To Lionel Fielden
The innocence of young men facing the prospect of war for the first time is an unchanging theme of both history and literature. But the letter home written by that incurable romantic Rupert Brooke in March 1915, on passage to the Dardanelles, stands nonetheless among the most memorable of all time.
It’s too wonderful for belief. I had not imagined Fate could be so kind… Will Hero’s Tower crumble under the fifteen-inch guns? Will the sea be polypholoisbic and wine-dark and unvintageable? Shall I loot mosaics from St. Sophia, and Turkish Delight and carpets? Should we be a Turning Point in History? Oh God! I’ve never been quite so happy in my life. I think… I suddenly realise that the ambition of my life has been… to go on a military expedition to Constantinople.
Brooke, of course, was dead of blood poisoning by 23 April, buried on Lemnos, before the first Allied soldier landed at Gallipoli, having made his one significant contribution to the campaign by writing the lines that immortalised him: ‘If I should die, think only this of me…’.
Here begins the story of one of the great military tragedies of the twentieth century, which no writer has described better than Alan Moorehead. Having been born in Australia in 1910, and lived in Melbourne until he was twenty-seven, he perfectly understood the grip which the Dardanelles exercised upon the national psyche. It was there that the legend of the Anzacs — named after the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps — was created. Moorehead served an apprenticeship in Australian journalism, then in 1937 sailed to Britain, where he soon secured a job with the Daily Express, at the time the nation’s most brilliant newspaper. Between 1939 and 1945 he not only became the finest war correspondent of his generation but was twice mentioned in despatches and received a military OBE, having displayed extraordinary courage on the battlefield. In the postwar era, he became a hugely successful popular historian, author of such international bestsellers as The White Nile and The Blue Nile. But more than a few of us rank Gallipoli as his best book. Though it was first published half a century ago, and many other accounts have appeared in the interim, none has either challenged Moorehead’s narrative and principal conclusions or improved on his marvellously elegant narrative of one of the great catastrophes of that supreme catastrophe, the First World War.
It is a curiosity of history that while the gateway to the Black Sea, the narrow straits of the Dardanelles, have been Turkish for many centuries, they have played a large part in British legend, and especially that of 1914 to 1918. As a people, we are curiously unimpressed by the fact that we eventually won that war; that General Allenby defeated the Turks in Palestine in a brilliant 1917 to 1918 campaign which ended with his capture of Damascus and the enemy’s capitulation. The attention of British posterity instead fixes immovably upon the earlier campaign of the Dardanelles, and that ‘corner of a foreign field’ which borders them on the European side, the Gallipoli peninsula. There, the Allied cause in 1915 met defeat and failure. There, tens of thousands of men perished in vain. Yet that bungled gamble remains the object of far more popular attention, of incomparably more words and books and films, than victory in 1918.
Why? First, there is the notion that the campaign represented a great missed opportunity, a chance to break the hideous deadlock of the Western Front, win the war two or three years earlier and change the course of history. Not only was that belief widely held in 1915, it still has followers today. Second, it was among the most incompetently conducted campaigns in history, demonstrating the British genius for discovering at moments of crisis an almost inexhaustible supply of dud generals. Countless young men perished in and around these limpid waters because they were led by commanders who may not have been fools, but conducted themselves in an extraordinarily foolish fashion. And the final element in the story, also of course an eternal part of war, is the sublime courage of those who fought on both sides, seeking to redeem with their bodies and high spirit the follies of their elders and seniors.
The Dardanelles adventure was the brainchild of that human dynamo the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Spencer Churchill. He was just forty, and he had embraced the conduct of the war with a passion and imagination most of his colleagues in the Asquith Cabinet conspicuously lacked. By the winter of 1914, he saw the armies on the Western Front deadlocked in parallel trench lines that reached from Switzerland to the English Channel. The Allies desperately needed a victory somewhere, to revive the faltering spirits of their peoples. Churchill conceived the idea — of a kind such as he would promote even more vigorously in the Second World War — of breaking the stalemate by exploiting British sea power to attack the southern flank of the Central Powers, knocking Turkey out of the war and opening a supply route to Russia, Britain’s ally, through the Black Sea.
