by Roger Childs
We were beaten by our own high command. –Australian soldier Lucky Durham
A disastrous and wasteful military fiasco
Another Anzac Day occurs tomorrow. Around the country there will be dawn parades and other gatherings at local war memorials. Where the full traditional services are allowed, the veterans along with current armed forces, police and other groups will march; the wreaths will be laid; flags will be lowered and raised; speeches will be delivered and the Last Post and Reveille will be played. We will also have the reminders: Lest we forget and We will remember them.
April 25 was the day in 1915 when our troops first landed at Gallipoli in World War One. But why do we give that disastrous campaign such importance? It is like the French celebrating the Battle of Waterloo, or the Germans regarding the Battle of Stalingrad as an important event in their history worth commemorating.
The 1915 Gallipoli campaign was a humiliating defeat for the British and French Empires, which left about 450,000 dead or wounded. New Zealand’s lost 2779 soldiers and other personnel. It was a mismanaged affair from start to finish. Not quite the finish, as ironically the withdrawal from the peninsula without a single death was the most successful part of the disastrous venture.
Establishing a national identity?
Gallipoli helped foster a developing sense of national identity. Those at home were proud of how their men had performed on the world stage, establishing a reputation for fighting hard in difficult conditions. –New Zealand History Online
Much is made of this commonly held belief that the Gallipoli Campaign was crucial in forging our nationhood. However, this was not the first time New Zealand soldiers had fought overseas in the cause of the British Empire.
In the South Africa War, a.k.a. the Boer War, the government sent 6500 soldiers, as well as some doctors, nurses and teachers, to support the British Empire’s defence of the colonies at the Cape and in Natal, against the Afrikaner republics in southern Africa. This conflict was eventually won by the imperial forces in 1902.
In 1914 the first New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF) was destined for France, but stopped in Egypt and the soldiers were diverted to join Welsh, Australian, Indian, French, Scottish, English and Irish troops in the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign.
There is no doubt that the New Zealand troops fought bravely on the peninsula, as did the other nationalities including the Turks, Kurds and Arabs. Inspirational leaders like Bernard Freyberg and William Malone are justifiably regarded as Kiwi heroes because of their exploits in the Gallipoli campaign.
However the pride in how New Zealand men had performed on the world stage came more from the action of our troops on the western front, where the vast majority of our great war participants fought from 1916 to 1918. There has justifiably been great pride
- in New Zealand troop advances in battles like Messines
- victories by the Mounted Horse in Palestine and Jordan
- the capture of the French town of Le Quesnoy in November 1918.
Gallipoli gave the New Zealanders, and other allied soldiers, little chance to show their military skills and courage because of the exposed landing areas, small battle zones and very rugged environment, and the appalling lack of leadership and management from most of the high command and the senior officers in the field.
A campaign to take Turkey out of the war
This campaign was the brainchild of Winston Churchill, who is best known as the heroic British prime minister in World War Two. In 1915 he was First Lord of the Admiralty and had the idea of taking Turkey, an ally of the European enemies Germany and Austria-Hungary, out of the war.
This would be done by using his beloved navy, the most powerful on the planet, with the assistance of the French, to sail through the narrow channel known as the Dardanelles, south of the Gallipoli Peninsula, into the Sea of Marmara and beyond, to capture the Turkish capital of Constantinople.
However this attempt failed, because guns from the Turkish forts at The Narrows, (Dardanelles) and mines in the water sank and damaged a number of British and French ships. So it was decided that troops would be needed to land on the northern side of the peninsula to capture the forts and open the way to Constantinople.
The campaign on the Gallipoli Peninsula started badly ….
It all went wrong from the start.
The master plan was to land troops at six beaches at the western end and northern side of the Gallipoli Peninsula and capture the Turkish forts overlooking the Dardanelles. However, the Turkish troops were generally well prepared and ready to repel the invasion of their country. The attempted landings had mixed success.
- The Australian and New Zealand troops were landed 1000m further north than they should have been, on a beach about 20 metres wide! and suffered heavy casualties.
- At V Beach the British soldiers disembarked from a ship, the River Clyde, that had been run onto the shore. They were massacred and hundreds never even made it to the beach. So the attempt to land forces was stymied. A pilot flying overhead said that for 50 yards the calm sea was absolutely red with blood.
- At S Beach the Welsh landed successfully, but could not link up with the English because they had failed to gain a beach-head from the River Clyde further south.
- At W Beach English troops, mainly from Lancashire, secured a beachhead, but suffered 35% casualties.
- At X Beach the English landed virtually unopposed and pushed inland. They came to the empty village of Krithia but left it and headed back to the coast. If they had seized the town then, the campaign would probably have been won.
- At the very narrow Y Beach the Scots also landed in the wrong place and were faced with rocks and a cliff like the Anzacs.
Winston’s brother, Jack Churchill described what faced the Scots in verse.
Y Beach the Scottish Borderer cried
While panting up the steep hillside
To call this beach is stiff
It’s nothing but a bloody cliff.
Meanwhile the Turks were reacting intelligently to the various landings and quickly plugged gaps in their defences. They were directed by the brilliant German Lieutenant-General, Otto Liman von Sanders, and led in the field by a man who would found the modern Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Bey.
