Poseidon’s Long View Across Time [*]


Vice Admiral (Retd.) Vijay Shankar


Amphibious warfare has long been placed in the category of one of the more complex operations of armed conflict. Its knotty nature derives from its demand for intricate planning; a situation of full spectrum dominance; integration of every conceivable dimension of warfare; stealth in the contradictory environment of managing large forces with their huge logistic train; setting aside of some of the key principles of conventional warfare such as flexibility, economy of effort and mobility; transition of Command responsibilities at critical points in the operation; and most perilously, operating under conditions that are favourable to the enemy. Given that the deck tilts against success, it will be interesting to examine the nature of this combat manoeuvre through the lens of two historical battles that occurred with a time interregnum of more than two millennia. The intriguing reality of these episodes was that that they were played within the same geographical constraints of the Dardanelles and the essential struggle was between a maritime and a continental power. In both events the continental power prevailed.

Keywords: Amphibious warfare, Transhistorical analysis, Aegospotami 405 BCE, Thessalic versus Continental Strategy, The Dardanelles, Gallipoli, Kitchener

Download full article here: Shankar, Poseidon’s Long View Across Time


Historical Sketch I: An Enactment from the Past-Aegospotami 405 BCE

Thessalic versus Continental Strategy, Powers of Antiquity Face Off

Ancient wars are more often shrouded in myth and through the years fashioned by popular imagination. But not so the Peloponnesian War, waged from 431 BCE to 404 BCE, between Athens and Sparta. The conflict’s scholastic significance does not lie in its protagonists or the events that transpired or even in the fact of it having been an archetypal war between a mercantile democracy and an agricultural aristocracy, but more because of the discipline with which its proceedings were recorded. To be sure, Thucydides precision is both dry and pithy and yet has relevance that transcends time. The strategies developed by the two warring States and their confederations (the coastal chain formed by the Delian League and the continental Spartan Allies which included Persia) were studies in contrast for Thessalic Athens, war plans were largely driven by a maritime strategy that strove to vanquish the Spartans through attrition, sanctions and peripheral campaigns waged from its far flung coastal bases in the Mediterranean, Aegean and the Black seas; while the Spartans fought to their strength and adopted a continental strategy that centred on invasion, armed alliances and striking at the heart of the enemy homeland. In an incisive and laconic analysis, the historian believed that what made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear this caused in Sparta.[iii] The theatre of warfare extended from Sicily in the west to the Black Sea in the east, a span of 2000 kilometres across the Mediterranean and into the Black Sea. Ten major maritime engagements occurred during the 27 years of war each having a disproportionate impact on the progress of war on land (Thucydides’ history, unfortunately, ends in 411 BCE). However our focus is on the last engagement which involved an amphibious operation at Aegospotami across the Dardanelles (Hellespont) in September 405 BCE the outcome of this engagement saw the crumbling of Athenian sea power and the consequent severance of all sea lines of communication to its empire and its eventual capitulation within the year.


Run-up to Battle

The two sides spent the early part of the year maintaining, logistically and materially preparing, and honing the fighting potential of their fleets. Eventually in September Lysander, the Spartan fleet commander, decided to move into the Hellespont, partly to try and regain control of a number of cities lost in recent years and partly to try and block the Athenian logistic and economic life line emerging from the Black Sea. His first success came at Lampsacus (4 to 5 kilometres north of Lapseki, see Map 1), across the Hellespont, on the Asian shore which fell to a land assault.

When the Athenians discovered that Lysander had moved into the Hellespont, they followed with a fleet of 180 ships. They sailed up the Strait, and took up position at Aegospotami four to five kilometres across the Strait west of Lampsacus, where they established a base to progress operations. On the next morning the Athenians put out to sea and formed up in line of battle outside Lampsacus. Lysander did not oblige to come out of his haven and engage the enemy. Frustrated, the Athenians returned to their base on the beach at Aegospotami. Lysander sent some of his fastest ships to follow the Athenians for surveillance and intelligence gathering. For the next three days the same rite was replayed only with great tactical shrewdness, the Spartans through their intelligence effort reconnoitred the coastline, earmarked potential beaches for landing and significantly built a tactical picture of the Athenian fleet’s pattern of operations. On the fifth day Lysander manoeuvred into the operational area keeping a discrete distance from the Aegospotami beach.[iv]

