Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Book Review - Gallipoli by Alan Moorehead

Gallipoli by Alan Moorehead

London: Aurum, 2007 (first published 1956)           ISBN 9781845132392

It's appropriate on this day of all days that this is the book I'm reviewing. One hundred and two years ago, at dawn on 25 April 1915, the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps landed on the Gallipoli Peninsula as part of an Entente amphibious landing designed to take Turkey out of the War. The venture was a disaster for the Entente, as well as for the Ottoman Empire.

Moorehead's narrative of the campaign is still - sixty years after it was written - the ideal entree to the story for someone who knows little of what went on, or perhaps has a too Australian-centric view of what occurred in the eight months Entente troops were invested on the Peninsula.

While the landings in April and the battles thereafter were the blooding of the ANZACs, the preponderance of the landing forces were British and French troops, including many Indian and African regiments.

Moorehead's over-arching theme is one of missed opportunities on sea and land, and of poor decision making. It was British and French diplomatic bungling that brought Turkey into the war on the side of Germany rather than the Entente powers. Once this had occurred the Navy decided that if it could force the Narrows, Turkey would capitulate. They were not far from the truth in this - Moorehead paints a scene of a fractured and fragile Turkish government run by the Young Turks, and how the sight of a British battlefleet in the Istanbul Roads probably would have brought an armistice.

To achieve this outcome the ships needed to get through the Bosphorus. They so nearly succeeded. Just at the moment the Turks could no longer defend the straits with guns or mines, the British - shaken by their losses - decided that they needed an army to take the Peninsula by land, as they couldn't take it by sea alone. The respite allowed the Turks to recover somewhat while the British planned the landing.

The fact that the British did this planning in three weeks explains in part its eventual failure, although to get so many men ashore at all - it was until that time the largest amphibious operation ever - was a kind of success. The overall commander of the force, Hamilton, had a part in the failure as well. A man of poetic temperament and undoubted bravery, he was a leader who let his subordinates run their battles: a good trait, but Hamilton's lack of clear tactical objectives and orders led to much confusion on the battleground.

Despite the rushed planning and Hamilton's quirks, strategic victory on the first day was a near-run thing. Even though the ANZACs landed in the wrong place, and were faced with a maze of gullies and cliffs rather than the more easily sloping land they expected, some few managed to scale the heights before being thwarted at the last moment by Mustafa Kemal, whose ruthlessness and drive during the Campaign started him on the path to becoming Ataturk.

Although the beachhead was precarious, it held: the Entente forces were not strong enough to dislodge the Turks, and neither could the Turks repulse the invaders. The appalling loss of life that occurred during both the Entente and Turk attacks is chronicled well by Moorehead. The battles that have become the staple of Australian and New Zealand military history, such as Lone Pine, The Nek and others that have become bywords for bravery and sacrifice, are put into perspective by Moorehead by showing the greater moves that were going on around them. The landing at Suvla, which Lone Pine and The Nek supported, which was doomed to fail as Moorehead so clearly shows, was the last throw of the dice by the Entente; and after the failure recriminations began.

Both Hamilton and Churchill (who was the initial supporter of the Naval plan) paid the price of failure with their careers and for many other commanders Gallipoli was their last battlefront posting. For many more though it was a schooling ground of great importance, not the least of these "students" being Monash, Blamey and Morshead.

When the decision to evacuate was made it was done so with a heavy heart, and with the expectation that evacuating might cost anything up to forty thousand casualties. The fact that the entire Peninsula was evacuated with only a couple of dozen deaths was a triumph of careful planning: a terrible irony, as careful planning before the campaign began may have led to victory. As it was, the Entente gained nothing and lost tremendously both in men and material.

The Turks won a great victory, but still lost their Empire.

Moorehead tells this story exceedingly well: as a seasoned war correspondent he can portray battle with a skill that made his byline famous in World War Two, and as an Australian he brings much feeling to the description of ANZAC in particular. His ability to sum up a person or a stiuation in a few well-chosen phrases is remarkable and goes a long way to making his books compulsive reading. His choice of primary material is always apt and to the point, and while reading this book it occurred to me that Antony Beevor owes much to Moorehead.

If you want to know more about this episode of the Great War, this book is the perfect place to start.

[In respectful memory of Privates S.B. McGregor M.M. 2nd Field Ambulance, who landed at ANZAC Cove on 25 April 1915, and his brother James, 3rd Battalion, killed at Lone Pine in August 1915]

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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