...around about now, in fact (03:30am local time* on April 25th, 1915), British, French, Australian, and New Zealand troops began an amphibious assault on the Gallipoli peninsula in western Turkey.
The objective of the landings was to control the Dardanelle Straits, a critical seaway for both the German-allied Ottoman Empire and the Western-allied Russian Empire. Restricting Turkish naval access to the Med was hoped to encourage neutral states such as Greece and Italy to enter the war on the Western side.
The British landed on the southern end of the peninsula, the Australians and New Zealanders on the western side, and the French launched a diversionary attack on the eastern side. Within hours, the attacks had bogged down. The Brits faced an unexpectedly well prepared and dug in enemy, and once they had successfully achieved a beachhead, incompetent leadership prevented them exploiting it. Meanwhile the Anzacs had mostly been delivered to the wrong beach - a steep and rocky cove around a mile north of the intended target. While they didn’t meet the hail of gunfire they would have met at the planned beach, the few defenders were easily able to prevent them ascending the cliffs until reinforcements arrived. Compounding their problems, they faced a brilliant young military commander on the Turkish side - one Lieutenant-Colonel Kemal Ataturk.
The planning and leadership failures on the allied side which led to the attacks bogging down would continue for another 7 months, during which Allied troops were largely confined to a few yards of beach despite many heroic and unsuccessful sallies on both sides. Gallipoli was in many ways the prototype of later WW1 battles, showing the futility of throwing waves of men against emplaced troops with artillery and machine guns. The Allies eventually evacuated the peninsula on November 22, 1916: the evacuation was one of the few successful manouvres during the entire campaign.
Allied casualties at Gallipoli were around 143,000, and Turkish and Arab forces suffered around 250,000: the Turks paid a heavy price for their victory.
In the great scheme of WW1 this was a minor campaign that had no real impact**, but it had a disproportionate effect on three nations: Turkey, Australia, and New Zealand. For all three of these countries, Gallipoli has become a central part of their story.
In the case of Turkey, the successful defence of the homeland sparked an upswell of patriotic pride that enabled the hero of Gallipoli, Kemal Ataturk, to put together an alliance which opposed the partitioning of Turkey when the Ottoman Empire was dissolved after WW1, and subsequently to become President of the new nation. Ataturk almost singlehandedly created a progressive, secular, western-looking state from the remnants of a stagnant and insular Islamic empire. His legacy was fiercely protected throughout the 20th century, largely by the military, which stepped hard on any move to dilute his reforms. Ataturk’s influence on modern Turkey cannot be overstated, though the current President is doing his best to roll it back.
For Australia and New Zealand, Gallipoli was in many ways the beginning of a sense of distinct national identity. New Zealand was still a colony of Great Britain and Australia, a newly-minted independent country, still very much looked to Britain as the motherland. This was the first overseas war either had sent troops to in quantities large enough to have an impact. Both countries had small populations and effectively their entire armies were pitched into this disaster. To put the effects in perspective, around 60% of all Anzac troops sent to Gallipoli came back on stretchers or not at all. New Zealand suffered almost as many casualties per head of population during the Gallipoli campaign alone as the USA did during the whole of WW2.
As a result of sending divisions to WW1, Australia and NZ got seats at the table both during the war and after - we both joined the League of Nations as independent entities. As a result of losing large quantities of young men to incompetent English leadership (not that our own was a pack of geniuses, but that didn’t fit the legend) we developed a sense that we needed to control our own destiny. As a result of having it reinforced that a certain class of Englishman saw colonial (not to mention Scottish, Irish, Welsh) lives as less valuable than English ones, we started to see ourselves as not British. As a result of Maori troops fighting alongside Pakeha (white) ones, and turning out to be darn good at it, Maori acquired a level of respect among a generation of NZers which has contributed to our racial problems being less than most other countries with colonial history (which is by no means to say we don’t have race problems: we sure as hell do). As a result of a whole generation of young men being put through the same blender together, our national values of comradeship, stoicism and making do with nothing were strengthened. As a result of sharing that blender with the Australians, we developed close national bonds which still hold.
Gallipoli was not in fact the worst campaign of WW1 for the Anzacs - the Somme was much worse in terms of casualties. Having the privilege of sending our whole army to both those disasters resulted in NZ having the highest military casualty rate of any allied nation in WW1: around 58,000 dead or injured out of 100,000 troops. This had a huge impact on society - no family came through unscathed. Every road junction with three houses and a pub in NZ has a WW1 memorial somewhere with a long list of matching surnames on it. However Gallipoli was the first, and its the one which sticks in the national psyche of both Australia and NZ.
Today, 25th April, is Anzac Day, the day on which Australians and New Zealanders honour our war dead and our living veterans, and remember what a dumbass idea sending young men out to kill each other is. Holding our national remembrance day on a day when we got our butts kicked rather than - as many other nations do it - on a day of victory, may make the latter part of that more significant here than in other places.
Anzac Day in New Zealand is probably the most culturally significant national holiday - even more so than the national anniversary day, Waitangi Day. Dawn services have been held across both countries, and while I can’t speak for Australia, in NZ in recent years attendance at these has crept up to be by far the largest of any public event in the country: the dawn service at Auckland War Memorial will pull a larger crowd than Beyonce or Metallica could dream of here, and even the small town I’m in at the moment will have had a couple of hundred at the local service, I expect. I attend sporadically, but not this year: my wife has a cast on her foot and couldn’t stand for that long.
This year the services have a special significance in the wake of the Christchurch terror attacks: the fact that they commemorate an attack on a Muslim nation resonates. In an hour or so dawn services will be held on Gallipoli at all the main landing beaches. Attendance at these has become something of a rite of passage for young New Zealanders - due to the aforementioned tiny amount of space at Anzac cove, attendance is regulated by ballot, but there will still be 15000-odd people there, most of whom will have spent the night on the site. This year Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan - who has used the Christchurch attacks as a nationalist dogwhistle in his election campaign - has banned Turks from attending. It’s not clear whether this is for security or as one more move to dismantle Ataturk’s legacy: Ataturk had utmost respect for the combatants on both sides of the campaign and ensured the site became a memorial for all the nations involved.
Either way, those attending this year are taking their lives in their hands: the risk of ”revenge” attacks is high. One person with the apparent intent of attacking the ceremonies has already been arrested. Here’s hoping there’s no more - an attack here would undo much of the good that’s been done in the aftermath of the attacks.
*in 1915 Turkey was at GMT+2 - they moved their time zone forward one hour in 2018.
**it may ultimately have had a larger effect on WW2, as it knocked some of the arrogance out of - and set back the career of - its instigator, one Winston Churchill, setting him up to be the leader Britain needed 25 years later.
In a vague nod to on-topic, have a Gallipoli ambulance: