Sunday 21 January 2018

A century on and the legacy of the bloody Gallipolli campaign lingers


One hundred years ago today, a wave of grief was about to strike the streets of Dublin.

In late April 1915, Irish newspapers carried headlines of the opening of an ill-fated military offensive in the Eastern Mediterranean. With the Western Front deadlocked, men from the Dublin and Munster Fusiliers were sent into action in a bold move to seize the strategic waterways of the Dardanelles and cripple the war effort of Germany's ally Turkey.

As usual in those days the war news was all positive and patriotic at first. But the brutal reality of the mass slaughter on the beaches could not be censored for long.

One soldier described what the Irish troops faced as they surged ashore.

"The first outbreak of fire made the bay as white as a rapid, for the Turks fired not less than 10,000 shots a minute for the first few minutes of that attack.

"Those not killed in the boats at the first discharge jumped overboard to wade or swim ashore. Many were killed in the water, many, who were wounded, were swept away and drowned; others, trying to swim in the fierce current, were drowned by the weight of their equipment."

Telegrams began to be delivered in their droves to tenements and humble homes across the city with the terrible news that a son, a brother, a father, or a husband had been killed in a faraway place called Gallipoli.

It's not that hard to imagine the public keening that must have brought life to a standstill in this city of teeming slums a century ago. In Dublin in 1915, everybody knew their neighbours and many shared what little they had, including their tears.

All over Cork and other Munster towns and villages the sight of grim-faced postmen bearing heart-breaking news of loved ones "killed in action" traumatised families, many forever.

Similar scenes unfolded at doorways and farm gates all over Australia and New Zealand. The big difference of course is that Australia and New Zealand look upon the fallen "Anzacs" of Gallipoli as the founding heroes of their states.


Both countries trace their emergence as independent democracies to the demonstration of courage and character displayed against fierce odds in a doomed battle against the Ottoman Empire.

Most of us thought that most of the dying at Gallipoli was done by the 9,000 Australians and nearly 3,000 Kiwis who never came home. Few of us knew, or were ever told, that the Irish lost more than the New Zealanders. April 25 is just another day in our calendar. Anzac day is the most sacred secular day of the year 'Down Under'.

By the end of August 1915, over 3,000 Irishmen from every corner of the island lost their lives on the shores of the Turkish coast. Many more would return wounded and broken men. Ireland in the spring of 1915 was a nation in mourning. Thousands of young men were dead. Their bodies lay buried on Turkish soil. For nearly a hundred years they were officially forgotten.

Tomorrow, President Higgins will be at the battle site to participate in commemorations to honour the fallen of all sides. He will do so in the company of Irish soldiers, sailors and aviators. Their presence in Turkey is part of a worthy attempt to retrieve the suppressed mass memory of generations of Irish citizens. For too long, too many of us were forced to hide our grief, be silent about our losses and bury our medals.

Michael D Higgins says he will reflect on "the tragedy of war and the detritus of empire" when he stands at Suvla Bay.

Well he might. One hundred years after the waters of the Mediterranean ran red, we are still dealing with the aftershock of the conflict that toppled the Ottoman Empire.

This week we were confronted with that history when hundreds of bodies washed up dead on the shores of Italy.

We may never know the full scale of the loss of life on the "coffin ships" that were shipwrecked in the Mediterranean in recent days. We do know that the nameless victims will not be the last to drown.

We will never know who they were but we do know why they were so desperate to get away from the vortex of violence and terror that is raging across what was once the Ottoman caliphate.

That terror has gone global. The frightening reach of the fanaticism that has destabilised North Africa and the Middle East was ironically illustrated by the plot uncovered by police in Melbourne this week.

Five Australian teenagers have been arrested and charged with conspiring to commit acts of terrorism on behalf of Islamic State on Anzac Day in Australia.

All of Europe now faces a dilemma that will defy an easy solution. Millions are on the move. Europe, stagnant and politically volatile, cannot accommodate them all.

Nor can we let them drown or live huddled in transit camps forever. Europe has neither the will nor the means to take on and crush the fanatical forces scourging the region and help the migrants to stay and make a better place of their homelands.

So we must brace ourselves for a human cataclysm as far-reaching in its consequences as the bloody fight for Gallipoli.

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