By the end of 1914, World War I had reached a bloody stalemate on the Western Front in France. German, British, and French troops were dug into trenches, with neither side able to dislodge the other.
Winston Churchill, secretary of the Admiralty, advocated a plan to open a second front against the Ottoman Empire (now Turkey), an ally of Germany. The British goal was to capture Constantinople (Istanbul), open up shipping from the Mediterranean to its ally Russia, and knock the Ottoman Empire out of the war.
The first step was an amphibious landing on the Gallipoli peninsula which controls the sea entrance from the Mediterranean through the Dardanelles and onto the Black Sea. Troops from Australia and New Zealand formed about half of the invasion force. There were known as the ANZACs, standing for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. The invasion occurred on April 25, 1915, and the resulting campaign was a failure with heavy casualties. After nine months, the Allies withdrew their forces. Winston Churchill was made a scapegoat for the operation and lost his position in the British government.
New Zealand had about 2,800 of its soldiers killed during the nine month operation. May not sound like a lot compared to the mammoth casualties incurred in other WWI battles, but the country’s population was only about one million at the time. Relative to the size of the country, in those nine months, New Zealand lost almost ten times as many men as the United States did in the entire Vietnam War.
During a recent trip to New Zealand, I found that the country has many monuments and museums to honor its dead and wounded from that battle. Here are some examples. The Auckland Museum has a wall listing all of the dead.
The National Museum of New Zealand, called Te Papa Tongarewa, collaborated with the makers of the Lord of the Rings to tell the story of Gallipoli. Included in the exhibit are greater than life-size sculptures showing people and their horrific experience in the war.
Both Australia and New Zealand now celebrate ANZAC day on April 25, the day of the Gallipoli landings. The holiday is a combination of Memorial Day, to honor the dead, and Veteran’s Day, to honor those who have served. While the battle was a defeat, the bravery of the soldiers in combat is considered an important milestone in developing the national identity of both countries.
Many people, especially young people, come from New Zealand and Australia on a pilgrimage to Gallipoli to celebrate ANZAC day. The day includes a memorial service at dawn, which must be especially moving at the site where so many fell.
Prominent in Turkey’s victory at Gallipoli was Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of modern Turkey. He was in command of one of the first defending units to fight back against the ANZACs. Following the landings on April 25, Commander Mustafa gave these orders to the regiment: "I am not ordering you to attack. I am ordering you to die. During the time before we die other forces and commanders will take our place.” At a great cost in casualties, the regiment helped to stop the ANZACs. There is a memorial to this unit on the Gallipoli peninsula.
Almost 20 years later, Ataturk spoke words of reconciliation, keeping in mind that the ANZACs were foreign invaders of his country. These words are now engraved in monuments in all three countries – in Turkey at the Gallipoli memorial in ANZAC cove; near the Australian War Memorial in Canberra; and on a hill near Wellington in New Zealand.
“Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives … you are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets. To us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours…You, the mothers, who sent their sons from far away countries, wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. Having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.”