The tragedy of Gallipoli

100 years ago today, Australian and New Zealand forces landed at what is now Anzac Cove in the Gallipoli Peninsula, suffering heavy losses as they attempted to storm entrenched Turkish positions. Eight months later, having failed to dislodge the Turks, despite the loss of more than 10 000 killed and 20 000 wounded the Anzacs withdrew, managing to conceal the retreat and evacuate their positions with minimal casualties. This much, along with individual stories of heroism and suffering, is known to just about every Australian.

But there are many important facts that are less well known, and many questions that are rarely asked

Some facts

* The ANZACs were only a small part of the forces on the Allied side. British, Irish and French troops also fought, suffering many more casualties. Overall, the campaign cost at least 100 000 lives, with the Allies and the Turks losing about equal numbers
* The attack (which followed a failed naval assault) coincided with the beginning of the Armenian genocide in which the Ottoman government killed somewhere around 1,000,000 Armenian Christians.
* Although the Gallipoli campaign failed, the war objective of dismembering the Ottoman empire was ultimately achieved in large measure, leading to the creation of Iraq, Syria and most of the other states collectively known today as the Middle East. The overlapping wars in which Australian soldiers are fighting today can be traced to this partition

There is a natural human tendency to look for some good outcome from such horrific carnage. In the case of Gallipoli reflected in Australian and Turkish national foundation myths in which both the Anzacs and their Turkish opponents were fighting for their respective nations’ freedom. But the reality is that there was nothing good about the Great War, and that nothing came from it except the seeds of even more war and genocide.

Finally, why was Australia at war with Turkey and what were the Anzacs doing in Gallipoli?

A crucial cause of the War, and the background for the Sarajevo assassination that formed the pretext on the German/Austrian side was the decline of the Ottoman empire and the attempts by the other European empires to carve it up for their own benefit. When the War broke out, the Turkish government judged that Czarist Russia (allied to Britain and France) was the biggest threat, and therefore sided with the Germans. It was the fear that the Armenian Christians might support Russia (along with the usual role of plain evil) that motivated the genocide.

The Turkish judgement was accurate, or perhaps self-fulfilling. In a secret agreement made in early March 1915 (and published by the Bolsheviks after the Czarist government was overthrown in Russia), the British, French and Russian governments agreed to partition the Ottoman empire among themselves, leaving at most a rump Turkish state in existence. The assault on the Dardanelles was an attempt by the British and French to cut off the European part of Turkey (promised to the Russians) and open up a route to provide military supplies to Russia.

The heroism and suffering of those of all nations who fought and died at Gallipoli should never be forgotten. But the campaign had nothing to do with freedom, on either side. One brutal empire was trying to preserve its existence against rival empires determined to get the greatest possible benefit out of its collapse.

When we say “We Shall Remember Them”, we should remember that our best service to the memory of the Anzacs is to resist calls for war.

83 thoughts on “The tragedy of Gallipoli

  1. @Tim Macknay

    Yes, I know about that, but that isn’t quite what I meant — sorry, I expressed myself poorly. The point I was getting as is that I know there was a widespread (although far from universal) romanticisation of the war in the UK, at least at the beginning — that has nothing to do with duelling, which had fallen into desuetude there long before it did in Germany. Now that I think of it, there’s reference to the same kind of early romanticisation (without reference to duelling) in at least one German novel, All Quiet On The Western Front.

    The kind of romanticisation I mean is also reflected in a scene in the film of Testament Of Youth, which I’ve just seen, in which one of the characters refers to the war as an ‘opportunity’ of a kind that not every generation gets, the word being used clearly in a highly positive sense.

    But just because there was British and German romanticisation of the war doesn’t mean there must also have been the same thing on the same scale in Austria-Hungary, France, or Russia, and I feel there’s reason to doubt it.

    But just because British and Germans (at least at the beginning) romanticised the war

  2. @J-D
    Ah. Well, unfortunately I have no more idea than you do about whether the romanticisation of war was as popular in the continental European powers as it apparently was in Great Britain in the years before WWI. It is certainly an interesting question.

  3. There is a column on this issue by Gerard Henderson in today’s Weekend Unlinkable, but I have done my comradely duty by reading it and can thus assure you all that you undoubtedly already know what’s in it and don’t need to put yourselves through the ordeal.

  4. @alfred venison

    That’s a useful article, and could have been extended with reference to the conscription referendums in Australia. Still, the war was sustained for four bloody years, with no real attempt to negotiate a peace, no statement of war aims on either side, and no successful popular resistance except in Russia – the breakdown of discipline on the German side happened only when the war had already been lost on the battlefield.

    It’s hard to believe that this would be possible today. But we are already inured to indefinite small wars on the 19th century model. If the cult of the military continues to grow, perhaps popular support another Great War could be sustained.

