A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Bloodbath at Anzac Cove

It was meant to provide a quick breakthrough to offset the deadlock in Europe. Instead, the Gallipoli campaign was a ghastly shambles, spawning legends of betrayal and heroism that continue to fire Antipodean imaginations

It was “a still night… [with] hardly a breath of wind… every sound seemed magnified tenfold”.

On board three battleships waiting off Turkey’s Gallipoli peninsula, the men of the  1st Australian Division of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (Anzac) were woken and given a hot meal before being mustered into lifeboats and launches.

About 40 minutes later, as the flotilla neared shore, silent and cloaked in darkness, the small craft were cast off.

“Those at the oars rowed like men possessed,” recalled Lieutenant Aubrey Darnell, of the 11th Battalion, 3rd Brigade. Turkish troops, who had spotted the assault force from a headland overlooking the beach, opened fire.

“Some [of the rowers] were shot and others took their place at once and not a word was uttered. Presently we grounded and, in an instant, were in the water up to our waists and wading ashore with bullets pinging all around us.”

Struggling with the weight of their uniforms and packs, Darnell and his comrades tried to avoid “a carpet of dead men” on the seabed.

It was just before dawn on 25 April 1915, and the 4,000 men of the 3rd Brigade – consisting of four Australian infantry battalions – were at the forefront of a British-led expeditionary force being landed at Gallipoli with  the aim of capturing the peninsula and opening  the way for Allied battleships to steam through the Dardanelles Strait and attack Constantinople (now Istanbul), the capital of the Ottoman Empire.

The hope was that Turkey, which had joined forces with Germany six months earlier, could be quickly knocked out of the war. Instead, the Anzacs, who landed at Ari Burnu, on the peninsula’s western coast, and the British troops, who splashed ashore at the southern tip, near Cape Helles, found themselves bogged down for  eight months, and were eventually forced to evacuate.

Allied troops unloading heavy guns in the Dardanelles (Getty) Allied troops unloading heavy guns in the Dardanelles (Getty)
That first morning, the Australians may have wondered at the choice of landing point: a narrow, pebbly beach overlooked by “an almost perpendicular cliff of loose sandstone covered with thick shrubbery”, as Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett, The Daily Telegraph’s war correspondent, described it. It was perfect terrain for snipers.

In fact, the Anzacs had been supposed to land some way to the south, at Gaba Tepe, where the topography was less hostile. At Ari Burnu, though, they met only thin resistance initially, and headed towards higher ground. “We advanced in the cool of the morning through thick undergrowth, heavy with dew and fragrant with the perfume of wild flowers,” wrote Captain Andrew Came, of the  6th Battalion.

The bucolic atmosphere was not to last. Turkish reinforcements arrived, and fierce fighting – much of it at close range and sometimes with bayonets – ensued. Meanwhile, the rest of the Australian and New Zealand troops were landing, with their weapons, ammunition and stores, at what they had already dubbed Anzac Cove, under the cover of heavy fire from the warships.

In the Gallipoli gallery of the Australian War Memorial, in Canberra, a 1922 painting by George Lambert, entitled Anzac, the landing 1915, shows Australian soldiers crawling and scrambling up a steep cliff, past comrades lying dead and wounded. Higher up, illuminated by the growing daylight, stand the distant, shadowy figures of the enemy.

Those hills, with their innumerable ridges, gulleys and bluffs – described to Lambert by Lance Corporal Hedley Howe – were where the two armies met.

As Ashmead-Bartlett told it: “For 15 mortal hours the Australians and New Zealanders occupied the heights under an incessant shellfire, and without the moral and material support of a single gun from the shore. They were subjected the whole time to violent counter-attacks from a brave enemy, skilfully led, and with snipers deliberately picking off every officer who endeavoured to give the command or to lead his men.”

By evening, the Turks still held the main ridge, while the Anzacs clung to a narrow strip of hills overlooking the beach. More than 600 Australians were dead.

Ashmead-Bartlett’s report on the landing, which was carried on the front page of every Australian newspaper two weeks later, is credited with helping to inspire the “Anzac spirit” – a legend which, despite the military failure of Gallipoli and the heavy loss of life, became central to Australian notions of identity and nationhood.

Gallipoli not only failed to achieve its military aims; it was a killing field where 80,000 Turks and 44,000 Allied troops, including nearly 9,000 Australians, lost their lives. The débâcle – blamed on poor planning and leadership, as well as a shortage of artillery, ammunition and medical supplies – was highlighted by a young Australian journalist, Keith Murdoch  (the father of Rupert), who visited the peninsula in August 1915, and led to the dismissal of the British commander, Sir Ian Hamilton.

