William Heinemann, $49.99
Award-winning journalist and prolific author Peter FitzSimons has an enviable ability to bring history to life. In this, his 27th book, FitzSimons takes us deep into the disastrous Gallipoli campaign and spells out in detail the fateful steps that led Australian and New Zealand soldiers to utter devastation, if not absolute despair.
When the Allied forces landed on the Gallipoli Peninsula in what is now Turkey, at dawn on April 25, 1915, the plan was to secure the Dardanelles, thus allowing the Imperial Fleet to go all the way to Constantinople (now Istanbul). If all went well, it was the hope of the popular Lord Horatio Kitchener and also of the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, that the Ottoman Empire would be knocked out of the war. To put it mildly, things did not go as planned.
Even though the harrowing story of Gallipoli has been told many times before, some of the facts of the battle , which actually resulted in six times fewer deaths than the war on the Western Front , are either forgotten or obscured, or else need to be reinterpreted and placed in context.
In dealing especially with the latter task, FitzSimons has succeeded extremely well. Indeed, in Gallipoli he has produced a work of fascinatingly imaginative popular history , which is underpinned by meticulous research and scholarship. To highlight this, the notes and references section at the end of the book boasts 64 pages, and the detailed bibliography runs to a further 21 pages.
The book is clearly written, with useful maps, a careful index, and some fine black-and-white photographs. These include a splendid portrait of the Australian war hero Hugo Throssell, of the 10th Light Horse Brigade. Throssell survived the disastrous August 1915 charge on the Nek to lead a heroic attack on Hill 60, for which he was awarded the Victoria Cross. Sadly, after the war Throssell committed suicide.
Two other photos particularly caught my eye. One is of a blindfolded Turkish Army envoy being led to the headquarters of the widely admired commander of the Australian and New Zealand forces, Lieutenant General Sir William Birdwood. The point of their meeting was to negotiate an armistice to bury the dead, which took place two days later on May 24, 1915. On the other hand, there is a starkly haunting photograph of a huge pile of Turkish soldiers’ bones and skulls.
In fact, as a result of the entire ill-fated Dardanelles campaign, which extracted such a devastating human toll, the Turkish army is estimated to have suffered almost twice as many deaths (86,692) as all the Allies put together (43,921). Turkey had an estimated 164,617 wounded, compared with 97,11 wounded for all the Allies.
FitzSimons is especially adept at telling the story of Gallipoli from the Turkish side, including examining details of the Ottoman leadership. In addition, he and his hard-working research team make excellent use of the minutes and other revealing records of the many meetings of the British War Council, held in London a century ago.
The epilogue to this admirable book makes clear that in the main the Anzacs had nothing personal against “Jonny Turk”, whom they regarded as fighting for his country. The same applied to the Turkish troops, one of whom is quoted as saying, well after the war: “We didn’t hate the enemy. Their duty was to come here and invade, ours was to defend. No, I never hated them, never. And now we’re brothers and I want to send my regards to [all] the Anzacs.”
I find particularly poignant a paragraph written by then Colonel John Monash on June 18, 1915. While sitting in his dugout at Anzac Cove, Monash penned the following lines: “When peace comes, and we are free to move about the country, no doubt the tourist of the future will come to inspect these parts.”
The still often underestimated Australian commander continued: “I suppose that some day, on some high plateau overlooking Anzac beach, there will be a noble memorial erected by the people of Australia, to honour the memory of their fallen dead, who lie peacefully sleeping in the little valleys all around.”
Now how prescient is that?
Ross Fitzgerald is Emeritus Professor of History & Politics at Griffith University.
The Sydney Morning Herald, November 22-23, 2014, Spectrum, Books p 38