You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Battle that Birthed the Middle East

A return to Gallipoli.

WITH ONLY a faint autumn breeze ruffling the cypresses and rosemary bushes, the cemetery feels very still. Rows of neat headstones give names and regiments: 1ST ROYAL DUBLIN FUSILIERS, 2ND HAMPSHIRE RGT., 2ND SOUTH WALES BORDERERS. Crosses sit at top left of the gravestones, varied by a Star of David for one private from the Manchester Regiment, and there is a pious or exalted inscription at the foot of each: “THEIR GLORY SHALL NOT BE BLOTTED OUT,” reads one. But all of the inscriptions in the long line of graves begin with the hauntingly ominous words, “BELIEVED TO BE... ,” meaning that the bodies were recovered beyond certain identification.

This is Cephanlik Cemetery just above “V Beach” at the very tip of the Gallipoli peninsula. Breaking off a holiday in the city Winston Churchill all his life insisted on calling Constantinople (otherwise known as Istanbul), I had come with my 18-year-old son to see the site of one of the worst disasters of the Great War, which was also a defining episode in Churchill’s career. And it is with us still. The war precipitated the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, which was succeeded by artificial states like Iraq and Libya, as well as a decidedly inartificial Turkish national state created by the great hero of Gallipoli. When you read today that Turkey threatens to intervene against Syria’s Bashar Al Assad, you are reading indirectly about Gallipoli.

By 1915, the Western Front was already the bloody stalemate it would for years remain. Churchill was first lord of the admiralty and hated to see Tommies left “to chew barbed wire in Flanders.” He dreamt of breaking the deadlock by some daring roundabout attack. Turkey had entered the war on the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary, and a vision presented itself: seizing the Straits, the historic passage linking the Mediterranean and Aegean seas with the Black Sea, capturing Constantinople, and thus aiding hard-pressed Russia.

Initially, Churchill favored “forcing the Straits” by sea. A visitor doesn’t have to be a strategist to grasp the difficulty. At their western end—the Dardanelles, or Hellespont—the Straits are less than a mile wide at narrowest: Leander swam nightly across to be with his squeeze, Hero, a feat emulated by Byron (“[Leander] swam for Love, as I for Glory”). Strongly armed Turkish forts stood on both sides—Seddulbahir Fort is still imposing on the north coast—and the waters were heavily mined, as the Royal Navy and its first lord soon learned when three elderly battleships were sunk.

And so plans were made instead for an “amphibious” operation. On April 25, British and imperial troops landed at beaches on the tip of the peninsula, as well as at anzac Cove (named after the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps) to the north. This latter landing went awry as soon as the boats laden with soldiers drifted a mile farther northward to a still less hospitable beach facing steep cliffs. The first day’s objective was to reach a line more than five miles up the peninsula from Cape Helles, well beyond the peak of Achi Baba; by dusk, the most successful landings had fought a few hundred yards ashore, before they were pinned down and pummeled.

Not only had the British frivolously ignored the terrain, but they had gravely underestimated the defense, led by two remarkable men. Otto Liman von Sanders, a German general, had been sent to reorganize the Turkish army, and a young Turkish officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Mustafa Kemal, showed rare qualities of leadership from the commanding heights above the beaches. And so, for months to come, Tommies chewed barbed wire in Gallipoli as well as in Flanders. In defiance of the old military maxim “never reinforce defeat,” more troops were landed in August, farther to the north, at Suvla. They fought their way to Chocolate Hill and “Dublin Castle,” names once famous to English newspaper readers, leaving another cluster of sad and touching cemeteries still tended by the admirable Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Back in London, H.H. Asquith, the beleaguered Liberal prime minister, had invited the Tories into a coalition government. The conservatives had detested Churchill ever since he bolted from their ranks to the Liberals in 1904, and Asquith was obliged to demote him as a sop. When autumn came and it was decided at last to evacuate Gallipoli, Churchill had no choice but to resign from the government; in the most quixotic episode of his life, he departed to serve for some months as a battalion commander on the Western Front. Meanwhile, and by ironic contrast, the evacuation was carried out in January with brilliant efficiency. Left behind were 46,000 allied dead, among them 8,700 Australians and 2,700 New Zealanders.

