Gallipoli invasion: a dirty and bloody business

direct_action_imageby Phil Duncan

We’re fast approaching the 100th anniversary of Gallipoli, when New Zealand joined with Australia, France and Britain in 1915 in trying to invade and destroy the Ottoman Empire, which was ruled from what is now Istanbul.

This gruesome and bloody episode of imperialism has always been celebrated by reactionaries in New Zealand, but now the new dominant liberal establishment have made it their own too.  Liberals and reactionaries alike have been rewriting history to present Gallipoli as a defining moment in the emergence of modern New Zealand and this country’s national identity.

What was it about?

They talk about an “Anzac spirit” which is defined as “sticking it out no matter the odds” (or whether the cause is right or wrong, for that matter).  This doggedness is supposed to be a defining characteristic of New Zealand and Australian national identity and people, with Anzac Day being a time to reflect on this.

The new liberal nationalism continues to be accompanied by a load of rubbish about Gallipoli and World War I having something to do with freedom.

The harsh reality, however, is that nationalism within the world powers of the time was a vital ingredient in bringing about WWI and the only kind of ‘freedom’ involved was the freedom for one set of imperialists to stay top dogs globally.  Today even serious bourgeois historians recognise that WWI had nothing to do with any kind of real freedom and everything to do with economic, military, naval and geo-political rivalry between the ‘Great Powers’.

In the period leading up to the war, and during the war, nationalism was rampant within the major powers.  Their own nationality was held to be superior and every other people was dehumanised.  Nationalist, racist and militarist ideology arose out the European powers’ common exploitation of Africa and Asia and the intensifying inter-imperialist rivalry.

Within Europe, Germany was starting to replace Britain as the major industrial producer, threatening the economic power of the British ruling class globally.  Since Germany had only been united as a country since 1871, it had missed grabbing the same scale of colonial empire as Britain and France.  By 1914 these latter two were worried that they may end up losing parts of their empire to the new imperialist on the block.

Since Britain depended on control of the seas – and as long as Britannia ruled the waves it could waive the rules – the British ruling class felt threatened by the development of a powerful new German navy in the early 1900s.

Additionally, Britain and France had ravenous eyes on the failing Ottoman Empire, which still ruled the Middle East.  Britain and France had backed the Ottoman Empire against an expanding Russia in the mid-1800s (eg the Crimean War) and came to hold major influence within it through financial means in particular – loans, partial control of the Turkish banking system, for instance.  However, as the Ottomans threw in their lot with Germany – a product of wariness about British and French ambitions in their empire – Paris and London decided to destroy the Ottoman Empire and carve it up between themselves.

Britain had grabbed Egypt off the Turks and wanted to expand its sphere of direct influence and power further into the region.  Oil exploration hadn’t yet begun, but the Middle East was crucial in the days before air travel for being the fastest way by sea from Britain to India and the East, namely via the Suez Canal.  There were also important deep-water harbours on the Arabian peninsula.

This was the meaning behind the attempted invasion at Gallipoli.  Far from fighting for any kind of freedom, the New Zealand and other Commonwealth soldiers who stormed up the beaches were invaders of Turkey and the Ottoman Empire, fighting for Britain’s colonial expansion in the area and some part of the loot for NZ and Australia’s own rulers.

The Gallipoli campaign also reflected the stalemate on the Western Front in France and Belgium, where hundreds of thousands of workers who had been dragooned into the war were dying horrendous deaths in the trenches and bloodied and barbed-wired fields of mud and gore.  The Gallipoli campaign was designed to knock Turkey out of the war – they were considered a soft target – and open a new southern front against the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Germany.

Gallipoli invasion

In March 1915, the British sent 18 battleships to attack the Dardenelles, but they were defeated.  In just one day, they lost six ships.  It was a major setback for the power that was used to using its navy to rule the seas and much of the world’s landmass as well.  The British were forced to turn to a military assault.

British forces, including the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZACs), assembled on the Greek island of Lemnos.  However, Turkish reconnaissance became aware of them and the Turks were prepared for the coming assault.  Once again, what the imperialists expected would be a walkover turned into a costly defeat.

