Thursday, April 14, 2011


It is that time of year again - getting close to Anzac Day - where the skirmish in the so-called "History Wars" where the significance of the Dardanelles campaign aka Gallipoli is debated.

One side - let us call it the left - argues the whole of WWI was a disastrous consequence of the pathetic European escapade to form global empires, and that the campaign in the Dardanelles in particular was a folly and that it represented the worst of imperialism (as so many tropps came from the colonies) and of the class system (the troops were regarded as expendable).

On the other we have the conservatives who think that the campaign was the making of Australia as a nation, where we came into our own and that it was a noble action as part of a noble cause.

An interesting point is that these two views don't necessarily have to be in opposition. It is just that the conservatives are so desperate to cling to the ANZAC glory story that they cannot admit that the Australian troops may have performed well and learnt a lot from a campaign that was itself futile.

VicN has previously put me on to the truly great The Pity of War by Niall Ferguson. It is an excellent account of the accounts of the war, suggesting in turn that it wasn't as easily avoidable as some might think, nor was it any easier to end. But that its till was monumental.

The latest contribution is from Ross Cameron in the SMH. In a deviation that also seems to want to embrace the "great man" theory of history, his take is to try to defend Churchill's role in the campaign.

It is a trite point to suggest that it was "an empire ending" decision by the Ottomans to enter the war on the side of Germany. An alternative history with the Ottoman's staying neutral probably results in the victors coming down to take them lout anyway, and the decision to side with the Germans was really created by the hostility from the British to begin with.

Both Bobbitt and Ferguson (see earlier posts)label the war that started in 1914 a long war that ended in 1990, it was the war that almost had to happen to end the era of empires, and to decide between totalitarian and democratic states.

The suggestion by Cameron is that if the Dardanelles campaign had been successful, the West could have supported Russia and then the Russians would never have been under the strain that led to the 1917 revolution(s).

The leap that Cameron goes through on communism is extraordinary. To argue that the presence of only 10 people at Marx's funeral in 1883 means that he was an "obscure radical" is to ignore the reality of how widespread socialist and communist organisation was in the first decade of the twentieth century. The revolution in Russia of 1917 merely followed that of 1905. The trigger in both cases was war, but just as France in 1789 ultimately it requires some national pressure to trigger the revolution.

But the fact the Dardanelles campaign failed is the important part, not whether its motives were right. The question is not whether getting relief for Russia was good, but whether this campaign was the way to achieve it.

The short answer is "no". It was a campaign that effectively relied upon accuracy of execution and speed - it failed because it was delayed six weeks waiting for troops from the UK, people were landed in the wrong place and the Turks were able to get defences in place (also in part because the extent of the Turkish defences were under-estimated).

The second planning error was to not have a plan B. What were they to do if they did not succeed in capturing the heights immediately? (That should be plan C because the land invasion was Plan B after the attempt using naval forces alone failed).

Cameron extends his Churchill praise to the calls he made to support the White Russians after the revolution. That intervention had disastrous consequences, as it more than anything else fueled the isolationism that was the hall-mark of the USSR. Leaving the revolution to the Russians was probably the better chance the West had of the eventual government being more democratic and less totalitarian.

Churchill was neither a goose nor a hero. He was a man in history who happened to be in roles requiring decisions, some of which were good and some of which were bad. Even his decisions that turned out good may well not have been the best available.

It is really hard to escape from the conclusion that the British with their empire and US friends were victorious over first the militaristic and imperial Prussian led Germans and then the totalitarians of left and right because of the strength of the idea of the democracies they ran.

Gallipoli was a stupid campaign, but no more stupid than the rest of that stupid war. For better or worse it was the first time the united colonies of Australia exercised themselves as a unified body in an external affairs way (one of the twin purposes of federation) and did okay. They might have done better in a different battle or with different leaders. But the very nature of that war was of pointless endeavour between armies that were able to incredibly damage each other without prosecuting victory.

It should be remembered for what it was - a tragic loss of life.

Note: I think Cameron seriously errs in writing "Three naval-only attempts failed to secure the Dardanelles so troops (principally Aussies and Kiwis at first) landed on Ottoman soil on April 25, 1915." They were Aussies and Kiwis at what is now known as ANZAC Cove but British and others in the main landing at Cape Helles.

Novae Meridianae Demetae Dexter delenda est

1 comment:

Vic N said...

this is fine commentary indeed