Paul Moon: Cold brutality of campaign that changed a nation

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With Anzac Day on Sunday, Paul Moon surveys events at Gallipoli and their lasting significance.

The Gallipoli landing was hamstrung by incompetence; some troops landed at the wrong beach, and the Turks were already well dug in. Photo / NZ Herald
The Gallipoli landing was hamstrung by incompetence; some troops landed at the wrong beach, and the Turks were already well dug in. Photo / NZ Herald

What became known as the First World War - or for the optimists at its conclusion, the War to End All Wars - was a traumatic national event for New Zealand.

The ledger of sacrifice, for a country with a population of just over one million people, was extensive. A total of 120,000 New Zealanders enlisted, of whom 103,000 served overseas.

From this enormous investment in personnel, a total of 18,166 died either in the fighting or directly because of it, with another 41,317 wounded.

Yet, the Great War certainly did not start off with any sense of deep foreboding.

As far as anyone could see in 1914, this was yet another conflict with the British Empire pitted against its enemies. By September, the refrain that "our boys will be home by Christmas" could still be spoken with confidence.

Two decades later, though, David Lloyd George, who had been Britain's Prime Minister for most of the war, reflected on the suddenness of the war's onset and the lack of any apprehension of its eventual severity:

"Not even the most far-seeing statesman foresaw in the early summer of 1914 that the autumn would find the nations of the world interlocked in the most terrible conflict in the history of mankind ... nations slithered over the brink into the boiling cauldron of war without any trace of apprehension or dismay."

In the scramble to gain whatever strategic leverage could be got in the opening months of the war in November 191,4 the fleshy-faced First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, proposed that an assault on Gallipoli would secure an important advantage for the Allies.

The idea initially met with opposition because of the high element of risk involved, but as the strategic importance of the area mounted, the British War Council approved a naval attack on the Gallipoli Peninsula in January 1915.

For New Zealand, the events at Gallipoli in April 1915 were to become embalmed as one of the most cherished and solemn parts of the country's patriotic folklore, despite it being seen by British military commanders in the weeks leading up to the campaign as a relatively minor engagement against an unsophisticated enemy.

For reasons that remain disputed, the plans for the April assault were tossed into confusion at the last moment, with some of the troops landing on the wrong sections of beach, and parties of soldiers separating or mistakenly mixing with others.

What made this disarray lead to such lethal consequences, though, was the strong position of the Turks.

One private described how on April 25, even as the soldiers gathered on the beach before dawn and prepared their packs and bayonets, "all the time the machinegun on the cliff above us had been pouring out a hail of bullets into the landing parties".

As other troops continued to land, they were having to scramble for shelter over their dead and wounded colleagues.

General Ian Hamilton, who commanded the assault, was stunned by the carnage. His description of the landing shows how quickly it was plunged into havoc.

"The day was just breaking over the jagged hills ... the shrapnel was bursting over the water; the patter of musketry came creeping out to sea.

"We are in for it now. The machineguns muttered as through chattering teeth - up to our necks in it now. But would we be out of it? No; not one of us."

All hope of capturing the peninsula soon vanished, and even maintaining a presence on land looked increasingly difficult.

Reinforcements began to arrive in the following days, but while they contributed to the need for further tenacious fighting by both sides, they only prolonged the misery of this manifestly doomed campaign.

However, the Dardanelles Committee (as the War Council had been renamed) stuck to its guns and insisted that the offensive continue, despite the enormous losses being suffered.

It was not until the early hours of December 20 that the Anzacs were finally evacuated from Gallipoli - limping away under the cover of darkness.

Only nine months before, there had been cheering and parades in New Zealand streets when war was declared. So if ever there was a sudden, jolting loss of innocence when faced with the woeful news of a mass loss of life in this recently feted conflict, then Gallipoli was it - a slap in the face to those who had lauded the war as jaunty imperial skirmish.

And forget the jargon about defeats being character-building, and of making victories that much sweeter.

Not only were the boys not home by Christmas - as almost everyone but the most sullen pessimists had believed would be the case - they were sinking and dying in a far more protracted and intractable conflict.

For the New Zealand public - which had been kept immune from some of the early episodes of fighting by a heavily censored media - Gallipoli was the abrupt moment of realisation of the extent of annihilation the war was capable of inflicting.

Ironically, it was the fact that Gallipoli was a defeat that made it such a potent focus of attention for later generations of New Zealanders.

The sort of elation that erupts over victories is usually a short-lived thing - a moment in which bursts of jubilation and relief flare, only to grow quickly dim, and then become extinguished altogether.

Brooding over defeats, on the other hand - particularly those that are so traumatic for the populations of the suffering countries - not only seems to ingrain the event deeper in the recesses of people's minds, but can sometimes take on a life of its own, making "men to live eternally, or, being dead, raise them to life again", in the words of Marlowe's Doctor Faustus.

Gallipoli thus accorded the fallen a glint of earthly immortality, and was the beginning of an enduring public veneration of the Anzacs.

* Dr Paul Moon is Professor of History at AUT University, and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

- NZ Herald

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