Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918 - Volume II Introduction
Volume II – The Story of ANZAC from 4 May, 1915, to the evacuation of the Gallipoli Peninsula
Introduction by Alec J Hill
The Australian War Memorial would like to acknowledge the kind permission of the author and the assistance of the University of Queensland Press in making this Introduction available on–line.
On 10 May 1915 Major–General W.T. Bridges at Anzac writing to the Governor-General of Australia, Sir Ronald Munro-Ferguson, expressed his disappointment "that we cannot get on and are really in a state of siege."1 What Bridges saw so clearly a fortnight after the Landing is too little understood by those who write about or study the Gallipoli campaign. The landings at Cape Helles and Anzac Cove had been quickly contained by the Turks under the resourceful command of Liman von Sanders; thus the attacking forces had become beleaguered garrisons, everywhere under fire in their beachheads and overlooked by the besiegers, especially at Anzac. In that cramped and crazy cluster of ridges and gullies, the front extended for about two and a half kilometres and its greatest distance from the beach was little more than nine hundred metres so that Anzac is to be compared with Gibraltar rather than Tobruk, the scene of the prolonged siege of 1941. The latter fortress with its forty-eight kilometre perimeter, its depth of almost thirteen kilometres, its low escarpments and generally level terrain gave its garrison a degree of room for manoeuvre unknown to the men of Anzac.
Neither side possessed the numbers, the artillery or the tactical skills to end the stalemate which had so quickly followed the Landing. Rifle and machine-gun fire dominated the battlefield, cutting down the most determined assaults while in the savage trench fighting, bomb and bayonet ruled. The initial shortage of artillery both at Helles and at Anzac was offset by the guns of the Royal Navy, although for a time they were as short of ammunition as the field artillery. It was especially fortunate that the weakness of the Turkish artillery was aggravated by the poor quality of its shells. Both sides learnt all too slowly the futility of frontal attacks in daylight given the inadequacy of their artillery support; it was not until the utter collapse of their general assault on 19 May, with 10,000 casualties, that the Turks accepted the hopelessness of such attacks.
The death of General Bridges from a wound received on 15 May removed the first, and perhaps the greatest, of the three who shaped the Australian Imperial Force. Brudenell White and Sir William Birdwood remained and before the Gallipoli campaign was over began their three-year partnership. Together they moulded the force which was to fight with such distinction in the final victorious battles of 1918.
Bridges remained an enigma. Gallant and erudite he was, but it was his contemptuous disregard of danger in those three hectic weeks that won him the admiration of the 1st Division. Whether "he would have emerged the greatest of Australia’s soldiers" (see p.130), as Bean suggests was probable, is an open question. He had revealed some of the qualities of a true commander amidst the confusion after the Landing. His coolness and decision were matched by his energy and determination under conditions wildly unlike any for which his men had trained. It was, for example, Bridges’ insistence that made the gunners drag their eighteen-pounders up to positions in the line such as field guns had never reached before.
Like Sir Ian Hamilton, Bridges seems to have had little time for the administrative side of command, fearing that his role of commander of a fighting formation might be submerged beneath that of a commander of the AIF. Bean is critical of Bridges’ attempt to wash his hands of the AIF Base in Egypt. He sent Colonel Victor Sellheim to create it with the help of his batman and one clerk. Bridges even obtained from Birdwood an order that he should now "assume command of the 1st Australian Division" and he insisted on dealing with Sellheim through Birdwood and General Maxwell, the British commander in Egypt. There is something almost obsessive in this attitude.
