Saturday, April 25, 2015

100 years after Gallipoli

I don't need to draw anyone's attention to the fact that it is 100 years today since the Australian and New Zealand troops landed at Gallipoli.

But after a century the significance of the event is still much debated.

As blog readers would know my grandfather Harry Leopold Spratt (later H L S Havyatt - but that is another story) landed at Gallipoli in May 1915 with the Wellington Mounted Rifles. They left their Egyptian camp on May 9 landing on May 12. So I tend to approach Anzac Day from as much a New Zealand position as I did Australian.

The New Zealand story is a bit different - they weren't  a recently federated nation for which the battle was a defining point in the new nation's history. Their constitutional relationship was just as it had been when many New Zealanders fought in the Boer War.

The young Kiwis, especially those signing up to the Mounted Rifles (which was BYO horse), envisioned a quick war with lots of riding around in battle.

In this they were perhaps no more deluded than the European powers who did not expect the war to be a drawn out trench stalemate.

As Richard Stowers book Bloody Gallipoli starts:

Most nations have set aside days to celebrate great military victories or liberations of cities and countries. New Zealand has a day to remember a national tragedy.

It is common to "blame" Winston Churchill for the disaster of the Dardanelles campaign. It was a hastily conceived campaign as a desperate move to try to get some movement in the war, despite Churchill's own prognostication two and a half years earlier that the straits could not be forced.

Yet we should be grateful. As Peter Fitzsimons notes in today's SMH the alternative plan - favoured by Field Marshall French - was simply to immediately deploy the Australian and New Zealand forces along the Western Front intermingled in English units and not as a distinct force.

What the British would have made of these troops if deployed immediately to those fronts is anyone's guess. We do know that British officers found the larrikin element of the ANZAC troops hard to manage.

But Sir Ian Hamilton told once told Asquith "These New Zealanders and Australians, and best of all the Australian Light Horse and the New Zealand Mounted Rifles, and above all the last named, are the flower of our troops or of any other troops in the world."

The British landed at Cape Helles suffered worse casualties than the Anzacs, but the perception remains if the British troops had been more like the Anzacs the campaign might have ended differently. In particular the August thrust commemorated every Anzac day at Lone Pine and Chunuk Bair may have resulted in success if the British effort had matched that of the Anzacs.

The significance of ANZAC is shown most starkly by New Zealand. Without any separate foundation narrative, after Gallipoli the colony/dominion determined that its troops would never again be placed under foreign command.

It was the moment when the individual antipodeans were starkly shown that they weren't inferior to anyone else, and when their Governments decided that they should not be subservient.

The formalities took time - in Australia's case the Stature of Westminster only adopted in 1942 and the Australia Act in the 1980s. It isn't complete - we aren't a republic and who gets called "the Honourable" is even determined by royal patent.

It really was like that startling moment that hits us all sometime in late adolescence when we realise we are an adult now.

Other countries celebrate a victory because they often had to fight a war against a foe - or an oppressor - to reach that point of realisation.

For New Zealand - and Australia - it happened at Gallipoli.

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