Friday, April 24, 2009
It was supposed to be a quick and easy campaign. But British military incompetence blew the element of surprise. On April 25, 1915, British allied forces - including a large contingent of Australian and New Zealand units (ANZACs) - landed on the beaches of the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey only to encounter waiting Turkish forces dug in on the heights.
The intention had been to quickly knock Turkey out of the war (World War I), thereby rendering Germany vulnerable to invasion from the south. Instead, the allies found themselves on the defensive, clinging to the small bits of land they had gained in the early days of fighting. In one desperate battle, 17,000 ANZACs held off 42,000 Turks.
Several months into the campaign, ANZAC troops spearheaded an offensive to seize the high ground. New Zealand's Wellington Brigade managed to fight its way to the summit of Chunuk Bair, only to be swept off the top by a force led in person by Mustafa Kemal, who would later become known as Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey. Of the 760 ANZACs who made it to the top, 711 became casualties.
The campaign ground down into brutal trench warfare. The troops, exposed to the heat and appallingly unsanitary conditions, were mowed down this time by dysentery. By the end of summer it became apparent that the campaign was a failure, but it took until early January 1916 to organize and complete an evacuation.
More than 10,000 ANZACs lost their lives during the Gallipoli campaign, which ushered in a coming of age for both nations. In the wake of that senseless bloodbath in distant Turkey, men and women in a far-flung corner of the British Empire came to regard themselves as Australians and New Zealanders rather than mere British subjects.
ANZACs also saw service as cannon fodder on the European front, where they suffered more casualties per population than the other forces in the war.
It is dawn in New Zealand right now, one day ahead of the US. New Zealanders of all ages right now are gathered at the war memorials that grace every town there, large and small. Simply counting the names of the dead inscribed into those memorials is a sobering exercise. The ceremony is simple and solemn.
I lived in New Zealand for 11 years, Australia for 5. As well as my US citizenship, I also hold New Zealand citizenship. My daughter was born and raised in New Zealand. She resides in Wellington with her husband, another New Zealander. Any children they may have will be New Zealanders.
The sun is rising in New Zealand right now. A bugler is about to sound Last Post. It is time for two minutes of silence, a quiet remembrance.