Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Book Review - Gallipoli by Alan Moorehead

Gallipoli by Alan Moorehead

London: Aurum, 2007 (first published 1956)           ISBN 9781845132392

It's appropriate on this day of all days that this is the book I'm reviewing. One hundred and two years ago, at dawn on 25 April 1915, the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps landed on the Gallipoli Peninsula as part of an Entente amphibious landing designed to take Turkey out of the War. The venture was a disaster for the Entente, as well as for the Ottoman Empire.

Moorehead's narrative of the campaign is still - sixty years after it was written - the ideal entree to the story for someone who knows little of what went on, or perhaps has a too Australian-centric view of what occurred in the eight months Entente troops were invested on the Peninsula.

While the landings in April and the battles thereafter were the blooding of the ANZACs, the preponderance of the landing forces were British and French troops, including many Indian and African regiments.

Moorehead's over-arching theme is one of missed opportunities on sea and land, and of poor decision making. It was British and French diplomatic bungling that brought Turkey into the war on the side of Germany rather than the Entente powers. Once this had occurred the Navy decided that if it could force the Narrows, Turkey would capitulate. They were not far from the truth in this - Moorehead paints a scene of a fractured and fragile Turkish government run by the Young Turks, and how the sight of a British battlefleet in the Istanbul Roads probably would have brought an armistice.

To achieve this outcome the ships needed to get through the Bosphorus. They so nearly succeeded. Just at the moment the Turks could no longer defend the straits with guns or mines, the British - shaken by their losses - decided that they needed an army to take the Peninsula by land, as they couldn't take it by sea alone. The respite allowed the Turks to recover somewhat while the British planned the landing.

The fact that the British did this planning in three weeks explains in part its eventual failure, although to get so many men ashore at all - it was until that time the largest amphibious operation ever - was a kind of success. The overall commander of the force, Hamilton, had a part in the failure as well. A man of poetic temperament and undoubted bravery, he was a leader who let his subordinates run their battles: a good trait, but Hamilton's lack of clear tactical objectives and orders led to much confusion on the battleground.

Despite the rushed planning and Hamilton's quirks, strategic victory on the first day was a near-run thing. Even though the ANZACs landed in the wrong place, and were faced with a maze of gullies and cliffs rather than the more easily sloping land they expected, some few managed to scale the heights before being thwarted at the last moment by Mustafa Kemal, whose ruthlessness and drive during the Campaign started him on the path to becoming Ataturk.

Although the beachhead was precarious, it held: the Entente forces were not strong enough to dislodge the Turks, and neither could the Turks repulse the invaders. The appalling loss of life that occurred during both the Entente and Turk attacks is chronicled well by Moorehead. The battles that have become the staple of Australian and New Zealand military history, such as Lone Pine, The Nek and others that have become bywords for bravery and sacrifice, are put into perspective by Moorehead by showing the greater moves that were going on around them. The landing at Suvla, which Lone Pine and The Nek supported, which were doomed to fail as Moorehead so clearly shows, was the last throw of the dice by the Entente; and after the failure recriminations began.

Both Hamilton and Churchill (who was the initial supporter of the Naval plan) paid the price of failure with their careers and for many other commanders Gallipoli was their last battlefront posting. For many more though it was a schooling ground of great importance, not the least of these "students" being Monash, Blamey and Morshead.

When the decision to evacuate was made it was done so with a heavy heart, and with the expectation that evacuating might cost anything up to forty thousand casualties. The fact that the entire Peninsula was evacuated with only a couple of dozen deaths was a triumph of careful planning: a terrible irony, as careful planning before the campaign began may have led to victory. As it was, the Entente gained nothing and lost tremendously both in men and material.

The Turks won a great victory, but still lost their Empire.

Moorehead tells this story exceedingly well: as a seasoned war correspondent he can portray battle with a skill that made his byline famous in World War Two, and as an Australian he brings much feeling to the description of ANZAC in particular. His ability to sum up a person or a stiuation in a few well-chosen phrases is remarkable and goes a long way to making his books compulsive reading. His choice of primary material is always apt and to the point, and while reading this book it occurred to me that Antony Beevor owes much to Moorehead.

