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.

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