Who was the enemy?

Bernard Porter

  • Gallipoli by Alan Moorehead
    Aurum, 384 pp, £25.00, April 2015, ISBN 978 1 78131 406 7
  • Gallipoli: A Soldier’s Story by Arthur Beecroft
    Robert Hale, 176 pp, £12.99, March 2015, ISBN 978 0 7198 1654 3
  • Gallipoli 1915 by Joseph Murray
    Silvertail, 210 pp, £12.99, April 2015, ISBN 978 1 909269 11 8
  • Gallipoli: The Dardanelles Disaster in Soldiers’ Words and Photographs by Richard van Emden and Stephen Chambers
    Bloomsbury, 344 pp, £25.00, March 2015, ISBN 978 1 4088 5615 4

From the time of the Crusades onwards, Western military interventions in the Near and Middle East have nearly all been disastrous; in the long run – just look at Iraq today – but usually in the short term too. The Gallipoli adventure of 1915, a disaster in every way, was dreamed up after Turkey sided with Germany in the Great War. Churchill’s cunning plan was to cut through the ghastly stalemate of the Western Front with a morale-boosting attack where Germany expected it least. The idea was to force open the straits between the Aegean and the Sea of Marmara, get to Constantinople, detach the Turks from the Germans, bolster the Russians and shorten the war by two years. It has been suggested that had it been successful it might even have forestalled the Bolshevik Revolution. Wasn’t all that worth a gamble? In the end it failed miserably, with enormous losses on both sides, and the Allied forces evacuating the peninsula in December, leaving much of their matériel behind. Churchill’s reputation didn’t recover for twenty-odd years – ‘What about the Dardanelles?’ they used to shout at him whenever he got up in Parliament – though that may have been unfair: most of the government and the high command, including Kitchener, were initially behind him. Kitchener’s reputation ended up pretty battered too, though he was drowned before it became a problem. Gallipoli has become one of those military cock-ups – the Charge of the Light Brigade is another – that the British seem almost to revel in, even to gain strength from. As Peter Cook said in Beyond the Fringe, ‘we need a futile gesture at this stage. It will raise the whole tone of the war.’

The general verdict today is that it could never have worked. The strategy was foolish and hopeless. One major of the Gurkhas thought that this might be the ‘one hope’ of its success: it was so crazy that the Turks would never believe the Allies would contemplate it, so they would be taken by surprise. But many Turks did think it was possible, and indeed inevitable: the Royal Navy, which would be doing most of the forcing, was the greatest in the world. There were several occasions when the Allies thought they could have burst through with just a few more reinforcements, or better leadership, or a little luck. Talk of ‘missed opportunities’ was rife, and there was much resentment among both troops and junior officers towards the politicians and senior officers behind the lines who had got them into the mess in the first place, and now seemed too incompetent to carry the campaign through.

The ‘lions led by donkeys’ trope has become so clichéd as to raise suspicions in the minds of many historians, but it seems on the whole to be borne out by contemporary accounts, as well as some written later – among them Alan Moorehead’s Gallipoli, a fine narrative of the campaign, first published in 1956 and reissued for the centenary. Appearing for the first time is an account written in the 1930s by Arthur Beecroft of the Royal Engineers for his son Bobby, to counteract the pacifist revisionism that he thought was painting him (like all his comrades-in-arms) as ‘a poor bemused fool who was led blindfold to the slaughter, and who had not the gumption to see that his ideals were sham’. Beecroft didn’t intend or expect it to be published: ‘The public,’ he wrote, ‘are getting sick of the subject – and a good job too.’ But here it is. Joseph Murray’s book was compiled from his diaries and letters home while serving first as a seaman and then as a sapper in Gallipoli. It was originally published in 1965 as Gallipoli as I Saw It, and contains a flinch-making description of him amputating his mate’s thumb with a jack-knife (‘Tubby thanked me a thousand times’). Then there is the splendid book edited by Richard van Emden and Stephen Chambers, which consists mainly of soldiers’ and sailors’ letters and diaries, British, Anzac and Turkish – no French or Indian, apart from a couple of Indian officers in the British army – arranged chronologically, with an editorial commentary and some evocative if grainy battlefield photographs taken by the soldiers, even though cameras were banned. You can see why: few of these pictures were likely to do much for morale. Most are of worn and miserable-looking men doing their daily chores between battles. One of them is having a dump – a recurring theme of these books.

