THE NEW ‘MYTH’ – TURKS WATCHED ANZACS RETREAT

■ The Turks were glad to see the enemy go, according to a leading expert on Ottoman military history

THE MYTH has moved. For a century Australians have been taught that the Turkish army was fooled at Gallipoli in the dark days of December 1915 – the Anzacs slipped away without the loss of a man from under the enemy’s nose.

It was always false, face-saving propaganda, now proved to be so by blizzards of archived Ottoman military documents translated for the first time to mark the centenary of the Gallipoli fiasco in 2015.

It came as no surprise to read in these translations that the Turks knew the Allies were retreating.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk – “Father of the Turks”.

AtaturkThey watched, night after night, day after day, from the commanding heights from which Britain and its empire troops had failed to budge them as men and materiel were withdrawn, sometimes in broad daylight and under fire, in a retreat that occurred over weeks.

They read British newspaper articles on the necessity of a retreat; they knew the House of Lords discussed it. They moved their soldiers into the trenches the Anzacs abandoned.

From the Turkish documents

Turkish observation of allied positions in late November – the final pullout occurred on the nights of 19-20 December – suggests for the first time that some Allied units are being pulled out. Turkish sources claim that their aerial reconnaissance photography and reports revealed some of the enemy preparations for evacuation.

These pictures were found in what appears to be a bound collection of magazines produced for WW1 troops. Aerial reconnaissance was much used at Gallipoli but the aircraft were flimsy and vulnerable. Top picture shows Anzac Cove. Below it, wounded men are taken by barge to a hospital ship.

myth-aerial of Anzac CoveBritish flights were increased to daily, from dawn to dusk, as the retreat drew near, in an attempt to keep Ottoman aircraft grounded and unable to monitor preparations for the retreat or any of the withdrawal activities.

There was a Turkish flurry of activity to increase surveillance even amid the atrocious weather of late November, during which freezing, torrential rain drowned men in the trenches.

Lt-Col Shefic, deputy commander of Turkish military leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s former 19th Division, sends order on 25 November 1915:

It has been understood by the result of observation and the results given by the Army Corps that the enemy is withdrawing its forces and even taking away its guns. Therefore, you will send strong surveillance teams from the chosen points on your front and conduct a surveillance attack…”

Nov 26: at 1100 – in daylight – “250 enemy infantry troops and their officers were seen withdrawing from the same spot with their armaments towards Ariburnu [Anzac] wharf. … other enemy artillery units were not in their usual places and at 1300 [1pm] “a ship full of soldiers was seen leaving Ariburnu and sailing towards (a nearby island).

Conclusion: “The enemy is retreating.”

A “surveillance attack” was designed to occupy as well as reconnoitre the suspect enemy trenches. It would be an armed assault followed by sappers to secure and connect the enemy trench to the Turkish front line.

myth-woundedLt-Col Shefic: teams are to “abruptly occupy” enemy trenches (which he names) “then the engineers will reinforce the first line together with the second line which has been prepared, and the engineers, after counter-acting any difficulties caused by the secondary position there, will construct a connecting route.”

This was to be done along a substantial length of the facing trench lines.

Lt-Col Shefic continues: Widespread observations indicate “that the enemy is retreating” and its activity, “it is sensed [is to keep a ridge] strong to enable a line of retreat” but “the place is held lightly and maybe only some parts of it are occupied”.

It is possible that the enemy will now engage us here with small forces and it will use the forces it withdraws from here at another important point required by the general situation.

“Therefore … conduct a reconnaissance attack against points that are deemed important by the divisions on the entire front in order to reconnoitre and check out completely the affairs of the enemy that have been seen occurring for two days” – that is, November 23-4.

Back to the “myth”

My view, as stated at the start, is that there is a new myth. It is this: “The Turks knew we were leaving, but not exactly when.”

Orders for the Allied retreat, an operation carried out by the Royal Navy, are followed by a map of the pick-up areas. The documents, photographed using a phone camera, are from the Australian Archives.

myth wdl ordersI believe the new myth became necessary when Australians were confronted with the newly translated Ottoman military records, including the one you have just read, that made plain the reality – the Turks had watched the Allies retreat and, sensibly, made no move to stop them. “The enemy was retreating”, and Turkey had massive problems elsewhere.

But let’s shorten the new myth. Chop off the last four words, and we arrive at the truth. “The Turks knew we were leaving.”

I argue strongly that the question of “exactly when” the last Anzacs would leave is barely relevant. As with the 1944 Normandy invasion, which was contingent on the weather, the date the last Anzacs left also depended on the weather. Had conditions turned foul at Gallipoli the date of the last troop departure would have been postponed.

This new myth – a preposterous piece of sophistry, and barely less insulting to the Turks than the old one – deserves a short life.

myth map of wdlThe powerful evidence is in the Ottoman documents – those examined to mark the centenary – and also in the words of Lieutenant-General Sir William Birdwood, the Allied soldier in charge of the failed adventure, which lasted from 25 April 1915 to 9 January 1916, when the last troops left Cape Helles.

General Birdwood wrote: “Our intentions … should have been obvious to [the Turks], looking down as they do from the hills around on practically all our movements … Curiously enough, they seem all along to have anticipated that we were making arrangements for an attack and not a retirement.”

