In 1915, Winston Churchill, then head of the British Navy as the First Lord of the Admiralty came across what he considered a strategic masterstroke. Britain was embroiled in the First World War. The Turkish Ottoman Empire had thrown its lot with Germany which had assiduously cultivated influence there in the years prior to the war.
Ottoman Empire ion 1912
The problem wasn’t that the obsolete and crumbling Ottoman military was going over to the side of the Germans, the problem was that the Empire was situated at a vital crossroad where it could threaten the Suez Canal on one side and block sea transport between Britain and her ally Russia. The Straits of Dardanelles linked the Mediterranean (where the British had a powerful fleet) to the Black Sea (where the Russians had many ports). As the war progressed, material shortages in the Russian military became evident. Russian industries took weeks to produce artillery shells that were consumed in a day and their stockpiles were running out.
The plan Churchill championed was to use the Royal Navy to bombard Ottoman fortifications at the straits. A small landing and occupation force made of soldiers from the British and French Empires would follow. At a stroke, they would restore communication with Russia and inflict a heavy humiliation on the Ottomans. This would encourage countries like Bulgaria and Greece which had recently gained independence from the Ottomans to side with the Allies. It would also divert Ottomans troops fighting the Russians.
On 18 March 1915, the naval bombardment started. But Ottoman mines damaged and sank so many allied ships that Admiral John De Robeck sounded a “general recall” to save what he could of his force. The Dardanelles would have to be taken by land.
On 25 April 1915, landings began with British, French, Australian, New Zealand and Indian soldiers arriving at six different points near Gallipoli.
Allied landings at Gallipoli
Thanks to naval support, the troops were able to secure a beachhead and hold out overnight. Next morning, things began to go wrong. Some of the attack plans proved over complicated and were poorly understood by field commanders. The Ottomans were able to move in reinforcements and inflict heavy casualties.
Unable to secure a quick victory, the situation became a battle of attrition. Trench warfare came into play. Month after month, a stalemate situation developed. While the number of casualties were roughly equal on both sides and the allies were able to replenish their losses faster than the Ottomans, they were still unable to secure their goal of taking the Straits.
Further, the longer lines of supply meant that the allies found resupplying their troops much harder than the Ottomans. Finally, the changing situation in the Balkans meant that the French and British had to redirect troops to other theatres and the Gallipoli front became untenable. Eventually, with heavy casualties, the Allies withdrew.
Indian Soldiers at the Gallipoli
The Gallipoli campaign cost the allies 187,959 casualties not counting the 3778 dead and 145,154 evacuated due to sickness. Churchill resigned as First Lord of the Admiralty. Future historians pronounced the whole campaign to be plagued by ill-defined goals, inaccurate intelligence, overconfidence, inadequate logistics and tactical deficiencies at all levels.
In hindsight, it seems strange and arrogant that the British could ever imagine winning a battle so far away in terrain they knew so little about against an entrenched and well prepared enemy. Even more so, it is difficult to imagine how they could have maintained the Straits with the limited resources they were prepared to commit for it while being surrounded by hostile Ottoman troops.
If this sounds like hoary old history, I mention it because it carries over remarkably well to our own day. In 2006, I started my career in a now extinct telecom company. There were 700 people in the office I worked in and it was one of many spread out across the globe. The company had a huge product line spanning many businesses including network processors, set top boxes, DSL modems, WLAN, cable modems etc. Unfortunately it was losing money in almost all of them.
The management team continued to give out bromides even as the company slipped into red. A new CEO was finally brought in. The first thing he did was to go over the entire product line. For each market we were in, he asked the managers why we were investing in areas where we were obviously uncompetitive. The answer he received was that the investments were ‘strategic’.
Our main competitor had products in all these categories. They could bundle multiple products from their side and sell them cheaply. Our company’s management felt that we had to match this to put pressure on them. We didn’t have the resources or the focus to compete in all those markets, but we continued because we felt that backing off would affect other product lines.
The new CEO gave one important mantra ‘there is nothing strategic about losing money’ and cancelled all the loss making products.