Historical Notes; Grim, eloquent facts of Gallipoli
Wednesday 31 March 1999
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)
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