The British at Gallipoli, August 1915 Part IV

“Many a general has been saved by his subordinates,” remarks Robert Rhodes James in his study of the campaign. “In the Gallipoli campaign, Hamilton was often badly let down by them.” While this judgment undoubtedly contains a deal of truth, it fails to emphasize the cardinal fact that the failings of Stopford and others were not simply their own responsibility but also their commander’s. Hamilton believed that the Suvla Bay venture needed an energetic and experienced commander. When he failed to secure one and settled instead for a “dug-out” of pre-First World War vintage, he did nothing to alter his command arrangement to compensate for that fact.

Stopford’s restful conception of command—staying on board the Jonquil during the better part of the battle and leaving his divisional commanders to get on with things and his brigadiers to squabble—was the counterpart of Hamilton’s aloofness. Yet this was by no means the ruling pattern of behavior on the peninsula. Hunter-Weston, the general in command on the southern tip of the peninsula, also left his subordinates to get on with things, but Birdwood at Anzac Landing was conspicuous by his eagerness to get out and about among his troops. Had Stopford been instructed or encouraged to do the same, some of the problems that bedeviled his troops might at least have been diminished, if not resolved.

The problems facing the troops were further magnified by the muddles surrounding the orders issued to divisional and brigade commanders, and by the misconceptions that flowed from them. Hammersley, entirely misunderstanding the intentions of the high command, believed that the attack launched by Birdwood’s troops at Anzac was intended merely as a distraction to divert the Turks’ attention from the main operation at Suvla Bay. His natural combativeness was watered down by Stopford and impeded by his brigadiers. Hill’s brigade knew nothing of the ground or the task facing them until the last minute, and twenty-four hours before the battle started they were encamped on the island of Mytilene in an elaborate attempt to deceive the pro-Turkish ruler of the island that the forthcoming attack would be launched against the Asiatic mainland. Sitwell’s inertia meant that his brigade completely lacked proper direction.

With control weakening progressively from general headquarters down through corps and divisional commanders and their staffs, there was no force to counteract the personal deficiencies of elderly and flustered brigadiers—one of whom had had a nervous breakdown before the war—as they tried to divine the enemy’s strength and interpret the high command’s intentions. It was at this level that personalities had their greatest effect in making an already difficult task even more difficult for the troops on the ground. One participant, referring to the two brigadiers most directly involved, put the matter with perceptive simplicity: “Sitwell was incapable of giving an order, and Hill was incapable of obeying one.” In circumstances such as these, command culpability rises above the level of the two individuals mentioned to embrace divisional, corps, and ultimately expeditionary force commanders.

There is no doubt that the troops called upon to carry out the Suvla Bay attack suffered from certain significant weaknesses. Countless contemporary observers remarked on their inexperience, lack of initiative, and dependence on their leaders. Though some of these observers were hostile to the British army as they saw it at Gallipoli, others were sympathetic. General Sir Charles Monro, who arrived at the end of October to examine the feasibility and desirability of evacuation, reported that the troops on the peninsula, “with the exception of the Australian and New Zealand Corps, are not equal to a sustained effort owing to the inexperience of the officers, the want of training of the men and the depleted condition of many of the units.” Although two more months of grinding combat had passed since August, and although his comments were not directed at the troops involved in the Suvla Bay episode, at least two of his critical comments apply to them.

Given the weaknesses of the instrument to hand, the staff could have taken a number of steps to fit the troops more adequately for the task at hand. An excessive concern for secrecy diminished the volume of information and intelligence available when it should have had the highest priority. The inexperience of the troops placed a premium on effective command at all levels; in the circumstances, since new company commanders could not simply be manufactured out of thin air, and once Hamilton had taken the decision not to exploit the seasoned Twenty-ninth Division, unity of conception, absolute clarity of orders, and the close monitoring of progress on the ground became vital. As we have seen, no steps were taken to secure or improve any of these requirements. Nothing was done to counteract the tendency of troops to stop halfway before objectives were reached, as “excitement and surprise at being there and alive . . . drowned all other feelings at the moment.” Perhaps most extraordinary of all, given the acknowledged reputation of the Anzacs as the best fighting troops on the peninsula, is the fact that Birdwood’s advice on the Suvla Bay enterprise was never sought; offered once, it was brushed off.

