A campaign that seemed to be a just enterprise — to put an end to the Ottoman Turks’ so-called holy war — ended up with devastating defeat for Allied troops.
On 18 March 1915, the Allied forces’ main attack on the Dardanelles was launched. It was a campaign designed to crush a growing threat in the south of Europe, after the Russian government pleaded for help against the Ottoman Turks’ jihad in the Caucasus.
The war that Germany had begun in Belgium and France now stretched across Europe. And British papers were filled with news of the Turkish Muslims’ crusade against ethnic Christian communities in the Caucasus.
The Ottomans, under the guise of a ‘holy war’, had begun a mass genocide against the professedly Christian Armenian people. The people were subjected to expropriation, abduction, rape, deportation, torture, massacre and starvation.
History suggests that the great bulk of the Armenian population was forcibly removed from Armenia and Anatolia to Syria, where they were sent into the desert to die. Newspapers at the time reported appalling crimes committed against women and children.
The New York Times, which, increasingly, had been questioning the Americans’ non-participation in the Great War, called the Ottoman crusade a ‘policy of extermination’, as its December 2015 front page warned the country of the ‘millions of Armenians killed or in exile’.
That year, some 33 years before the UN Genocide Convention was adopted, the world condemned the Armenian Genocide as a crime against humanity. Allied leaders knew something had to be done. But they seriously underestimated the task.
Fuelled partly by a desire to avenge the deaths of the Armenians, the British, French and Anzacs (Australians and New Zealanders) sailed in naval convoys to Turkey in an attempt to win the strategically placed Dardanelles. But the British and French navies suffered immense losses as they attempted to sail up the heavily mined straits to attack Ottoman fortifications.
Within a few months, it was clear the naval campaign had failed, with entire ships and crew sunk by mines or large guns. The great uncle of this author, who was serving with the Royal Marines, survived a heavy bombardment during one naval exercise, but had to be sent back to England because of wounds suffered in the Dardanelles.
It became clear that ships could not succeed, so foot soldiers were called in to attack on the Gallipoli peninsula that lies on the northern bank of the Dardanelles.
Some 78,000 soldiers were assembled as an expeditionary force, including Anzacs from Egypt. But it became increasingly clear that more men were needed. By the time allied generals realised the campaign was doomed, 34,000 British troops had died.
Altogether, including French, Anzacs and Canadians, 56,707 lives were lost, 123,598 were wounded and 7654 had been taken prisoner or were missing.
At the time, British journalist Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett was granted permission to accompany the troops into Gallipoli and send censored dispatches to the Daily Telegraph. He wrote initially of the campaign’s great hope and promise.
In his book, Gallipoli, author and historian Les Carlyon cited the effect that Ashmead-Bartlett had, especially in Australia. He wrote: ‘His piece was cut out and pasted into scrapbooks. Clergymen quoted it in their sermons; volunteers queued up at recruiting centres with the crumpled words in their pockets’.
However, Ashmead-Bartlett’s submission to the Daily Telegraph on 10 May openly warned of the strength of the Turkish troops and contradicted the official communiqués.
His reports, which had initially motivated more men to volunteer for the cause, soon became critical of the leaders. He described the Gallipoli campaign as the ‘futile sacrifice’ of men.
This saw him come under extreme censure from the government, who were desperate to avoid a public relations disaster over what was becoming a massacre. Yet his descriptions of the bravery of men under such circumstances, and the way in which he honoured the Australian and New Zealand troops, earned him much respect ‘down under’.
The ‘Commonwealth of Australia’, which by then was officially just 14 years old, while mourning its losses, felt that the words of this British journalist had cemented their membership of the Commonwealth and given them a sense of honour and pride in their own nation.
Even today, Anzac Day is celebrated in the UK, with special messages given by the deans of Westminster Abbey. The first such service took place in 1916, a year after the disastrous Gallipoli campaign, during which the campaign was spoken of almost as if it had been a victory.
Last year, Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster, gave tribute to the 124,000 New Zealanders and 411,000 Australians who served in the First World War.
The disaster at Gallipoli brought a huge loss of life in what many believed to be a just campaign. It was handled badly by those in charge and it remains as a stark reminder to us, 100 years on, that in a fallen world the most worthwhile enterprise of all is to seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness (Matthew 6:33).
Without the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ dominating hearts, minds and communities, there can ultimately be no true and lasting peace.