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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

ANZAC Day, April 25, 1915

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Today is ANZAC Day in Australia and New Zealand. The word "ANZAC" is an acronym for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, a force made up of two infantry divisions which took part in the Battle of Gallipoli in 1915. This battle, one of most well remembered from the First World War, helped to form the identities of these two nations.

When the First World War began in the summer of 1914, Imperial Russia, which fought on the side of the Allied Powers, found herself isolated. The nation had a large army, but it lacked modern weapons. England and France, both of whom had smaller populations but greater industrial capacity than Russia, wanted to supply their ally with weapons and munitions. However, there was no land route available through Europe and every route by sea was either too far away from the fighting or too close to enemy naval and shore forces to risk a run to Russian ports. By the fall of 1914, the Western Front, which ran through France and Belgium, was at a stalemate. Something had to be done to sap the strength of the German and Ottoman Empire's forces.

That something came to be known as the Dardanelles Campaign, named for the narrow waterway that connects the Aegean Sea, and thus the Mediterranean, to the Sea of Marmara and the Bosporus and ultimately to the Black Sea. The Dardanelles was controlled by Turkey, part of the Ottoman Empire and thus a member of the Central Powers. The plan was to use British and French naval power in the form of battleships to force open the waterway to Allied shipping. Once secured, this would allow Russia to receive munitions and weapons from her allies and shift the balance of power on the Eastern Front. The Central Powers would have to focus more resources on fighting the Russians, resources that would have to be taken away from the Western Front. The plan was the brainchild of Winston Churchill, who at that time was First Lord of the Admiralty. Responsibility for the campaign would ultimately fall on his shoulders.

The naval bombardment of Turkish shore facilities in the area began on February 19, 1915. A second attack on March 18 saw the loss of two British and one French battleship. The loss of three capital warships made the Allies re-think their strategy. It was decided that naval power alone would not be enough to open the Dardanelles. A large ground force was needed to take both sides of the waterway: the Gallipoli Peninsula to the west and the Turkish mainland to the east. If a successful invasion could be mounted, the Allied forces could push all the way to Ottoman capital of Constantinople and force one of the Central Powers out of the war.

And so the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force was formed. The force was initially comprised of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (two divisions), the British 10th and 29th divisions, the Royal Naval Division and the French Oriental Expeditionary Corps made up of four Senegalese battalions. The Australian and New Zealand divisions were already in Egypt, training for service in France. The rest of the units took more than six weeks to arrive. Egypt was far from a secure location from which to embark on a secret invasion, so weeks before the Allies set sail, Turkish forces knew the strength and the arrival date of the Expeditionary Force. They laid in supplies and waited.

The invasion began on April 25th, 1915 with the British 29th Division landing on the tip of the Gallipoli peninsula. The Anzacs (as the Australian and New Zealand divisions were known) landed further to the north on the Aegean side of the peninsula. The French made a diversionary landing on the Asian side of the Dardanelles on the Turkish mainland. Bernard Freyberg, possibly New Zealand's most famous military commander, swam ashore alone in the Gulf of Saros and lit a number of flares in an attempt to make the Turkish forces in the area think a large landing force was coming ashore there. He came under heavy fire, but made it back offshore safely.

While the Turkish forces in the two main landing areas were not strong enough to force the Allied forces back into the sea, they extracted an almost unbelievable toll in lives. Some units suffered more than 70% casualties with no unit landing unscathed. With a beachhead established, the British and Anzac forces tried to push inland with little positive result. As April wore into May, the number of dead and wounded on both sides ran into the tens of thousands. After the Turks launched an unsuccessful assault against the Anzacs on May 19th, the number of Turkish bodies on battlefield was so great (they numbered in the thousands) that a truce was arranged so the dead could be buried. In several places, fighting became just like it was on the Western Front in France and Belgium---limited to trench warfare, with small gains in ground costing hundreds of lives.

The Allies maintained an advantage in artillery because of the British battleships offshore. This changed at the end of May, when three ships were torpedoed inside of a week. After that, many of the battleships were withdrawn and those that stayed in the area remained constantly on the move, which limited their accuracy. To make matters worse, a diversionary landing north of the Anzac perimeter in August failed, as did several more offensive operations that month. An operational hiatus was called at the end of the month while senior commanders debated what was to be done.

Bulgaria, Turkey's neighbor, joined forces with the Central Powers in October, 1915. This made it possible for the Germans to send an army overland to Turkey if they so desired, a move that would make the Allied position on the Gallipoli peninsula untenable. That same month, Britain opened another offensive in Greece that would compete with Gallipoli for reinforcements and supplies. These two factors, and others, made the argument for withdrawal.

There were now 14 Allied divisions committed to the campaign and winter was setting in. Beginning in December, 1915, soldiers steadily evacuated from the area, mainly at night. Several tricks were used to keep the Turks from discovering that an evacuation was underway, including rigged rifles that were automated to fire using drops of water leaked from an overhead container. The British maintained a force at the very tip of the peninsula in case the decision was taken to start a new offensive, but even that area was eventually abandoned. The last Allied troops departed from the peninsula on January 9, 1916.

In total, the Allies lost over 44,000 men, with another 97,000 wounded. They came from all over the Empire and France: the UK, Australia, New Zealand, India and Newfoundland. The Turks paid dearly to defend Gallipoli, losing nearly 87,000 men with another 165,000 wounded. The end of the campaign also damaged or ended some careers in the British military establishment, including Winston Churchill, who resigned. He would be back in action later in the war, but it would take nearly a generation for the public's memory of his responsibility for Gallipoli to fade. The Australian commanders, on the other hand, were recognized for their leadership and tactical brilliance under difficult circumstances. They started a tradition of excellence in the Australian military that endures to this day.

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