In this year of anniversaries, mostly blood-soaked ones, there is one this weekend which has been oddly missed.
It is a 100 years since the Anzac evacuation. The troops were taken out of Anzac Cove over the night of the 19th December 1915.
It is seen, of course, as a failed and costly campaign.
Costly it certainly was. But found myself wondering, a few weeks back as I read Christopher Clark’s “The Sleepwalkers” whether it was totally failed.
The received version is the landings were to provide relief to the Russians, who were on the Allied side and were under pressure following defeats by the Germans at Tannenburg and also from the Ottoman Empire – the Turks – on their southern side.
The idea seems to have been to knock the Turks out – the Ottoman Empire having been called ‘the Sick Man of Europe’ for most of the previous century, obviate the need for the Russians to fight on their southern flank and thus allow the Russians to commit all their troops against Germany.
We’ve tended to be taught it was a “sideshow” to the main event: the war on the Western Front against Germany in France.
But it wasn’t as much of a sideshow as all that.
As Clark’s book – perhaps the best short history of the origins of World War One I’ve read [he has a lecture on it here]– shows, the real strategic game of World War One wasn’t the west, it was the future of south east Europe and the Ottoman Empire.
Russia’s long term ambition included access to the Mediterranean for its Navy, via the Straits of Constantinople.
Britain and, to a lesser degree France, were not so keen. They had, a half a century previously, fought the Crimean War precisely to stop this happening.
The conviction amongst western statesmen was the backward Ottoman Empire – backward, inefficient, but sprawling west to east from Jerusalem to Afghanistan – would crumble at some point.
Who would benefit from this collapse was one of the most important strategic issues of the era – more so, in fact, than who won or lost in Flanders. It is why British troops were put into Palestine and Iraq and remained there for rather a long time. (Plu ca meme chose, etc etc etc….)
‘Russian strategic thinking tended iincreasingly in 1912-14 to view the Balkans as the hinterland to the Straits – as the key to securing ultimate control of the Ottoman chokepoint on the Bosphorus.
Underlying this conviction was the belief, increasingly central to [Russian Foreign Minister] Sazonvo’s thinking during the last years before the outbreak of war, that Russia’s claim to the Straits would only ever be realised in the context of a general European war….’
So, I suspect, the ANZAC landings were less about “providing relief” for the Russians, than making sure that if the Ottomans did collapse, there would be Allied troops in the region to pick up the bits – or at least to make sure the Russians weren’t able to just walk in.
When the failed Gallipoli campaign made it plain the Turkish armies were not going to be quite the pushover everyone assumed, the entire venture became less strategically important.
Clark’s book closes a year before the Gallipoli landings. New Zealand only gets one mention – he quotes a pamphlet by an unnamed clergyman urging an attitude of sacrifice amongst young New Zealand men to protect their womenfolk from unnamed “aliens”.
It is cited as an example of the way in which assumptions about the inevitability of war had seeped into wider public consciousness.
There was, Clark suggests, “a deepening readiness for war across Europe, particularly within educated elites. It did not take the form of bloodthirsty calls for violence against another sate, but rather of a ‘defensive patriotism that encompassed the possibility of war without necessarily welcoming it.’
It is no coincidence the spark which triggered the firestorm – the assassination at Sarajevo – was in the south east of Europe.
Serbia, following the assassination, was portrayed in Allied propaganda as the gallant little nation besieged by bullying neighbours.
Which was, to put it mildly, a charitable view.
The ‘gallant little Serbia’ of wartime propaganda bears some uncomfortable parallels with today’s Pakistan.
The terrorist group which carried out the assassination in Sarajevo, a fluid group which operated under various names such as Black Hand or Unity or Death, was both a threat to the Serbian government and inextricably linked with numerous members of that government.
The group moved of its own accord, across borders, and if the Serbian government had wanted to move against it the result would have been revolution in one form or other. Too many Serbs – some within the government – backed the terrorist’s goals.
The debate on the origins of World War One might be old, Clark notes, but
“..the subject is still fresh – in fact it is fresher and more relevant now than it was 20 or 30 years ago. The changes in our own world have layered our perspective on the events of 1914…Behind the outrage at Sarajevo was an avowedly terrorist organisation with a cult of sacrifice, death and revenge, but this organisation was extra terrestrial, without a clear geographical or political location…”