Sunday, 6 September 2015

Gallipoli 8. The Human Tragedy

ANZAC Truce to collect and bury dead comrades
May 1915
My Gallipoli posts have focused on the strategies and tactics of the campaign; the politics; the decisions that were made by the commanders - many of them bad ones - and the indecisions of commanders and governments. As in any sporting contest when the favourite loses, the focus of analysis is on why they failed, or how, and insufficient credit is given to the underdogs - in this case the Turks, who fought with great bravery and commitment.
By the end of the saga in early 1916, the cost to both sides was very high, around a quarter of a million casualties each. There is insufficient space to convey the devastating aspects of human experience suffered by hundreds of thousands of individuals. 
By and large, the troops of both sides at Gallipoli were inexperienced and under-resourced. Many were naive in military methods; some panicked and fled under pressure; many more showed amazing courage and resilience. They did not endure the heaviest of artillery barrages, compared to the Western Front, but instead constant naval bombardments, machine gun and sniper fire. Much of the close quarters action was with knives and bayonets. In addition to their traumatic experiences, these men suffered from just about every privation known to man: sunstroke from extreme heat; frostbite from extreme cold; severe hunger and thirst, and - above all - disease. Infectious (particularly dysentery) and heat related disease predominated, but many just broke physically and/or mentally after weeks of unrelieved hardship. This post gives just a small sample of the suffering of the many thousands on both sides.
I really feel for those brave men - officers and troops. They endured a hellish existence through 1915.

**Peter Hart's book Gallipoli is replete with vivid eye witness accounts. The following samples the experience of Ivone Kirkpatrick, 2nd Lieutenant with the Inniskilling Fusiliers in the 10th Division. His platoon was part of an attack on the Kiretch Tepe ridge from Suvla Bay, following a naval bombardment (p362):
"If the fire [the bombardment] had any effect, it was to wake the Turk from his siesta. At 1.15 we started off at a brisk walk.... Gullies of irregular shape and size ran at right angles to our line of advance and the ground was covered with scrub, very thick and prickly in places.... We came under fire at once... the only course was to press on... It was only by dint of much labour and running hither and thither that it was at all possible to keep in touch with one's platoon, let alone the rest of the company.
Suddenly I felt a terrific blow on the left shoulder blade, as if someone had driven a golf ball through me at close range. I thought I had been shot from behind and looked around angrily for the careless fool... I found that I had a puncture in front, above my heart, and concluded that the bullet had gone through my lung. I had hardly sat down when I noticed that I seemed to be in an unhealthy spot, and I started to crawl up the hill to my left. At once, what seemed to be a heavy projectile hit me in the stomach, and I sank to the ground...For a moment I felt weary and discouraged... On further reflection I decided it would be folly to give in and I cast about for a means of escape...As a preliminary I crawled into a hollow and tried to dress my wounds... I managed to get a little iodine in the wounds... A few yards away from me lay a wounded soldier of my platoon. He started to crawl back to our trenches and I asked him to get me a stretcher later if he could."
Eventually picked up by stretcher bearers, he was evacuated by another tortuous journey from the field casualty station: "Two stretcher bearers took hold of my stretcher and carried me away.... The journey was something of an ordeal (sic) On we went over the rough ground, sometimes a bearer would stumble, sometimes let the stretcher drop... On the way I was violently sick, all over my chest, as I could not move. My wounds began to bleed again, as I lay in a pool of greasy blood which covered me from my head to my boots. It was over an hour before I reached the beach". Kirkpatrick survived!

This description from Travers' Gallipoli 1915 (Ch 6) describes one of the advances from ANZAC  by New Zealanders during the August offensive:
The ordeal of these men is difficult to imagine, but the diary of Trooper Law gives an idea of the situation. Moving up to replace the Wellington Battalion, Law started his journey the night before, early on 8 August. He ran "over the side of a hill with bullets raining around us like hail from machine-guns". Law found a hollow to shelter in, but "Men were killed and wounded all around me. Legs, arm and other portions being blown off…" Law waited there for over seven hours, without moving, and then "from this Valley of Death (6-700 dead and wounded here) on into the mouth of Hell, charged up the side of Chunuk Bair… our men fell like apples in a gale, the Turks rushed us with bombs only to be mowed down by us. One came up with a white flag and a party [of] bomb throwers behind him. They all fell…"

John Masefield (p139), on the agonies of thirst imposed on the attacking troops:
During all this day of the 7th of August all our men suffered acutely from the great heat and from thirst. Several men went raving mad from thirst, others assaulted the water guards, pierced the supply hoses, or swam to the lighters to beg for water. Thirst in great heat is a cruel pain, and this (afflicting some regiments more than others) demoralised some and exhausted all. Efforts were made to send up and to find water; but the distribution system, beginning on a cluttered beach and ending in a rough unknown country full of confused fighting and firing, without anything like a road, and much of it blazing from the scrub fires, broke down, and most of the local wells, when discovered, were polluted with corpses put there by the Turk garrison. Some unpolluted wells of drinkable though brackish water were found; but most of these were guarded by snipers, who shot at men going to them. Many men were killed thus and many more wounded, for the Turkish snipers were good shots, cleverly hidden". God!

Finally, after heat, flies and disease, the irony of harsh winter conditions, in Hart's Gallipoli (p406):
"Lower and lower went the temperature, every bone in my body ached with cold and my hand wound became most painful. Sleeping and living in miserable dugouts under such circumstances has to be gone through to be fully appreciated and understood... The cold was just intense and I have never seen such courage as I saw through this blizzard. Men found at the parapet facing the Turk with glassy eyes and stone dead, who gave up their lives rather than give in. Imagine the death of slow accepted torture... ( a Major of the Gurkha rifles)
When I returned along the trench, which was still unfit to stay in, I found six men had crawled back and were huddled together on a firing step frozen to death. (a 2nd Lieutenant of the Royal Warwickshires)


** Please see Bibliography post for these sources.

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