In the old saying, success has many parents but failure is an orphan, and Gallipoli had become a one-parent child. Churchill carried the can for the operation even though he was far from its only sponsor. All the same, he did encourage it, and he was characteristically impenitent thereafter: His ostensible history of the Great War, The World Crisis, defends the Gallipoli enterprise at length. Even now there are some who agree. In an unwonted role as military historian, Malcolm Gladwell of The New Yorker describes Gallipoli as “an end run around the stalemate on the Western Front” to give “a clear shot at the soft underbelly of Germany. It was a brilliant and daring strategy.”

Was it? The best answer is to go there and see from the lie of the land the sheer grim hopelessness of the operation. And even if the landings had prospered, what difference would defeating Turkey have made anyway? As to “end run” or “soft underbelly,” has Gladwell studied large-scale maps of the Balkans—did Churchill?—and pondered how any army would have fared marching from Constantinople to Berlin? No, A.J.P. Taylor pronounced the right verdict on Gallipoli: “The campaign could have succeeded only if it had been fought somewhere else.”

But its consequences were huge. It was the Birth of a Nation—or two. The headstone for Private A. McCullum, 8th Battalion, Australian Infantry, ends with the words, “UNTIL THE DAY BREAK, DUTY DONE FOR KING AND COUNTRY,” but that is not how Australians talk now. In the summer of 1915, a young Australian journalist called Keith Murdoch visited Gallipoli and denounced the incompetent British generals who had squandered “colonial” lives. The myth was burnished by Peter Weir’s 1981 movie Gallipoli, and Murdoch’s son, Rupert, still cited Gallipoli as a badge of honor when he made an awkward appearance before a parliamentary hearing at Westminster last year. Australians mark April 25 as ANZAC Day, their national day of remembrance for the fallen and also something akin to the Fourth of July.

One of several literary products of the campaign is “Our Graves in Gallipoli” by E.M. Forster, a curious, bitter pasquinade, in the form of a dialogue between two dead men, one English and one Turk. The Englishman’s grave speaks sourly of “Churchill the Fortunate,” but his fortunes were in fact mixed, and Gallipoli hung over him for decades. After the war, a new Turkish national state had arisen from the Ottoman ashes, under Mustafa Kemal. Now called Kemal Ataturk, he abolished the Caliphate, created a secular republic, and savagely drove the Greeks out of Asia Minor. By the autumn of 1922, when Churchill was back in government as colonial secretary, under David Lloyd George, Ataturk’s army advanced on a British garrison at Chanak, on the far side of the Dardanelles from Gallipoli (Cannakale if you go there today). The ensuing crisis precipitated the fall of Lloyd George, taking Churchill with him.

Like Churchill, Ataturk was brutal and chivalrous at once. In 1934, he composed the fine words carved on a large memorial at Gallipoli: “THERE IS NO DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE JOHNNIES AND THE MEHMETS TO US WHERE THEY LIE SIDE BY SIDE NOW HERE IN THIS COUNTRY OF OURS. ... THEY HAVE BECOME OUR SONS AS WELL.” And one more monument at anzac Cove commemorates the meeting of reconciliation there in 2000 between the prime ministers of Turkey, Australia, and New Zealand, although three years later the memory of Gallipoli did not stop the Australian prime minister concerned—John Winston Howard, to give him his full name—from sending Australian soldiers to another distant and doomed campaign, Iraq.

In the sad enfeebled last years of his life, Churchill sometimes cruised aboard the yacht of the rascally Aristotle Onassis (yet to marry Jackie Kennedy). Once when they were on their way to visit “Constantinople,” Onassis tactfully gave instructions that they should sail through the Dardanelles at dead of night, lest his honored guest be disturbed by unhappy memories. So Churchill never saw Gallipoli, even from afar. And in all his long life, he never once visited Australia.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft is the author, most recently, of Yo, Blair! This article appeared in the November 8, 2012 issue of the magazine under the headline “Gallipoli’s Children.”