Alphen, The Netherlands. 26 April. Churchill wrote, “The price to be paid in taking Gallipoli would be heavy, but there would be no more war with Turkey”. A century ago yesterday the Gallipoli Campaign began, Churchill’s great grand strategic folly. Six years ago I stood atop Mal Tepe, the summit of Gallipoli, with Suvla Bay far below to my right, along with a group of cadets from the Netherlands Defence Academy I was leading on a visit to Turkey. This was shortly after having paid our deep respects at the Kemalyeri Memorial and Sehitier Abidesi, the memorial to the Ottoman fallen, along with hundreds of rightly-proud Turks. One can get no sense of the enormity of the challenge that British Empire and French forces faced in taking the Gallipoli Peninsula unless one stands atop its highest point and surveys the scene Kemal Ataturk saw. It is a breathtakingly beautiful and dangerous place.
The Gallipoli campaign was pure Churchill – the grand strategic out-manoeuvre to end all grant strategic out-manoeuvres. Churchill’s intention was to oust Turkey from the war by forcing British and French warships through the Dardinelles Straits into the Black Sea. Churchill, who was then First Sea Lord, was then an ‘easterner’ (as opposed to a ‘westerner’). He believed success in the Dardinelles would better support Russia and force the surrender of Constantinople, Imperial Germany’s Ottoman ally, thus relieving pressure on the stalemated Western Front. When the effort to force the Dardinelles failed with the loss of ships and men, due mainly to superb Turkish defence and Allied command incompetence, the aim then switched to taking the Gallipoli Peninsula which dominate the Straits, and which were key to the Ottoman defence.
Before climbing to Ataturk’s lofty command post we had first visited Cape Helles, the British Memorial, before going to ANZAC Cove where Australian and New Zealand forces landed. From ANZAC Cove we than began the ascent, thankfully with Turkey’s very generous support rather than under Ottoman fire, up the narrow track to Lone Pine where the Australian Memorial is situated. One gravestone stuck in my mind. It simply read, “He was a good bloke!” Pure Aussie. We then climbed further to Chunnuk Bair and the New Zealand Memorial. Only by making that fateful climb can one begin to grasp the courage of the ANZAC forces as they struggled to gain the heights critical to campaign success. And, only be looking down from on high can one begin to grasp the courage of the Turkish defenders who eventually stopped them but only at great cost.
Gallipoli was the first in many respects. It was the first truly maritime-amphibious operation. It was the first truly Allied operation. However, perhaps of more lasting importance Gallipoli was the place where Australia and New Zealand forged their modern national identities. It was also the place where in many respects modern Turkey was forged and the Kamalist Consitution which has sustained that great country to this day.
After repeated attempts to gain the heights culminated in the August 1915 offensive the campaign failed and so did Churchill’s grand strategic attempt to end World War One at a stroke. Equally, one only has to stand head bowed at the New Zealand Memorial at Chunnuk Bair to realise how close ANZAC forces came to forcing the heights and with it a decision. On 9 January, 1916 the final Allied forces were withdrawn from the Peninsula after a skilfully concealed evacuation.
Allied losses during the Gallipoli Campaign were 252,000 of which there were 34,000 British killed, 9,768 French, 3,709 Australian, 2,721 New Zealanders, 1,378 Indians and 49 Canadians. Ottoman losses are believed to range between 218,000 and 252,000.
This modest blog is in honour of all the men on both sides who gave their lives during the Gallipoli Campaign. The best that can be said for ‘Gallipoli’ was that it paved the way for a new form of warfare. It also showed what happens when military vision, command and equipment fail to match either strategic vision or miltary-strategic reality, something upon which our own leaders should spend more time pondering…but do not. The price paid was indeed heavy but war with Turkey continued.
My trip to Gallipoli was also memorable but not just for my tryst with World War One history. It took place just at the moment an unpronouncable volcano in Iceland decided to go explosively uppity and ground all air traffic in Europe. The Turks saved the day. Ankara offered us a coach and two drivers. We then drove back across Europe from Gallipoli to the Netherlands via the Western Front battlefields. Somehow it seemed fitting.
However, whilst I deeply respectful of the Turkish and other Allied forces who fought at Gallipoli I am writing this blog first and foremost out of respect for the ANZAC forces who came halfway round the world to help defend the then Mother Country - Britain. As I stood on ANZAC Cove I sent an email to an Australian general expressing my respect for the achievement of his forebears right where I stood. Australians and New Zealanders are a bit like we Yorkshire lads, not big on pomposity. So, let me finish this blog in a typically Aussie/Kiwi way.
“Good on yer, mate!”