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Five Military Misadventures: Gallipoli

A First World War folly that damaged the reputation of Winston Churchill.

With the western front in stalemate by the end of 1914, the triple entente's military leaders began to think of ways to circumvent the deadlock. Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, petitioned for a military offensive to secure the strategically important Dardanelles straits, a 30-mile long channel that linked the Aegean to the Black Sea. Controlling the Dardanelles would enable the allies to resupply the beleaguered Russians, capture the Ottoman capital Constantinople and potentially even attack Germany's Baltic coast.

The lure proved too strong for Churchill, who forgot the assessment he had made in 1911 -- that "it is no longer possible to force the Dardanelles, and nobody would expose a modern fleet to such peril." Churchill also disregarded numerous warnings from Admiral Carden, the commander of the British Navy in the Mediterranean, that the Turkish defences on the peninsula of Gallipoli would prove invulnerable to naval gunfire alone.

Such warnings proved apposite, and the consequences for the land invasion were tragic. Allied casualties are estimated at around 265,000 and Turkish at approximately 216,000. In his book History's Worst Decisions, Stephen Weir chronicles an operation beset by errors from the outset, noting that "half the Australian forces landed on the wrong beach". At the time, the failed attack was put down to a combination of "bad luck, muddle, [and] indecisiveness".

Weir, though, is more damning in his analysis of the disastrous campaign: "Itching to get into the fray was little more than pride and vainglory that propelled Churchill onward into the fiasco that followed."

Discredited, the future prime minister was temporarily expelled from both the War Cabinet and the government.

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Must I unremember the day I wept over the long, slow suicide of a 27-year-old man?

At that time we did talk about the occupation of Ireland. Now we have to pretend we didn’t and it’s all the jolly UK and thank you, England for the peace process.

The misremembering of history interrupts these tales of my own squalid past. Very often I find myself wishing my memories were wrong, or that I’d forgotten more than I have. This would certainly be the case were I to be a politician, albeit a small-time one in big-time government. In the era of renunciations and sincere apologies, I would have to say sorry most of the time.

But I can’t. I can’t get past that clear day in May 1981, when the tangy cold spring air of a New York day got right inside me. Ambling home from another long, messy night in the Village, I was near 52nd when I saw people carrying a coffin.

“It’s not him, of course. It’s a fake coffin,” said a woman who saw the shock on my face. Maybe I was already crying. I knew and didn’t know but asked anyway.

“Yes. Bobby.”

Bobby Sands had died. Crowds were gathering with banners about Smashing Long Kesh and Smashing Thatcher.

The shock of it has never left me and God knows “martyrs” come two a penny now. Yet the idea that someone can starve themselves slowly to death for an idea is shocking. The idea that someone can let them do it, either “for” a United Ireland or “for” a United Kingdom, remains profoundly disturbing to me.

I need no lectures about what vile and murderous bastards the IRA were, or the numbers of innocents they killed. Nor about the smeary sentimentality of martyrdom itself. All I can say is that I had little idea of what “we” did in Ireland as long as I lived in England. A boy at school had run off to join the IRA. My mum said, “Well, he’s always been tapped, that one.”

We were kept ignorant. For some stupid reason, I did not think that Thatcher would let the hunger strikers die.

Their demands, remember, were the right not to wear prison uniform or to do prison work, rights to free association and education within the prison, one visit, one parcel, one letter a week. They wanted to be treated as political prisoners. Thatcher said Sands had no mandate. He was actually an MP, with more votes than she ever won in Finchley.

In New York that day, when we got to Third Avenue, there was anger and then solemnity. There were mumblings about what a death like that entailed . . . Mandela then instigated a hunger strike on Robben Island. There were protests in Milan and Ghent. French towns would name streets after Sands.

At that time, though, yes, we did talk about the occupation of Ireland. Now we have to pretend we didn’t and it’s all the jolly UK and thank you, England for the peace process.

So, must I unremember that day when I sat down on the pavement and wept over the long, slow suicide of a 27-year-old man? Let me know how to uncry all those tears shed for that terrible, terrible waste.

Suzanne Moore is a writer for the Guardian and the New Statesman. She writes the weekly “Telling Tales” column in the NS.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide