Review of “A vital endeavour”

A vital endeavour: military engineering in the Gallipoli campaign
by (Dr) John Dixon
published by Helion & Company, 2019
review copy paperback ISBN 978 1 911628 89 7
438 pages plus bibliography and index
No cover price stated on the book but I understand it to be £35 and it is currently selling online for about £22-£23.

Have you ever visited Gallipoli? If you have, and was fortunate enough to be able to walk into the terribly rough, rocky, scrubby hinterland where the front lines stabilised in 1915, you may have come across some physical legacy. A well; a concrete tank; a dugout or shelter. Or on the landing beaches, vestiges of wooden jetties. They are all reminders of the extraordinary efforts of the sappers of the Great War. Like everyone else who participated in this doomed campaign, the engineers were at all times exposed to enemy gun fire. They relied entirely on supply from the sea and on their own efforts, for the opportunity for relief by other units was negligible. The records of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission list 530 men of the Royal Engineers who died while serving at Gallipoli: this book is splendid way of recording their work. It is often easy to forget just how much engineering and logistical effort goes into battle.

Dr John Dixon is well placed to create this study, for he is a professional geologist with a career in civil engineering. He has also written before, notably on the Second Battle of Ypres. This book focuses on the wide variety of work carried out by the Royal Engineers during the campaign (with the exception of its work in signals). The serious challenge mounted by the terrain, the cramped and squalid conditions of the three bridgeheads (Helles, Anzac and Suvla Bay) and the close proximity of the enemy soon becomes clear. The book is written mainly in an understandable chronological sequence but does not shy away from military and engineering technicalities. From the landings of April 1915 until the final evacuations of early 1916, the reader is taken through matters at the waterside (in constructing many piers, jetties, cranes and other “dockside” equipment); of water supply to troops high on waterless hillsides; underground (in tunnelling and mining operations) and of front line trench works. I found it to be an absorbing read and a useful addition to my reference library.

The research draws heavily on the war diaries of the many British, Australian and New Zealand units. Some good, clear maps help greatly and there are a few photographs for good measure. An extensive bibliography suggests breadth of research and will be useful in future.

Definitely one for any reader with an interest in the Gallipoli campaign and of course of the life and work of the sappers of the Corps of Royal Engineers.



Royal Engineers