Anzac Cove landing defines Irish memory of Gallipoli

Irish regiments were among those who landed on V Beach on April 25th, 1915

Peter Murtagh visits the peninsula where over 3,000 Irishmen lost their lives in the First World War. Video: Peter Murtagh and Ronan McGreevy


The soldiers selected to make the landing on V Beach at Cape Helles, the southern-most tip of the Gallipoli peninsula, were from the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, the Royal Munster Fusiliers, the Hampshire Regiment and the West Riding Company, young men in the main.

The hail of bullets that met them as they tried to scramble ashore dashed the surface of the water, turning it white.

Their own spilt blood turned it red.

The invading British, French, Australian and New Zealand forces, their navies having failed to rush the Dardanelles and grant Churchill his wish (the chance to shell Istanbul and propel, he hoped, Turkey from its first World War embrace of the Kaiser’s Germany), now sought to achieve his ambition via a land invasion.

But they had not bargained on the resistance that was to greet them.

“Only 20 or 30 yards from the beach, every rifle and machine gun in the castle [of Sedd-el-Bahr], the town above it, and in the curved, low, strongly trenched hill along the bay, began a murderous fire upon ship and boats. There was no question of their missing.

“They had their target on the front of both flanks at ranges between 100 and 300 yards in clear daylight, 30 boats bunched together and crammed with men, and a good big ship [the River Clyde].

“The first outbreak of fire made the bay as white as a rapid, for the Turks fired not less than 10,000 shots a minute for the first few minutes of that attack. Those not killed in the boats at the first discharge jumped overboard to wade or swim ashore.

“Many were killed in the water, many, who were wounded, were swept away and drowned; others, trying to swim in the fierce current, were drowned by the weight of their equipment.”

This graphic description of the landing at V Beach 100 years ago this week comes from Gallipoli, a book written in 1916 by the English poet John Masefield whose lines, I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky, / And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by were known once to generations of schoolchildren, if not today.

The seas on the south and west of Gallipoli where wave, after wave, after wave of young men were propelled to death were places lonely to life during those few days, in late April 1915, when Allied forces tried to impose their will on Ottoman Turkey.

There were other landings on the morning of April 25th and thereafter on either side of V Beach but the landings that have defined the English-speaking world’s memory of Gallipoli, occured a few kilometers away, at a place known forever since as Anzac Cove.

The alcahmy of memory has turned this small cove, the nearby beaches and the mountain gullies and escarpment that faced the men who landed there, into holy ground - a shrine to defining touchstone of nationhood, marked annually as Anzac Day, April 25th.

And yet, in the context of the first World War, casualties were not so high in number: 8,700 Australian and 2,800 New Zealand dead; the wounded being some 19,500 and 5,200 respectively. But such was the convulsive impact on both countries, that in 1920, Australia protected the word Anzac by law, even though it began life as a mere military acronym - Australia New Zealand Army Corps.

The impact of Anzac, then and now, on Australian sensibilities cannot be over estimated. Last year, I saw a young woman in her 20s write into the visitor’s book at Lone Pine, the Australian cemetery on the top of the hill they tried in vain to conquer: “Run dear son, for evil lies here. But if you cannot run, let in the light, the love.”

There were Irish among the Anzacs, one of the most significant being naval Lieutenant Commander Henry Stoker from Dublin, captain of the AE2, the first submarine to breach the Turkish blockade of the Dardanelles. He lived to tell the tale.

But most of the estimated 3,000 Irish who died were involved in the V Beach landings and, in August 1915, the disasterous landings at Suvla Bay, just beyond Anzac Cove, where the 10th (Irish) Division, raised in this country, suffered stunning casualty numbers, along with other units of the British forces.

Turkish figures have it that 19,800 British died at Suvla, along with 8,000 of their own. Total Allied casualties were some 21,000 dead and 52,000 wounded.

The Turks lost 87,000 and suffered 164,000 wounded. The Turkish commander, Lt-Col Mustafa Kamal, transformed in later life as Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey (in nosmall part because of his prowess at Gallipoli), was generous in victory.

In 1934, he sent a message to Australia and New Zealand families still mourning their dead.

“Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives,” he wrote. “You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours. You, the mothers who sent their sons from faraway countries, wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.”

President McAleese unveiled a memorial plaque in Green Hill Cemetery at Suvla Bay in memory of the Irish who died and the regimants from which they came. It too acknowledged the memory of those Turks who died, defending their homeland, as the plaque noted.

This week, her successor in office, Michael D Higgins, will pay his respects on behalf of the people of Ireland.