Bean reveals Bridges’ surprising lack of interest in the control of the Australian Army Medical Corps in Egypt, a situation which was potentially disastrous. That harm to the sick and wounded was avoided seems to have owed nothing to the commander of the AIF. Like all other senior Australian officers, he had much to learn about the command of a large force in the field but it is not unreasonable to suppose that, as General Sir Harry Chauvel did, he would have developed quickly under Birdwood’s guidance and with the assistance of Brudenell White. With his early death in the first great campaign, Bridges passed into oblivion. Chauvel was constrained to praise him publicly in Sydney in September 1919, saying: "it was he who set the standards his successors have followed. It was distressing for me when I came back to find that he had been forgotten". 2
Bean’s "democratic" writing of military history, in which due attention is paid to the experiences of ordinary soldiers in battle, has been widely acclaimed but the impact of his detailed descriptions of fighting by small groups and individual soldiers has led some commentators to overlook an essential element in his writing. Those who read Bean, as distinct from those who quote him, know that he carefully moves his focus over the whole battle and therefore over the whole chain of command from General Headquarters to the corporals and privates in the front line. It is thus the completeness of his vision, in its breadth and depth, which distinguishes his battle scenes. The degree of Bean’s success is directly related to his presence at nearly every battle he describes; for example, he was in the old front line for Lone Pine and he was trudging forward in the darkness in the wake of the 4th Brigade on 6 August when he was hit by a stray bullet. At Krithia on 8 May he moved with M’Cay’s brigade headquarters in that desperate attack and once dashed out under fire to bring in a wounded man. He spent the night on the battlefield under machine-gun fire, carrying water and helping the wounded. As the Military Cross for which he was recommended could not be awarded to a civilian, he was mentioned in despatches but his true reward was the high regard of the AIF which he quickly won on the Peninsula.
In the preface to the first edition of Volume I, Bean wrote that owing to the meagreness of official records of the Gallipoli campaign he "had to rely almost entirely upon his private diaries and upon notes of his conversations with officers and men at the time and afterwards." His notebooks, of which he was to fill 226 in the course of the war, were compiled close to the events he describes. At Krithia for example, some of his notes were written under fire in the shallow pit he shared with M’Cay and his signallers. Sometimes he would write in his dugout throughout the night, sleeping during the morning. He drew rough sketches of the ground and incidents, some of which appear in this volume, and he made a particular point of questioning as many leaders as possible immediately after a battle. Such careful compilation of after-action accounts, by an observer who not only knew the plan but also had followed the operation on the ground, went far towards creating the realism and freshness which distinguished Bean’s work. One thinks especially of his wonderful description of the hours before the attack on Lone Pine, in which the tension is recreated with no apparent striving for effect.
Bean’s expedition to Gallipoli in 1919, recounted in his Gallipoli Mission, added yet another dimension to his understanding of the fighting. However, Robert Rhodes James, whose Gallipoli is probably the best and most vivid short study of the campaign, finds Bean’s history "almost chilling in its curt factuality" which is odd, because his quotations from the Gallipoli volumes are anything but curt or chilling. He complains too, that "the only reference to Troy concerned an Australian sergeant of that name".3 Troy was a private. So much for "factuality".
During the writing of this volume over about three and a half years, Bean continued to gather, check and refine his evidence. Many participants were questioned on specific actions or events and draft chapters were circulated for comment. In this way Bean sought "to record the plain and absolute truth so far as it was within his limited power to compass it".4 Where he was at times less successful was in depicting the political background of the campaign when the atmosphere was still charged with emotion and objective study of it had scarcely begun.
It should be remembered that Bean was a trained lawyer, an experienced pressman and an established author who had dedicated himself to writing the history of the AIF. His assistant and friend, Arthur Bazley, who worked with him from 1914 to 1939, wrote in 1959:
General Bridges and his Chief-of-Staff, Lieutenant Colonel Brudenell White, soon realised that Bean was quite an outstanding type of pressman, tactful and self-effacing. News was not his main object. As one of his friends remarked a quarter of a century ago, his intense patriotism, that disdained to lie for his country, but [chose] diligently to seek and write down the truth - even the unpalatable truth… - made Australia and Australian soldiers his chief thought. It consequently became a pleasure for them to give him information. Later, when Generals White and Birdwood learned of his complete reliability, they were able, with the utmost confidence, to describe to him things which were confidential, but which assisted him in his perspective of other matters on which he was at liberty to write. Similar was the experience of others with whom he came into contact during 1914-18.5
Bazley also observes that Bean, although without military knowledge at first, "quickly absorbed both knowledge and spirit, and staff and regimental leaders were equally impressed by his grasp of strategy and tactics and by his well balanced judgement."
