We lost the Landing, not British blimps
AUSTRALIANS ARE, HOWEVER, NOT ALONE IN BEING FOUND WANTING
Lost Boys of Anzac: First to Join, First to Fight, First to Die By Peter Stanley NewSouth, 368pp, $34.99 ANZAC Day is sometimes proposed as a replacement for the problematic Australia Day. It would not be a wise move. A celebration of yet another invasion! And Anzac Day has had its own troubles, above all a feeling that the manner of its annual commemoration debauched its heroic significance.
One of Australia’s most famous plays, Alan Seymour’s The One Day of the Year, devoted itself to that problem in 1960. The Day has been tidied up since, and a hefty scholarly and educational emphasis on the original day, April 25, 1915, must be considered a success. All parties now say that Anzac, or the Anzac legend, should be an essential part of every Australian child’s history curriculum. What is taught, how-
April 19-20, 2014 ever, is going to be increasingly, and rightly, fraught. Enter Peter Stanley, and assorted soldiers, scribes, spear-carriers and so on. Stanley is research professor at the Australian Defence Force Academy, and this is his fifth book on Australia in the Great War, all exhilarating micro-studies — individuals and brief enough episodes rather than panoramas and legends.
Lost Boys of Anzac is an account of the 101 men who landed in the first wave to reach Anzac Beach and who were all dead by midnight that day. Always sensitive, Stanley treats his boys with the respect and compassion that historians owe to men who have been in battle.
He also chances his arm with judgments that give the wobbles to the Anzac legend. Let me list his major claims. One, even if the boats landed on the wrong beach, it was no particular disadvantage. Two, the Anzacs were initially met solely by rifle fire; the Ottomans had no machine guns in forward positions. Three, the troops took no notice of their orders to organise and cohere under their officers’ supervision, and instead became ‘‘just a mob climbing the hills’’ (as one of their own sergeants described it). Stanley comments: ‘‘It was at that moment, arguably, that the landing on Gallipoli turned from being a possible success to becoming a probable failure.’’
Fourth, successive waves did not follow the first wave to their planned objectives. Instead the men dug defensive positions where they would stay for the rest of the campaign. ‘‘It was by orders of their commanders,’’ Stanley comments. ‘‘Between the landing and about noon, when the first counter-attacks developed, the landing was lost ... by the time the Ottoman troops had reached Gun Ridge, a handful of Australian generals had thrown away the battle for Anzac.’’ No mention, note, nor is there anywhere in the book, of a fiasco that was the doing of British blimps and dolts. Australia blew it, is the Stanley thesis.
Australians are, however, not alone in being found wanting. After the evacuation in December 1915, the Anzac positions were occupied by Ottoman troops. They used the wooden crosses on the graves for firewood, and they ‘‘and opportunistic local civilians dug into the grave mounds in search of valuables — gold teeth, watches and anything of use — in the process obliterating graves’’. “This makes a mockery,’’ Stanley comments, ‘‘of the modern Turkish rhetoric of Gallipoli. Apologists quoting the ubiquitous statement by Ataturk that ‘your sons are our sons’ ... are deluded.’’
This is combative stuff, but the fighting is over by page 145, and for the next 200 pages excitement and controversy give way to quiet sombreness. Even now only 19 of the 101 lie in known graves on Gallipoli, and Stanley details