Gallipoli and the Anzacs

gallipoli seriesIn 1915 British and French naval forces tried to force a way through the Dardanelles Strait, into the Sea of Marmara and then onwards to Constantinople, intending to end Turkey’s involvement in the war (WWI). Their ships found too much resistance coming from Turkish gun emplacements along the shores of the Gallipoli Peninsula so ground forces were sent to shut down the Turkish defences.

Landing on the Aegean coast, they faced more sustained opposition from the Turks than expected, and the terrain was found to be far more rugged and difficult than had been thought. British troops found themselves entrenched and held at bay in small coastal areas, unable to advance far to achieve the intended goal. A significant part of this invading army was the ANZAC force (Australian, New Zealand Army Corps). Their involvement with this Gallipoli campaign became central to ideas of Australian and New Zealand identity even though they were fighting a war as British and for the British.

The initial landing took place on 25th April 1915 that date has become known as Anzac Day, a day of commemoration when the dead of that campaign and subsequent wars are remembered in the Anzac nations. This year is the 100th anniversary.

Australian TV has recently screened Gallipoli, a TV series graphically depicting the experiences of the Australian and New Zealand servicemen at Gallipoli. There has also been a re-release of one of the modern classic books covering the topic, Les Carlyon’s Gallipoli from 2001, which was one of the guiding authorities behind the program; and several other books about that conflict have been released.

CarlyonI started my own “Gallipoli Campaign” (attempting to understand what Anzac Day is really about) by reading Carlyon’s book. It’s a sizable brick of a book, a solid 540 pages with another 50 pages making up the notes, bibliography and index. It was quite daunting to pick up at first because I know what an ordeal I’ve found history books to be; but most of this was quite easy to get through, with character studies of the major participants interwoven with excerpts of letters and diary entries written by officers and soldiers, and the author’s personal experience of visiting the various battlegrounds of the Gallipoli peninsula almost a century later. He gives a very raw and graphic account of what the men went through and the conditions they had to endure. He also makes it clear that the senior officers in charge of the campaign were completely unsuited for their roles, and the men under them suffered for it.

The only difficulty I had was trying to keep up with the many different battle venues and the various regiments and their officers. I think part of my problem was my ignorance of the geography. Until reading the book the only locations I’d ever heard of were Anzac Cove and Lone Pine, the places at the centre of Australian Anzac mythology. I sometimes felt overwhelmed by the many names of people and places. At times it was hard to remember who was who, where was where and who was where at what time.

When I neared the half-way point of the book I bought a similarly sized volume, also called Gallipoli, by Peter Fitzsimons. To get a foretaste of that book I read Fitzsimons’ introduction where he advised the reader to use the book’s maps to become familiar with the geography of the region before starting to read. Following that advice would have probably helped me through parts of the Carlyon book, and might have prevented me from imagining the events taking place on the peninsula’s eastern coast instead of the Aegean coast to the west.

MasefieldI also found another book with the same title, written by John Masefield. Having recently read Les Carlyon’s highly respected account of the Gallipoli conflict I was keen to read a contemporary view. Masefield wrote his short book in 1916, the year after the Gallipoli campaign.

When I saw that he had dedicated his book with the inscription: “deepest respect to General Sir Ian Hamilton” I suspected his view might be a little different to the one expressed in the Carlyon book which had been very critical of the British leadership of the campaign, and my suspicion was soon confirmed.
Compared to the Carlyon book, Masefield’s gives a different sense of the horror of what was experienced. Carlyon’s view is grittier, giving a stronger sense of the soldier’s daily life surrounded by death, decay and omnipresent flies. Masefield doesn’t hold back the details of death and sacrifice, but his descriptions seem more sanitised and palatable, having an aura of honour and glory, vivid but with a poetic grandeur. And while he does mention the plague of flies he writes: “Our camps and trenches were kept clean; they were well scavenged daily. But only a few yards away were the Turk trenches, which were invariably filthy: there the flies bred undisturbed”. Unlike Carlyon he gives no mention of the countless decaying bodies between the trenches that were the more likely breeding ground for the flies.

Maybe that sanitising is predictable considering Masefield was writing in 1916 and there were still men “gloriously” dying in the trenches of Europe at the time and there was a constant need to recruit replacements. A true picture of what they would encounter might make them think twice. Instead Masefield emphasises the bravery of the men fighting. The men and their actions are portrayed in an elevated and mythical way. “All that they felt was a gladness of exultation that their young courage was to be used. They went like kings in a pageant to the imminent death”. Such a portrayal would likely appeal to young men seeking an adventure to prove themselves.

Masefield’s strength is that he strips everything back to the basics to give a good “beginner’s” introduction, uncomplicated by analysis of character and strategy. He doesn’t go into complex detail but describes what happens at a few select locations, and through his poet’s eye adding vivid images like this, describing the landing at Anzac Cove:

“All the blackness was shot with little spurts of fire, and streaks of fire, and malignant bursts of fire, and arcs and glows and crawling snakes of fire, and the moon rose, and looked down upon it all”

But despite the poetic view he gives, and despite the clarity he gives to a series of events, he also gets carried away with strange interpretations of events, that are clearly coloured by the romanticised and mythic viewpoint encompassing his account:

“At Bulair, one man, Lieutenant Freyberg, swam from a destroyer towing a little raft of flares. Near the shore he lit two of these flares, then, wading to the land, he lit others at intervals along the coast; then he wandered inland, naked, on a personal reconnaissance, and soon found a large Turkish army strongly entrenched. Modesty forbade further intrusion.”

Would it be “modesty” that prevented a solitary naked and unarmed man from wandering around and confronting “a large Turkish Army” or the fact that naked or otherwise, he was in no position to achieve anything by engaging that army by himself. The implication that I read into Masefield’s account, is that Freyburg wouldn’t have withdrawn from the situation had he at least been wearing a pair of speedos to protect his modesty.

To me that example betrays a sense of unreality where the actual horrors of war are obscured by the same kind of heroic rhetoric used to recruit the war’s countless willing participants. The difference between the experience of the men on the ground and the mythicised images of glorious battle is as wide as the gulf between the conditions endured by the average soldier who couldn’t keep flies out of his food and drink and those experienced by the senior officers, away from the death and decay, sipping their port or whiskey each evening as they consider the day’s events.

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