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Book Review - Reluctant Partner

The Complete Story of the French Participation in the Dardanelles Expedition of 1915

Cover of Reluctant Partner

By George H. Cassar

Helion, Warwick, 2019. 238 pp

Reviewed by Brigadier Chris Roberts AM, CSC (Rtd)

Innumerous volumes and articles have been written about the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign by historians, journalists, and others in Great Britain, Australia, and to a lesser extent New Zealand. Over a century after the last British troops were withdrawn from Cape Helles in January 1916, countless reams are still being written about a campaign that has been likened to a Greek tragedy. Within the historiography of the English-speaking peoples, the focus inevitably has been almost entirely on the British and Anzac contribution. Yet the French contribution, some 79,000 men in two divisions and support units (drafts inclusive), barely receive a mention; when they do it is largely associated with the disastrous naval assault on 18 March and the feint attack by French and North African infantry at Kum Kale during the Allied landings on 25 April. George H. Casser, a Canadian historian, admirably rectifies this omission in Reluctant Partner: The Complete Story of the French Participation in the Dardanelles Expedition of 1915; being a revised and expanded version of his 1971 The French and the Dardanelles: A Study in Failure in the Conduct of War based on previously inaccessible primary sources.

This is not a military history per se; only four of the book's thirteen chapters are devoted to the French naval and military operations at the Dardanelles. The rest cover in much more detail the political maneuverings, obfuscation, distrust, duplicity, post-war aims, and attempts to salvage careers amongst the British and the French, and to a lesser extent the post-war desires of the Russians. These are the great strengths of the book, and it is well worth the price of purchasing it.

There is little doubt that the impasse on the Western Front, and its accompanying slaughter, saw political leaders on both sides of the English Channel casting about for alternative fronts on which to wage the war. However, based on sound research of archival records, and in the participant's own words, Cassar clearly shows that dubious political motivations drove both the British and the French to embark on the campaign, rather than sound military reasons underpinned by pragmatic assessments of its likely success. Indeed, both the British and French naval and military commanders expressed grave reservations about its chances of success, but were overridden by their political masters who were grasping at straws and, in the case of the French, by internal political rivalries driven by self-interested factions. While Churchill's desire to salvage a flagging political career was the driving force that eventually committed the British to embark on the campaign, it was largely a French desire to maintain influence in Syria, a distrust of the British, and to position themselves to exercise post-war aims in the carve up of the Ottoman Empire that led them to half-heartedly join their ally. None of the major players in this drama emerge with their credibility intact. One feels some sympathy for General Sir Ian Hamilton, Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, who was given an impossible task with inadequate resources, and told there was to be no turning back.

As previously noted, the French naval and military commitment during the fighting is limited to four chapters: one on the 18th March naval attack and its consequences; one covering the diversion at Kum Kale (25-27 April) and the First and Second Battles of Krithia; a third relating to the period of subsequent stagnation and the Third Battle of Krithia; with the last addressing the French attacks against the Haricot and Quadrilateral redoubts in late June. These are not covered in great detail, but in reality there is little to tell other than recount the failed assaults which were quickly snuffed out with great slaughter at the three battles of Krithia, although a minor success eventually crowned French gallantry in the June fighting. One rather curious episode at Kum Kale encapsulates the farcical nature of the whole enterprise. While on the surface good relations existed between Hamilton and the several French generals who commanded the Corps Expeditionnaire d'Orient at various times, again rivalries, mistrust and frustration simmered below the surface. Tensions between allies will always exist, but Cassar demonstrates how political (and to a lesser extent military) confusion, executed through poorly-conceived decisions to achieve imprecise aspirations, wasted thousands of lives and scarce resources in the name of political pride and national interest.

Cassar then discusses the consequences of the failures at Helles in June and at Suvla and Anzac in August, as muddled thinking sought to resolve the imbroglio without losing face, eventually culminating in the French decision to commit an Anglo-French force (without British consultation) to Salonika. While the intention to assist Serbia was genuine in some quarters, the practical chances of it being successful were ignored. Political duplicity, military intrigue, and L'Affaire Sarrail were greater drivers to that commitment than sound consideration and commonsense. As Cassar remarks, ‘The French appeared oblivious to the fact that in improvising the conduct of the Balkans campaign, they were repeating the same mistake as the British had committed in the Dardanelles.’ Hence, both nations stumbled into another campaign that simply took resources away from the principal theatre of war for no gain whatsoever.

The author writes in an engaging style that reads easily. It is evident that Cassar’s strength as an historian lies in the political realm, rather than in the military. His knowledge of land operations on the peninsula seems not to take account of more recent scholarship; he perpetuates, for example, the myth that the Anzacs landed in the wrong place, while 18-pounder field guns are described as ‘heavy’ artillery. In wider French operations, Cassar repeats the outdated argument that the initiative and foundation for success at the First Battle of the Marne was due to General Joseph Galliéni without acknowledging Joffre's shifting of forces to form the Sixth Army which enabled Galliéni to exploit the opportunity at the Oise. Nonetheless, these are minor quibbles, for it is the political dimensions of this book that make such a valuable contribution to the historiography of the Dardanelles fiasco.

While tensions will exist between coalitions, Cassar has ably demonstrated the consequences of poor alliance relationships in war through the prism of the ill-fated Dardanelles campaign. It is a work that also provides a fascinating window into the minds and actions of desperate politicians and secretive military commanders confronting a national crisis. In that regard, it has contemporary resonance with recent forays into the Middle East, and reminds us of the oft-repeated maxim that 'those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.' Reluctant Partner is a fascinating study of how not to embark on military campaigns at the strategic level, and a testament that inadequately resourced and improvised campaigns lacking clear objectives are almost certain to end in failure. There are ample lessons here for today's politicians and senior commanders – it is hoped that they may consider them. Highly recommended.

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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