It was a still night with a sea-mist. As the men clambered over the side of the ship into the small boats below, their officers were terrified that the sound of muttered curses and boots scraping on steel decks would reach the Turkish lines a few miles across the water. At last the boats were full, crammed with men, ammunition and rations for three days.
The order came: “Get away and land!” They were to land at Gaba Tepe on Turkey’s gallipoli penninsula. There was a jerk on the tow-ropes and the 12 steam boats began to haul the launches and lifeboats shorewards through the darkness. On the decks of the battleships, sailors gathered at the rails and gave the Navy’s silent cheer, waving their caps at the departing soldiers in the boats.
For the most of the 1,500 men of the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps’ (Anzac) 3rd Brigade, this would be their first taste of battle. They were to be followed bu 2,500 comrades, to secure a beach-head for the main Anzac force. The Dardanelles operation, instigated by the then First Lord of the Admirality, Winston Churchill, was intended to help Britain’s Russian allies by knocking out the Turks. But everything went horribly wrong and the bitter campaign that followed was one of the costliest blunders of the war.
For reason never satisfactorily explained, the Anzacs did not land at Gaba Tepe, but at a tiny pebble beach some distance north. It was a terrible mistake. The cove, overlooked by crumbling sandstone cliffs and gullies was a defender’s dream. The first Turkish shots were fired as dawn broke. Then, said one survivor, the hills erupted ‘like a monster firework display’. At 5.10 am Turkish artillery opened up. Schrapnel striking the sea sounded ‘like champagne corks popping’. As the boats hit the beach, officers shouted orders through leather magaphones because of the din echoing round the cove.
By now the sea was red with blood. A signaller saw a shell kill 16 Anzacs in a single boat. Others stumbled on submerged boulders and were drowned, dragged down y waterlogged kit. The 9th Batallion’s medical officer recalled a midshipman handing him his satchel ‘as if landing a pleasure party’ then falling back into the boat, shot through the head.
In all, 129,000 Allied troops were landed. A third were Anzacs. By nightfall, 2,000 of them lay dead. By the end of the campaign, eight months later, the number of Anzacs killed has risen to 10,000. The consequences of the Dardanelles campaign were of the great significance for the British Empire. By defeating the Allies, the Turks showed the world that white European armies were not unbeatable. Countries under the imperial yoke from the Middle East to Asia absorbed the lesson. From then on, the myth of British invincibility began to lose some of its potency.
But for Australia and New Zealand, Gallipoli also had a galvanising effect. The courage and self-sacrifice displayed by the colonial troops who had crossed half the world to support the mother country sharpened the sense of nationhood back home. Anzac day became the chief national holiday throughout Australasia.
Gallipoli gave impetus to a process of self-identification that had intensified since Australia was given dominion status – self-governing, but keeping the monarch as head of state – in 1901 and New Zealand in 1907. In Australia, the transformation from penal colony to nation begun in the early 1800s. By 1820 the colony was flourishing, largerly thanks to the introduction of sheep-farming. There were then 38,000 people in Australia, outnumbered by 290,000 sheep.
As the settlers thrived and exploration slowly opened up the land, they came to realise that what had been a hell on earth for the convicts was a rich and beguiling paradise for free men. naturally, as the sense of community grew, so did resentment against fresh shiploads of criminals arriving from Britain. In 1840, transportation to New South Wales was ended and, in 1867, it finished altogether.
However, there were plenty of eager emigrants from the old country to replace the felons and, after 1840, New Zealand became another destination for those driven from home by economic recession and grinding poverty. Between 1815 and 1914, some 16 million emigrants left Britain, many of them heading south for Australasia. There was room for them all – and to new arrivals, it was a clean sheet. In 1853 a gold prospector found himself in the middle of ‘an American type of society’ where ‘all aristocratic feelings and associations of the old country are at once annihilated’.
This classlessness produced a spirit of truculent individualism often seen as insubordination by British officers during the world wars. It had established itself as an Antipodean trait much earlier, however: an English gentleman cricketer in 1888 regretted that players in Australian touring Xis were so prone to contest umpires’ decisions. Yet the English-speaking world was awed by the courage and tenacity of the Anzacs at Gallipoli, enduring the heat and dust, improvising bombs from jam tins, watching their comrades dying of bullet wounds and disease.
At home in Australia and New Zealand, as the tally of Victoria Crosses rose, so did the sense of national pride. Loyalty to the British Empire was the cause for which Australians and New Zealanders sent their sons to fight and die in the Dardanelles. But the keener sense of loyalty to their own countries was the consequence, and a further slackening of the old imperial grip.
text by Trevor Grove