Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Anzac Day 2006

Today is the 91th anniversary of the Allied landings at Gallipoli, the failed attempt to take Turkey out of the First World War. The Gallipoli peninsula is a place where legend has always been more important than truth since Homer's Iliad tore apart nearby Troy.

During the 1983 America’s Cup, the Australian syndicate was 3-1 down in the race series, when Alan Bond invoked Gallipoli's modern mythology. “We had our backs to the wall there (Gallipoli), and we won that one," Bond said. The interviewer took pains to point out to him that “we” didn’t win that one though Bond's team did come back to win.

Bond is not alone in adapting the myth to his purposes. The Turks themselves also twist it to their purpose. Islamist scholars who lead tours to Gallipoli minimise the role played by the secular military leader Mustapha Kemal, the future Ataturk ("Father of the Turks"). Instead the tell their audiences the campaign was won by Allah and his Turkish martyrs.

The peninsula itself is on the European side of the Dardenelles, the Gibraltar of the eastern Mediterranean. Here the Aegean meets the Sea of Marmara. Further upstream, the Marmara meets the Black Sea at the Bosphorus. A victory at Gallipoli would not only cripple Constantinople but would bring the Russian Black Sea fleet into the war.

In 1915 Constantinople (later Istanbul) was the capital of the 600 year old Ottoman Empire which was on its last legs. At the peak of its power in 1683, the Ottomans and their feared infantry units, the Janissaries, controlled the entire North African coast, all of Europe east of the Danube, the Crimea and much of the Middle East. The next two centuries saw a long slow and painful decline as nationalism rose in the Balkan peninsula and new nations were created. The other great European empires slowly bit away at the rest of its possessions. The Ottoman treasury went bankrupt in 1875 and Tsar Nicholas I called Turkey the Sick Man of Europe.

Internal strife was also tearing the empire apart from the inside. The Young Turks emerged from the Committee of Union and Progress and succeeded in overthrowing the Sultan. Before the First World War, a triumvirate called the Three Pashas were in power. Enver, Djemal and Talat would all meet violent ends in exile after the war, two of them at the hands of assassins in revenge for the Armenian genocide that occurred during the war. Back in 1914, they were courted by both sides and allied with Germany.

The Germans dealt Russia a colossal defeat at Tannenberg early in the war. Russia was threatened by a Turkish advance through the Caucasus and gaining control of the Dardanelles would re-establish western communications with Russia via the Black Sea.

After early salvos from the British Navy, the Turks mined the straits . In March 1915, under the direction of the First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, the British and French sent a fleet of 18 ships to force open the strait. Six ships were either sunk or badly damaged by mines in this failed naval attack.

The Army was then sent in to occupy the Gallipoli peninsula to nullify the Turkish guns defending the strait. It was to be a combined French and British operation. The whole of the British empire contributed forces: English, Scottish, Welsh, Irish, Canadian, Newfoundlanders, Indians, Australians and New Zealanders. The latter two were joined together in the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps which was shortened to Anzacs. The cross-eyed War Minister Kitchener appointed his Sudan campaign protégé Sir Ian Hamilton commander of the operation. Hamilton would face formidable opposition in German general Otto Liman Von Sanders and local hero Mustafa Kemal.

The invasion was planned for April 24 but bad weather delayed the landing by 24 hours. The landing spot was on the Aegean side of the peninsula. But the boats dropped the forces at the wrong beach and instead of the wide open beach they were supposed to be at, the invaders ended up in an unnamed cove. They were confronted by a tangle of ravines and spurs and sheer cliff faces that descended from the Sarı Bayır range to the sea. The landing spot finally got a name: Anzac Cove.

The area was lightly defended but combination of the tough terrain and poor communication of orders meant that the British lost the race to the high Quickly roused, Kemal got there first. Positions on the key hill Baby 700 (so named because it was slightly smaller than another 700 feet hill in the area) changed hands several times in the first few days before the Turks secured it for good. The campaign then transformed into the stalemate of trench warfare. The Turks did not have the navy nor the calibre of equipment but the higher ground proved decisive throughout the campaign.

