Gallipoli; I Found No Peace
Gallipoli stands almost alone among battles of the First World War. This campaign, fought at the Dardanelles in 1915, has a romance almost entirely missing from the attritional struggles on the Western Front in spite of the fact that this attempt to knock Turkey out of the war was a far greater failure than Passchendaele or the Somme. It is instructive to compare the vast number of books on Gallipoli with the handful on the battles of the hundred days of August-November 1918 when a highly effective British army made a mighty contribution to winning the war.
The romance is associated with four factors. It is often said that it was at Gallipoli that the performance of Anzac troops set Australia and New Zealand free from the weight of their British colonial pasts on the path to emerging as nations in their own right. The historical veracity of this simplistic nationalist narrative is dubious, but the myth remains powerful in modern-day Australia and New Zealand. Moreover, Gallipoli was an early episode in the career of the ‘greatest Briton’ Winston Churchill; and it took place in an area soaked with significance for classically-educated officers such as Rupert Brooke. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there remains a notion that the campaign somehow offered a short cut to winning the First World War and that the failure condemned a generation to suffer in the trenches.
Over the last two decades historians have comprehensively debunked the latter belief. In his new book, Gallipoli, Peter Hart of the Imperial War Museum has no truck with what might be described as the ‘lost by a narrow margin’ school. He states that his aim is to ‘expose the futility of the campaign’ and to illustrate the experience of fighting on the peninsula. Hart does both in a highly effective fashion. The campaign was ‘doomed from the outset’, he argues; moreover an objective staff study of the initial proposal would have ensured that it would never have advanced beyond the point of being a bright idea. Hart is far from the first historian to make this case (Robin Prior’s 2009 Gallipoli: The End of the Myth, for instance, sets it out in remorseless and compelling detail) and yet does so in a particularly readable fashion.
Hart’s writing style is not to everyone’s taste but he has shrewd historical sense and the knack of interweaving analysis with a narrative founded on telling quotes from participants. He has an impressive record of writing books of this type, illustrating the experience of war by extensive use of first-hand accounts. Gallipoli is well up to his usual standards, though it adds little to his previous account of the campaign, co-authored with Nigel Steel in the 1990s, especially in regard to the Turkish side. Beyond acquaintance with some interesting ‘I was there’ sources, specialists are unlikely to learn much that is new, but a more general audience, brought up on the idea that the campaign was a near-run thing, may well be shocked by Hart’s pitiless dissection of the ‘lunacy’ of Gallipoli, an ‘idiocy generated by muddled thinking’.
A rather different take on the war comes in Webb Miller’s I Found No Peace. Miller (1891-1940), an American journalist, published these memoirs in 1935. I’m not wholly convinced that it is ‘a forgotten classic’ fit to stand alongside Hemingway and Orwell as the publisher’s blurb proclaims, but it is certainly very interesting. Miller gives some graphic accounts of his involvement in events as diverse as the US army’s pursuit of Pancho Villa across the Mexican border, the independence campaign in British India, an interview with Hitler, the 1935 Italian invasion of Abyssinia and, of course, the trench warfare on the Western Front. He was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1937 and reading this book it is easy to see why. His description of the Verdun sector near the end of the First World War and how he broke the news of the Armistice is a particularly fine piece of journalism made more entertaining by Miller’s less than modest style: the words ‘I’, ‘my’ and ‘we’ make frequent appearances. Miller’s book is a curiosity, but it is certainly highly readable and it is good to see it back in print.
Gary Sheffield's The Chief: Douglas Haig and the British Army will be published by Aurum later this year.
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