Category Archives: World War I

Gallipoli and the ANZACS

Last Wednesday, 25 April, was ANZAC day, which commemorates the invasion of Gallipoli in Western Turkey by the Allies in 1915. While Gallipoli was not exactly the British Empire’s finest hour, for Australia ‘ANZAC Day’ celebrates the colony’s rebirth as a new nation, forged in war.

The ‘Australian and New Zealand Army Corps’ was formed in Egypt in December 1914 from Antipodean volunteers. They were fit, adventurous young men, well paid and full of enthusiasm for the Empire and its war. Their first action was at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915.

However, the Gallipoli campaign turned out to be a major defeat for the Allies. It killed and maimed hundreds of thousands of men, wasted scarce resources and changed the face of British politics in the middle of a global war. It ensured that the Ottoman Empire would stay in the war, and helped condemn Tsarist Russia to defeat and the subsequent Red revolution.

The campaign was approved in January 1915, following a Russian request for an attack on Turkey. Russia was geographically isolated and fighting on three fronts. Both the Tsar and the Allies desperately needed support for Russia’s war effort because, if Russia stopped fighting, the whole might of the German war machine would be free to fall upon the Western Front.  Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, ordered a naval assault on the Dardanelle Straits to bombard Constantinople. France added reinforcements to the force assembling in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The attack started in February when Admiral Carden led a mixed British and French fleet into the Straits. The British and French battleships blasted the Turkish fortresses and marines went ashore to confirm that the forts were out of action. It therefore came as a surprise when the fleet returned early in March to be met by accurate fire from mobile Turkish field artillery batteries. Worse, the minesweeping trawlers clearing the narrows ahead of the battleships with their crews of untrained civilian fishermen ‘turned tail directly they were fired upon.’

Admiral de Robeck took over and on 18 March led another full-blooded assault to ‘Force the Narrows’, when disaster struck. Four old battleships hit mines and sank. De Robeck withdrew, planning to return with reliable minesweepers and this time with army support to secure the ground covering the Straits. The upshot was that an expeditionary force under General Sir Ian Hamilton landed on Cannakale (Gallipoli) on 25 April. The ANZACs came ashore halfway up the west coast at Gaba Tepe and the British stormed ashore on the southern tip at Cape Helles.

But now the Turks were waiting. Both landings were a shambles. The ANZACs landed on an unknown beach under heavy fire. They struggled ashore to scramble up the steep slopes to the high ground overlooking the peninsula. Some Australians could even see the distant waters of the Dardanelles.  However, back on the beach all was confusion. Units waited for orders, officers failed to advance and artillery could not get up the steep hills. A near-suicidal counter attack by Mustafa Kemal’s 19th  Division stopped the Australians. Hamilton ordered the ANZACS to consolidate and dig in. They would stay in those locations for another eight wretched months.

Hamilton tried to break out on 28 April; but little was achieved and the bridgeheads were reduced to the troglodyte trench conditions of the Western Front by a determined Turkish defence. In the first five weeks of the campaign, the Imperial troops suffered nearly 40,000 casualties, the French a further 20,000; the Turks lost even more.

Gallipoli had become a bloody failure, politically and militarily. In May 1915 Admiral Fisher resigned over the direction of the campaign. Churchill was promptly sacked by Prime Minister Asquith as the price of forming a new coalition government.

As the summer heat built up, the campaign stagnated; flies, disease, lack of water and sanitation became the real enemy in the blistering heat of a Mediterranean summer. In August three new attacks were mounted. All failed. All that was left were three beleaguered beachheads – at Helles, Anzac Cove and Suvla Bay. In October, Hamilton was replaced by Sir Charles Monro, who promptly recommended withdrawal.

Lord Kitchener himself came out to see what conditions were like on the ground; appalled, he confirmed that the campaign must be ended. The only decision left was when to do so. In December the ‘Constantinople Expeditionary Force’ extricated itself under the very noses of the Turks without the loss of a single soldier. Ironically, the evacuation was easily the most successful element of the entire campaign.

However, Gallipoli established the ANZACs’ unique reputation. This was confirmed when they joined the BEF on the Western Front in France in 1916.  However, while no one doubted their ferocity in action or their fighting ability, they were – by British army standards – woefully undisciplined. Australian blood lust in the attack was legendary and they frequently took no prisoners, as at Polygon Wood near Ypres in the final assault towards Passchendaele in 1917. Here they encountered the Prussian Guard, whom they had fought when they arrived on the Somme the year before. Even the official communique admitted, ‘the ANZACs took no prisoners’. Robert Graves claimed in Goodbye to All That, that an Australian had boasted of robbing a dozen German prisoners then killing them all in cold blood.

