Launch by Steve Gower of Robin Prior's Gallipoli: the end of the myth, Australian War Memorial, 15 April 2009

Over Easter I usually set aside some time to catch up on reading. This year it was my pleasure to read Professor Robin Prior’s latest book, Gallipoli: the end of the myth, which I am honoured to be invited to launch.

Professor Prior is currently a visiting Professorial Fellow at the School of History at the University of Adelaide. Prior to that he was Professor of History at the Australian Defence Force Academy, University of New South Wales, Canberra. Gallipoli: the end of the myth is his seventh book on the First World War.

In 2009 you’d be excused for thinking that just about every possible angle of the Gallipoli campaign had been analysed, written or spoken about, or been the subject of a film. However, Australians seem to have an insatiable appetite for any material about Gallipoli, an event which has become a seminal event in Australian history.

I think it fair to say that Australians seem rather settled and comfortable in their beliefs about that failed campaign:

  • It’s a given that the Australians fought with great courage, valour and initiative. Supposedly, they were decent men sadly caught up in a war not of their making. It’s a given also that the Turk was a worthy and honourable opponent.
  • Australia was let down by incompetent British generals attempting to implement a hare-brained scheme devised by Winston Churchill.
  • The landing by Australians and New Zealanders on that fateful morning went in at the wrong place.
  • The British at Suvla Bay later in August let the whole show down by their inactivity.
  • The evacuation was a resounding success that fooled the poor old Turks.
  • The bible for the ANZAC commitment is Charles Bean’s diaries and his official histories. These don’t dwell too much on poor training, inflexible command attitudes, and poor leadership. But mateship, endurance, reckless courage, and humour under pressure have emerged from Bean’s writings as national characteristics.

Aside from Bean, there is Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett’s florid prose: “This race of athletes has been tried for the first time and has not been found wanting.”

And this from Poet Laureate John Masefield for whom the men at Gallipoli were“the finest body of men ever brought together.”

While the poet E.J. Brady rhapsodised that “the breed that stormed and held the heights of ANZAC will grow stronger and more resilient.”

Prime Minister Billy Hughes subsequently enshrined the place of Gallipoli in the Australian historical narrative by claiming that“Australia was born on the shores of Gallipoli.” You can make a strong case that a similar remark to Hughes’s can also apply to the modern Turkish state.

For many Australians, a pilgrimage to the peninsula is something you must do in a lifetime. It’s an ancient shore – Troy is just across the Dardanelles, with all the stories of Helen, Paris, Achilles, and Hector. The area is steeped in the Iliad and tales of Alexander the Great and other major figures in history. To wade in the stony waters of ANZAC Cove, to look up at the dominating presence of the Sphinx, to make your way up Shrapnel Gully – such things are akin to a religious experience. It’s easy for a visitor to become sentimental and romantic about it all.

So what is Professor Prior doing in assailing elements of these comfortable and generally accepted perceptions? He’s quite devastating in some of his comments. I’d have to say that he has produced a very important book, one which I found difficult to put down.

To start with, Robin doesn’t confine himself to the Australian story. He examines the broader context of the campaign. What grand strategy drove it? Who were the active proponents? What it was supposed to achieve and was the assigned force adequate? And how was the campaigning – when the generals and admirals come to the fore – carried out? In conducting his analysis, it is clear he understands the differences between strategy, campaigns, and tactics, and this enables him to challenge the standard platitudes which are based on the lack of understanding that marks so many other books and so much commentary about the Gallipoli campaign. In this broader canvas, it’s interesting to note that Charles Bean gets two mentions, one of which shows him to be an enthusiastic optimist. He believed absolutely in the cause: the forcing of the Dardanelles, the capture of Constantinople, the opening of the sea route to Russia, and an early victory. Perhaps he had to believe this. How else could he justify the deaths of so many of his fellow countrymen?

I found Robin to have a marvellously acid turn of phrase, which I enjoyed. For example, a particular officer was not described as being “at the dynamic end of the spectrum of command”, another was “cautious to the point of paralysis”, while one poor performer was dismissed as having “little in his favour except seniority”.

He punctures quite a few established beliefs and myths:

  • The view that Churchill was the dominant influence on the decision for a commitment, for example (rather, Robin says, it was Kitchener).
  • Gallipoli was not a missed opportunity, nor a potential turning point – it was flawed from the beginning and would never have had a lasting influence on the real enemy, Germany. The reality was that what was meant to be a naval operation to force the Dardanelles ended up destroying the equivalent of five divisions, not to mention innumerable reputations.
  • Birdwood emerged with the best press of all the commanders, but it was probably undeserved, Robin says. Whereas his August plans were flawed, even at the very outset he grievously failed to specify exactly where he wanted the ANZACs to land. However, he does deserve credit for the successful evacuation –  or at least one of his staff officers, the Australian Brudenell White, does.
  • Murdoch’s scathing letter about the campaign did not have the influence he was subsequently to claim for it.
  • As for the Brits: General Stopford at Suvla Bay was the perfect scapegoat for all the incompetence elsewhere. But he did what he was ordered to do – set up a base. And General Hunter-Weston has become a byword for incompetence and butchery, but he did warn against the campaign before it started and his “bite and hold” June–July operations were a success that had relevance to operations on the Western Front.

I could go on, as Robin dispassionately does in his book. But I think his conclusion says it all:

Gallipoli was certainly a bad war. It did not offer a cheaper victory, or end in any kind of victory. But even if it had, the downfall of Turkey was of no relevance to the deadly contest being played out on the Western Front.

I am delighted to launch Professor Robin Prior’s latest book, Gallipoli: the end of the myth. Congratulations to him on a splendid piece of scholarship. May there be more of it.

Robin Prior, Gallipoli: the end of the myth (Yale University Press / University of New South Wales Press, 2009)

Format:  Transcript Date:  Wednesday 15 April 2009 Speaker:  Steve Gower Tags:  Formal address