Gallipoli: Myth and Memory is a brand new exhibition at the National Museum of the Royal Navy telling the Royal Navy’s story of the bloody Gallipoli Campaign of 1915 which was a major failure and caused over 200,000 Allied casualties, with many deaths coming from disease. Curator Nick Hewitt, author of Coastal Convoys: 1939-1945: The Indestructible Highway and The Kaiser’s Pirates: Hunting Germany’s Raiding Cruisers 1914-1915, spoke to us about some of the enduring misconceptions that have taken root as the the campaign became embellished by national myth in Australia, New Zealand and Turkey.
How prevalent are the myths surrounding the Gallipoli campaign?
Gallipoli is a misunderstood campaign, particularly in Britain. My own view is that if you asked the ordinary man or woman in the street whether they had even heard of it prior to this year’s centenary, most would not.
Those that knew the name would either be specialists with an interest in and knowledge of naval and military history, or would almost certainly associate it with the 1981 Peter Weir/Mel Gibson feature film, which is a wholly Anzac perspective, and not an entirely accurate one. Gallipoli was not just a land battle fought by soldiers from Australia and New Zealand. It involved effort on land, sea and air by British, French, Indian and many other nations on one side, and the Ottoman Empire and Germany on the other. It is an international story.
Beyond that central myth, there are many more detailed ones which we explore in the ‘Gallipoli: Myth and Memory’ exhibition. A couple of examples are:
· Gallipoli could have shortened the war
The theory was that the Royal Navy would pass through the Dardanelles, bombard Istanbul (Constantinople), and knock Turkey out of the war, which would strengthen Russia and weaken Germany, and shorten the war. But: Turkey was propped up by Germany not the other way round. The Ottoman Empire was huge and there was no guarantee that taking the capital would knock it out of the war. Even if a supply route could be opened to Russia, Britain had no spare weapons and munitions to send it in 1915, and the Russian railway system was too primitive for that country to send grain the other way.
· Gallipoli was in the Mediterranean and the main problem with the climate was the heat
The summer weather was indeed awful. Heat and flies coupled with poor sanitary conditions and a very congested battlefield meant that disease was rife, especially dysentery. But in the winter the peninsula experienced sub-zero temperatures, heavy snow and flash floods. Hypothermia was common and there were cases of soldiers freezing to death in their trenches or even drowning.
· The beaches were swept by machine gun fire on 25 April 1915, causing horrific casualties.
The latest research indicates that there were no Turkish machine guns on any of the beaches on 25 April 1915. There were only four on the entire peninsula and the Turkish regiment defending the area was holding them back in reserve.
How does the role of the campaign as a defining moment for Australia and New Zealand specifically shape the way it’s been perceived?
Totally. The young men from Australia and New Zealand who arrived at Gallipoli arrived as subjects of the British Empire, and were fighting for that Empire. Many would have been first generation migrants, men who thought of themselves as ‘British’. Over the course of the campaign, journalists and writers such as Keith Murdoch, Ellis Ashmead Bartlett and Charles Bean, helped to build up a picture of a unique ‘Anzac’ experience, arguing that Anzac soldiers, lived, behaved and fought differently to their British allies, and were in fact ‘Australians’ and ‘New Zealanders’ not British.
This was an extremely important building block in establishing Australian and, to a slightly lesser extent, New Zealand national identity. For this reason there is immense pressure in Australia in particular to tell the Gallipoli story in a certain way, at least as far as popular culture is concerned. It’s important to emphasise that I entirely understand this pressure; I do not believe it is possible to tell the Gallipoli story any other way in those countries, much as we are very limited in the UK about how we can approach narratives like the Battle of Britain and Dunkirk.
National myths are hugely important and historians meddle with them at their peril! I just think we have a responsibility in Britain to tell the story in a slightly broader, more nuanced way. In putting together the exhibition I have not for one moment sought in any way to minimise the Anzac role; rather, I just want to put the British story, and in particular the Royal Navy story, back at the heart of the Gallipoli narrative.
Do you feel the naval campaign has been overlooked, and if so, how do you think awareness of it changes our understanding of the conflict?
