Make me an angel that flies.
This post is going out to honour some people who’re long dead. I’m talking about the Australians and New Zealanders (ANZACs), and their struggling ashore in the second year of World War I at a place called Gallipoli. The 25th will be the one hundredth anniversary of that event. It’s observed every year on ANZAC day, which would be the equivalent of Remembrance Sunday in Britain or Memorial Day in America. It holds a special meaning for those countries, and deservedly so.
I’m not from that particular neck of the woods nor hewn from that particular stock, and although it might be considered an impertinence for me to comment, I do know what a blood sacrifice by your fellow countrymen feels like, and I have kin there. A lot of young men were never going to come home. Some stuff, you never quite bounce back from with a fully grief-counselled grin plastered across your face. It’ll always be there, somewhere, a little blood-red badge of honour worn with bitter pride and yet one that’ll always stiffen your spine.
When you get a bit older, a bit more travelled through life, you realise in human terms what was actually chanced and what was really lost. They were the flowering buds of youth, every one a volunteer, the plucky best of their generation, and we’ll never get them back. Not a single one of them. They’re by now nothing more than faces in fading sepia photographs in their dress uniforms.
Yet when you look at the staged portraits they sent back to their loved ones, when you peer deeply at their faces, you see they’ve all got these same smooth features. It’s not a flattering trick of the photography, it’s just their features were still being formed – they were for the most part ridiculously young men, still children really. My sons would be considered old in that company, but I hope they’d have displayed such conspicuous gallantry in their younger years.
There simply isn’t a single reasonable explanation of the blood-letting of the Great War that holds up to any rational examination. It was just a number of empires in their death paroxysms doing nothing more than killing each other for an ever shrinking share of the colonial pie. Our forebears just had the misfortune to get sucked into the tragedy and paid a terrible price in blood.
All of that politics was irrelevant to the men on the beach working their way upward through the murderous hills and the men defending those hills against them, because as they all very quickly learnt, it was really about them fighting for each other and doing things like getting a wounded comrade out of harm’s way. Keep him safe from any more hurt and just get him home. All the rest of the queen, empire, country stuff was just a load of bollocks. You fought for your mates and they fought for you – the first, oldest and most vital lesson of soldiering. It was as simple as that. End of story.
Take a long and careful look at the picture heading up this article. It says it all. He’s getting a wounded mate down a steep mountain side but he’s still carrying his rifle with bayonet attached. That rifle says he’ll get him to safety, but he’ll turn around straight away and trudge back up the mountain to re-join his brothers in the fight. Cowards always throw away their weapons. They’re unconsciously withdrawing from the fight, showing themselves to be non-combatants – don’t kill me, I’m not carrying a weapon.
He’s still talking to his pal, keeping him good until he can get him to the docs and a bit of repair work and at the same time reminiscing with a smile. I have the impression he’s keeping him going by recalling some hijinks that neither of them could ever mention in polite company back home. The wounded man is so buggered he can’t walk but his left arm is crooked, making the effort to hold on to his friend, a totally unnecessary gesture when you’re in a fireman’s lift, but he’s doing his best to ease the worries for his friend. Some people are never out of the fight.
His pal has a stupid tilt to his hat everyone no doubt gave him serious grief for, but loved him anyway for being such a boyo. You can see it, they’re still bloody slagging each other off as they come down the mountain. That’s an exclusive brotherhood it’s impossible for anyone else to ever enter into. Let’s hope they both made it home.
It could have worked, it should have worked and so very nearly did – it was a damn close run thing, to quote Wellington. It wasn’t for lack of courage or effort, it was just the breaks. It was so unexpected an idea, it was brilliant and might have broken a barbed wire stalemate that already stretched by that stage from the English Channel right up to the Swiss border.
It didn’t succeed.
It failed for various reasons within the first twenty-four hours and thereafter descended into the worst sort of trench warfare to become the ANZAC agony. Some days are just hard and you have to take it, but they took it for months. It didn’t improve, but went on to become so bad it became a slow crucifixion nailed deeply into the national consciousness of both those two countries, never to be forgotten and is still remembered down through the generations to this day.
