ANZAC Day 2008 - The First Anzacs

From Don of Lodge Devotion

Tonight we again honour the first ANZACs, members of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, who fought so valiantly at Gallipoli some 93 years ago.

There was a stalemate on the Western Front in late 1914. Britain and France were facing Germany on the Western Front (Northern France and Belgium); Russia was fighting Germany and its ally Austria-Hungary on the Eastern Front; Turkey was supporting Germany. The British War Council suggested that Germany could best be defeated by attacks on her weaker allies - Austria-Hungary and Turkey. This could be done by gaining control of the straits known as the Dardanelles. Its principal proponent was The First Sea Lord, Bro Winston Churchill. Churchill, a descendant of the great Marlborough, was “bloodied” in battle well before the war. A Sandhurst graduate, he was no military “mug”. Gallipoli was not to be the last that we would see his bold strategic concepts, the latter being successful in WW2 ie Italy and Normandy.

Istanbul, which guarded a narrow waterway, the Bosporus, into the Black Sea, was very vulnerable to seaward attack but the naval actions failed. Over the ensuing month a plan was prepared for the landing-not an easy task given the rugged nature of much of the peninsula's coastline. The main focus was the southern part of the Gallipoli peninsula at Cape Helles and Sedd el Bahr.

Amphibious operations are difficult to plan and execute. The beach must allow for the beaching of landing craft. The water must be deep to allow large ships to be able to provide naval gunfire support. The beach head must be easily defended. But most important, and this was a principle failure of the campaign, the landing must be positioned so that the “vital ground” (the ground that must be held to dominate the battlefield) is captured quickly. Amphibious operations are so complex that the United States and the United Kingdom have Marine Corps dedicated to this task.

While the troops landed on five separate beaches in the south, a subsidiary landing would be made by the ANZAC Corps about twenty kilometres up the coast, north of Gaba Tepe. The Australian troops were young and “un-blooded”, diverted enroute to France. The Australians and New Zealanders would seize the southern part of the Sari Bair ridge before advancing across the peninsula to Maidos, from where they would mount a threat to the Kilid Bahr plateau from the rear. The French division would meanwhile make a temporary landing on the Asian shore at Kum Kale to prevent Turkish gunners there bombarding the troops landing at Helles. To divert Turkish attention, the Royal Naval Division would make a feint attack at Bulair, at the narrow neck of the peninsula.

Australians landed on the Gallipoli Peninsula, at Ari Burnu (soon renamed Anzac Cove) before dawn on 25th April. The landings were originally scheduled to take place on 23 rd April, but weather conditions led to a delay of two days. The first ashore were to be the ANZACs who had moved forward to Lemnos in early April. Control of this high ground, the “vital ground”, was essential for success. The 3rd Australian Brigade would land before dawn, secure the beach and advance to Gun Ridge. Following them, the 2nd Australian Brigade would occupy the Sari Bair ridge as far as Hill 971. The remaining 2,500 troops would then be able to push their way inland towards the forts of the Dardanelles. Finally, the remaining 21,000 Anzacs would be sent ashore to move inland under the protection of the first 4,000. The 1st Australian Division's remaining brigade would land by 9 a.m. as Divisional reserve.

Concerted but unsuccessful allied attempts to break through in August included the Australian attacks at Lone Pine and the Nek. All attempts ended in failure for both sides, and the ensuing stalemate continued for the remainder of 1915.

Even if all had gone to plan on the 25th, the force would have struggled to secure its objectives, especially within the time allotted. But the plan was thrown into disarray even before the troops began landing. The Australian troops were mistakenly landed about two kilometers north of the planned beachhead. The plan was too ambitious, poorly prepared and coordinated. The New Zealand Otago Battalion was not at its start line on time. Start line punctuality is critical to battle coordination, especially fire support. The plan failed.

There was no strategic surprise for the campaign as the Royal Navy had been trying to force that strait February and it obvious that a land operation would be contemplated. Furthermore, the ANZACs had been training for the operation in Egypt for 5 months before the landing. Tactically surprise was lost when troops had to move from the wrong landing beach. There was time for them to reinforce their position.

The campaign was launched with five divisions against a roughly comparable Turkish force. The rough parity was sustained as the campaign progressed with the thirteen Allied divisions eventually facing fourteen Turkish divisions. As a rule of thumb, you must attack a defended position with a numerical superiority of three to one to have any chance of success. The Turks had the advantage of operating on interior lines. The Allied build-up was always too little too late. Inadequate leadership played a part in the Allied failure, and many men were sacrificed in futile attacks on strong positions, especially at Helles.

The Gallipoli campaign was a costly failure. Churchill resigned as did Admiral Lord Jacky Fisher, RN. The reasons for this have been hotly debated over the last ninety odd years, with tides, faulty navigation by the landing fleet, belated changes of orders all being canvassed. While it is possible to point to moments when tactical developments offered the promise of success, the outcome was determined by strategic factors. Essentially there were not enough men available at the crucial moments.

The most successful phase of the campaign was the evacuation of the troops on 19th –20 th December 1915 under cover of a comprehensive deception plan. As a result, the Turks were unable to inflict more than a very few casualties on the retreating forces.

There were 26,111 Australian causalities including 8,141 dead in the 7 month campaign. Seven Australian Victoria Crosses* were among the decorations awarded. Despite this, it has been said that Gallipoli Campaign had no influence on the overall course of the war. It was a different story when we engaged the Turks again in the Palestine Campaign 1916-1918, especially at Beersheba, a battle I would rather commemorate.

We were a fledgling nation that came of age at Gallipoli. It was the first time that our soldiers had fought under our Nation Flag together with the New Zealanders.

* Among those awarded, Captain Albert Jacka VC MC & Bar (1893 – 1932) was a prominent Freemason.