A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, April 25, 2011

For ANZAC Day: Gallipoli, Chanak, and the Three Great Nations Born From That Crucible

Yakup Satar
The gent at left is Yakup Satar, 1898-2008, who until he died at age 110 was the last Turkish (or more properly, Ottoman) veteran of World War I.

Today is April 25, ANZAC day, the day when, 96 years ago, on April 25, 1915, British and Dominion troops landed on the Gallipoli Peninsula south of Constantinople (soon to be Istanbul). It became one of the greatest fiascoes, one of the most tragic debacles, of British operations in the First World War. The debacle was costly, and doomed the career of the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill (though I hear he made a bit of a comeback later). It was one of the key campaigns in the First World War in the Middle East, and for all its stupidity and futility, it is easy enough to forget that it was the crucible that forged three great modern nations: Australia,  New Zealand, and the Turkish Republic. A less-remembered incident a few years later completed the birthing,  not only preserving the nascent Turkish state but also assuring the genuine independence of the British Overseas Dominions. That is what is remembered by the few who remember it as the Chanak Crisis. I can't think of a better way to mark ANZAC day than to remember the curious way in which three modern nations, one in the heart of the Middle East and the other two in the distant Pacific, began to forge their independent identities 96 years ago today.


The idea itself was not, in theory, unsound. Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, was already (as he would be again in World War II) thinking about what he would call the "soft underbelly of Europe." If the Royal Navy, the most powerful naval power on either side in the war, could run the Turkish Straits and take Constantinople, the Ottoman Empire would be cut off from its German and Austro-Hungarian allies, and the British and their Russian allies could dismantle it in detail, as well as create a new front against Austria.

Churchill and Fisher
Churchill was not the only person to think the strategy a sound one; the Ottoman government, aware the Royal Navy was seeking to run the Straits, began preparing to move government papers to inland Anatolia. But that was not to be.

Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, was the senior civilian in charge of the Royal Navy; the senior Admiral, the First Sea Lord, was Sir John ("Jacky") Fisher, pioneer of the Dreanought Battleship. The men did not agree on attacking the Dardanelles. Fisher would soon resign over the issue.

In January 1915 the British Admiral on the scene, Vice Admiral S.H. Carden of the Mediterranean Squadron, began to put together a British and French task force (with one Russian ship) of battleships, submarines, and minesweepers. All were pre-Dreadnought class ships, and all outmoded.

During February and March of 1915 the British probed the defenses of the Dardanelles with several intrusions. After several attempts at probing (losing any hope of the element of surprise), Carden was ordered to make a daylight attempt to run the Straits. He then fell ill. His successor, Rear Admiral John de Robeck, no enthusiast for the campaign, succeeded him.

Meanwhile, on March 8, an Ottoman minelayer known as Nusret decided the Gallipoli campaign without knowing it. It laid a new minefield the British minelayers did not discover before the main assault on March 18.

An unwilling commander with an aging set of ships made a botch of it. You can read about it here. Several ships were badly damaged and HMS Irresistable failed to live up to its name and, along with HMS Ocean and France's Bouvet, all went down. Three other ships were badly damaged.

Though the Turks were expecting to a renewed attack and the US Ambassador to Turkey, Henry Morgenthau, expected in his diary that the Ottomans would give up Constantinople, Rear Admiral de Robeck balked at further attacks.

Up to this point the battle was a case (like Desert One in Jimmy Carter's day with its shortage of helicopters) of not providing sufficient means; even so, many naval historians think the British could have run the Straits with their remaining ships. The Navy hesitated. Surprise had long sense been lost. It was decided to do a troop landing. Whatever hope a naval surprise had ever had of succeeding, the approach by land made even less sense.

The naval battle was March 18. The landings were April 25. The British may have expected the Turks ti do nothing in the interim. They were disappointed. The Turks had managed to reinforce and entrench under a commander named Mustafa Kemal, soon to be Atatürk.

The British had kept few modern ships from the Mediterranean Squadron because they were preoccupied with the (largely unrealized) threat of the German High Seas Fleet. Their own troops were mostly tied down on the stalemated Western Front; their Indian Empire's Army was bogged down in Mesopotamia (Iraq), so at Gallipoli they assembled a mix of British and Colonial (or Dominion) troops, largely the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps, whence comes the term ANZAC.

