Battle of Gallipoli — 100 Years Later (04/14)     Print Email

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By Michael D. Mosettig, former PBS News Hour Foreign Editor and Adjunct at SAIS

From thousands of miles they came, the Australian miners and sheepherders, the New Zealand shop assistants and carpenters, to a Turkish peninsula, then barely known to them, but that would become their defining national myth--Gallipoli. And now, a hundred years on from the April 25, 1915, pre-dawn amphibious landing, Australians and New Zealanders from the Antipodes, across Asia, to Turkey and Europe and to 13 U.S. cities will observe an anniversary wrapped in solemnity and intense emotion.

Even in a long conflict characterized by strategic and tactical blunders and horrendous numbers of casualties, Gallipoli takes a premier place alongside other blood-soaked World War One battlefields, such as the Somme and Verdun. More than half a million soldiers from Britain and France along with those from the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) were committed to the ultimately futile nine-month campaign to drive Ottoman Empire Turkey, then allied with Imperial Germany, out of the war. Of that number, more than half were killed or wounded, along with at least 300,000 Turks. The campaign ended in a complete allied withdrawal.

Australia and New Zealand were then only recently self-governing dominions of the British Empire, and their foreign and defense affairs still run from London. The catastrophe of Gallipoli began the process, completed by World War II and its aftermath, of their taking full control of their destinies and engaging their security with the United States rather than the United Kingdom. In the wider sweep of history, this imperial separation by the Australians and New Zealanders, along with the Canadians, became fully complete in the post-World War II independence of all of Europe's Asian and African colonies.

The allied landings up and down the Gallipoli peninsula were at the time the biggest amphibious operation in military history, surpassed only by D-Day in 1944. The difference is that the Normandy landings were two years in the planning; the Turkish campaign thrown together in a few months with British and French military and civilian leaders divided over means and the ends and under-estimating the capabilities of the Turks. The failure of the Gallipoli campaign forced the ouster of its most enthusiastic advocate, First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill and nearly ended his political career.

Even before the landings, there were slightly distant ominous portents. Rupert Brooke, like so many classically trained upper class Englishmen, was eager to join the force. Instead, on a nearby Greek island, he died of sunstroke and blood poisoning and left behind words still memorized by English school children:

"If I should die, think only this of me;
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England."

More ominously, the Turkish massacre of Armenians began in the weeks before, a mass killing that would go on for another eight years and that still resonates in current politics, most recently in the angry response of the current Turkish government over Pope Francis's denunciation of genocide.

Invariably things went wrong, especially for the ANZACs, who landed a mile away from their intended destination, not on a manageable beachhead but smack against cliffs and in easy range of Turkish gunners. Two thousand were killed on the first day of battle at ANZAC Cove.

Alan Moorhead's classic Gallipoli gave this description of the ANZAC volunteers:

"A strange change had overtaken this transplanted British blood. Barely a hundred years before their ancestors had gone out to the other side of the world from the depressed areas of the United Kingdom, many of them dark, small, hungry men. Their sons who had now returned to fight in their country's first foreign war had grown six inches in height, their faces were thin and leathery, their limbs immensely lithe and strong. Their voices too had developed a harsh cockney accent of their own..."

These young men were little swayed by classic military courtesies, rarely saluting officers, profane even by soldierly standards, often wearing nothing but underwear. Informed by a British officer that the British had awarded the ANZAC commanding general a posthumous high honor, an Aussie soldier responded: "Have they? Well, that won't do him much good where he is now, will it, mate?"

Having barely established a beachhead, the ANZACS were ordered by London headquarters to "dig, dig, dig." Six foreign wars later, Australian soldiers are still known as "diggers".
According to The Economist, 18 percent of Australia's 2.3 million males went off to fight, and 34 percent of those were killed in action. Twenty-three percent of New Zealand's 600,000 men served, and of them, 12 percent did not return.

Those were and still remain devastating numbers, then touching every family then and still producing profound emotions. The Australian-American author and journalist Geraldine Brooks told a Georgetown University audience two years ago that she went to cover an ANZAC Day parade full of a young reporter's cynicism. She returned in tears to write her story.

John Keegan's The First World War describes how thousands of young Australians on their gap year tours of Europe make pilgrimages to Gallipoli, often carrying to the memorial park and cemetery the medals of grand fathers and great-grand fathers "as if to deconsecrate the symbols of the ANZAC spirit, a metaphor for that of the nation itself, on sacred soil." As many as 15,000 Australians and New Zealanders may be at Gallipoli this April 25.

In Australia, there has been some anti-ANZAC backlash among academics and even veterans from more recent conflicts, concerns that the day has been co-opted by politicians and the money spent on observances could better be used providing psychological help to current and recent soldiers.

Still, the emotion cannot be under-estimated. The ANZAC service at Washington's National Cathedral is as intense a national day observance as I have ever atten.

Interestingly, the emotion also ripples through modern Turkish history. Kemal Ataturk, considered the founder of post-Ottoman Turkey, was the military commander in two key battles in which allied assaults were repulsed. His feats helped propel him to political leadership. He also was something of a poet, and one of his most famous poems was put to music at last year's Cathedral service, in part a recognition that Turks never again fought Australians or New Zealanders.

"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 oursons as well."