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Beyond Gallipoli: New Perspectives on Anzac

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Chapter 1

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THE MYTHS OF GALLIPOLI

Robin Prior

The myths surrounding the Gallipoli campaign in 1915 are so numerous that they easily exceed the mythology of all the other campaigns of the Great War combined. The Gallipoli myths range widely. They cover such issues as whether particular incidents in the campaign represented potentially victorious turning points, whether the campaign if successful could have shortened the war, whether inadequacies of the men and their leaders led to failure or whether it laid the foundations of two modern nations, Turkey and Australia.

It is hard to say why such a range of myths grew up around the Gallipoli campaign. But certainly, some very strong-minded individuals who wrote histories of the campaign had vested interests in the propagation of these myths. Winston Churchill, who presents himself in The World Crisis as the instigator of the campaign, believed that its ruination brought about the (temporary) ruination of his own career. So he sifted through the evidence to find instances of military bungling and opportunities thrown away.1 C.E.W. Bean, the Australian Official Historian, sought out moments where the bungling of the British cost Australians victory. He was the first to see how the birth of an Australia no longer subordinate to the Mother Country could originate on the beaches of Gallipoli. C Aspinall-Oglander, the British Official historian of the campaign, and a member of General Ian Hamilton’s staff at Gallipoli, sought moments where sloth and incompetence in lower order commanders brought to nothing many of the plans he had devised. The myths abound but in the limited space available I have focused on the major ones.

The first involves the naval attack on the Dardanelles. This came to be the overture of the land campaign but was initially intended to make the landing of soldiers unnecessary by sending a fleet through the Narrows and forcing the surrender of Constantinople by ships alone.2 This attack commenced on 19 February and reached its culmination in the great attack of 18 March. It failed with three allied ships sunk and three crippled.3 But it is said that if the naval attack had been resumed, the Turkish forts would have been unable to resist the fleet because they were running so short of ammunition. There are many studies which show that the Turkish forts actually had plenty of ammunition left.4 But to concentrate on the state of the forts is to miss a more important point – that it was not the forts that were the main obstacle to the fleet but the rows of Turkish mines that lay in the Narrows. Despite almost a month of endeavour the minesweepers had failed to clear a single mine, either because they could not make headway against the Dardanelles current or because they were deluged with shells from the concealed and mobile batteries on both sides of the Straits. With over 350 mines maintaining an impenetratable barrier to the fleet, it mattered little if the forts had sufficient ammunition or not.5

The second myth relates to the timing of the military campaign. Just over a month passed from the time that the navy conceded that they could not force the Straits to the time that the military landed. During this period the Turks reinforced their defences on the Peninsula. If the landings had taken place earlier, so the argument runs, they would have proved successful. This myth ignores the weather in the Eastern Mediterranean in spring. Even if troops had been immediately available to follow up the naval failure, the weather would have prohibited a landing. The seas were too rough for most of the period between operations to land sufficient troops to force their way through to the Straits or even to reinforce them and provide supplies. The last of the storms took place on 22nd April, delaying the actual landings from 23rd to 25th. An earlier landing might well have resulted in a fiasco.

The third myth concerns the Anzac landing. It is widely believed that the Anzacs were landed in the wrong location and that this factor disrupted their operation and prevented them pushing across the Peninsula to the Narrows. Actually, the Anzac contingent was landed exactly where intended.6 The initial landing certainly took place on a narrower front than was envisaged and this did cause some initial confusion. However, this period was short lived. The follow-up force landed in strength and on a broad front soon after the covering force and all was set fair for an advance. What then prevented the Anzacs from making ground was partly the difficulty of the country they were required to traverse but above all the timely arrival of Turkish reserves on the battlefield. First they appeared on the right flank and then on the heights to the left. There were no more thoughts of an advance after that. Indeed, late in the day thoughts turned rather to whether the entire force should be evacuated. The navy vetoed such a move and the Anzacs hung on but there were no lost opportunities on the first Anzac Day, just an insufficient force facing impenetratable country defended by an enemy in great strength.7

The second series of so-called lost opportunities came during the operations in August 1915. The first once more concerns the Anzacs. Their objective was the Sari Bair Ridge which dominated the entire northern position. It is widely claimed that after seizing key sections of the ridge, opportunities went begging because the navy shelled some contingents off the ridge, while others were pushed back because commanders failed to grasp the position and did not send reinforcements in a timely manner.8

The first of these contentions is easily dealt with. It is a fact that a small contingent of Ghurkas held a lodgment on Hill Q, one of the Sari Bair heights. However, their numbers were small, they did not hold the entire hill, they were counterattacked in strength by the Turks and they were probably subjected to friendly fire, not from the navy whose low-trajectory shells could not reach their position, but by their own artillery. This shelling, from whatever source was not the crucial factor. The Turks were too strong, the Ghurkas too weak, ever to have held the position. Even had they managed to hang on, they were enfiladed from Hill 971 to the north and Chunuk Bair to the south.9 There was therefore never an opportunity to convert a momentary lodgment into something permanent.

