War History: A struggle between a kaleidoscope of nations – and the Suffolks were there

Ottoman commander Mehmed Esat Pasha issuing orders to the batteries at Anzac Cove

Ottoman commander Mehmed Esat Pasha issuing orders to the batteries at Anzac Cove - Credit: Archant

There’s nothing like walking in the footprints of history to help us appreciate the past. Mike Peters, Galloway’s resident military historian, writes from the battlefields and cemeteries of the Gallipoli Peninsula as he looks back to the events of April, 1915

Australian troops charge an Ottoman trench, just before the evacuation at Anzac Cove

Australian troops charge an Ottoman trench, just before the evacuation at Anzac Cove - Credit: Archant

As you read this I will be preparing to leave Turkey after a week working on the Gallipoli battlefields. No doubt the UK media will have briefly highlighted the centenary of the allied landings on April 25, 1915.

Over previous weeks we have examined the strategic thinking behind early attempts by Anglo-French naval forces at forcing the Dardanelles straits in March, 1915. Last week’s commemorations marked the anniversary of the landings on the first day of the land campaign that followed those naval attacks. An ill-fated campaign and costly gamble had been launched by Winston Churchill with the over-ambitious aim of seizing Constantinople and knocking the Ottoman empire out of the war.

The events of 100 years ago continue to resonate across the world; arguably none more so than the Gallipoli campaign. The eight-month undertaking is reputed to have generated more English language books and histories than any other battle or campaign of the war. If true, it is quite surprising, given the enduring interest in equally-contentious campaigns such as the Somme or Passchendaele.

Many people associate Gallipoli primarily with the Australian and New Zealand troops who landed as part of the British plan. There are obvious reasons for this, not least the exposure the ANZAC experience has received on TV and cinema screens. The heart of the matter for Australians and New Zealanders is that the landings represent a milestone in their national awakening. The landing at what became known as Anzac Cove remains a highly emotive moment for both nations that far exceeds its military impact or value.

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Closer scrutiny of the forces involved in the Gallipoli campaign reveals that although the Anzacs played their part, there were numerous other players involved.

In fact, the struggle for the Dardanelles involved a cosmopolitan mix of nations on both sides. The British Army’s Mediterranean Expeditionary Force (MEF) formed the core of the allied force. The MEF was made up of British, Australian, New Zealand, Indian and even Newfoundland troops.

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The French force that supported them is too often overlooked; it was also a colourful mix of soldiers drawn from across metropolitan France and its far-flung colonies in North Africa and the Far East. Equally, although we generally refer to forces defending the straits as Turks, there was a diverse mix of ethnicity.

The Ottoman empire may well have been on its last legs but its army still drew recruits from across the Middle East; therefore, a significant number of its troops originated from outside Turkey. There was also a tiny number of German military advisors present who had assisted in the reform of the Ottoman empire’s army; they were also destined to play an active part in the campaign.

So, you can see this was a struggle between a real kaleidoscope of nations.

The casualty figures are approximate but still give an indication of the scale of each nation’s involvement. The allied total stands at 56,643; of that, Britain lost over 30,000 dead, the French 11,000, the Anzacs an equivalent figure to the French.

The Turkish figures are notoriously inaccurate but are thought to be 56,707. These figures do not include the thousands of soldiers from both sides who suffered from sickness due to the horrific sanitation problems.

Last Saturday, Australians and Kiwis proudly commemorated their national moment at dawn services worldwide. I was privileged to attend the dawn service in Gallipoli. There is no doubting the importance of the commemoration for both nations; the tens of thousands of Anzac pilgrims in Turkey are testimony to the power of the aura that surrounds what is now known as Anzac Day.

However, closer to home there is a new and surprising trend that is refreshing to see: a growing British interest in the story of Gallipoli. The First World War centenary has generated this renewed interest and the increase in UK visitor numbers to Gallipoli ? and quite rightly so. This is a long-overdue development.

During our Western Front tours I often hear from attendees about relatives from Suffolk and other parts of East Anglia who served at Gallipoli.

The Territorial Force we have heard so much about in previous weeks would play its part in the Dardanelles. The men of the 54th (East Anglian) Division landed on the peninsula in the stifling heat of August, 1915. In among the division’s ranks was the 1/5th Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment, the sister battalion of the 1/4th Battalion of Neuve Chapelle fame. The West Suffolk men subsequently fought at Suvla and at Scimitar Hill.

Later, the county would produce yet more men in the shape of the Suffolk Yeomanry. The cavalrymen landed at Gallipoli in October, 1915, just in time to experience floods and a severe Turkish winter. In future weeks I hope to bring their stories to you.

If you are keen to get out on the Western Front battlefields yourself, the next day excursion to Arras travels on Tuesday, June 9 and is now available to book online at www.travel-galloway.com – or visit a Galloway Travel Centre for information. You can also follow a battlefields feed on Twitter @GallowayBattles or find battlefield tour reports on the Galloway Travel Facebook page.

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