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…?
THE MYTHOLOGY OF ANZAC is that the battle at the Dardanelles gave birth to two nations. If that’s true, it is an odd birth, fathered out of failure by way of disaster.
It’s mostly a modern invention, this mythology, and if there’s any truth to it at all then it applies more in Australia than it does in New Zealand, where they have made “the anniversary of a botched battle into virtually the country’s national day.”
It’s truly, truly odd. In what way did a butchered battle give birth to these two nations so far away from the carnage, or from any genuine understanding of what the total waste of human life was for?
It’s true that for the first time, outside the few sports played internationally, NZers and Australians could compare themselves on a world stage and begin to identify (if they could) the sorts of national differences that distinguish one group of people from another. But NZers’ similarities with Britons were still greater than any real differences, and both at war’s beginning and end NZers still identified themselves thereat: Indeed, NZ’s war began with Prime Minister Massey’s abject declaration to parliament “that, if necessity unfortunately arose, New Zealand was prepared to send her utmost quota of help in support of the Empire,” and at war’s end held even tighter to Britain than at war’s start, remaining for decades (especially by contrast with Australia) “a particularly Anglophile part of the Commonwealth.”
So it’s not really clear why this legend even arises, in NZ at any rate.
Even in Australia, the legend has only a short heritage. The publicity poster for Peter Weir’s film Gallipoli, released in 1981, tells a tale of the legend’s birth: “’From a place you have never heard of … comes a story you’ll never forget.” Take careful note of that phrase “a place you have never heard of” – it describes where the ‘legend’ sat just three-and-one-half decades ago: nowehere. “[It says] a lot about where the Anzac saga had been,” says an Australian author who’s examined this frequently overlooked point, “and equally where it would be going.”
ODDLY ENOUGH, FOR A BATTLE that supposedly gave birth to two nominally independent nations, it was one hatched, devised, planned and bungled entirely without the input of either -- and the participation of the Australian and NZ Army Corps themselves was entirely accidental.
It couldn’t be more appropriate that the reason these two were chosen for the ill-fated mission was born out of battlefield disaster. Unable to break the deadlock on the Western Front and under political pressure to achieve a breakthrough somewhere (even a place no-one had heard of) the war chiefs found a plan drawn up years before that some of them thought might have legs.
Not Kitchener however. Britain’s wartime icon and then war chief Field Marshall Kitchener had declared that in this campaign Britain could afford neither British troops from the Western Front nor the British navy for escort duties, so when Churchill's plans for a naval breakthrough at the place of legend failed as dismally as naval tacticians had predicted, the fortunate happenstance of colonial troops already en route for the Suez escorted by Japanese warships was seized upon.
The resulting irony (among many) was that, entirely unknown to anyone when they departed, the ANZAC troops were headed to a place they'd never heard of to deliver a city to a natural foe, escorted there by ships of a navy against whose threat (after Japan's stunning victories in the Russo-Japanese war) Australia and New Zealand had huddled even further beneath Britain's defensive skirts.
Perhaps the final irony in this disaster was that Britain cared nothing for those infant nations’ troops, throwing them away in a campaign of unmitigated disaster whose success, if it had even been possible, would have done nothing to shorten the war, and whose drawn-out failure few wanted to acknowledge.
IT WAS ARGUED BY no less than Lloyd George that knocking the Ottomans out of the war would “knock out Germany’s props” and leave its “soft underbelly” exposed. Nothing, really, could have been further from the truth. The campaign undermined whatever reputation remained of both Royal Navy and British military acumen – and if it were costing thousands of young lives on the flat and easily supplied Western Front “to move General Haig’s drinks cabinet a few yards closer to Berlin,” then it swiftly became clear that in the distant and mountainous terrain between Constantinople and Berlin there lay no shortcut. Nonetheless, 1st Baron Maurice Hankey, who as Secretary of Britain’s War Council “carried all before him [in cabinet] with his persuasive memorandum of 28 December 1914” proposing British, Greek, Bulgarian and Romanian troops “occupy” Constantinople. As if it were simply a matter of the the choosing being the doing.
For his part, Churchill, at this early stage of plans being hatched, favoured the “diversion” of landing troops on an island in the Baltic, for which he received the much-deserved disdain of his cabinet colleagues, but when shown Hankey’s memo he jumped quickly on board, “commenting that he himself had advocated an attack at the Dardanelles two months earlier...”
