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.

Geoffrey Moorhouse’s subject, however, is the remembrance of Gallipoli in England – how the events of the battlefield registered civilian consequences elsewhere, and the ways in which people back home chose not to forget. The battalions of soldiers who fought at Gallipoli came from somewhere, and returned to somewhere: Moorhouse, a Lancastrian whose grandfather fought in the campaign, chooses one regiment, the Lancashire Fusiliers, and its home base, the mill town of Bury. ‘How,’ he asks, ‘has the memory of those appalling months been kept so vividly alive for so long, and to what end? What uses, if any, have been made of the mythology, what lessons have been learnt from it, or not? ... The most important question of all, perhaps is this: how do we use our legends of heroism in the years that follow the courageous acts?’

Bury, he shows, has always commemorated Gallipoli Day with more pomp and wider civic participation than Armistice Day. It lost 1800 men in the Dardanelles campaign. For a collective act of bravery by one unit during the ‘Lancashire Landing’ on W Beach its regiment, uniquely in the British Army, received six Victoria Crosses. Its Member of Parliament, Charles Ainsworth, elected just after the Armistice and sitting until 1934, was a Gallipoli veteran whose initial election victory owed much to his Liberal rival’s unpopular opposition to conscription. The largest local landowner, Lord Derby, whose estates actually owned all of Bury until 1925, was so successful in exhorting Lancashire’s young men to enlist for the Front that Asquith soon made him National Director of Recruiting. Bury’s boys’ schools have retained an enthusiastic tradition of enrolling their pupils in the Combined Cadet Force. With such details Moorhouse illustrates the simple ubiquity of the military tradition in the town, both before and after the Dardanelles campaign. Soldiering, he implies, from the Crimean War and then the Boer War onward was, regardless of the efficacy of the battles the Lancashire Fusiliers were sent to fight, something they did rather well. By the time his history reaches the Thirties, however, it is offering somewhat different inferences. On the eve of the Second World War the Bury Territorial Army was facing severe shortages of men, and the military correspondent of the local paper expressed his bafflement that Bury’s young men appeared more keen to enlist in the Auxiliary Fire Service or become ARP wardens. By the Fifties measures had been taken to amalgamate the Fusiliers with other regiments, and 1960 saw its last home-trained recruits passing out of the town for service in Germany. In the Seventies and Eighties plans by the Ministry of Defence to extend its use of open moorland around Bury for army manoeuvres were arousing local opposition.

Here we have, then, or could have, much more than just a conscientious memorial to a small town’s military tradition, for clearly over the 70-year span of Moorhouse’s survey, Bury’s remembrance of its First World War history has changed. The disappointment of Hell’s Foundations, though, is that tracing the evolution and transmutation of a composite ‘mythology’ of Gallipoli in the town is exactly what it doesn’t go on to do. Throughout, indeed, there is a basic confusion as to whether we are concerned with a ‘myth’, a ‘mythology’, a ‘legend’, or merely a ‘tradition’. The tradition of Bury is obviously to honour its war dead and commemorate their ungainsayable bravery: how could it not be? But how far was the town’s public acknowledgment of Gallipoli based, and reliant, on a selective myth of the debacle that minimised its futility and highlighted its glorious self-sacrifices? And how was that myth sustained, and for how long, and how did it come to be revised? Behind all the public pageantry and nostalgia for past heroism, of which Moorhouse is a cravenly enthusiastic supporter, was there anything Bury was ashamed of in its connection with Gallipoli, and if not, should there have been? These are the kind of suspicious questions you find yourself asking of a book that habitually and bluffly elides myth into legend into tradition.

