This week, millions of people in Australia and New Zealand, joined by more than a few in Britain and Turkey, will pause to mark the centenary of an awful tragedy of war.
Though modern conflicts throw up all manner of horrors, few can compete in terms of the sheer scale of carnage involved with the Allied invasion of Gallipoli, starting on April 25, 1915.
The battle for this Turkish peninsula cost the lives of tens of thousands of soldiers from both sides, particularly during the initial assault. It gave rise to the legend of the ANZACs, an acronym for members of the Australia and New Zealand army corps.
ANZAC Day, to be celebrated again this Saturday, is a prominent marker in Antipodean calendars.
Unravelling the political motivations that lead to a war and the machinations shaping its various campaigns, is hardly ever easy, even with the benefit of hindsight.
In the case of World War I, the sense of urgency and existential threat that motivated men to fight to the death is not readily relatable a century later. We can, in a consumerist and supposedly “globally conscious” age, find it difficult to connect with the sense of individual duty and patriotic loyalty that led so many to sacrifice everything for “King and country”.
We may also find it hard to comprehend the authoritarian thinking of the political classes, which demanded other men do so under threat of death.
In 1915, Allied high command hoped, through the invasion of Gallipoli, to drive forward into the very heart of the Ottoman Empire, at Constantinople. Instead, their men were cut to ribbons by machine guns and barbed wire.
The immediate aftermath of the battle brought with it fierce recriminations. There were accusations of strategic incompetence among the mostly British high command.
So great was the horror felt by soldiers and public alike, that blame passed right through the ranks to the very top. The British minister who took it upon himself to claim most responsibility was a young Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty.
Not only did he resign his position, he left Parliament and volunteered to work as a war correspondent. He joined the fighting Tommies in the muddy trenches that came to characterise the so-called ‘war to end all wars’.
It was an extraordinary step down for a man in this position at this time. Yet it demonstrated not only a certain depth of character on Churchill’s part, but his recognition of a vital principle of leadership.
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