The Landing at Anzac 1915, Australian Army Campaign Series – 12
by Chris Roberts
Big Sky Publishing
Published March, 2013
The Ottoman Defence against the Anzac Landing, 25 April 1915, Australian Army Campaign Series -16
by Mesut Uyar
Big Sky Publishing
Published March, 2015
On Anzac Day, Australian culture anticipates what it confirms: the sending of long-range military expeditions to encourage and support wars in which British or American forces are engaged. Just as there is no serious parliamentary debate over decisions to go to war in the political culture, no interest in ‘war powers’ reform, which might minimise that power in the executive as there has been in Britain, there is little if any questioning of these issues in Australian literary culture either.
I’ve made the argument here on the Sydney Review of Books that Australian histories of the Great War are generally part of an imperial romance that floats free from any workable Australian national framework. With no sense of an independent political or strategic context, the narrative of our military history has nowhere else to go – other than into the usual strands of Anzac indulgence. The strand explored in my last essay for the SRB is the social history of war, in which a rhetorical fixation on ‘the horror of war’ generally masks uncritical acceptance of Australian participation in the conflicts that produce all the horror – and that are unrelated to any clear threat to Australia.
The two other main strands can be readily identified. One is the hagiography of imperial generals, initiated by Charles Bean in Two Men I Knew (1957). The other is the ‘blokey’ digger narrative stemming from general interest in what Bean’s Official History (1921-42) calls the ‘the mettle of the men’. While these strands still do much to bind the academic arm of our military history, Les Carlyon and Peter Fitzsimons are their most popular exponents today.
The works under review, both by soldier-scholars, join a small body of writing that avoids the usual Anzac romanticism. One would expect this of Mesut Uyar, a former Turkish army officer now working as an historian of the Ottoman military in Australia. His aim is to tell us about ‘the other side of the hill’ – surely an apt metaphor in a Gallipoli narrative. But what his work shares with that of Chris Roberts, a former Australian army officer and now historian of the Gallipoli landing, is the strong impulse to follow primary evidence and build their subjects from the bottom up.
They also build their stories from the inside out. Something else that is rare in Australian military writing is that our authors share a military voice, one that stems from inside knowledge of the organisation and discipline that soldiers depend on to withstand the chaos of war. When such a voice is well informed and inflected with critical acumen, it tends to be well suited to detached analysis of the concrete circumstances of military history; in this case, the cultural contexts, key decisions and battlefield tactics that shaped both sides in the Gallipoli campaign to the point where it was won or lost on 25 April 1915.
Our authors provide interlocking views of the battle, which stand within the independent national contexts their method creates. A radically new understanding of the battle, which is central to Australian identity, falls into place.
Uyar’s Preface tells us that histories of the battle are just as popular in Turkey as they are in Australia – however he notes two cultural differences: Turkish readers are not as interested in their former enemy as Australian readers are in theirs; and, unlike the Australian narrative, in which individual soldiers are routinely named and discussed, Turkish histories have tended to maintain a ‘collective’ view, in which the army rather than any individual is given credit. With the exception of the father of the Turkish Republic Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the highly detailed Turkish Official Military History rarely even names divisional commanders, let alone field officers and soldiers who fought the battles.
By giving faces and feelings to such men and often naming even junior Anzac officers, The Ottoman Defence against the Anzac Landing suggests a change in the ‘collective’ Ottoman-Turkish view. Uyar’s balanced biographical comments on the great leader Kemal also suggest such a change: ‘he did not stop the Anzacs single-handedly as generally portrayed’, but was ‘instrumental in the early success of the Ottoman defence, committing the 57th Regiment to the fight against the Anzac landing without authorisation, placing his career on the line on 25 April’. The careers and deeds of more junior officers who played important roles in the battle are also discussed: Major Hüseyin Anvi, the Commander of the 57th Regiment and, especially, Lieutenant-Colonel Mehmed Sefik, the commander of the 27th Regiment, who was ‘the best regimental officer in the Ottoman Army’.
As a former combat officer, Uyar is well placed to make such pronouncements. Yet, as his focus on individuals suggests, his book ranges far beyond the battlefield. The Ottoman Army at Gallipoli was an imperial one. But it was not the inherently feeble force of 1915 Western imagination; it did not conform to the prevailing attitude among British war leaders who, as David French puts it, began the Gallipoli campaign ‘as if it was to be no more than a large-scale punitive expedition against a recalcitrant native regime, and not against a serious military power’. Given the outcome of the battle on 25 April 1915, Uyar’s overarching point has to be that the Ottoman Army at Gallipoli was, indeed, a serious one, and that it had the same strengths and weaknesses as any modern fighting force.
