Friday, 26 July 2013
The Dardanelles, a Liberal endeavour?
I described recently discovering Violet Bonham-Carter's lost classic of Edwardian political memoirs, Winston Churchill As I Knew Him. I sat on the edge of my seat (figuratively speaking - I was reading in the bath), as she described the rising crisis in Ireland, with the Conservative leader inciting troops to mutiny, and finally the run-up to war.
Until then I hadn't understood, before I read the book, how much Violet and the Asquith family were involved in the Dardanelles campaign, with her brothers and friends on the frontline, utterly committed to it.
History has condemned the Dardanelles escapade as an insane, wasteful and disastrous sideshow, and so it was by the end. But when Churchill and Kitchener first put the plan to the British War Council on 5 January 1915, it had a freshness and boldness about it which seemed then to have the potential to change history – if it could be done quickly.
It was already becoming clear to the more enlightened members of what was still a Liberal government what trench warfare and stalemate would mean on the Western Front in terms of lives lost and ruined. Churchill gathered a group of forward-thinking allies who believed they could see a way to avoid the nightmare, forcing the narrows with old battleships followed, if necessary, by a landing by troops – seizing Constantinople and opening a way to re-supply the struggling Russians.
It was a strategy designed, at one stroke, to unite Italy, Greece and the Balkans on the allied side, to knock Turkey out of the war – and avoid the catastrophic loss of life on the Western Front that seemed all too possible. It was, in this sense, the failed Liberal alternative to the mass slaughter of the trenches.
But everything depended on speed, and – despite backing from Asquith – the services dragged their feet. The Russians vetoed the involvement of Greek forces. The First Sea Lord, the energetic, ancient and difficult Lord Fisher, vacillated back and forth in his support. Slowly – far too slowly – an Anglo-French naval force began to gather on the Greek island of Lemnos, in the windswept natural harbour of Mudros.
Next year will see the centenary commemoration of what came next, and I hope to be there. Because my own family was involved in one of the stranger sideshows. My cousin, Courtney Boyle, won the VC in command of the submarine E14, the first allied submarine to make it up the Dardanelles and into the Sea of Marmora, and to return intact.
The adventures of E14 have been neglected by historians, partly because Courtney was exceedingly shy and retiring and partly because he was over-shadowed by the exploits of E11, which followed him in. He managed three tours of duty, under the most intense pressure, in submarines which lacked all but the most basic equipment.
His successor in command, Geoffrey Saxton White, also won the VC postumously, also in the Dardanelles, in 1918, when E14 was lost. The wreck was discovered last year by a team of Turkish divers who have devoted themselves to the history of the naval campaign. That makes E14 probably the only submarine in the world where both its commanders won the highest national award for bravery while in command.
In fact, it deserves a book - and I've now written one. It is published as an ebook by Endeavour Press and is now available, either for Kindles or PCs, for £2.99, and it is called Unheard, Unseen (a quotation from Kipling, incidentally).
When I write history, I try to paint in the context - the broader background and the very specific lives. And I am enormously grateful to the Submarine Museum for pointing me in the direction of a very rare magazine, the Maidstone Muckrag, published by the officers of the Eighth Submarine Flotilla in Harwich, form 1914-16 - which allowed me, I hope, to bring the peculiar lives of these First World War submariners to life.
I am called after Courtney Boyle. I have some of his papers. I inherited his dinner suit, which fell to bits eventually and was used to cover my credit card wallet. Ninety-nine years after he set off into the straits, his will written and expecting never to return, I felt he needed some recognition.