Casualties

There’s a striking short exchange in Compton Mackenzie’s Gallipoli Memories (1929):

Some time after this General Paris visited Army Corps Headquarters, and to him General Hunter- Weston spoke enthusiastically of some successful action on a portion of the front.

“Many casualties?” asked General Paris in a voice that could not hide the bitterness he felt over the losses of his own splendid division. And as I think of General Hunter-Weston’s reply I fancy I see a falcon strike angrily at some grizzled trusty old dog.

“Casualties?” he cried, eyes flashing, aquiline nose quivering. “What do I care for casualties?”

The other rose from his chair.

“I must be getting back,” he growled.

“You’ll stay to tea?”

“No, thanks.”

And as that burly florid man went slowly out, who might not have felt that there was between him and General Hunter-Weston as wide a chasm in nature as if he were a dog indeed and the other a falcon? And as that burly florid man went slowly out, who might not have felt that there was between him and General Hunter-Weston as wide a chasm in nature as if he were a dog indeed and the other a falcon?

Mackenzie wants us to be shocked by Hunter-Weston’s attitude, I think, but goes on to explain his point of view:

Now, it would be easy to deduce from this brief exchange of words that General Hunter-Weston was a mere butcher, and there is no doubt that, because he never did hesitate to talk in this ruthless strain, he did achieve such a reputation on the peninsula. Actually no man I have met brimmed over more richly with human sympathy. He was a logician of war, and as a logician he believed and was always ready to contend in open debate that, provided the objective was gained, casualties were of no importance.

General Paris is from the Royal Naval Division, (the men from the Navy who were supplementing the Army) and the exchange may reflect a clash between the cultures of the two services. For the soldier, heavy casualties can be a condition of success, and more men will be found to fill the ranks; on a ship there will be no immediate replacements for men lost.

The question comes down to: were the losses worth it?  Gallipoli was a defeat, so the answer seems to be ‘No’. But Mackenzie, fourteen years later, is still a true believer in the project.

There is no doubt that, with more guns or even with more ammunition for the guns we had, we should have swept up the peninsula, and there is equally no doubt that, if we had achieved such a sweeping advance, the war could have been and probably would have been over by the end of 1915.

So with more support from London (which means more men as well as more guns and ammunition) the objectives might have been attained. But that would have meant more casualties.
War is a gamble, and there are never any right answers.

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8 Comments

  1. David Cooksey
    Posted May 6, 2017 at 8:02 pm | Permalink

    General Hunter-Weston is one of those British generals who has a mixed reputation. Those who looked at his career, including some contemporaries, think his level of competence was poor, others that his command of troops in Gallipoli showed some insight and adaption to the military problems of fighting against the defensive superiority of modern artillery and machine guns etc. The fact remains that he had a reputation amongst his contemporaries for disregard of casualty numbers as a criterion in assessing the success of a military action. Hunter-Weston commanded VIII Corps on the Somme and has to take responsibility for the fact that the corps had the highest level of casualties of any of those involved on the first day, while failing to take any of their objectives. Haig was critical of him and after a few weeks Hunter-Weston was moved and never again held command of a field unit. Perhaps the fact that he was also at the time an M.P. helped to protect him from being sacked. His upbringing in scotish nobility as future Laird of Hunterston probably gave him experience of hunting and thus explains his use of the expression “blooding the pups” when referring to putting a new inexperienced unit into action in Gallipoli. His nickname during the war was was “hunter-Bunter”. This gives us a picture of a patrician figure who could not empathise with the suffering of the mass of a unit under his command but was recorded by contemporaries as being considerate of the feelings of the family of a senior officer killed in action.
    It is hard to agree with Compton Mackenzies’ view that more guns and men would have led to success at Gallipoli. This seems to deny the tactical realities of fighting over such ground and smacks more of the “Churchillian” view of strategy as grand movements sweeping aside such practicalities.

    • Posted May 7, 2017 at 10:07 am | Permalink

      David –
      Objectively, I’m sure you’re right that large reinforcements of guns and men would not have ensured success at Gallipoli. Mackenzie, though, is reflecting how it must have seemed at the time. That thin line of Turkish soldiers stubbornly blocking the way to Constantinople must have seemed a removable obstacle – if only London would provide what was needed.
      Gallipoli was always a gamble – and had it paid off, the rewards would have been enormous.

    • Stephen Paradis
      Posted May 7, 2017 at 10:25 pm | Permalink

      http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/6083958-gallipoli

      According to Prior, every aspect of the Dardanelles operation was grounded in misconceptions and doomed to failure.

      • Posted May 8, 2017 at 6:48 am | Permalink

        When an operation fails, it’s not difficult for historians (with access to information unknown to the original participants) to show that failure was inevitable.
        What I find interesting about Gallipoli is the way that survivors continued to think it a great and worthy attempt, long after its failure.

  2. Posted May 8, 2017 at 6:39 am | Permalink

    Thanks once again for your excellent blog, which never fails to interest and enlighten.

    The great failure of the Gallipoli campaign was not just military, but political. The terrible casualties, so lightly dismissed in the extract above, were borne predominantly by allied forces under British command.

    The ANZACs and their communities at home deeply resented what they saw as Britain treating the lives of their countrymen with such little value. This resentment has been expressed in Australian literature and culture (including the excellent Television series ANZACS), and strong feelings linger to this day. Many Australians despise Churchill still.

    The significance of this cannot be underestimated in terms of Australia’s relationship with Britain. By way of comparison, the Turks have been well (even fondly) regarded as worthy adversaries.

    In Australia, April 25th (the day of the Gallipoli cove landing) is known as ANZAC Day and is a national holiday –the only one to commemorate a military event. In my childhood the day was one of sombre reflection mixed with anger at the senseless loss of life. It had a significant impact on my own family. My grandfather became a pacifist (he served as a stretcher bearer in WWII) and I went on the study Australian war history (among other things) at University.

    It has been interesting to observe how the rhetoric around this event has changed over the course of my lifetime. Sadly, Anzac Day has been hijacked by political interests, now there are no longer any veterans of the campaign alive to complain about it. It seems to have become an American-style Veteran’s Day, with a great deal of flag waving and medal wearing. And not quite so much caring about casualties….

    Thanks so much for the thought provoking piece.

    • Alan Allport
      Posted May 11, 2017 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

      “The terrible casualties, so lightly dismissed in the extract above, were borne predominantly by allied forces under British command.”

      I’m not sure what ‘Allied forces under British command’ means exactly in this context, but if it’s meant to mean ‘non-British’, then no, that’s one of the myths of the campaign.

      https://nzhistory.govt.nz/media/interactive/gallipoli-casualties-country

  3. Posted May 8, 2017 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

    By one of those coincidences which happen occasionally, yesterday evening I had just started to read Hamilton’s Despatches from the Dardanelles… When I’ve finished I shall re-read this post with a better appreciation of its content. One thing seems clear already from my reading, that the lack of detailed intelligence about enemy troop dispositions and capabilities had a devastating effect on the ability of the attacking forces to make progress, or indeed to understand how to proceed once they were ashore.

    • Stephen Paradis
      Posted May 10, 2017 at 3:21 am | Permalink

      There’s also the contempt for the Turkish forces, based in part on their lackluster performance in the Balkan Wars of 1912, and a refusal to consider that the Turks would make an effort to reform their army after such a defeat. (Hitler made the same judgement of the Russians after the 1940 war with Finland, with similar disastrous results.)
      And based in part on the expectation of brown troops to run away in the face of the Union Jack. In fact even today in Australia there’s a deep respect for the Turks as soldiers, as historical memory from ANZAC.


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