Busting New Zealand’s Gallipoli myths

I am often surprised at the mythology swirling around Anzac Day, the day when Kiwis remember their dead of all wars. Unusually, the date – 25 April – commemorates the moment that Australia and New Zealand soldiers stormed ashore on the Gallipoli peninsula; an invasion.

Anzac Beach during the landing by 4 Battallion on 25 April 1915. Photo by Lance-Corporal Arthur Robert Henry Joyner. Public domain, via Wikipedia.
Anzac Beach during the landing by 4 Battallion on 25 April 1915. Photo by Lance-Corporal Arthur Robert Henry Joyner. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

But outside historical circles, it seems, there are quite a few misconceptions about the whole thing – ranging from the popular idea that the campaign lasted just one day (it didn’t), to the notion that New Zealanders stormed ashore at dawn (they didn’t). So what really happened?

Myth 1. New Zealand forces came ashore at dawn.
The initial landings at what became known as ‘Anzac Cove’ were by Australian forces – specifically,  four battalions from 3 Brigade of 1 Australian Division. New Zealand units were waiting offshore but not scheduled to land for some hours. By the time they did land, Australian forces were already heavily engaged ashore.

Myth 2. The campaign lasted a day.
The Gallipoli campaign lasted from 25 April until 20 December 1915 – just on 8 months. But the Anzac contribution nearly did end on the first day. By the end of 25 April, none of the main objectives had been taken and the beach was under fire from Turkish artillery. Commanders ashore discussed withdrawal, but the Royal Navy couldn’t do it. And so they had to dig in.

So the struggle for the Gallipoli peninsula fell into the same deadlock that bedevilled the Western Front – a deadlock that reflected the way defence (machine gun, sandbag and wire) had overcome offence (infantry advance). Unlike the Western Front, Gallipoli wasn’t well equipped with artillery, which could be used as an equaliser. Naval forces offshore could offer heavy fire-support, but naval guns weren’t suited to ground bombardment.

Wright_Western Front_200 pxBritish officials kept hoping that a break-through might be possible; all the forces had to do was take the peninsula and, with it, the forts that were preventing minesweepers from clearing the Dardanelles and letting naval forces sail through to Constantinople.

Myth 3. Gallipoli was New Zealand’s main First World War campaign.
Some 7991 Kiwis became casualties at Gallipoli, including 2779 dead, but the eight month campaign was a mere aperitif for what followed; a move by the bulk of the New Zealand forces to the Western Front, where they were heavily engaged from May 1916 until November 1918. This was where most of New Zealand’s casualties of the First World War occurred, and the experience profoundly shaped the way the war was remembered.

If you want to learn more about that campaign, check out my book Western Front: The New Zealand Division 1916-18.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


4 thoughts on “Busting New Zealand’s Gallipoli myths

  1. I’d add that New Zealander’s view of the Gallipoli campaign is for obvious reasons very ANZAC-centric but there were of course soldiers of many other nationalities fighting on the side of the Allies. Their contribution is often overlooked.

    1. Yes – they included the British and French. The campaign was a lot more multi-national than we usually remember, in part I think because of the way the Anzac front has been so closely tied into Australian and New Zealand history.

  2. Don’t be too hard on your fellow Kiwis, Matthew. At least they don’t believe World War II was fought by the US and Germany against the Russians, and, what, Soviet Union? What’s that?

    1. Extraordinary to think that such ideas could ever gain ground! I should add that one of the big problems here is that the word ‘celebration’ keeps getting used (and aspects of what’s happening do look a LOT like a rock concert), and there have been reminders that it is, in fact, a solemn ‘commemoration’.

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