And so we have an Ottoman-Turkish narrative of democratisation and modernisation. The first chapter is entitled ‘Military Reforms and the German Military Assistance Mission’ – which arrived in Constantinople on 13 December 1913 led by Field Marshal Liman von Sanders. In the 1912-13 Balkan Wars, a still highly politicised, polyglot Ottoman Army set in medieval agrarian socio-economic conditions had been defeated by a coalition of small Balkan states; the empire had lost all its European provinces. In the resulting outcry, partisan politics and infighting among the officer corps were presented as the root cause. Uyar reminds us that, before the 1908 revolution reinstated the 1876 constitution and returned to parliamentary rule, religious, ethnic and regional differences in the vast empire meant that Sultan Abdülhamid II (1876-1909) was so suspicious of some of his regiments that the troops were confined to barracks and not permitted to train.
We learn nonetheless that attempts had been made to analyse and incorporate German military methods since 1885. Hundreds of officers had been sent to Germany for training. The post-1909 military reforms of the significantly named Committee of Union and Progress – led by the ‘Young Turks’ Enver, Cemal and Talat Bey – had also initiated changes. The introduction of a streamlined divisional organisation produced more combat power. The development of a professional corps of Non-Commissioned Officers stiffened the ranks. Military education was made less theoretical. This had still not been enough in 1912. But spurred by fear that the empire would collapse and a desire to wipe away the shame of defeat, the Ottomans reinvigorated the reform program in 1913, while thousands of ‘political’ and other officers who had failed the empire in the Balkan Wars were purged.
Other factors that conditioned the Ottoman defence against Anzac come out in the next chapter. Ottoman III Corps based on the Dardanelles area in 1912-13 was one of the rare formations to avoid the post-Balkan War purge with its fighting reputation intact. (An Ottoman army corps usually had three infantry divisions, and a division three regiments. Ideally, a regiment was 3300 men strong, a division 12000 men and, on that basis, a corps 36,000 men, although it also contained many combat support and combat service units.) With the 2 August 1914 mobilisation – two months before the Ottoman declaration of war on 2 November – III Corps was tasked to reinforce the Gallipoli Peninsula against a possible enemy landing. Its total strength was 43,000 men plus logistics and commissariat troops.
This was not the only formation in the area. The narrow straits between the Gallipoli Peninsula and Asian shore of the Dardanelles on the approaches to the Sea of Marmara and Constantinople had been of strategic importance to the Ottoman Empire for centuries. Therefore, in 1914 the modernised Dardanelles Fortified Zone Command (FZC) assisted by German advisors defended the Straits, which were 61-kilometres long and one to six wide. The FZC numbered 25,000 men, and its main defences consisted of 14 fixed forts clustered mainly at the heads and narrow points of the Straits, 40 mobile field artillery batteries and initially eight (later eleven) mine belts.
An Italian fleet made virtually no impression on the forts guarding the head of the Straits, when it attacked them on 18 April 1912. The fleet fired 400 hundred shells at the forts and only managed to inflict moderate damage on one building. On 2 November 1914 four British and French warships did little more than draw attention to Allied interest in the area when they mounted a noisy ‘demonstration’ against the same forts. We might add that this British attack took place without any declaration of war and was thus in breach of international law.
Ten days later on 12 November, Major-General Esad Pasha, hero of the defence of Janina in the Balkan Wars, was appointed to command III Corps. Uyar tells us that he had a clear idea of the requirements of the ground defence against modern weapon systems. He promoted capable officers, trained his 7th, 9th and 19th Divisions and improved logistics.
Neither was III Corps going to be a push over when many of its soldiers were from the Dardanelles area. This was particularly so of the 27th Regiment (of the 9th Division), which would do much under Mehmed Sefik to turn the battle against the Anzacs on 25 April. Unlike the Anzacs who were on an imperial expedition – many saw it as an adventure – the men of the 27th were immediately defending their families and farmlands on the Gallipoli peninsula. Anvi’s 57th Regiment was also recruited from the region, although from the area around the Sea of Marmara, some 200 kilometres to the north.
On taking command of the 27th Regiment in November 1914, Sefik conducted a reconnaissance of the Gallipoli coastline. He decided immediately that Ari Burnu (Anzac region) would be critical terrain and, while driving his troops relentlessly to develop defensive positions, ‘waited impatiently for the landing to materialise.’ Lieutenant-Colonel Mustapha Kemal was appointed Commander of the 19th Division on 20 January 1915 – and it arrived at Gallipoli on 26 February.
