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Gallipoli

Peter Fitzsimons

Bantam Press, 15 January 2015

ISBN: 9780593074909

 

The debacle of Gallipoli has been much written about, and there are more tomes to come, in this, its 100th anniversary. Peter Fitzsimons is an Australian journalist, with many successful books behind him, who has taken on the challenge of providing fresh insight. His technique is Beevor-esque  - deploying battalions of first person accounts (and in his case a lot of direct speech) until his viewpoint is assimilated by the reader. As the ‘Background and acknowledgements’ makes clear, Fitzsimons, like Beevor, fronts  a formidable list of assistants. Whereas Beevor had a (relatively brief) spell in the British Army,  Fitzsimons learned his belligerence (and presumably also his fierce nationalism) in Australia’s national rugby team, the Wallabies. I struggle to recall any other distinguished historians who have represented their country in that sport!

 

So, the research is quite thorough, the list of sources extensive, and this is embellished by Fitzsimons’ facility with the English language (although being an Aussie, I guess he would not like it to be recorded in that way!). Phrases such as “days of yonder yore”  indicate his love of the tongue.  

 

Gallipoli was a very multinational conflict in this first global war. The scene is well set, and Fitzsimons conjures a telling quote from Bismarck:

Europe today is a powder keg and the leaders are like men smoking in an arsenal…A single spark will set off an explosion that will consume us all…I cannot tell you when that explosion will occur, but I can tell you where…Some damned foolish thing in the Balkans will set it off.” (1878).

 

Gallipoli is known as the campaign that cemented the nationhood of Australia and New Zealand. Remember that the Federation of Australia had only been created 13 years before the outbreak of WW1. Fitzsimons certainly evokes the physicality of his forebears. Even the PM was a former coal miner, as was his Opposition foe. As is widely known, one of the central grievances of those two nations was that they were not able to command their own armies in the campaign.

 

Fitzsimons does not pull his punches. Whereas Anne de Courcy glosses over the issue in her Margot at War, for example, he does not hesitate to point out that Kitchener was a homosexual, and carried a full catalogue of weaknesses. (Margot has a very minor walk-on part in this volume).The rest of the British establishment also falls under full scrutiny. In Fitzsimons’ view, the headstrong Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, was responsible for tipping Turkey to side with Germany through his sequestration of Turkey’s  Dreadnoughts  being built in Britain. This backfired when the Turks, in an adroit political ploy, secured a couple of German warships, against the terms of their then neutrality.

 

Fitzsimons’ journalistic style, or perhaps it is just a fertile imagination, occasionally results in some overly florid surmises “The three brass chandeliers [of the British Cabinet room] that provide dim illumination to the men add to the sense of gloom.

There are many parallels drawn between the youth of Australasia and those of the home country – both were largely ecstatic at being able to go to war; however the Anzacs were paid six times the British level – there was no purchasing power parity in the brothels of Cairo! In New Zealand they celebrated their joy with a dockside Hakka. In Melbourne the testosterone spilled over into riots. The author brilliantly conveys the humour of the ANZAC troops, and their language. Note however, that, as on the Western Front, the Canadians merit the applause as biggest (pro rata/per penis) recipients of the clap.

 

Although Fitzsimons does not set out the point, what struck me most is the lack of intelligence available or sought, before the campaign was launched. There was only an handful of senior officers, such as one Major-General Charles Callwell, who foretold failure of an amphibious assault on the basis of the meagre intelligence then available to the planners.

 

There are moments when issues are left hanging: the reader wonders, for example, just what information was available to Churchill when he bulldozed the Cabinet into adopting his plan. The reader will also welcome better clarification on the ease or difficulty of communication between Whitehall and field commanders. The whole book is in the present tense – an artifice which becomes a little wearing. It also militates against analysis, which is sacrificed for the pace of the narrative.

 

As the forces from around the world are deployed to the Straits, the haste and culpability of Churchill and Kitchener are set out in plain view. Both would clearly have been impossible to work for. The latter has a disregard for the loss of life of his men that goes beyond arrogance. General Hamilton was the man charged with leading the campaign. But he had been despatched from London in too much haste and too few staff officers. And in other camps were other characters including a NZ commander who devoted his full attention to the bottle.

 

The landings are blighted by the Royal Navy dropping its passengers at the wrong beaches; initial losses are horrendous, and too many senior officers seem keen to remain out of range of Turkish guns (REMFs in modern parlance). The bravery of the troops is particularly notable given most have never before seen action. First person accounts add colour, and it  is mostly blood red. As the campaign digs in and bogs down, bravery is magnified  when successive waves of troops are ordered to assault where their comrades have been mown down by well entrenched German and Turkish forces. Fitzsimons conveys the confusion of the dread battles in a  vivid, almost elegiac, manner. Throughout there is a recognition not just of the appalling physical toll being exacted, but also the mental impact yet to be fully revealed.

 

As a journalist he takes particular interest in the British and Australian press correspondents and the degree to which they were  muzzled. Hamilton was didactic in his desire to master public opinion of his disaster. And Whitehall  can be in no doubt  that they have chosen the wrong man for this fool’s errand: Asquith’s own son writes to him “This Ian Hamilton is the limit, and it is so obvious to all out here what a terrible mess and massacre he has made of the expedition from the start. I don’t believe he has been in any of the front trenches and I can honestly say I have never once seen any of his staff officers here.”

 

As I write this on the 50th anniversary of Churchill’s funeral, there can be little doubt that he was a giant of the human race in WW2. Yet this book reveals that the WW1 Winston was far from the complete package. Once banished from the Admiralty he took noble refuge in the trenches in France, and wrote to Clemmie with little charity “The hour of Asquith’s punishment and K’s exposure draws nearer”.

 

The book is written by an Australian from an unashamedly Australian point of view. Reading it one would scarcely imagine that the British death toll was 2.4 times that of the Australians. Perhaps more importantly, he completely ignores the campaign waged by the French. They too, with 9829 dead, lost more men than Australia. The Turks, with 86,692 dead, lost twice as many men as the Allied forces. So the book is less an overview of the Allied campaign, and more a story of Australia’s campaign. With that handicap, it is nonetheless a vibrant tale, very well told. Or as the Aussies would say – “Ripper!”.  

 

It is easy to despair of the appalling decisions taken by some rather large egos, which lead to such wholesale slaughter of Allied and Turkish ranks. Yet, in my view,  there are two positive legacies. Apart from creating a vibrant Australia, it was that (supplemented by the failure at Dieppe in 1942)  senior allied commands learned that a major assault on a hostile coast needs astonishing levels of preparation.  Gallipoli’s failure was D-Day’s success.