The events at Gallipoli have been studied extensively, but there is still a lot we don't know, writes Dr Rhys Crawley.
When I tell people that I am an historian and that my speciality is the Gallipoli campaign, I am often asked: “How can you possibly write something new about something that is already the subject of hundreds of books?”
The answer is simple. Despite what we might think, there is much we still don’t know about Gallipoli.
Since the newspaper articles of 1915, nearly every account of Gallipoli has focused on what happened, rather than how and why.
The reasons for this are varied.
One is that battles such as the landings on 25 April, or the tragic charge at the Nek that ends Peter Weir’s 1981 film Gallipoli, provide a ready-made epic narrative.
Another is that the vast majority of the books on Gallipoli have been written from an Australian perspective.
Some of these perpetuate the Anzac legend, and nearly all are a product of primary sources that only tell an Australian (or New Zealand, if we’re lucky) story.
But Gallipoli was not just an Anzac story. Indeed, Gallipoli was a British-run-and-led campaign.
British forces were given the main (and most difficult) objectives; Britain was responsible for keeping its own forces, plus the Anzacs, Indians, and Newfoundlanders, supplied with food, water, and war materials (the French were responsible for their own logistics); and all of the important decisions were made either in London or by British military commanders in the theatre.
Thus, any history of how the allies performed at Gallipoli must have British primary sources, private and official – located in British (not Australian) archival repositories – at its core. It is from these sources that I base my work.
Context is as important to the study of war as it is for understanding any historical event or time.
To comprehend why Gallipoli turned out the way it did, or why the allied commanders tried to fight it in a particular fashion, it is essential to understand the state of warfare – on all fronts – in 1915.
The opening stages of the First World War did not unfold as either side had envisaged. By the end of 1914 the opposing armies found themselves locked into trench warfare right across the Western Front.
Manoeuvre, the basis of British, French and German war doctrine – which stressed the importance of outflanking your enemy in order to defeat them – was replaced by stalemate. Efforts were made to reintroduce a war of movement but neither side could find a solution to the overall problem of the trenches.
It was out of this frustration, and the desire for an alternative type of war, that the Gallipoli campaign was born.
Contrary to Australia’s national narrative, the Gallipoli campaign did not begin at dawn on 25 April.
It began in February, and the first troops to land on the peninsula were not Australians but royal marines, who landed to assist the combined British and French fleet in their attempts to get through the Dardanelles and into the Sea of Marmara. It was only when the navy failed in March that the decision was made to land an army ashore.
Despite being the first to step ashore on 25 April, the Anzacswere not given the main objective, nor were they the only ones to land that day. Rather, the Anzac forces were there in support of the main landing by the British at Cape Helles, on the ‘toe’ of the peninsula.
Success could not be claimed until the British held their objectives.
Like the Anzacs, they also failed, and the campaign quickly settled into trench warfare – the exact thing Gallipoli was supposed to not be: a mini-Western Front.
For the remainder of the campaign, which lasted until January 1916 (not December 1915, the date of the Anzac evacuation), the allied commanders searched for ways to reintroduce mobility to the battlefield. The climax of this effort, and the subject of my first book, was the August Offensive.
This series of battles, which resulted in more than 20,000 allied casualties, was the largest and last major effort to defeat the Ottomans at Gallipoli. It too was a failure.
For anyone who has been to Gallipoli, the obvious question is: “Did they actually think they could succeed in such tough terrain?”
Again, the answer is simple. Yes – they did. The commanders – who were intelligent men – were a product of their time. They believed that their army was racially and militarily superior to their Ottoman enemy. But more importantly, they were a product of their institutions and their profession.
They had been educated, both on the battlefield and in the classroom, to believe that the key to victory was a large-scale manoeuvre – like those strived for on the Western Front.
What they did not realise was that while this had worked in previous wars, the First World War was different, and the tactics and technology had not yet advanced to a stage that would enable success on this scale.
In this sense, Gallipoli was just another of those failed First World War battles. Yet, it was through such failures, and the lessons learned from them, that the allies developed the ‘all arms battle’ that led to victory in 1918.
It is in this context that Gallipoli should be remembered when we commemorate the campaign next year.
Dr Rhys Crawley is a historian in the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, School of International, Political and Strategic Studies, College of Asia and the Pacific. His first book, Climax at Gallipoli: The Failure of the August Offensive was published by University of Oklahoma Press in April 2014.
In April 2015 it was 100 years since the storming of Gallipoli. Four ANU academics discuss what the centenary means for Australia.
What phrases and words were popular at the time of the Australian National University's formation?