Sunday, April 11, 2010

Book Review - Gallipoli by Les Carlyon

You might have noticed a bit of a theme in the books I've read recently. There's been a book or two about Don Bradman, the SAS, the Korean War, H. Norman Schwarzkopf's autobiography, Vietnam : The Australian War and Mein Kampf. Yes, war, is high on the reading list. C'mon, what do you mean Don Bradman has nothing to do with war? He was fighting the old enemy, England, on the pitch. That's close enough in my book. Geddit? Book. Ha!

Gallipoli by Les Carlyon

This is a fantastic book. It lays bare the truths about the campaign and why it failed. By the time you have read it you will understand The Ode - a few lines from it are below:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

Let me attempt to sum up the story about an eight month campaign covered in 543 pages by Les Carlyon. The British wanted to remain friendly with Russia and Tsar Nicholas II by keeping the Dardanelles open so that Russian could continue exports. Winston Churchill and Lord Kitchener decided to hand over Turkey to Russia and a quick campaign at the Dardanelles would allow this to happen. By refusing to deliver two ships paid for by Turkey, or return the money, the British allowed Germany to gain an ally as the Germans were quick to offer a couple of warships in return for allegiance. [Why does allegiance look so similar to the French word for Germany - Allemagne?] The British bombed Turkey from warships for three months before landing any troops. Enough warning for anyone to realise that war was imminent.

Kitchener was, if you'll pardon the pun, a loose cannon. He made decisions on the go without consulting those that should be consulted, i.e. the War Cabinet, and Churchill believed so strongly in the campaign at Gallipoli that he convinced pretty much everyone to go along with the idea although it was never thought out properly. Ian Hamilton, one of the old boys, was charged with making the landing and taking over Turkey but without a real plan, ammunition, supplies or men. He was guilty of not reporting how the battle was really faring as it might upset the guys in charge back home. Let me take the last sentence from chapter 28:

"If there is one thing worse than a man who deals in half-truths, it is a man who decides things are so bad he needs to tell you the truth."

Young men - Australians, New Zealanders (of course - Anzacs), Britons, French, Senegalese, Indians and Gurkhas. Now I knew about the first three but who would have thought that the rest of them were there? Even the Turks didn't know too much about New Zealand and the Germans had to reassure them that it was a country. In fact, the British and French lost more soldiers than the Australians or Kiwis. Who'd have thought that either? These men were the best, youngest and fittest of their respective countries and thousands were sent needlessly to their deaths. Mind you, it was the way war was conducted back in those days. One other fact that made my blood boil was that when these men charged enemy trenches, more often than not, very well defended by machine guns, they had to charge with bayonets on their unloaded rifles. How absolutely ridiculous. Surely after the first charge someone in authority would have realised that this was a completely stupid and avoidable loss of life. Not so it seems. Make no mistake, the soldiers involved were immensely brave. Have another look at The Ode, the link is a good one, and you'll start to see what I mean.

Amazingly the Turks lost more men than the Allies. They had the high ground, literally, were better supported with artillery and knew the terrain. I hold the ground forces of the Allies in very high regard after reading that.

Hamilton didn't even have proper maps of Turkey. The terrain was vastly different to what they thought they knew. They landed miles down the beach from where they were supposed to, many attacks were conducted at night where they didn't know what they were facing, lots of plans didn't realistically take into account the unknown terrain, basic things such as supply of water and medical aid weren't thought out properly and they even brought in the Australian Light Horse (deployed without their horses) to fight on the cliffs at Gallipoli. Madness. Honestly. They even had a second landing with several new divisions in August and landed at the wrong place once more. Even Monash lead a charge up the wrong hill and poor maps can take much of the blame.

War correspondents had to maintain the army's propaganda so that recruitment numbers wouldn't fall. All correspondence to be published had to be approved. You must remember that this was not the time of the professional soldier and criticism or adverse reporting could significantly affect recruitment. And it seems that the generals didn't understand modern warfare. Charging men, without loaded rifles, were no match for machine guns. Even after bombardment of the area where the enemy was thought to be prior to the charge.

Carlyon goes into such detail about the major offensives that you almost feel like you are there and you may be forgiven for thinking that he was there. The landing, the Nek, Lone Pine, the August offensive - they're all so well covered, including the background happenings in Britain, that it isn't difficult to imagine yourself in the middle of it. And there would be something wrong with you if you didn't sympathise with the combatants.

I was constantly appalled by what I read but full of admiration for the men who carried out the orders of incompetent boys' club members, posing as generals. I would urge everybody to read this book if you want to understand Gallipoli. It doesn't glorify war but it exposes what we should know about this campaign. And to think that the Australian government didn't want to know what was really happening as we were seen to be doing our bit for Old Blighty [Ha! Blogger thinks that Blighty should be "Blighter" with its spellcheck] no matter how incompetently run the battle was. This book is the real history and the real story.

As Anzac Day approaches I have a much healthier respect for those that gave their lives in defending our ideals in far-flung places that they probably shouldn't have been in. Read this book and you will be left in doubt as to why that is. It is a wonderful piece of literature.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm gonna have to check it out.