The land battle was a debacle, but went on for much of 1915. As I noted in my earlier post on the ANZACs' last days in Egypt, however, it gave the Australians and New Zealanders an sense of national identity they had not previously had, and by increasing their resentment of Britain, which sent them foolishly to the slaughter, it made them more distinct from their mother country.

But Mustafa Kemal's success, combined with disasters on the Russian/Armenian and Arab fronts, meant that he would be the sole Ottoman general to have a claim to recreating a new Turkey out of the ashes of the empire. And so not only Australia and New Zealand, but the Republic of Turkey itself, claim descent and identity from Gallipoli.


The epilogue and coda to this story is a far lesser known event, in 1922, known as the Chanak Crisis. Mel Gibson starred in Gallipoli; if anyone has made a movie about Chanak, it's probably in Turkish.

The Turkish town of Chanak (modern Çanakkale), lies close to the site of ancient Troy. In 1922, the advancing Turkish Armies under that same Mustafa Kemal, came to the boundary of the zone the British and French had declared their own around Constantinople. (Kemal rejected the terms of the Treaty of Sevres.) Chanak was controlled by the British. British Prime Minister David Lloyd George decided lthat war with Turkey was inevitable, an called on the Dominions for military support.

Canada led the way in doing something the Dominions had never done before: saying no to the Mother Country. They'd just come through a four year war with great losses, and saw no issues of their own at stake in Britain's adventures in Turkey. Canada most loudly balked; Australia was reluctant, as was South Africa. New Zealand and Newfoundland (not then yet part of Canada) offered troops, but the Dominions' reluctance helped bring down the Lloyd George government. Mustafa Kemal won Constantinople, soon renamed Istanbul, and the Dominions moved rapidly towards real independence. Australia and New Zealand still see their national identities bound up with April 25, and the Republic of Turkey remembers it as well, for it propelled the father of the Republic to prominence.

The Men Who Fought There

But in all three countries, the memory of April 25 is about remembering the men who fought there,  Australians, New Zealanders, Turks and yes, even the British, though it's not a formative battle in their mindsl. Their war, the Great War as they quite rightly called it, is fading fast.  As I write there are apparently only two acknowledged veterans of World War I still living,  both British and both 110 years old, interestingly, one man and one woman. If Wikipedia is correct, there's also an "asterisked" Pole who joined after the Armistice but before the peace treaties, and who's 111. Soon, there'll be none. The last American doughboy died in February, at 110. Wikipedia also has a page on the last to die from each of the combatant nations.

To return to my subject: the last Turkish veteran, Yakup Satar, shown above, served in Mesopotamia, not Gallipoli.  The last Australian Gallipoli vet, a Tasmanian named Alec Campbell, died in 2002. He was 103, Though a Gallipoli vet, he didn't land there till November 1915. The last Aussie and the last Kiwi to land on April 25 died in 1997, both aged 101, and Australian Jack Ross, who enlisted in 1918 but never left Australia but still served in the Great War, died in 2009 at age 110.

Some previously used historical videos: a restored newsreel of Gallipoli, by Peter Jackson (of Lord of the Rings fame):

And here, without sound, is some Turkish footage from Gallipoli:

The memory still lives on even if the veterans do not. The Scots/Australian folk singer Eric Bogle, who also wrote the Irish Pub standard "Green Fields of France" (aka "Willie MacBride," but officially "No Man's Land") notes in his "And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda" (sung in full in a video after the quote):

    And now every April I sit on my porch
    And I watch the parade pass before me
    And I watch my old comrades, how proudly they march
    Reliving old dreams of past glory
    And the old men march slowly, all bent, stiff and sore
    The forgotten heroes from a forgotten war
    And the young people ask, "What are they marching for?"
    And I ask myself the same question

    And the band plays Waltzing Matilda
    And the old men answer the call
    But year after year their numbers get fewer
    Some day no one will march there at all

    Waltzing Matilda, Waltzing Matilda
    Who'll come a waltzing Matilda with me
    And their ghosts may be heard as you pass the Billabong
    Who'll come-a-waltzing Matilda with me? 

 A rendition of Eric Bogle's song, plus pictures from the battle and modern pictures of Canadian soldiers in war (posted, I assume, by a Canadian, but evoking their fellow Commonwealth allies):

"Someday no one will march there at all." Men and women in the three countries (Turkey as well as the ANZACs) that were born from the crucible will march and remember, but those who fought there are gone.

April 25 deserves remembrance, however.

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