Not that failure of an attack was inevitable. Tragically, and
in retrospect, it seems clear that if the Greek army had marched on Constantinople in early 1915, alongside the British navy, the Ottoman capital would have been defenceless.
It wasn’t to be—mostly because no-one saw any strategic advantage to Britain in occupying what is now Istanbul. Not until a desperate Russian high command pleaded for “a diversionary attack” to help relieve its beleagured troops were plans finally drawn up – but for a naval-only attack on the Dardanelles: Kitchener refused to make troops available, First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill boasted they would be unnecessary, and by the time his Royal Navy had blundered around there long enough even the beleagured Bosche worked out something was afoot in the mountainous underbelly of Europe, and encouraged its new Turkish ally to rapidly reinforce the peninsula to repel whatever it was perifdious Albion was cooking up there.
SO BEGAN THE BLUNDERING, even as the first of many ironies began piling on. Because the very reason Russian troops were so beleaguered was an Ottoman attack on the Caucasus that had already been swiftly repelled three months before ANZAC troops landed to give them some relief.
Logically, after crushing the Ottoman invaders that month, the Russians should have told Lord Kitchener that it was no longer necessary for him to launch a diversionary attack on Constantinople in order to relieve it from a Turkish threat that no longer existed. [But this was not how these ‘allies’ operated.]
Thus began the Dardanelles campaign, which was to so alter the fortunes of Churchill and Kitchener, [Prime Ministers] Asquith and Lloyd George, Britain and the Middle East.
And, of course, of Australia and New Zealand, and of the many bold, bright-eyed young men in their respective army corps.
In the end, the attempted occupation was decided upon partly because in any bureaucracy once plans are begun they are very hard to stop, and partly too as an altruistic gift to an “ally” who was the most autocratic in Europe, who had shown no sign of earning British trust -- the price for the sacrifice to be paid for in the blood of those Australian, New Zealand and British young men and their families.
Such is the code of sacrifice under which the decision was made to go.
EVEN WITHOUT THE NEED for a diversion, however, the gift would have meant everything to the backward, autocratic Russian empire for whom the young Anzacs were asked to give their lives.
As an almost landlocked nation Russia had always been desperate for a warm-water port. For virtually the entire 19th century, or at least since Napoleon had passed away, Britain had been manoeuvring in the Mediterranean to keep Russia out (this was after why the Light Brigade were famously and self-sacrificially charging the guns in Sebastapol only a few generations before), and in the Middle East to keep Russia away from India.
As long as Russia was held at arm’s length, the two aims were mutually reinforcing. The trouble began when the two aims were crossed in an increasingly muddled foreign policy by an increasingly distracted British Foreign Minister.
Russia’s desperation for a secure warm-water port had always set it on a collision course with the rest of Europe.
From Russia’s point of view it made eminent sense to search for secure warm-water ports but, as Kuropatkin had warned [Czar] Nicholas in 1900, it ran a great risk: ‘However just our attempts to possess the exit to the Black Sea, to acquire an outlet to the Indian Ocean, and to obtain an outlet to the Pacific, these missions touch so deeply on the interests of almost the entire world that in pursuit of them we must be prepared for a struggle with a coalition of Great Britain, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Turkey, China, and Japan.’ Of all Russia’s potential enemies, Britain, with its worldwide empire, seemed to be the most immediately threatening.
During the peace of the 19th century, Russia’s Black Sea ports eventually came into their own commercially. “As Russia became a major exporter, especially in food, the passage from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean via the Bosphorus, the Sea of Marmara and the Dardanelles – known collectively at the time as ‘the Straits’ – became particularly vital; 37 per cent of all its exports and 75 per cent of its crucial grain exports were flowing past Constantinople by 1914.”
But as its treaty with France made clear enough, it wanted these ports for military use as well – extracting France’s agreement that Russian interests should predominate at the east end of the Mediterranean.
Also clear enough from many centuries of Russian-Ottoman enmity was that the Ottoman capital of Constantinople, past which Russian grain, war materiel and battleships must pass, was under threat.
This should, of course, have put Russian plans on a direct and very visible collision course with British interests in Egypt, Malta and the Suez Canal that helped form Britain’s naval strategy of keeping The Med as “a British lake,” and the Ottoman Empire as, if not a friend, then at least a fairly benign neighbour. It should have put it on a collision course, but it didn’t, because Britain also wanted Russian kept away from India.
