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How the ANZAC legend was born…


100 years ago, at dawn on April 25, the legend of ANZAC was born on the beaches of the Gallipoli peninsula. Ten months later, it ended in heroic defeat and has been seen forever after, as a massive bungle; a stupid idea made infinitely worse by botched planning, execution and leadership.

And yet, as is so often the case in war, the difference between brilliant victory and criminally stupid defeat was razor thin. The original plan was far from stupid but then, the original plan didn’t involve landing at Gallipoli at all.

Millions of tons of wheat came to Britain, France and other European allies, from Russia. The normal shipping route was an inland waterway in which seas and narrow straits are strung together like a necklace joining the Black Sea with the Atlantic. The wheat would have started its journey at the Russian port of Odessa, gone down the Black Sea and through the Bosphorus, the narrow straits that cut through Turkey’s capital of Istanbul. It would then go down the Sea of Marmara, through the straits of the Dardanelles formed by the Gallipoli Pensinsula on one side and the Turkish mainland on the other, into the Aegean Sea, then the Mediterranean Sea before passing through the Straits of Gibraltar into the Atlantic where it could make a home run to Britain and the western continent.

By November, this could no longer happen. Turkey (the Ottoman Empire) declared war on Germany’s side and Russia was weakened by having to fight Turkey on its southern border as well as Germany to the west. Equally bad for the allies, Turkey sent an army into Egypt to defeat British forces and seize the Suez Canal. Finally, because Turkey controlled both the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles, millions of tons of desperately needed food, were suddenly bottled up in Russia.

Coincidentally, New Zealand infantry and light horse were in camp in Zeitun in Egypt, training. Australians were nearby at Maadi. Quite why army chiefs thought training in Egypt would prepare the men for battle in the French and Belgian trenches isn’t clear, but there they were discovering the bitter cold of desert nights, that the sand was coarse in some places and fine in others and that water wouldn’t drain away because a metre below the sand was a bed of impenetrable clay. These various facts would collide catastrophically two months later in the event that helped define three infant nations; New Zealand, Australia and Turkey itself: Gallipoli. For Britain, it was another monumental defeat. But that wasn’t in anyone’s mind in February 1915. Rather, the British and French decided they’d send 10 obsolete and expendable battleships into the narrow Dardanelles and blast the Turkish forts on both sides, to rubble. Having smashed the forts, they’d drive through across the Sea of Marmara and only then would an army be put ashore, to capture Istanbul (then called Constantinople). With Istanbul in Allied hands, Turkey would almost certainly be out of the war and the sea route to Europe for the wheat would be open. It was so bold that Britain and France reckoned that it was worth losing a fleet to take Turkey out of the war in one decisive stroke. The ships blasting their way up the Dardanelles would be hammered in return, but they were obsolete ships whose loss wouldn’t matter.

By the end of February it was all going to plan. The fleet had destroyed a number of Turkish forts for the loss of no ships. This success was so great that Turkey was withdrawing its troops from Egypt; the Egyptians had decided they were better off siding with the British, and the Turkish Government was making plans to evacuate the capital from Istanbul to Brusa. The original prize of shortening the way seemed within reach.

All it would take now was for the British and French battleships to complete smashing their way through the Dardanelles and victory stood before them, without a single soldier getting so much as a wet foot.

Meanwhile at their camps in Egypt the New Zealanders and the Australians were being forged into an impressive fighting force and on 24 February, for the first time, the idea arose of combining them as a single division, under the command of Major General Alexander Godley. The Australians were to move from Maadi to join the Kiwis at Zeitun because “such a transfer will help cement the friendship of New Zealand and Australian armies and it will give added piquancy to the healthy rivalries that exist between regiment and regiment.”

This new army was to be called the “New Zealand Australia Division”. It was the first ever ANZAC force in all but name.