The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
King George V and Queen Mary were present at a service here in Westminster Abbey ninety nine years ago today, honouring those who had died at Gallipoli in the high cause of freedom. The Times newspaper reported 'stirring scenes.' Billy Hughes, the Australian Prime Minister, was here too, with senior members of the United Kingdom government. This day in Westminster Abbey has become indelibly Anzac Day. For over fifty years, an annual service of remembrance has been held here on the day itself. Today, a hundred years after the beginning of the landings on the Gallipoli peninsula, a great concourse gathers to honour the courage of those who gave their lives but also to mark and celebrate the reconciliation of former enemies.
In the story of Gallipoli, there is much daring and bravery. A successful battle for the control of the Dardanelles straits, the narrow stretch of water that divides Europe from Asia, would have led to the rapid defeat of Constantinople, knocking the Ottoman Empire out of the war. It was a brilliant idea. Winston Churchill hoped at a time when the Western front was settling into a static pattern that it could break the stalemate and shorten the war. The initial naval assault through the Dardanelles straits, difficult with ships designed for sea battles, came close to succeeding. It had the advantage of surprise and the Turkish resistance from forts along the straits was almost exhausted when the decision was taken to abandon the attempt on 18th March 1915. Then a land assault was conceived and executed in all haste. Australian and New Zealand troops that had been preparing in Egypt to play their part, as well as Indian, French and British forces, were assembled, embarkation craft improvised, and an attack mounted at five landing points one hundred years ago today.
The task of gathering a great force of troops and landing them on almost unknown territory against unnumbered forces was overwhelming, especially when the work of assembling and transporting the troops had been so public that the enemy was well prepared for the invasion. And yet, excitement was engendered in some of the men by the thought of action at the scene of ancient Greek battles, a spirit of adventure was communicated through the Army, and what has been described as 'inhuman recklessness and selflessness' motivated many at the time of the first landings. Five Victoria Crosses were won on the first day on one of the five beaches.
Despite all this, the assault was a disaster, as were successive attempts to break through, surely at least in part due to the hazardous character of the enterprise. Too little preparation meant that none of those entering the fray knew the effect of tides or the nature of the land on which the troops were embarking. Command instructions were inadequate and the overall commanders of the operation themselves lacked communication with those leading the battle. Many of the troops and their commanders had no experience at all of warfare. Inevitable errors occurred. By a chance of the tide, the Anzac troops landed not on the wide beach which had been their object but in a narrow and rocky area where they would be pinned down by the Turkish troops on high ground for the months of the battle. Very few of the many thousands of men who were landed made it off the beaches and up the cliffs. Many of those who did met an immediate end.
After the first wave of failed attacks, the commanders hoped for reinforcements and a fresh effort, while the men dug themselves in on the beaches and cliffs. A Turkish counterattack on 19th May was equally unsuccessful, as were further assaults by the Allies. Troop reinforcements failed to achieve the longed-for breakthrough, often possible, so nearly achieved, but always elusive. Through the heat of the summer, the men were assailed by extraordinary numbers of flies and, through the lack of a balanced diet and infections from unburied bodies, suffered dysentery.
The retreat, begun in December, nine months after the first landings, was the most successful part of the entire campaign. Throughout, the deception was maintained that the allies remained in force on the beaches. The retreat was complete by 9th January 1916 and the peninsula was left to recover its peace. Nothing at all had been gained in military terms, but the loss of life had been terrible. Half a million men were involved in the allied campaign and an equal number of Turkish troops were engaged on behalf of the Ottoman Empire. Half the Turkish troops were injured and almost 87,000 killed. British and allied casualties numbered 141,000, of whom 46,000 lost their lives. 50,000 Australians and 8,500 New Zealanders were engaged in the campaign; respectively 8,709 and 2,721 lost their lives. The New Zealanders suffered the highest proportion of allied casualties.
An outstanding Turkish commander was Colonel Mustafa Kemal, who would later become the first president of secular Turkey Kemal Ataturk. In our annual act of remembrance, words written by him and displayed at Gallipoli mark the reconciliation between the people of Turkey and their former enemies. This growing human warmth between enemies was already foreshadowed during the campaign. Five days after the 19th May Turkish attack, a 9 hour truce was agreed to allow 4,000 bodies to be removed for burial. The front lines of the enemies were within a few feet of each other. Once the truce was over, a mutual respect had been developed.
The Australian journalist and author Alan Moorehead, in his book Gallipoli published in 1956 and reissued this year, vividly depicts the curious relationship in an anecdote. 'An old Turk had apparently been given the job of doing the washing for his platoon. Regularly each day he emerged from his trench and hung out the wet shirts and socks in a line on the parapet, and no Allied soldier would have dreamt of shooting him.' And he goes on that there was a 'constant traffic of gifts in the trenches, the Turks throwing over grapes and sweets, the Allied soldiers with tinned food and cigarettes. The Turks had no great love for British beef. A note came over one day: 'Bully beef – non. Envoyez milk.''
As we mark here the centenary of the Gallipoli campaign, we celebrate the reconciliation of former enemies. This is symbolised on this occasion by the inclusion of a Muslim prayer in our service, alongside Christian prayers, and the Turkish national anthem and flag with the national anthems and flags of the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand.
The bible readings we have heard today encourage us with the promise of peace, no matter what must be endured. Our earnest prayer is that the reconciliation we mark today between former enemies may be a harbinger of wider peace. We pray that Jew, Christian and Muslim will live in concord and harmony together, sharing our inherited wisdom and our experience of the love of God for the good of his whole Creation.
Jesus said, 'I leave you peace, my peace I give you.' May all people of goodwill know the gift of peace.