The death of an Austrian Archduke in Sarajevo in the northern hemisphere summer of 1914 must have seemed an impossibly distant and unimportant event to people in faraway Australia. Yet within weeks Britain declared war on Germany and its Allies and that meant Australia was committed too.
As in Europe there was a wild wave of enthusiasm and patriotism. A new volunteer army of 20,000 soldiers sprung up called the Australian Imperial Force. The AIF assembled on 26 troopships at Albany, Western Australia joined by ten troopships from New Zealand. They set sail on November 1, 1914 but not to Europe as most aboard assumed. Turkey had entered the war on Germany’s side and the troops were needed to defend the vital Suez Canal.
In Egypt the Anzacs (as they quickly became known) were placed under Englishman Sir William Birdwood who trained them for First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill’s ambitious plan to knock Turkey out of the war. It involved an invasion of Turkey’s Gallipoli peninsula which guarded the Dardanelles and the approaches to the Ottoman capital of Constantinople (now Istanbul). The invasion was planned to start at dawn on Sunday, April 25, 1915.
That morning, the men left the convoy of big ships and were rowed ashore in boats. In the confusion of darkness the boats landed at the wrong spot on a beach facing high cliff and ravines. By 8am 8000 men were ashore despite heavy fire from Turkish defenders but the thick prickly scrub of the hills prevented easy advance. Some Anzacs penetrated high in the hills only to be cut off, surrounded or forced back. Their frustration was matched by British failures landing at Cape Helles on Gallipoli’s southern tip.
By mid-morning Turkish reinforcements arrived with orders to fight to the death. In fierce hand-to-hand combat they held the commanding heights while the Anzacs dug in on the strip of hills overlooking the beach they called Anzac Cove. British commander Sir Ian Hamilton refused a dismayed Birdwood permission to withdraw. Birdwood told his men to “dig, dig, dig” and the Anzac line was formed. It would not change for eight months.
At least 650 Australians died that first day with 2000 wounded. The weeks that followed took a further bloody toll. The Turkish assault of May 19 was so brutal both sides agreed on an armistice to allow burial of the decomposing dead in no-mans-land. The newspaper reports to Australia spoke of a great success and the number of casualties was hushed up. Slowly but surely the scale of the slaughter made it across the world. In a country of five million people, there were few communities not touched by tragedy.
British commanders refused to acknowledge failure. They launched a fresh offensive in August to capture the high ground and landed an invasion force north of Gallipoli at Suvla Bay. This operation failed like all the others. Australians began to hear the names of places such as Lone Pine, the Nek and Chunuk Bair as sites where thousands died.
The August failure doomed the rest of the mission and Hamilton was sacked in October. His replacement General Munro recommended the peninsula be abandoned. When war secretary Lord Kitchener finally visited Gallipoli he accepted Munro’s advice and by early December the War Cabinet ordered immediate withdrawal ahead of winter. This was the one successful aspect of the campaign with thousands evacuating under the noses of the unsuspecting Turks. The last boats departed before dawn on December 20.
The Australians suffered 28,000 casualties including 8700 dead. They returned to Egypt and were joined in early 1916 by reinforcements from Australia. This huge force doubled the AIF size from two to four divisions. By March 1916 they were on their way to the Western Front. Many more years of bloody battles awaited before those that survived would see home again.