Fragmented Command versus Spartan Unified Plan

The Athenian fleet was led by six admirals who in turn rotated command of the 180 ships of the fleet.[v] The Commander for the day was the relatively inexperienced Philocles, disjointed Command and an almost daily change in the methods and the graphics of control would have undoubtedly imposed unnecessary stresses on both man and material to the detriment of operational efficiency. Considerably less is known on the size of the Spartan fleet, it is assumed that the Spartan fleet was similar in size and capabilities to the Athenian fleet. Lysander’ plan envisaged a frontal engagement of the Athenian fleet at their moorings with a simultaneous amphibious landing to the north. The landing force was to move in a coordinated scything pincer manoeuvre which would crush Athenian forces between the land and the maritime prongs. It is this amphibious landing which is of particular note to our study since it involved a major surprise assault.



Any analysis of this campaign will invariably sacrifice objectivity for want of precision in the records available. Yet, retrospection based on macro stimulants, proceedings as historically evident (sparse as they may be) and the reality of consequences permit constructing a picture that underscores the character and nature of amphibious warfare and the planning salients that provide a theoretical foundation for embarking on such operations. The attributes that contributed to success of Lysander’s amphibious assault may be distinguished as follows:[vi]

  • Clarity of objective against the backdrop of the larger strategic situation.
  • Nature and characteristics of the campaign at hand, enemy to be fought  and precision in mission definition.
  • Precise assessment of the balance of forces.
  • Perceptive choice of mounting port.
  • Focused intelligence gathering and development of a best course of action.
  • Judicious appraisal of natural elements and selection of landing beach.
  • Adroit and single minded leadership supported by meticulous planning and coordination.

Map 1. The Strait of Dardanelles (Hellespont) 

Source: This is a file from the Wikimedia Commons. Geographic locations in red have been inserted by the author, they are approximate. The Commons is a freely licensed media file repository. Source: This is a file from the Wikimedia Commons. Geographic locations in red have been inserted by the author, they are approximate. The Commons is a freely licensed media file repository                                                                                        

Historical Sketch II: The Amphibious Campaign at Gallipoli 1915

Conjunct Warfare

To the British Admiralty, amphibious operations were hardly a novel discipline of warfare. In fact as early as 1759 a theory and directive principles of what was termed ‘Conjunct Warfare’ had been propagated in a treatise entitled “Conjunct Expeditions: or Expeditions that have been carried on jointly by the Fleet and Army, with a commentary on Littoral Warfare.”[vii] As the treatise so eloquently puts it “the conjunct armament goes against the enemy like an arrow from a bow. It gives no warning where it is to come, and leaves no traces where it has passed. It must wound too where it hits, if rightly pointed at a vulnerable part. When this is done a new aim is directed. The enemy in the meantime, like a man in the dark labouring under an unwieldy shield, moves slowly to and fro, distracted and at a loss which way to guard against the stroke of the invisible hand.”[viii] Molyneux understood that a nation with superior sea power possessed the advantage of initiative and therefore could bring powerful forces against an enemy at a time and place of its choosing. He emphasised that surprise was a key element to an amphibious attack (obviously the author implied surprise of time and place rather than surprise of intent), calling it a “terrible sort of war that comes like thunder and lightning to some unprepared part of the World.” Despite his high opinion of the potential of amphibious landings, Molyneux recognised that they failed more often than they succeeded.[ix] He insisted that the main reason for failed amphibious missions, or miscarriages, in his words, was mismanagement of planning and execution. The most important aspects of this mismanagement was the lack of cooperation between navy and army commanders, want of application, deficiency of a system on which the operation is founded (‘doctrine’ in present day parlance) and significantly, the attitude of relegating this form of warfare to a lesser priority.[x] What is remarkable is how contemporary this analysis is.                                                                                                                                                   



The intellectual framework provided by Molyneux when he first propagated ‘Conjunct Warfare’ and the idea of a ‘strike by an invisible hand’ placed amphibious operations in the context of a ‘Manoeuvreist Approach.’ The key lay in the ability to project force from the sea in a manner that lends itself to such manoeuvreist precepts as surprise of time and place and out-flanking movements. As would be apparent from the narrative, the amphibious campaign to seize the Gallipoli peninsula and lay control of the Straits fell far short of the attributes that make for manoeuvre warfare despite the obvious advantages that weighed with the maritime power. ‘Muddle, mismanagement and useless sacrifice’ as mentioned earlier, were features of this campaign which rose to prominence as planning dithered, casualties mounted and the drive for control of the Straits visibly faltered, some logic may even conclude that one fed on the other. Yet, in order to bring some objectivity to the analysis, the same litmus tests that gave victory at Aegospotami in 405 BCE may be applied to the Gallipoli campaign primarily because the larger strategic objective of Control through the instrument of an amphibious landing were indistinguishable. The seven attributes that may therefore be placed in balance are:

