A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

A Historical "What If?": Could the Alexandretta Landing in 1915 Have Worked While Gallipoli Failed?

Last night I explained how the idea of a British landing at Alexandretta in 1915 ultimately faded due to French objections, limited resources, and Winston Churchill's focus on the Gallipoli venture, despite some strong strategic arguments for the Alexandretta operation as a means of cutting Turkish communications with the Arab provinces. Today I want to talk about a far more speculative question: could it have worked? Or at any rate, could it have worked better than the alternative chosen, the Gallipoli campaign?

I'm sure the ghosts of the dead at Gallipoli would not hesitate to say that anything would have worked better than Gallipoli. The real question is could it have succeeded?

Now alternative or counterfactual history is fun. What if Lee won at Gettysburg? If JFK hadn't been assassinated? If Genghiz Khan had lived longer and the Mongols hadn't retreated from Europe?

It's also futile because history is contingent on so many factors that can't be controlled (what if the "Protestant Wind" hadn't blown during the fight with the Spanish Armada?), outright accidents (young King Ghazi of Iraq dying in a car crash), improbable chances (if Franz Ferdinand's driver in Sarajevo hadn't turned down the wrong street and tried to reverse in front of the cafe where Gavrilo Princip was having lunch after assuming his plot had failed)?

And one most relevant to our discussion here: if the little Turkish minelayer Nusret had not laid a line of 26 mines that the British and French flotilla failed to detect on March 8, 1915, leading to the failure of the naval effort to run the Dardanelles on March 18 and the sinking of three capital ships and the crippling of a fourth, even the doomed Gallipoli plan might have worked. But the Navy decided not to try again until the infantry landings, by which time, a month later, the Ottomans were fully ready and Mustafa Kemal in command of part of the front.

Academic historians often won't admit it, but books like the What If? series and the sci-fi/alternate history series of Harry Turtledove (trained as a Byzantine historian with a UCLA Ph.D., by the way) seem to have a following, and I suspect alternate scenarios are a private guilty pleasure for many historians who won't admit it.  It is for me.

For reasons we saw yesterday, Alexandretta was abandoned. Given the disastrous bleed-out of Gallipoli, military historians have been tempted to wonder; could Alexandretta have worked instead of Gallipoli? As we saw, a combination of Winston Churchill's determination and France's opposition made it impossible, and there was insufficient manpower to do both. But if circumstances had been different, and all those resources diverted to Alexandretta, might it have worked?

Of course, we will never know, The British could have found themselves in another Gallipoli. But there are some big differences in the battlefields. At Gallipoli, the Ottomans were defending their own capital, and they enjoyed internal lines of communication; they could easily move reinforcements between Anatolia and European Turkey. They had good roads and railroads.

Now consider Alexandretta. As we've learned previously, the only rail line to Alexandretta ran directly along the coast; in bad weather it could wash out, and long stretches of it were exposed to offshore naval guns, and Britain monopolized the sea. Only rough mountain roads could bring you to an inland rail line at Aleppo, and that was not yet connected to Anatolian rail lines because the Baghdad Railway had not yet tunneled through the Taurus and Amanus ranges.

If you didn't read it at the time, I'd urge you to read my lengthy excerpt from Djemal Pasha's memoirs about his difficulties in reaching Aleppo when going out to take command of the Fourth Army in Damascus. And he was one of the ruling triumvirate and the new overlord of Syria. If even Djemal faced such obstacles, imagine the difficulty of reinforcing Alexandretta by land. There would be no easy internal lines like the Ottomans enjoyed at Gallipoli.

Britain, on the other hand, enjoyed easier logistics at a time when Brittania still ruled the waves.

A successful landing and occupation of Alexandretta might even have provoked the Arab Revolt a year early, though perhaps led by Syrian Arab nationalists rather then Sharif Hussein of Mecca. If an advance inland to Aleppo had been possible (a much bigger challenge) rail supplies to Palestine and the Hejaz could have been cut much to the north of where they were later cut. Allenby's Palestine campaign might have come sooner.

It's fun to game out and speculate, but of course it could also have been a disaster on the scale of Gallipoli or Kut for the British.

1 comment:

David Mack said...

You've convinced me that the Alexandretta option probably would have worked. I'm not sure whether it would have shortened WW I, saving lots of carnage, but it probably would have accelerated the Arab revolt. For me, a bonus would have been putting the French in a weaker position at Versailles, and maybe T.E. Lawrence and Faisal would have gotten more traction.