An efficient communications system is of the greatest importance in directing and controlling raw or inexperienced troops in combat. For most of the battle, Hamilton was on an island an hour distant. Stopford was offshore on one ship with his administrative staff on another, and apparently he was quite content with a situation in which staff came and went from the shore in motorboats to deliver instructions and bring back reports. The trip, he later remarked complacently, took only five minutes. What he overlooked—or ignored—was the fact that, unless his staff were continuously bustling to and fro (a slow and imperfect way to transmit orders and receive information, and one that would divert them from other tasks), his ability to communicate could be only limited at best. Communications were in fact so poor that, as one commentator has suggested, “it is tempting at times to ascribe almost the whole cause of the fiasco to the absence of any efficient form of combat net radio.”

While a modern radio net would certainly have put into the commanders’ hands the means to exercise direct tactical control over small units and receive time-urgent intelligence about the state of enemy resistance, it is a mistake to lay too much weight on its absence as an explanatory excuse for the fiasco at Suvla Bay, for the means existed to do far more in this regard than was actually done. For decades, the British army had been using heliographs as an effective means of communication in colonial wars; no thought seems to have been given to their use at Gallipoli—which is particularly surprising, given Hamilton’s vast experience of such campaigns. In addition, scientific developments had made a new medium available. Ever since 1910 the Royal Navy had been equipping its ships with wireless telegraphy, an almost instantaneous means of communication, and indeed this was the means used to pass Hamilton’s messages to Stopford on board the Jonquil. Had the commander in chief been inclined to send more messages to Stopford, more messages would have reached him. The major obstacle was psychological, not technical.

From the Jonquil a cable was laid to the shore, and from there field engineers ran telephone lines forward to subordinate headquarters. However, this important facility was never fully utilized. When Hill and Sit-well quarreled about whether their divisional commander had or had not ordered an attack, Hill had to trudge back on foot through the sand to Hammersley because neither of the brigadiers had brought out their telephones. Cables and land lines were a prey to frequent interruption; however, with much less enemy artillery in action than was the case on the Western Front, it is likely that they could have provided a much more continuous means of communication with the front line than happened in France and Flanders. Nor were the field commanders limited to telephone cables to communicate with one another. The instructions given to Stopford on July 29 included the information that he was to be provided by the Royal Navy with two military pack wireless-telegraphy stations and one Royal Marine base wireless-telegraphy station. Their role in the battle remains a mystery.

The misuse or neglect of communications by commanders at various levels is a good illustration of the main finding of our inquiry into the Suvla Bay affair: that while the men at the front line may fail to achieve goals which seem to be well within their grasp, such failures are not solely—and frequently not even chiefly—the direct consequences only of their own innate deficiencies. Rather, the controlling intelligence which is directing them has failed to make reasonable provision to allow for the maximizing of every chance of success. Such provision is of special importance in war for, as we have seen, coping with unexpected opportunities or setbacks is many times more difficult on a battlefield where chaos, confusion and hostile action or reaction are features of the environment, than it is in the case of civil disasters. In the particular case of Suvla Bay, when the central ingredient for success was absent the likelihood of failure was greatly increased. As Lieutenant Colonel Hore-Ruthven explained to the Dardanelles commissioners: “It was essential to have energy and drive in the higher commands and the staffs with raw troops because, unless they got the energy and push from behind, they would not go on.”


Perhaps more than any of the other types of failure we are examining, adaptive failure is susceptible to the belief that success was denied by only a small margin. A few more resources, a single change in the chain of cause and effect that apparently led directly to disaster, and the outcome would have been entirely different. Suvla Bay has certainly attracted its share of such beliefs. Winston Churchill believed at first that a mere twist of fate had barred the way to success. “The slightest change in the fell sequence of events,” he wrote, “would have been sufficient to turn the scale.” Twenty years later he offered a more penetrating, though still somewhat narrow, explanation of the misfortune: “The Battle of Suvla Bay was lost because Ian Hamilton was advised by his C.G.S. to remain at a remote central point where he would know everything. Had he been on the spot he could have saved the show.” The Dardanelles commissioners, collectively wiser than either man, recognized that the reasons for the failure in August 1915 were more complicated.