On April 25, 1500 Australians landed at dawn at a cove, subsequently named Anzac Cove.  Although the Turks there were outnumbered, they fought determinedly to defend their country and inflicted substantial casualties on the Australians.  The British landing at Cape Helles turned out even worse for the invaders.

Although the Anzacs reached Chunuk Bair, the Turks under the command of Mustafa Kemal, who went on to become the founder of modern Turkey,  counter-attacked and wiped out the Anzacs there.

The overall casualties of the invaders were much higher than expected, helping make medical services shambolic and inadequate.  The Turks continued to hold the high ground and nowhere below was safe from their fire.  As Eric Bogle’s “And the band played Waltzing Matilda” would later put it:

Johnny Turk, he was waiting; he’d primed himself well
Showered us with bullets and rained us with shell
And in ten minutes flat, he’d blown us to hell
Nearly blew us right back to Australia

By June, the heat of the northern summer began to take a new toll on the invaders.  Wells dried up and the food became so rancid that some soldiers preferred to go hungry.  Soldiers’ bodies were invaded by lice.  Maggots fed off the growing number of irretrievable corpses in the small no-man’s land.  (The Anzacs never held more than 400-odd acres of territory; the front lines of both sides were very close and shelling went on almost continuously.) On the beaches, crabs also ate away at the dead.  The corpses also attracted millions of flies, and dysentry and typhoid were rife.

Some Anzacs, on leave or having been wounded, shot off their fingers so they couldn’t be made to go back to Gallipoli.  Some simply refused to return.

Beginning of end

In August the invaders launched a desperate “final offensive”.  An attack on the Turkish position at Lone Pine succeeded in getting into the defenders’ trenches, resulting in four days of hand-to-hand fighting and thousands of casualties.  On August 8-9, New Zealand soldiers captured Chunuk Bair.  The British then took it over and were driven off it by a Turkish counter-attack.

At the Nek, the Australian attackers were cut to pieces by Turkish defenders.  The Turks also beat back an attempt by the British to land at Suvla Bay.

It was the beginning of the end for the Anzacs and the other invaders.

In September Australian journalist Keith Murdoch visited Gallipoli and wrote a major article critical of British officers and declaring the entire campaign a wretched failure.  This put added pressure on the British and Allied governments to abandon the invasion of Turkey.

Turks burying their dead, May 1915

In November snow arrived and troops began freezing to death in the trenches.  The imperialists were forced to withdraw.  About 11,400 Australian and NZ troops lost their lives in the Gallipoli campaign, along with 28,000 Brits.  The Turks, however, lost around 85,000 dead.  Nevertheless, they had defended their country and beaten off an attack by what had previously been the world’s major military and naval power (Britain). (It was at this point that the British interlopers began to encourage an Arab revolt to weaken Turkey, and then double-crossed them by denying Arab independence after the war.)

The Australian and New Zealand troops went on to bigger fields of death in France.  However the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade, part of the Anzac Mounted Division, took part in Britain’s campaign against the Turks in what is now Israel-Palestine.  In December 1918, following the shooting of a NZ soldier by an Arab from another village, the New Zealanders went on a murderous rampage through the Palestinian settlement of Surafend, killing dozens of unarmed villagers (estimates range from 40-100).  While the British commander, Allenby, denounced them as “cowards and murderers”, no action was ever taken against any of the NZ soldiers as they all stuck together – an early example of the Anzac spirit, perhaps?

The Turkish empire was destroyed in the Middle East by the British-backed Arab revolt and Commonwealth troops invading by land from Egypt.  Britain and France took over most of the Turkish empire in the Middle East and carved out a series of new countries under their control – the lands that are now Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Israel-Palestine and Saudi Arabia – and paving the way for a new series of conflicts.

Mustafa Kemal became the founder and leader of a reduced, but modernised and independent, Turkey.  He carried out a number of progressive reforms after the war.