These excesses were not just confined to the battlefield. Stories of Australian misconduct abounded and a host of contemporary references detail the lengthy list of their misdeeds, which were not limited to drunken sprees in estaminets behind the lines, either. They had the worst VD record in the BEF and a remarkable record of disciplinary infringements and imprisonment.  (By 1918, nine Australians per thousand were in prison for military crimes, some of them extremely serious. For the rest of the Dominion troops, the figure was only 1.6 per thousand.)

Australians were even bold enough to release British prisoners undergoing field punishment and dare the Military Police to try and re-imprison them. The Australians were not just tough and resourceful; they were also brazen in their defiance of authority.

The big difference was probably the absence of the death penalty. Alone in the BEF, Australians were effectively exempt from capital punishment for military offences. Although the British Commander-in-Chief, Haig, made several pleas for the death sentence to be enforced on his bolshie Australians, for domestic Australian political reasons the penalty was never enforced. Whatever the reasons, wherever ANZAC troops gathered in a gang out of the line there was often theft, drunkenness, disorder and trouble.

This cocky, over-confident Australian attitude was not universally admired. However, a Royal Artillery officer grudgingly conceded that he was ‘always glad when they were in the line nearby.’

As the war progressed the ANZACs’ reputation grew, even as their volunteer soldiers increasingly became casualties. Their final commander was an ‘amateur’ soldier: an Australian civil engineer, John Monash. General Monash led his Australians to remarkable victories as the German Army finally collapsed in the last years of the war. From 8 August to 11 November 1918 the ANZACs alone destroyed no less than 39 German divisions and advanced 100 miles.

According to the British Official Historian, ‘We all agreed; the Australians were finest assault troops on the Western Front.’ French Marshal Foch agreed after the war, stating that ‘the greatest individual fighter of the war was the Australian,’ and Field Marshal Montgomery later wrote: ‘Sir John Monash was the finest general on the Western Front.’

ANZAC Day therefore marks Monash and his ‘Diggers’ true achievement. Australians started the war in 1914 as one of Britain’s ‘Lion Cubs.’ Thanks to the exploits of the ANZACs at Gallipoli and the Australian victories of 1918, a new, independent and proud Australia emerged from World War I.

Professor Sir Michael Howard later hailed the ANZACs as ‘builders of a nation’: he was right.

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The Month that Changed the World

A century ago this month an event occurred that would have world-changing consequences: the United States of America entered the First World War.

In 1914 the prospect of ‘Europeans cutting each other’s throats’ proved a blessing to the economy of the USA. Industrial production and stocks and shares soared that autumn as the British and French placed massive orders for weapons with American companies. The war was very distant and very profitable. The general feeling among Americans was, ‘Let Europe stew in its own juice’.

However news of German atrocities in Belgium shocked many Americans and there were some open calls for war. But with 2.3m German-Americans, German immigrants were the largest ethnic group in the United States. The Irish bore no love for the British either and America’s Jewish community supported the Germans, seeing Russian Jews rescued from the tyranny of the Tsar.  Congress agreed that staying out of it was best, and supported a strongly isolationist foreign policy. The Americans’ view was that it was not in their interest to get involved in the ‘Europeans’ War’.

However, the powerful ‘Robber Baron’ capitalists of Wall Street slowly came to realise during 1915 that if the Allies lost the war – and could not repay the two billion dollars they owed to the American bankers – the US economy risked collapse. US bankers, led by J P Morgan, unsurprisingly began to lobby for a pro-Allied policy.

Into this confused neutrality Mexican Pancho Villa’s invasion and attack on the border town of Columbus, New Mexico in early 1916 caused shockwaves throughout America. A retaliatory expedition under General John Pershing promptly invaded Mexico to hunt down the rebellious warlord. Suddenly the realities of war seemed closer for many Americans.

Moreover, by the summer of 1916 American attitudes towards Europe’s bloody conflict were changing. There were dark rumours of German-inspired industrial sabotage, supposed poisoning of water supplies, kidnapping individuals, and penetration of American labour unions. These rumours, along with the shock of the sinking of the Lusitania and the Sussex, added to the growing distrust of Germany. Growing public concern over the weak state of the US armed forces saw a National Defense Act passed in June 1916, authorizing an army of 175,000 men, and a National Guard of 450,000. Many liberals regarded this as a dangerous first step towards war and campaigned hard for peace and isolationism.