On the southern tip of the peninsula was Cape Helles. This was the site of the second landing of mostly British, Irish and French troops. They suffered massive casualties from machine guns at Seddulbahir fort. Only 11 out of 1,012 Royal Dublin Fusiliers survived the campaign. The few that made it ashore were besieged three days after the landing.

Both sides launched suicidal offensives throughout May but very little ground changed hands. The British brass would not divert heavy artillery from the Western Front that might have wrested the initiative. And so the Dardanelles gridlock resembled the bloody fields of Flanders.

In August, Hamilton launched a second offensive 8km north of Anzac Cove. The leader of this landing at Suvla Bay, Sir Frederick Stopford, was ineffective and botched the landing despite encountering little Turkish resistance. Instead of storming up the mountain, Stopford slept for the night without issuing any orders. Again the Turks won the race for the high ground and Suvla turned into a second defensive stalemate.

Up to now, Hamilton’s sanguine dispatches back to Kitchener concealed the true state of affairs. But the truth was seeping through and the work of journalists Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett and Keith Murdoch turned the tide in Whitehall.

Kitchener sacked Hamilton in October and appointed Sir Charles Munro to look at whether they should evacuate. Munro's mind was made up when Bulgaria came into the war on the side of the Central Powers and opened up a new front near Salonika in Greece. This also meant Germany had a land route to supply Turkey with heavy artillery. The writing was on the wall for Gallipoli. Munro recommended evacuation.

Heavy casualties were expected in the evacuation but it was the only truly successful part of the campaign. The army stealthily reduced ranks through December so the Turks wouldn't notice and evacuated the last batch from Anzac Cove during the early hours of December 20, 1915. The last soldiers left Helles in early January. There were no casualties in either evacuation.

The Turks celebrated a great victory. Mustapha Kemal’s star was on the rise and he went on to transform the country into a modern European state in the 1920s. But the Ottoman empire itself was destroyed by Allenby’s armies advancing from Arabia.

In Turkey the Gallipoli campaign, is known as Çanakkale Savaşları. Canakkale (named for the main town on the Asian side of the peninsula) is still feted as a great victory.

But it was also making a huge impact on the other side of the world. Within a few weeks of campaign starting, Ashmead-Bartlett’s vivid and heroic account of the Anzac landing was printed in Australian newspapers. What captured the imagination of the public was the fact the article was particularly favourable to the “thrilling deeds of heroism” of Australian and New Zealand troops. As an immediate result both countries had little trouble finding new volunteers. Both countries sustained enormous casualties which neither had previously experienced in this war or any other. 500 Australians died on the first day. 9,000 died overall. This trauma added to the mystique of the campaign. It was a nationally defining event for country that had existed as a Federation for just 14 years and was still grappling with its dual British and Australian identity. Before Anzac, Australian history was a dull matter “of commerce and cricket, of wool and wickets.” Now, they could say “we know what nations know”. On the first anniversary in 1916 there were already commemoration ceremonies in some parts of Australia despite the ignoble retreat in December. This began the institutionalisation of Anzac Day.

Groups were set up all over Australia and New Zealand which lobbied for the day to be given a ‘sacred’ meaning. The churches and military co-presided at the ceremonies that sprang up to celebrate the day. Legislation set aside the day for solemn remembrance and Anzac Day became a public holiday. But it took on the look of Good Friday “holiday” - which it often followed swiftly in the calendar. Pubs, sporting venues and shops would be closed on the day. April 25 would become the nation’s day of remembrance for all wars and the itinerary of rituals was established. The day is now an uneasy mix of military and religious tradition, both sacred and profane.

Other sources:

Sydney Morning Herald, 25 April 2006 "Gallipoli: A Contested Ground Still"

"The Anzac landing"

Moses, John A 2002, The Struggle for Anzac Day 1916-1930 Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society v88 no 1

Carlyon, Les 2001, Gallipoli, Pan Macmillan, Sydney

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