You see how I said things would get muddled?
Because the new 1905 Liberal government and its new Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, saw nothing in this conflict of interests to slow them down.
One of Grey’s first meetings after he took office in December 1905 was with Benckendorff to assure the Russian ambassador that he wanted an agreement with Russia. In May 1906 Sir Arthur Nicolson arrived as British ambassador in St Petersburg with authority from the Cabinet to sort out with Izvolsky the three main irritants in the relationship: Tibet, Persia and Afghanistan. The locals were not, of course, consulted while their fate was decided thousands of miles away. The negotiations were long and tedious as might be expected between two parties, ‘each of which thought the other was a liar and a thief.’
The agreement worked moderately well in fending off Russian aggression on the North-West Frontier.
It worked appallingly in Europe, where it helped to set off the First World War.
The new British cosiness with Russia was seen by Germany (when combined with the coterminous Russian treaties with France) as a threat to its very existence – Russia, France and Britain forming an “iron ring” it was said that encircled and would eventually strangle them. (A man like Bismarck might perhaps have negotiated away this perceived threat; but Germany had no Bismarcks left, only a child-like Kaiser prone to tantrums. And a man like Gladstone may have recognised how the friendships would be seen by Germany, but Britain had no Gladstones left, just a Foreign Minister utterly out of his depth in a cabinet confused about Britain’s place in this new world).
It turned out this unlikely friendship between erstwhile rivals was the final link in the powder trail leading from Russia’s agreement to back Serbia that was finally ignited by “The Guns of August,” 1914.
It was not to be the only foreign-policy bungle from Sir Edward Grey, whose eleven-year tenure in the job offers few chances to transfer blame to others. It was the longest continuous tenure of any person in that office, and it could not have fallen to a less integrated thinker at a time when the world could not have been more complicated.
His own muddling, and that of his Prime Minister, made all the complications worse.
Because once war began (and you can read elsewhere here about the war’s beginnings) we can draw a straight line from the muddling to the murder on those beaches at the Dardanelles.
ONCE THE PLEADED-FOR “diversionary attack” had begun by naval means, even as the reasons for the pro-Russian diversion had disappeared (Russian troops no longer being so immediately beleagured), Russia quickly saw its chance for someone else to shed blood on their behalf anyway.
Simply assuming the inevitable success of what had begun as an ill-thought-out diversionary attack on his behalf, in March 1915 Czar Nicholas II already began issuing demands of his new Allies, insisting that at the operation’s end “the Allies turn over Constantinople and the Straits—and all adjacent territories—to Russia.” The response illuminate’s the intellectual and moral rot at the heart of the wartime Asquith Administration.
[British Foreign Minister] Grey and [his Prime Minister] Asquith, the leaders of the Liberal administration, were ... disposed to make the concession that Britain’s wartime ally required…
At the outset of the Ottoman war, the Prime Minister wrote [to his young mistress Venetia Stanley] that ‘Few things wd. give me greater pleasure than to see … Constantinople either become Russian (which I think is its proper destiny) or if that is impossible neutralised…’
In March 1915, when the issue arose, he wrote of Constantinople and the Straits that ‘It has become quite clear that Russia means to incorporate them in her own Empire,’ and added that ‘Personally I have always been & am in favour of Russia’s claim…’
Unbeknown to the rest of the Cabinet [and of course to the Anzac troops who were eventually called upon to carry out his strategy], Sir Edward Grey had already committed the country [i.e., Britain] to eventual Russian control of Constantinople, having made promises along these lines to the Russian government [as long ago as] 1908[!]. His view [not supported by his advisers, nor by anything in Russian history before or since] was that if Russia’s legitimate [sic] aspirations were satisfied at the Straits, she would not press claims in Persia, eastern Europe, or elsewhere.
If the British response to the illegimate demand of the Russian Czar could be truthfully characterised as anything, it would be a catastrophic combination of altruism and wishful thinking.
So less than ten years after Asquith’s musings had developed and Grey’s muddled Russian strategy had taken effect, and with Winston’s ships firing ineffectually and the battlefield now fully reinforced, Australian and NZ forces landed in the Dardanelles to carry out their ill-starred mission. The real reason for the mission, not that they knew it: not to open a route to Berlin, which was always impossible, but to take Constantinople for Russia.