The ambivalent, or perhaps just credulously literal, posture of his analysis comes about as a result of two limitations in his methods of research. The first is a reverence for, and satisfaction with, official public sources at their face value. Hell’s Foundations smacks of many days’ assiduous trawling through the local newspaper archives. And yet the book reveals – apparently unaware of anything more than a quaint irony – that when the Dardanelles Commission published its ‘final and damning report’ on the execution of the campaign, ‘this item of news was buried in three short paragraphs at the foot of a page in the Bury Times, which made no editorial comment either then or in subsequent issues.’ So what kind of source is the local paper? Certainly a gold-mine of myth-making and news management, by the look of things, but hardly a comprehensive paper of record. What, and how important, was its role as a disseminator of homogenised propaganda to Bury during the war and after – and how far, on the other hand, was it an accurate barometer of the mood of its citizens? Moorhouse notes that the Bury Times was Liberal while the MP was Tory: were they at one on military issues? We are not even told the name of a single editor of the Bury Times, let alone given any clues as to the personalities and prejudices of some of the town’s central opinion-formers. Moorhouse unfortunately isn’t interested in the story of the story – the myths and mythologies that can be read between the lines.

Secondly, in order properly to get at such an elusive, composite subject, the net really has to be cast both lower and wider. But we get to know none of the protagonists in this story: not the veterans of the campaign themselves, whose lives are reduced to a respectful, tactful and fatally uninquisitive second-person; not Lord Derby, the dubiously triumphalist recruiter of Bury’s youth for the carnage on the Front – from Hell’s Foundations he comes across as a thoroughly pernicious example of the misuse of other people’s heroism, though Moorhouse appears content with dewy-eyed homage to his passing. Not the post-war Anglican vicar of Bury, Charles Hill, ‘whose patriotism’, despite the loss of his son at Gallipoli, ‘never faltered in the years after the Great War’. What intricate tangle of values and allegiances supported it even in the teeth of his bereavement? Not the last-ever Lancashire Fusiliers who left the town in 1960 – who were they, what were their names, why had they joined up, and what did they know about the Dardanelles? Again and again, instead of being given another newspaper report, or the text of another church sermon, or the words of another martial hymn – especially when Moorhouse seems oblivious to the possibility of deconstructing their po-faced public meanings – you find yourself wanting to become acquainted with these Bury people, wanting to hear them talk, spontaneously, directly, unpredictably. That Moorhouse should exclude himself from the book entirely, given that his own grandfather, to whom the book is dedicated, must have been his first acquaintance with the legacy of Gallipoli, is disappointing too: at least he could tell us a story or two of how the ‘myth’ worked on him as a child. Neither is there any chronicling of the national mood against which Bury’s would have to be measured in order accurately to gauge the town’s significance. Was the reluctance of its youth to enlist for the Second World War a belated comprehension of the scale of the Gallipoli calamity, or just a national weariness at the prospect of a second global conflict?

Hell’s Foundations is a kind of literary counterpart to Sir Edwin Lutyens’s mini-Cenotaph memorial to the Gallipoli campaign in the middle of Bury, but nothing more. Read Maurice Shadbolt’s anthology of interviews with New Zealand survivors of the campaign, and 70 years on they seethe with anger and bafflement at their and anyone’s innocent involvement in such an ignominious affair. Private Charles Watkins, whose outstanding memoir of his participation in the campaign with the Lancashire Fusiliers, Lost Endeavour, is most surprisingly omitted altogether from Moorhouse’s book, recalls finding himself, on being evacuated from the Dardanelles in 1916, ‘wracked with unmanly sobbing ... most, I think, was the dreadful feeling of the shame of it all – the British Army having to evacuate the Peninsula like this, and after all this gigantic wasted effort.’ Geoffrey Moorhouse, on the other hand, takes his book’s leave of the Dardanelles at the site of the military cemeteries as they bathe in the last rays of a regulation sunset, musing on ‘the cycle of renewal’ that begins each morning with the new sunrise and ‘a generosity in the human spirit that can and must transcend the obscenity of war’. I’m sorry he should finish in such pious clichés, and that the timeless universalities of public speaking should yet again replace a specific regard for his subject. I can’t believe that the town of Bury, despite its monuments, its pageantry and its pride in the soldiering tradition, wouldn’t some time after 1916 have confronted the ‘gigantic wasted effort’ that was also Gallipoli, but from Hell’s Foundations I still don’t know how it did that.