  • The Objective: While the larger strategic aims were well conceived, it was the fragmented approach both in methods and time towards attaining it that was unconvincing. After all to force the Straits  through pure naval action and then within a month to fundamentally alter it to an army sized amphibious operation would not only suggest a radical strategic dither but also a failure of higher political and military decision making to fully appreciate what the alteration implied in terms of preparation, training and logistics. Kitchener’s ‘Campaign Instructions’ to his Commander-in-Chief lacked the strategic commitment necessary to see through an operation of this scale. Also, it was neither based on a thorough intelligence estimate nor on a realistic appreciation of the state of preparedness of the landing force. And then to break the momentum of the offensive by reinforcing the April landing only in the second week of August, long after energy of the thrust had petered out, would suggest a total lack of grasp of the ground situation.
  • Nature of Operations: The Nature of amphibious operations, as Molyneux with so much sagacity had pointed out, demanded comprehensiveness of planning and precision in execution. The most important aspects of management and control of operations was the critical need for cooperation between navy and army commanders, a system as a prerequisite on which the operation is founded (doctrine in present day parlance) and significantly, the attitude of awarding a place of primacy for this form of warfare; these were woefully lacking. By May 1915, within a month of launching operations it became clear that the hope of a short campaign was a pipe dream and success in the Dardanelles would require a far greater effort both in terms of resolve and preparation than the planners had ever contemplated.  Gross underestimation of the enemy can only have been credited to incompetence.
  • Balance of Forces: The balance of forces weighed up on the side of the Entente. Yet, due fragmented approach, poor planning and the inability to commit to and underwrite unity of Command; the advantages of capability and firepower could never be brought to bear.
  • Mounting Port and Training: The location of mounting ports in Egypt (Alexandria and Port Said) was ideal, for they were situated in the theatre of operations yet adequately displaced (600miles) from the amphibious objective area to ensure no enemy interference. Also base support and logistic facilities available in Egypt were comprehensive. Where the fatal flaw lay was in the  inadequacy of training of the amphibious force for what was envisaged to be speedy and inexpensive campaign. After all if the “essential course for Britain therefore, was to re-equip Russia and to rally the Balkan States against Austria and Turkey; and this could best be done by forcing the Straits and capturing Constantinople” (and Churchill concluded) that this was the “only prize which lies within reach this year. It can be won without unreasonable expense, and within a comparatively short time. But we must act now and on a scale which makes speedy success certain.”[xi] Evidently there was serious mismatch between the “essential course” and the preparation needed to realise it.
  • Appraisal of Elements and Selection of landing Beaches: Weather-wise April and August were fair weather months and well suited for amphibious operations. The selected beaches were appropriate for landing operations, however their geographic spread of less than 10 miles provided inadequate manoeuvring space for, what eventually amounted to, seven Divisions. The cramping of the invasion front permitted the Turkish defenders to operate on inner lines and concentrate there efforts which eventually stalled the invasion practically on the beaches.  
  • Intelligence: Periodic intelligence bulletins were made available to the MEF through out the campaign, however these were persistently of a field and a tactical level.[xii] The absence of strategic intelligence is obvious by the absence of information on the preparedness and combat readiness of the Turkish Army on the Peninsula; Paragraph 5 of Kitchener’s Campaign Instructions makes this apparent (see End Note 17). Also, the extent of complacency and the belief that a victory was to be got on the cheap was palpable in Churchill’s statements (see End Note 22). In addition the impact of naval gunfire (ranging from15 inch to 8inch guns[xiii]) while attempting to force the Straits was never ascertained as a result there was neither intelligence on damage assessment nor an appreciation of the state of Turkish morale at this crucial juncture of operations. In the absence of such intelligence, to abandon the plan, would suggest feeble resolve.
  • Planning, Leadership and Unity of Command: ‘Muddle, mismanagement and useless sacrifice’; the words used by the war correspondent Ashmead-Bartlett succinctly summed up the characteristics of direction and control of the campaign. Starting with Kitchener’s Campaign Instructions, planning at the highest level of decision making was muddled; the change in strategic impulse was neither justified nor carried with it the determination necessary to push for a decision. Also, the planning of an amphibious operation without adequate time for training and rehearsal provided the immediate recipe for disaster. Misconception of force requirements and Logistic planning was so derisory that within a month of the first landing (by May), the invasion was starved of munitions and reinforcements. Leadership’s belief in the success of operations was based on some abstract and baseless notions that the adversary’s fortitude and grit would crumble with the first salvo; this underestimation of the opponent’s operational tenacity was a cardinal failure. At the operational level, leadership was never in touch with the ground realities of the progress of the campaign and failed to appreciate the criticality of the principles of surprise, concentration of effort and coordination. Command at every level was disjointed and lacked unity of purpose. Relying on mere army-navy cooperation without unity of command particularly so in an amphibious operation is a clear formula for inefficiencies. For in a cooperative situation what is being provided is support bereft of precise allocation and definition of subordinate responsibilities along without a comprehensive command and control network to bind together the sea, land and air elements of the amphibious force.


