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The tragedy of Gallipoli; the beginning of the ANZAC legend


In the first two parts of the series we have described how from the start, the Gallipoli campaign wasn’t intended to involve soldiers. The idea was that British, French and Australian warships would drive up through the narrow waterway called the Dardanelles, smashing the Turkish forts on either side. Having done that, they would cross the Sea of Marmara and force the surrender of the Turkish capital Istanbul (then called Constantinople).

Soldiers would only go ashore to capture the capital. It was such a glittering prize that the British Navy was prepared to send 10 obsolete battleships to smash their way through the Dardanelles, and lose the lot if it meant that they could make it safe for allied ships to pass through the Dardanelles.

Meanwhile New Zealand and Australian troops were busy training in Egypt, preparing to go to the trenches in France or Belgium, or possibly to help fight the Turkish Army which had made an attempt to invade Egypt.

Among the Kiwis was a Maori contingent whose members were reported to be “the most splendid” of the ANZACs. Eight days later, 100 Kiwi soldiers helped repel a Turkish attack on the Suez Canal, losing perhaps their first battle casualty of the war and earning compliments for their “coolness”. Their natural ability to use the ground for cover was also noted.

As the battleships continued to pound Gallipoli, the Turkish Government was actually telling the people to expect the Allied fleet at Constantinople very soon but not to be afraid and not to resort to violence.

However, just when it seemed the Turks thought all would soon be lost, it was all about to go horribly wrong for the Allies.

On March 18, Admiral John de Robeck who had taken over the naval force after the collapse of Admiral Carden, lost three battleships, sunk by mines. He immediately declared that he wouldn’t risk more ships in the Dardanelles unless a land force was put ashore to silence forts overlooking a section of the waterway known as The Narrows.

What was supposed to be a naval campaign had, of a sudden, become a land campaign on a scale that had been neither anticipated nor planned for. Among the soldiers near at hand for the task were the Australians and New Zealanders who had been so impressive in training in Egypt.

As late as 24 April 1915, the first reports reaching New Zealand newspapers were of British and French troops landing in various parts of Turkey. But due to strict censorship, on the same day New Zealand newspapers were running reports about how splendid our men in Egypt were. Unbeknown to most, if not everybody, at home, they were no longer there, but in troopships waiting to invade.

It was to be 30 April, five full days after the landing at ANZAC Cove and many New Zealanders had already died, before the people of this country woke to the headlines that told them that their boys were already fighting and dying. The phrase had not yet been coined but the ANZAC legend was already a week in the making.

The next day the King sent a message to the Premier, William Massey. He said: “I heartily congratulate you upon the splendid conduct and bravery shown by the New Zealand troops in the Dardanelles who have indeed proved themselves worthy sons of Empire. George R.”

Eight months later, on 20 December, the Allies were withdrawn again leaving 2,721 New Zealanders and 8,709 Australians buried on Gallipoli. They brought home 4,752 wounded New Zealand soldiers and 19,441 wounded Australians. And in one of the great ironies, the withdrawal was carried out flawlessly.

The dead are still there, but in one of the most generous acts from one former enemy to another, they were adopted by the Turkish people after their leader Kemel Ataturk made his famous speech in 1934.

“Heroes who shed their blood and lost their lives! You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore, rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours. You, the mothers, who sent their sons from far away countries, wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.

A century later, on 25 April 2015, throughout West Auckland, we will remember them.