Military history

COMPTON MACKENZIE

Gallipoli Memories

The opening campaign of the First World War in the west, in which Erwin Rommel had played a tiny but significant part, concluded in the failure of the German army to win a great victory in the open field. The outcome was the construction of a trench line, nearly five hundred miles long, running from the North Sea in Belgium to the border of Switzerland.

The frustration of the efforts by the French army, assisted by the British Expeditionary Force, to break the trench line in the winter and spring of 1914 — 15 persuaded the Allied high command to look for a way round. The spot on which they fixed for the outflanking manoeuvre was Gallipoli in Turkey, on the waterway separating Europe from Asia and leading to the Black Sea. The object of the original mission was to force a way up the waterway — the Bosphorus — as far as Constantinople, capital of Turkey, which had joined Germany and Austria as an ally in October 1914. The British and French governments believed that the arrival of their battle fleet at Constantinople would frighten the Turkish (Ottoman) government into making peace, so allowing supplies to be sent from the Mediterranean to their Russian allies via the ports of the Black Sea.

The attempt to force the battleships past Gallipoli failed, when several were sunk by mines and shore batteries. It was then decided to land troops, and on 25 April 1915, several divisions of British, Australian, New Zealand and French troops assaulted the beaches at the tip of the Gallipoli peninsula. Footholds were secured but the losses suffered were heavy and a Turkish counter-offensive, directed by Mustafa Kemal, later Kemal Atatürk, the founder and first President of modern Turkey, hemmed the Allies in. The Gallipoli front was stalemated, just as that in France and Belgium had been. Nevertheless, Britain and France persisted with the effort to defeat the Turkish defenders all through the summer and autumn. Compton Mackenzie, already a well-known writer, was in 1915 an officer of the Royal Naval Division (whose sailors fought as infantry), one of those involved in the initial landings. His account of the trench fighting in June vividly conveys the smallness of the battlefield, overlooked by the Turks from all sides, and the atmosphere of the fighting, which brought a constant, daily flow of casualties without any progress on the ground. The Collingwood Battalion — the battalions of the Royal Naval Division were named after famous British admirals — had suffered particularly heavily in the first month of fighting.

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On Monday, the seventh of June, there was a chance of crossing again to Cape Helles [the southern point of the Gallipoli peninsula] in a destroyer. I welcomed an excuse to escape from the stifling atmosphere of the tent which had been full of blood-stained Turkish notebooks for the last two days, and asked leave to visit my Divisional Paymaster to discuss the problem of my pay and at the same time try for a batman. The atmosphere at Divisional Headquarters was gloomy in the extreme. I was not astonished when I heard details of what the Division had been through last Friday. The casualties had been very heavy. They thought that the French had let them down completely on the right. Patrick Shaw-Stewart was seen running along, waving his cane and shouting, ‘Avancez! Avancez!’ The Senegalese came out of their trenches, advanced seventeen yards, and then bolted back into them like so many gigantic black rabbits, after which nothing would persuade them to show themselves again. I suppose this was after the Colonial troops and Senegalese had been bombed out of the Haricot Redoubt which they had held for a time. There was no disposition to put any blame for the failure of the fourth of June on the General Staff. Any gibing was mostly directed at Maxwell’s Peninsula Press [a trench newspaper] which had come out with a rosified account of our ‘success’, though of course it was recognized that a daily sheet of unmitigated gloom would hardly be worth printing and circulating. I was promised a batman; but the problem of my pay looked like being for ever insoluble, and I started to walk back. Small shells kept dropping all round me, and it seemed inevitable that I should be hit presently. There is no doubt that the sensation of being shelled when alone is most infernally unpleasant. After walking about three-quarters of a mile I felt inclined to sit down and cry with exasperation because those Turkish gunners would not realize that I really was not worth so much expensive ammunition. I wanted to argue with them personally about the futility of war. It seemed so maddeningly stupid that men should behave as impersonally and unreasonably as nature. Over to the right I saw a clump of trees and, feeling I simply must somehow get a sensation of cover, I hurried across toward them at a diagonal jog-trot. I could not have made a more foolish move, because apparently there was a well by them at which mules were watered, and at regular intervals the enemy used to spray the clump with shrapnel. I must have come in for one of those antiseptic douches, for the air was alive. I began to worry about the proofs of [his novel] Guy and Pauline, thinking to myself that the printer’s reader would be sure to change ‘tralucent’ to ‘translucent’ and that Secker [his publisher] in the depression caused by the news of my death would never remember how much importance I attached to getting rid of that unnecessary sibilant. Why couldn’t those blasted Turks up on Achi Baba shut up? And I would have turned a gerund into a participle here and there ... and probably there would be a vile nominativuspendens ... at this moment I heard a burst of laughter and, looking round angrily, for I thought this laughter must be meant for the way I was definitely running by now, I saw a couple of men digging opposite to one another like the gravediggers in Hamlet and roaring with laughter every time one of the small shells either exploded or as often happened hit the ground with a thud and nothing else. Then one of the pair dropped. The other looked first at his pal and then at me who was hurrying past with haversack, water-bottle, pistol, and glasses jogging up and down in a most undignified way.

‘Beg pardon, sir! Beg pardon!’ he called out.

‘You can’t do anything,’ I snapped. ‘You’d better get into cover yourself as quickly as you can.’

‘No, sir, it’s not that,’ he whimpered as he cut across my path and forced me to stop while he saluted. ‘But would you mind telling me if my friend’s dead, sir, because I’m new at this job.’

‘Of course, I’m not bloody well dead, you silly little cod,’ shouted the friend, who was sitting up by now and rubbing his head. And I left them, remembering another occasion when the friend actually had been killed and when the survivor’s comment was, ‘Beg pardon, sir, you think it’s funny at first, but it’s very serious really.’

By the time I reached the beach, the big gun on the Asiatic side of the Straits had started to shell the shipping. There were three preliminary fountains, after which a shell hit a French transport loaded with hay. The crew at once jumped overboard, and the transport caught fire. Then two destroyers rushed up and bundled all the men back on to their ship in order to extinguish the fire, which they succeeded in doing without being shelled any more.

I think it must have been that evening I met the last surviving officer of the Collingwood Battalion. He was very young, hardly more than eighteen and, after the horror of that experience to which he had gone almost within forty-eight hours of landing at Helles, he was being sent to do some work at Imbros [island west of Gallipoli, used as an Allied base; now Imroz] in connection with the rest camp which was to be formed there. We did not talk about the battle, either then or at any other time. Oldfield was his name, and I hope he survived the battles in France later. I can hear now the tone of his voice as he said to me with a nervous little laugh:

‘I’m the only officer left of the Collingwood.’

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