“Lions led by donkeys”

NO MAJOR SPOILERS

I’m no expert on the Great War, but if Carlyon’s account is anything to go by, Gallipoli was the pinnacle (or nadir) of a pointless war, fought incompetently. The campaign was an ill concieved idea of Winston Churchill’s, championed by Kitchener and catastrophically pursued by the various generals appointed to carry it out.

For those who may not be familiar, the Gallipoli campaign was basically the invasion of Turkey (via the Dardanelles) by the Allied forces in 1915, aiming to open up a second front against Germany.

The invasion stalled on three beachheads almost immediately, due largely to shockingly bad leadership at most levels and never achieved even its initial objectives. In all, over the eight months of fighting, it generated some 130,000 deaths and 240,000 casualties on both sides.

I used to be able to read books like this (large, in depth military histories) with little problem, but my tastes have changed over the years and I now find them a lot harder to wade through. I was initially worried about this one as it seemed to be exclusively about the ANZAC experience of the campaign (reasonable enough as it was written by an Australian for the Australian market) but, after a few chapters, it became clear that it was a less partial and, while the ANZAC story still takes precedence, the book covers the British campaign and the Turkish defence as well. I was surprised to discover that the French had a significant presence on the Gallipoli peninsula although they get rather less coverage in the book.

This turns out to be an absorbing and fairly easy-to-read history of the campaign. It isn’t perfect and I found the telling of the story to be fractured, confused and in some places downright illogical. However, I am beginning to think that part of the problem is that the battle was itself shambolic in its conception, planning and execution: so, if you’re looking for an explanation of the motivation for the campaign, the strategic aims or even a coherent plot to the story … well, there was none! The book pulls no punches in exposing the poor planning and weak or brutal generalship. By contrast, it highlights the suffering and martyrdom of the thousands of soldiers on both sides of the line: lions led by donkeys, indeed. It also dispels the myth that Gallipoli was a largely Australian battle and that the Diggers suffered at the hands of incompetent British generals. More British (indeed, more French) soldiers lost their lives than did ANZACs and there were a healthy dose of blundering Aussie generals too.

Carlyon’s personal feelings come through strongly in the writing which gives the book a human, readable flavour and his description of the slaughter of the Australian Light Horse at The Nek has to be one of the most horrifying yet poignant and moving passages that I have ever read. In some cases, his feelings sometimes get the better of him and sarcasm drips from the page, generally when he describes the behaviour of the British and Australian “leaders”. Read his “stream of consciousness” description of Stopford’s behaviour during the Suvla landings, Godley at The Nek or this one about the brutal and unimaginitive British General, Aylmer Hunter-Weston.

“Just about everything Hunter-Weston had done at Helles had failed. Which would explain why … he was promoted to lieutenant-general and made a corps commander. Had he managed to take Achi Baba, he possibly would have been made Archbisop of Canterbury.”

True, perhaps, but not entirely appropriate for a serious historical account?

My main gripe is the lack of decent maps. There are a few scattered through the book, a large scale one of the Mediterranean theatre and several fine scale maps of individual battles or skirmishes, but none that clearly shows how the two sides were arranged against one another.

Such minor complaints aside, after working at this for a couple of chapters, I eventually found my feet and began to enjoy the story and I can recommend this as a fine account. There may be better historical treatments elsewhere, but for readability this is certainly well worth a go.

 

Reviewed by:

Campbell McAulay

Added 30th March 2015

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Campbell McAulay

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