If General Sir Ian Hamilton had been alive today his reputation might have been very different. Public figures now come pre-packed in Teflon; Bill Clinton survives all sorts of sexual indiscretions; Peter Mandelson goes from strength to strength after his mortgage fracas. There is almost nothing that can't be spun away. But for Hamilton it was one strike and he was out. Forget his modernising role in the Victorian army and his successes in both India and the Boer War, it's Gallipoli that he is remembered for. Hamilton was the man in charge of the disastrous campaign to break the Western Front stalemate with a flanking movement from the Dardanelles in 1915--and his reputation has been in tatters ever since. Revisionism is a popular genre for modern historians.
In recent years, John Terraine has delivered an apologia for General Haig and now John Lee attempts to do the same for Hamilton, with, it has to be said, a great deal more success--but then he does have a slightly easier task. While Haig was in a league of his own for stubbornness and incompetence, Hamilton at least has a few likely candidates with whom to share the blame. There are Kitchener and Churchill who appointed Hamilton as Commander-in-Chief rather as a last-minute afterthought and packed off a desperately small, inexperienced, underprepared, under-resourced expeditionary force with only the barest outlines of a plan. Then there was Vice-Admiral de Robeck, who might have defeated the Turks at the first landings, but who strangely decided to retreat when victory was insight. There was the host of junior officers who, when confronted by two possible options, almost invariably chose the wrong one. And then there were the Turks themselves, who turned out to be far braver and far more militarily astute than anyone had bargained for. Lee takes us on a thorough and entertaining tour of Hamilton's career and he presents a spirited defence of his subject. But when push comes to shove, it is still hard to see Hamilton as a man more sinned against than sinning. Yes, others made errors that made life difficult, but the buck does stop with the Commander-in-Chief, and Hamilton had neither the judgement nor the conviction to direct the campaign in a less feeble fashion. But if he can't exonerate his man entirely, Lee should be content to have pleaded mitigation. --John Crace