The conditions that both armies were faced with at Gallipoli were among the worst on any front in the Great War. Nearly all the men had diarrhoea or dysentery most of the time. As one joker put it, ‘the XIth Division went into action grasping the rifle in one hand, and keeping up its trousers with the other.’ ‘Sanitary arrangements were non-existent,’ a Welsh Fusilier captain wrote, ‘and in the dark it was impossible to get men to use one spot with so many bullets flying all round. The result in a hot climate can be imagined.’ Another source of torment – probably connected – was the ‘pestering curse of those damnable Suvla Bay flies, and the lice with which every officer and man swarmed’. ‘To die for one’s country is all very well, and simple enough if it comes along in your day’s work,’ one junior officer wrote, ‘but to itch for your country, day in and night out …’ Then there was the searing heat in summer, followed by winter temperatures that froze some men to death; the ‘torments of thirst’ (Murray was reduced to moistening his blackened lips with urine); the awful food (biscuits too hard to bite and bully beef that melted in the heat); and the utter exhaustion of men who often had to go several days without sleep, stomachs churning and skins crawling with insects, without any proper rest or leave. At least in France there were friendly villages behind the lines to retire to.

Then there were the casualties: more than 200,000 on either side. A British petty officer ‘watched in wordless horror’ as a boat floated by his ship containing ‘a mass of corpses huddled together … everywhere crimson mingling with the brown, and here and there a waxen-white face with draggled hair staring up into the smiling heavens … Such was our introduction to the glories of war.’ Several men were burned alive. ‘The carnage it caused is awful,’ a Turkish lieutenant wrote after one engagement. ‘Dismembered parts of bodies are intermingled. Blood has drained out of bodies, and chests and arms look like wax. Shins and legs, seared by the explosion, are purple. Some bones have been stripped of flesh.’ ‘Have you ever walked over dead men, still warm and quivering?’ Captain Albert Mure of the Royal Scots asked. Some descriptions go beyond the grotesque: ‘A bullet took the upper lip of a soldier lying beside me, shooting and talking. I did not realise it until his voice changed.’ Seas turned red. Dead mules floating on their backs with their legs sticking up were mistaken for submarine periscopes. Rough beach cemeteries crept up the hills, to meet the bodies being shot on the way down.

Some men went insane. Van Emden’s book contains Captain Mure’s unsettling account of his own descent into madness. Many of those who survived with their limbs and minds mostly intact remained traumatised for years. Arthur Beecroft never talked about his experiences with his family: there was no point of contact. In moments of (comparative) rest the men marvelled that they were still able to carry on in such conditions, pushing forward heroically or enduring stoically when they got stuck (one of the points of the enterprise had been to get away from the stasis of trench warfare, but it soon degenerated into that). They kept themselves in pretty good spirits, too, despite the looks on their faces in the photographs. ‘Nothing in all my brief but vigorous soldiering,’ a captain of the Royal Scots wrote, ‘has impressed me more than the miraculous way in which men who look completely finished can and do go on, not only doggedly (that one expects, of course, until they drop), but vigorously and alertly.’ There are very few examples recorded here of ‘funking, bunking, skulking, hiding, thieving, abandoning arms and miserable cowardice’, but then there was nowhere for deserters to escape to. ‘Cowardice’ wasn’t a straightforward thing: ‘The civilian soldier was sometimes brave and sometimes a coward and, still more often, exceedingly brave to hide his fear.’ As Beecroft puts it, ‘I suppose one can get used to any sort of beastliness.’

They had their diversions. Swimming was one, if they could avoid the dead mules. Footballs appeared from nowhere. One may have saved its owner’s life, when he used it as a life-jacket. Very occasionally the men were cheered up by the smell of frying bacon, or a tot of rum. In their trenches and ‘grave-like funk holes’ they amused themselves by betting on fights to the death between scorpions and spiders (spiders usually won). The equivalent pastime for the French troops, apparently, was collecting and studying the archaeological artefacts that lay shallowly buried all around them. ‘We … aired our views on women and sang our bawdy songs.’ The last that most of them had seen of real women was in the brothels of Alexandria on their way to Turkey. Many of them enjoyed their brave padres’ improvised religious services, both because of the (less bawdy) singing, as one suggested, and because they felt themselves to be so ‘close to the next world’. But the main thing keeping them sane and spirited was the comradeship among them, the sense of a shared burden and of the responsibility each bore to his fighting ‘pals’, whether they were ordinary troops or junior officers. Casualties among the latter were proportionally far higher than in the former. If someone was invalided out, his sense of relief was qualified by his guilt at being separated from his mates. This sense of solidarity was the main motivation behind what was taken at the time to be their ‘patriotism’. It certainly wasn’t patriotism as it’s usually understood: they felt no bond with their national leaders, with the politicians in Whitehall or the senior officers on the ‘perfumed island’ of Imbros in the Aegean, where the ‘brass hats’ hung out.

