Gallipoli landings

25 April 1915

Charles Dixon, The landing at Anzac, 1915 (Archives New Zealand, AAAC 898 NCWA Q388)

Each year on Anzac Day, New Zealanders (and Australians) mark the anniversary of the Gallipoli landings of 25 April 1915. On that day, thousands of young men, far from their homes, landed on the beaches of the Gallipoli Peninsula, in what is now Turkey.

British and French forces made the main landing at Cape Helles on the tip of the peninsula, while General William Birdwood’s Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, commonly known as Anzacs, landed 20 km north. New Zealand troops, who were part of the New Zealand and Australian Division under Major General Alexander Godley, followed the Australians ashore on the first morning of the assault.

In the face of vigorous Ottoman Turkish defence, no significant Allied advance proved possible. The fighting quickly degenerated into trench warfare, with the Anzacs holding a tenuous perimeter. The troops endured heat, flies, the stench of rotting corpses, lack of water, dysentery and other illnesses, and a sense of hopelessness.

An attempt to break the stalemate in August failed, though not without a stirring New Zealand effort in briefly capturing part of the high ground at Chunuk Bair. In this assault, men of the Māori Contingent, recently arrived from garrison duty in Malta, took part in the first attack by Māori soldiers outside New Zealand. With the failure of the August offensive, the stalemate resumed.

Ultimately, the Allies cut their losses, evacuating all troops from Gallipoli by early January 1916. By the time the campaign ended, more than 130,000 men had died; at least 87,000 Ottoman soldiers and 44,000 Allied soldiers, including more than 8700 Australians. Among the dead were 2779 New Zealanders, about a sixth of all those who had landed on the peninsula.

In the wider story of the First World War, the Gallipoli campaign made no large mark. The number of dead, although horrific, pales in comparison with the death toll in France and Belgium during the war. Yet the campaign remains significant in New Zealand, Australia and Turkey, where it is commonly viewed as a formative moment in each country’s national history.