“A worse situation”: Winston Churchill, the Dardanelles debate and its effect on policy towards Serbia

I’ve been following the Sky News twitter account that tweets news from World War I 100 years on, and a couple of recent tweets reminded me of the situation in southeastern Europe in 1915, referred to by a volunteer air worker as “muddling diplomacy.”

Britain loans £5 million to Romania to try and secure support in the war. Romania strategically placed between Germany and Ottoman Empire


British government agrees plan for naval attack on the Dardanelles.

What does the Dardanelles have to do with Serbia? Well, quite. In 1915, members of the War Council were torn between two ways of helping Allied interests in southeastern Europe: an expeditionary force to Serbia to help defend against the Austro-Hungarian and German armies attempting to join with Turkey (for example via the Berlin-Baghdad railway which ran through Serbia), or ground forces to back up the naval bombardment at the Dardanelles. There was political will to send one expeditionary force away from the Western front, but not both. For the politicians on the war cabinet, it was a choice between the two, although many, including Winston Churchill, favoured both.

My MA thesis includes a section about the political debate over sending British military aid to Serbia, which I’m including below. One thing that struck me while reviewing this (and I remember being equally surprised when I undertook the research initially) is the degree to which members of the War Council were personally concerned with the situation in Serbia. It shouldn’t be surprising, though: it was a world war, after all. The contemporary British public and their leaders were interested in all aspects of the war on all fronts. Serbia, like Belgium, was an important ideological ally for Britain. It’s only the “memory” of the war that seems to have forgotten this.

This was one aspect of the “muddling diplomacy” that prevented military aid being sent to Serbia in 1915 until it was too late;  the obsession with Bulgaria and (to a lesser extent) Romania was another. British volunteers and officials in on the ground in Serbia were the ones who dealt with the reactions and results of  the War Council’s decisions (or lack thereof).

It would be impossible to consider the deliberations on Serbia in 1915 without taking into account the Dardanelles campaign, as it had such a great effect on the debate.[2] To begin with, the Dardanelles campaign was largely undertaken by Winston Churchill, who was also one of the main advocates on the War Council for aiding Serbia. Thus his mind was often preoccupied, throughout 1915, with the fate of the Dardanelles when it came to the consideration of sending help to Serbia—and visa-versa. A later testimony, which he gave at the Dardanelles commission, revealed the extent to which the two ideas, which both ended rather disastrously, were intertwined in his mind. He said, “You cannot have a worse situation or a more urgent and painful one.” He spoke with admiration at how the Serbians had miraculously repulsed the Austrians in 1914, and deeply dreaded the possibility of Serbia being “struck down.” His desire to relieve them, Churchill claimed, “explains to some extent the readiness to run risks in the Dardanelles.”[3]

The fact that the Serbian and Dardanelles campaigns had many overlapping goals was detrimental to the prospect of sending help to Serbia. This can be seen in Churchill’s testimony above; he hoped to relieve pressure on Serbia with success in the Dardanelle straits. The War Council hoped that both campaigns would lighten Russia’s load as well. Both politicians and relief workers believed that “see[ing] khaki”[4]—either in Salonika or in the straits—would have the political advantages of drawing Greece and possibly Romania in and would “paralyse” the “hostile attitude of Bulgaria.”[5] Churchill intended the troops used in opening up the Dardanelles, after they accomplished this initial task, to be available to aid Serbia.[6] “‘[I]f it did nothing else’, [Lord] Hankey [a member of the War Council] wrote, ‘the naval attack…gained a breathing space for Serbia for the great ordeal to come’.” In the midst of it, Bulgaria, which had seemed on the brink of war, “hesitated to commit… to Germany.”[7] In January of 1916, Churchill wrote to Lloyd George, complaining about the progress of the war: “Yet it is true that if you could have had your way last January about Salonika, or in the alternative I [could] have had my way last February about the Dardanelles, the whole face of the war [would] have been changed. Either plan properly backed would have succeeded.”[8]

Amery, on the other hand, believed that the Dardanelles campaign could not hope to do what the Serbian campaign could. He argued, “If there is any advantage at all in sending men here instead of to Flanders it is because we hope, firstly to bring in others with us, and secondly to fight on less congested and less fortified ground.” The Dardanelles were no less congested and certainly no less fortified than the western front. Amery believed that six more divisions were needed for the Dardanelles campaign to succeed, as well as six more for a Serbian campaign.[9] Considering the reluctance of the War Council to send even one, his request was overly ambitious.

