In my last blog post about the Tulip Festival, I mentioned that I visited Istanbul briefly in April 2015. The reason for that visit was to attend the centennial celebrations of the WW1 campaign known simply as Gallipoli.
Australians and New Zealanders all know this name and most understand its importance. It is imprinted in our collective identities so deeply that the mere mention of the word will elicit nods of acknowledgement and feelings of pride and oftentimes sadness.
Yet Gallipoli was a military disaster from start to finish for the Allies, so why is it so important to those of us from Downunder? What is it? Where is it? And who was involved?
They Came From the Uttermost Ends of the Earth
It is with good reason that there is a monument at Gallipoli where it is written that they came “…from the uttermost ends of the earth”, because New Zealand and Turkey are truly about as far away from each other as you can get. There are not many flights in the world which are much longer than the one from Auckland, New Zealand to Istanbul, Turkey. When I travelled via Los Angeles, I had to explain to the US immigration official at that airport why I was visiting Turkey. It didn’t surprise me that he had never heard of the campaign—I was more surprised that he felt that if it was real, he should have heard of it. So for my American followers and others around the world, I will answer the questions I posed above and describe my experience at the 100th Anniversary of Gallipoli on 25th April 2015.
Gallipoli is a mis-pronounciation of Gelibolu, a town and peninsular in Marmara region of Turkey (Türkiye.) The peninsular forms the European shoreline of the Dardanelles Strait which flows from the Agean Sea into the Sea of Marmara and from there through Constantinople (Istanbul) into the Black Sea. The Dardanelles were therefore of extreme strategic importance because whoever controlled this narrow waterway, had a back-door entrance into Russia who urgently needed supplies.
Aided by the Germans, the Ottomans had this entrance to the Dardanelles well secured. Early in 1915, the Allies’ first naval attempt at pushing through the entrance failed. Undeterred, Churchill designed an ambitious 4-pronged land attack designed to force the entrance open from behind. Three of the landings were to traverse the narrow peninsula to secure the high-ground and reach the Dardanelles upstream enabling them to neutralise the Turkish defences. Once the waterway was opened, the British and French navies would sail upstream to take Constantinople. This they hoped would simultaneously knock the Ottomans out of the war, gain the support of the Turkish neighbours who were still neutral, and open up a supply route to Russia.
Churchill’s plans did not work and an 8-month stalemate ensued. There were many failures with the plan, but for the ANZACs, who were to land in the centre-prong, the main issues were as follows.
- The landing place was either poorly chosen or the maps were insufficient. Some accounts claim that they landed on the wrong beach. The effect being that instead of being able to rush forward over low hills taking the Ottomans by surprise, the ANZACs landed on an extremely steep section of the peninsula and quickly became hemmed in. They only managed to hold the high-ground for a single day on 8th August.
- The British senior command were disorganised and in conflict with one another. Supplies were inadequate. The ANZAC troops became disillusioned and dispirited, with many instances of mid-level officers directly disobeying (suicidal) orders.
- Despite the Ottomans having 2 month’s warning that an invasion was likely they didn’t think the Allies would be mad enough to attempt a landing along the centre of the Gallipoli Coast. A minor Lt-Colonel, who was disliked by the ruling pashas was given command of the Turkish 19th Division and relegated to the central peninsular where they hoped he would stay out of trouble. In fact, he proved to be a talented tactician, both anticipating where his troops would be needed and holding the invaders back in the long drawn out impasse. He went on to become the founding father of the Republic of Turkey. Yes, his name was Mustafa Kemal Bey, forever after known as the one and only Ataturk. Victory came at a terrible cost to the Turks and those who are descended from members of the 19th Division also commemorate Galibolu with great pride and sadness.
In the end, the only thing that went right for the ANZACs was their successful evacuation.
His Majesty’s Loyal Subjects
It was hard for the Turks to understand why the Australians and New Zealanders were even in their part of the world. They thought perhaps that they were just the latest in a long line of land-grabbers intent on invading Turkey. So why did New Zealand and Australia get involved in a European war?
When WW1 broke out, European nations one-by-one honored their historical alliances with each other by joining either Austria’s side or Serbia’s. As the major-powers became involved and after Germany invaded Belgium, England/France and Russia became pitted against Germany/Austria-Hungary in a European war that was greater than any battle ever fought before. England called upon its Empire citizens, and eventually world-wide friends, to help her fight. All of her loyal citizens answered that call. The Dominions of New Zealand and Australia were no exception, initially sending in mainly unmarried volunteers, of which there were plenty itching to wear a uniform and fight for the mother country. Initially, there weren’t enough New Zealander’s to form their own division, so they joined with the Australian 4th Infantry Brigade to become a joint division. Together with the Australian 1st Division they formed the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps and were dubbed “ANZACs.”
Although the New Zealand blue ensign did get taken to battle, the New Zealanders were fighting under Great Britain’s flag. And here we get to the crux of why Gallipoli is so important to us. For it was at Gallipoli that we truly became a nation. It was here that we realised that we were not British, we were in fact New Zealanders.
