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Churchill and the Dardanelles: Myth, Memory, and Reputation

by Christopher M. Bell

In 1915, Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, seized on an idea to attack the Ottoman Empire by getting a fleet through the straits of the Dardanelles. His hope was that success would both knock the Ottomans out of the war and give the Allies a morale boost. Unfortunately, the naval attack ended in a stalemate, and troops subsequently assigned to take the Gallipoli peninsula suffered horrifically without any gain.

indexChurchill was roundly castigated for this failure and spent the rest of his career trying to prove that he was not to blame. After he became a national hero as prime minister during the Second World War, it became harder to criticize him, and his account of the campaign came to be taken as gospel. The result was that collective memory was coloured and the truth became increasingly hard to ascertain.

Christopher Bell, professor of history at Dalhousie University, sets out to clear the historical record by recounting the decision-making process and execution of the campaign in language that is delightfully free of military jargon. He then breaks down how the public at large came to understand the operation, both in its immediate aftermath and in the decades since, deconstructing each piece of information in a methodical manner, whether supportive of Churchill or not.

In a field fraught with strong feelings, it is welcome to hear Bell, an avowed Churchill admirer, admit in the first few pages that the British politician must shoulder a portion of the blame for the campaign’s failure. While Churchill is definitely guilty of badgering his opponents and de-emphasizing contradictory information, others also made mistakes, among them Prime Minister Asquith, naval staff at the Admiralty, and, most egregiously, First Sea Lord Jacky Fisher.

Bell is careful to specify what we know and what we don’t know, and his reliance solely on corroborated sources and written records makes it easy to believe that his research is as unbiased as possible. This is both an excellent study of the campaign itself and a good account of how memory can be utterly twisted in both deliberate and unconscious ways.