After nine months of clinging on desperately to an impossibly thin strip of nearly indefensible shoreline, the bloodied survivors were evacuated to safety. It was an impossible situation and by any idea of military competence, they should have been pulled out of there after the first month, if not week.
That delay was unforgivable.
Gallipoli was the first amphibious assault of the modern age and some of the military lessons to drawn from it were forgotten by the time Word War II arrived, resulting in equally disastrous operations like the Dieppe raid. Lessons had to be learnt afresh and the success of D-Day two years later owed a lot to the Dieppe disaster, and Gallipoli too.
I wasn’t at Gallipoli, neither were you, but perhaps if you saw your grandfather stiffen to attention when the last post bugle was being played on Armistice Day, you knew you’d missed out on something. As a young buck, you felt slightly ashamed of being excluded from a warrior thing that was theirs alone. What they’d been through could never be shared with the younger people and never was. It was the war to end all wars, and all the horrors they’d seen would perish with them and their pals.
There are not many positives to be taken away from the human tragedy that was Gallipoli, but I feel that the few there are can count as being significant.
The man who was in charge of defending what was thought of as a cushy posting that nobody in their right mind would attack, rose to the occasion. He’d actually anticipated the move though nobody believed him. Despite what you might have heard, there wasn’t many of them defending initially and they nearly broke under the initial onslaught. He personally stopped the rot, turned Johnny Turk around, made them dig in and fight.
He went on to shape the country we now call Turkey that rose out of the smoking ruins of what was the Ottoman empire. It would be a democracy, not a theocracy. It would be part of Europe, not the Arab world, and things like girls going to school and getting an education would become the norm. That tug-o-war between democracy and theocracy is currently tearing large parts of the Arab world asunder. His name was Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
The man who came up with the plan to attack through the Dardanelles and pushed it, had no illusions about what the face of war looked like, because he’d seen it first hand. In the aftermath of what turned out to be a disaster and inexplicable as it may seem in these days of bland blameless middle-management politicians who can always slime themselves out from under any responsibility for anything, he resigned his post as First Lord of the Admiralty and re-joined his regiment on the western front.
He served in the trenches, not behind them, for six months before being nearly literally dragged out of them by people who thought with some prescience a man of his calibre would be too big a loss.
He went on to become the single and most unpopular voice in the political wilderness warning for nearly a decade what a threat Fascism was becoming. He was so out of favour with the establishment, that he averaged only one appearance per year on BBC radio in that time. When that threat finally materialised and the whole mess was dumped in his lap to sort out, the position as far as most sensible people were concerned was already hopeless. Negotiation with the enemy was the only rational policy.
For one blessed year, he held a country together that was reeling under the blows of successive defeat after defeat, with nothing more than a force of oratory that’s by now not only entered into the history books but made history. He spoke directly into the heart of the common man. They might only be the last remaining tiny gasp of democracy in Europe, but by God they’d fight in the air, on the seas, the beaches and all points inward. His name was Winston Spencer Churchill.
For Australia and New Zealand, I think Gallipoli had a slow but tectonic impact that changed those countries fundamentally. Before it, there was an unconscious assumption in the their national psyche that they were somehow nothing more than an appendage of the British empire, that they were at the end of day transplanted Britons somehow just visiting for a while. Australia, like New Zealand, was the name of a colony, an outpost of far-flung empire and not a country in its own right to be taken seriously.
Their experiences in the Great War, and most especially the agony of Gallipoli, changed that mind-set forever. Suspicion about the priorities of an empire whose interests were always going to supersede yours moved into mainstream thinking. Right or wrong, the perception grew that the lives of colonial troopers were held in less esteem than those of the homeland boys.
Those countries in a very real sense transitioned from thinking of themselves as being an offspring of empire to adulthood in their own right. A sense of nation, a national consciousness was born out of the blood sacrifice, and that’s a Jack you’ll never squeeze back into the box.
Without a doubt, Gallipoli was the birth of the countries we now call Australia and New Zealand.
A hundred years down the line, all the men of both sides who fought at Gallipoli are by now brothers under God or Allah or whoever looks after them. Take your rest lads, and your God take you to his heart, and keep you and love you.
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