Over the top

Graham Coster

  • Hell’s Foundations: A Town, its Myths and Gallipoli by Geoffrey Moorhouse
    Hodder, 256 pp, £19.99, April 1992, ISBN 0 340 43044 3

Gallipoli has not lent itself to literature. The First World War on the Western Front has furnished a body of poetry, prose fiction and memoir so substantial, and so distinguished, as to equip any O-Level English student with at least an adequate historical knowledge of the campaign. But even if it were true, as Geoffrey Moorhouse claims, that ‘no battle or campaign fought between 1914 and 1918 has ever been remembered quite so tenaciously as the ill-fated Allied expedition to the Dardanelles,’ this would not be the result of any literary work. Rupert Brooke, setting out to fight at Gallipoli, died before he ever got there. One of Siegfried Sassoon’s brothers was killed in action there, but Sassoon himself went to France. Sir Compton Mackenzie’s Gallipoli Memories (1929) hardly ranks alongside Goodbye to all that. By default, the rare representations of the campaign in popular culture are elevated into distorting prominence, and it is almost certain, as a result, that most of us know even less about the Gallipoli campaign than we think. Those, like me, whose awareness of the disaster is limited to Peter Weir’s Gallipoli will have fallen for the biggest myth of all: that Gallipoli was primarily an Antipodean tragedy. In fact, as Hell’s Foundations soon makes clear, Britain lost 21,000 men there – twice as many as Australia and New Zealand put together.

But if that is myth as simple delusion, what of the Dardanelles campaign as a representative story, as a lesson? Such was the scale of the Allied failure to capture the Gallipoli peninsula, knock Turkey out of the war, and take control of the vital Dardanelles waterway, that not even the brilliant evacuation of all forces in 1916 – the one unqualified success of the whole adventure – could transform it for posterity into an earlier version of Dunkirk. ‘To the last,’ writes John North in his 1936 history, it was ‘a singularly brainless and suicidal type of warfare.’ After the worst debacle of all, when General Stopford’s inertia threw away any chance of success in the crucial Allied landings at Suvla Bay, while the commander of the campaign, Hamilton, politely declined to intervene over his incompetent subordinate’s head, Prime Minister Asquith wrote to Kitchener that ‘the generals and staff engaged ... ought to be court-martialled and dismissed from the Army.’ Out of 410,000 Allied soldiers who fought in the campaign, half fell casualty. Besides the slaughter, the troops suffered dreadfully from dysentery, from the heavy heat of the summer months, and then encountered one of the worst-ever winters on the peninsula. Add in that the prime mover of the campaign was Churchill, whose decision that the Navy bombard Turkish positions at the outset to test their defences only gave the enemy advance warning of the invasion – a blemish that sits unhappily with his subsequent apotheosis – and that, in those days, the Dardanelles (especially when compared with the war on the Western Front being waged only seventy miles east of London) were simply a very long way away, and here are more than enough reasons for posterity to try and forget all about Gallipoli.

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