Don’t you love the British euphemism? The retreat was a “retirement”.

Birdwood was trying to fathom how he got away with it. The British had calculated they would lose tens of thousands of men in getting them off the peninsula.

The Turks, exhausted and depleted, were clearly being cautious. They had lost 87,000 men. Their empire was in chaos. Pursuing a retreating enemy lost King Harold the Battle of Hastings, and his kingdom, to William the Conqueror. The enemy was leaving: why draw them back? The Turks had won.

The Turks knew the troops were leaving and were glad to see them go,” said Professor Stanford Shaw, a leading expert and writer on Ottoman military history. The Ottoman Empire was fighting for its life on other fronts and in desperate need of men and equipment.

The centenary account of Gallipoli, written by Harvey Broadbent, briefly mentions a “conspiracy theory … that the British bribed the Turks to allow them to leave. There seems no evidence for this theory”, he asserts. I agree.

myth extract from From Gallipolo to Baghdad

An excerpt from the book ‘From Gallipoli to Baghdad’ by Dr Willliam Ewing MC DD, Chaplain to the Forces. He is describing a scene at Cape Helles, where locals did a brisk trade with the Allied forces. No Anzacs were landed on the tip of the Gallipoli Peninsula.

Could bribery be an explanation? The Allied retreat from Cape Helles was clearly permitted by the Turks. And, one would imagine, the Allies feared that the Turks would be on an even higher alert, thirsting for bloody revenge, had they felt robbed of their Anzac prey.

Does any evidence exist of British bribery to get out of a military jam? Actually, it does. In early 1916, Britain’s “highest authorities” offered £1 million to Turkish General Halil Pasha to free a British army he had trapped in Mesopotamia. That’s nearly $A1 billion in today’s money. Halil scornfully rejected the offer.

There was no need to bribe the Turks at Gallipoli. The defeated Allies had suffered a comprehensive, if slow-motion, military rout that cost thousands of young lives, a defeat that probably extended the First World War by years.

What did the campaign achieve, beyond prompting the spin doctors of the day – including John Monash – to weave the cynical “we fooled them” myth after a glorious contest between noble opponents?

The Ottoman Army, desperate for soldiers, sent children to the peninsula. These boys are pictured marching along a street well known to modern tourists – Istiklal Caddesi, “Independence Avenue”, Istanbul’s main shopping thoroughfare, with its yellow and red trams and its splendid memorial to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.  

Turk children off to Gallipoli 1915 copyFirst, let us dispense with the “glorious” and “noble” balderdash. The Anzacs’ final “noble” gesture was to set off two enormous mines under Turkish trenches – after the last Anzac was safely off the beaches – killing at least 70 and injuring hundreds. It was more a thuggish, two-fingered gesture than a salute, this gratuitous, contemptible act of mass murder.

This final gesture has always angered the Turks. Charles Bean was asked after the war during the Australian Historical Mission to Turkey why it was thought necessary to set off the mines, the implication being that it was dishonourable, or at least vindictive, since the retreat had been completed successfully.

Second, it planted the seed for the triumphant emergence of modern Turkey from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, through the rise of the astonishing, brilliant, Colonel Mustafa Kemal, later Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, “Father of the Turks”.

Ataturk stands in the first rank of men of the 20th century. After leading the army that defeated and drove out the invading Greek army in 1922 he declared a republic then revolutionised the country.

 He abolished the caliphate, to create a secular republic, as part of moving away from the rule by sultan, who was also the caliph (pope) of the Moslem world.

 He emancipated women, giving them the vote.

 He abolished the fez, seen as a sign of servitude.

 He required the nation’s families to adopt a surname.

 He abolished Ottoman script and introduced the Latin alphabet, touring classrooms around the nation to help teach it (even though he continued to use Ottoman script himself).

The Battle of Mohacs began at noon and was over in two hours.

Reflect on this list for a few moments.. Any one of these achievements was amazing for an empire on the point of collapse, which had lasted half a millennium, from 1453, and had just suffered a huge military defeat. For one man to achieve them all in a few short years is astonishing.

Harvey Broadbent, after listing the Turkish toll (his figures are 213,882 casualties, just under 87,000 of them deaths), remarks (in my view) vapidly: “A high cost for victory.”

A high cost? What was the “cheap” alternative? Surrender? Defeat? Humiliation? Loss of nation? Disappearance into the smoke and chaos of history? 

This would have been a cost not even to be contemplated by a proud nation. The Turks had won a victory over Britain, then the world’s mightiest empire, whose battle fleet still ruled the world’s waves.

Ironically, Turkey does not celebrate its Gallipoli victory on the anniversary of the defeat of the Allied army. It commemorates a naval victory, won on 18 March, when, disastrously, the joint British and French fleet failed to break through the Narrows and sail north to Constantinople, now Istanbul.

The naval defeat shook Britain. It was totally unexpected. It cost Winston Churchill his job and gained Colonel Kemal immortality. 

Harvey Broadbent has authored two books, Gallipoli, the Turkish Defence, described as “a comprehensive academic reference book”, and Defending Gallipoli, “a condensed version for the general reader”.