The Common Thread that Binds Millennia

The history of warfare infrequently tolerates replication of campaigns. And yet to regard battles and armed struggles in isolation rather than a part of a larger panorama of conflicts often leads to erroneous inferences which do not in any way further the cause of refining strategies. Examination of the larger continuum or the strategic approach seeks to understand and employ the inter-relationship between economics, geography and military genius to pursue political goals; these goals, however, have an uncanny iterative character. Both the Battle of Aegospotami and the Gallipoli Campaign, though displaced in time by almost two and a half millennia, was trans-historical in commonality of aim and that was ‘Control of the Straits’. In the one case to bring about economic and logistic strangulation of the opponent while in the Gallipoli Campaign it was to bring about economic and logistic relief of a vital ally; both saw in the manoeuvre an efficient tool to bring about a speedy termination of the conflict. The Battle of Aegospotami was planned and implemented with consummate skill and its aim was fully achieved. The Gallipoli Campaign, on the other hand was a grand litany of ‘muddled planning, mismanaged leadership and appalling waste of life’. If one were to attempt to put a finger on the single critical feature that differentiated the two, it had to have been the leadership of Lysander who saw to it that unity of command was upheld at every stage of the battle; whether it was integrity of the plan, intelligence gathering or coordination of the amphibious assault with the seaborne offensive.

 The Indian Context, a Strategic Overview as a Conclusion

To the minds of many Indian military leaders, amphibious warfare remains a lesser known mystery; to merit theoretical examination at the Staff College and thereafter to be set aside as a costly conjecture that has little chance of success in the real world of operations. This is based on the premise that a frontal military assault out of the water with all the complications of forming up in and disembarking from boats, moving through surf and landing on a hostile beach with neither overwhelming force nor stealth nor saturation firepower by air and sea that could suppress shore defences; was futile. The Gallipoli disaster appeared to many military critics to seal this judgement to the extent that Liddell Hart believed that amphibious assaults had become impossible.[xiv] However the experience of the Normandy landings and the Pacific Campaign during the Second World War, the 1950 Inchon landing in South Korea and the 1982 Falklands war all suggested not only the viability of amphibious operations but also underscored its operational effectiveness.

The Indian maritime doctrine recognises amphibious warfare as an operation intrinsic to its capability.[xv] Amphibious operations could potentially find a central role in each of the ten conflict scenarios identified in the doctrine.[xvi] Postulating the relationship between doctrine and strategy, the document titled “India’s Maritime Military Strategy” elaborates that “Doctrine is a body of thought, and a knowledge base which underpins the development of strategy”.[xvii] While there can be no argument thus far, what is problematic is the ability to bridge and characterize the linkage between doctrine and the military resources that are built up in circumstances when the development of strategies remain a dark area. Viewed from another perspective, this amounts to the maintenance of an amphibious capability without defining and distinguishing a contract for use.

