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On Point

Gallipoli: 100 Years of Consequences


by Austin Bay
April 29, 2015

In Australia and New Zealand, the annual holiday Australia and New Zealand Army Corps Day commemorates the service of their soldiers who died in battle.

ANZAC Day, April 25, is intimately tied to the WWI battle of Gallipoli. On April 25, 1915, sea-borne British Commonwealth and French forces debarked on Turkey's Gallipoli Peninsula and the violent Gallipoli campaign began.

For Aussies and Kiwis, ANZAC Day makes a statement about their now unique national identities. Their soldiers' central and sustained roles in Gallipoli's eight months of hell sorely tested their once very close political identification with Great Britain. Gallipoli made it clear that Aussie and Kiwi interests did not always align with London.

Turkish commemorations are more festive. Gallipoli was one of Ottoman Turkey's few Great War victories and perhaps the only one of significance.

Gallipoli's winner and losers both suffered horrendous casualties. By the time allied forces withdrew (Jan. 9, 1916), both sides had each suffered around 250,000 killed and wounded.

Gallipoli's role in shaping Aussie and Kiwi identities is a long-term political effect. There are others, and one of immediate 21st-century import.

Gallipoli became something it was not supposed to be: another WWI battle of attrition between entrenched combatants. Gallipoli was a "high-concept" battle, one that might end the Western Front's trench impasses. In September 1914, the Western Front's mobile war came to a deadly halt. Allied and German armies constructed a flankless trench system running from the Swiss border to the English Channel. Massed infantry assaults against dug-in machine guns and relentless artillery slugfests produced casualties but failed to break the defensive system. Leaders sought alternatives. Can we restore mobility, possibly in another geographic theater? The Allies with their sea-dominating navies considered the Turkish straits. An amphibious assault on Turkey's northern Aegean Sea coast and then seizing the Dardanelles Strait would outflank the Western Front's trench systems. Allied battleships, their big guns the ICBMs of WWI, would then pass the narrow strait and sail to Istanbul. If Ottoman Turkey failed to surrender, battleship guns would level its capital. Follow-on allied invaders would seize the Bosphorus Strait. Via the Black Sea, Britain and France could supply Russia.

In order to succeed, Allied soldiers had to quickly seize the Turk forts guarding the Dardanelles. British commanders gave the ANZACs D-Day's most critical missions. They were to land, clamber up and over the peninsula's rugged central ridge, and then assault from the rear the big forts guarding the Narrows.

The Australians were perhaps 15 to 20 minutes from crossing the ridge in strength and beginning their descent to the forts. Turkish troops they encountered on the coast were fleeing. Then the Aussies' lead scouts stopped. They heard the sound of soldiers fixing bayonets and feared an ambush.

An obscure Turkish lieutenant-colonel had stopped the fleeing soldiers. His name was Mustafa Kemal (Kemal Ataturk); he commanded the Ottoman 19th Infantry Division. In a few moments, soldiers from Kemal's division began to arrive. Kemal told them: "I do not expect you to attack; I order you to die!"

Fighting and dying Turks -- at the battlefield's most critical point -- stopped the ANZAC maneuver. Attrition began and continued. Strategic coup became a strategic morass.

Kemal's arrival at the critical point was not an accident. In "Gallipoli: The Ottoman Campaign," historian Edward Erickson argues convincingly that during the First Balkan War (1912-1913) that the Turks developed "the basic defensive plans ... used to defend the peninsula in 1915." As a staff officer, Kemal helped formulate that plan. He advocated positioning reserves where they could quickly move to stop a landing force exiting a beachhead. On April 25, 1915, he executed did that. So much for high concept.

Kemal's military success at Gallipoli led to higher commands. Post-war, his performance gave him a political credential, one he used in building the Turkish nationalist movement. As the Turkish Republic's first president, he became the only man to ever successfully turn a culturally Islamic society into a parliamentary democracy. Though Islamists are challenging his reforms, that is a strategic effect of Gallipoli, writ large.

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