Evidence of that balance and of Bean’s grasp of the basis of military operations is to be found in the four chapters (XII-XV) he devotes to the logistics of Anzac, health and medical arrangements, organization and administration of the force and morale. These chapters are thoughtfully located between that portion of the book describing the fighting from 4 May to the end of July and the eleven chapters on the August offensive. Thus one is helped to form a reasonable judgement of the capabilities of the force at Anzac on the eve of the great effort to break out, end the siege and threaten the communications of the Turkish army. Bean has much to say about the inefficiency and muddle of the lines of communication which ended at Anzac Cove, the inadequacy of Mudros Harbour as an intermediate base, the monotony of the diet, lack of canteens, the problem of flies and diarrhoea, malingering and self-inflicted wounds, the shortage of competent staff officers and the effects of being hemmed in without hope of escape except through death or wounds. Yet the approach of the August offensive appears to have fanned the embers of the Australians’ offensive spirit into a new blaze.
Hamilton’s offensive in August, by reason of its scale, its complexity and the importance of its aim, was one of the great battles of the war. That it failed was one of the great disasters. It was really a series of attacks beginning with the feint at Helles on 6 August at 3.50 P.M., and another at Lone Pine at 5.30 P.M. That night it expanded vastly when the reinforced Australian and New Zealand Army Corps struck out from its left to seize the dominating, but almost undefended, ridge of Sari Bair. This was the main effort. Simultaneously a landing was begun at Suvla Bay by the new 9th Corps about 10 P.M. but it was subsidiary to the thrust for Sari Bair.
There is no denying the boldness and imagination of this plan yet the whole enterprise was doomed to end in frustration. In the first place, the weapon broke in Hamilton’s hand. The 4th Australian Brigade and the New Zealand Infantry Brigade, struggling up the gullies below Sari Bair, were not the brigades of the Landing. Sick with dysentry and diarrhoea, weakened by three months in the trenches and a poor diet, their depleted ranks made up by partly-trained reinforcements, they were in no condition to scale Sari Bair at night even against light opposition. Worse, the two brigadiers were men little fitted for the rough task of imposing order and direction on a battle going wrong. If Monash and F.E. Johnston were little fitted for their roles, what is to be said of the hapless General Stopford commanding 9th Corps, of General Hammersley commanding the 11th Division and the many elderly brigadiers and battalion commanders who squandered time and their New Army battalions at Suvla? Responsibility for that great tragedy must be divided between Kitchener, who appointed such generals, and Hamilton who, having asked for young, experienced commanders, tamely accepted Kitchener’s choice.
It is hard to understand how Hamilton allowed the aim of the Suvla operation to be watered down to such an extent that his original bold instructions were replaced by the statement that Stopford’s primary objective was to secure Suvla Bay as a base which, as J.F.C. Fuller has observed, was to substitute the means for the end. The British official historian has revealed how Hamilton’s intentions were further emasculated by his subordinate commanders. He has also revealed how Hamilton’s obsession with secrecy resulted in maps being issued to company commanders on the way to battle while the soldiers were left ignorant of where they were going and what they were required to do. A thorough briefing, such as became customary in France, may have enabled the battalions of the New Army to win a soldiers’ battle for the hills around Suvla before their enfeebled generals had come ashore or the Turkish reserves could arrive.
