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.


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.

Anonymous said...

I've considered this question before also. I think an Alexandretta landing would have been similar to Salonika: not a disaster, and a safe port, but difficult to truly exploit and probably not war-winning. Had Gallipoli worked, and it could have - it was a good idea poorly executed rather than a bad idea - it likely would have won the war. This is likely because the war was ultimately won, in an immediate sense, from Salonika beginning in September 1918 when the Bulgarians, who had not been defeated in the field on more than a tactical scale, reached a kind of unsustainability or crackup point socially, economically, and militarily, mainly because Bulgaria had achieved all its military objectives (as Bulgaria would have defined them) by 1915 yet was unable to exit the war and its stresses and damage because it was the Great (First World) War, rather than the Third Balkan War. When Bulgaria unexpectedly quit, Constantinople was defenseless against the British/Greek contingent on the east side and so Turkey also had to quit immediately. Unexpectedly stripped of all local support and with no available source of help (at least, not with anything like the required speed), German/Habsburg (11th Army) defenses against the French/Serbian contingent on the west side were totally inadequate and were soon fleeing northward in panic. On 1 November the French and Serbians liberated Belgrade and kept going into southern Hungary as the Habsburg Empire also tore itself apart from within. It was really that rapid chain of military and political developments that drove the final Central Powers collapse everywhere else.

Returning to Alexandretta, I remember reading elsewhere that Djemal Pasha ran "his" portion of the Ottoman Empire like a personal fiefdom. Such was the isolation of the Arab portion from the Turkish portion (as noted elsewhere by the author) and the gangland-style corruption of the CUP junta in Constantinople that this kind of nonsense was possible. A landing at Alexandretta could have led not only to an earlier or Syrian-centered Arab Revolt but also a kind of Arab secession or breakaway through a backroom deal with Djemal Pasha in 1915 - he might have switched sides, if you will, if made the right promises supported by the right relationships. The effects of this are hard to guess, but likely they would have 1) spread to Iraq and 2) boosted the Russian advance in Transcaucasia and Armenia and Armenian support for that advance, prior to the genocide and its disruptive effects on the region (all of which might have been prevented). How far this would have gone toward breaking Turkish participation in the war is unclear, but it couldn't have hurt, and it too could have gone all the way - one can imagine, for example, an earlier and more opportunistically aggressive Greek entry, better coordinated with the Allies, being the straw that broke the camel's back (pardon me). :-) - BJE

Anonymous said...

Thinking about this more (this is what happens when you're housebound with a virus on Christmas Day) :-)

The author is totally correct that Gallipoli was chosen over Alexandretta not only because of the greater immediate war-winning potential of a blow aimed at Constantinople but also because Churchill and the Navy backed it while the French didn't trust a British force on/near the Syrian coast. France and Britain had been allies for less than a decade, after being enemies for most of the past millennium, even if the enmity had eased by the late 19th century. Also, France was in a more insecure position than Britain in 1914/1915, and so was more likely to worry about influence in ambiguous parts of the world where it could be displaced by its more secure and flexible ally. Conceivably that issue would have had to be worked past. It resurfaced in 1918 after the war ended, suggesting it was durably sensitive and not a point about which France easily would be reassured.

My point about Djemal Pasha switching sides is speculative and it all might have gone the way of the Sixtus Affair, though it's valid that such discussions, had they had traction - and a British landing at Alexandretta would have made them more likely - would have predated any significant preliminary massacres of Armenians or oppression of Arabs for which Djemal later became loathed (he was eventually assassinated by the Dashnak and the Arab nationalists would have been equally happy to kill him). A landing also would have predated the 1916 disaster (or victory, depending on whose side) at Kut al-Amara. That siege hadn't happened, and the referenced crimes remained uncommitted and probably unenvisaged, and while only the CUP Turkish regime is to blame for the crimes, it all might have been mooted had the British landed at Alexandretta.

Finally, Turkey had entered the war only in November 1914 and only opportunistically. Had the Arab provinces been lost - or chaotically disrupted - due to a landing plus an intrigue/rebellion before the end of 1915 (rather than overland by late 1918) and had Greece then entered the war, or had Romania entered it earlier, or both - particularly as Italy had entered in May, however ineffectively, and would hardly have been deterred by these events - Turkey might have negotiated an exit that left Turkish lands intact. Recall that Bulgaria only entered in September/October 1915 (depending on how you define entry), so Serbia was still fighting in its homeland: Bulgaria could have been deterred, and Greece motivated, by a Turkish loss of nearly all non-Turkish lands. Germany would not have been able to project enough power into the region to prevent Turkey from bailing.

There's a key 1915 period in which the counterfactual could have driven interesting results. Bulgarian neutrality? Serbian holdout? Early Turkish exit, and then early Greek and Romanian entry? You then have a far shorter war, likely ended with a Habsburg implosion, and one with a very different outcome, given American neutrality and hence no transformation in the purpose of the war. You might not even have a Russian Revolution. It's a whole box of interesting questions.

...Or the British might just have sat under the mountains at Alexandretta safely doing next to nothing, as happened at Salonika for a long time, perhaps collecting Armenian refugees, while France seethed and Djemal procrastinated, until Allenby appeared. That too would have been possible. :-) - BJE