Historical Notes; Grim, eloquent facts of Gallipoli

NO CAMPAIGN of either world war has aroused more controversy than the Gallipoli Campaign of 1915. It remains the most fascinating of campaigns, replete with "might-have-beens", or, as Churchill expressed it, "the terrible 'ifs' accumulate".

Although the quality of the substantial Gallipoli literature has been, and remains, very high, there have been exceptions. As John North wrote, "No battleground so easily lends itself to retrospective sentimentality", and, sadly, to mythology.

The Australian mythology is that it was entirely an Australian operation botched by incompetent British commanders. The Turkish version is that it was all a personal triumph for their national hero Mustapha Kemal, later Ataturk. Not too many Australians know, or want to know, that 35 per cent of the original Anzacs were British-born first-generation Australians, or that the best Allied general on the Peninsula was Harold Walker, the commander of the 1st Australian Division, and the architect of the capture of the fortress of Lone Pine. Like the Anzac commander, Birdwood, he was British.

One can have more sympathy for the Turkish myth- ologists. Kemal became President and Father of the Nation and a hard tyrant. Although he is long dead, his shadow survives him. The real Turkish commanders, the Germans von Sanders and Kannengeisser, have been accordingly airbrushed out of the Turkish version.

The folly of this is that there is no need for mythology. The underestimated Turk soldier was a revelation in defending his country. Kemal's interventions on 25 April and 10 August were decisive. The defence of the tiny Anzac position by the Australians and New Zealanders, increasingly ravaged by dysentery and typhoid, and the subsequent August break-out, is one of the epics of modern warfare.

But, as the casualty lists grimly demonstrate, the prime burden fell upon the British and French at Helles, and later at Suvla. While the Anzacs hung on resolutely during that torrid summer the British and the French were slowly advancing north, but at heavy cost. By the time of the brilliant evacuations of the Suvla Anzac and Helles positions, without a single casualty, under the noses of the Turks in December 1915 and January 1916, the British dead were 26,000, the French 10,000, the total Anzac dead 10,000.

In proportion to their male populations the Anzac losses were far worse than these bald statistics, which explains why Gallipoli is so important a part of their national histories, and why Anzac Day has always been, and remains, so important to them.

And Gallipoli was hardly the disaster it has been often depicted. Grievous though the Allied casualties were, those of the Turks were horrific, largely the result of heroic but futile headlong attacks in broad daylight, and for which Kemal was as guilty as anyone.

There are no reliable figures for the Turkish dead, but 200,000 is generally considered an underestimate. The Turkish army was never the same again. And, less than three years after the evacuation, the British occupied the Gallipoli Peninsula without a shot, the Navy sailed to Constantinople, and the vast Ottoman Empire had disintegrated. But it was three years too late.

Compared with the terrible battles on the Western Front, with infinitely greater losses, the Gallipoli venture was seen as the one real stroke of imagination and daring in the entire war - and one that so narrowly failed.

The facts of Gallipoli speak for themselves. They are as eloquent as the small and beautifully maintained Commonwealth war cemeteries, and the forbidding sinister bleakness of the arid Peninsula itself. Of the 36,000 British and Anzac dead, only some 7,000 have known graves. The Turks, their dead incinerated, have none.

Sir Robert Rhodes James is the author of 'Gallipoli' (Pimlico, pounds 12.50)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events business) - Central Manchester - £20K

£18000 - £20000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events busi...

Recruitment Genius: Project Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This privately-owned company designs and manuf...

Recruitment Genius: Human Resources Officer

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen at th...

Ashdown Group: HR Manager - London - £40,000 + Bonus

£36000 - £40000 per annum + Bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager (Generalist) -Old...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own