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Tales of Gallipoli

New books keep history alive, as it should be

Michael Palin, Great Uncle Harry. A Tale of War and Empire (Hutchinson/Heinemann, £22)

I am a bibliophile who writes about war and military history. With Ukraine and Gaza, these last couple of years have been far too busy. I have described elsewhere in the Critic how I turn to reading crime fiction as an antidote to leach out the stress of continually researching, and turning my pen to conflict. Last week three books for review thudded onto the doormat in quick succession. I had to sign for them. The delivery guy gave me a look which suggested gym membership would be cheaper than lugging all my tomes about. Each volume is set for Christmas gift-giving, when the single most popular present in the Western world remains a book. The season’s offerings and new signings are unveiled to the trade at book fairs, the dating agencies of publishing. London’s is held each March, but easily dwarfed by the world’s largest, a five-day October biblio-fest in Frankfurt. 

Its origins can be traced to 1454, following Johannes Gutenberg’s revolutionary invention of the printing press. Earlier vendors had met to sell manuscripts, but with the ability to mass produce (the term is relative) printed works, a fair developed for local booksellers to trade, buy, and sell their wares. Relaunched after the war in 1949 to get the West German publishing industry back on its feet, this year’s attracted thousands of international publishers, authors and agents. The general public can also visit and buy the latest titles. You should go next year: its 300,000 attendees demonstrated the robustness of the industry, of which your humble scribe is merely the tip of a giant iceberg. Awards, ranging from the Peace Prize and Young People’s Word of the Year, to the Oddest Title, are given and talks delivered. This October’s included discussions on sustainability, supply chain challenges, the German Exile Archive 1933–45, Goethe in Virtual Reality, and The State of AI in Publishing Today. One theme that dominated was “war and new beginnings”; how literature breaks down walls, and can overcome death threats and protests.

Authors like me and our publishers were once afeared that e-books would take over the world, but after a market penetration of about 10 per cent they stopped. We found that downloadable works on an e-reader really only work for holiday fiction (saving suitcase space and weight), or for those with small houses. Non-fiction, with maps and photographs, is often less satisfactory in digital form. Analysts assessed most of us like the tactile quality of a physical book, something solid to give and receive. The choice of subject often reflects the care and attention of the giver at Christmas or for a birthday. Hardbacks are best, even if mine double as weight-lifting exercises. For authors, volumes in the ether are a nightmare, for we receive far less in royalties on them. Post-Christmas, a generous cheque usually arrives, providing a vital shot of financial adrenalin which makes it all worthwhile for you and me. 

The first of last week’s volumes nestling on my desk, with its immediately identifiable Ripping Yarns cover illustration, was Sir Michael Palin’s story of his forebear, Great Uncle Harry, who travelled the world but disappeared on the Somme. Here, I felt an immediate connection, not least because Michael, I and his Great Uncle Harry Palin had hauled ourselves through the same academy of learning, Shrewsbury School, though at different times. There are plenty of 1914-18 memoirs and tributes around, but this is one of the best. The further the Great War (as it used to be called) recedes, the more we seem to need to torture ourselves with the staggering sacrifices it involved. I read my copy over Remembrance weekend, which made it doubly poignant.

In Great Uncle Harry, Palin’s gift is to give us the hinterland of his ancestor. Many First World War authors, here I could mention the great Lyn Macdonald, Richard Holmes and Martin Middlebrook, all of whom I place on pedestals, provide us with erudite studies, laced with gripping eyewitness accounts. I find myself doing the same with 1939-45, but of necessity there is no room to give the brave and the damned a back story. They are parachuted into the text. They fight and live or die and exit stage left. It is refreshing, therefore, to hold the hand of a first war warrior from birth unto death. Palin was lucky his Great Uncle Harry kept a series of notebooks and diaries of his time in khaki, and was able to research his globe-trotting years before battle. Our man was brought up in Herefordshire, and after school drifted out to British India. He had two stints, first working as a railway manager and latterly as overseer on tea plantations. The reader is fortunate that Palin the documentary-maker filmed in both environments and is able to look over his forebear’s shoulder and summon up the Edwardian social standards of the day, with its solar topees and chota pegs (sunset whiskeys), its heat and its dust. Palin the younger’s many diaries and written travelogues, of which I find New Europe (2007) the best, are equally good.