A War Council meeting in London on 13 January 1915 was vividly described by Maurice Hankey, the Cabinet Secretary:
Churchill suddenly revealed his well-kept secret of a naval attack on the Dardanelles! The idea caught on at once. The whole atmosphere changed. Fatigue was forgotten. The War Council turned eagerly from the dreary vista of a slogging match on the Western Front to brighter prospects, as they seemed, in the Mediterranean. The navy… was to come into the front line.
Despite the scepticism of many admirals and generals, and especially that of the First Sea Lord, Admiral Lord Fisher, by sheer force of will Churchill gained the government’s endorsement for operations by a British and French naval squadron to force a passage through the Dardanelles, then present itself off Constantinople, Turkey’s capital, to demand the surrender of its government on peril of bombardment.
On 19 February 1915, French and British battleships commanded by Admiral Sackville Carden conducted their first bombardment of the Turkish Dardanelles forts. On 12 March, Churchill ordered General Sir Ian Hamilton to leave London at once to take command of an amphibious landing force to occupy Gallipoli and drive on towards Constantinople. It is hard to describe the chaos in which the subsequent operations were prepared and carried out. The Turks, of course, had priceless time to make preparations on that barren, thankless strip of sand and rock to receive the invaders. They were commanded by the immensely able German, Liman von Sanders. The Turkish 1st Division was led by thirty-four-year-old Mustafa Kemal, who would later become world famous as Kemal Atatürk, the creator of modern Turkey. Both von Sanders and Kemal readily anticipated the most likely places for the British and French to land, and organised the defences accordingly.
The British had five divisions, all wholly untried. Two of them were ‘ANZAC’ — a word then newly coined. The Australians and New Zealanders who filled their ranks had scarcely a handful of experienced officers. But their peoples attached enormous symbolic importance to their presence. This campaign was deemed the first test of their advance to mature nationhood as self-governing dominions. Back home, almost every citizen of their societies held their breath for news of what their menfolk might accomplish. As for the Turks, they still tell a story of two New Zealanders they later took prisoner and asked where they were from. On being informed, the Turks said: ‘Never heard of New Zealand.’ Some Germans who were eavesdropping explained that this was a country in the Pacific, literally at the other end of the world. The incredulous Turks then demanded of their captives: ‘Why are you here?’ The prisoners said that they thought it would be like playing an away game of rugby. A modern Australian historian has written that his countrymen ‘tripped off to war carefree and full of dreams as a debutante going to a ball. She didn’t know what was going to happen, but it was better than sitting at home, and when the ball was over, she would be a bigger person than she had been before.’
Early on the morning of 25 April 1915, the Anzacs stormed ashore beneath sheer cliffs on the western, Aegean side of the peninsula. I am not one of those who regard all the generals of the First World War as knaves and fools. But the senior officers who presided over the Gallipoli campaign were among the most insensitive blunderers ever to lead an army in battle. From 25 April onwards, the scene was set for the ghastly months of slaughter that followed. The Turks fought with heroic determination. Liman von Sanders and Kemal showed themselves masterly commanders. British and Anzac troops ashore suffered every kind of privation as well as danger. Occupying trenches under almost continual bombardment, they were hurled again and again into attacks that gained only a few yards of barren soil, at hideous cost.
On 15 May, Lord Fisher resigned in the last of a long series of tempestuous and increasingly demented outbursts against Churchill. When the First Lord tried to conciliate him, Fisher responded with a note in impassioned capital letters liberally interspersed with exclamation marks: ‘YOU ARE BENT ON FORCING THE DARDANELLES AND NOTHING WILL TURN YOU FROM IT — NOTHING. I know you so well! You will remain and I SHALL GO.’ The combination of the setbacks at the Dardanelles, bloody stalemate in France and Fisher’s resignation obliged the tottering Liberal government to resort to a coalition with the Conservatives.
