The Gallipoli evacuation
By Peter Hart
Published in Australia and UK by Living History
ISBN 978 0 6489 2260 5
Paperback. 275 pages plus 35 pages of acknowledgements, bibliography, endnotes and index.
You don’t need me to introduce the author of this book, for Peter Hart is amongst the most prolific authors on Great War subjects. A former oral historian for the Imperial War Museum, battlefield tour guide, frequently seen on TV, regular speaker at conferences and meetings, producer of his own podcast series and contributor to others, he also finds time as a family man and still fronts a punk rock band. He has a track record of writing highly readable histories in which he is unafraid to express strong opinions. “The Gallipoli evacuation” is no exception and is a production in collaboration with Mat McLachlan’s Living History.
In his previous work, Hart pulled no punches in declaring that the Gallipoli venture was ill-conceived and should never have taken place. In this latest work, he covers an aspect of the doomed campaign that is often glossed over: the withdrawal from the peninsula in late 1915 and early 1916. That the Anzac, British, Indian and French force was stuck and unable to made headway had been quite clear since August 1915 and many might argue that it had been so since the first days of the land operation in April. The Ottoman forces had defended their territory well and by late 1915 were being strengthened, particularly in artillery. The allies simply could not continue expending resources on it, particularly with other campaigns developing in Mesopotamia and North Africa stretching logistics to the limit. The decision to abandon the campaign, ultimately, was Lord Kitchener’s to make after General Sir Charles Monro had made a quick assessment and concluded that “a complete evacuation was the only wise course to pursue.” The decision was strategically sound, but evacuation was going to be operationally complex and tactically daunting.
“The Gallipoli evacuation” provides the reader with a vivid background on how this situation came about and how the decision was reached (in the face of some reluctance and resistance, for the allies had much invested in blood and prestige, and there were still voices that believed in the strategic vision of gaining control of the Dardanelles and all that might follow). Its main focus, though, is on the organisation, subterfuge and luck that combined to effect an extraordinary disengagement in the face of an enemy that was in some places only a matter of yards away. The initial evacuations from the Suvla and Anzac sectors left the allies clinging on to just the one, at Cape Helles. By the time that was all that was left, the Ottoman force was well aware that the allies were quitting. It was increasingly able to bombard the Helles sector, but it is a matter of some surprise that somehow it enabled the allies to get away and avoid catastrophe.
I found the book to be a bright, engaging and thought-provoking read. It follows Peter Hart’s established style of drawing upon a wide range of sources including personal papers and sound recordings of veterans that are held in the archives of the Imperial War Museum. If there is a criticism, it is one that can be levelled against virtually every book ever written on this campaign, in that there are too few Ottoman voices to be heard. This is especially true of the ordinary Turkish private or NCO in the trenches, and the author is quite right to say that it leaves us simply not knowing what they thought and leaves open the question about why the force at Helles was not harrassed more than it was when it became obvious that evacuation was nigh. Perhaps one day this weakness can be addressed, but to me at least it is far from clear whether the necessary record even exists.
A good read and it certainly helps fill something of a gap in analysis and commentary on this vital aspect of a dreadful campaign.
In paperback, it is nicely produced and includes some good clear maps and a few black and white matt photographs. There is a very lengthy set of endnotes, mostly references to the highly varied sources used.