Uyar provides a good introduction to the successful Ottoman defence of the Straits, after the disastrous British attempt ‘to force the Dardanelles’ in a purely naval attack between 19 February and 18 March. Expert naval and military opinion was that, for technical reasons, naval gunfire was incapable of silencing the forts without a supporting army on the ground. A purely naval attack was nonetheless launched for political reasons.
The assault began when an Allied British-French fleet bombarded the outer forts between 19 and 25 February. The naval bombardment did not destroy the guns in those fortifications; that only happened after Royal Marines were landed against little opposition to blow them up with guncotton. This encouraged the Allies to move on to the next stage of their attack. The Ottomans were not so happy; they took that failure ‘seriously’ and redoubled their defensive arrangements.
The next phase of the Allied naval attack went in at 10.30 am on 18 March. A powerful fleet under Admiral Sir Sackville Carden entered the Straits arrayed in four battle lines, firing salvo after salvo at the forts. Suddenly, the French battleship Bouvet hit a mine. Simultaneously a shell from the shore batteries seemed to score a direct hit on the ship’s magazine. The great vessel sank within three minutes and 640 sailors – almost its entire crew – went to the bottom. Two more battleships, HMS Ocean and HMS Irresistible were sunk on the same belt of mines with the further loss of some 60 sailors. Four other British ships were crippled and many others were hit by the Ottoman field artillery. Carden had a nervous collapse and was replaced by Admiral Sir John de Robeck. Ottoman losses were 100 men and four guns destroyed. The British decided on a ground attack, one which would use the Anzacs along with British, French and Indian troops to recover the situation.
On 23 March, five days after the defeat of the Allied naval attack, Field Marshal Liman von Sanders was sent to Gallipoli to take command of the 5th Army. Esad Pasha’s III Corps was a principle formation of 5th Army and Kemal’s 19th Division was the Army’s main strategic reserve. Yet Uyar makes the important point that the von Sanders appointment lends no support to a stereotype in Anzac literature, that imperial, race-based stereotype that attributes Ottoman success at Gallipoli to German advisors. The Ottomans had reignited the reform program before the German mission arrived in 1913 and saw its role as helping with the political purge of the officer corps. At Gallipoli, von Sanders actually disrupted the Ottoman defence plans.
Rather than push the defences forward along the coastline, as the Ottoman plan did, von Sanders believed in deploying light screening forces along the coast and massing strong mobile reserves and supplies in the interior. Uyar argues that, while the absence of roads severely restricted mobility on the peninsular, its narrow mountainous terrain also precluded the manoeuvre von Sanders had in mind. Yet the German Field Marshal’s plan prevailed and his inflexibility created ‘incendiary’ relations with Ottoman officers.
The point to underline is double-edged. When the Anzacs attacked, the fraught relations between von Sanders and his Ottoman subordinates would create a ‘crisis in command’. Yet what came out of that crisis would eventually win the day on 25 April: the independent action of Kemal, greatly assisted by Sefik; independent action that went with the push for reform in modern Ottoman-Turkish history.
Roberts prefaces his work with the observation that many in Australia and New Zealand identify the Gallipoli landing with their ‘nationhood’. The allusion here is, of course, to Charles Bean’s Official History (1921-42), which has for a century been the benchmark account of the Gallipoli landing and a primary source of the (inspirational) assertion that, ‘on 25 April 1915, the consciousness of Australian nationhood was born.’ Distancing himself from this position, Roberts adds that the popular understanding of the battle is ‘wrapped in myths and misconceptions’. So also, we must assume, the same fallacies flaw the popular sense of nation.
It is obvious that no battle of an Australian Imperial Force could have given birth to an Australian nation; Bean’s assertion is based on a contradiction in terms. And indeed, the power of The Landing at Anzac 1915 lies in the clarity with which its eleven rigorously researched chapters show that, far from being the independent national narrative Bean suggests, the story of Anzac is still a function of colonial insecurity. Roberts shows how that story is a narrative of excuses for the failure of our imperial involvement at Gallipoli. We will discuss three of the main ones here.
Quite the reverse of Uyar, who builds his book on a broad reforming front, Roberts builds on a conspicuously narrow front. His first chapter is called ‘The Instruments of War.’ We learn immediately that a platoon of 80 trained Ottoman riflemen armed with the 1903 Mauser 7.65 mm rifle sighted to 2000 meters could fire 1600 rounds per minute. The .303 inch Lee Enfield rifle had comparable characteristics in the hands of a 50-man British platoon. A heavy Maxim machine-gun operated by four men and sighted to 2000 metres fired 500 rounds per minute. Roberts, a former Special Air Service Officer in Vietnam and a Military Attaché in Washington, knows about guns. Rather than take us down the path of Anzac kitsch, as so many of our military histories do, he knows how to get us into a battle.