I am among those who believe that the notion the forcing of the Dardanelles could alter the course of the war was always an illusion. First, even if the Black Sea route to Russia had been opened, Britain and France lacked sufficient weapons and shells for their own armies — they had none to spare to ship to the Russians. Second, it is highly doubtful that, even if the Royal Navy had shelled Constantinople, sea power alone could have forced the Turks to capitulate. Hamilton’s army was too small to win a land campaign unless the Turks had crumbled in its path, as they never showed any likelihood of doing. Third, even knocking Turkey out of the war would do little to bring closer defeat of Germany and Austria-Hungary. In the First World War as in the Second, victory could be gained only by defeating Germany on the Western Front, and Churchill was very foolish to suppose otherwise. Of course, a victory at the Dardanelles would have been very handy, and bolstered Allied morale. But it never looked like a war-winning stroke, and through the summer and autumn of 1915, it became an appalling drain on Allied manpower and resources.
The influential British war correspondent Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett travelled to London to tell every politician who would listen that the campaign was a disaster that was going nowhere. At first nobody listened, and disastrous operations continued to be carried out by disastrous generals. At the end of July, Aylmer Hunter-Weston, the butcher commanding the 29th Division who shrugged cheerfully before the landings that ‘heavy losses by bullets, mines, shells and drowning could be expected’, suffered a nervous breakdown. The August fighting cost the Allies twenty-five thousand casualties in four days. Another general wrote gloomily of one of his own formations, the 53rd Division, that it was so demoralised ‘it might bolt at any minute’. The Australian war correspondent Keith Murdoch followed Ashmead-Bartlett in reporting home that the Gallipoli campaign was futile. Loathing and contempt for British generals had become an absolute among Anzac troops.
In October, Hamilton was belatedly sacked and replaced by Sir Charles Monro, who immediately recommended that the campaign should be abandoned, the troops evacuated. Kitchener came out from London to see for himself, and endorsed Monro’s conclusion. Matters were made worse by three days of violent storms in November, which made it impossible to land supplies and worsened the privations of the eighty thousand men ashore. Some froze to death in their positions.
But the eventual withdrawal proved to be the only efficient part of the campaign. To prevent the Turks from seeing what was happening and exploiting weakness, the men in the line were progressively thinned out. On 18 December the main evacuations began, and on 8 January 1916 the last men were taken off Cape Helles. Five hundred wretched mules, the last of thousands landed to serve as pack animals, were shot on the beaches.
An Australian officer left behind a note for the Turks, asking them to preserve Anzac graves, saying he felt sure they would do this, as they had behaved ‘most honourably’ during the fighting. Another soldier messaged: ‘You didn’t push us off, Jacko, we just left.’ An Australian light horseman laid a table for four and set it with jam, bully beef, biscuits and cheese. His note said: ‘There are no booby traps in this dugout.’
The Dardanelles campaign had cost the Turks 251,309 casualties, including 87,000 dead; the French lost 10,000 killed, the Anzacs 8,709, the British 21,000. Proportionate losses were highest among the New Zealanders, in both world wars perhaps the finest of all Allied fighting soldiers. Of 8,556 who served at Gallipoli, 2,701 died, 4,752 were wounded. Compared with the slaughter on the Western Front, this toll was relatively small. The British would lose as many dead in a mere day or two on the Somme in 1916. But somehow the Dardanelles, that parade of futility played out so close to Troy, in a land and seascape steeped in classical legend, achieved a special place in the history of the war. For Australians, in the words of one of their historians, it became ‘a Homeric tale’. Ever since, they claimed it as their own in a fiercely and characteristically nationalistic fashion. Even in the twenty-first century, each year Gallipoli draws their descendants in astonishing numbers to attend commemorations. Australian folklore brands the peninsula as the place where the generals of the old ‘mother country’ grossly betrayed the young men of the dominions. This is not entirely a false image, but it is sometimes irksome to find modern Australians quite ignorant of the fact that more than twice as many British soldiers perished there as Australians.
Winston Churchill believed to his dying day that had the admirals and generals been bolder and more competent, the course of the war might have been transformed here. Few modern historians agree. The Gallipoli campaign was fundamentally flawed, as well as ineptly executed. The First Lord bore most of the bitter political recriminations for the failure. He was obliged to resign his office and accept command of a battalion in France. It was 1917 before he was again admitted to Lloyd George’s government, and some British politicians did not forgive him or forget his responsibility for the Dardanelles campaign until 1940.