By Roger Childs
25 April 1915 is a day etched into our history. This was the second time New Zealanders saw action in World War One and whereas only one soldier was killed in the February 1915 skirmish against the Turks on the Suez Canal, the landing in Gallipoli saw 147 killed and hundreds wounded. This was the start of the ill-fated and ultimately unsuccessful eight month campaign by allied forces to wrest control of the peninsula from Ottoman troops.
Since 1916, when the New Zealand government declared the landing day an occasion to remember our gallant troops at Gallipoli, 25 April has been known as Anzac Day. As time went on we have come to remember all the casualties of wars and United Nations engagements which our men and women in the armed forces have been involved in.
In speeches at Anzac Day ceremonies around the country, Gallipoli will undoubted get a mention and reference may be made to the landing at Ari Burnu (Anzac Cove) and the notion that this campaign was a key element in forging New Zealand’s national identity.
Doomed from the start
We were let down by our own high command. –Australian Veteran, Lucky Durham
The Gallipoli campaign was a military fiasco and took the lives of 2779 Kiwi soldiers and left over 5000 wounded. It was disastrously mismanaged, starting with landing the Australian and New Zealand forces a kilometre north of the planned location at Gaba Tepe. So instead of a wide beach and low-lying land beyond, the troops were deposited on a beach the width of a cricket pitch and in front of them were steep hills and deep ravines.
Historian Richard Stowers has commented that unfortunately for the Allies the collapse of the whole campaign could be attributed to a very early error – landing the Anzac on the wrong beach.
That same day there was also a disastrous attempt to land British troops at Cape Helles on the southern tip of the peninsula. The landing blunders were compounded by poor leadership and incompetence in the months that followed and the only success was ironically the evacuation of all allied troops in December 2015 and January 2016 without any casualties.
From April to December there were fruitless attempts to push back the Ottoman forces from the heights of Gallipoli. The latter were very well led by German General Liman van Sanders and his right hand man in the field Mustapha Kemal.
After the initial landings the conflict bogged down into trench warfare on the steep, rugged landscape with occasional ruinous daylight, frontal attacks on enemy positions which cost the lives of tens of thousands.
The one short-lived success was the capture by the New Zealanders lead by Lieutenant Colonel William Malone of the high point of Chunuk Bair. But the failure of the commanders to quickly back up this success with experienced reinforcements and flanking advances, meant that Chunuk Bair was ultimately lost. Mustapha Kemal was faster in counter-attacking and swept the Kiwis and British troops off the strategic peak.
Remembering Gallipoli for what it was
There was never an army worse looked after than the one in Gallipoli. –Australian Journalist Keith Murdoch
As the campaign unfolded, even by the standards of war, conditions were appalling – the noise of shelling and gunfire, little sleep, poor food, the constant smell of decaying bodies, the lack of water, energy sapping dysentery and lice, flies everywhere, inadequate medical facilities, the heat in summers and the cold in winter.
However, despite the dreadful conditions, rugged terrain and indifferent leadership the New Zealand and Australian soldiers fought with courage and honour, but as time went on there was a growing recognition amongst the men that most of the commanders had let them down and needlessly sacrificed the lives of tens of thousands of their mates.
Today in New Zealand we should not try and turn the Gallipoli campaign into something it was not – a pivotal nation-building experience with Kiwis playing an important role on the world stage.
Putting thousands of men through hell in Gallipoli, under-resourced and under-supplied in appalling conditions, with 2779 being killed and 5000 wounded in a military fiasco is not nation-building. The survivors certainly didn’t see it this way. Veteran Russell Weir said It’s the closest place I’ve been to hell.
Those who died and served should be remembered for their commitment and bravery, but it is important to realise that they were not serving some higher cause like defending the empire or fighting for democracy or peace. They were invading another country and Turkey’s capital Istanbul was going to be handed over to the Russians who were governed by the autocratic Czar Nicholas II.
The bottom line is that Gallipoli strategically achieved nothing, and ultimately denied a generation of men the chance to achieve their potential as family members and active citizens in NZ and communities all round the world.
Gallipoli veteran Doug Dibley age 100 said in 1996, ‘The Great War took the best of our young men and look at how many came maimed and broken. Many suffered dreadfully for the rest of their lives. And he added Anzac Day is important. These men should never be forgotten.‘
Anzac Day is here to stay
April 25th is Anzac Day and will remain so. It is important to acknowledge that 25 April 1915 was the day New Zealanders soldiers started fighting in the disastrous Gallipoli campaign in which our men served with honour and courage.
New Zealand provided 17,000 people, about 4% of the troops who fought in the eight month campaign, so our country actually played a very small role, but it did punch above its weight as its troops were regarded highly by many including the overall commander General Ian Hamilton. Tragically there were almost 8000 needless New Zealand casualties in the ill-fated venture.
It is right and proper that we should have a day to remember New Zealand men and women who served overseas — in South Africa, two world wars, Malaya, Korea, Vietnam, Somalia, East Timor, Iraq and Afghanistan, and especially those who died in their country’s service.
But we should also recall all the casualties of those wars and engagements, whatever their nationalities, including the majority who were innocent civilians. Above all, we should be emphasising living without war and giving peace a chance. Lest we forget.