Moments of History: Attlee at Gallipoli

This weekend marks the 100th anniversary of the evacuation from Gallipoli after the failure of the disastrous Dardanelles Campaign. Much will be written about this particular military campaign over the next few days, of this I have no doubt.

What most people don’t realise, however, is that there’s a rather curious collision of British history that happens on those evacuation beaches at Gallipoli. Because part of the rearguard during the evacuation was a detachment from the South Lancashire Regiment.

The regiment had suffered horrendous casualties during the Anzac assault of the 6th – 8th August losing much of its senior officers. The responsibility for planning its role and leading it (and the rest of the rearguard) during the evacuation thus fell to the 32 year old East-End lawyer turned captain of ‘B’ Company, who’d missed the assault due to dysentery but had refused to be evacuated home and had returned from Malta to the front to resume command (where he’d since been wounded again in a second assault and again refused to be evacuated as he was worried about the lack of experienced officers he’d be leaving behind).

That night he carried out his role flawlessly throughout the evacuation and was the second last person off the beaches (the last being General Maude himself).

That captain was Clement Attlee. Future Labour Party leader and Churchill’s Deputy Prime Minister and right hand man during the wartime coalition government.

Gallipoli itself, of course, was Churchill’s big brainchild whilst First Lord of the Admiralty, and although in public Attlee always insisted that he felt it was lost because it hadn’t been properly supported from the very start (rather than insisting that it shouldn’t have happened at all), I bet there were some wonderfully awkward conversations at times there.

I doubt it’s often that the architect of such a military disaster has later found themselves so directly reliant on the political support of someone so personally involved in and affected by it. Whilst history (and indeed Churchill himself) has often painted Attlee as a quiet pipe-smoker, it is worth remembering that beneath that mild exterior was a battle-hardened soldier who understood the cost of war to both countries and the people who fought in them.

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