We realised we were not British
Looking at the personnel records for our New Zealand WW1 soldiers, one notes that under “nationality” they all signed up as British rather than New Zealanders, Maori or Pakeha. Interestingly, the New Zealanders did not have a cohesive uniform at that stage. It consisted of piecemeal articles depending on Regiment, and usually modelled on various British Regiments. A standardised NZ uniform was finally issued from 1916. We did not even have our own navy, instead we operated as the New Zealand division of the Royal Navy. Another telling portent was that most of the senior officers in the New Zealand Infantry had been born and schooled in England, with New Zealanders generally considered not having enough depth or experience for the senior roles.
So, although NZ was officially an autonomous dominion of Great Britain, she still behaved very much like a sub-ordinate. I have looked at many photographs of WW1 and I can only see a few unofficial examples depicting the New Zealand flag. Official photographs were taken with the King’s Colours and the Regimental Colours. Unofficial photographs were more likely to show Company burgees proudly carried. Photographs of troops about to leave NZ, show crowds waving handkerchiefs or throwing streamers, but few national New Zealand flags or other bunting in sight. It is therefore fair to say that, before Gallipoli, we had not truly accepted our nationhood and independence; we were still unwilling to completely cut the apron strings.
England was still the mother country; but true mothers protect their children.
Gallipoli — A Baptism Under Fire
Gallipoli was not the first taste of war for the New Zealanders.
Not only had they fought in the Boer War at the turn of the century, but during WW1, their first battle was in Egypt on the Sinai Peninsular. It was there in Egypt, that the ANZACs began to question their identity. But this first squirmish was over very quickly and the ANZACs soon rallied to the cause, excited to find themselves tourists in a very exotic part of the world. It was a grand overseas excursion (O.E.) for these young lads, a tradition that young Kiwis and Aussies have followed ever since.
When those first troops landed in complete shambles unexpectedly on a deserted and uncharted piece of Turkish coastline, which soon became known as ANZAC Cove, the ANZACs realised that they were mere cannon fodder. They were expendable, unimportant and unequal. In Britain there had long existed a firm class system: the toffs and all the rest. These young New Zealanders had never experienced quite this level of discrimination where locally, rank by class was much more subtle and of significantly less importance. The British officers viewed the ANZAC soldiers and junior officers with disdain, despite them proving their abilities time and time again. To be fair, ANZAC Cove was not the only landing place in this disastrous campaign. The British officers treated the Irish, Canadian, Indian and lowly British soldiers, who landed above and below ANZAC Cove with similar disdain. Even the Turkish officers expected their infantry soldiers to die for the cause. Of course that was the nature of the military in those days and still is to a certain extent, although modern warfare methods aim to reduce troop losses. But those other nations did not grow up at Gallipoli in the same way as the two neighbours (NZ and Australia) did. So Gallipoli has never held the same significance for them.
They were expendable, unimportant and unequal
The ANZACs had been proud to be British and then they suddenly realised they weren’t really British people after all. The real British soldiers and officers considered them to be merely Colonials. The feelings of discontent which began during training in Egypt really began to take hold at Gallipoli. These tough Colonial soldiers refused to be downtrodden, instead blossoming into either Australians or New Zealanders, proud of their own nationhood.
Gallipoli therefore not only birthed the future father of modern-day Turkey, but it was also the birthplace of national-pride in New Zealand and to a large extent Australia. There were other battles in WW1 which were more costly in terms of deaths and there were other battles which were more glorious. But Gallipoli was the most significant event of WW1 for Australia and New Zealand.
The volunteers were soon joined by conscripted soldiers so that before long NZ was able to form its own division. By the end of the war, 25% of the New Zealand adult male population had been either wounded or killed.
Those soldiers who landed on April 25th 1915 on the shores of ANZAC Cove, and those soldiers who held this scrub-blighted hillside for eight months in hellish conditions, became part of a brotherhood which is celebrated and owned by all Kiwis and Aussies to this day. They became proud to be New Zealanders and Australians fighting for Britain. They fought hard, with bravery and exceptional soldiering skills against all odds and on the back-foot with the enemy on the high-ground. Finally in early January 1916, those that remained silently withdrew under the cover of darkness to be redeployed in France and Belgium, where the feelings of true-independence were only further cemented.
Meanwhile back in New Zealand and Australia, as news of the Campaign began trickling in, politicians and newspapers were indignant at the way our generous contributions had been squandered. When the truth of the disastrous campaign became known, nationalist feelings grew amongst the civilian population. But it was not until after WW1 had been put to bed, that the general populations began to think of themselves as two wholly independent nations. Twenty years later, our contributions to WW2, while still absolutely loyal to England, would be on a very different basis.
ANZAC Day on 25th April each year is both a celebration of this brotherhood formed at Gallipoli and a commemoration of the sacrifice that was made both at WW1 and by all the armed forces of NZ and Australia in each and every subsequent military action they have been involved in. ANZAC Day is more important than Remembrance/Poppy Day in both countries. It starts with a brief Dawn Parade, where old and current troops march solemnly and proudly to the war memorial of each main town centre. Then at mid-morning the soldiers march again in a civil ceremony so that the general public can join them in remembering the sacrifice made on their behalf in prayer, song and speeches.
In my next blog post (Gallipoli Centenary – part 2) I will finally write about the 100th Anniversary Commemorations that I attended at Gallipoli. As a teaser I will say that after travelling all that way and climbing to the top of the hill with the other Kiwis, I was dismayed to find I was denied entry into the civil service.