A Baptism By Fire - Gallipoli at 100 Years

A Baptism By Fire - Gallipoli at 100 Years
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Today marks the centennial of the Allied landings at Gallipoli, the narrow peninsula that constitutes the north shore of the Dardanelles. French and British leaders meant the expedition to reopen the Dardanelles and Bosporus, the narrow waterways connecting the Mediterranean and Black seas. It’s a time of remembrance for all of the former warring states.

Piercing Turkish sea and land defenses promised big things. Western forces would bypass the deadlock on the Western Front, restoring maneuver to the war. Forcing the straits would reestablish shipping lanes connecting the Western combatants with beleaguered Russia—an empire hard-pressed not just by German armies but by a Turkish assault on the Caucasus. It would turn the Central Powers’ southern flank, menacing German ally Austria-Hungary through the Balkans. And everyone loves a winner. Allied leaders hoped to woo new allies while discouraging others from bandwagoning with Germany.

As the late John Keegan notes, the Gallipoli expedition accomplished none of this. And it did so while exacting a fearful toll from both sides—to the tune of some 600,000 casualties. Turkish forces commanded by the likes of Kemal Atatürk responded to the Allied landings, confining them to small coastal enclaves until Allied leaders finally gave up on the venture.

Keegan concludes that success was impossible with the manpower and ships apportioned to the enterprise. Short of seizing both the European and Asian shores of the Dardanelles, it was hard to silence fixed and mobile Ottoman shore batteries—letting minesweepers clear a path for British and French battleships to traverse the narrow seas. High cost, little gain. That’s the worst of all military worlds.

Small wonder few Britons or Frenchmen remember Gallipoli fondly a century hence. Why would they? We think of martial triumphs, not setbacks, as the stuff of legends—as cement that helps bind a people together as a people. And indeed, past battlefield glory does stoke pride in a group’s mutual heritage. Washington crossed the Delaware to smite the Redcoats. Nimitz, MacArthur, and Spruance oversaw naval and ground forces that smashed Imperial Japan, avenging Pearl Harbor and the Bataan Death March. Those are historical memories you can hang your hat on.

Pride, then, rallies disparate people for common purposes, molds how they see the world, and rouses a sense of common destiny. Hence phrases like Red Sox Nation and Bulldog Nation are more apt than their framers know. Wave the foam finger!

Martial debacles would seem to furnish little inspiration. Shared shame ought to leave a people feeling apathetic at best—or, more likely, resentful and determined to refurbish their good name through new feats of arms. And indeed, China totes a chip on its shoulder owing to its “century of humiliation,” repeated defeats at the hands of seaborne conquerors. Contemporary Russia laments the Soviet Union’s downfall a quarter-century ago. Heck, some of my Southern countrymen still reportedly rouse about the War of Northern Aggression—cursing Lincoln, Grant, and of course Sherman, the focus of evil in the 19th-century world.

Bad memories fester. But the manner of a defeat, not just the fact of one, appears to matter. Readers still delight in reading about Leonidas and the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae. Heroic defeat set the stage for Greeks’ eventual victory over Persian invaders. Serbs look to the 14th-century defeat at the Field of Blackbirds for inspiration. Patriotic Irishmen have Easter 1916. Losing stings. But a defeat imbued with nobility can perform the same unifying function as a victory. It just exudes more of an elegiac than a triumphal afterglow.

Which appears to be the case with Australian commemorations of Gallipoli, which take place today. Gallipoli is the founding legend for a young country. ANZAC soldiers ultimately failed, but they fought resolutely and stood by their mates. That left its imprint on the national character. There was no disgrace in failure.

What difference does it make whether a nation rallies around victory or defeat? As Benedict Anderson observes astutely, nations and subnational groups are “imagined communities.” Ethnic, religious, and kinship ties all matter. These are primal social adhesives. But such a community exists mainly because its members define themselves as a community distinct from all others. Sounds like a tautology, doesn’t it? A society exists because people imagine it exists.

And how they remember the past helps forms not just their sense of solidarity but their collective attitudes toward their society, outsiders, and how they ought to relate to outsiders. In short, military history shapes cultures while influencing thoughts and deeds in the contemporary world. Studying it is no idle pursuit.

And we ought to be frank with ourselves as we mine the past for insight. Some Australian commentators warn against making Gallipoli a “sedative” rather than an opportunity for candid historical reflection. Such observers find themselves in good company. Late in life an irascible John Adams, mindful of his legacy, complained to Benjamin Rush about the mythmaking that obscured clear memories of the American Revolution. “The History of our Revolution,” he wrote, “will be one continued Lye [lie] from one end to the other. The essence of the whole will be that Dr. Franklin's electrical Rod, smote the Earth and out sprung General Washington. That Franklin electrified him with his rod—and thence forward these two conducted all the Policy, Negotiations, Legislatures and War.”

Adams feared posterity would forget his legacy—and thus fail to understand the republic’s founding age. It would be the George Washington and Benjamin Franklin Show—leaving forgetful Americans with a dumbed-down understanding of who they were. Which suggests that candor about the past is good for societies that revel in victory—as well as those that take solace in the valor of the defeated.

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