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Lest we forget

The disastrous WWI Gallipoli campaign, and the brutality of war

Today marks exactly 100 years since the beginning of one of the most disastrous moments in World War I.

EXACTLY ONE CENTURY ago, Allied troops – including several thousand Irish men –  waded ashore on the Gallipoli peninsula at the start of an ill-fated land campaign to wrest the Dardanelles Strait from the Ottoman Empire.

WWI Gallipoli Irish Troops An Irish soldier in the trenches as his comrades rest at Gallipoli (Pic: AP) AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

The disastrous World War I battle began on 25 April 1915, and pitted troops from countries including Ireland, Australia, Britain, France and New Zealand against the Ottoman forces backed by Germany.

By seeking to force their way through the Dardanelles Strait separating Europe from Asia,  the Allies hoped to take Constantinople, now Istanbul, and secure a sea corridor to the Russian Empire.

It ended in a costly defeat for the Allies after nine months of gruelling warfare, in which more than 100,000 were killed, including some 3,000 Irish troops.

Gallipoli War Turkish soldiers raise their flag at Kanli Sirt in Gallipoli in 1915 (Pic: AP)

The battle on the 80-kilometre-long (50-mile-long) peninsula was seen as a founding moment for the modern nations of Australia, New Zealand and Turkey.

How the battle began

Six months into World War I, the western front was blocked from the North Sea down to the Swiss border.

To unblock the situation, British commanders decided to prise open a southern one by seizing the strategic Dardanelles.

On March 18, 1915, joint British-French naval forces sought to force their way through the Strait.

AUSTRALIAN STRETCHER BEARERS:  1915 Australian stretcher bearers attend to casualties near Gallipoli (Pic: PA)

The plan was conceived by Winston Churchill, later Britain’s World War II prime minister.

But, lacking equipment and manpower, the naval attack was repelled, forcing the Allies to begin a land campaign on the Gallipoli peninsula.

Politics - Winston Churchill - Enfield Lock Munition Works Winston Churchill (right) in 1915 (Pic: PA)

As defenders, the Ottomans, perched on the cliffs, had the advantage over attacking Allied troops who were left exposed on five Gallipoli beaches.

As on the western front, the combatants dug trenches to protect themselves and all attempts to break the Ottoman stranglehold failed over the coming months.

Death in the trenches

Australian historian Les Carlyon says around 56,000 died on each side in the conflict.

Officials in Ankara say that 86,692 died on the Ottoman side and 44,000 on the Allied side.

World War One - Dardenelles Front - Gallipoli Campaign - Cape Helles A British soldier pays his respects at the grave of a colleague near Gallipoli (Pic: AP)

However, the losses are very much higher if deaths from disease are included. Both sides suffered from the heat, flies attracted by rotting corpses, a lack of water, dysentery and typhoid.

As winter approached, storms and landslides destroyed the trenches, leaving new victims in their wake.

The last Allied troops were evacuated on January 8, 1916 and the southern European front was frozen until late 1917.

Baptism of fire

With some 11,500 dead in their ranks, the loss was most keenly felt in what at the time were the young and sparsely populated nations of Australia and New Zealand.

They committed more than 60,000 troops to the campaign, and on some days lost up to 90%  of their manpower.

WWI Egypt Australian Troops Australian troops arrive in Egypt en route to the battlefield in Gallipoli (Pic: AP)

ANZAC Day has become a memorial day for all fallen troops and both countries’ most revered national holiday.

For Turkey the victory, acquired at considerable loss, signalled the emergence of Mustafa Kemal, who became Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and in 1923 became the founding father of the Turkish republic.

Many of the victims are buried in 32 cemeteries and the 28 communal graves that line the peninsula.

Ataturk paid tribute in 1934 to enemy soldiers who had lost their lives.

“There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side now here in this country of ours,” he wrote.

You, the mothers, who sent their sons from faraway countries wipe away your tears… After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.

- © AFP, 2015

Read: Irish soldiers in the Great War: Tracing your family history in WWI > 

Read: The real Irish lives of World War I > 

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