I’ve always been much more interested in the Second World War. In fact, I can count the amount of First World War books that I have read on two hands. Seeking to remedy this and to try and wean me away from all things 1939 to 1945, my brother gave me this book for Christmas. It’s been my ‘bus book’ to and from work (including sat in snow for 4 hours!).
Even as someone who knows very little about the Great war, I cannot help but have pigeonholed Galipoli as a valiant disaster, much like Arnhem. The similiarlities are striking – incompetent generals, a good plan badly executed, but lit up with some brave deeds and some steadfast soldiering. Ironically, Urquhart modelled the withdrawl over the Rhine at Arnhem on the evacuation of Galipoli, ‘collapsing bag’ style.
But Galipoli is not just any other battle. There presence of the ANZAC contingent on the Galipoli peninsula adds another perspective to what is already a uniquely located battle. As the first major battle that Australian troops fought in, Galipoli and its legacy have become a central part of Australian national identity. And when history is overshadowed by national identity, we all too often find that objectivity goes astray and the history is stunted. The ‘Australian’ ownership of Galipoli is perhaps curious given that 21,255 British soldiers died in the Campaign, compared to 8,709 Australians. But we must remember that 1915 saw a very young Australia, and as for all youngsters that first opportunity to prove oneself is etched in Australian national consciousness.
Carlyon is an Australian, and it shows. Whilst there is no doubt some grain of truth in his arguments about incompetent British Generals and bungling politicians, it all smacks far too much of hindsight. The plan to force the Dardanelles WAS a sound strategy, and could have reaped significant rewards. It WAS badly executed, from the British Government down. But we need to see these factors in context – they apply to pretty much every other battle of the First World War, after all. The ‘Brave ANZACS, useless British Generals’ overtone is far too simplistic. And war is rarely simple.
I’m not exactly sure what Carlyon was aiming to achieve. The history is all too often interspersed with modern anecdotes, and with poetic imagery. Yet alongside this, this book is also quite a thorough account of the whole Galipoli campaign. Which is a pity, as if it were slightly stripped down to a Middlebrook-style account, it would be very readable indeed. Even so, it will probably sell by the truckload down under. For the general interest reader, this is probably a very enjoyable book.
There are plenty of lessons to take from Galipoli. It is always worth looking for the alternative strategy, the leftfield option that might outflank the enemy. And amphibious assaults need to be organised down to the finest detail. Finally, any troops landed by sea have to advance as far as possible and quickly as possible before the element of surprise is lost, to gain a solid build-up area before the enemy can bring up reinforcements and close off the invasion, as the Turks did.
Perhaps once it became clear that Galipoli had bogged down into stalemate it might have been sensible to withdraw. But then virtually the same decision was flunked all through the First World War. Although Galipoli has given me more questions than answers, it has quite possibly sparked an interest in the Great War.