This admirable focus in The Landing at Anzac 1915 is leavened with broad cultural awareness. The early chapters of the book attune contemporary Australian readers to the characteristics of the opposing forces. We have a balanced account of Ottoman defence plans, meet the likes of Esad Pasha and find that the author’s reading of an English translation of Sefik’s account of the landing influences his narrative.
In this comparative context, it is difficult to avoid the detail that, far from the light sprinkling of German advisors in the Ottoman Army, four of the eight senior Anzac commanders were serving British officers. Lieutenant-General Sir William Birdwood commanded the Anzac Corps consisting of the 1st Australian Division and the 2nd New Zealand and Australian Division (NZ&A Division); Major-General Sir Alexander Godley commanded the NZ&A Division; and Colonels Ewan Sinclair-MacLagan and Francis Johnson commanded an infantry brigade (roughly equivalent to an Ottoman regiment) in each of the divisions. Major-General William Throsby-Bridges, who commanded the Australian Division and Colonel Cyril Bingham Brudenell White, his Chief of Staff, had long spells working with the British Army in Britain. Perhaps, 40 per cent per cent of the initial Australian Imperial Force (AIF), including Bridges, was born in Britain.
The nub of Roberts’ work is, then, its independent critique of the 25 April 1915 failure of that imperial array. In order to show how effectively this critique deals with Bean’s excuses for the disaster, it will be helpful to first clarify the Division’s intended objectives at the landing, as per its original orders.
MAP 1 1st Australian Division Plan for the landing. A blue box with a cross inside it indicates an infantry unit. Such a box surmounted by X indicates a 4000-man brigade consisting of four infantry battalions each 1000-men strong. Such a box surmounted with II indicates a battalion, consisting of four companies each 200 men strong plus administrative elements. A box surmounted with I indicates a company, consisting of four platoons each 50 men strong. The objectives of 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, ,9th,10th,11th and 12th Battalions of the 2nd and 3rd Brigades are indicated. A, B, C and D indicates the companies in the relevant battalions. Note that the term ‘Second Ridge’ does not appear on Map 1. However, that term was used on the day to refer to the parallel ridge northwest of ‘Third Ridge’, the one extending from the ‘Baby 700’ and ‘Battleship Hill’ features southwest to around the ‘400 Plateau’, which are marked. Reproduced by permission Australian Army History Unit.
Landing immediately south of Anzac Cove, the 3rd Brigade was ordered to occupy a covering position with the 11th Battalion taking Chunuk Bair and the head of Third Ridge, the 10th taking the central portion of Third Ridge, and the 9th in two groups taking the lower end of the ridge and Gaba Tepe. The 12th Battalion was to form the brigade reserve. Following on, and echeloned slightly north to include Anzac Cove, the 2nd Brigade was to push up the main range and take Hill Q and Hill 971 with the 5th, 7th and 8th battalions, leaving the 6th in reserve on Battleship Hill. The 1st Brigade, which is not indicated on the map above, was the division’s reserve.
We come to the first excuse for the failure of that plan: the Anzacs were landed in the wrong place. Paraphrasing MacLagan, Bean complained in his Official History (1921) that the navy landed the Anzacs in ‘the rough country a mile north of the proper place.’ Many other works have since maintained this grievance.
While Roberts is not the first to dispute this claim, he cleanly dispatches it. He points out that when MacLagan’s men hit the beach just before dawn, it was only 1100-1400 yards north of the planned landing zone. This was well within the margin for error of an amphibious night assault. (The US 4th Infantry Division missed Utah Beach by 2000 yards in broad daylight using the new gyro compasses in the D-Day Landings at Normandy in 1944.) As Roberts argues, that ‘error’ in the Anzac landing may in any case have been an advantage. The actual approach landed the left flank of the Anzac assault 800 yards closer to its objective on Chunuk Bair than it would otherwise have been and landed the right flank away from the Ottoman defences as Gaba Tepe that would have enfiladed it in the intended line of attack.
We come to the second excuse for the failure of the landing: many Anzacs have insisted there was heavy machine-gun fire to greet them at the moment of the landing. Bean makes some references to machine-guns, but a more colourful example may be taken from Albert Facey’s celebrated memoir A Fortunate Life (1983):
the Turks had machine-guns sweeping the strip of beach where we landed – there were many dead already when we got there. Bodies of men ahead of us were lying all along the beach … the Turkish fire was terrible and mowing into us … Men were falling all around.’