But Great Uncle Harry Palin was restless. The youngest and most headstrong of seven, he flounced out of each of his two jobs serving the Raj, and ended up trying his hand at farming in New Zealand. There he seemed more settled, but not quite. The Palin under the microscope, notes his great nephew, was one of the first to volunteer for war service with the 12th (Nelson) Regiment, a South Island infantry outfit, in August 1914 and sailed with them overseas, initially to Egypt. There they were absorbed into the Canterbury Battalion, and deployed to Gallipoli, from which Great Uncle Harry emerged without a scratch. 

Gallipoli is a conjurer’s name. Now known by the Turks as their Gelibolu Peninsula, overlooking the ancient Hellespont (today’s Dardanelles Strait), its southern tip lies 200 miles from what was then Turkey’s capital, Constantinople, officially Istanbul after 1930. Only since the 1990s has this strategically significant sliver of land, across the Dardanelles from ancient Troy, and guarding entry to the Bosphorus and Black Sea, been opened up for tourists. The 1915 operation was dreamt up by Winston Churchill to break the stalemate of the Western Front. He advocated a naval advance on Constantinople, as a way of knocking the Austro-German alliance out of the war. Such a stratagem would then have offered Paris and London the ability to supply the troops of Tsar Nicholas the Last with modern arms and munitions to prevail against the Central Powers. 

Instead of breaking the Western Front, Gallipoli broke Churchill. It was a campaign endlessly refought in the inter-war years, which generally concluded that amphibious warfare had no future, though Lieutenant Colonel George S. Patton in his 1936 General Staff study, The Defense of Gallipoli, found it fascinating. It was one reason why the allies had no maritime landing capability in 1939-40, to Britain’s detriment at Dunkirk, and later Germany’s disadvantage when planning a seaborne assault against southern England. Valuable lessons of what to do, and not to do, had to be relearned before D-Day in 1944 could be a success. My own assessment is right idea, wrong commanders. Gallipoli might have offered the success Churchill desired, but was executed poorly. 

The original plan had been to overwhelm Constantinople with battleships

The original plan had been to overwhelm Constantinople with battleships, and there is evidence that the Turks were preparing to surrender. However, the Franco-British war fleet encountered German-supplied Krupp cannon along both shores of the Dardanelles and a minefield in the middle, and suffered catastrophic losses. A land campaign was then initiated to clear the Turkish land-based defences. This should have been foreseen and a simultaneous, rather than sequential, maritime-land attack might well have delivered the goods.

Instead, the few Turkish defenders on Gallipoli could see a landing was imminent, called in reinforcements and dug trenches ferociously. On the peninsula, amidst scrub, trench and memorials lie scattered British, Commonwealth, Ottoman and French (yes, they were there too) cemeteries, hinting at stirring tales of derring-do. Last time I was there, I encountered not only rifle cartridges, pieces of pottery rum jars, and shell cases, but human bones. My guide observed, “Probably wild pigs dislodging the topsoil. It happens all the time.” An indication of the 300,000 Allied and 255,000 Turkish killed, wounded and missing in a campaign where illness often took as many as combat wounds. Along the western coast, amidst shards of amphorae from pre-history, lie many wrecks associated with the 1915 campaign in crystal-clear water. It remains high on my recommended battlefields to visit.

On 25 April 1915, Palin’s Great Uncle Harry stormed ashore at what became ANZAC (Australia and New Zealand Army Corps) Cove, but got little further. Great nephew Michael notes, amidst the “murderous and mundane” diary entries, that the assault wasn’t reported in New Zealand’s newspapers until 8 May. By the end Harry had experienced “a shrapnel bullet going through my haversack, then my ration bag, through a tin of corned beef and into my biscuits”. The war was full of such close shaves, but by the time the Canterburys stumbled off the peninsula, they had lost 770 out of 1,000 officers and men.

Afterwards, Harry, his mates and their reinforcements headed off to France for the Western Front. Harry got leave in order to see his family in England, proposed to his sweetheart, was turned down, then returned to the fray. There is something surreal about his switch from sedate Tonbridge to the trenches in a matter of hours. Throughout, Harry itemised his letters he received from loved ones, underlining how important to morale this oft-overlooked aspect of war is, and remains. No less so now, as I found in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan, though the links today may be via more ethereal texts or emails. Occasionally Harry’s remarkably calm mask slips. “Curse Gen. Godley. He is only thinking of himself and his honours. He does not know what it is to sit through a bombardment on the firestep in the front line.” By then it was September 1916, and as Harry headed by train up to the bloodlands of the Somme and the battle raging since 1 July, we have a chill sense of foreboding. They passed “portentous piles of duckboards, fifteen or twenty feet high”, which extinguished any hope the war would end in 1916. 