If you want to know more about this episode of the Great War, this book is the perfect place to start.

[In respectful memory of Private S.B. McGregor M.M. 2nd Field Ambulance, who landed at ANZAC Cove on 25 April 1915, and his brother James, 3rd Battalion, killed at Lone Pine in August 1915]

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

Saturday, 15 April 2017

Book Review - The death of Lorca by Ian Gibson

The death of Lorca by Ian Gibson

London: W.H. Allen, 1973          ISBN: 0491010400

In days when even the spokesman for the US President forgets the history of World War II in claiming that Hitler didn't kill his own countrymen with chemical weapons, what chance that anyone walking the street will cast a thought back to the Spanish Civil War, that terrible precursor to the worldwide conflagration that began six months after the final Republican surrender?

And yet the history of that war keeps coming back to haunt us. Recently Spain has been grappling with the horrors that occurred during the war, and the cover-ups and mendacities that happened after it, under the long tight grip of the Franco regime.

This book, by English academic Ian Gibson, was written in the final years of Franco, and was the first disinterested attempt to find out what happened in the final days of Federico Garcia Lorca, certainly the most famous Spanish poet of the Twentieth Century. His murder was one of the early outrages to occur in the Civil War, and became a stain that the Nationalists were desperate to eradicate from their history for many years.

Gibson was in the fortunate position to be in Granada in the late 1960s, and could speak to people who were in the town at the time when the initial uprising occurred, and who were eye-witnesses to many of the horrible events of that time. He begins the book with some short chapters on Lorca, and his relationship with the Republic, and on the twists and turns of Spanish electoral history in the 20s and 30s that led up to the attempted coup.

He describes in some detail the fall of Granada, and the brutal repression that followed, in which thousands of people were summarily executed (Gibson puts the figure somewhere between 5,000 and 25,000 people). Many old enmities were expunged in the name of the country, and countless innocents were caught in the horrible terror that ran from July 1936 well into the next year.

Lorca's heart was with the Republic and the peasants, and he was widely seen as left-wing, but was hardly a great presence on the political stage. At the outbreak of the rebellion he felt he had to leave Madrid for his hometown of Granada, not from a feeling that he would necessarily be safer there, but because he wanted to be near his family.

It was not long after the Nationalists took Granada that Lorca realised that he was going to become a target for the new regime, and so he turned to one of his good friends, Luis Rosales, who was in fact a member of the Nationalist hierarchy in Granada - a member of the Falange. Rosales sheltered him in his house for several days.

However, as Gibson's detective work shows, there were other forces at work. One of those forces took shape in the figure of Ramon Ruiz Alonso, a failed right-wing politico with a grudge against Rosales. He organised a raid on the house while Rosales was at the front, and took Lorca to the Civil Government Building and handed the poet over to Valdes, the governor. It seems clear that Lorca was kept in this building for several days: Valdes was unsure what to do with his famous "prisoner", until his superior, the infamous Quiepo de Llano, instructed that Lorca was to be shot. Gibson was probably the first to find out the exact chronology and location surrounding his murder - he was taken a short distance out of Granada, shot in the back of the neck and buried.

The Nationalist forces soon realised that the murder was a great mistake, and if the truth got out it would be a propaganda coup for the Republicans. And so a campaign of obscufation began, which surrounded the facts with a farrago of half-truths, outright lies and conspiracy theories. Gibson devotes some time to each of theses, shooting them down when he can, and pointing out holes in others. It doesn't help when people with an intimate role in Lorca's final days swear to conflicting stories about what happened.

As can be the case, this book about a single life throws the appalling massacre that occurred in Spain in sharp relief - as Gibson writes in the final paragraph of this book "Had Federico not died that morning in Viznar, the thousands of other innocent, but less well known, granadinos liquidated by the rebels might have been forgotten. As it is they will be remembered long after those responsible for the repression have passed into oblivion."

An interesting and educative read.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell