Here and there – Gallipoli by Les Carlyon

 

When I visited Gallipoli nearly twenty years ago, my guide, a most affable former naval officer, was proud to show me the gun emplacements on the Asian side where ‘the sick man of Europe’ had stopped the greatest navy in the world – in circumstances that still excite misgivings and bad feelings, and not just down here.  I can’t recall now whether Ali said that the Turks were lucky that the British navy stopped the fight after only one day of its concerted attack, because the Turks were dangerously low on ammunition.  This would not be the last time in that war that the British pride in their navy operated to make them duck putting a critical battle to the issue.  That’s exactly what Lord Denning thought Jellicoe had done at Jutland, and Denning never forgave him.

We looked at those guns on our way to Troy.  Then, after a night at Cannakale, we returned to the European side.  We then spent about five hours going around the major sites, such as Anzac Cove and Lone Pine.  When we got to the summit of the ridge called Chunuk Bair, we could see the narrows of the Dardanelles.  My guide told me that the New Zealanders had taken this peak, and that if the Allied forces had been able to hold it, they could well have broken through and gone on to Constantinople.  In light of all the human misery and inanity I had been looking at that day, this hypothetical was hardly comforting.

Well, as Les Carlyon remarks more than once in his book Gallipoli (2001), the battles around Gallipoli, like those of the Trojan War, were full of ‘what ifs’ or ‘if onlys.’

The man who led the charge to the summit of Chunuk Bair was a New Zealander commanding soldiers from around Wellington and Otago, Colonel William George Malone.  He certainly looks the part – one of those solid, square-jawed six-footers that you see in the forward pack of the All Blacks, a man apparently born to lead.  (Some of the Maori units performed the haka before battle, to the bemusement of the locals.)  As well as being a land agent and solicitor with five offices, Malone was a farmer.  He had about 2000 acres around Stratford.  This is what Carlyon says of this farmer turned warrior.

Malone, tall and straight-backed, didn’t fit any of the stereotypes.  He was born near London but saw himself as a New Zealander.  He was of Irish descent and the temper of his adopted land was Scottish.  He spoke French and loved classical music.  He liked soldiering but was never going to make general: he was ambitious but not in the sense that he was prepared to win promotions over the bodies of his men; he was always going to be more popular with his men than with his superiors. He was bossy and petty, a man of tidy habits that bordered on fetishes, yet his men loved him.  Sixty years after Chunuk Bair, old men who had served with ‘Molly Malone’ spoke of him with reverence.  He was their father; he had looked after them.

If that is right, Malone was everything that most of his English commanding officers at Gallipoli were not.

Three days before his last on this earth, Malone wrote the following letter to his wife.

I expect to go through all right but, dear wife, if anything untoward happens to me there are our dear children to be brought up.  You know how I love and have loved you…..If at any time in the past I seemed absorbed in ‘affairs’, it was that I might make proper provision for you and the children….It is true perhaps that I overdid it somewhat.  I believe now that I did, but did not see it at the time.  I regret very much now that it was so and that I lost more happiness than I need have done.  You must forgive me; forgive also anything unkindly or hard that I may have said or done in the past….I have made a will and it is in the office in Stratford….I am prepared for death and hope that God will have forgiven me all my sins.

Malone woke his batman at 3 am on 8 August 1915 and gave him the address of his wife in case he got killed.  He shook hands with the man and said ‘Goodbye.’

The Wellingtons advanced sixteen abreast and got to the summit of Chunuk Bair with relative ease.  They were to be joined later by Gloucesters and Welsh Pioneers.  As Carlyon says, ‘thoughts of victory teased.’  But they also saw that the summit would be hard to defend.  In the area were Sikhs, Australians, Gurkhas and New Army boys.  Monash, Australia’s best general, was having what Charles Bean, the military historian, called ‘one of those black days’.  The young Kiwis astride Chunuk Bair were about to be put to the test that no sane man wants to face.