Sir John French, commander of the British troops on the Western front, was one of the main objectors to sending help to Serbia. He and, to a lesser extent, Kitchener were extremely reluctant to give up any forces at, or otherwise intended for, the Western front. They eventually conceded that, considering the stalemate on the western front, action elsewhere was to be desired. However, with the Dardanelles campaign underway and distracting forces from France, French demurred to the suggestion of even more troops being re-routed to Serbia. In this sense it is ironic that, in January 1915, French preferred Serbia for a secondary front to the Dardanelles.[10]

On January 28, 1915, the Committee of Imperial Defense met to consider the eventuality of a stalemate on the western front and the possibility of other fronts. Churchill wrote about that meeting: “Uppermost in all minds was the plight of Serbia.”[11] The possibility of sending aid to Serbia was discussed. Churchill no longer believed that land troops were necessary for his Dardanelles campaign, and so was able to advocate sending them to Salonika[12] for this “pet project of Lloyd George.” But the “objections of the French Government” were brought up and Kitchener had “his way,” keeping the troops in Britain.[13] On the day following this meeting, Lloyd George and Churchill corresponded, confiding their mutual fears for Serbia and their mutual frustrations “that Grey, Kitchener and Asquith were doing nothing to avert the imminent crisis.”[14]

Navigating the inter-council politics, rivalries, and alliances is difficult enough, even without taking the bickering of other countries into account—and they were invariably intertwined. The War Council had to consider other countries’ politics as well as their own. Any help to Serbia would have to be sent through the (newly, as of 1912) Greek port city of Salonika; although Greece was described as a friendly neutral, it was still neutral, and although the prime minister Venizelos was pro-Entente, the King was not. The power struggle in which they were engaged did not make things any easier on the War Council. On February 6, 1915 Grey received a telegram from the British Minister in Sofia, Sir Henry Bax-Ironside, to the effect that “German and Austrian policy now is to crush Serbia as soon as possible…It would seem more than ever desirable to render Serbia effectual support.” After reading this telegram, Churchill protested to Asquith that, despite Asquith’s claiming to understand the “vital importance” of Serbia, “nothing has been done, [and] nothing of the slightest reality is being done.”[15] On February 9, Kitchener agreed that the British and the French should each send a division to Salonika.[16] The troops were intended for the Greek army, to assist them in aiding Serbia.[17] Even Sir French, persuaded by Churchill,[18] eventually agreed, despite the fact that these “first-rate troops”—the 29th division—had been meant for France.[19] Grey telegraphed Greece, stating that “obligation of honour and interest” dictated that Greece should aid Serbia; their efforts, in turn, would be aided by the Entente troops.

For the past month Churchill had intended that the Dardanelles campaign would be solely a naval venture—”which suited a situation in which troops were not available.”[20] Over the next week, however, it suddenly became apparent to others on the War Council that the campaign should be supported by land troops. Asquith, who had “been for some time coming to the same opinion,” lamented the lack of men. He believed that “If only these heart-breaking Balkan states could be bribed or goaded into action, the trick [would] be done with the greatest of ease [and] with incalculable result.”[21] Due to delays, the planned bombardment of the Dardanelles forts was deferred by a few days. By the time it began, Venizelos had rejected the offered Allied troops. Although he was anxious to join the Entente, King Constantine, whose wife was the Kaiser’s sister, and who was decidedly pro-German, was less enthusiastic. It seemed fortuitous timing for Churchill and the Dardanelles campaign. The destination of the 29th division was changed once again, this time for the Dardanelles.[22]

After this decision, it was not until September that the idea of sending a military force to Serbia was seriously reconsidered. During the summer of 1915, Lloyd George continued to advocate the idea of a Balkan military campaign. He wanted to send a special diplomatic mission to Balkan states. According to Fry, “His colleagues, however, wanted neither a special mission sent to the Balkans nor commitments to the alternative theatres should the Dardanelles attack fail.”[23] The Serbian appeal for help in September could only be answered by troops from Gallipoli; those who were opposed to Churchill, Kitchener, and Asquith—Lloyd George and others—called for partial evacuation of the Dardanelles to form a Balkan campaign.[24] In October of 1915, Lloyd George described Churchill, Curzon, and Lord Selbourne as most committed to the Dardanelles campaign. He saw Grey leaning toward the Serbian alternative, and Balfour was undecided.[25] On September 28, Grey warned Bulgaria against attacking Serbia, and promised Serbia “all support.”[26] After Bulgaria joined the Central Powers, mobilizing on October 11, Lloyd George “pressed even more vigorously” for a Balkans enterprise,[27] which he believed was essential for both military reasons and to preserve Britain’s prestige. Lloyd George wrote in his war memoir that he was “much disturbed about the abandonment of Serbia.” He included a memorandum that he circulated to the War Council on October 12, 1915:

The helplessness of four great Powers to save from destruction one little country after another that relied on their protection is one of the most pitiable spectacles of the War… I think even now we ought to make one great effort to save Serbia… the abandonment of Serbia to her fate would be fatal to the prestige of Great Britain among the Allies and throughout the world.[28]

Asquith, while claiming to be “of an open mind,” declared sending troops to Serbia “out of the question.”[29] It was the joint opinion of army and navy general staffs not to send troops to Salonika, because it was too late to save Serbia.[30] Things might have remained at that, and there might never have been an attempt to help Serbia, nor a Salonika campaign, if not for the French.

In 1915, Britain and France were still relatively new to, and relatively inept, at coalition warfare. French military politics were intricately tied up with the beginning of the Salonika campaign. Although many French generals favored the idea of a Salonika expedition,[31] Joffre, the commander of French forces, was highly opposed on military grounds to the idea of any venture that took troops away from France. He was also opposed to a popular republican general, Maurice Sarrail, on political grounds, and the suggestion of Sarrail retiring in France was enough to have Joffre looking for a post for his rival—preferably one safely far away from general headquarters. The rivalry between Joffre and Sarrail was such that it even threatened the strength of the French government.[32] When the British had given up on the idea of helping Serbia, the French, without consulting the British, agreed that the Allies would help Greece fulfill the treaty it had signed with Serbia at the end of the Second Balkan War, in which they promised one another mutual support in the event of an attack by Bulgaria.[33] Although legitimately desiring to help Serbia, according to Dutton, “the speed with which the French government… seized upon the idea of expedition to Salonika is a clear indication that the dominant consideration was…the desire to be rid of Sarrail.”[34] The British agreed, fearing a military scandal would bring down the French government and put the alliance in danger.[35] The divisions that did make it to Serbia were not nearly enough to make any difference; although they may have distracted the invading forces for a bit, they ultimately failed to save Serbia from those forces.[36]

[1] Gilbert, Churchill, 280.

[2] For a comparison of the two ‘side-show’ campaigns and their historiographical treatment, see Dutton, Politics of Diplomacy, 15.

[3] Gilbert, Churchill, 280.

[4] Dutton, Politics of Diplomacy, 20.

[5] Lord Maurice Pascal Alers Hankey, The Supreme Command: 1914-1918, vol. 1 (London: George Allen and Unwin Limited, 1961, 277; Gilbert, Churchill, 272, 280.

[6] Gilbert, Churchill, 307.

[7] Ibid, 380.

[8] Ibid, 692.

[9] Amery, Leo Amery Diaries, 114.

[10] Higgins, Winston Churchill and the Dardanelles, 104.

[11] Gilbert, Churchill, 273.

[12] Ibid, 274.

[13] Higgins, Winston Churchill and the Dardanelles, 131.

[14] Gilbert, Churchill, 277.

[15] Ibid, 278.

[16] Hanley, Supreme Command, 277; Higgins, Winston Churchill and the Dardanelles, 137; Gilbert, Churchill, 178.

[17] Hanley, Supreme Command, 277-278.

[18] Gilbert, Churchill, 277.

[19] Ibid, 281-282.

[20] Ibid, 287.

[21] Ibid, 286.

[22] Ibid, 287.

[23] Fry, Lloyd George and Foreign Policy, 276.

[24] Higgins, Winston Churchill and the Dardanelles, 220; Gilbert, Churchill, 538. This course of action was also recommended by Amery, Leo Amery Diaries, 122.

[25] Fry, Lloyd George and Foreign Policy, 278.

[26] Amery, Leo Amery Diaries, 120.

[27] Fry, Lloyd George and Foreign Policy, 277.

[28] David Lloyd George, War Memoirs of David Lloyd George: 1914-1915 (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1935), 431-434. This is also related in Gilbert, Churchill, 549-550.

[29] Fry, Lloyd George and Foreign Policy, 277; Gilbert, Churchill, 550.

[30] Higgins, Winston Churchill and the Dardanelles, 221.

[31] Ibid, 119.

[32] Dutton, Politics of Diplomacy, 44.

[33] Ibid, 17.

[34] Ibid, 45. See also Higgins, Winston Churchill and the Dardanelles, 219.

[35] Ibid, 14. The troops arrived in Salonika to even more political complications – but that is a story for another time.

[36] Askew, Stricken Land, 216.


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