We started planning for it years ago but it wasn’t until last September that my gang of mates made it to Gallipoli. I’d read a few books and learned a lot of the basics about the campaign and managed to sift through and discard some of the myths. But going to Turkey brought out something really special, almost like reaching a pinnacle in my time on the battlefield trail. There were moments on the trip that will stay with me forever quite apart from my memories of the light, the colours and the atmosphere and not forgetting the beer. We can’t forget the beer.
There are moments in this lovely book when men who were there mention the beauty of the place – the same light and colours; but they, of course, were seeing it in what was effectively a different light altogether. Picking through the shingle on ‘V’ Beach is a superior experience, but doing it a century ago on April 25th 1915 would have revealed a scene of utter carnage where the azure sea is said to have turned red in places. It’s the same up on 2nd Ridge where still visible Turkish and Anzac trenches are separated by the width of a narrow modern road. Tortoises shuffle about in the undergrowth and in the glow of climbing up there from the sea you do well to remember all you had done was an amble compared to the trials of the opposing units seeking to secure that spot.
Books like this one are really a companion to the more detailed histories I could recommend, but they achieve something genuinely tangible. You can hear the soft voices of men in their declining years who knew the war and when I was out in Gallipoli with Peter Hart he played snippets of old soldiers’ memories. This book keeps something of them alive, like a bridge to the past. The perfect illustration of why history can mean so much to us comes from reading and hearing it from people who were there on the epic or run of the mill days.
I am not a doyen of the Gallipoli campaign so I don’t know how many of the recollections in this book are well known within the club of campaign aficionados or come close to being standards. My feeling is the book has revealed
something special and I go back to my earlier point that the book makes for the best companion to an in depth history, but this is how history books work for me.
Richard van Emden has a solid reputation for his work sharing the experiences of the ordinary soldier. He is associated with the last days of Harry Patch, the centenarian man of immense dignity who acquired a discomfiting role of something like a cypher of the Great War soldier in his final years. I was at a military event on the weekend he died and there was genuine grief on display from people who realised that something had been lost. Mr van Emden uses an economy in scene setting to allow witnesses to speak for themselves. Historians are like middlemen in their books and keeping their footprint to a minimum can really help the past come through.
Stephen Chambers presents us with a wonderful array of photographs. I don’t think I have seen any of them before and this all adds to the authority and charm of the book. The sepia tone used is very appealing and my picture librarian’s head approves immensely. In my day job we scan plates and negatives like this in full colour and only de-saturate them in the final process because black and white is what people expect to see. Digital scanning reveals colours in mono images that give them something special. I spent literally days working on a plate of the by then Captain Edward Unwin on the day he received his Victoria Cross and a fog in the original process or some sort of chemical error made the negative appear blood red.Given what he did and saw at ‘V’ Beach this seems quite appropriate.
Soldiers’ memories take us from those first chaotic landings through the bloody and seemingly pointless stalemate to the nadir of the campaign, the landings at Suvla. Here again the colours and light are incredible. We chatted with a beekeeper before scrambling through a landscape where the wounded had burned to death in the brushfires and we avoided some very scary looking dogs. We went up to where the hopeless General Stopford had made his headquarters on a rough bit of cliff top overlooking the bay and round to where his army should have been. I picked up a remnant of barbed wire and my mates were always finding bullets, usually Turkish.
London had finally begun to appreciate the hopelessness and folly of the campaign and Kitchener sent out the reliable Charles Monro to assess the mess. The armchair general Churchill, wounded by his own towering failure, said of him “He came, he saw, he capitulated.” The campaign ended with the skilful evacuation of the invading army handing Turkey a victory it has every reason to cherish a century afterwards. Churchill’s restless adventurism may have felt wonderful in the dining rooms of his London scene, but over a hundred thousand men died for his ambitions at Gallipoli. He and his bedfellows would spend a lifetime if onlying as they sought to heap opprobrium on the leaders of the war that mattered – the Western Front – while they sought justification for adventures elsewhere that did nothing to defeat imperial Germany.
We walked along the beach at Suvla and a bloke in a boat tried to sell us beer.
One of our guys went scuba diving around the wreck of a lighter and we photographed the sunken remains of a Beetle, the first modern landing craft. My grandfather had worked on them there after transferring from the battleship Canopus. We mooted wading across the channel at the far end of the beach to get up to Lala Baba, the road was closed due to damage caused by tremors and we hadn’t got there. Instead we watched a huge crab bobbing along in the clear water and walked back to the cemetery at Hill 10, the site of an objective on the first day at Suvla in 1915 – a hillock just ten feet high.
Peter played a recording of a man who had become wealthy after the war and it ended with him singing a popular tune amongst his Lancastrian chums – “Homeland, homeland. When we will I see you again?”His rendition was the first time on the trip that anything so emotional had really got to me. There is the grave of two brothers in the cemetery who died days apart and they provide a tragic answer for too many of them.
History books can be black and white; this one fills in the grey. It is an atmospheric and often very sad read. There is futility, bravery and tragedy. It has all the ingredients of a Great War you might find in the shallows of the BBC but there is no secret message implied anywhere here – generals, field officers and other ranks are all treated the same. It is straightforward reporting without an agenda.
We have long known the campaign was reckless and mismanaged, there is nothing new to reveal. This is no place for grand strategy but the realities of being there in the words of British, Anzac and Turkish witnesses is as stark as it is endearing. Having these men who witnessed things first hand speak to us is a genuine privilege. Make the most of it.
Reviewed by Mark Barnes for War History Online.
The Dardanelles Disaster in Soldiers’ Words and Photographs
By Richard van Emden and Stephen Chambers
ISBN: 978 1 4088 5615 4