The second contention was that had a group of New Zealanders who held Chunuk Bair been reinforced, their lodgment would have provided an excellent springboard for the capture of the entire ridge. This too is extremely doubtful. Firstly, the command did attempt to reinforce them but the country once more proved so baffling that few reinforcements found their way to Chunuk Bair. The other point is similar to that just made about the Ghurkas. The New Zealand force was not in strength, the men were exhausted, supplies had not reached them and the Turkish force that counterattacked them off the heights was in such strength that no conceivable reinforcing group could have secured the position.10

But there is an overarching factor that nullifies the whole missed opportunity argument. The fact is that the northern force, even if they had secured the heights, had no additional troops available to them to push across the Peninsula. Had the ridge been secured, nothing could have followed. However, it is difficult to see how the 17,000 men who would have been necessary to hold the ridge could have been supplied, over the treacherous intervening country, with sufficient water, food or above all ammunition to make their position secure.11 And had they managed to do this, many more ridges lay between them and the Straits. Though these ridges were lower than Sari Bair, the experience of the Anzacs demonstrated that it was quite possible to hold a lower ridge and prevent all attempts to dislodge them. There seems little doubt that had Sari Bair fallen the Turkish forces would have been able to replicate this feat.

There is yet another myth about the August landings which focuses on the British force landed to the north of the Anzacs at Suvla Bay. Here the argument runs, had the commanders or troops of this force acted with more initiative, they would have been able to seize the Anafarta Ridge which overlooked Suvla Bay and advance down it and assist the Anzacs in driving the Turks from Sari Bair. The target for this allegation is the commander of this force, General Stopford, and the New Army troops which he commanded. The fact is that it was no part of Stopford’s remit to assist the Anzacs. The task that he and his force had been given was to establish a base at Suvla Bay from which all the forces in the north could be supplied over the stormy autumn season.12

There is no doubt that Stopford was not a great commander. He was slow to react to situations; he was often out of touch on his offshore yacht. But had he been a man of decision and imagination nothing much would have followed. His troops were struggling inland in the face of strengthening Turkish opposition. That those troops were not ably led was hardly a decisive factor. The men were short of water and had they ventured further from the landing places they may well have run short of ammunition and food as well. The fact that they were not able to capture the Anafarta Ridge had no consequences. The ridge was distant from Sari Bair and troops on it could have given little material support to the Anzac forces. Moreover, the ridge seemed to be the key in securing the Suvla Bay base. As it happened it was not. The Turkish forces which eventually forestalled the British on the ridge were never able to counterattack them back into the sea. Nor were they able to deploy sufficient artillery to threaten the base which remained intact until the end of the campaign.13

What of the larger purposes that the operation was supposed to serve? In short, were there any prospects that the operation at Gallipoli could have affected the war as a whole? The answer must be in the negative. The ultimate end of the campaign, it will be recalled, was to clear a way for the fleet to proceed to Constantinople to force the surrender of the Turks. Yet there is no evidence that had the fleet managed this unlikely task the Turks would have surrendered. Trenches were being dug in the capital; the city was in military hands and it is quite possible to imagine that had the capital fallen the government would have decamped to Anatolia and continued the war from there.14

Even if we take the next step and ask what might have happened had Constantinople fallen, we get very little further. It seems likely (the politicians were vague on this point at the time) that Britain and France envisaged that some form of Balkan coalition would immediately be formed. Churchill summed up what would have happened next most succinctly:

The whole of the forces of the Balkan confederation [which he estimates at just over one million men] could then have been directed against the underside of Austria in the following year [and this] must have involved the downfall of Austria and Turkey and the speedy victorious termination of the war. 15

The problem with this is that in adding up the Serbian, Greek, Bulgarian and Rumanian armies, observers such as Churchill took no account of how armies with no common language and equipment could have been combined in an efficient way. Moreover, the internecine hatreds of the Balkan states for each other would not have made the traverse of, say, Bulgarian armies across Serbia, an easy matter to arrange. There were formidable difficulties with communications as well. There were only two railway lines linking the Balkans with Austria in 1915 and it is certain that these narrow-gauge links would have proved insufficient to supply armies of the size suggested by Churchill.

Then there is the state of these armies to consider. The Rumanian army may be taken as an example. In 1914 this army had little modern artillery and was particularly deficient in heavy pieces. What they had was pulled by oxen because of the shortage of tractors and horses. Machine guns were in very short supply, eight divisions of the Rumanian army having none at all. The Rumanians had only ammunition for two months of heavy fighting and one shell factory, which delivered two shells per day. They had no gas, virtually no aircraft and no equipment such as trench mortars.16

There is no reason to believe that other Balkan armies were in any better condition. The Greek army was in the process of changing much of its equipment in 1914 and was not in a fit state to take the field. The Greeks had no armament industry and were looking to the major powers to re-equip them. This prospect vanished at the outbreak of war when these powers found that they had insufficient equipment for their own forces.

These then were the armies that Churchill and others expected to take on and defeat the armies of Austria-Hungary and Germany. It seems certain that the Austrians would have had the capacity to deal with this motley array alone. If by mischance they had been forced back, the Germans would have rushed to their aid. The issue would then have been beyond doubt.

