In April 1915, in the midst of a stalled military campaign on the Western Front, Britain and its allies attacked Turkey’s Gallipoli Peninsula in an attempt to gain control of the Dardanelles Straits and take German-allied Turkey out of World War I.
This impressively researched volume, which relies extensively on unpublished first-hand accounts from soldiers of all sides of the conflict, is a detailed account of this “doomed” and “pointless” campaign.
The book methodically and graphically takes the reader through the (inadequate) planning for the campaign. It goes through the landings by the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) on April 25, 1915, by the British at nearby Helles and the French at Kume Kale on the same day, and the protracted and bloody trench warfare that followed.
It ends with the evacuation of the British and their allies in January 1916.
The casualty figures speak for themselves. In the course of the eight-month campaign, the British Empire (including Australia and New Zealand) had 115,000 troops posted as killed, wounded or missing.
The Turks had nearly 187,000 troops killed or wounded, and the French 27,000.
Hart said: “Gallipoli was damned before it began, and it ended at a level of catastrophe that could only be disguised by vainglorious bluster.”
The campaign had no realistic goals or coherent plan, inadequate artillery support, and underestimated the capability of the Turks (who already held the crucial high ground).
With “casual indifference”, inexperienced troops were thrown into a cauldron in which the sea bubbled red with blood. Men’s lives were “cast away on a whim, as if in a mere game of sport that could be abandoned at half time”.
Hart places the primary responsibility for the debacle on the “guilty men” of the British War Council. These included Herbet Asquith, David Lloyd George, Winston Churchill and secretary of state for war Lord Kitchener.
The incredible resilience of the ordinary troops — including the Turks — shines through from the narrative, and Hart speaks of the “growing military competence” of Australia and New Zealand in a seemingly positive tone. But the book on the whole serves as a potent antidote to any attempt to romanticise the bloodshed.
In words that apply equally to the present day, Hart writes: “Death is not glorious; it is almost always squalid … The chimera of imperishable fame is the cruellest hoax of all — for no name lives forever and all deeds are ultimately either forgotten or mythologised out of all recognition.”
The book is an impressive and timely reminder of the futility of war.