In military terms, “adapting” can be defined as identifying and taking full advantage of the opportunities offered by enemy actions or by chance combinations of circumstances to win success or to stave off failure. We have looked closely at a case of “offensive” adapting failure, but we might just as well have examined a case of “defensive” adapting failure, such as the Malayan campaign in 1942, which culminated in the humiliating surrender of Singapore and thereby, according to some historians, signaled the end of the British Empire. In both cases the requirements laid on the people directly involved are the same. Self-organization in the face of the unforeseen or the unexpected is at an especially high premium. Units and small groups must achieve levels of cooperation and mutual self-help that surpass those commonly expected of them or for which they have been prepared. Unexpected tasks must be delegated quickly and efficiently and competing demands resolved speedily and wisely.

All this may seem a lot to ask in the midst of the bloody and destructive world of combat, but it is done with a remarkable degree of success in many cases of civil disaster. People who lack any special training and are frequently unknown to one another cooperate to search for survivors, rescue victims, support the injured, and succor the homeless. One of the things that best helps to explain how such untrained and inexpert amateurs can function so well and cope so effectively in these circumstances is the fact that their goals are often very clear—even, indeed, self-evident. Social ties that usually go unexamined emerge in testing circumstances and offer a clear guide to action, and often a clear set of priorities: The safety of the family is assured, neighbors are checked, friends are sought. In this way adapting builds upward from a myriad of individual actions, coordinated by the civil authorities at a more general level.

From this comparison we can draw two main conclusions about failure to adapt in the military context. The first, and perhaps the more surprising, is that it is not the strengths or weaknesses of those at the front line that are of primary importance but the proper functioning of command. To make the most of the opportunities thrown up in war, or at least not to let them slip by unnoticed, goals must be clearly and unambiguously defined, even where they may be open-ended. For at least a month before the landings on April 25, 1915, Birdwood and all his subordinates dinned into the Anzacs the instruction “Go as fast as you can—at all costs keep going.” Without such directions, even fit and enthusiastic troops may falter; with their aid, even ill-trained and inexperienced ones may be able to maximize their potential.

The requirements to adapt to unexpected circumstances tests both organization and system, revealing weaknesses that are partly structural and partly functional, whose full potential for disaster may not previously have been noticed. This is demonstrably true of the British army at Suvla Bay. The organization was a rigidly hierarchical one. It was structured on the basis of strict adherence to the prewar dogma of seniority as the sole determinant of appointment to particular levels of command: Because one of his divisional commanders, Mahon, was a very senior lieutenant general who guarded his status jealously and would not waive it, Hamilton, forced to look higher up the Army List, found himself accepting the unfortunate Stopford. This sort of system magnified the problems associated with Suvla Bay—and may even be said to have created many of them—by forcing the task into the framework of the organization rather than readjusting the organization to meet the needs of the job at hand.

The difficulties this produced were magnified by the system through which the command structure functioned. Two aspects of this system helped produce a failure to adapt by enfeebling command. One was the compartmentalization of the planning process, which isolated parts of the organization when they should have been communicating with one another. Plans were drawn up in an idealistic vacuum since there was no consultation with the administrative and supply branches that would have to carry them out. Perhaps more important regarding Suvla Bay itself was the second feature of the system: the unwritten rule that a senior commander did not interfere with his subordinates once he had set the general nature of the task they were to fulfill. The influence of his chief of staff, Braithwaite, helped ensure that Hamilton was restrained by this invisible straitjacket; and Stopford, explaining his failure to exert himself once aboard the Jonquil, remarked later “I should not like it, if I were a Divisional Commander, to have my orders interfered with by my corps commander.”

So great is the dramatic nature of the failure at Suvla Bay that it has reached well beyond the confines of military history to find its way into the literature of systems analysis as a prime example of what not to do. “Unfortunately,” says a recent author, “the operation was bedeviled by faulty staff work, an unwarranted faith in naval firepower, and failure to load ships to facilitate amphibious operations.” Later, the same writer adds that whatever the motivation, the implementation was poor. At Suvla Bay inadequately prepared troops were called on to carry out tasks that were not clearly defined, while being expected to rise to expectations that were not made explicit. They were inadequately led and poorly commanded, and in these circumstances the innate characteristics of the troops were magnified by the shortcomings of the military organization and the weaknesses of the system. What the example of Suvla Bay makes clear is that failure to adapt to changing military circumstances is a consequence of systemic and organizational weaknesses and not of individual shortcomings. The people at the front line certainly fail, but—contrary to what initial impressions often suggest—the more important failures occur in the rear.

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