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.