Sent to face the horror of Gallipoli


MILITARY HISTORY: GallipoliBy Peter Hart Profile, 534pp. £25

THE GALLIPOLI CAMPAIGN of 1915, a sideshow of the first World War waged by Britain and France against Germany’s ally Turkey, was a total failure that ended in humiliating withdrawal. In eight months it cost 500,000 casualties – killed, wounded, missing and sick – shared about equally between both sides. The Turks at least fell in the successful defence of their homeland; in Peter Hart’s view the Allied soldiers were needlessly sacrificed on a lunatic venture, doomed to failure by muddled strategic thinking, compounded by operational incompetence.

Winston Churchill, first lord of the admiralty, promoted the concept of seizing the Dardanelles as a prelude to the capture of Constantinople, which would knock Turkey out of the war. As final victory depended on defeating the German army on the Western Front, however, it was a mistaken strategy to divert substantial resources to the eastern Mediterranean. True, what Churchill initially had in mind was largely a naval operation, but when this failed the local army commander, Gen Sir Ian Hamilton, eagerly undertook an amphibious landing on the Gallipoli peninsula.

Three precarious bridgeheads were ultimately established: initially at Helles and Anzac Cove, and later at Suvla Bay. All attempts at further advance foundered on the determined Turkish defence of the precipitous terrain. Although poorly equipped, the Turks were good soldiers and well led by the capable German general Liman Von Sanders, with Mustafa Kemal, the rising star of the Turkish army, in command of the forces that bore the brunt of the fighting on the peninsula. The combat was fierce, bloody and frequently hand to hand. Even in the intervals between engagements, snipers and shrapnel exacted an unending toll of casualties. So, too, did disease.

Between 1981 and 2008 Hart was the oral historian at the Imperial War Museum, in Britain. His extensive use of participants’ accounts, often two or even three to a page, is one of the strengths of this enthralling book. The soldiers’ words are skilfully deployed to construct a vivid and compelling narrative that takes the reader through the gamut of military experience. They recount the thrill of battle and its attendant emotions of comradeship, courage and fear; the discomforts of thirst, sleeplessness, extremes of heat and cold, dirt, lice, plagues of flies, primitive latrines and chronic dysentery; the pervasive stench of stale excrement and rotting corpses; the ghastly daily toll of casualties.

Letters of sympathy invariably reassured relatives that their loved ones had died instantly and without pain. The truth, sadly, was often otherwise. A soldier of the Manchester Regiment recalled: “A fellow named Rawlinson was hit by a bomb. It exploded under his chin and blew the whole of his face off from ear to ear and it hung down on his chest, the poor chap was walking about groping his way and making an awful groaning noise, until someone placed an empty sandbag over his head and led him away, he died before night.” Such is the horror and the pity of war.

The Irish were involved at all three bridgeheads. At Helles, on April 25th, the experienced regular battalions of the Dublin and Munster Fusiliers were decimated as they tried to land on the exposed V-Beach. Contrary to traditional accounts, the small party of Turkish defenders had no machine guns. What did the damage was accurate rifle fire, supported by a few quick-firing light cannon.

Among major reinforcements to arrive at Gallipoli in August was the 10th (Irish) Division, composed of newly raised battalions from all the Irish infantry regiments except the Irish Guards. The 10th landed at Suvla Bay, but with no artillery and without one of its brigades – a third of its combat strength – which had been detached to reinforce the Anzacs (Australian and New Zealand forces) down the coast. In Hart’s view Sir Bryan Mahon, a west of Ireland soldier brought out of retirement to form and command the division, would have been a better choice as corps commander at Suvla than the overly cautious Gen Stopford, whose bungling forfeited probably the best chance of Allied success.

There is little enough about the 10th Division. Its only voice is Ivone Kirkpatrick, the future British diplomat, who was a subaltern in the 5th Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, which was also the unit of the Meath poet Francis Ledwidge. Irish readers will be disappointed that Hart does not make more use of Irish accounts. Several exist, notably that of Major Bryan Cooper (later a TD), first published in 1918, accompanied by Ledwidge’s three-stanza poem The Irish at Gallipoli.

A week after it landed the division was uselessly sacrificed in a brave but doomed attack on Kiretch Tepe Sirt ridge, an operation categorised by Hart as “near suicide”. There were thousands of casualties, including more than half the “Dublin Pals”: D Company, 7th Dublin Fusiliers – “the toffs in the toughs” – formed mostly from rugby-playing professional and university men. The 29th Brigade, detached to support the Anzacs, also suffered heavy losses. Ledwidge, who is not mentioned by Hart, survived Gallipoli only to be killed on the Western Front.

The Allies finally evacuated Gallipoli in December. Hart is incisive on the reasons for the British defeat: “Endemic military incompetence at command and staff level . . . lethally combined with troops that had little or no experience of modern warfare.” Artillery was inadequate and the capability of the Turkish army grossly underestimated. Hamilton and most of his subordinate generals were sacked, as was Winston Churchill. Mustafa Kemal went on to forge the modern state of Turkey out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. Gallipoli was a defining moment on Australia’s path to nationhood.

The 4,000 Irish dead, for too long airbrushed from the Irish historical narrative, were finally accorded public recognition in 2010, when President Mary McAleese dedicated a plaque to their memory at Green Hill War Cemetery, near Suvla Bay. For those, like this reviewer, privileged to be present, the dignified ceremony amid the ordered rows of headstones was solemn, sombre and intensely moving.

Harman Murtagh is a visiting fellow at Athlone Institute of Technology and president of the Military History Society of Ireland