Alan Moorehead was a distinguished Australian journalist who covered The Second World War in great detail for the British and Australian press. It was somewhat fitting then that a man who followed British and ANZAC soldiers fight in North Africa and the Mediterranean in his trilogy Desert War should have been so fascinated with the story of British and ANZAC troops fighting in the previous war. Of course, the Gallipoli Campaign became so much more than just a heroic failure to Australians like Alan Moorehead, it became something of a foundation story for what would become the Australian nation in the inter-war years. Alan Moorehead brings so much to this story. He is not just interested in the Australian contribution at all, he goes way into the myriad back stories of the all the main players and protagonists and brings his journalist's eye and analysis to what was a very long and complicated story. With regards to his skills as a journalist, he does a superb job at evoking what the conditions must have been like for the soldiers on the front. In a particularly intriguing section towards the end of the book, he details what it must have felt for a novice British soldier to sail out of Britain and steam ever closer to the hot and dusty war-zone and finally find himself enmeshed with the battle hardened, seasoned and weary soldiers who had learnt to live in their exposed, inhospitable holes in the ground on the Gallipoli Peninsular.
After giving the long and convoluted story of how Turkey ended up siding with the Central Powers, the author makes fascinating connections to the old stories of Troy and the Trojan Wars and how these romantic preconceptions may well have influenced some of the classically trained individuals involved in launching the campaign. Men like Churchill and Hamilton who would play such a pivotal role in the unfolding events. He also explains the ill-fated Naval forcing of the Straits which came so tantalisingly close to success in the April 1915. Indeed the entire 259 day campaign seems to have been filled with 'almost' moments: Where with just a little bit more imagination, determination, speed, initiative... feel free to fill in your necessary requirement.... these 'almost' moments could have led to victory. From the Royal Navy hitting a mine at the crucial time to Australians almost hitting the heights over Anzac Bay to New Zealanders almost capturing the heights above Suvla Bay... again and again, the Allies were tantalisingly close and Alan Moorehead explains these painful opportunities in exquisite language. You almost want to shout at the protagonists and let them know how close they are to success; "just keep going!"
Of course, the real story of the unsuccessful campaign is more down to command problems and decisions. It is not that there was not expertise in the theatre, indeed some of the most impressive Admirals and Generals were born out of this debacle, it is just that the key decision makers seemed to have the knack of making the wrong choices at the wrong time. Hamilton is certainly to blame for the lack of dynamic leadership, although there is plenty more blame to go around. Many of the generals assigned were simply not up to the unique conditions required in a complicated amphibious assault. Remember this was the largest amphibious assault in history up until this point in time. Lack of specialist equipment combined with conservative tactics which were often mired in the thinking of the Western Front, and let us not forget a determined and well motivated enemy who actually showed better leadership at crucial junctures. Liman von Sanders, the German General directing the defence, was level headed and used his assets wisely most of the time. When they were wasted it tended to be because of political over rulings from above, notably from Enver Pasha, who seemed to have been as much out of touch with the realities on the ground as any British general involved. Mustafa Kemal was the other defending commander who showed unusual decisiveness at key points. He certainly needs to take as much credit as any of the British generals deserve opprobrium.
The one slither of success came after the affable but less than decisive Hamilton had been relieved of command. The evacuation of not one, but two enclaves under the noses of the Turks was truly remarkable. Horrific predictions for casualties had been made by nearly all concerned when evacuation had first been considered. Indeed, the high numbers anticipated almost certainly led to a much longer time on the Peninsular for fear of the Turks swooping down off the hills and massacring tens of thousands of British, French and ANZAC troops as they headed for their boats and ships. In the end, the months of experience combined with a rare glint of initiative to pull off a splendid feat and not losing a single additional soldier in the two extremely awkward military manouevres. The double evacuation is what was particularly eye-raising, to play the same trick twice was nothing short of amazing!
I confess I have always been a huge fan of Alan Moorehead's writing. I just love his engaging, approachable and yet authoritative style. There have been many more modern studies, but you get the feeling that Moorehead was so much closer to the events and communicates that connection with such passion. His world fully appreciated the efforts of the nascent ANZAC formation and he visited and knew the region intimately. He was able to tie the specific story of the operations around the Dardanelles to the much bigger geo-political events going on before, during and after the 1915 events themselves. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It is a real pleasure to read and will fascinate you throughout by the events, characters and the geography itself. History at its best!