A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

January 1915: The Alexandretta Landing Idea Fades Away

In December, as part of my discussion of the 100th anniversary of the Great War in the Middle East, I discussed the strategic origins of the concept of a British landing and occupation of Alexandretta (İskenderun), and we also discussed HMS Doris' raid on Alexandretta and other ports on the Syrian coast. The idea of such a lending had originated even before the war, and both Lord Kitchener at the War Office in London and General Sir John Maxwell, the British Commander in Egypt, were enthusiastic supporters. Young 2nd Lieutenant T.E. Lawrence of the intelligence section, who knew Alexandretta from his prewar adventures in Syria, became a strong advocate and sometimes claimed to have originated the idea, though it was discussed for months before his assignment to Cairo.

Yet by late January, 1915, the Alexandretta scenario had virtually evaporated, due to a combination of factors: a shortage of resources, objections by France, and most of all, First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill.

As we have seen in our previous posts on the war in both Egypt and Mesopotamia, British forces in the Middle East (except for one Territorial Division from home, the 42nd East Lancashires), were all colonials from the Indian Army (both British and Indian units), and the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps (the ANZACs). These were the forces Britain had in the theater and their first responsibility was protection of the Suez Canal.

But the idea that the Canal could best be defended not merely by a passive defense but by a forward defense behind Ottoman lines appealed to planners. But there were two competing options. While Kitchener at the War Office and Maxwell in Egypt were keen for the Alexandretta plan, Churchill at the Admiralty was totally focused on the idea of running the Dardanelles and taking Constantinople.

Both projects had their advocates and, if Britain were not also bogged down against Germany on the Western Front, might have been possible. (Though, of course, the Ottomans would never have gone to war with Britain and Russia without their German and Austrian allies.)

By January 1915, the planning for the Dardanelles venture, what became the Gallipoli campaign, was under way. though the Army preferred Alexandretta, it could not be done without the Royal Navy, and the Admiralty was laser-focused (in those pre-laser days) on the Dardanelles. Alexandretta would have to be done with whatever else could be spared, if anything.

We've previously looked at the strategic arguments for the Alexandretta landings, but by December the problem was emerging of where to find the troops. By January, the Turkish advance toward the Suez Canal was getting under way, and that was Britain's lifeline to India.

On January 5, Milne Cheatham, Acting British High Commissioner in Egypt until Sir Henry McMahon's arrival a few days later, strongly urged the Alexandretta plan. But in London, while the idea had much appeal, there was debate about how many troops would be needed: somewhere between 21,000 and 50,000 seemed to be the prevailing view.

But the Indian and ANZAC troops were still being trained; many would be needed for defense of the Canal and the Dardanelles. Where would the troops come from? Kitchener wired Maxwell in Egypt asking if ANZAC Commander General Birdwood could spare 5,000 of his Australians for the operation. (For more on Gen. "Birdy" Birdwood, see my earlier post here.) Birdwood candidly said he thought far more troops were needed, but was ordered to proceed. with planning anyway.

But if the military planners were enthusiastic, the diplomats had another issue. France had long seen itself as the outside protector of the Maronite Christians in Lebanon and had a longstanding stated interest in Syria and the Levant generally. France appears to have let its British allies know that it was not enthusiastic about British troops landing in an area it saw as a future sphere of influence if the Ottoman Empire disintegrated. In January it was agreed that a French Military Mission would be dispatched to Cairo; its arrival in February was the death knell for any real chances of Alexandretta happening.

The idea did not die completely, though, and would crop up again in 1916 and 1918. The French and the Admiralty ultimately killed it. Churchill wanted every available resource for his pet project of Gallipoli, and France wanted no English forces ashore in Syria.

Military history buffs and fans of alternative history scenarios still wonder if it might have worked. I'll address that question tomorrow

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