The Lesson of the ANZAC’s

On the 25th of April, Australia commemorated Anzac Day – a day that pays tribute to all Australian servicemen in general, but particularly pays homage to those Australians who died during World War I.  It was, predictably, used by the Australian Prime Minister John Howard to bolster support for the increasingly unpopular occupation of Iraq.  In a move that has done little to silence the popular idea that Howard is merely a crony of George W. Bush, he traveled to Baghdad for the day to greet the troops in a move similar to Bush’s own Thanksgiving Day appearance.  In his address, the Prime Minister declared:

You are seeking to bring to the people of Iraq who have suffered so much for so long, the hope of liberty and the hope of freedom, and your example, your behavior, your values, belong to that great and long tradition that was forged on the beaches of Gallipoli in 1915.”

The idea that an ongoing Australian presence in Iraq – against the wishes of the Iraqi people – can be somehow justified by invoking a World War I battle is both cynical and disingenuous.  It ignores the realities of the Gallipoli campaign, which, if they are to hold any lesson, hold that sometimes it is better to “cut and run.”

In 1914, Great Britain called on Australia and New Zealand – both former colonies – to lend support to the Great War that was being waged in Europe against the Central Powers.  Although the Central Powers had neither threatened nor had the capability to threaten Australia’s own direct interests, the Australian Prime Minister of the time, Joseph Cook, told the Australian people that it was now “our duty” to “gird up our loins and remember that we are Britons.”  Australia had become essentially independent of Britain in 1901 with the formation of the Commonwealth of Australia; however, clearly there was a residual sense of attachment to the “Old Country.”  Cook declared that, “If the Old Country is at war, so are we.”

And so it was then that a new nation of just five million people would commit over 20,000 young men to a foreign struggle being waged on the other side of the world.  The volunteers formed an organization called the Australian Imperial Force (AIF).  The Australian and New Zealand forces then combined to create the Australian New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) and duly went off to join the Great War in Europe.  The expectation was always that they would soon return.

After reaching the Suez Canal, the Anzacs camped in Egypt where they trained and awaited deployment.  At that time, Turkey had joined the war and Russia was engaged in fierce fighting with the Germans in the Caucasus and Eastern Front.  In order to relieve the pressure on the Russian forces, the Russians asked the British to attack the Turks via the Aegean coast so that the Turks would be prevented from assisting the Russians on the Eastern Front.

The plan was for Anzac and French forces to pass through the Dardanelles Straits, land on the Gallipoli Peninsula and capture Istanbul.  However, the attempts of the British and French navy to capture the peninsula had failed, and so British command decided that an amphibious landing would be the only way forward.

Whilst accounts vary, the British command made either an error of judgment, or acted on bad intelligence. Regardless, the effect was the same and the Anzacs were sent to the wrong part of the coastline.  Instead of attempting to land on an isolated stretch of beach, they landed on a rocky cliff-face with an army of Turks apparently waiting for them. On the 25th of April, around 17,000 Anzac soldiers landed on what became known as Anzac Cove.

That error would prove fatal. By nightfall that day, 2,000 Australian and New Zealand soldiers had been killed and the rest were fighting for their lives. It was, by all accounts, an unmitigated disaster and having landed via the sea there was no option but to continue fighting.  And fight they did for nearly one year. 

The Australians lost thousands of men in a vain attempt to seize control of the peninsula.  Despite the desperate situation and harrowing losses, news was prevented from reaching Australian shores.  The military were censoring all news reports and going to extraordinary lengths to ensure that the complete picture in all its horror wasn’t known.

In one of history’s bizarre ironies the journalist who blew the whistle on the failed campaign was a young Australian journalist named Keith Murdoch.  That he shares the same surname as Rupert Murdoch, the principle global retailer of American pro-war agitprop, is no coincidence: he was Rupert s father.  After visiting the front, Murdoch decided to write a letter describing the gravity of the situation and deliver it to the Australian Prime Minister, making him aware of what was going on in that cove.  Until then the British military had been aggressively censoring media reports to ensure news of the tragedy didn’t reach home.  Once he became aware, the Australian Prime Minister was outraged at the extent of the losses and contacted British PM Lloyd George demanding action be taken.

The Anzacs kept fighting until 20th December, 1915.  By that time, the Australian forces had lost 8,000 men and 18,000 had been wounded.  All totaled, out of the five million Australians, 330,000 served in World War I., and 59,000 died.  New Zealand had only one million people and lost 18,000 men from its total commitment of 110,000.  55,000 were wounded.  The losses endured by New Zealand were the worst of any country in the Anglo-Saxon world – yet it was also the country most geographically distant from the fighting.

After their retreat from Anzac cove in December, the British government held a Royal Commission into the campaign. They found that it was doomed from the start.  The British commander, Sir Ian Hamilton, was determined to have been incompetent and was sacked; he never held a position in the military again.  The Gallipoli Campaign was, by any objective measure, a complete and unmitigated failure.  The real tragedy was that they did not retreat earlier but instead faced insurmountable opposition bravely and steadfastly but ultimately at a cost of many lives.

Tens of thousands of young men died for one simple reason:  the British were not prepared to “cut and run.”  They remained stubborn and obstinate despite facing what was clearly a battle that could not be won.  Far from being an argument for a continued Iraqi occupation, the experience makes a powerful argument against “staying the course” in an increasingly dangerous and hostile land. The lesson of the Anzacs is that when we fight for anything other than our own national interest then the price that must be paid will always be too high.