India today maintains a combat sea lift capability of one Brigade, this facility is being built up to a Division size ability (by 2020) in terms of specialised ships, command platforms, escorts, surveillance and strike elements along with logistic support ships. The questions then are:

  • Given a scenario, what best can be achieved by this amphibious force?
  • Have we spelt out (in elaboration of the ten conflict scenarios) the specific contingencies in terms of circumstance and geography for use?
  • Have we trained man and material and rehearsed for these contingencies?
  • Have strategies been developed, Instructions and plans formulated (strategic, operational and logistic) to confront these contingencies?
  • And lastly, are our command structures nimble enough to cope with the complexities of amphibious warfare, are they unified and is leadership at every level attuned to the unyielding demands of this form of warfare?

If the answer to any of these questions is in the negative or even conditional, then we have neither understood the quintessence of ‘Conjunct Warfare’ nor the perils of having to run the gauntlet of another Gallipoli.

Download full article here: Shankar, Poseidon’s Long View Across Time

End Notes

[*] From Greek mythology, Posiedon the God of the Seas had the power to stop time.

[ii] Molyneux, Thomas More, Conjunct Expeditions: or Expeditions that have been carried on Jointly by the Fleet and Army, with a commentary on Littoral Warfare published by R.J Dodsely, 1759, London as quoted by Aston G. G Brigadier General in Letters on Amphibious Wars. John Murray, Albemarle Street, London 1911 p 2.

[iii] Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War. Penguin Books Ltd, England 1986, p 23.

[iv] Xenophon’s Hellenica 2.1.17-32 and Diodorus’ Library, 13.104.8-106.8.

[v] C. Ehrhardt, “Xenophon and Diodorus on Aegospotami”, in: Phoenix. Journal of the Classical Association of Canada 24 (1970), p 226; G. Wylie, “What really happened at Aegospotami”, in: L’Antiquité Classique 55 (1986), p 125-141.

[vi] These attributes are based on deductions and extrapolations made by the author; what is remarkable is how well these would fit into the planning of modern amphibious operations.

[vii] Molyneux, Thomas More, Conjunct Expeditions: or Expeditions that have been carried on Jointly by the Fleet and Army, with a commentary on Littoral Warfare published by R.J Dodsely, 1759, London as quoted by Aston G. G Brigadier General in Letters on Amphibious Wars. John Murray, Albemarle Street, London 1911 p 4.

[viii] Ibid. Molyneux’ treatise contains an exhaustive history of littoral warfare, its nature and value. Of equal importance is its analysis of the principles that govern the planning and execution of amphibious campaigns. Time has neither diminished its contemporary relevance nor provided an alternative to the theory that it develops.

[ix] Ibid Part I, 3-4 and Part II, 5-8.

[x] Ibid Part I, vii, 3-4, Part II, 8,46 and the general theme of Part II.

[xi] Aspinall-Oglander C.F. History of the Great War Military Operations Gallipoli Volume II. William Heinemann Ltd London 1932, p 61. Churchill in a memorandum to the Government justifying the Gallipoli campaign pointed out that the allies, by April 1915, had  regained 8 square miles of territory for a loss of  300,000 men on the Western front; almost as if to suggest that a victory at Gallipoli was available on the cheap!

[xiii] McMurtrie Francis E. Jane’s Fighting Ships 1939. Sampson Low, Marston & Co., Ltd. London 1939, p 23-64, 175-206.

[xiv] Weigley, Russell F. The American Way of War. Indiana University Press Bloomington 1973, p 256.

[xv] Indian Maritime Doctrine, INBR 8. Issued by Integrated Headquarters, Ministry of Defence (Indian McMurtrie Francis E. Jane’s Fighting Ships 1939. Sampson Low, Marston & Co., Ltd. London 1939, p 23-64, 175-206.

[xv] Weigley, Russell F. The American Way of War. Indiana University Press Bloomington 1973, p 256.

[xv] Indian Maritime Doctrine, INBR 8. Issued by Integrated Headquarters, Ministry of Defence Navy) 2004, p 81 and 114.

[xvi] Ibid, p 59. The ten conflict scenarios identified are: conflict in immediate neighborhood, operations in extended neighborhood, peacekeeping operations, conflict with an extra regional power, protecting persons of Indian origin, anti terrorist operations, fulfilling bilateral strategic obligations, preserving SLOCs, safeguarding Indian energy assets and humanitarian role.

[xvii] India’s Maritime Military Strategy. Issued by Integrated Headquarters, Ministry of Defence (Indian Navy) 2007, p 6.

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