Friday, October 10, 2008

Gallipoli, Part I

Our first tour out of Istanbul was Gallipoli, of World War One fame. Now, most people don’t know much about World War I, although it was probably the greatest catastrophe since the Black Plague wiped out a third of the population from China to Iceland in the 14th Century. It just happens to have been eclipsed by WWII and the Holocaust.

That said, they should know more about this war which shattered the self-image of Europe, brought down empires and gave rise to peace agreements that have wrought endless problems (WWII, for instance, and the situation in the Middle East, and the Balkan Conflicts). World War I claimed six thousand people a day for 1500 days. 65 million soldiers were mobilized. Of the 42 million allied men, 22 million were casualties. Of the 23 million central power troops, 15 million casualties. There were approximately 8.5 million killed, 22 million wounded (7 million of who were permanently disabled). This doesn’t count the Turkish forced move of the Armenians (which resulted in over a million deaths) or the massive influenza epidemics that killed 27 million people. The families of Europe, the infrastructure and the demographics had been completely devastated.

Trench warfare was among the more horrific experiences imaginable, and eventually to that was added gases that blistered you inside and out, and killed you with unfathomable pain. I’ve long been amazed by the human capacity for pressing on in those trenches.
The Ottoman Empire was ruled by the Turks, who had undergone a coup in the early 20th century. The Young Turks were in power, and, facing a diminished empire (they had just lost a substantial amount of territory in the Balkan wars), were looking to shore themselves up. Considered the "weak man of Europe" and culturally, ethnically, militarily, religiously and technologically disdained by the westerners, the Turks faced a complex situation.
But I’m going to stop myself from explaining it! Suffice it to say, with some pushing from internal factions, and some help from some clever Germans (whose country had its own ambivalence about the Turks), Turkey ended up on the Central Powers Side. The Allies ultimately seized the opportunity to carve up the Middle East for its own purposes (particularly the British protection of the road to Afghanistan and India).

Churchill has been blamed for much of what took place, but there is some pretty significant evidence to absolve him. Whatever the case, he did order the attack on the Dardanelles. The Dardanelles are the straights that ultimately connect Russia and the Black Sea to the Mediterranean (with some smaller bays and seas in between). Constantinople sits on both Europe and Asia, controlled the silk road (the main connection to the east) and could (and did) cut off the flow of Russian goods to the Mediterranean (which significantly hampered the Russian War effort and probably helped bring down the Czarist government—which was replaced by the Communists).

When the English and somewhat French fleet attacked, it took on some heavy losses the first day. But, their minesweepers had been successful. They just didn’t know it. There were a couple random mines on one side of the strait. The next day there were a couple more ships sunk. The Turks were out of ammunition and were leaving their posts. Churchill even believed this to be true. But the commander in the field kind of freaked out, and wouldn’t commence further attacks. By leaving and waiting to pull together the army in Egypt, he paved the way for a half million casualties.

Ultimately, this campaign brought the English, Australians, New Zealanders, Indians and French to the shores of Gallipoli. Much was bungled—the wrong landing place (that is disputed), ceding key high ground because of bad leadership, etc. Whatever the case, fighting wore on for 8.5 months and ended the lives of about a half million soldiers together on both sides.

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