Gallipoli as seen through writers’ eyes

The tragedy in the Dardanelles was not memorialised as much in fiction as the Western Front but there are still many books and poems which keep its memory alive

A British soldier paying his respects in 1915 at the grave of a colleague near Cape Helles,  where the Gallipoli landings took place. Photograph: PA

A British soldier paying his respects in 1915 at the grave of a colleague near Cape Helles, where the Gallipoli landings took place. Photograph: PA


It was 4am, still dark, with just a glimmering light, on the morning of April 25th, 1915. The sea was likened to black glass. Survivors would later describe how calm it all seemed in the predawn mist a century ago today. Warm too. The moon had set. Some would admit to even feeling excited. Officers were eating breakfast, confident that the men were ready. It was travelling into the unknown but they had been in training in Egypt. They were ready, or so they thought.

“Soon the troops were fallen in and the rum ration issued. The night was warm and still, and were peaceful” recalled Sapper Geoffrey Robin, 1st Field Company, and Australian Engineers: “Then down the rope ladders and into the boats alongside – no easy journey with rifle and full kit and box of gun cotton. As the boats filled they were taken in tow by the pinnaces and moved clear of the ship and lay in parallel lines headed for the shore like runners on their mark waiting for the pistol….

“There was a little talk in undertones, but most of us were busy with our thoughts. Most of us hoped we would get ashore before any trouble started. Loaded as we were, any man going overboard knew his number was up…”

The Gallipoli campaign was doomed from the start. The landing parties ran into fire that simply never ended. Devised by Winston Churchill, then Britain’s First Lord of the Admiralty, Gallipoli or the Dardanelles was his greatest disaster.

For Australians and New Zealanders Gallipoli is remembered with pride and sorrow. Memorial gatherings taking place at dawn today across Australia and New Zealand will begin with a solemn gesture, a moment’s silence. It is more deeply felt than Armistice Day because the events at Gallipoli are associated with the emerging nationhood of Australia and New Zealand. It is yet another of history’s many ironies: the Great War had begun with an assassination motivated by nationalism. Nationalism tore the Balkans apart; idealists had lost patience with empires and soldiers went to war and paid the price.

Long before the eight-month-long Gallipoli stalemate during which the Allied forces were subjected to relentless sniper attack from the Turks who knew their topography, the Ottoman empire had already become the Sick Man of Europe. The Turkish nationalists, inspired by Young Turk leader Enver Bey, were seeking independence.

The Ottoman Empire was dying as was the Austro-Hungarian one which had once extended from Vienna to Russia. Imperial Vienna retreated into a provincial city, its fall lamented by its great chronicler Joseph Roth. Meanwhile Australia had become independent from the British empire in 1901, and New Zealand had followed in 1907. However, a lingering loyalty to the crown remained. Also about one-fifth of the Anzac forces had been born in Britain. Even so, the differences in military etiquette were obvious. The Anzac officers seemed more relaxed and mixed with the ordinary soldiers. Of the many telling quotes gathered in war historian Richard van Emden’s most recent book, Gallipoli – The Dardanelles Disaster in Soldiers’ Words and Photographs, a collaborative project undertaken with military historian and archivist Stephen Chambers, is a comment from Private Charles Watkins, 1/6th Lancashire Fusiliers, 42nd Division: “Officers and privates would be seen hobnobbing together, discipline and military etiquette being quite unknown to them. ‘Saluting’s a thing for Pommie bastards – not for Austry-lian boys like us’. But still, we had a great affection for the ‘Cobbers’ – those wild Australian boys…”

Elsewhere an Australian soldier Private Charles Duke, 4th Battalion, Australian Imperial Force rather politely recalled: “One’s first sensation of being under fire was of feeling remarkably naked and uncovered, you felt you would like to have anything between you and the shells – even an umbrella.”

It does describe the appalling reality. There was no cover, nothing to hide behind. Motor shelling and sniper shot coming from all direction by an often invisible foe. It was all bare hill side with scrub; the landing parties were completely exposed on a peninsula that was as beautiful as it was to prove terrifying. The combined Anzac forces numbering 74,000, of which 10,000 died, were facing an enemy capable of exploiting the terrain which consists of natural ridges. Under the constant bombardment it was impossible to move the dead bodies which immediately attracted flies in the heat. This of course introduced another deadly element, dysentery.