Roberts gives the lie to this fabrication by explaining that Facey did not arrive at Gallipoli until 7 May, twelve days after the landing.
The myth is of course far bigger than Facey. Anzac literature generally misses the fact that the von Sanders plan meant that only a light force defended the beaches in the immediate landing area. This was an 80-man Ottoman platoon commanded by Deputy Officer Muharrem, which screened the coastline from south of Gaba Tepe to north of Anzac Beach, and which was not armed with machine-guns. Neither was the platoon defending the area north of the Anzac landing-zone around Fisherman’s Hut. Uyar’s book reinforces Roberts’s conclusions; he writes:
Neither in the Ottoman documents nor in personal war narratives is there any mention of machine-guns at Ari Burnu or Gaba Tepe during the landings. In fact, there are many entries clearly stating that the machine-guns were deliberately kept in reserve.
This was until the battle developed and it was clear where the best use of their small numbers could be made.
An Ottoman machine-gun company deployed as a battery showing three of the four guns. The fourth gun is out of the photo to the right. Each pair of guns (a platoon) is supported by a range finder team, with the company commander located between the two platoons. A platoon could be deployed separately, but the guns were kept in pairs because of the tendency of the Maxim to jam. AWM A00577 (Public Domain).
Both the Ottoman 27th and 57th Regiments, which were brought into battle against the Anzacs on 25 April, had a Maxim machine-gun company of four guns, organized into two platoons and employed in pairs or supporting platoons. The 27th did not begin to move its company forward from its reserve near Maidos on pack-horses a distance of 8.5 kilometers from the front until after 6.00am. The 57th did not begin to move its machine-guns from Boghali some 5 kilometres until 8.00am. Therefore, no machine-guns were in firing positions against the Anzacs before about 10am to 10.30am.
The erroneous, widespread belief that machine-guns raked the beach can be readily explained. The Australians had minimal training with the weapons and few had been in battle before. Rumours circulate rapidly among soldiers in stressful situations. The steam boats pulling the tows into the beach were mounted with Maxim machine-guns that opened fire as soon as the first Ottoman rifle shots rang out about 4.30am. Roberts thinks some confused the enemy rifle fire with what really was their own supporting machine-gun fire, and the mistake was circulated in the ‘rumour mill’. It is virtually impossible to distinguish machine gun and rifle fire when the firing is intense. Another important major factor was bravado: the machine-gun story helped the Anzacs to cover their embarrassment at the failure of the landing.
So did the associated myth of the heavy casualties on the beach. Roberts publishes a photo of Anzac Cove taken between 5.30am and 6am that ‘disproves’ the myth. In fact, the photo shows no more than two lumps on the beach that might have represented bodies on it.
The heaviest fighting around the beaches was at North Beach where Australians ran into a squad of nine Ottoman riflemen who fiercely defended their area. Farther south in Anzac Cove, where the bulk of the landing forces came ashore some members of the Ottoman Platoon looked out over the beach from the heights on Plugge’s Plateau and Hell Spit and fired in the dark over a considerable distance on the incoming boats. For his part, Uyar again supports Roberts by criticising Muharrem for being slow to react to the amphibious landing force and not manning the main trenches, which had been prepared, farther forward on Ari Burnu knoll at Anzac Cove. Overall, Roberts calculated that Anzac numerical superiority in the immediate area of the landing was around 28:1.
What went wrong after that? Bean’s Official History notes in passing that, about 7am, some on the ships standing off Anzac Cove – presumably including him – were aware of Anzacs ‘digging, walking and apparently talking together unconcernedly’ on the high ridges. Yet he never explained why they were digging in, or why in the apparent absence of enemy pressure the troops were not indeed following the divisional plan and moving forward to their objectives.
The terrain was difficult. But as well as conducting exhaustive research, Roberts has looked at the ground with an infantryman’s eye. And he argues persuasively that, while a tactical victory was unlikely to have led to the realisation of the campaign’s strategic goals – which British war leaders never thought through – the landing could have conceivably achieved its tactical aims, if the Anzacs had pushed on up the high ground and taken the area around Chunuk Bair on the left. The orders required the 3rd and 2nd Brigades to do that. And as Bean indicated there seemed to be no enemy pressure on them around 7am.
