CRF Blog

A New View of the Battle of Gallipoli

by Bill Hayes

In A New View of the Battle of Gallipoli, Smithsonian magazine reassesses the bloody battle of World War I.

The invasion of Gallipoli, a peninsula squeezed between the Aegean Sea and the Dardanelles in what is now western Turkey, was conceived by Allied commanders as a lightning strike against the Ottoman Empire to bring about a quick end to the Great War, which had bogged down into a bloody stalemate on the Western Front. The Ottomans had signed a pact with the German Empire on August 2, 1914, shortly following the war’s outbreak. As the Germans and their European allies, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, faced the Allies in trenches extending 500 miles from the North Sea to Switzerland, the Turks engaged the Russians on the eastern front, bombarding Russian ports and sealing off the Dardanelles. Allied generals and politicians expected their operation in Gallipoli to be over in a matter of days. “A good army of 50,000 men and sea power — that is the end of the Turkish menace,” declared First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill.

Instead, by the time Allied forces withdrew in defeat in January 1916, close to half a million soldiers — nearly 180,000 Allied troops, 253,000 Turks — had been killed or wounded. Australia suffered 28,150 casualties at Gallipoli, including 8,700 dead, nearly one-sixth of the casualties it endured during the Great War. “Australia was born as a nation on April 25,” says Bill Sellars, a Gallipoli-based Australian journalist, describing the day that the recently independent country mourned the loss of young soldiers on a distant battlefield. As the fighting dragged on, says Sellars, it became “a close-up, in-your-face war, as opposed to the Western Front, where you never even saw your enemy.”

Now, as the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli campaign approaches, both sides are engaging in commemorations that testify to the battle’s resonance. Turkish citizens and visitors from around the world will crowd the battlefield and cemeteries for memorials in March and April.

Thirty-four years ago, Peter Weir’s 1981 film Gallipoli, starring Mel Gibson, captured the innocence of young men who rushed eagerly to the front — only to be sent to pointless deaths by callous and incompetent field commanders. In April, the New Zealand-born star Russell Crowe is releasing in the U.S. the new film he directed, The Water Diviner, about an Australian who travels to Turkey in 1919 to learn the fate of his three sons, reported missing in action. And a flurry of movies by Turkish directors has presented the Ottoman experience of the carnage. The nationalistic Gallipoli: End of the Road dramatizes the battlefield feats of Abdul the Terrible, a real-life Turkish sniper who gunned down a dozen Allied officers before he was shot dead by a Chinese-Australian sharpshooter named Billy Sing. Children of Canakkale (using the Turkish name for the Gallipoli campaign), by Turkish filmmaker Sinan Cetin, takes a starkly different approach, telling of two brothers who fight on opposite sides, British and Turkish, and meet face to face in a climactic bayonet charge. “Turkish people love the fairy tale about nationalism, but I couldn’t with my heart do that kind of movie,” he told me. “This was a disaster, not a victory.” [more]