Real attitudes to soldiers

While imperialist governments now pay homage to the ordinary soldiers who died at Gallipoli, British historian and Gallipoli expert Denis Winter has noted that at the time these governments and their generals had very little respect for the ranks of their armies.  Their private letters and diaries show a cavalier attitude to the workers who made up the ranks.  It was only after the supply of soldiers began to dry up that the governments and commanders began taking the lives of the soldiers into account.

Twenty million people, mainly soldiers who were workers before the war, died in a conflict in which they had no good reason to be involved and from which they gained nothing except death, mutilation, the loss of mates and comrades and a lifetime of bad memories.

Indeed, the years after WWI were marked by an economic crisis, large-scale unemployment and expanded poverty, even in victorious countries like Britain, France and New Zealand.  Having fought for their own exploiters, the workers were rewarded with lay-offs, wage cuts and military-police repression of industrial action.  Most women and many working class men did not even have the vote in Europe at the end of the war.

While all the imperialist powers were responsible for the war, Germany alone was forced to admit total responsibility and pay crippling damages.  One of the results of the punitive Treaty of Versailles imposed on the Germans was the development of the Nazis.  (Of course, the Nazis were also admired by large sections of the ‘freedom-loving’ British ruling class.)

New Zealand ruling class

In this part of the world, the New Zealand ruling class took the opportunity of WWI to invade Samoa and take it over.  The war had scarcely ended when a quarter of the population there was wiped out by an influenza epidemic as a result of the negligence of the New Zealand administration.  When Samoans organised an independence movement, the NZ government viciously suppressed it, including shooting dead 11 unarmed and peaceful demonstrators in Apia on ‘Black Saturday’ in 1929.  It was not until 1962 that Samoa was finally allowed its independence.

After the war, the officers who sat atop the newly-formed Returned Services Association (RSA) showed their commitment to freedom by making keeping Asians, especially the Chinese, out of New Zealand one of their main planks.

During the war, the New Zealand government and ruling class also severely curtailed freedom within this country.  Newspapers, leaflets and other publications supporting real freedom – such as freedom for workers – were suppressed.  Campaigners against the war were imprisoned and conscientious objectors were harshly treated, sometimes even being sent to the front and tied to posts within enemy firing range.*

When we think of Gallipoli, our first thought should be about the brave Turks who successfully defended their country form invasion, thus preventing it from falling under direct British and French control.  It’s a good thing that they won.  New Zealanders visiting the Australasian war graves there should go also to the Çanakkale Martyrs’ Memorial at Morto Bay, Cape Helles, the Turkish Soldiers Memorial on Chunuk Bair and the memorial by Bomba Sirt (Quinn’s Post) and reflect upon the generosity of the Turkish people in allowing them to visit the Gallipoli graves.  (It’s hard to imagine, for instance, that if the Japanese had’ve invaded the shores of New Zealand in WW2, people here would be happy to have Japanese war graves and memorials on the beaches and welcome hoards of young Japanese tourists to them every year.)

Gallipoli Dead

When we think of the Anzacs we should be angry that these were mainly workers who were lied to and tricked and cajoled into going thousands of miles across the sea to invade Turkey, and putting themselves and the Turks through such horror.  Our anger should be directed not at the ordinary soldiers, who were cannon-fodder, but at the business interests and politicians who sent them there.  We should also reflect on the Turkish soldiers who were defending their coast against the invaders and who suffered far greater casualties.  And we should reject all clap-trap about the ‘heroic’ nature of Gallipoli.  It was a bloody and dirty business that served only the interests of imperialism.

*Recently, my friend Tim Leadbeater, who is more expert about militarism and anti-militarism in NZ during WW1 than I am, has pointed out to me:  “Field Punishment was hideous but it was done within the camps, not in No Man’s Land. There is a section in Baxter’s We Will Not Cease when a particularly vicious officer takes Baxter out to No Man’s Land and forces him to stand there for a period while shells explode around him. I think that’s where the confusion comes from.”

See also: Stevan Eldred-Grigg’s The Great Wrong War: NZ society and WWI