The outcome of the Gallipoli Campaign was basically decided in late April, when the allied attacks were mismanaged and not followed up. Tragically many units that did land had lost their officers in the slaughter in the sea and on the beaches. Very little land was gained because of the rugged landscape and the murderous Turkish gun fire.
…. and never recovered
Lieutenant-General Hunter-Weston is a classic example of the incompetence of many of the senior officers. He was responsible for British troops in the field at Cape Helles in the south and the failure to capture the strategic village of Krithia and the upland of Achi Baba. Unfortunately he often didn’t follow his superior General Hamilton’s instructions.
Australian historian Les Carlyon has commented that Hunter-Weston liked the fighting to be done in daytime during bankers’ hours. At the Battle for Krithia in May 1915 when the Plan A frontal attack on well-entrenched Turkish forces failed, Plan B repeated Plan A as did Plan C. He once said Casualties? What do I care about casualties?
Consequently he was responsible for thousands of deaths in the disastrous daylight May offensive including New Zealanders, Australians, Indians and French as well as British soldiers.
The allied forces basically held some beaches and clung to the cliffs, but made little headway inland from the coast. The overall commander at Gallipoli, General Sir Ian Hamilton, observed in August that the beautiful battalions of April are wasted skeletons, shadows of what they had been.
Late in the campaign, the British did successfully land 16,000 troops in the wide flat area further north at Suvla Bay, but they failed to push inland until it was too late. The elderly British General in charge, Sir Frederick Stopford, refused to leave his ship for several days and seemed more concerned about his sore knee than moving his forces inland!
Finally, in December 1915 and January 1916, the inevitable evacuations were carried out with the organisational skill that was sorely lacking during the campaign. Leaving behind self-firing rifles and explosives the troops were withdrawn without any casualties.
Kiwis at Gallipoli: part of a humiliating defeat
So the first New Zealand action in World War One was to be a part of a British military disaster at Gallipoli. How bravely the Kiwis fought is hard to assess and they were probably no less or more courageous than the other ten nationalities involved.
However, the New Zealanders did succeed in briefly capturing the high point of the peninsula – Chunuk Bair. Led by the capable Lieutenant-Colonel William Malone, they ascended the steep cliffs by night, instead of repeating the disastrous day time assaults which had led to massive casualties, such as in three failed assaults by the Australians at the Nek.
Malone and many of his men were tragically killed on top of Chunuk Bair, possibly by friendly fire from the royal navy who mistook them for the enemy, but also from fierce counter-attacks by the Turks.
So there was no forging of a national identity at Gallipoli – just a tragic waste of lives. Kiwi soldiers were part of an allied offensive and had gone to Turkey to beat the stuffing out of Johnny Turk only to leave like thieves in the night.
Like all the other allied soldiers who were killed or wounded, they were badly let down by the men in high places, safe on their ships off the coast or in London.
Myth making about Gallipoli
The first casualty when war comes is truth. –American Senator Hiram Johnson in 1917
And so it was with Gallipoli. Morale on the home front is very important in wartime and in New Zealand the Massey Government decided in 1916 to set April 25 aside to remember the fallen.
It would not be a good look to say that our boys had been needlessly slaughtered in a military fiasco, so the emphasis was on bravery, showing the world what we were made of and remembering the sacrifice Kiwi soldiers had made.
The reshaping of history has continued through to the present and the myth of helping to forge a national identity at Gallipoli is endlessly repeated
- in media reports
- in Anzac Day speeches
- in some history books and websites
- in school projects and essays
- at Anzac Cove ceremonies to which so many Kiwis have made the pilgrimage.
It is all very solemn and almost religious, but it’s not true. Forging a national identity is an evolving process and for New Zealand this had begun before World War One with
- the enlightened social and economic legislation of the 1890’s Liberal government
- being the first country to grant women the vote
- our contribution to the war in South Africa
- the triumphant All Black tour of the British Isles, France and the United States in 1905-06
- the South Pacific posturing of Premier Dick Seddon
- the gaining of Dominion status in 1907 when New Zealand ceased to be a colony.
- New Zealand further showed its enterprise and independence in the social and economic reforms of the late 1930s; the stance taken to support the establishment of the United Nations (UN) in 1945; dropping the Statute of Westminster; the anti-nuclear stand; opposing apartheid; not fighting in Iraq; supporting UN peace-keeping operations; and in the emergence of great leaders such as Apirana Ngata, Michael Joseph Savage and Edmund Hillary.
Remembering all the casualties of war
April 25th is Anzac Day and will remain so. However, it is important to acknowledge that April 25, 1915 was the day New Zealanders soldiers started fighting in a disastrous campaign that would end in defeat. It was not a campaign when a distinctive Kiwi identity was forged.
At Gallipoli, New Zealand provided about 3% — 4% of the troops who fought in the eight month engagement, so our country played a very small role in the campaign. Tragically there were about 8000 needless New Zealand casualties in this ill-fated venture.
It is right and proper that we should have a day to remember New Zealanders 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 remember all the casualties of those wars, whatever their nationalities, including the majority who were innocent civilians.
Above all, we should be emphasising living without war and give peace a chance. Lest we forget.