TO BE FAIR TO Churchill, who shoulders a large part of history’s blame for the campaign’s failure, he was initially wary at the idea of a naval-only operation, but he and the Asquith Cabinet were swiftly persuaded by the commander of the British naval squadron off the Dardanelles, Admiral Sackville Carden, who cabled back answering Churchill’s early question on the possibility of naval interventions there that “while the Dardanelles could not be ‘rushed’—in other words, could not be seized by a single attack—“they might be forced by extended operations with a larger number of ships.” Churchill jumped on board with a decision he himself had finessed, and the decision was just as swiftly made.
Yet even as Admiralty opinion began turning against the idea of a purely naval venture, and as British naval warships began bombarding the Turkish coast to little effect apart from alerting the Central Poweres of their interest in the area, Kitchener suddenly declared that troops would be used after all: primarily Australian and New Zealand troops who had just arrived in Egypt ready for re-embarkation to Western Europe, who would instead, in Kitchener’s plan, go in “once the navy’s ships had won the battle of the straits.”
That battle was never won. The troops however were sent in anyway.
Turkish guns and Turkish mines in the Straits were sufficient to see off Churchill’s “extended operations.” The eight weeks of failed naval bombardment, beginning February 19, 1915, gave the Turks notice of the attack and time to marshal their defences at the Narrows—as did the glowing British newspaper accounts of the expedition’s assembly and embarkation in Egypt, the lights and the military bands of the vast fleet as it headed noisily through the Aegean, and the reports of parliamentary debates about the coming combined operation. Who needs surprise when sending in colonial troops to fight a third-world opponent. Turkish expert Sir Mark Sykes had pointed out to Churchill in late February that “though [Turkish troops] could be routed by a surprise attack, ‘Turks always grow formidable if given time to think.’”
And so they were, behind defences expertly marshalled by one military genius, the German Liman Von Sanders, and led by the man for whom the battle would launch the legend known as Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey – the only modern country that was actually born out of the battle.
IF YOU THINK THINGS were already muddled enough then hang on to your hats! On 15 March, before either Australian or New Zealand troops had even entered their ships for the operation, fearful Turkish negotiators met with British officials in European Turkey to discuss leaving the war they had never sought in return for the large, but not wounding, sum of four million pounds. This would have delivered everything British strategists had said they wanted to achieve by force of arms, delivered to them not by the blood of thousands but by money that would have been spent anyway on the cost of war. “The negotiations failed because the British government felt unable to give assurances that the Ottoman Empire could retain Constantinople—so deeply were the British now committed to satisfying Russian ambitions.”
If it might be doubted why Australian and New Zealand soldiers were ordered to fight and die on Turkish beaches one month later, the reason by now could not be any clearer: Anzac troops were there to make real the single and long-held ambition against which Britain had fought for centuries
YET IF ATTACKING A place that pre-war British military studies had long ago concluded was “too risky to be undertaken” wasn’t already made difficult enough, the commander of the land operation and his manner of appointment made things only more so.
Sir Ian Hamilton was appointed peremptorily on March 12, barely one month before the landings. Telling the disinterested War Minister “he knew nothing about Turkey,” he was briefed by the War Office “by showing him a map and a plan of attack borrowed from the Greek General Staff.” Despite the overwhelming strategic importance placed on the attack, and the lives of countless men and women being put in harm’s way, “the War Office had not even taken the time or trouble to work out their own [plan]. General Hamilton was sent out with an inaccurate and out-of-date map and little else to guide him.”
On arrival in the theatre he promptly called off the naval operation, delayed the landings for a further three weeks, and agreed to attack only the European side of the straits. Whereupon, when the landings did finally happen – and for the Australian and NZ forces at Ari Burnu they were at the wrong beach – Hamilton decided at the first sign of opposition to dig in rather than move ahead to take up the battlefields’ dominating positions, dooming the expedition to a drawn-out replay of the very Western Front stalemate the campaign had been intended to circumnavigate.
If you feel like resurrecting the phrase “lions led by donkeys,” now might be about the right time.
OF THE BATTLES THEMSELVES AT the Dardanelles, much more is known and very little more needs to be said about the shambles that ensued.
