Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Mixed views of the Australians

Today is, or nearly, was, Anzac Day. 92 years ago today a force comprising a substantial number of Australians and New Zealanders landed on the Gallipoli peninsula in the Dardanelles. They were the spearhead of a brave and very risky attempt to grab the Ottoman Empire by the throat. Having landed on the Gallipoli peninsula the force was supposed to advance north-eastwards to Constantinople, the capital, knock the Ottomans out of the war and open a new front against the Germans.

In theory it was a brilliant plan. In practice, of course, it turned out to be a disaster. There was too little preparation, surprise or firepower. There were a quarter of a million casualties. yet, as its continuing commemoration indicates, the operation sealed the reputation of both Australian and New Zealander troops. Britain owes both nations a great debt.

That winter Gallipoli was abandoned. The British army - as it was called - withdrew to Egypt to lick its wounds. There there were problems with discipline. The British general, Sir Archibald Murray, reviewed the Australians' strengths and weaknesses and it was his memorable opinion that came to mind today. “They are unquestionably from a physical point of view a magnificent body of men and hard and fit as they can possibly be. The finest by far that I have ever seen. As regards discipline, I wish to make it clear that I have never seen any body of men in uniform with less idea of discipline. Drunkenness is extraordinarily prevalent, and many of the men seem to have no idea of ordinary decency or self control. ”

Sir William Birdwood - the Anzacs' British commander - tried to temper that opinion. But he acknowledged, wonderfully, that “On the [Gallipoli] Peninsula we certainly had two great advantages: One, drink was unobtainable; two, there were no women.”

(Source: British Library Add Mss 52463, Egypt 1916-17, Private letters between General Sir William Robertson and General Sir Archibald Murray, Privately printed in 1932. Murray to Robertson, March 1916, and Birdwood to Murray, 25 February 1916.)

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