Modern opinion, to the extent that it is reflected in the works of John North, Robert Rhodes James and Peter Liddle, is as critical of General Godley’s handling of the battle of Sari Bair as it is of Stopford at Suvla. Godley’s force was a mixture of Australian, New Zealand, Indian, Gurkha and British battalions, and he was also responsible for the Light Horse diversionary attacks at Anzac on 7 August. With his battle headquarters at No. 2 Post, he was the one senior officer in a position to put new impetus into the battle for Sari Bair yet he did not venture out until, to obtain a view of the 6th Gurkhas attacking Hill Q, he put to sea in a destroyer. Godley was not alone in his concept of command; H.A. Lawrence at Romani in August 1916 and Sir Philip Chetwode at the First Battle of Gaza in March 1917, without the excuse of the tangled ravines below Sari Bair, tried to fight their battles by telephone when the tactical situation was crying out for the personal intervention of the commander. Monash has been criticized by Bean for the same approach when commanding the 3rd Division. Lacking neither courage nor energy, Godley may have saved his battle had he gone forward in time or had he even attended the critical conference at The Apex on 8 August when his own directions for the advance of the 38th Brigade were altered disastrously.
Neither Birdwood nor any of his staff ever got close to the battle for Sari Bair, while Hamilton was fatally dilatory over intervening at Suvla and would not impose his will on subordinates who were only tinkering with their tasks. Given his lack of faith in Stopford and the fact that the attack at Helles was only a diversion, it is difficult to see why Hamilton did not go to Suvla early on 7 August. This would have also placed him within easy reach of Godley and given him a distant view of Sari Bair.
On the Turkish side, there was a world of difference. Von Sanders acted quickly to keep a grip on the battle and without delay dismissed two unsatisfactory senior officers. Moreover, in Mustapha Kemal he had a divisional commander who, in Bean’s view, was "the greatest leader on the Eastern Front". The modern visitor to Gallipoli will find Turkish monuments in three places where this remarkable soldier took decisions which shaped the campaign. He led in person the attack which swept the British off Chunuk. Mustapha Kemal was no braver than Godley and others like him but he knew that nothing in modern war had changed the need for the presence of the commander at the critical place. In the next world war, Guderian and Rommel, Montgomery and Vasey, with many another of the same stamp, rehabilitated the general’s art by bringing command forward into battle.
The Gallipoli campaign ended with two tactical triumphs as the British were able to repeat at Helles the bloodless evacuation of Anzac and Suvla. A contemporary German wrote: "As long as wars last the evacuation of Suvla and Anzac will stand before the eyes of all strategists as a hitherto unattained masterpiece."6 All that good planning and imaginative deception could do towards success was done and the sure foundation of steady, disciplined troops was the rock on which the planners built. Nor was the vital ingredient of luck absent, for the weather was perfect at Suvla and Anzac while it held just long enough to see the last men off Helles. It was a veteran army which left the Peninsula but the operation was easier than any of its predecessors to the extent that the enemy was not involved. "Everything in war is simple", as Clausewitz has said, "but the simplest thing is difficult." In the evacuation the difficulties were overcome because the basic decisions were made just in time thus enabling intelligence and imagination to be put to work at every level.
The successful conduct of the evacuation had much in common with the great set-piece battles like Messines and Amiens which were to follow in France. Nevertheless, for all its brilliance, it was an acknowledgement of defeat by garrisons whose sorties had been crushed. It was also an admission of defeat in London and Paris where the anti-Gallipoli lobbies were in the ascendant and the two governments were already sinking into the morass of the Salonika campaign. Finally, the evacuation was a recognition of the perils of holding on through winter and in the face of the growing power of the new German and Austrian artillery allotted to the Turks.
