Raw Uncensored Images: How long could the slaughter of World War I have continued if the people back home had been able to see what was going on? Could Gallipoli happen today?
TRY TO IMAGINE the New Zealand public’s response to a Gallipoli campaign unfolding in the glare of modern communications technology, and being judged according to the Twenty-First Century citizen’s ideas about war, peace, and patriotism.
It’s dawn on Sunday 25 April 1915, and more than three thousand New Zealand soldiers are preparing to assault the precipitous flanks of the Gallipoli peninsula. Within 48 hours, 241 of them will be dead and 690 wounded.
The electronic media embedded with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force are prevented from broadcasting these facts by Bill Massey’s panic-stricken government. But, to the utter dismay of the Prime Minister, many of the soldiers have smuggled cell-phones ashore in their kit-bags. Almost instantly, vivid images of the carnage are being posted on the Internet.
Heart-wrenching messages sent to loved ones by young men dying of terrible wounds shock and horrify their friends and family. The nation reels in horror from the awful evidence of death and disfigurement.
All over the country, candle-lit vigils are organised to honour the fallen. Thousands gather in city parks and in front of Parliament. Angry speeches are made by the families and friends of those killed. People are demanding to know why so many New Zealanders are dying in someone else’s country.
Increasingly the question is raised: why did the leaders of Britain, France and Russia object to the Austrians’ attempt to shut down the terrorists operating under the protection of the Serbian Government? After all, wasn’t it the heir-apparent to the Austro-Hungarian Empire who was assassinated at Sarajevo last June? If the Prince of Wales had been killed by international terrorists, can anyone imagine the British Government giving up the opportunity to punish those responsible?
The television coverage coming in by satellite – though heavily censored – is sufficiently graphic to make clear the enormity of the blunders committed by the British High Command. Landed on the wrong beach. A lack of cover for the troops. The fatal under-estimation of the quality of the Turkish infantry and their German advisers. The pictures beamed back from Gallipoli make it very clear that our troops are trapped in the middle of a full-scale military disaster.
And every day more soldiers die. Within a fortnight of the landings, there’s hardly a family in New Zealand who doesn’t know someone who has lost a son or brother in Gallipoli’s twisting gullies, or on the bare, exposed ridges of its sun-baked hills.
Awkward questions are being asked. Why are we dying for the Tsar of Russia? Why are we attempting to break open the gates of Constantinople for a man who gunned down thousands of his own subjects in front of the Winter Palace in St Petersburg?
What role did the French Government play in the outbreak of war? The French President and his Foreign Minister were both in St Petersburg in the days immediately following the Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination? What did they promise the Tsar? Before embarking for Paris did they secretly promise Russia France’s total support?
Was that why Nicholas II (a notoriously indecisive man) felt confident enough to order the mobilisation of his armed forces? And didn’t that require Germany to mobilise in defence of Austria?
Faced with a two front war what else could the German High Command be expected to do except attempt to defeat France quickly by attacking through Belgium?
Why didn’t Sir Edward Grey act more decisively to prevent the descent into war? Was it because the Foreign Office was determined to prevent Germany exploiting the oil fields of the Ottoman Empire? Were Anzacs killing Turks to prevent Germans building a railway from Berlin to Baghdad?
In 1915 no one asked such questions. It was a different world. Young soldiers marched off to die for King and Country, and the nation cheered them on. As the number killed at Gallipoli climbed to a staggering 2,721, and recruitment collapsed, Massey readied the country for conscription. And the stoical New Zealand public endured it all.
The idea that their sons were dying in a wrong cause was as inconceivable then, as it is probable now.
This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post of Friday, 27 April 2007.