*Note: This essay was published in the Sydney Morning Herald print edition on April 25, 2020. An image of the column is included below (“On the grim arithmetic of war, Gallipoli cannot be dismissed as a colossal waste”), as well as the text of the essay.
On this solemn day, when Australians pause to reflect on the service and sacrifice of so many in the armed forces, it seems appropriate to grapple with one of the enduring myths around that most-storied of Anzac battles: Gallipoli.
Far too many still don’t get Gallipoli and stubbornly insist the 1915 effort to knock the Ottoman Empire out of the war by taking the Dardanelle Straits was a colossal waste. The Australian War Memorial itself has deemed the operation a “failure” that had “no influence on the course of the war,” and a writer in these pages recently opined the only good thing that happened at Gallipoli was the “evacuation”. Not long ago, New Zealand’s Governor-General said New Zealanders had “nothing to gain” from the fight there, and a Radio New Zealand program last year declared it a “horrific disaster.”
But those views are tragically misleading, leaving errant national narratives in place with harmful consequences. Gallipoli may not have succeeded in the classic sense, but it was certainly successful in a very important way.
The campaign’s ultimate objective was to knock the Ottoman Empire out of the war with one swift strike. Of course, that didn’t happen. But then again, real war isn’t as easy as Luke Skywalker blowing up the Death Star.
Real wars are always a slog. Historian Cathal Nolan has pointed out that most winners simply outlast the other side. World War I is a perfect example of this slow, swampy version of success. Most wars come down to this—not who’s better, but who’s left.
There were any number of efforts during World War I to break the stalemate: poison gas, aerial bombardment, submarines and tanks, and new tactics that took advantage of radio communication and widespread watch-wearing to synchronise movement and attack. Unfortunately, every technological and tactical edge was undercut by another, with barbed wire, machine guns and devastating artillery usually delivering a knockout checkmate in response.
In this environment, war’s objectives aren’t binary. Failing to achieve a high strategic objective doesn’t negate positive military gain. What matters most when you’re fighting a war that includes 65 million troops from 40 countries is the brutal science of battlefield mathematics.
Casualty figures from World War I can show some frustrating range, but clearly demonstrate the Dardanelle campaign’s value to the Allied cause. The New Zealand government’s historical record documents that the Allies (including Australians, British, Canadians from Newfoundland, French, Irish, Indians and New Zealanders) sustained 141,547 casualties (dead, wounded and missing) at Gallipoli – among those numbers were 44,150 dead. The Ottoman Empire forces present on the peninsula sustained 251,309 casualties, including an astonishing 86,692 dead.
Crude as it may be to some, this is the sort of grim arithmetic by which big wars are won. Looking at the ratio – dividing the impact on the Ottoman side by the input of Allied force casualties – we can see, definitively, Gallipoli was ruthlessly combat effective. By total casualties or battlefield deaths, both measure close to a 2-to-1 margin in favour of the Allies, which means essentially that a single Allied casualty produced two Ottoman losses (acknowledging that one Allied casualty did not cause two Ottoman casualties, yet, in hindsight, this is what the engagement manufactured).
It doesn’t take much of a military mind to grasp this benefit. Imagine a game of chess or checkers in which every turn goes two-for-one against the adversary. While such a remarkable rate doesn’t guarantee victory, over time it can have a devastating impact.
That’s meaningful military gain, especially considering the alternatives. The Anzacs at Gallipoli might instead have been thrown into the 2nd Battle of Ypres, beginning in Belgium at roughly the same time, where Allied casualties were more than double the German tally. Or they might’ve been saved for the Battle of the Somme in 1916. The Somme was enormous, tragic, and yet, one thing is clear. The combatants suffered rough parity in reciprocal slaughter. The Allies took more casualties and the Germans more battle deaths. But the ratio was about 1-to-1.
Let’s say you were a young man from tiny Berry, two hours south of Sydney. From a town of about 1600 souls, 202 enlisted for World War I and 54 never came home. It dizzies the mind to walk around the war memorial there – to see so many of the same family names repeated over and over and over again.
Just one of those names was Private Roy McTernan, who was killed fighting at Gallipoli on August 22, 1915. Each one of those lost was (and is) a tragedy to the family, town and nation. But what did Private McTernan and the boys of Berry gain at Gallipoli?
They played a role in pinning down and defeating the Ottoman Empire. They held on to the safety and sovereignty their societies sent them to secure. The alternative consequences were severe – one only needs look to the turmoil and upheaval awaiting the empires of Austro-Hungary, Germany, Russia and even (eventually) the Ottomans following the war.
If you’re a soldier bound for war, in which battle would you prefer to fight – the one that might bring a breakthrough and that markedly increases the adversary’s pain – or a stalemate that merely swaps pain equally? Every soldier I know would pick Gallipoli over Ypres or the Somme, any day, twice on Sunday.
Of course, troops don’t get a choice, which is why Australians rightly commemorate them all every April 25. But Gallipoli’s a little different and worth a little extra thought. Far from pitiable lemmings, those Anzacs who fought in the Dardanelles did so amid desperate circumstances with honour, courage and, yes, even some success.