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Opinion Rage to reverence: How the Gallipoli sacrifice shaped nations

Andrew Stone is a writer with the New Zealand Herald

In the chill before dawn on Saturday (April 25), more than 2,000 New Zealanders will gather on a stark remote peninsula beside the Aegean Sea.

They will be standing shoulder-to-shoulder with 8,000 Australians, united on a finger of Turkey to commemorate a conflict that helped forge the national identities of the trans-Tasman neighbours.

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The place is Gallipoli, which for decades has been seared in the New Zealand psyche as the hallowed ground where a small, distant and loyal nation answered Britain's call to war and painfully found its independence.

This April marks exactly 100 years since the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps – the Anzacs – landed at Gallipoli.

The sombre ceremony will be the biggest ever held at a place which though far away from New Zealand's shores maintains a powerful grip on the national memory.

The young Anzac troops were part of the larger Mediterranean Expeditionary Force (MEF) given the job of seizing the Turkish peninsula and spiking the big coastal guns arrayed along it.

From the outset the military plan – hatched in London by an ambitious Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty – came unstuck.

Churchill's initial gamble required an Anglo-French fleet to shell the peninsula and force its way up the Dardanelles Strait to Constantinople. When three battleships went down to mines with heavy loss of life, Britain's War Council changed tact and resolved to launch a ground invasion.

A fighting force was at hand: some 40,000 men from New Zealand and Australia, cooling their heels in camps near Cairo and itching for a scrap. Some British generals, such as War Secretary Lord Kitchener, had misgivings about the colonial soldiers but felt they would defeat the Ottoman enemy, who they considered a pushover.

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The Anzac troops, all volunteers, became part of the 75,000-strong MEF under General Sir Ian Hamilton. The British commander adopted a plan that deployed French soldiers as a diversion at Kum Kale, British forces at Cape Helles, Gallipoli's southern tip, and the Anzacs 20 kms up the coast at Gaba Tebe. The landing spot, a broad sweep of sand and pebbles called 'Brighton Beach', seemed ideal.

Early on April 25, 1915, the first Anzacs waded ashore at Ari Burnu, a headland 2 kms north of Gaba Tebe. Instead of flat easy land they came up against steep ridges and ravines.

Hopelessly confused, the Anzacs met stiff Turkish resistance from troops dug into higher ground. Led by Mustafa Kemal, the Ottoman forces of Turkish and Arab soldiers tried to hurl the Anzacs back into the sea.

After three days of savage fighting the Anzacs clung to their beachhead but failed to dislodge the Turks. The body count climbed, with New Zealand suffering 2,000 casualties. For the young soldiers the reality of conflict was a shock. Private Eric Lewes, a Taranaki infantryman, wrote of seeing the bodies of two men lying "very still."

"I had often tried to think what war was like," he recorded, but "when I saw all these wounded lying about in agony and the two lying by the seas, did I realise finally what it was."

In New Zealand, censored accounts of the landing led to a surge of volunteers. Grief at casualty lists was eased by accounts that "our boys" had fought with bravery in their first taste of battle.

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The frontline reality was vastly different. The Anzacs held just 6 square kilometres of land. As little as 4 metres separated opposing trenches, making hand-held bombs a deadly weapon. Water was limited and soldiers chewed their way through 'iron rations' – a diet of brick-hard biscuits, bully beef and jam.

Body lice were endemic and swarms of flies breeding on waste and corpses rotting in the Mediterranean sun tormented the men.

As months of trench warfare ground on, the generals searched for a circuit breaker. Hamilton opted to attack the Sari Bair Range beyond the Anzac perimeter.

On Aug. 6, assault columns pushed out and two days later the NZ Infantry Brigade took Chunuk Bair. For the next 48 hours they waged one of the most epic battles in the country's military history. Pounded by artillery, machine guns and sniper fire, the Kiwis held on as the toll mounted. Of the Wellington Battalion's 760 soldiers, just 70 remained standing.

The Turkish response of swift and effective, storming the battered position with 6000 men.

Faced with failure, London reviewed its options, deciding that withdrawal was the only option if the MEF was to cut its losses.

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Unlike the rest of the campaign the evacuation was a success. Self-firing rifles fooled the enemy while the Anzacs slipped away in the darkness to nearby ships.

For New Zealand, the toll from the eight-month campaign was heavy. Out of 12,000 troops, 2,721 died and 4,700 were wounded. Australia lost 8,141 men while some 90,000 Turks died defending their territory.

New Zealand has 27 cemeteries at Gallipoli where her men are honoured. Few have actual graves and are remembered on memorials to the missing.

The blame for their sacrifice no longer consumes this country. What remains though, a century after hundreds of young men fell on foreign soil, is the sense of the resilience they showed in the face of overwhelming odds and the courage they found in battle.

The crowds at Gallipoli will end their vigil on Saturday with the enduring words: Lest we forget.

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