Some New Zealanders who fought on Chunuk Bair never saw the Narrows.  Malone didn’t stare at them for long.  He was a practical man; he knew that looking at the narrows was not the same as owning them.  He had to hold this awkwardly shaped summit; that was the first thing.  And after 5 am, when the haze lifted and the Turkish riflemen could see their targets, clinging to that summit became one of the epics of the Gallipoli campaign.  ….By 5 am the Turks were starting to pick off the Wellingtons.  The Gloucesters and Welsh Pioneers were shot down as they came up to reinforce Malone.  The Gloucesters on Malone’s left broke as they tried to dig in….  The Turks could creep to within twenty yards of the Wellingtons before being seen.  The front trench, which was too shallow anyway, became clogged with dead and wounded.  By 6.30 am, Malone was running a tremendous battle….The New Zealanders’ rifles became too hot to hold.

Even by the standards of Gallipoli and Troy, this was hell made flesh.  One Kiwi took a Turkish trench, and ended up standing on the dead and wounded.  He said the colour of the earth was blood.  The Wellingtons made short bayonet charges at the advancing Turks.  Malone himself used a bayonet.  It was buckled by a bullet.  An officer told Malone a man of his rank should not lead such charges.  Malone replied: ‘You’re only a kid – I’m an old man – get out yourself!’  A reporter on the beach later met a New Zealander with ten bayonet wounds.

Malone moved about all day amid this carnage trying to hold morale.  At about 5pm Malone was hit by a misdirected shrapnel burst that had come from either an Anzac battery or a warship.  He fell to friendly fire.

So died one of the grand and original figures of the Gallipoli campaign, a free spirit who could stretch his mind beyond the clubby world …and would stretch his integrity for no man.  It seems unconscionable that he received no posthumous decoration for his day on Chunuk Bair.  By the standards set at Lone Pine, he should have received the Victoria Cross.  In death, as in life, Malone was not much loved by those in authority.  He was always going to be an outsider.  Mater [his wife] took her three children to England during the war and never returned to New Zealand.  Malone’s farms were sold and his large family home burned down.  His son Edmond died of wounds in France in 1918.

The vast tragedy that engulfed the House of Malone could have come straight out of Homer.  It is within my personal knowledge that the Australians who fought in that war held two lifelong gripes against the English officer class – their incompetence or heartlessness in the field, and their lousiness in accepting the courage and competence of the colonials.  If medals are given to those who carry out their duty over a sustained period of time while facing probable death or mutilation, then in a just world, every one of those poor bastards on Chunuk Bair should have got a Victoria Cross, dead or alive.  Of the 760 Wellingtons who had arrived on the crest that morning, only two officers and 47 men remained unwounded.

They looked like the nightshift leaving a clandestine abattoir.  Their uniforms were torn and spattered with blood.  They had drunk no water since dawn and barely slept for two days.  According to Bean, they talked in whispers, trembled and cried.  Some bled to death and others went mad with thirst.  Some asked when the stretcher-bearers were coming and were told they weren’t.  Others prayed or hallucinated or passed out…..Some of the wounded from August 8 took three days to travel down…, attacked by flies the whole way, thirsty the whole way, covered in dust with bloody clothes stuck to their bodies.

The New Zealanders left on the summit were relieved later that day by British New Army Battalions.  They were swept off the summit on 10 August by an attack led personally by Mustafa Kemal in what Carlyon calls ‘death by avalanche.’  The Australian war historian Charles Bean dropped his guard at a time when people did not blush to use the word ‘race’.  ‘The truth is that after 100 years of breeding in slums, the British race is not the same….It is breeding one fine class at the expense of all the rest.’  Good God, did the descendants of convicts see themselves as ethnically superior to the stock of the Mother Country?  Well, putting race to one side, the nemesis of the British had intervened once again to save his nation from defeat at the hands of accursed infidels.

One Victoria Cross was awarded to the immortally brave New Zealanders who took Chunuk Bair and held it until they were relieved.  It was given to Corporal Cyril Bassett, a signaller.  Carlyon said that Bassett knew the truth about Chunuk Bair.  ‘All my mates ever got were wooden crosses.’

