A small group of Australian soldiers at the Mena Army Camp, a few miles from Cairo, ca. 1915.
Australian War Memorial, H02272
In Australia and New Zealand we tend to associate the start of the Gallipoli Campaign with 25 April 1915 – the date on which the first Anzac troops landed on the peninsula. The campaign, however, actually began two months earlier, in mid-February, as a naval operation, and it was the eventual failure of this strategy the following month that really committed the Anzacs to land.
That said, an Anzac landing on the peninsula had actually been planned as a likely part of the naval operation, the roots of which lay in the decision by the British government in early January 1915 to press the Turks in an effort to relieve pressure on the Russians on the Caucasus front. The Dardanelles was selected as the site of this attack, with the Straits being seen to have great strategic value as they linked the Mediterranean with the Sea of Marmora. Not only would this give ready access to Constantinople and much of the Turkish Empire’s industrial powerhouse, but also provided a lane to the Black Sea.
At the end of January the Churchill – who was in charge of the whole shebang – decided on an attempt to force the straits by naval action alone, using mostly obsolete warships unfit to face the German fleet. Ignoring reservations that had been aired within the British command, two weeks later the plan was modified as it was agreed that the shores of the Dardanelles would have to be held if the fleet passed through. Lord Kitchener – Britain’s war minister – accordingly issued orders to ensure the readiness of Britain’s sole available infantry division to assist with the operation, and that the Australian and New Zealand forces stationed in Egypt en route for France should be made available if required. The die, it seemed, had been cast.
Anniversaries are a natural time to take stock; to revisit our understanding of events; and perhaps inevitably to engage in debate. This is certainly the case for Australia’s relationship with Gallipoli and the First World War, where over the past two decades the explosive growth of public interest in Gallipoli and Anzac Day has given rise to both a re-examination of many of the basic assumptions around Australia’s involvement in the Great War, and contestation over its place in Australian culture and society. Tapping into all of this, first semester this year sees the School of History launches a new course ‘Debating Anzac’, which can be studied at both an undergraduate (HIST2236) and postgraduate (HIST6236) level. Interested in finding out more? See http://programsandcourses.anu.edu.au/course/HIST2236
Dr Kynan Gentry is Lecturer in the School of History