‘Alan Moorehead’s Gallipoli’, Honest History, 9 June 2015
Recalling an Anzac classic, first published in 1956.
There have been at least some 70 books by individual authors published under the title Gallipoli in the century since. From the British Poet Laureate John Masefield in 1916 to Australia’s Les Carlyon in 2001 and on to Peter FitzSimons’ vast populist saga of 2014, these authors collectively have left no stone, landmark, battle, strategy, leader, fighters, gains, defeats or lived experience unturned. Yet, for me, none of their books can surpass the masterly, elegiac, and widely interpretative Gallipoli published by Australian expatriate, Alan Moorehead, in London in 1956 and reissued in many editions and several translations until today. Why?
A former journalist for the Melbourne Herald, Moorehead left Australia in 1936 for wider scenes. He was acclaimed the Daily Express’s ‘prince of war correspondents’ for his coverage of the British campaign in North Africa and his reporting of the war in Europe, topics he turned into his two books, African Trilogy and Eclipse. Settled in Tuscany post-war, he wrote 20 more books including his brilliant The White Nile and The Blue Nile and Cooper’s Creek. None, however, surpassed Gallipoli.
Yet, as an Australian schoolboy exposed to the medals in the school’s corridors and the annual talks in the memorial hall, Moorehead had come to hate the story of Anzac. As a member of the next generation, ‘we thought all these old men boring’, he wrote and, when he left Australia, he swore that he ‘would never think again or expose myself to the idea of Anzac and Gallipoli’.
But, after the second war, shown a diary of the Dardanelles campaign by an English friend, he was ‘absolutely captivated’ and, gathering the private papers of British and Australian soldiers, studying the historical sources, and rounding up military archives and maps specially prepared for him by the Turks, he toured the Gallipoli Peninsula, became aware that ‘there could be no other story like it’ and retired to the Greek Island of Spetses, near the Dardanelles, to write.
Alan Moorehead’s long first-hand experience of battle, his feeling for the soldiery, his overarching perception of policy and planning and of the contributing role of the international participants – the British, Irish, French, the Imperial Indian, African, and Anzac troops – together with his calm evocative style and analytical skills, placed him in the forefront of other writers. For the Australians, he was closely there.
A strange light plays over the Gallipoli landing on 25 April 1915 [Moorehead writes]. Hardly anyone behaves on this day as you might have expected him to do. There was a certain clarity about the actions of Mustafa Kemal on the Turkish side, but for the others the great crises of the day appear to have gone cascading by as though they were some natural phenomenon, having a monstrous life of its own. For the soldiers in the front line the issues were, of course, brutally simple. Confronted by some quite impossible objective, their lives suddenly appear to them to be of no consequence at all; they get up and charge and die.
As with Moorehead’s World War II despatches, there is an urgency and compelling presence in his descriptions of the hard-fought battles and of ‘the ant heap life’ of the soldiers, breathing, eating, sleeping, climbing, fighting, dying and burying their dead. ‘They were not fatalists’, he contends. ‘They believed that a mistake had been made in the landing at Gaba Tepe and that they might easily have to pay for it with their lives.’
But there was ‘an extraordinary cheerfulness and exaltation’ among the men at the frontline. Living with the prospect of death, all the normal anxieties and jealousies of life deserted them, ‘the past receded, the future barely existed, and they lived as never before upon the moment, released from the normal weight of human ambitions and regrets’. And with his painterly eye, Moorehead observes, always there were ‘the recurring moments of release and wonder at the slanting luminous light in the early mornings and the evenings, in the marvellous colour of the sea’.
With Moorehead’s wide analysis, his sense of the campaign’s hesitant leaders, its lack of coherent planning and its fierce losses on both sides, he cast the Gallipoli venture in a strikingly positive light. He saw it not as a blunder or a reckless gamble but as ‘the most imaginative conception of the war’ with potentialities almost beyond reckoning. Militarily, its influence, he believed, was enormous. ‘It was’, he wrote, ‘the greatest amphibious operation which mankind had known up till then’ and it took place in circumstances where ‘everything was experimental’. This included the use of submarines and aircraft, the trial of modern naval guns against artillery on the shore, the manoeuvres of landing armies in small boats on a hostile coast, the use of radio, the aerial bomb, the land mines and much more.
Winston Churchill presenting Moorehead with the Duff Cooper Prize, 1956 (New York Social Diary)
Importantly, in itself, Moorehead saw this highly complex combined operation by land, sea and sky (unlike the battles in France) as providing a practical and far- reaching basis and understanding for the Allied victory of World War II. ‘The old men were right’, he concludes. ‘It was the military event of the century.’
Moorehead’s Gallipoli riveted world attention and won a number of British literary prizes, including the inaugural Duff Cooper Memorial Prize, for which the winner could nominate the award’s presenter. Moorehead chose Winston Churchill, whose original planning of the Dardanelles campaign he had come to respect. In turn, Churchill wished the author a much greater success with the book than he himself had enjoyed with the campaign.