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Book Review


Yishen Kuik Reviews "The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Visions of Glory"

In William Manchester's splendid biography of Churchill, "The Last Lion", he recounts the struggle of Churchill, both in Parliament and in the war rooms, to keep England focused on a daring plan to sail to seize the Dardanelles in 1915.

The Dardanelles are a narrow straits that connect the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. It was fortified and mined. But the British had new 15 inch guns on their battleships that outranged the shore batteries. The plan was simple - destroy short range shore batteries with long range ship guns while sending smaller ships ahead to sweep for mines and cut them from their moorings. In such a methodical manner, the navy would be able to make it's way up to Constantinople without much loss.

Such a bold stroke could scare the Turks out of the Axis alliance, reopen the flow of Russian grain from Sebastopol and trap the German Mediterranean navy in the Black Sea between the Russians and the British with no friendly ports. At the time, the two uniformed officers making decisions with the Cabinet were Admiral Fisher and Lord Kitchener. As Experts, the civilian politicians tended to defer to their experience. Churchill pressed hard for swift naval action up the straits, but the Experts preached caution. Manchester writes that the naval culture had a great aversion towards losing ships as that had a very negative impact on a flag officer's career before the war.

The plan went accordingly and the navy made swift progress destroying many batteries. Constantinople expected itself to fall - the Sultan and his harem were ready to board the trains at Uskudar, gold was being shipped out to Eskesehir. However 1 French ship was sunk and 3 British ships damaged by mines that were close to shore and overlooked by the minesweepers. The losses sowed a great deal of nervousness among the naval commanders on the ground and Fisher openly questioned the merits of the operation based on risk of losing ships. When Kitchener offered to take Constantinople by land, the naval commander on the ground De Robeck saw this as deliverance from having to risk his career by possibly losing more ships, and recommended postponing naval action for the army to mobilize.

All this dithering and waiting allowed the enemy to regroup. The Germans sent fresh munitions and equally importantly, Turkish morale recovered. The resulting raid at Gallipoli was disastrous. Churchill was forced to take the blame for the disaster and was pushed out of the Admiralty and the Cabinet. Manchester opens this episode with a quote from Lord Salisbury: '"No lesson seems to be so deeply inculcated by experience of life as that you should never trust experts. If you believe doctors, nothing is wholesome; if you believe theologians, nothing is innocent; if you believe soldiers, nothing is safe." .. (the Cabinet was) bullied by the military experts' doctrine of attrition.'

When do we know how far to press on with a successful speculation? When do we know when boldness is called for after small wins, that large wins are just around the corner?

When does the taking of small losses and retreating from the battle sometime hide huge opportunity costs that might change the outcome of the war?