Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Countdown to Anzac Day

Pic NZ Herald

So any number of media and veterans organisations have now begun their “countdown to Anzac Day,” to the 100-year anniversary of the disastrous Anzac landings on a 700m stretch of Turkey’s Dardanelles some way distant from Turkey’s capital.

It was one of the most disastrous operations amid a whole war replete with disasters, of a war begun with no purpose and fought with no quarter at the end of which three empires were destroyed, a fourth all but bankrupted, a platform for big government and future conflict laid across both victors and vanquished (not least WWII, the Cold war and a century of Middle-Eastern conflict) --and more than twenty-million families across the globe were left mourning their dead.

No-one across the world was untouched. And not one of them could really have said what they had been fighting for.

New Zealand, of course, had no argument with Turkey. Neither, before the war began, had the British empire, or Britain. Fact is, Britain had no real argument with Germany either, or Austro-Hungary,which didn’t stop the ruling Liberal Party – also destroyed in the wash-up of war – voting to enter the war on the back of a Treaty with Belgium that obliged them to do nothing (and a Belgian government that concurred).1

There are many things to say and understand about this conflict that brought down the curtain on a half-century of prosperity and nearly a century in which (with some exceptions1) global peace had almost broken out. Some of those things are things you might not know, or think you do know but are just not so.

Did you know, for instance, that already, one-hundred years ago today and still nearly three weeks before the Anzac landings, British naval ships had been bombarding the forts along the narrow Dardanelles Peninsula for some months – and if that hadn’t sufficiently telegraphed their intentions to the Turkish defenders, giving them time to organise the defence of  intentions the British parliament had been making it explicit, giving the Turks time to defend their territory.

Did you know that Australian and New Zealand soldiers embarking in November 1914 on ships towards Britain thought they would be fighting for Britain on the Western Front, not fighting in Turkey to gift Constantinople to Russia --against whom for decades New Zealanders and Australians had been defending their shores and ships? (Take a look at some of the placards around NZ’s old coastal forts, for example.)

imageDid you know that the  Triple Entente, the “alliance” shared between Britain France and Russia, was not in fact a formal alliance committing Britain to war, and that neither France, nor Germany, nor Russia (nor even most people in Britain or in the British Cabinet), knew until Britain’s Commons vote that Britain or its Empire would enter the war at all?

Did you know that in going to war against Germany and in alliance with Russia the British Empire was opposing itself to one of Europe’s few fledgling democracies and its biggest trading partner in Europe, and allying itself with Europe’s most autocratic dictatorship?

And, since Germany and Britain were each other’s best European customers, what about the idea so often voiced that “when goods don’t cross borders armies will”? What happened to the arguments that a half-century of free trade would cement peace?

And what happened to the knowledge about the machine gun, about its massive destructive power that each major power had learned in colonial combat, but refused to take into account in their “cult of the offence” and mutually unrealistic fantasies for swift European victory?

There is much to be said about the origins of this war, and of the Gallipoli landings that “gave birth to a nation,” and over the next two-and-a-bit weeks I’ll be saying some of them in ways you may not have heard before.

I hope you can join me.

This post is part of NOT PC’s #CountdownToAnzacDay. Other posts in the series:

As often happens, satire tells more truth than the truth does...

1. There were other, strategic reasons given, about which more later, but this was the explicit reason of principle given by Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey in his speech to the British House of Commons ending ending in an almost unanimous vote to enter the war against Germany and Austro-Hungary. Yet the 1839 Treaty of London (signed as a result of the Napoleonic Wars) committed French, Prussian and British troops to respect Belgium’s neutrality, not to share in its defence. And when asked for military assistance by both France and Britain, both the Belgian King and his Government declined.
2. The Franco-Prussian and American Civil Wars were the obvious two exceptions, along with the various “Imperial Wars” erupting around the globe but, unlike virtually the entirety of human history up to that point, the whole world was enmeshed for a century in trade rather than conflict.

[Images by Wikipedia Commons, The Onion & NZ Herald]


  1. It really was a "Toffs" war. A relative of mine ended up at the old Oakley Hospital with PTSD because he couldn't deal with what he had seen and they didn't recognise the condition back then. I believe other soldiers didn't know what NZers were doing there.

  2. Yes, the Russians had always wanted The Straits and Constantinople, or should that be Tsargrad, and they had somehow conned the Brits into doing their work for them.
    Historian Sean McMeekin has written an excellent book on this topic; "The Russian Origins of the First World War".


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