Review

The Real Reason Britain Gambled at Gallipoli

A new book argues that Churchill’s famous folly was ultimately about food, fear, and free trade.

By Keith Johnson, a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
Australian infantrymen sit on a transport as they head toward the beach at Gallipoli, Turkey, in 1915.
Australian infantrymen sit on a transport as they head toward the beach at Gallipoli in 1915. Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

Virtually since he was booted from the British Admiralty in 1915 for his role in the disastrous Gallipoli campaign, Winston Churchill has been vilified for masterminding the venture, 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 in a bid to make an end run around the mud and blood of Flanders. For Australians and New Zealanders, whose troops had just arrived in Europe and suffered a deadly baptism of fire on the beaches of the Gallipoli Peninsula in what is today Turkey, the episode—and Churchill’s role in it—remains a bitter memory. Even during World War II, lingering Australian ire at Churchill helped underpin Canberra’s determination to wrench Australian troops out of the then-prime minister’s hands and bring them home to fight for Australia, not the empire.

Book cover

The War Lords and the Gallipoli Disaster: How Globalized Trade Led Britain to Its Worst Defeat of the First World War, Nicholas A. Lambert, Oxford University Press, 364 pp., $49.95, May 2021

But, argues Nicholas Lambert in The War Lords and the Gallipoli Disaster, the deadly fiasco wasn’t just about Churchill—and it wasn’t any sort of strategic alternative to escape the stalemate on the Western Front. Rather, Gallipoli was all about wheat. More specifically, Russian wheat—grain that Moscow needed to export to earn hard currency to stay in the war and food that British leaders felt they desperately needed as the world (and their island nation) faced skyrocketing prices and fears of scarcity. Ever since the Ottoman Empire had joined Germany and Austria-Hungary as part of the Central Powers late in 1914, the Ottoman-controlled Turkish Straits had been closed to commercial shipping. The Russian Empire, which had become one of the biggest suppliers of wheat to the global market (and to Britain) in the years before the war, was suddenly stuck without an outlet.

By the beginning of 1915, that was becoming a problem for British leaders, already acutely aware of their need to import most of their food. Global shipping had largely abandoned the high seas due to the war. Bad harvests seemed to loom in North America, South America, and India. A wheat crunch was coming—and with it the prospect of, if not outright famine, ruinously expensive bread that could spark major social and political upheaval in Britain.

Since the fall of 1914, various ideas had indeed been kicking around in the British war cabinet for some sort of operation in the Near East—whether a naval operation to force open the straits or a landing in Syria or a new British front in Greece, then still neutral in the war. But nothing came together until January 1915, when the British government formed a food price committee chaired by Prime Minister H.H. Asquith himself (with an assist from a very junior Treasury official named John Maynard Keynes). For the first time, Lambert writes, the government had unified “war strategy, and the food problem.”

The food problem was also a money problem: Russia was badgering Britain for massive loans, and there were fears that Moscow would make a separate peace with Germany if it couldn’t afford to import munitions. The only thing Russia had to export was wheat, and that wheat needed to be shipped through the Black Sea and the straits. The only option that could simultaneously tackle Russia’s financial woes, alleviate the wheat shortage, and fend off riots in British streets was, in British eyes, to open the Dardanelles—as the cabinet finally decided, more or less, by the end of January.

“Asquith seems to have recognized that the two separate major problems that confronted the War Cabinet”—namely, where to fight and how to fight rising food prices—“had a single solution,” Lambert writes. “He expressed the appeal of the operation in his declaration that it would be ‘easier’ and ‘much cheaper’ to ‘storm the Dardanelles’ than any of the other alternatives for averting social and political unrest over food prices at home.”

The decision-making was sound and superbly reconstructed by Lambert by trawling through mountains of contemporary documents to give a blow-by-blow, sometimes hour-by-hour, picture of how it all came together. But, ironically, none of it mattered in the end—and not just because both the British naval attack and the British-Australian land attack on Gallipoli utterly failed. Gallipoli, even if successful, wouldn’t have been the silver bullet the government was looking for. Unexpected record wheat harvests, especially in North America, solved the wheat problem miraculously just as summer began. And it turned out that Russia didn’t have any wheat ready to export anyway, even if the British could have reopened the straits.

What’s fascinating about The War Lords and the Gallipoli Disaster are the echoes today of what Lambert characterized as the trade-offs that had resulted from the first big era of globalization in the late 19th century: “[T]he efficiencies, conveniences, and lower prices for consumers made possible by globalization magnified strategic vulnerability.” Whether it’s trade wars, tariffs, disrupted supply chains, or a pandemic wrecking the delicate cogs of global commerce—or even the brief, recent closure of the Suez Canal—modern leaders hardly need a refresher on just what globalization’s double edge can feel like.

Lambert, who made his name with a clutch of previous books on British naval strategy before and during World War I, has done a remarkable job linking the 19th-century transformations in shipping, finance, and agriculture to the bloody detritus left in Anzac Cove and Suvla Bay. The War Lords and the Gallipoli Disaster may not be quite the thing for a casual reader who shudders at exegeses of dueling government memorandums. But for any serious student of history, and especially the Great War, it’s a great read—and a timely reminder that politics and economics always color military decisions, then and now.

Keith Johnson is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @KFJ_FP