We come to the third main excuse for the failure of the landing, which is also the central one. Bean claims vaguely that from sometime between 9am and 10am MacLagan decided to reinforce the left of the Anzac line, but goes on to say that he was unable to do so, because most of the troops that had come ashore by then had ‘already gone into the fighting on the other flank’, namely the right, and the Anzac line was so ‘seriously threatened’ on the left that ‘at 10.15am MacLagan [had said] … it was doubtful if he could hold on.’ As we will see, that heavy attack, which Bean recorded from around 10am was not real. The point to stress here, however, concerns what Bean did not say about MacLagan’s handling of the situation.
The explosive point of The Landing at Anzac is that for reasons we will never know MacLagan changed the course of the battle not long after 5am by ordering the Anzacs to dig-in defensively along Second Ridge – thus contradicting his orders at a time when there was no objective justification for doing so. He ‘tore up the battle plan’ at a time when Roberts shows the tactical situation overwhelmingly favoured the Anzacs. By 6.30 the 3rd Brigade had punched a gaping hole in the Ottoman defences, scattering Muharrem’s 2nd Platoon, while Lieutenants Noel Loutit and Eric Plant were leading small Anzac groups onto Third Ridge. Only elements of another Ottoman platoon offered resistance on Baby 700 against the Australians at The Nek. The remainder of Sefik’s 27th Regiment was an hour away from reaching the southern end of Third Ridge, while Kemal and the 19th Division are waiting at Boghali.
In relation to Loutit, who was one of the few to reach Third Ridge, it is worth noting that, still lucid in his eighties, he partly inspired Roberts’ work. In 1978 the two had a conversation in which he said he thought the 3rd Brigade could have reached its objectives on Third Ridge and Chunuk Bair ahead of the Ottoman 27th and 57th Regiments, but in Loutit’s words: ‘They didn’t seem to want to come’. That Plant was able to reach the southern part of the ridge also indicates that others could have done so.
When the Divisional Commander Major-General Bridges came ashore at 7.20am he did not redress the situation. Roberts makes it clear that Bridges, who had never commanded troops in action before, reinforced MacLagan’s error. As more troops landed, Bridges tended to respond to MacLagan’s calls for reinforcements and never really got a grip of the battle. He attempted to send some troops to the left and centre of the line, but not many got there because of weak discipline and control. The Anzac line then became increasingly exposed to any Ottoman advance onto and down the high ground on the left. Neither the misplaced landing nor the non-existent machine-guns covering the beaches led to the failure of the landing; MacLagan’s order to dig in did.
The striking newness of this analysis is in one respect a compliment to Bean’s work: it reminds us of the enduring influence of his Official History. Sometimes we come across Bean’s authority in books where, at first sight, it would appear to be finished. Robin Prior’s Gallipoli: The End of the Myth (2009) is an example. Prior claims Bean’s influence is superseded, but working on thin military knowledge he still garbles MacLagan’s situation and leaves us no wiser about his fateful impact on the battle. A less ambitious sub-title, which can’t get away from Bean’s influence, is the one Ashley Ekins used on the cover of his edited volume Gallipoli: A ridge too far (2013). And if ever such a ridge confronted MacLagan, the one that appears before him in the 2014 Penguin paperback reprint of Bean’s concise 567- page history Anzac to Amiens (1946) is described as being ‘impossible’. Bean’s influence seems set to continue.
Yet the depth of his influence also becomes the measure of Roberts’ insight. In the light of his penetrating work we can now see how misleading if not propagandistic the standard version of the landing that Bean bequeathed to Australian culture is. Reading Roberts we can now stand outside the imperial romance that so deceptively asserted the advent of Australian ‘nationhood’ on 25 April 1915.
This is all the more so in light of the radically new account of the Ottoman counter-attack detailed by both Uyar and Roberts. For their accounts drive home Robert’s unprecedented demolition of Bean’s excuse for MacLagan’s inaction during the battle.
Bean’s version of the counter-attack was in fact built into that excuse: his claim that serious enemy action on the left flank from around 10am was partly responsible for preventing him from reinforcing it. A problem with this excuse, however, is that the counter-attack did not begin at 10am.
At that time, Roberts shows that Bridges and MacLagan still had a preponderance of force of about twelve Anzac battalions to three Ottoman battalions or some 5:1 in manpower (although the Ottomans had five mountain guns in action and the Anzacs had none). We must also emphasise that the Baby 700 feature was reinforced for a further four to five hours after 10am, even though those reinforcement proved to be ineffective, because they arrived piecemeal in company rather than battalion size groups. The New Zealand Auckland Battalion landed between 10am-10.30am and was ordered to reinforce the high ground. After various complications, some of the Battalion was diverted, but still, two of its companies got through to Baby 700 as late as 2.30 pm.
