Massacre of Ireland's long forgotten heroes
Damian Corless on the soldiers who landed on a hellish beach in Gallipoli one hundred years ago
As the British military machine cranked up for an assault on Turkey's Dardanelles 100 years ago, General Sir John Maxwell wrote anxiously: "Who is in charge of this great combine?" His words would come home to roost, as an international force landed on Turkish beaches in an operation lacking leadership, planning and provisions. As the invasion stalled in the teeth of murderous machine gun and sniper fire, one aviator reported that the waters ran red with blood for 50 yards out to sea.
President Higgins was in Turkey this week, attending commemorations held by the hosts, Australia, New Zealand, and in memory of the 3,400 Irish who lost their lives in the attempt to open up a southern front against the Kaiser's Germany in a move supposed to shorten the Great War.
Despite the slaughter of some 200,000, Gallipoli has become a cherished keystone in the foundation myths of the Turkish, Australian and New Zealand nations. In Turkish schools, the nine-month bloodbath is presented as a coming-of-age. Turkey entered the 20th Century as the wheezy Ottoman Empire, derided as "the Sick Man of Europe".
And it was on this premise that Turkey was a Paper Tiger that the British government gave an ear to Winston Churchill's proposal to invade Turkey, capture Constantinople, and force Germany to divert troops from Flanders and Russia.
Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, pitched his idea as "an alternative to chewing barbed wire in Flanders". Some believed the main motivation behind Churchill's bold plan was attention-seeking and political advancement. After it all went horribly wrong, top politicians tried to duck responsibility, suggesting Churchill had gone on a solo run in a decision-making vacuum. This same abject lack of leadership was evident on the military side, from the top brass to the officers in the firing line. After the Great War ended, it became popular to bitterly remember the millions of casualties as "lions led by donkeys".
And led they were to the slaughter at Gallipoli, where they landed on beaches expertly converted into killing zones by well-prepared Turkish forces entirely different from the ones they'd been told to expect. Britain's high command was geriatric, slow-thinking, complacent and seemingly unaware that there had been a big recent shake-up in Turkish society. The revolution of the Young Turks in 1908 had ousted the sickly old regime and sent an energetic pulse through the land, including the army.
And it was to the added misfortune of the Irish, and their fellow allied troops landing at Gallipoli, that they came up against a man who would distinguish himself as an inspirational war leader, and shortly after as the leader of his nation, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
Turkey today celebrates Gallipoli as the defining moment when the nation stood up to the bullying of the western powers, shed its victimhood, regained its national pride, and made a new start. Australians and New Zealanders celebrate it as Anzac Day for similar reasons. Australia had made a tentative constitutional break with Britain in 1901, and together with its neighbour, was seeking ways of expressing its national identity. The Anzac (Australian & New Zealand Army Corps) troops at Gallipoli provided that much craved sense of a distinct identity, and anniversary commemorations began the very next year in 1916.
Proportionally, the Irish losses at Gallipoli were at least as severe as those of the Anzacs, but the sacrifice was quickly relegated to a footnote in Irish history, and seems destined to remain so. That outcome seemed unthinkable in the middle months of 1915 as thousands of Irishmen perished in two distinct waves. Those lost in the April landings were mostly regular professionals, many of whom had joined before the war in need of a job. Their deaths hit working-class Dublin particularly hard, and some rows of labourer's cottages were dubbed 'Dardenniles'.
To boost the flagging numbers volunteering, the British Army began urging the young men of entire villages and towns to join 'Pals' regiments, where they could embark on a gung-ho adventure with their friends. The scheme worked, and gangs of lads signed up together, generating a new intake from the well-heeled classes. After a second bout of slaughter in August, it was the turn of middle-class Ireland to feel the grief of war at first hand.
Many of the survivors eventually arrived home to an Ireland changed utterly, their heroic thunder stolen by the martyred rebels of the Easter Rising. As a new mood of anti-British sentiment tightened its grip, the exploits at Gallipoli was no fit subject for pub banter. In the years and decades that followed, it had no place in the new national narrative.
The Irish in Australia had no such problem. In July 1915, during the campaign, the Irish National Association was founded, and for years members took every opportunity to fuse Gallipoli and the Easter Rising as a bond, with General Maxwell as the common link. Fresh from the Turkish evacuation, Maxwell had suppressed the Rising and taken the fateful decision to execute the leaders, playing a lead role in the foundation stories of two nations.