Gallipoli and Bristol

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The horses, the horses, we couldn’t get the horses off the beach; we should not have been there

A British veteran of Gallipoli

A WoundedTurkish Infantryman Having A Drink Of Water
A Wounded Turkish Infantryman Having A Drink Of Water.

In the Autumn of 1914 a number of men from Bristol were recruited into the 7th Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment. They spent the winter in billets in Basingstoke and then moved to Aldershot in February 1915 for final training. They sailed from Avonmouth on 19 June landing at Alexandria, then moving to Mudros on 4 July to prepare for a landing at a place called Gallipoli.

In the previous months, an allied expedition had set out to capture the Gallipoli Peninsula in order to open the way to the Black Sea for the allied navies. The aim was to capture Constantinople (now Istanbul in Turkey), the capital of the Ottoman Empire, and an ally of Germany during the First World War. A force of Australian and New Zealand (ANZAC), French, British, Indian, and Irish soldiers landed at Gallipoli on 25 April, meeting fierce resistance from the Ottoman Army commanded by Mustafa Kemal. The small cove in which the ANZAC soldiers landed became known as “Anzac Cove”. The area held by the British, Indian, French and Irish soldiers became known as “Helles”.

The underlying objective of the allied imperial powers of Britain, France and Russia, was to carve up the Ottoman Empire and gain control of the strategically important Black Sea in pursuit of their imperial interests. The landing at Gallipoli was one episode in this plan. The scheme was proposed by Winston Churchill and had the aims of achieving several British strategic imperial objectives in one fell swoop. Control of the Dardanelles and the Black Sea would have divided the Central Powers and separated the Ottoman Empire from Germany and Austria-Hungary. It would also have helped to safeguard British possessions in Egypt and India by allowing them to be linked overland via the Middle East. The defeat of the Ottoman Empire would send a clear message to those Muslim subjects in other parts of the British Empire that any attempt at rebellion would be severely crushed. In addition control of the Black Sea would allow the Royal Navy to support British claims to the huge mineral resources in the surrounding areas.

In fact secret arrangements were made in the years before WWI to divide the spoils of the conflict that was clearly coming. Britain wanted control of Middle Eastern oil reserves. In 1908, it cut a deal with the Russian government in which Russia could have control of Constantinople if Britain could control the Ottoman province of Iraq. In 1913, the British confirmed the deal. As soon as the Ottomans entered the war on November 5, 1914, British forces invaded Basra to seize its oil fields. Churchill was close to City of London investors who had long had their eyes on other mineral resources in the region such as the Baku oil and Donbas coal and iron.

In practice, what had been sold to the British public as a bold strike to knock the Ottomans out of the war quickly became a stalemate and the campaign dragged on for eight months. The arrogance and racism of the British generals meant they vastly underestimated the capabilities of the Ottoman defenders. A land invasion, which had never been tried before on a defended coastline, was doomed from the start.

After several months of fighting, in which both sides suffered heavy casualties and endured great hardships, the allied forces evacuated. The Allied casualties included 34,072 from the United Kingdom, 9,798 from France, 8,709 from Australia, 2,721 from New Zealand, and 1,358 from British India. The Ottoman dead amounted to the 56,643. These figures do not include the large number of deaths from diseases such as dysentery. Among the casualties were forty one men from Bristol.

The Gallipoli Campaign had raged on two fronts, Anzac and Helles, for three months following the initial invasion of 25 April 1915. The Anzac landing had led to a tense stalemate. In response, the Allies attempted to carry the offensive on the Helles battlefield at enormous cost for little gain. In August, the British command proposed a new operation to reinvigorate the campaign by capturing the Sari Bair ridge, the high ground that dominated the middle of the peninsula above the Anzac landing. The Bristol men found themselves among other troops landing at Anzac Cove between the 3rd and 5th of August.

The main operation started on 6 August with a fresh landing five miles north of Anzac at Suvla Bay in conjunction with the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. The men were ordered to mount an attack north into the rugged country alongside the Sari Bair range with the aim of capturing the high ground and linking with the Suvla landing. It was badly planned, leading to the slaughter of thousands of troops including some of the Bristol men. In the end a total 355 men from the 7th Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment died at Galipoli with 180 of these being killed on 8 August alone.

It is hard to say what motivated these young Bristolians to volunteer in the autumn of 1914. However it is unlikely they could have imagined they would end their lives in such a futile way on the beaches of a country they probably had never heard of or knew little about. In this they were little different to those Australians and New Zealanders who signed up as volunteers at the same time. In contrast, those sent from India, many of whom were of the Muslim faith, had no choice. However, they all had one thing in common, in that they would have had little idea where they would end up, landing on the beaches with no escape.

Desertion was not an option. During the Gallipoli campaign, 101 men were sentenced to die under The British Army Act, but in only in three cases was the punishment confirmed and carried out. One was shot for leaving his guard post at Cape Helles in June, another for deserting at Suvla Bay in November, and the third in December for refusing go on patrol at Helles. All three men were British soldiers.

News of the landing at Gallipoli had a profound impact on Australians and New Zealanders at home, and 25 April quickly became the day on which they remembered those who had died in the war. In spite of this, a number of recent books have challenged the myth that the slaughter of Australian troops at Gallipoli somehow contributed to the foundation of Australian nationhood. For instance, historian Robert Bollard has argued that World War One was a defining moment in the formation of the Australian working class rather than a nation.

The deeper one digs beneath the veneer of ritual and commemoration, the harder it is to recognise the war we think we know. Under the shadow of Gallipoli lies the real truth about World War 1. It is a truth of more than academic significance, and a truth far more wide reaching than whether the war was just. This was a crucial period in the formation of the Australian working class, of the labour movement which defined Australian politics and society in the turbulent twentieth century.

Robert Bollard In the Shadow of Gallipoli, The hidden history of Australia in World War 1 New South, 2013.

Sadly, in Bristol, the naked imperial ambition and military ineptitude that led to the deaths of our young men at Gallipoli have now largely been forgotten. However, for many Bristolians their experience mirrored those of the Australian working class as returning soldiers decided to confront their own ruling class and fight for “a land fit for heroes”.

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