The November 1916 election spelled out these political issues very clearly. After a close fought campaign, Woodrow Wilson’s winning margin was tiny. (He carried New Hampshire by just 56 votes.) An idealistic Harvard law professor, Wilson was re-elected on a ticket promising ‘peace, progressivism and prosperity’. He succeeded primarily because he branded his Republican opponents as ‘the War Party.’ The great majority of Americans were determined to remain neutral.

Wilson tried hard to end the war, even launching his own diplomatic mission over the winter of 1916-17 to seek a peace deal. All it did however, was to reveal was that the warring factions’ aims were absolutely irreconcilable. Germany insisted on keeping Alsace and Lorraine; Britain, under its new Prime Minister Lloyd George, would fight to the death; and France and Belgium demanded all their occupied territories back, full compensation, plus a demilitarised border on the Rhine.

Then in February 1917 came the news of Germany’s resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare. The normally calm Wilson was furious and broke off diplomatic relations with Berlin.  Despite this, Wilson still believed that ‘the Teutonic powers’ really wanted peace and began preparing a new round of peace proposals.

However, Germany now made a disastrous blunder. On 24 February an astonished Wilson learned of the contents of a secret telegram sent by the German Foreign Minister, Zimmermann.

On top of U-boat attacks on American ships, came the breath-taking news that Berlin had made a back-stairs deal with Mexico to invade the USA. It was impossible for America to ignore such a provocation.  Wilson, who had been returned to office on a peace platform only two months before, was now contemplating taking his country to war – and all because of a serious German miscalculation.

When the German submarine cable had been cut in 1914, Sweden let Berlin use the Swedish cable to send its diplomatic telegrams out to its embassies world-wide. But this cable route went through the UK and the British codebreakers could read the German signals. The so-called ‘Swedish roundabout’ suddenly produced pay-dirt on 17 January 1917, when astonished Admiralty codebreakers intercepted a German telegram from Zimmermann to the German Ambassador in Mexico, to let him know that Germany was about to resume unrestricted submarine warfare. Ominously, it also instructed the Ambassador to offer Mexico a secret alliance with Germany on the promise that Berlin could offer ‘an understanding … that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.’

The British sat on this explosive telegram for over 2 weeks, hoping that the Americans might be provoked without any action from London. The British problem was how to tell the world of the Germans’ plans without letting them know how they had found out? That would compromise the true source and the Germans would change their codes. Signals intelligence relies on total secrecy.

London’s ‘insurance’ copy of the Mexican version of the telegram provided the solution. The British obtained a hard copy of the actual telegram that had been delivered to the Germans in Mexico City.  When the Americans were handed the formal copy of the offending telegram, they were told that it had been obtained by ‘an agent in Mexico.’ To British astonishment, Germany admitted that the telegram was no forgery.

Even when confronted with this open evidence of hostile German intention, Wilson still hesitated to call for war. He only briefed his Cabinet on 20 March, nearly a month after he had first seen the telegram. By then, the U-boats’ deliberate sinkings of neutral American merchant and passenger ships, plus the explosive content of the ‘Zimmermann Telegram’, had completely changed American public opinion.  On 2 April an indignant President briefed the House and Senate, calling for a declaration of war. In typical idealistic style however, he sold it as some great moral crusade: ‘The world,’ Wilson declared, ‘must be made safe for democracy.’ On the 6 April 1917 the USA declared war on an unrepentant Germany.

Allied hopes of any immediate reinforcement by US armed forces turned out to be optimistic. America’s army was still tiny, with only 128,000 men. There was no air force – in 1914 the army had only 6 planes and 16 pilots, and the navy was undermanned and unprepared. America was just not ready for war. The first real reinforcement only came as late as December 1917, when US Navy dreadnoughts arrived in Scapa Flow to augment Britain’s Grand Fleet.

The real benefit of America’s entry into the war in 1917 was the psychological boost to Allied morale post-Passchendaele, post-French Army mutinies, with the promise of massive new fighting forces coming from across the Atlantic in 1918 to tip the balance in Europe by sheer weight of numbers. It also meant that Berlin was now uncomfortably aware that America’s entry inevitably spelled defeat unless Germany got in some war-winning blow before it was too late.

So April 1917 was a decisive month for the war – and for the world. It was the month that would ultimately lead to Germany’s desperate final offensive of spring 1918, to be followed by inevitable defeat, retreat, revolution and the fall of the Second Reich, the rise of Hitler and the Nazis. Those great events of one hundred years ago this month would also lead to America’s emergence as a world power.

To this day we still live with the consequences of that April, long, long ago.

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