It would be hard for anyone who visits Gallipoli, the narrow peninsula that is a few hours’ drive west of Istanbul, not to be moved by the scenic beauty of the blue waters, but also by the fact that there are literally dozens of military cemeteries to the dead from the First World War. Grave markers to young British, Australia, New Zealand, and others are present not far from where those young men fell during what was truly one of the most futile campaigns of the conflict.
Many of those young men were just 18 or 19 years of age when they traveled halfway around the world to be killed often times just yards from the beaches where they landed.
This is why, even 107 years after the initial Allied landings occurred at Gallipoli, April 25 remains a national day of remembrance in Australia and New Zealand. ANZAC Day marks the anniversary of the initial landings in the campaign that led to such significant casualties for Australian and New Zealand forces during the First World War.
It was originally observed to honor the members of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) who served in the Gallipoli campaign, but today broadly commemorates all Australians and New Zealanders “who served and died in all wars, conflicts, and peacekeeping operations” and “the contribution and suffering of all those who have served.”
The Frontal Assault on Turkey
What is also noteworthy is that the campaign, which lasted nearly 11 months, ended in a failure for the Allies. It was meant to knock the Ottoman Empire out of the war; and while it tapped the Turkish military of much of its strength, both sides would continue to fight in other campaigns in the Middle East.
The campaign was plagued from the beginning.
Originally, the plan called for British and French warships to sail up the Dardanelles — the waterway that connects the Mediterranean with the Black Sea — and bomb Constantinople (today Istanbul), opening a southern route to Imperial Russia. After a number of ships hit mines and came under enemy fire, the plan changed. A decision was made to land troops on the narrow peninsula and march to Constantinople. However, the Allies underestimated the Turkish resolve, while poor intelligence and inadequate equipment doomed it to fail. Many of the maps dated from the Crimean War some six decades earlier, as the site was used as a staging ground for British and French troops who were then allied with the Ottoman Empire in the conflict against Russia.
The Allied forces failed to meet their early objectives, while the Turks quickly rallied to the defense thanks to a young officer named Mustafa Kemal. Additional landings were mounted further up the Gallipoli peninsula to break the Ottoman lines, but throughout the campaign, it began to resemble the Western Front — oftentimes where trenches were just a few yards apart.
In the summer months, the troops on both sides sweltered under the hot Mediterranean sun. Water was always in short supply, and the stench of dead bodies, human waste, and horrid conditions attracted flies and other vermin. When winter set in, the situation was as bad or even worse, as troops on both sides froze in the shallow trenches that offered little to no protection from the elements.
Finally, media reports from a handful of reporters who witnessed the horrors convinced the British government to withdraw. Under the cover of darkness, the Allied forces withdrew. A few wounded remained behind to man the trenches, while rifles were improvised with a timed delay to make the Turks believe the British were still on the defense.
Legacy of the Battle
Gallipoli was a defeat for the Allies, but celebrations were short-lived in Turkey. The British remained on the offensive in the Middle East, and just two years after withdrawing from Gallipoli, British forces captured the holy city of Jerusalem. The British had also encouraged and supported an Arab uprising, and the days of the centuries-old Ottoman Empire were numbered.
Mustafa Kemal would then lead the Turkish National Movement, which resisted mainland Turkey’s partition, taking the name Kemal Atatürk — essentially the father of the Turks, as he abolished the Ottoman Empire, and proclaimed the modern Turkish Republic.
The lessons of Gallipoli were studied by military planners, and its lessons influenced the Normandy landings in June 1944 as well as U.S. Marine Corps’ amphibious operations during the Pacific campaign of the Second World War.
Even before the First World War ended, ANZAC Day was used as an occasion for patriotic rallies and recruiting campaigns. It became a national holiday after the war, and it took on greater meaning — much like the American Memorial Day, which originally honored those who were killed in the Civil War, but now serves to honor those who gave the ultimate sacrifice in the service of their country.
ANZAC Day saw a huge surge in popularity after the Second World War, though it was a small affair during the conflict due to government orders in Australia that prevented large gatherings. Sadly, the day’s meaning was lost to many in the late 1950s, and it reached a low point during Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War.
Fortunately, the day to honor Australia and New Zealand’s military dead has seen a revival since the 1990s, and today many now reflect on the cost of the war. Likewise, many Australians and New Zealanders now travel to Gallipoli, which has become a popular tourist destination in the summer months.
Today there is a shared respect among Turks and Australians.
Moreover, while one can see the grave markers of the young British and Commonwealth men who died there, it must be noted that for the Turks it is often impossible to know where their dead may lie. There are massed graves that contain hundreds, even thousands of their young men — and in many cases it remains unclear who is buried there.
Guns of the Gallipoli Campaign
In many ways, the campaign in Gallipoli was not all that different from the fighting on the Western Front. Many of the small arms and weapons were also much the same. The British and ANZAC troops were most equipped with the SMLE Lee Enfield bolt action rifle, while the Turks carried German-made G98 rifles. The British employed Vickers machine guns, while the Ottomans used the German MG08.
As noted, when the time came for the Allied forces to withdraw, they employed “drip” or “pop off” rifles that ensured that fire was maintained from the trenches even after the last troops had departed. As described by the Australian War Memorial:
“Two kerosene tins were placed one above the other, the top one full of water and the bottom one with the trigger string attached to it, empty. At the last minute, small holes would be punched in the upper tin; water would trickle into the lower one, and the rifle would fire as soon as the lower tin had become sufficiently heavy. Another device ran a string, holding back the trigger, through a candle, which slowly burnt down, severed the string, and released the trigger.”
The drip rifle was invented by Lance Corporal W. C. Scurry of the 7th Battalion, AIF, with assistance from Private A. H. Lawrence. The sporadic firing helped convince the Turks that the frontline was occupied. The Turks were so deceived that 80,000 Allied troops in total were evacuated with only about half a dozen casualties.
Gallipoli in Popular Culture
A number of movies and TV series have been made about the campaign.
This includes the 1981 film “Gallipoli,” directed by Peter Weir and starring Mel Gibson and Mark Lee. It was followed four years later by a five-part TV mini-series “Anzacs,” which starred Paul Hogan and chronicled the story of Australian soldiers in Gallipoli and then on the Western Front. The 2012 Turkish film “Çanakkale 1915” offered the Turkish perspective, including the major political events that played out during the campaign.
In 2015, to mark the 100th anniversary of the campaign, Australia Nine Network broadcast the seven-part miniseries “Gallipoli.” Though considered an extremely accurate take on the actions of the ANZACs, it was a ratings disaster. It is currently available on Amazon Video and is highly recommended.
One issue with the ratings at the time is that it may have competed for attention as the Showcase channel also aired the two-part miniseries “Deadline Gallipoli.” It presented the campaign from the point of view of the war correspondents who eventually brought the failures to public attention. The series “ANZAC Girls,” which is available on the PBS streaming service, also offers a perspective from the nurses who treated the wounded during the Gallipoli campaign, and then later served on the Western Front.
Finally, the 2014 film “The Water Diviner,” starring and directed by Russell Crowe, offers the story of a grieving father who travels to Gallipoli to recover the bodies of his three sons who were believed to have been killed in the fighting. It is a powerful film that truly helps one understand the importance of ANZAC Day.