By contrast, seven Australians won the Victoria Cross at Lone Pine, two of them posthumously.  The British saw Lone Pine as a win.  Chunuk Bair was a loss.  We must suspect that the British were laying the seeds of what has become a vicious trait in the Australian psyche.  We don’t like soldiers who lose.  We turned our back on those returning from Vietnam, and we are now giving the same treatment to those who fought for us in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The French lost more soldiers than Australia did at Gallipoli, but they were not a young nation in quest of a legend.  And statistics can be demeaning.  They can rob a story of its moral horror.  To understand that horror, and the ghastly sense of chance and waste, we need to be reminded of the story of Molly Malone and his men.  That story is worth more than all the charts and graphs on earth.

It looks to me that Carlyon told the story of Gallipoli as it should be told and that he is very sensible and fair in looking at those responsible.  Churchill’s conception was at best romantic – his family said he was always dangerous with a map in his hand – but his powers of persuasion turned the heads of those who should have known better.  Fisher was sceptical but erratic.  Kitchener was aloof and out of date, but the others walked in fear of him.  The command at home was divided and the overall strategy bears an uncomely resemblance to that of the English and Americans in Iraq.  Hamilton was literate and urbane, but they are not the qualities you need in an abattoir, and he walked in fear of his betters.  The original plan was to have the navy do the job, but the navy got timid, and Plan B was not thought through.  Then there was the incompetence or cruelty of the officers on the ground.

Two young nations sacrificed the flower of a whole generation in a great Imperial balls-up.  When Kitchener finally got to Gallipoli, he was driven to a confession, although this old man may not have seen it that way.  ‘The country is much more difficult than I imagined, and the Turkish positions….are natural fortresses, which, if not taken by surprise at first, could he held against very serious attacks by larger forces than have been engaged…..To gain what we hold has been a most remarkable feat of arms….Everyone has done wonders.’  Nothing ever surprised the Turks in this campaign.  The Minister of War was therefore admitting that his ignorance had led to the unnecessary slaughter of thousands upon thousands over seven months in pursuit of what was obviously unattainable.  When Kitchener told the ANZACS that the ‘King has asked me to tell you how splendidly he thinks you have done – you have done splendidly, better even than I thought you would’, those poor deluded remnants cheered him heartily.

Although I have made my pilgrimage to Gallipoli, and to the Western Front, the mystique of Anzac Day remains as impenetrable to me as that of the Holy Trinity.  I wonder what that hard head Molly Malone and his men would have made of it.  I can’t help wondering if their response might be: ‘Why in the name of God are you celebrating the campaign where good and brave men got slaughtered – and all for nothing?’

Carlyon closed his chapter on Lone Pine citing a letter home from a young soldier who wrote home to his parents in Hawthorn (Melbourne).  Private James Martin had given his occupation as ‘farmhand’.  He told his mum and dad that the troops had got a present from Lady Ferguson, the wife of the Governor-General – ‘2 fancy biscuits, half stick of Chocolate and 2 sardines each.  I think I have told you all the news so I must draw to a close with Fondest love to all.’

Private Martin craved a letter.  Across the top of his letter he scrawled: ‘Write soon.  I have received no letters since I left Victoria and I have been writing often.’  A little over a fortnight later, he died from heart failure, probably caused by enteric fever, and was buried at sea.

His enlistment papers gave his age as 18.  At the time of his death, he was 14 years and nine months.  Among his effects was a scrap of red and white streamer that he had picked up as his troopship left Melbourne.

It sounds like the poor little bugger never made it off the boat.  God only knows how his mum and dad took the news when the telegram arrived back at Hawthorn on the other side of the world.

4 thoughts on “Here and there – Gallipoli by Les Carlyon

  1. Thanks for that Geoff. Very intersting. I’m going to Hampton RSL tomoz morning – Alf asked me on several occasions before he died if I would attend the Dawn Service with him. I have only been after he died and now realise why he wanted me to go with him.

    Katy x

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