They were the real enemy. The Turks weren’t: the British soldiers had initially thought that ‘Abdul’ would turn and run at the sight of the Tommies and Jack Tars coming towards him, but they grew to respect the Turks enormously. Murray, a Durham coal-miner in his previous life, even found their tunnels superior. There were frightening rumours – that the Turks castrated their prisoners, for example – but they soon fell away. During temporary ceasefires to bury the dead the two sides fraternised and even exchanged gifts. The Turks appreciated the cigarettes, but not the bully beef. The high-ups disapproved of that, as they had of the famous football matches on the Western Front at Christmas 1914: the men needed ‘a bit of hate’, they thought, to drive them on. But the troops saw things as they were. Offered gas masks, the Anzac units refused them on the grounds that ‘the Turks won’t use gas. They’re clean fighters.’ The Allies’ hatred was reserved for their own high command. It was indecisive. The preparations for the invasion were totally inadequate. The men weren’t given proper maps. (Officers scoured shops in Alexandria for tourist guidebooks.) They often found themselves in the wrong places, or landing in the wrong bay. Tactics were confused or non-existent. More often than not the only plan seemed to be to ‘put the troops ashore and let them get on with it.’ ‘He refused to give any orders, or information, and reiterated ad nauseam “This is your show.” I nearly brained him.’ Lines of communication broke down. ‘We were hampered, hindered and buggered about by old men.’

Most of the commanders were retirees, or ‘dugouts’, brought back from tending their roses for one last show, mainly because the best officers couldn’t be spared from the Western Front, and were inexperienced in the type of warfare that Gallipoli would require. Some were unreliable in other ways. Major-General Sir Frederick Hammersley (b.1858) had had a nervous breakdown in 1911 at Aldershot, followed by a spell in a private psychiatric hospital – a second mental collapse came at the height of battle at Suvla Bay. The incompetence of General the Hon. Sir Frederick Stopford (b.1854) in the same battle provoked Kitchener to sack him summarily, with the observation that Gallipoli ought to be ‘a young man’s war’. All of them had ‘old Regular Army ideas’. The slightly younger Brigadier-General William Sitwell (b.1860) couldn’t even use a telephone: he repeatedly spoke into the wrong end. All of them – it’s almost superfluous to say – were educated at public schools, more often than not Eton.

Their public school backgrounds were responsible for their ‘spirit’ as they went on this adventure – Roger Keyes shaving each morning ‘with a copy of Kipling’s “If” propped up before him’, for example – as well as much of their enthusiasm for this particular theatre of war. Almost every step recalled the legendary actions of Hector and Achilles. They were certainly in the front of Sub-Lieutenant Rupert Brooke’s mind as he set off to join the fun in the Dardanelles in the spring of 1915: ‘Oh God! I’ve never been quite so happy in my life.’ His naive eagerness was not unique among the classically educated. Ancient Greek allusions abound in the letters and diaries of the officers anthologised by van Emden and Chambers. One kind padre took it on himself to educate the lower ranks. ‘He began by saying that the ground on which we stood was famous in ancient history. He went on talking about Helen of Troy, the Wooden Horse, Ulysses and his battles and travels. I was fascinated. Like most boys of my social class I had left school early to earn a living and that lecture opened a new world to me. When I got home’ – he was one of the lucky ones – ‘I purchased Homer’s works.’ Whether they made any difference to Sapper Gale, or to any of his upper-middle-class betters once the true nature of the campaign became apparent, is doubtful. It is noticeable that the classical allusions thin out as the war goes on.

*

The two most important positive repercussions of the Dardanelles campaign were unlooked for, at least by the British. The first was a boost in national self-confidence for the Turks, who took great pride in being the first, so they thought, to beat the invincible Royal Navy. They were also surprised and encouraged by the Europeans’ mistakes. ‘These British are either really stupid or unprepared,’ a Turkish lieutenant wrote, on finding a unit laying out breakfast in open view of his troops. Mustafa Kemal (later Kemal Atatürk, founder of the first Turkish Republic) distinguished himself in the campaign. His famous command, ‘I don’t order you to attack. I order you to die,’ is supposed to have been inspiring. This wasn’t a final victory for the Turks – Colonel T.E. Lawrence made sure of that – but it was a huge fillip, after successive military defeats in the Balkans in the years leading up to the war, and after a century of European racist disparagement of the ‘unspeakable Turk’. On 18 March three British battleships were sunk in the Narrows, and a significant Allied military force on the mainland was repelled.

The second positive result of the war was the creation of the Australian myth, which still persists, of the effeteness and stupidity of the British officer classes, and of the inferiority of the ordinary soldiers when set against the healthy democratic masculinity of the Anzac troops who came to help them out. British officers were impressed with the Anzacs too, especially when they spied them stripped for bathing on the beaches and were reminded of Flaxman’s illustrations of Greek heroes in Homer – ‘something as near to absolute beauty as I shall hope ever to see in this world’. The myth is supposed to have planted the seed of Australia’s present-day self-identity as a nation – hence the annual celebration of Anzac Day on 25 April. Another long-term result may have been the Murdoch newspaper family’s deep and lasting Anglophobia, which set in after a flying visit Rupert’s father, Keith, paid to the Dardanelles in early September at the nadir of the war. It was he who popularised the lion/donkey myth back in Australia.

