Anzac Day is a day where the citizens of both Australia and New Zealand can rightly celebrate what in effect was the first significant time when soldiers from both nations fought side by side at Gallipoli. They fought in extraordinary difficult circumstances and in many cases paid the ultimate sacrifice. It is difficult to fail to be impressed by courage and determination. Given the background of the circumstances behind the conflict at Gallipoli it is also difficult to believe that so much blood was spilt to so little purpose.
History serves many purposes and it is intriguing to talk to those whose education has shaped a radically different understanding. The popular New Zealand and Australian understanding is that this Anzac effort was a significant part of the fight for freedom and democracy. Perhaps it should not surprise us that the Turks see it very differently.
From the Turkish perspective, European powers were gathering to carve up the Ottoman Empire to gain control of the mineral, gas and oil reserves. Perhaps, in retrospect, even if this wasn’t the intention, it was very close to what transpired. According to the Turkish tour guide who was hosting our bus tour through the Gallipoli area in 2007, the main Turkish understanding is that the combined British and Anzac invasion they were repelling had very dubious beginnings.
In the years prior to the First World War the Ottoman Empire centred on Turkey was in disarray. They were losing land and being abandoned by previous allies. After defeats at the hands of the Balkan armies, and losing control of significant parts of the Middle East, the Turks were anxious to forge new alliances. They approached Britain and were rejected. Since Britain already controlled parts of the previous Ottoman Empire, this was not too surprising. They approached Russia but were told the price of an alliance would be to become subservient to Russia. Germany was much more sympathetic but initially there was very limited popular support from the Turkish population for such a treaty, and although possibilities were explored behind the scenes, an interim measure was to strengthen their own military power. It was decided to purchase two Dreadnaught battleships together with some smaller vessels and the funds for their construction were raised by public subscription.
Britain agreed to supply the battleships which were then paid for in full. Unfortunately as the likelihood of war grew, when the Turks sent representatives to Britain to collect the Dreadnaughts, they were told that Britain was not only confiscating the battleships but also the other ordered warships. The Turkish people were furious particularly as public money had been used for their purchase and Turkey turned instead to Germany for assistance. Germany seeing the strategic advantage of setting up an allegiance with Turkey, not only agreed to provide battleships but also provided sailors and a German Admiral to oversee the fleet. It was this admiral who initiated the shelling of Sebastopol which in effect brought Russia into the War.
The British and Anzac attempts to invade Turkey were a chapter of miscalculated disasters. Perhaps they simply assumed that because Turkey had lost in the Balkans, their military forces would capitulate easily. Winston Churchill ordered the naval shelling of Istanbul, and when that failed saw the Dardanelles with its narrow strait as a next presumed weak point. The naval campaign in the Dardenelles was a disaster because the narrowness of the strait made it easy to mine. Although minesweepers could be used to remove the mines, the minesweepers operated so close to the shore they were in easy reach of the Turkish guns. Although it was assumed that a landing would be achieved with little difficulty, the slow and ineffective naval operations gave the Turks plenty of time to bring up reinforcements and organise their defences.
When finally the Gallipoli landing was attempted at the foot of the very hills the Turks were using as the centre of their defence, the invading troops were in an almost impossible position. The British saw themselves as in charge of the operation but lack of experience with this type of warfare led to the same sort of stupidity that characterized the War in France and Belgium. Ordering hopeless charges across no-man’s land in the face of machine guns, setting up camps within range of enemy guns, water in the base of the trenches, dysentery and other diseases, problems with evacuating the wounded, difficulty in finding suitable places for burying the dead and a general refusal to consider alternative tactics were some of the factors that combined to ensure eventual defeat.
So what then should we celebrate on Anzac Day? Celebrating that we sent young men to die for King and Country won’t quite do it because, at least for that particular campaign, we need to acknowledge the foolish tactical mistakes, the violence directed to those who were doing little more than defending their homeland, and the suffering and death initiated for very mixed motives. Certainly we should remember them because the memory of what and who we have lost might make us more cautious about treading that same fated path in the future. At the very least Anzac day can remind us of the horrors of war and imbue us with a sense of thanksgiving that with care we can avoid needless slaughter. One of my friends pointed out that among the impressive and patriotic speeches at Anzac Cove one aspect was underplayed. In order to move on with life perhaps we should be rather more direct about where as a nation we have gone wrong in the past. Perhaps our histories are incomplete, because unless we confess past mistakes we are ill-prepared to avoid them in the future.