Spoiler alert: for Great Uncle Harry, it ended on 27 September 1916, shot in the head as he peered over the lip of a crater near Gird trench near German-held Guedecourt. He has no known grave. Palin has walked the ground, now a sanitised beat field, to triangulate the spot. By chance, so did I several years earlier, leading a bunch of Old Salopians from the several Palins’ alma mater. Aware of the connection, we found Great Uncle Harry’s name inscribed on the nearby New Zealand memorial to the missing in Caterpillar Valley. In November 2004, the remains of an unidentified New Zealand soldier were exhumed by staff of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission from that cemetery and later laid to rest within the New Zealand Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Wellington. It could be Uncle Harry, but even if not, in spirit this splendid book brings Michael Palin’s insightful family journey full circle.

David Thomson, The Fatal Alliance: A Century of War on Film (Harper, £25)

My long-suffering postie also handed me David Thomson’s excellent Fatal Alliance: A Century of War On Film, which contains no less than 37 well-referenced mini essays on how conflict and cinema in the 20th century are inextricably linked. Thomson is author of over 30 works, mostly on motion pictures and their stars, so knows his subject inside out. I came to him through his New Biographical Dictionary of Film (5th edition 2014) and How To Watch a Movie (2016). For any film buff or student of military history, this is a must. Fatal Alliance not only explores the tangled web of fact and fact in onscreen conflict (“reel history”), but Thomson also takes us behind the scenes to reveal how and why the films are made and scripted. 

Chapters 6-15 bring us the author’s thoughts on Great War-related movies. From the satirical and hostile Oh! What a Lovely War (1969 directed by Richard Attenborough), the gripping 1917 (Sam Mendes, 2020), to the excellent renewed newsreel footage of They Shall Grow Not Old (Peter Jackson, 2018). In their midst, I was pleased to see a mini chapter on the epic, but highly nuanced and political Gallipoli, released in 1981. The fusion of Peter Weir’s directing and casting of the “athletic, brave hero, lurking rebel” Mel Gibson as main protagonist produced some memorable, if historically misleading, cinematography. Battlefield historian Paul Reed thought it “an incredibly good depiction of trench warfare at Gallipoli. You see Anzacs shaking hands with a dead Turk, which you can read about in many accounts”. Thomson observes that Gallipoli (the movie) is a “study of friendship, and of the spirit in which young men in 1914 existed in such innocence about what a Grear War would be. These boys… feel the world is their playing field. Until the rules become grimmer… World war is not just a caption in history. It’s a wounding lesson in the fragility of the world”. A lesson we are relearning today, methinks.

The final volume to arrive was Armchair General WW1: Can You Win the Great War? Unlike the two foregoing tomes, this is the product of two university historians, John Buckley and Spencer Jones, who have cast off their chalk-dusted academic robes to entertain us with a series of interactive what-ifs. This is cutting edge stuff, a sort of virtual reality where the reader gets to play out alternatives to the battles and campaigns of 1914-18 we know so well. It builds on Buckley’s original Armchair General: Can You Defeat the Nazis? (2021) which the author told me, “flew off the supermarket shelves”, when I met him recently. It is a publishing result most authors can only wish for. 

John Buckley and Spencer Jones, The Armchair General WW1. Can You Win the Great War? (Century, 18.99)

In this new and every bit as good volume, the reader is given 8 chapters of World War One events, from the July Crisis of June-August 1914, via Jutland and the Somme to Lawrence of Arabia and the Russian Revolution. The 50 pages of Chapter Three deal with Gallipoli. As with the other seven, we are taken through various aspects of the campaign, via a brief, well-mapped narrative, and an “Aide Memoire” of key points to consider. This approach puts us in the uniform and mindset of commanders ashore and afloat, gives us the intelligence they possessed and political pressures of the day. Then comes the moment of decision, when history is in our hands. If you want to do this, turn to page x. If you choose that, then consult page y. 

There are seven such conundrums for the Gallipoli chapter alone, more than enough to drown out the distractions of Boxing Day revels. With a brief historical note at the end of each chapter, I see this as a great teaching aid for students, inspiration for wargamers or as the title hints — an appropriate present for military friends, whether of the armchair or armed-to-the-teeth variety. I have enjoyed both Armchair General excursions, and can only ponder where the intrepid duo will take us next. Backwards, or forwards in time? 

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