenger crossing of the Atlantic, but the other liners mentioned were all used as troopships to help transport the raw British reinforcement divisions to Gallipoli between June and August. The British made a number of premature and unsuccessful attacks on the Western Front in 1915, starting with Neuve Chapelle on 10 March. Kitchener died when the armoured cruiser HMS Hampshire, on which he was travelling to Russia, sank in the North Atlantic on 5 June 1916.

What was briefly known as the Constantinople Expeditionary Force was rapidly renamed the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, or MEF, otherwise its forces for the historical landing at Gallipoli are given correctly. The forces potentially available to create the Alexandretta Expeditionary Force are also historically accurate. The Indian Corps remained on the Western Front until late 1915, and the Indian Cavalry Corps remained there until early 1918, when its troops were sent to Egypt to join the real Desert Mounted Corps. The composite French 1st Spahi Regiment was also attached to the Desert Mounted Corps in 1918, for political reasons.

What actual decision the government in Constantinople would have taken in June 1915, faced with this fictional scenario, is anyone’s to guess.

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