Arthur Beecroft would have agreed with Murdoch about the British officers. One of the reasons he wrote his memoir, though, was to put the record straight about the other ranks. ‘Physically,’ he wrote, ‘the men were simply magnificent’; ‘a finer selection of good British manhood will never be seen than those early Kitchener Armies.’ But that was before they were supplemented by conscripted men, who were less fit (one Lancastrian blamed this on ‘a neat diet of fish and chips, and long close-confined work in the mills’), and before they were tested in battle and tortured by the heat, thirst, exhaustion, flies and diarrhoea. They became ‘grim and haggard, as if the blood had been drained from their faces, and expression from their eyes’. It was probably troops like these that Murdoch saw.

The ordinary British soldier seems to have liked and admired the Anzacs (more than the French, anyway), though he envied their pay packets (six times his), and their democratic culture: ‘Saluting’s a thing for Pommie bastards – not for Austrylian boys like us.’ This caused problems for the snootier British officers: ‘They really were rather difficult,’ one lieutenant-colonel remembered. But as the campaign wore on, the Australian way seems to have caught on a little among the Brits too. A junior lieutenant remarked that ‘no one stands on his dignity here’ – he had forgotten to salute a passing general and not been pulled up for it – so that ‘every day one is more convinced that people are at their best.’ One officer noted – it seems to have come as a surprise to him – that ‘Tommy has “his feelings”.’ The changing attitudes of ordinary soldiers and officers towards each other may well have had an indirect influence on the progress of social democracy in Britain: another unsought effect, if so.

You might expect religion to have played a part in the campaign. It doesn’t seem to have done, to any great extent. On the British side there’s no explicit sign that this was ever presented or seen as a fight for Christianity. Soldiers saw little difference between their own odd religious observances and the Turks’. In Turkish accounts there are a few references to Islam – soldiers yelling ‘Allah! Allah!’ as they went over the top, and being gee-ed on by what Alan Moorehead calls their ‘priests’ – but they are marginal. ‘War,’ one Ottoman lieutenant wrote, ‘is neither a game, nor a sacred thing.’ Their main motive was military not religious: ‘to regain the prestige that they had lost in the Balkans’. Some of them sincerely regretted that it was the British they had to fight, for ‘we know that you are just and that Moslems thrive under you.’ There was none of the deliberate horror – beheadings on one side, torture on the other – that has accompanied religious conflict in the Middle East in recent years. It also isn’t easy to present Gallipoli as an ‘imperialist’ venture on the Allies’ part. The Great War in general may have been – debate still rages over that – and there were plenty of signs of ‘imperialism’ on the Allies’ other front against the Ottomans, in what was loosely called ‘Arabia’ (modern Syria, Iraq, Palestine, as well as Saudi Arabia): the lust for control, greed for oil, colonial settlement, ‘racial superiority’ and so on. Gallipoli, however, was merely a diversionary tactic in the main European war; the Allies had no intention of annexing it.

It’s doubtful whether Beecroft’s revisionary account of the affair really did, as he intended, puncture the fashionable view of its participants as ‘poor bemused fools who were led blindfold to the slaughter, and who had not the gumption to see that their ideals were sham’. We can accept that their ideals weren’t sham, in the sense of hypocritical: there’s enough evidence of that here from the young men who had imbibed all that ancient-romantic-heroic stuff at their public schools. But ‘blindfold to the slaughter’ sounds about right. So does ‘bemused’. Not having ‘the gumption to see’ that they were being fooled, however, depends on whether the project was a foolish one all along or not. Perhaps it could have worked if the conditions – weather, water, fauna, disease – had been better. Van Emden and Chambers suggest that these were the real causes of the disaster. The main failure of the much despised politicians and upper echelons of the army was that they didn’t foresee any of it. What on earth were their intelligence services doing in Turkey before 1915?

The most efficient part of the campaign was the evacuation. Officers who were against it had confidently predicted between 25,000 and 40,000 new casualties; in the event there were almost none. That was a kind of success, but it hardly made up for the apparent pointlessness of the Allies’ sacrifices. ‘We had come,’ Private Gill of the RAMC wrote afterwards, ‘as invaders, fouled this legendary shore with blood and excrement, and filled it with graves. Our object unattained, we were now slipping away.’ They were all happy to leave; but ‘what of the men we were to leave behind us there? The good comrades, who had come so gaily with us to the wars, who had fought so gallantly by our side, and who would now lie for ever among the barren rocks where they had died … No man was sorry to leave Gallipoli, but few were really glad.’