Another reason Bean is wrong is that, as both Uyar and Roberts show, the Ottoman counter-attack against the Anzac landing did not and, indeed, could not have developed until around midday.
Bean was clearly unaware of the ‘crisis in command’ that created a large problem for the Ottomans between 4.30am and about 5.30am. It has long been known that von Sanders still thought the Anzac landing was a feint and so left Gallipoli for Bulair, where he thought for another two days the main attack would materialise. Esad Pasha was dismayed by his Army Commander’s behaviour, but remained loyal to him and followed him to Bulair. Uyar is, then, the first author to tell us about the ‘crisis’ that occurred in III Corps, as Esad’s move disrupted the chain of command at Gallipoli. Esad’s 9th and 19th Divisions were left in the difficult position of having to make decisions for themselves.
At Maidos, 8.5 kilometres behind the front, Sefik, who was one of the 9th Division’s regimental commanders, realised soon after 5am that, as he had long anticipated, the main assault was coming in around Ari Burnu. But Esad had gone to Boghali and confusing reports were coming in. Sefik wanted to get his 27th Regiment and its supporting machine-guns and artillery forward to Third Ridge before the invaders did. He finally received authorisation to move from Maidos around 6am and reached Third Ridge with the head of his column at about 7.40 am. And ‘with the head of his column’ are key words here: with some 3300 men plus the heavy weapons units strung out in what were initially two columns over eight kilometres across the mountains, it would have taken considerable time – at least an hour – for the last men to reach their destination. Indeed, Sefik’s ‘lost’ mountain artillery battery did not arrive until 10.30am and was not ready to fire until 11am. Sefik did put in some immediate attacks to push a few small Anzac advance posts off the western slopes of Third Ridge. But there was still much time consuming reorganisation to carry out before a fully-fledged counter-attack could commence. Orders had to go down from regiment to battalion, company, platoon and squad levels. The troops had to move to their assembly areas and shake out into their assault formations.
Farther north at Boghali, Kemal also realised quickly that the Anzac attack was no mere feint; that if the Anzacs reached the high ground at Chunuk Bair on the Sari Bair range they would cut the peninsula in half. Both Uyar and Roberts give excellent summations of the evidence surrounding Kemal’s move forward to Chunuk Bair. We have seen that his 19th Division was the Fifth Army’s main reserve. For Kemal to move his entire division – the 57th, 72nd and 77th Regiments – without authorisation from von Sanders, would be, as Uyar puts it, ‘clearly disobeying orders’. Kemal’s reluctance to do that may well have delayed his departure.
Uyar thinks that, after leaving Boghali on his own initiative at 8.10am, Kemal reached Chunuk Bair over at least five mountainous kilometres with the head of the 57th Regiment, commanded by Major Hüseyin Anvi at about 10am. Note again that was when the head of the first of its four columns arrived, and that the 57th had to reorganise before it could put in a counter-attack from Chunuk Bair onto the left of the Anzac line. Bean’s 10am timing for the counter-attack does not stand up to scrutiny on a number of counts – which strongly suggests that the purpose of his account of it was generally to obfuscate the some seven hours between 5am and around midday, in which most of MacLagan’s line did little more than dig-in defensively in the face of minimal enemy.
Uyar has the counter-attack developing between 11.30am and 12.30pm; Roberts times it at 12.30pm. By then the Anzac outposts on Lone Pine at the southern end of Second Ridge were in any case engaged in fierce fighting with elements of Sefik’s 27th Regiment. Elements of the 27th were also in heavy contact with the Anzacs farther north along Second Ridge towards the high ground. Sefik’s counterattack was thus coordinated with the Kemal-Anvi attack, as the 57th Regiment came down on the Anzac left from Chunk Bair.
By 1.30pm, Anvi’s men had, with the assistance of salvos from Sefik’s mountain artillery in the south, pushed Captain Eric Tulloch’s party off the most advanced Anzac position on Battle Ship Hill. Bean put the size of Tulloch’s party at 60 men. Roberts rather counts a composite company of some 160 men. Whatever the number, despite gallant fighting, the Anzac slide down the slope was on. Next to go around 4pm to 4.30pm were some four Anzac battalions from Baby 700 that fell back in the face of artillery bombardments and heavy attacks, leaving a large unknown number of dead and seriously wounded on the feature. Anzac units then evacuated Mortar Ridge and The Nek after also being weakened by artillery fire. By late afternoon the Anzacs had lost the high ground on their left, while their useless right held out stoutly on the western edge of Second Ridge.
