Gallipoli by Peter Hart

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Gallipoli by Peter Hart

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Category: History
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A detailed study, with many eye-witness accounts, of the unsuccessful Allies' campaign in 1915 to eliminate Turkey from the First World War.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 608 Date: February 2011
Publisher: Profile Books
ISBN: 978-1846681592

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Early in 1915 the Allied Powers attempted to seize the Dardanelles, capture Constantinople and eliminate Turkey, who had joined the Central Powers, from the First World War. The campaign ended in failure and retreat, yet for many years it was portrayed as a brilliant strategy undermined by bad luck and incompetent commanders. This painstakingly-researched account shows that this was not the case. It was more a matter of a wild scheme which was poorly planned and doomed from the start, compounding the Allies' problems by diverting large numbers of troops from attacking Germans on the Western Front, where they would arguably have been better employed. In his introduction he calls the eight-month exercise an epic tragedy with an incredible heroic resilience displayed by the soldiers, yet ultimately a futile and costly sideshow for all the combatants. It was a huge drain on Allied military resources, involving nearly half a million troops, with the British Empire losing about 205,000 – 115,000 killed, wounded or missing and 90,000 evacuated sick – while the French lost 47,000, and the Turkish over 251,000.

Hart has drawn heavily on personal accounts by individuals at all levels and all sides, from Britain and ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps), and from the Turkish side as well. Among the eye-witness accounts are those of Captain William Wedgwood Benn of the London Yeomanry, father of Tony Benn, and the future Prime Minister Clement Attlee, then a Lieutenant from the 6th South Lancashire Regiment, who enjoyed discussing socialism in the officers' mess with men that disagreed with his views but relished passionate yet good-natured political debates.

This is a lengthy account, yet enlivened with many a detail bringing home the grim reality of war. A British Lieutenant recalled that the only two living things he saw in one of the Turkish villages were two cats and a dog. He was particularly moved by a cat which had cuddled close to the face of a dead Turk in the street, one leg embracing the top of his head. The dead man, he assumed, had been its master, as he went up to stroke it – and then saw to his horror that part of the man's head had been blown away and the cat was enjoying a dead meal of human brains. In another incident, a captain came across one man standing in only his shirt and trousers, holding out a mug with a perfectly stiff arm. He had died in that position.

A pointless battle, he muses, is always tragic. There's not just the toll in human life, with soldiers on both sides killed, maimed or mentally shattered, leaving behind distraught families, but overshadowing it, the depressing realization that it was all for nothing. Such a battle was the assault on Suvla, the last major attempt by the Allies in August 1915 to retrieve the desperate situation. It was described by a junior officer as an occasion on which the air was full on every side with invisible death, while the ground was torn up on every side, the shrapnel burst above them, and to the left and right of him, fresh sounds break out – dreadful human sounds which I won't describe.

In the closing chapter, Hart concludes that the Gallipoli campaign would never even have been launched if a proper staff appreciation of operations had been carried out, but thanks to political interference, combined with the optimism of generals who only saw opportunities, it was launched into a void that guaranteed failure. There was much bravery on both sides, but ultimately it was a failure – if a fascinating one. Maybe some consolation could be gleaned by the Allies in the fact that the Turks had won, but comprehensively lost the war when they surrendered in October 1918.

In summing up, he notes that the study of Gallipoli will surely continue for years to come as succeeding generations try to examine how something so stupid, so doomed from the outset, can remain so utterly fascinating. The desperation of men caught up in the fighting and the shocking conditions of those in the trenches are all brought home vividly in the prose of the author and in the selections from the work of others. As a study of a major campaign in the First World War, as well as the futility of it all, this book grimly succeeds – if you will pardon the phrase – on all fronts.

Our thanks to Profile Books for sending a review copy to Bookbag.

If you enjoyed this, for more on the war we can also recommend The Reluctant Tommy: An Extraordinary Memoir of the First World War by Ronald Skirth and Duncan Barrett; and the anthology For King and Country: Voices from the First World War by Brian MacArthur.

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Tom Rutherford said:

An extremely good book and well worth reading by anyone with an interest in the fighting at Gallipoli. Not least for it's good coverage of the Turkish point of view. A view which I had not had the chance to share until now.