‘Australians will stand beside the mother country to help and defend her to the last man and the last shilling.’1Jonathan Curtis, ‘ “To the last man” – Australia’s entry to war in 1914’, Parliament of Australia Research Papers, <www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Library/ pubs/rp/rp1415/AustToWar1914>, accessed 20 November 2014. With these words, offered in support of Great Britain on 31 July 1914 by the leader of the Opposition and soon-to-be Prime Minister Andrew Fisher, Australia’s involvement in the First World War began, even before the war itself became fully global. It was another four days before Great Britain declared war on Germany, thereby obligating the participation in conflict of a barely adolescent Australia that had become a federation only thirteen years earlier and which still felt itself to be British in most aspects except self-governance.
While uniting the military forces of Australia’s six formerly separate British colonies, the Defence Act of 1903 had specifically vetoed the deployment of soldiers in offensive operations outside Australian territory. In 1911, however, compulsory national service had been introduced for all males in Australia, with boys serving as cadets from the age of twelve and all those eighteen years and older required to train as the Citizen Military Forces. Thus a certain culture of military participation was already in place when the Australian government, having promised troops to aid Great Britain’s war effort, called for voluntary enrolments to form a new overseas army, the Australian Imperial Force (AIF), on 10 August 1914. Recruitment posters advertising the war as a great adventure incorporating world travel, combined with the genuine patriotism of Australia’s young men and a degree of peer group rivalry, contributed to an immediate surge in volunteers. At the start of November 1914 at Albany, Western Australia, 20,000 new Australian recruits, along with 8500 members of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF), sailed for Europe in a convoy of ships.
Both the AIF and NZEF found themselves diverted to British-controlled Egypt for training in warmer climes than a winter-bound England, and where their presence could also help defend the vital Suez Canal supply route from possible attack by Ottoman forces commanded by Turkey, Germany’s ally in the war. Stationed outside Cairo, the AIF and NZEF troops underwent months of intensive training under the command of General William Birdwood. The two forces were then combined into a new military body, the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, or ANZAC.
As a nation allied with Germany in what had rapidly become a Europe-wide conflict, Turkey posed a threat on the easternmost border of the continent. Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, thus proposed a naval assault on Turkey at the Dardanelles, a narrow strait in the west of that country that provided a maritime gateway to the Turkish capital, Constantinople (Istanbul). When this failed, the British government decided to undertake a manned attack against the Turkish garrisons stationed on either side of the Dardanelles that protected this shipping route. The Gallipoli Peninsula, on the western side of the Dardanelles, was selected as the site for this planned invasion.
Leadership of the military operation on the Gallipoli Peninsula was given to an experienced and intelligent veteran of the Boer Wars, General Sir Ian Hamilton. At his first briefing with the British Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener, Hamilton realised the difficult task he had been charged with:
In those old Pretoria days I had known the Transvaal by heart; the number, value and disposition of the British forces; the characters of the Boer leaders; the nature of the country. But my knowledge of the Dardanelles was nil; of the Turk, nil; of the strength of our own forces next to nil.2General Sir Ian Hamilton, Gallipoli Diary, George H. Doran, New York, 1920, vol. 1, p. 2.
However, he recognised the calibre of the soldiers placed under his command:
My troops were to be Australians and New Zealanders under Birdwood (a friend); strength, say, about 30,000. (A year ago I inspected them in their own Antipodes and no finer material exists)’.3ibid.
Thousands more British, French, Indian and Nepalese troops joined with the ANZAC forces for the invasion of the Gallipoli Peninsula. The French landed on the Turkish mainland on the eastern side of the Dardanelles, at Kunkale, while most of the British troops disembarked at various points around the southern tip of the Gallipoli Peninsula and the western side of the Dardanelles. The ANZAC forces, however, beginning at dawn on 25 April 1915, were disembarked at a small cove between two headlands on the north-west side of the Gallipoli Peninsula, facing the Aegean Sea. Here they immediately met with unexpectedly hellish conditions.
From the outset, Hamilton’s command of the ANZACs was hampered by outdated and inaccurate maps of the region. The Australian and New Zealand troops had been delivered not to their intended destination further south, where the terrain was supposedly more hospitable. Instead they found themselves on a narrow beach overlooked by high hills that were studded with Turkish machine guns and cannons. When news of the ANZAC landing reached the Turkish commander Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk), he swiftly reinforced the Turkish defence, who rained down a hail of bullets and shells upon the cove beneath them. Of the 15,000 ANZAC troops who were disembarked on 25 April, some 2000 were killed or wounded on that day alone, one-tenth of the young recruits who had so enthusiastically set out from Albany the previous November. Nonetheless, the beach was secured and defended throughout the terrible barrage of Turkish gunfire, and on 29 April 1915 was named Anzac Cove by General Birdwood in honour of the bravery displayed there by the Australian and New Zealand forces. Further south, the British forces also met with a similar disaster, the British command having seriously underestimated both the difficulty of the terrain and the strength of the Turkish defence.
The horror of this first day of combat for the newly formed ANZACs was followed by a deadly campaign of attrition that lasted another eight months. Wave after wave of ANZAC attacks attempted to penetrate into the Gallipoli Peninsula, leading to bloody engagements over relatively small patches of terrain. The Battle of Lone Pine in August 1915, for example, saw some 1500 Turkish soldiers and more than 2000 ANZACs die fighting over a few hundred metres of land. Only in December 1915 did the British command, finally recognising that the Gallipoli Peninsula could not be taken, at last end the Gallipoli campaign and evacuate the surviving soldiers from the region.
More than 8000 Australian and almost 3000 New Zealand soldiers died on the Gallipoli Peninsula, while tens of thousands more were wounded or maimed during the abortive conflict. While the ANZAC forces were subsequently to engage in many other theatres of the First World War, in Europe and the Middle East, where they also suffered appalling casualties, it was at Gallipoli that the ANZACs were first tested, and first demonstrated their bravery, tenacity and comradeship in battle.
Ted Gott is Senior Curator, International Art, National Gallery of Victoria
Jonathan Curtis, ‘ “To the last man” – Australia’s entry to war in 1914’, Parliament of Australia Research Papers, <www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Library/ pubs/rp/rp1415/AustToWar1914>, accessed 20 November 2014.
General Sir Ian Hamilton, Gallipoli Diary, George H. Doran, New York, 1920, vol. 1, p. 2.