Although similarly appalled by the conduct of the campaign, Ashmead-Bartlett was full of admiration for “these raw colonial troops… this race of athletes”, as he called the Australians, who “in these desperate hours proved worthy to fight side by side with the heroes of the battles of Mons, the Aisne, Ypres and Neuve-Chapelle”. Their wounded, although “shot to bits”, were happy, the seasoned war correspondent wrote, “because they knew they had been tried for the first time, and had not been found wanting”.

A similar if somewhat less floridly worded account was given by Charles Bean, Australia’s official war correspondent and historian, who propagated the notion that the newly independent country – whose six former British colonies had federated only 14 years earlier – “became a nation” at Gallipoli.

Although Australian forces had already become involved in the war, capturing and occupying German Pacific colonies and sinking the German raider SMS Emden in the Indian Ocean, Gallipoli was their first major military action, and the first undertaken by a solely Australian unit.

For Bean, the Anzacs embodied all that was best about the Australian character – courage, sacrifice, irreverence, resourcefulness and “mateship” – and although Australian troops saw far more action on the Western Front, where they served for much longer, and lost many more men, it was Gallipoli that captured the public imagination.

As the 20th century wore on, and Australia fought alongside its allies not only in the Second World War but in Korea, Vietnam and, more recently, Iraq and Afghanistan, the myth became cemented. And although its pull weakened in the 1960s and 1970s, as Gallipoli veterans died and the Vietnam War caused bitter divisions in Australian society, the “Anzac spirit” continued to be invoked.

In recent decades – in the wake of Peter Weir’s compelling 1981 film Gallipoli and Australia’s bicentenary in 1988 – “Anzackery”, as its critics call it, has experienced an extraordinary resurgence, with thousands of people, including schoolchildren, taking part in Anzac Day’s traditional dawn service and marches, and backpackers flocking to Anzac Cove. At the same time, there has been a backlash against the myth, with politicians accused of cynically exploiting it to justify modern military adventures, and historians attacking it as an exclusively white, male story – and one which ignores the less heroic side of Gallipoli, which included desertions, episodes of bloodlust and war crimes.

In a 2010 book, What’s Wrong with Anzac?, the historian Marilyn Lake called it “white Australia’s creation myth”, while another academic, Martin Ball, has written that the myth “suppresses parts of Australian history that are difficult to deal with. Anzac is a means of forgetting the origins of Australia. The Aboriginal population is conveniently absent. The convict stain is wiped clean. Post-war immigration is yet to broaden the cultural identity of the population.”

As next year’s centenary approaches, theirs are lone voices. Australia is spending an estimated A$325m (£180m) on centenary commemorations, according to James Brown, the author of a recently published book, Anzac’s Long Shadow, and demand for a place at Anzac Cove next year is so strong that Turkish and Australian authorities have been forced to cap attendance at 10,200 and allocate tickets by ballot.

The young Australians who fought so valiantly in 1915 to avoid being driven back into the sea – the last Gallipoli veteran died in 2002 – would, probably, be shocked to see how Anzac has been commercialised and corporatised in the run-up to the centenary. Merchandise on offer includes a “Lest We Forget Remembrance Watch” and key rings containing vials of sand from Anzac Cove.

Those men, after four months of being hemmed in by the Turks, attempted to break out in August, which led to some of the campaign’s bloodiest battles, including Lone Pine and The Nek. Albert Facey, an infantryman with the 11th Battalion, wrote that “the awful look on a man’s face after he has been bayoneted will, I am sure, haunt me for the rest of  my life”.

There were, however, some lighter moments. “I think the Turks were rather surprised to find that we were white and civilised, as they have been informed by their leaders that the Australians were wild bushmen, black, uncivilised and given to cannibalism,” wrote another infantryman, Frederick Muir, in a letter home. “We, on our part, found the ‘unspeakable Turk’ (or most of him) hardly as unspeakable as we had believed.”

However, for the Australians and New Zealanders who survived and were finally withdrawn on 19-20 December – followed by the British troops, who left Cape Helles on 8-9 January 1916 – it was the horrors which remained most vividly in their minds.

“People often ask me what it is like to be in war, especially hand-to-hand fighting,” wrote Facey. “Well, I can tell you, I was scared stiff. You never knew when a bullet or worse was going to whack into you. A bullet is red hot when it hits you and burns like mad.”

Tomorrow: Women’s ‘right to serve’

The '100 Moments' already published can be seen at: independent.co.uk/greatwar

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