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Gallipoli - the Battle

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The word Gallipoli has profound meaning to the people of New Zealand and Australia. It was the first major campaign in which the ANZACs1 fought, and because of the extremely heavy casualties, it seems that every family in these young colonies was affected. In some ways the battle became symbolic in forging the national identities of both nations, and to this day it is remembered on the 25 April, Anzac Day, the day the first ANZACs landed in 1915.

Gallipoli is the English transliteration of the Turkish name Gelibolu, a town that gives its name to a peninsula on the Western side of the strategically vital Dardanelles strait. This waterway, controlled by Turkey, was vital for sea access to Russia, then Britain's ally in the First World War against Germany. Fears that Turkey was about to enter the war on Germany's side led to a decision to attempt to take Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) and so knock Turkey out of the war before it could join, and hopefully to better bolster Russia. Also, at a stage when already over a million men had died on the Western Front, it offered a chance for a decisive blow that might just break the stalemate of attrition in the trenches. It was a good strategic plan, but its execution left a great deal to be desired.

Terrible Mistakes

The exact events and decisions made are controversial to this day, but it is clear that not enough use was made of intelligence regarding the landscape and topography of the peninsula, and the enemy's positions and preparedness. This resulted in the ANZACs being landed on the wrong beach, and being forced to fight inland up a steep eroded slope to high ground held by an enemy who was already dug in, with predictably high casualties. Worst of all for the chances of success, the element of surprise had been lost, and the Turks had time to reinforce their positions.

The ANZACs were not the only troops in the campaign. There were troops from France, Britain, India, Nepal (Gurkhas), South Africa, and most of the British and French Empires. But it was the ANZACs who bore the brunt of attacking the toughest terrain, and the toughest opponent - Mustapha Kemal. Kemal was a young Turkish officer who had been charged with the defence of the high ground above the ANZACs' landing grounds. Unfortunately for the ANZACs, but crucially for the fate of Turkey, he was brilliant at his job.

After the initial landings, the fighting became locked in trenches. As on the Western Front the battle would swing one way, and then the other, with attack and counter-attack. The fighting was intense. Land was taken, lost, and re-taken again at terrible cost. Both sides exhibited great heroism. The ANZACs were all volunteers, ('from the uttermost ends of the earth', as the New Zealand memorial at Chunuk Bair reads,) and fought with great courage and tenacity. Yet the Turks were fighting for their homeland and families - many were men from the local region - and fought with an equal, if not greater, resolve.

The soldiers of both sides suffered from lack of water, poor sanitation and disease. Medicine was primitive in that era, particularly on the battlefield. Today's soldier can expect to be evacuated, and have his wound repaired, whereas in 1915 there was little chance of evacuation and a wound would quite often turn septic and become a death sentence.

Simpson and his Donkey

One legend to come out of the campaign was 'Simpson' and his donkey. Private John Simpson Kirkpatrick was an Englishman who, leading a donkey, made many dangerous trips to bring wounded men to safety, and eventually lost his life in the process. His name is remembered particularly in Australian history.

Out of the shared suffering of the common soldiers of both sides came a deep respect for the enemy. At one stage the bodies in no-man's-land were becoming so many and causing such a stench that a temporary truce was called in order to bury the dead. The men of each side met face to face, and for a few hours were able to co-operate, before being ordered back into their trenches to resume fighting.

After weeks and months of this, the battles reached their climax in the heat of August. The Australians attacked the plateau of Lone Pine, and the Gurkhas and New Zealanders the commanding height of Chunuk Bair. Thousands of men were lost, both by the ANZACs and the Turks. Incredibly, despite the odds, the ANZACs achieved their objectives. The Australians reached Lone Pine and the New Zealand Wellington Battalion took Chunuk Bair. In the battle the Wellington Battalion lost all but 53 of their 762 men.

The strategic importance of this high ground was not lost on the Turks, who fought desperately to regain it. Some English reinforcements helped the New Zealanders hold out for another two days, but eventually they were forced down from the heights.

Terrible Casualties

With the high ground gone, and the casualties mounting, it became clear to the high command that the campaign was lost and the allies must evacuate. Ironically this was the only phase of the campaign which went smoothly. Through subterfuge the ANZACs managed to convince the Turks that the ships arriving and leaving were actually reinforcing their positions, rather than evacuating them, and thus managed to avoid casualties. In the end the final ANZAC soldier left on 20 December, almost eight months since their first landing.

During that time the small colony of New Zealand had suffered 7,500 casualties and Australia 26,000. Other nations had also lost many men. France had lost 27,000 and other British Empire losses were around 120,000. The Turkish losses would have been similar, if not worse. After visiting Gallipoli, the Australian war correspondent CEW Bean wrote, 'The dead lay so thick that the only respect which could be paid to them was to avoid treading on their faces.'

This was a terrible campaign in a terrible war. Similar tales can be told about many theatres of war. The ANZACs continued to fight and die on the Western Front; everywhere else the war was waged; and small country towns on the other side of the world erected monuments to the fallen. A generation later there was another world war, and more New Zealanders and Australians died in far-off lands. However it is Gallipoli in particular that started the ANZAC legend, and retains a place in the history and hearts of New Zealanders and Australians.

What ifs and Maybes

Gallipoli also has great meaning to the Turks. This battle saved Turkey from invasion and raised to prominence Mustapha Kemal, later known as Ataturk, the founder of the modern state of Turkey. Had the Turks lost this battle, and had Constantinople fallen to the British, Turkey as we know it today may never have come to be. What if the allies had won? This would have required much better military intelligence, planning and logistics, but what if? The might-have-beens of history are speculative, but fascinating. If with a sea route to Russia the British had indeed been able to better support the Russians, the Russian defeat might have been averted, thus maintaining a two-front war, and perhaps shortening the war. A shorter First World War may have had a different aftermath, and may not have necessarily led to the Second World War. Averting a Russian defeat might even have prevented a Communist revolution. These are all maybes, but the day the ANZACs were landed on the wrong beach, 25 April, 1915, was certainly one of the major turning points in history.

This landscape today is part of New Zealand's, Australia's and Turkey's collective histories. To climb the hills behind the beach at Anzac Cove is a journey that (at the time of writing) 83 years before would have been running a gauntlet of death. Most of all, the Turkish people make you feel welcome and it is wonderful to be there as friends.

Overlooking Anzac Cove is a wall that has a quote from Ataturk on it:

Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives... You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us, where they lie side by side here in this country of ours... You, the mothers, who sent their sons from far away countries, wipe away your tears; Your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well

Ted Matthews, the last Australian survivor of the 16,000 Australian and New Zealand troops who waded ashore on Gallipoli on 25 April 1915, died on 9 December 1997.

1Australia and New Zealand Army Corps.

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