Saturday, 25 April 2015

Anzac Day: Gallipoli 100 years on

The men who fought

On Saturday, the 25th April 1915, British, Australian and New Zealand troops landed on the Gallipoli peninsular, in Turkey. This Saturday is also ANZAC day, a solemn remembrance of the Australian and New Zealand troops who gave their lives in two world wars and represents the Australasian equivalent to the 'Armistice Day' commemorations held in Britain every 11th of November. Tomorrow, many thousands will cluster around cenotaphs and memorials throughout Australia and New Zealand to honour those who fought and those who fought and died. Inevitably, there will be a focus upon the Gallipoli battles as the day will be the 100th anniversary of the landings.

The Gallipoli campaign was conceived as a means of knocking the despised Turk out of the war. Politicians and even a few generals, who should have known better, thought they could win the war on the cheap. The Germans were unassailable on the Western Front so why not have a go at their weaker ally? It had an appeal, of course, but as a side show it held little strategic merit. Even if successful it would advance the Allied war plans by not a jot. The only way the war could be won was by beating the Germans. And for the Western Allies this meant defeating the Germans on the Western Front. Side shows like Gallipoli squandered resources better applied elsewhere.

Gallipoli was an outstandingly ill conceived and poorly executed campaign in a war not particularly renowned for well considered operations. Originally, the Gallipoli campaign was to be a purely naval venture. Elements of the British fleet bombarded strong points at the Dardanelles on the 19th February 1915. British marines landed and roamed at will; there was little resistance. But the British were dilatory and the operation took on the aspect of a leisurely jaunt of farcical proportions. At this stage it was decided that an army should be sent after all. The general tasked with this great enterprise was General Hamilton. General Hamilton was not chosen because he was a great military leader, but because he was next general on the list and due to go; everything was to be muddled through.

After thoroughly rousing the Turk the British did nothing for two months. In the meantime the Turks attended to their defences and rushed in troops. On the 25th April Allied troops finally landed only to find positions, which two months earlier were unmanned, now impassable. The Turks held the surrounding hills and the Allies could make no progress; and so they dug trenches. The campaign became a microcosm of the Western Front, except for the heat, flies, disease and of course, the Turks. The army could not advance and were under constant withering shell fire. All supplies had to be landed at night. Often the opposing trenches were only several yards from each other and easy assailed by grenade of which the Allies improvised from old cocoa tins.

At the campaign's climax, 13 British and Commonwealth divisions scrabbled over rocky terrain. Soon it became apparent, even to the most dullard politician and general, that nothing great could be achieved here. Reluctantly, the decision was made to withdraw. During late December 1915 and early January 1916, all troops were withdrawn. The evacuation was a stunning success although a great deal of stores remained for the Turks to pillage.

The Australians and New Zealanders have always viewed the Gallipoli campaign as peculiarly their own battle although most of the troops committed were British. Their experience helped to forge separate national identities, and I think, rightly so. No longer did they see themselves as British cousins overseas, but as separate, well defined nations. Of course, this national awareness would have come eventually, but the battle experience accelerated the process as Australian and New Zealanders came to appreciate their own worth as men and as a nation.
As for the butcher's bill: Of the 480,000 Allied troops committed, 250,000 became causalities and of these, 46,000 were killed. Of  those killed, 2779 were New Zealanders and 8,709 were Australians.

It is a time of solemn reflection and quiet contemplation of the great men who fought and died in war. It is not a time to glorify war. The only thing glorious about war is the men.

1 comment:

  1. "...The only thing glorious about war is the men..."

    Rarely the leaders, though...