  5. i wasn’t seeking to bury anything. i was responding to the assertion “there’s just as good a case that Russia was responsible” and that that case is found in mcmeekin’s book. to this end i cited mcmeekin’s peer evans who says mcmeekin does not demonstrate that claim in his book, my point (1). it is fair to say therefore mcmeekin has not displaced fischer, my point (2). i made a further point (3) from what evans said about the unsatisfactory nature of mcmeekin’s account of the armenian massacres because i thought readers might be interested, not to obfuscate. on reflection i would make that point today without the index.

    what is at issue generally is the relative weight one gives to structure & agency in historical explanations.

    with regard specifically to the weighting of agency and structure in the question of the origins of ww1, i cannot improve on historian david stephenson from the lse who is cited by gary d. sheffield at the conclusion of his survey of books (recent & not so recent) on the origins of ww1:

    “The European peace might have been a house of cards, but someone still had to topple it.” War was not inevitable; it occurred because key individuals in Austria-Hungary and Germany took conscious decisions to achieve diplomatic objectives, even at the cost of war with Russia and France. The actions of the Great Powers in limiting the damage during the previous Balkan crises strongly suggests that, had the Austrians and Germans wished, the crisis of summer 1914 could have been resolved by the international community. Serbia could have been isolated and punished but left its independence. On this occasion, however, Austria-Hungary and Germany wanted war with Serbia and accepted the risk of escalation. The War Guilt clause of the Versailles Treaty got it right: The outbreak of World War I was caused by “the aggression of Germany and her allies.” [ http: // ]

    the question of responsibility (national or collective) was put recently by the bbc to ten practicing historians (including richard clark). it shows an interesting range of views. [ http: //www ]

  6. glad you liked it, John Quiggin, i did too. its for an english newspaper audience in the first instance and short at that, but i liked thatwithin those limitations she didn’t focus mainly on the record of the literate & articulate. i also liked the way she pointed out how the photographs taken in germany show crowds gathered in city squares, etc. but not in country towns or villages, and how they showed no persons in worker’s clothes among the crowds. in showing critical thinking at work like this and in providing a modest corrective to a prevalent myth she did good service in a small space.
    that’s annika mombauer, she’s at work on a larger canvass as section editor of “1914-1918-online – international encyclopedia of the first world war”. this is a very impressive project – i’ve bookmarked it & i urge every genuinely curious denizen of threads like this one to consider it for themselves, too; it is open source & fully exportable in a number of formats, peer reviewed, self-contained articles of academic standard, provided with a breathtaking net of semantic links, and truly international in ethos & product. the “about” section & “faq” give full background, modus operandi, scope & aim of the project. and because you mentioned a topic dear to my heart, i’ll link you into it at their article on the australian conscription referendums:-

  7. Pr Q April @ #65 said:

    Shorter Jack Strocchi: War is good for nationalism and nationalism is good for war. A win all round!

    I’m not going to get into a snarking contest with a person who can always have the last say by way of comment deletion. So I’ll confine my self to refutation, chapter and verse, of his key points whilst setting the record straight.

    I have never said the Great War was “good” thing, either absolutely or on balance. Or even justifiable, at least past the time the stalemate had set in by late 1914. Quite the opposite, I’ve repeatedly said that the Great War was the greatest disaster to ever befall Western Civilisation. And that the traditional Establishment –  spur-jingling, sabre-rattling, jackboot-crashing Prussians I’m particularly looking at you – was to blame for letting their patriotic instincts get the better of them. Although the general populace were as enthusiastic, if not more so, as their leaders. As I pointed out nearly ten years ago:

    The Great War was certainly the central disaster that befell our civilization in modern times and toppled the Proud Tower that was European power. Dr Knopfelmacher pointed out that the WWI bloodbath was promoted by reactionary“God, King and Country” types. The irony was that it lead to the down fall of five Imperial Monarchies (Romanov, Ottoman, Hohenzollern, Hapsburg and Savoy). It was an act of civlizational suicide which was undertaken by the leaders of civilization. Proving that conservative tories can match “constructive” liberals in their tolerance of the civlizational Death Wish.

    FWIW, there are plenty more of my comments in the same vein published on Pr Q’s annual ANZAC day threads. So his characterisation of me as somehow pro-war does not even rise to the level of wrong.

    Needless to say in the comment upthread I did not express outright pro-war sentiments about the Gallipoli campaign. I said that the campaign generated in me a feeling of “ambivalence”. FTR, here is what I actually said:

    The Gallipoli glass is both half-empty and half-full. The campaign, although a disasterous military venture and the scene of appalling bloodshed, demonstrably strengthened national unity in both Turkey and Australia. So it was both a tragedy and a triumph, an ambivalent sensibility familiar to artists but perhaps a little too subtle for others.

    The same feeling is implicitly expressed in the OP which acknowledges the “heroism” of the expedition. I do not deduce from this that Pr Q is a closet militarist. It would be nice if he would extend the same courtesy to me.

    I did not argue that “nationalism is good for war”. My point about nationalism stressed the civic benefits of national unity (“Durkheimian communitarian solidarity”) in reducing social pathologies (crime, suicide) and accumulating social capital (“cheap infrastructure”). Undoubtedly nationalism is a philosophy of exclusion, which carries with it the risk of conflict and war. But globalism is a bridge too far at this stage of the game. And tribalism just multiplies points of friction.

    Nor did I argue that “war is good for nationalism” I merely pointed out that “some” wars can generate progressive social solidarity. The national sentiment generated by the Dardanelles campaign is still celebrated by AUS & TKY, and surely has had some thing to with their subsequent societal success. It’s impossible to imagine the UK Beveridge welfare state or the U.S. GI Bill without the social solidaritygenerated by the War. Thats why the post WW2 cohort was dubbed “the greatest generation”.

    But most wars cause more conflict than they cure. And there are other ways of generating social capital besides mlitary conflict, such as religion and team sport. So best stay out of them, if possible.

    All this is pretty much a truism, and not doubted by competent social scientists. Which makes it puzzling why Pr Q, who is competent in economics alright, took exception to such innocuous remarks. I suppose even pacifists succumb to the urge to pick fights now and again.

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