No war is glorious. Yet writers have been able to immortalise the tragedy and the valour as well as the human drama of sons and fathers; husbands, brothers lost. Artists tend to respond more to the reader than to the historian.

Russell Crowe’s recent movie The Water Diviner is a human story, inspired by an Australian father who did travel to Gallipoli looking for his lost sons. It is intended to appeal to the emotions as well as raise the awareness of one of the less publicised chapters of the Great War. The Water Diviner is a drama, not a history lesson.

The Great War has inspired literature, yet very little of it is about Gallipoli. That is, it will be argued, because it was such an almighty disaster for the Allies; the British lost 25,000 men, the French 10,000 while Turkish losses amounted to an estimated 86,000 out of 400,000.

For British, German, French, Belgian and even US writers, the Western Front, and the Somme or Ypres; Verdun or Passchendaele continue to intrigue. This makes a memoir such as The Burning of the World by the Hungarian artist Bela Zombory-Moldovan so important. Aside from it being a beautiful piece of writing, the horrors of war described through an artist’s eye, it is about events on the Eastern Front. Zombory-Molodovan was deployed to Russia.

An Australian interwar classic, My Brother Jack (1964) by George Johnston, did not so much write about Gallipoli as describe the damage it inflicted on a generation of men. The narrator David is the son of a Gallipoli veteran father whose war experiences have left him violent and unstable. For David the maimed around him have left him convinced that most men are missing limbs. It is an anti-war book and rather than glorify the Anzac spirit it focuses on the legacy of horror.

The first landing had been delayed by two days because of bad weather, a sudden storm. One soldier bound for Gallipoli who died on the way, on the island of Skyros was the English poet Rupert Brooke. Between his death and the dawn landing two days later were the series of arrests on April 24th, when hundreds of Armenian intellectuals and political leaders were detained throughout Istanbul, then Constantinople.

There is no victory to be celebrated today, but thousands of lives lost in hillside skirmishes played out in appalling conditions and all for a plan that very few actually believed would work. The Anzac legacy is about a sacrifice made by men of whom Australia and New Zealand are very proud.

On that very human note – as if what could be more human than war – is the wonderful good luck that so many soldiers wrote diaries, memoirs and letters. Equally valuable is that so many soldiers disobeyed orders and took cameras. Military authorities banned the possession of personal cameras. But many soldiers, particularly officers, disregarded the rules and the photographic archive from Gallipoli captures the horrors.

“The queer thing is, that when I look back upon that ‘Great failure’, it is not the danger or the importance of the undertaking which is strongly impressed,” recalled Sergeant John Hargrave, 32rd Field Ambulance, RAMC, 10th Division, “so much as the jumble of smells and sounds and small things. It is just these small things which no author can make up in his study at home.”

Most readers interested in Gallipoli will have read, or might wish to read Eric Bush’s memoir, Gallipoli (1975); Charles Bean’s Gallipoli Mission (1949), Peter Hart’s Gallipoli (2011) and E Kedourie’s England and the Middle East: the Destruction of the Ottoman Empire 1914-1921. There is also An Anzac Muster by William Baylebridge, a variation of The Decameron or The Canterbury Tales. Baylebridge, born Charles Blocksidge in 1883, was apparently in Egypt during the Gallipoli campaign. He published his Anzac Muster, a series of 27 stories, in 1921. One of the tales, The Apocalypse of Pat McCullough: The Sergeant’s Tale, is a prediction come true. In it McCullough introduces the theme of the sanitising power of war tourism. It is weirdly prophetic and as ambivalent as ever: wars are about remembrance, not celebration.

John Le Gay Brereton (1871- 1933) was Professor of English at the University of Sydney and his specialist area was Elizabethan drama. He remains best remembered for two poems, ANZAC and Transports – both published soon after the landings at Gallipoli – which may well be read or recited somewhere in Australia or New Zealand today by someone standing by a memorial:

“Within my heart I hear a cry
Of loves that suffer, souls that die,
And you may have no praise from me
For warfare’s vast vulgarity;
Only the flag of love, unfurled
For peace above a weeping world,
I follow, though the fiery breath
Of murder shrivel me in death…..

Because they welcomed grisly pain
And laughed at prudence, mocked at gain,
With noble hope and courage high,
And taught our manhood how to die.

From ANZAC by John Le Gay Brereton

Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent of The Irish Times

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