By 5pm the Ottoman counter-attacks were petering out. At 6pm Kemal suspended them, although the fighting raged into the night. A night attack he launched came to little more than the disintegration of his 77th Regiment, a largely Arab unit, whose ethnicity was wrongly blamed by the Ottoman command for its failure, in Uyar’s view. The problem Kemal then faced and never overcame was how to throw the Anzacs out of their precarious beachhead into the Aegean Sea.
Meantime, the Anzac leadership realised late on 25 April that it had lost the ground of tactical importance and, thus, the battle. Their line along Second Ridge was in danger of being rolled up from the high ground on the left and there were reports of unwounded Anzacs leaving parts of the line.
Bridges and Godley called the Corps Commander Birdwood ashore at 8 pm and asked that the force be evacuated. Birdwood was shocked, but reluctantly raised the request with the British Army Commander General Hamilton. Since the navy was unable to evacuate the troops, Hamilton told them to ‘dig, dig, dig.’ Braced by the realisation of Royal Navy incapacity, dig they did. The panic passed.
For reasons beyond the scope of the two books, a stalemate followed and the campaign dragged on with no serious prospect of Anzac success until their withdrawal in December 1915 and the story passed into myth. This is the myth Bean built into the Anzac tradition when he evaded the truth about what determined the outcome of the Anzac landing: MacLagan’s decision to dig-in and failure to occupy the high ground, which the Ottoman counter-attack confirmed from around midday on the first afternoon.
The good news is that, retailing most readable precision, two qualified military historians writing from opposite points of the compass have now alerted us to the ignorance and lazy conformity the myth nurtures in the romance of our military history to this day.
As indicated, it is commonly asserted that Bean’s work has been superseded. That may be the case in the operational thinking of such professional military historians as those who have already endorsed the new critique of the battle by Roberts and Uyar – Peter Pedersen, Peter Stanley, David Horner, Chris Pugsley and others. Yet it is also the case that no operational history can be stabilised outside a strong political and strategic context. The point about the landing is not that it failed – we all know that it did not turn out well – even Bean knew that. The point is rather about how effectively his Official History buried the story of the landing, so as, wittingly or otherwise, to obscure the causes of the failure and to thicken the web of imperial significance in which the Anzac romance and much of our military history are together suspended.
The very considerable service Roberts and Uyar have done us is to clarify this point in their interlocking national narratives.
Uyar’s work represents more than the Ottoman reform agenda and the way it shaped the Ottoman defence the Anzac landing. He refers occasionally to the ‘Turkish War of Independence, 1919-22’, in which Mustapha Kemal led the forces of the Turkish Republic as it rose from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. Mehemed Sefik also rose to command the Republican 57nd Division. This does not mean that the Ottoman soldiers who held off the Anzacs were fighting for some elite notion of nationalism; they were men of the empire, many guarding their families and fields. Yet those marginal references to the War of Independence remind us that, effectively, Uyar’s modernising, reformist narrative has an Ottoman-Turkish trajectory. When he tells us that the Ottomans took their failures ‘seriously’ or that their human wave tactics in the counter-attack on 25 April came ‘to represent the waste of life that characterised the [Gallipoli] campaign’, his narrative is a Turkish continuation of an earlier Ottoman agenda. His has become a national narrative, based on an independent analysis of Ottoman military history from the bottom up and inside out.
Such a Turkish account dovetails with Roberts’ Australian one. Roberts similarly builds an independent national context for his story. His great point is demonstrated in his critique of Australian colonial insecurity: quite the reverse of the self-regulating Ottoman-Turkish narrative of reform, Bean’s narrative excuses our Gallipoli disaster. As Roberts elegantly concludes, Bean’s romance of Anzac does that by turning ‘failure into heroic achievement’ – or, we could say, by functioning to institutionalise ignorance of our imperial history in a romance that hides behind the false and misleading glory that the nation was born at Gallipoli. We see how, in that way, the Anzac legend inhibits the emergence of a sovereign strategic ethos in our literature and politics.
That is our Gallipoli reckoning.
Acknowledgements: Thanks to Douglas Newton and Ross Sydney.
David Cameron, 25 April 1915: The Day the Anzac Legend was Born, 2007
Rhys Cawley, Gallipoli Climax, 2014
Harvey Broadbent, Gallipoli: The Fatal Shore, 2009
– Gallipoli: The Turkish Defence, 2015
David French, ‘The Origins of the Dardanelles Campaign Reconsidered’, History, vol. 68, No. 223 (June 1983), pp. 210-224.
Chris Pugsley, Gallipoli: the New Zealand Story, 1984
Sefik Aker, The Dardanelles, The Ari Burnu Battles and the 27th Regiment, Australian War Memorial, MSS 1886