We were beaten by our own high command. Australian soldier Lucky Durham
A disastrous and wasteful military fiasco
By Associate Editor Roger Childs
There was no forging of a national identity at Gallipoli – just a tragic waste of lives!
New Zealand provided only about 2% of the troops who fought in the eight-month campaign, so our country played a very small role. Tragically there were about 8000 needless New Zealand casualties in the ill-fated and unnecessary venture.
So now another Anzac Day has come and gone. This year there was extra publicity because it’s the 100th anniversary of the First World War.
But why do we give Gallipoli 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.
On the day we’ve had the traditional dawn parades and other gatherings around the war memorials of the nation: the veterans have marched, the wreaths have been laid, the speeches have been delivered and the Last Post has been played. We have also had the reminders: Lest we forget and We will remember them. Next year there will be every greater emphasis on remembering 25th April, as it is 100th anniversary of Gallipoli campaign.
The 1915 Gallipoli campaign was a humiliating defeat for the British and French Empires, which left 450,000 dead or wounded. New Zealand’s casualties were 7991. It was a mismanaged affair from start to finish. Not quite finish, as ironically the withdrawal from the peninsula without a single death was the most successful part of this 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 a national identity. 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, known as the Boer War at the time, the government sent 6500 soldiers, as well as some doctors, nurses and teachers, to support the English colonies against the Afrikaner republics in southern Africa. This war was eventually won by the imperial forces.
In 1914 the first New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF) was destined for France, but stopped in Egypt as 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. Leaders like Freyberg and Malone are justifiably regarded as Kiwi heroes.
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 fought in World War One. Gallipoli gave the New Zealanders, and other allied soldiers, little chance to show their skills and bravery because of the lack of leadership and management from most of the high command and officers.
A campaign to take Turkey out of the war
This campaign was the brainchild of Winston Churchill, who is better 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 Earth, with the assistance of the French, to sail through the narrow channel known as the Dardanelles, east of the Gallipoli Peninsula, into the Sea of Mamara and beyond, to capture the Turkish capital of Istanbul (Constantinople).
However this attempt failed, because guns from the Turkish forts at The Narrows and mines in the water sank a number of British and French ships. So it was decided that troops would be needed to land on the western side of the peninsula and capture the forts.
The disastrous campaign on the Gallipoli Peninsula
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.
Jack Churchill, Winston’s brother
The ingredients of the disaster are well known and one of the best books on the campaign is still Alan Moorehead’s Gallipoli published in 1963.
It all went wrong from the start.The master plan was to land troops at six beaches along the southern and western coasts of the Gallipoli peninsula and capture the Turkish forts overlooking the Dardanelles. But
- the maps used by the high command were 60 years old
- the Australian and New Zealand troops were landed 1000m further north than they should have been, on Z Beach which was about 20m 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. There were massacred and hundreds never even made it to the beach. 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 disembark at V Beach
- 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 Y Beach the Scots also landed in the wrong place and were faced with rocks and a cliff. (See the poem above.)
Meanwhile the Turks were reacting intelligently to the various landings and quickly plugged gaps in their defences. They were advised by the brilliant German Lieutenant General, Liman von Sanders, and led by a man who would found their modern republic, Mustafa Kemal Bey.
So the outcome was basically decided in 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
Later in the year the overall commander at Gallipoli, General Sir Ian Hamilton, observed that the beautiful battalions of April are wasted skeletons.
Late in the campaign, the British successfully landed 16,000 in the flat area further north at Suvla Bay, but they failed to push inland until it was too late.
Finally, in January 1916, the evacuation was carried out with the organisational skill that was sorely lacking during the campaign and leaving behind self-firing rifles the troops were withdrawn without 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 courageous than the other ten nationalities involved.
However the New Zealanders did succeed in briefly capturing the high point of the peninsula – Chunuk Bair. (See the illustration above.) 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 Lone Pine.
Malone and his men were tragically killed by friendly fire from the royal navy who mistook them for the enemy and from counter attacks by the Turks.
There was no forging of a national identity at Gallipoli – just a tragic waste of lives. Kiwi soldiers 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 in London or on their ships off the coast.
Myth making about Gallipoli
The first casualty when war comes is truth. American Senator Hiram Johnson 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 where so many Kiwi make 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 give women the vote, in 1893
- our contribution to the war in South Africa
- the triumphant All Black tour of the British Isles 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 distinctiveness and independence in its social reforms in the late 1930s, the stance taken over the United Nations in 1945, progressively dropping the Statute of Westminster, the anti-nuclear stand, opposing apartheid, not fighting in Iraq and so on.
Remembering 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 time when a distinctive Kiwi identity was forged
At Gallipoli, New Zealand provided about one fiftieth of the troops who fought in the eight month campaign, so our country played a very small role. 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, East Timor 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.