Except perhaps that with Turks dug in on the heights to fire down on Anzac troops entrenched on beaches below, and with no obvious hope for any success in the campaign and the only obvious decision being evacuation, we might wonder why the soldiers were condemned to die there for months on those hills and beacheads?
The answer is that, against limp Cabinet opposition, Churchill and Kitchener simply refused all requests to withdraw –“Churchill because he was never willing to accept defeat, and Kitchener because he believed it would be a disaster for a British[-led] army to be seen to be defeated by a Middle Eastern one.” Especially after the stain of near-defeat by Boer farmers just a decade was still so raw.
So the bloody, murderous shambles on the beaches continued until January, 1916, with no hope at all of success, withing nothing to be gained from victory in any case, and with the death and destruction in the end of 400,000 young lives.
What must those men have thought when they read of Churchill’s speech to his Dundee constituency in June that “the Allies were only “a few miles from victory” at the Dardanelles, “a victory such as the war had not yet seen.”
It never would. It never could.
Instead, it all turned to omnishambles. The only thing in the end about which anyone had anything about which to boast was a successful and well-executed withdrawal.
It was a bloody mess that achieved nothing, that could achieve nothing, purchased at the price of a wholesale sacrifice of young lives that could have meant something. It was a total unmitigated disaster, but at least, now, dear reader, some reason for the whole, sordid shambles might be clearer.
The reason however for commemorating the shambles as the botched “birth” in some way of our nation is very much less so.
This post is part of NOT PC’s #CountdownToAnzacDay. Other posts in the series:
- Countdown to Anzac Day
- Q: But what were the ANZACs fighting *for*?
- Q: So why were Britain and NZ at war with Turkey at all?
- Q: So why was WWI so calamitous?
- Q: Who started the whole bloody mess?
- The Horsemen of non-apocalypse
- War and Peace
 From David Reynolds’s The Long Shadow: The Great War & the Twentieth Century, p. 376, who in his chapter 10 offers perhaps the best explanation for the birth of the mythology.
 Quoted in Douglas Newton’s Hell-Bent: Australia's leap into the Great War. Kindle edition, location 1680
 From David Reynolds’s The Long Shadow: The Great War & the Twentieth Century, p. 376
 Ibid, p. 375
 A quip pilfered from Black Adder Goes Forth.
 From David Fromkin’s A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East, p. 127
 Ibid, p. 127
 Ibid, p. 128
 A plea emulated throughout the next war by Stalin, whose constant refrain in the meetings of the “Big Three” was a demand that Roosevelt and Churchill implement “a second front” to relieve the beleaguered Soviets
 From David Fromkin’s A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East, p. 129
 From Margaret MacMillan’s book The War that Ended Peace: How Europe abandoned peace for the First World War, Kindle edition, location 3496
 Ibid, location 3492
 Ibid, location 3733
 From David Fromkin’s A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East, p. 138
 “As Carden subsequently emphasized in his evidence to the Dardanelles commission, the operative word was ‘might’.” From Robert Rhodes James’s Churchill: A Study in Failure, 19900-1939, p. 66
 This may be being more than fair. Robert Rhodes James is one among many in arguing that Churchill cynically manipulated the callow Carden into his opinion, which Churchill himself had maintained without support since at least August 1914. Carden’s undistinguished prior experience was as supervisor of the Malta dockyard, “and one of the [many] puzzles of the operation is why Carden was not replaced when the importance of the naval attack was recognised.” [Rhodes James, p. 65 n. 8] Perhaps because he was so easily manipulated? In any case, at the Dardanelles Commission set up to examine the disaster, it was seen that authorities cited by Churchill to Carden as being in total agreement with his opinion were not, and in his own evidence to the Commission,“Churchill agreed that his telegram was framed to provide a favourable answer.” [Dardanelles Commission: Evidence, Q.1264]
 From David Fromkin’s A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East, p. 133
 From Martin Gilbert’s Winston S. Churchill: Vol. 3, p. 343
 In that sense, Gallipoli represented the birth of three nations, not just two. No wonder the bond at contemporary commemorations at the battlefield is so deep.
 From David Fromkin’s A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East, p. 151
 From Martin Gilbert’s Winston S. Churchill: Vol. 3, p. 358
 From David Fromkin’s A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East, p. 156
 Ibid, p. 158
 From Richard Toye’s Churchill’s Empire, p. 133.