Despite the centrality of Gallipoli to Australia’s national identity, there are still some key elements that remain obscured by our obsession with ourselves, writes RHYS CRAWLEY.
The story of Gallipoli is much more than a botched dawn landing, a man with a donkey, or a drip rifle.
It is the complex story of a multinational coalition military and naval force fighting a difficult campaign against an efficient and capable Ottoman enemy.
Despite the centrality of Gallipoli to Australia’s national identity, there are still some key elements that remain obscured by our obsession with ourselves.
If we’re going to spend so much time, effort, and money commemorating the Centenary of Gallipoli next year, we should at least get the history right. And we should start with some context.
As the name suggests, Anzac Day focuses on the landing of the ANZAC forces at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915. But it does so at the expense of all others, including our allies.
The ANZACs were a relatively small component of the allied army of Indian, French, and British troops that landed at Gallipoli that day. Their role deserves to be part of our national narrative, as does their sacrifice. How would we feel, for example, if the British wrote about Gallipoli but failed to mention Australia? There can be no benefit of such an insular view of history.
Context also confirms that Gallipoli was a secondary theatre, in both size and importance, to the war on the Western Front. If Australia is honest with its history, it will realise that the ANZACs were assigned a secondary objective in that secondary theatre. This does not and should not downplay their efforts. It would enable us to better understand their role and show historical maturity for a nation that has recently returned from coalition operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
By talking of the ANZACs at the expense of all others, we have afforded ordinary Australian volunteers, of all ages and walks of life, superman status. We have blown their actions and achievements out of all proportion, and have developed a national history of Gallipoli that is devoid of historical context. We should not misunderstand something that is so important to our history, nor should we feel the need to exaggerate their actions and downplay those of our allies.
In reality, British troops were allotted the main and toughest objectives at Gallipoli. The notion that the British used the ANZACs as cannon fodder is simply untrue and no more than pommy bashing. Not only did the British do the majority of the fighting, but they also suffered nearly 90 000 more casualties than the Australian forces. Similarly, the French, who people rarely associate with the Gallipoli campaign, had more soldiers killed than Australia did. These are not trivial points.
Moreover, we should recognise that Australia relied upon its allies to run the campaign. British generals and admirals were responsible for all of the important command decisions and for keeping the allied forces fed and watered. Australia did not have the senior officers or the logistic resources to perform these crucial roles. We would not have been able to operate without this support.
Contrary to what many believe to be the case, these British officers were not bumbling fools who joyfully sent men to their death in ill-conceived plans. Rather, they were experienced men who had an intimate knowledge of their profession. Like those who died – and there were many officers amongst them – the senior officers were fathers and brothers, and while their decisions were sometimes wrong, they were not heartless. But this was war, and in 1915, war was a costly exercise.
That their plans did not succeed says more about the strategic objectives the senior officers were allotted, the scant resources they had to achieve these objectives, and the state of war in 1915: a year defined by failed offensives on both sides of the wire. This was a new kind of war, and all armies were struggling to figure out how to adapt and defeat their enemy. It was years before the technology and tactics advanced to a stage where victory was possible.
Gallipoli is too important, both in the lessons it still provides for military professionals in Australia and overseas, and the lofty position it occupies in Australian history, to keep getting it wrong. In some respects, Gallipoli was unique. It was the first large-scale amphibious operation of the war, and involved troops, ships, submarines, and aircraft working together towards a common objective.
But Gallipoli is not just an Australian or ANZAC story. The bravery, sacrifice and performance of the ANZACs deserves to be remembered, but should be done so in context and with both eyes open.
Dr Rhys Crawley is an historian in the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific, and author of Climax at Gallipoli: The Failure of the August Offensive.