Whatever the influence of the Gallipoli experience on Australian nationalism, there can be no doubt of its effects on the Australians and New Zealanders in the three "Anzac" divisions and the mounted brigades refitting in Egypt. Long after the war, in his Anzac to Amiens, Bean summed it up very simply:
They were a military force with strongly established, definite traditions. Not for anything, if he could avoid it, would an Australian now change his loose, faded tunic or battered hat for the smartest cloth or headgear of any other army. Men clung to their Australian uniforms till they were tattered to the limit of decency. Each of the regimental numbers which eight months before had been merely numbers, now carried a poignant meaning for every man serving with the A.I.F., and to some extent even for the nation far away in Australia.
The 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th Infantry Battalions - they had rushed Lone Pine: the 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th had made that swift advance at Helles; the 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th had stormed the Anzac heights; the 13th, 14th, 15th, 16th had first held Quinn’s, Courtney’s and Pope’s; the battalion numbers of the 2nd Division were becoming equally famous - and so with the light horse, artillery, engineers, field ambulances, transport companies, and casualty clearing stations.7
Here was the true beginning of the Australian military tradition rather than in the scattered colonial contingents which served briefly in the war in South Africa before returning home to be disbanded. By contrast the AIF was organized in divisions like the great European armies, and each division was deliberately formed as a microcosm of Australia; the same was true, in principle, of the Light Horse brigades. More, they were enlisted for the duration of the war and, remote from home, they had become close-knit communities in which the battalion or other unit was the very centre of their loyalties and existence. The leadership of the AIF, especially the officer corps, renewed itself from the ranks of the units. It was an élite which had proved itself by performance in action.
In spite of its losses and the sense of a task not completed, the AIF brought back from Gallipoli a tremendous belief in itself. A morale had been established which was strong enough to see the divisions through the agonies of Fromelles, Pozières and the Third Battle of Ypres. In Birdwood it had a commander whose admiration for the Australians and New Zealanders had grown with the months of fighting and who had become their proud and strong defender. His daily appearances in some part of the foremost trenches and his evident courage won the esteem of the soldiers. It was because he was an officer of the Indian Army and therefore outside the mainstream of the British officer corps, that Birdwood was able to identify so readily with his Anzacs and assume a greater degree of independence as their commander than would have been possible for an officer of the British service.
Since the death of General Bridges, Birdwood had become the de facto commander of the AIF, although the command was held briefly by Major-General J.G. Legge who had been sent from Australia to replace Bridges. Birdwood actively sought the appointment but although the Australian Government delegated Bridges’ powers to him, it did not formalize the position until September 1916.
After the departure of the 1st Anzac Corps in March 1916 for France, the newly organized 4th and 5th Divisions continued training in Egypt and in the defences beyond the Suez Canal. On 26 April, Monash wrote letter home describing the celebration of what he called "Anzac Day". This began with a "short but dignified service" for the whole of the 4th Brigade; there was an address by a chaplain, a Dead March played by massed bands and the Last Post was played by massed buglers. Later there were cricket matches and the entire 4th Division swam in the Canal! On their parade Gallipoli men of the 4th Brigade wore a blue ribbon on their right breast with the addition of a red ribbon for those who were at the Landing. "Alas, how few of us are left who are entitled to wear both." Monash ended with a reference to "this famous day - Our Day."8 The AIF and the nation now had something of their own, "a possession for ever", as Bean would write at the end of his sixth volume. For those with eyes to see and ears to hear, that possession endures.
- A.J. Hill, Chauvel of the Light Horse, (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1978), p.52
- Ibid., p.197
- Robert Rhodes James, Gallipoli, (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1965
- C.E.W. Bean, The Story of Anzac, The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918, 12 vols (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1921-42) I:xxx.
- A.W. Bazley, "Writing the Official History of World War I at Tuggeranong" in Canberra Collection, ed., P.A. Selth (Kilmore: Victoria: Lowden, 1976), pp.235-36.
- James, Gallipoli, p.342.
- C.E.W. Bean, Anzac to Amiens, (Canberra: AWM, 1946), p.183.
- F.M. Cutlack, ed., War Letters of General Monash, (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1934), pp.112-13.