Any Balkan alliance then was probably chimerical, but even if one had been formed and their armies placed in the field, their prospects were dismal. More likely is that no such alliance would ever have been formed even if Constantinople had fallen.

Indeed this investigation lays bare the fallacy behind the entire Gallipoli adventure. Turkey and the Balkan states were but minor players in the Great War. Rather than prove an accretion of strength to either side, they would have become a burden or rapidly exited the war as Rumania did when it was attacked by Germany in 1916. The great engine of the war from the point of view of the Central Powers was the German army, and it happened to be on the Eastern and Western fronts. As far as Britain was concerned, they had to defeat Germany in the west or lose the war. In this sense there was no way around. The defeat of Turkey in 1915 would have saved temporarily the lives that were lost in the Palestinian and Mesopotamian campaigns from 1916 to 1918. But had Turkey fallen in 1915, those troops would have been transferred to the killing fields of the Western Front. How many would have survived this ordeal is speculative, but it seems certain that the overall death toll would have been higher.

All this leads to an unwelcome conclusion about Gallipoli and the Dardanelles. Despite the bravery of the allied troops who fought there, the campaign was fought in vain. It did not shorten the war by a single day, nor in reality did it ever have that prospect. As Churchill said (and then promptly forgot), ‘Germany is the foe & it is bad war to seek cheaper victories’.17 Gallipoli was certainly bad war. As it happened, it did not even offer a cheaper victory or in the end any kind of victory. But even if it had, the downfall of Turkey was of no relevance to the deadly contest being played out in France and Flanders.

What of the fact that two modern nations were borne at Gallipoli? In the case of Turkey there is some merit in the proposition. Certainly, Mustapha Kemal, the founder of the modern Turkish state first came to prominence at Gallipoli. However, a decade elapsed before the state was established and there were many other factors involved in the making of modern Turkey. Some of them are the harsh terms imposed on Turkey by the peace, the invasion and expulsion of Greek forces (followed by the Greek population) in the early 1920s, the exhaustion of the allies after the war and the discrediting of the Young Turk government by entering the war on the German side.

As for Australia, it became a nation in 1900 and by 1915 had established a series of unique parliamentary, industrial and commercial arrangements which clearly proclaimed its nationhood. It in fact provides the perfect example of how a nation can be created without the blood test of war. Some Australians have insisted that unless such a test is applied the country is something less than a nation. Such notions should be dismissed for the bloodthirsty hankerings of insecurity that they are. Those who know the true cost of war will be content with Australia’s peaceful path to independence.

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1 This was the conclusion in my book on The World Crisis. See Robin Prior, ‘Churchill’s World Crisis As History (London: Croom Helm, 1983), 275-79.

2 Churchill to Admiral Carden (commanding Admiral at the Dardanelles) 3/1/1915, in Martin Gilbert, Winston Churchill, vol 3, Companion Part 1, Documents, July 1914-April 1915, 45-6.

3 Admiral de Robeck (Carden’s replacement) Report 24/3/1915, de Robeck Papers, 4/4, Churchill College, Cambridge.

4 For a full discussion of this point see my ‘World Crisis As History, 97-9.

5 For the fraught question of the minesweepers see the report of a committee sent to Turkey in 1919 to investigate the failure of the naval attack, The Mitchell Committee. There is a copy in the Australian War memorial, AWM 124.

6 See General Birdwood, ‘Operation Order no ‘1 in C. Aspinall-Oglander, Gallipoli Maps and Appendices vol 1 (London: Heinemann, 1929), 37-41. Birdwood specifies no exact landing point in these orders.

7 Robin Prior, Gallipoli: The End of The Myth (London/New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), Chapter 8.

8 Extraordinarily, given his initial hostility to the entire campaign, C E W Bean claims this. See his Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918: The Story of Anzac vol 2 (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1938), 700.

9 See Colonel Allanson (who commanded the Gurkhas that day) letter to his brother 8/3/16 held by the Imperial War Museum, London, DS/Misc./69.

10 See ‘Report on Operations against the Sari Bair Position: 6-10th August 1915’ in NZ & A Division War Diary August 1915, AWM 4/1/53/5, Part 2.

11 Cecil Malthus, Anzac: A Retrospect (Auckland: Whitcombe & Tombs, 1965), 119.

12 GHQ Order to General Stopford (commander at Suvla Bay) 13/7/1915, in WO 158/576, The National Archives, Kew.

13 Prior, Chapter 13.

14 This was the opinion of Turkish Officers in 1919 in answers given to The Mitchell Committee.

15 Winston Churchill, The World Crisis (London: Odhams, 1951), 849.

16 See for example Charles Petrie, ‘The Roumanian Campaign 1916’, Army Quarterly, 14 (1927), 341 and P. Seicaru, La Roumanie dans la Grande Guerre (Paris: Minard, 1968), 346.

17 Churchill to Lord Fisher (First Lord of the Admiralty) 4/1/1915 in Martin Gilbert, Churchill Companion Documents, vol 3, 71.

Beyond Gallipoli: New Perspectives on Anzac

   by Raelene Frances and Bruce Scates