Gallipoli 100 Years Ago

Australia and Turkey (and to a lesser extent the other participants in the invasion) are  engaged in an unrestrained orgy of celebration of the centenary of the Gallipoli campaign. It is unusual for both sides to celebrate a campaign, or for that matter a battle, which was won decisively by one of the participants. Yet both Australia and Turkey not only celebrate Gallipoli, they see it as a defining event in the evolution of the respective nations. The Turks certainly have something to celebrate because they repelled an invasion, which they mark as the transition from the Ottoman Empire – centuries past its prime at the time – to the modern state of Turkey, a secular democracy free from the arbitrary impositions of religious and imperial power. Australia marks the occasion as a ‘coming of age’, though it is far from clear what this means. Thousands of Australians died fighting a pointless and ill-conceived invasion in a war that had nothing whatever to do with Australia, save that the mother country, Britain, was one of the protagonists. To come of age, one would have thought, would have been to refuse to go. I need to say more about all this. 

The stated aim of the campaign was to provide access to Russia, fighting on the side of France and Britain against Germany in the Great War, via the Dardanelles and also to try to bring Greece and Bulgaria into the war on the allies side. The Ottoman Empire had declared for Germany, not least because Britain had refused to let them have two battleships that it was building for them but also because it tried to stop the Germans from providing substitutes, tried to force the Ottomans to expel the German Legation, and generally interfere in the empire’s sovereign affairs. The best explanations of the Great War itself, one that I have accepted for some time, is that Germany started it to pre-empt an unfavourable two front war between France in the west, with Britain’s aid – France had by far the larger army – and Russia in the east. This ‘worst case scenario’ had been dreamed up by the German General Staff, the first such military ‘threat assessment’ institution. The assassination of the Grand Duke in Sarajevo triggered the German Plan. This envisioned a quick victory against France, who would be able to mobilise its forces quicker than Russia, and then an attack on the latter. As it happened, Germany was easily able to deal with Russia, was never able to defeat France, and eventually lost a war of attrition when the US entered the conflict. The only role the Ottoman Empire played was in the Gallipoli campaign: it defended its territory from invasion by France, Britain, India, New Zealand and Australia. From the allied point of view, all the Gallipoli campaign did was to sacrifice tens of thousands of soldiers.


Gallipoli was a military disaster, and a pointless one because it is now clear that even if it had succeeded, and the allies taken Constantinople, any aid that could have been given to Russia would not have led to the defeat Germany. But a case can also be made for saying that it was morally wrong, or that it was ‘unjust’. According to Just War Theory, war is only just if it defends against aggression. The modern version of the theory allows that one state can fight justly if it defends another against aggression, so if a state is correctly said to engage in a just war, this is not necessarily a war in which it defends itself: when Britain joined France in 1914 to defend the latter against German aggression, both were fighting a just war. However, the Great War, like World War Two, was a complex state of affairs made up of several ‘small’ wars. Thus it does not follow that if Britain was fighting justly in France against Germany, its invasion of the Ottoman Empire was also just. One view is that since the Ottomans were defending themselves, then they had justice on their side. The other is since they were allied to Germany, who was fighting an unjust war, they were open to attack. It is also possible to hold that neither side was fighting a just war. I think it would be hard to argue, fairly and objectively, that the allies had right on their side at Gallipoli, so I incline to the position that this part of the Great War was not a just war from the point of view of Britain and her allies, and that includes Australia.


If the Gallipoli was a pointless military campaign which ended in defeat, and which was also unjust, why do we revere it? Why did Australia ‘come of age’ in 1915? We are told that it is not a matter of celebrating the campaign or glorifying war, but of remembering the dead, and their bravery, heroism, etc. I’d like to put forward an alternative. I don’t want soldiers to be brave in the face of the enemy, to bayonet Turks in the trenches, to obey orders without thinking, to go over the top and attack machine gun nests, etc. I don’t want young people to answer the call and go to foreign lands and fight for Australia, Britain, or Exxon Mobil. The right values, human values, are to refuse to fight, to refuse to kill one’s fellow man or woman; real bravery consists in being a conscientious objector. Young people should not join the armed forces, they should demand that their governments always settle their differences by non-violent means. By remembering the heroism and sacrifice of our brave boys we do glorify war, however subtly and indirectly, but we should only remember the horror of war, nothing more.

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