Saturday, December 13, 2014

Lambs At The Slaughter: Gallipoli and the Creation of the ANZAC Legend

And how I remember that terrible day
When our blood stained the sand and the water
And how in that hell that they called Suvla Bay
We were butchered like lambs at the slaughter
--And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda, Eric Bogle


This past summer marked the 100th Anniversary of World War One. While this passed with little fanfare here in the United States, it is understandably a bigger deal in Europe. That said, I doubt the United States will do much to commemorate the 100th Anniversary of our entry into the war which will fall in 2017. Americans, after all, tend to focus more on American Idol and less on marking anniversaries of long ago wars. But the war wasn't all that long ago. I knew my great-grandmother as a child and her husband was a World War One veteran. Her sister's husband had served with the famed Sergeant York. In the grand scheme of historical memory, 100 years is not that long. To my students today, Vietnam is like ancient history as far removed from their lives as the Romans. However, one thing I can guarantee you is that April 25, 2015 will be a somber day of memory and celebration for at least on corner of the former British Empire.

Geography is of the utmost importance to history. Terrain not only determined the outcome of various battles in history, but it also dictated which countries would become major powers. England was a maritime power because she is an island nation. The Royal Navy and accompanying merchant fleet built a vast overseas empire. By the same token, geography protected the United States from invasion. With two oceans, we did not need a Maginot Line like the French did! During the Great War, military planners in all of the warring powers often had to make decisions based around geography. And therein begins our tale.

So long as the Ottoman Empire stayed out of the war, both England and France could send supplies to their Russian allies through the Black Sea. However, due to a variety of circumstances, the Ottoman Empire joined the Central Powers in November, thus cutting off the flow of supplies into Russia. The origins of the Gallipoli Campaign lay in the period following the closing of the Dardanelles. Not to worry. Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty had a plan! (A hasty and rather ill conceived one at that.) After a naval attempt to force the Straits directly ended in failure, the British government decided on a landing on the Gallipoli Peninsula. Though normally we think of this as an Australian operation, troops came from all over the world. French, British, Irish, Scottish, Australian, Indian, African, and even Canadian. Soldiers from Australian and New Zealand were organized into the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps which was, thankfully, shortened to ANZAC. 

But as the British government prepared for the operation, the Ottomans prepared as well. They would hold the advantage of terrain and the fact that they were on the defensive. Though anticipating exactly where the enemy would land was impossible to predict, the terrain made it possible for small groups of soldiers to inflict large casualties on troops in exposed positions on the beaches. Originally set for April 23rd, the weather did not cooperate and the attack was postponed until dawn on April 25th.

The gathered the crippled, the wounded, the maimed
And shipped us back home to Australia
The armless, the legless, the blind, the insane
All those proud wounded heroes of Suvla

The fighting which raged across the Gallipoli Peninsula is of such a magnitude that I do not think I could do it justice. Just to give you an example, one Turkish Regiment asked for orders when out of ammunition and left with nothing more than their bayonets. The response from Mustafa Kemal (later Ataturk) was "I do not order you to fight. I order you to die." And so they did to a man. They fought in trenches just as on the Western Front. In some cases, mere yards separated the two sides. History records many, many feats of both bravery and humanity among the soldiers of both sides. Young men from across the globe found lonely graves in a place few even knew existed just a short year before. This is one of the tragedies of warfare.

Eventually the Allies were forced to admit, if not defeat, then the fact that they had failed to obtain their objectives. I am reminder of Confederate general Earl Van Dorn who said after losing a battle "I was not defeated, but only foiled in my intentions." In the case of Gallipoli, the Ottomans gave the Allies a heavy dose of foiling. When the last troops left on December 20, 1915, they left 56,000 Allied dead behind. The Ottomans suffered a similar number. All told, the Allies suffered almost 200,000 men killed, wounded, or missing. The Ottomans as well. Once the smoke cleared, the political fallout began.

The failure of the campaign led to Winston Churchill's demotion and he soon left to command an infantry battalion on the Western Front. Asquith, the British Prime Minister also got the boot and was replaced by Lloyd George. It also fueled the growing nationalist sentiment within commonwealth countries. Given the large numbers of casualties suffered by non-English soldiers, many countries began to question whether or not it was the policy of the English government to use Irish, Scottish, Indian, Australian, and New Zealand soldiers as cannon fodder. Resentment over the Irish casualties found their way into the rebel song The Foggy Dew. ("Tis better to die 'neath and Irish sky than at Suvla or Sedd-el-bahr").

In Australia and New Zealand today, April 25th, ANZAC Day, holds a similar position as Memorial Day here in the United States or Armistice Day in England, And I am certain that on April 25, 2015, many in the world will pause and take a moment to remember the sacrifices of those gallant lads from Down Under who traveled halfway around the world to fight a war that would change the world. I know I certainly will.

On now every April I sit on my porch
And I watch the parade pass before me
I see my old comrades how proudly they march
Reliving dreams of past glories
The old men march slowly all bent stiff and sore
The forgotten heroes of a forgotten war
And the young people ask "What are they marching for?"
And I ask myself the same question.
(Please take a minute to listen to this excellent, tragic song here.)
(Reference for the lyrics here.)

My name is Lee Hutch and I am a Half A$$ Historian. I once had an Australian tell me that American beer was like sex in a canoe, f-----g close to water! One thing I do know is that Fosters is Australian for beer. (I loved those commercials back in "the day".)

No comments:

Post a Comment