Very much so. Gallipoli began as an attempt to use Britain’s surplus sea power, basically older ships which were not fit to stand in the line against the German High Seas Fleet, to find a way around the murderous trench fighting in France and Flanders and shorten the war. Until 18 March 1915, the Gallipoli adventure was carried out entirely by RN ships supported by small parties of armed sailors and Royal Marines. Even after the military landings on 25 April, the entire land campaign was still aimed at clearing the peninsula so that the fleet could carry on and do its job. In other words, the army was there to support the Navy.
Throughout 1915, the Navy brought in supplies and reinforcements for the army, moved soldiers around the battlefield, provided heavy gunfire support, evacuated the wounded, and protected the anchorage from U-boat attacks. RN submarines waged an aggressive campaign against Turkish maritime supply lines in the Sea of Marmara, and RNAS aircraft bombed and harassed Turkish ships and troops, and carried out invaluable aerial reconnaissance.
Ashore, the Royal Naval Division and Royal Marines were involved throughout the entire campaign. It was a naval battle from start to finish, and it was of course the Royal Navy which eventually took the army off (successfully) when the entire campaign had failed.
A common narrative in popular culture is uncaring British officers sending brave young Anzacs to die by the bucketload, to what degree do you feel this is accurate?
Absolute nonsense. As I said earlier, most of those involved, officers and men, of whatever rank, would have thought of themselves as ‘British’ in the broadest sense. Leadership was generally pretty poor and unimaginative but the Anzacs were not singled out for special treatment; 35,000 British soldiers and sailors (and 12,000 French) died at Gallipoli, as well as 11,000 Anzacs.
As part of the ‘myth’ of Gallipoli, the entire allied leadership is often forced to share the blame for the campaign’s failure, are there any commanders you feel are totally undeserving of that?
Churchill is generally blamed for a poorly conceived and badly thought out strategic concept, and he certainly bears much of the responsibility. In my opinion Jackie Fisher, his First Sea Lord, must also take a lot of blame; he was Churchill’s senior professional advisor, had reservations anyway, and quite frankly should have opposed it. But these people are not operating in a vacuum; Gallipoli is a strategic decision taken at the highest level, and so, to that extent, the entire British military and civilian leadership is responsible
Is there anything you’ve learnt while working on Gallipoli: Myth and Memory that’s surprised you?
Gallipoli is not a subject I have worked on in depth before. I have never published on the subject and I have never curated a gallery exhibition about it, so to an extent the entire exhibition has been a wonderful learning experience for me. The best surprise has been the strength of the National Museum of the Royal Navy’s collections; I would estimate about 90 per cent of the artefacts, images etc used are from our own collections.
NMRN is a relatively new organisation, and we are still in the process of bringing together the five constituent museums intellectually and, if you like, spiritually. Gallipoli was a wonderful campaign for us as a museum, right now, as it involved all elements of the naval service: the surface fleet, the Royal Marines and Royal Naval Division, the Royal Naval Air Service, and the Submarine Service.
What’s your favourite single artefact from the exhibition and why?
I have many favourites – I have been absolutely thrilled with the material my curatorial colleagues have found for this exhibition, I think it’s genuinely exciting! However, if you are forcing me to pick one it would have to be the damaged periscope from HM Submarine E.11.
E.11 was commanded by a remarkable figure named Martin Nasmith. Nasmith carried out a three month patrol in the Sea of Marmara, sinking numerous ships. Most were small sailing vessels which he either captured and sank with explosive charges or sank using his deck gun, but he carried out a submerged torpedo attack on a Turkish gunboat. As he watched the warship sinking through his periscope he saw a Turkish sailor run along the deck and train a gun on his periscope. There was a flash and the periscope went black, because the unknown Turkish sailor had put a shell right through it!
When Nasmith returned to port the damaged periscope was removed and he kept it, it stayed in the family as an heirloom and it has been on loan to the Royal Navy Submarine Museum.
Gallipoli: Myth and Memory is running until 31 January 2016 at the National Museum of the Royal Navy, find out more at nmrn.org.uk. For more on the campaigns of World War I, pick up the new issue of History of War here or subscribe now and save 25% off the cover price.