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Book Review: Gallipoli

By (September 23, 2015) No Comment


by Jenny MacLeod

Oxford University Press, 2015

Jenny MacLeod’s Gallipoli, the second volume of the “Great Battles” series from Oxford University Press (following Anne Curry’s Agincourt from earlier in the year) is in some ways at odds with the expectations such a series might raise. MacLeod does a very sharp job describing the doomed Dardanelles campaign that lasted from April 1915 to January of 1916, in which a multi-national Allied Powers force attempted an amphibious assault designed to take the Ottoman capital of Constantinople. She gives good, dramatic portraits of the prominent people involved on both sides, from First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill to Field Marshall Lord Kitchener to Turkish warrior Mustafa Kemal, who led the resistance that would eventually succeed in repelling the 78,000-member Mediterranean Expeditionary Force under Sir Ian Hamilton.

But her brief account of that battle neither competes with much longer and more detailed Gallipoli books (masterworks by Peter Hart or Alan Moorehead, for instance) nor really intends to. The main movements of this Gallipoli deal with the campaign’s afterlife in culture and nationhood. After fascinatingly pointing out that the Allied defeat at Gallipoli led to “the unravelling of Britishness,” she traces those afterlives in Australia, New Zealand, Britain, Ireland, and Turkey and looks at the the vivid differences in generational reception of the campaign’s memory, from the brooding indifference of Ireland to the pivotal role Gallipoli played in the formation of the national characters of New Zealand, Australia, and Turkey. As MacLeod points out, the valor of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (the Anzacs) gave rise to a legend about “what it meant to be Australian,” and commensurate legends spread throughout the present and former British Empire:

The transnational history of the campaign’s memory … reflects on the politics of commemoration and the relationship between commemoration and national identity. At first the commemoration of Gallipoli reflected the inner workings of the British Empire – the shared cultural heritage which led commentators around the world to draw on the common vocabulary of Christian liturgy, classical references, and the purple prose of imperial rhetoric. To celebrate the sacrifices at Gallipoli of local boys was to burnish the empire’s reputation.

One of MacLeod’s most interesting discussions assesses the Gallipoli legacy in print, from Ernest Raymond’s 1922 Tell England, which sold ferociously well for decades, to Hamilton’s own Gallipoli Diary, which he wrote in 1920 in order to salvage his reputation, and which MacLeod reads with slightly wry sympathy:

For a military man, Hamilton had a somewhat grandiloquent style of writing, and his account was shot through with references to the campaign’s classical setting and his own deeply romantic view of warfare which stressed its chivalrous and gallant aspects, while suppressing its horrors. Meanwhile, the book systematically asserted the strategic potential the campaign had to shorten the war by up to two years. It also sought to show how Kitchener and the politicians had failed to properly support him with armaments and reinforcements.

The lasting impression of this Gallipoli – and of the “Great Battles” series in general so far – is a refreshing sense of a broader canvas, a more complex and nuanced approach than any publisher’s “great battles” in the past. Future volumes are eagerly anticipated.