All things considered, today's Commonwealth service marking the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings was moving and dignified. It was Winston Churchill's idea to open up a new front in the Great War as "an alternative to chewing barbed wire in Flanders". It proved to be one of the worst disasters in 20th century imperial history: By the end, the British and Ottoman empires had lost roughly the same number of men - about 200,000 apiece. On the invading side, the dead numbered 34,072 from the British Isles, 8,709 from Australia, 2,721 from New Zealand, 1,358 from India, and 49 from the Royal Newfoundland Regiment (the only North American participants) - plus 9,798 of Britain's French allies. Those numbers do not include death from illness. In the botched landings, the sea ran red. In the carnage of the metropolitan power's miscalculations, a post-colonial Australia and New Zealand were born.
There were certain ironies at today's observances. Kemal Atatürk first made his name as a Turkish commander at Gallipoli. Playing host today was President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the man who is systematically dismantling the modern secular state Kemal founded and replacing it with something harder and older, explicitly Islamic and slyly neo-Ottoman. The chumminess between him and the Prince of Wales was one of the queasier aspects of the day.
His Royal Highness read from John Masefield's account of Gallipoli, published in 1916. His son, Prince Harry, chose an excerpt from A P Herbert's poem "The Bathe". I think of Herbert as a light versifier and musical comedy man (he wrote the lyrics for Vivian Ellis' big West End hit, Bless The Bride). But a century ago he was part of the Royal Naval Division's Hawke Batallion, en route to Cape Helles. This is what he wrote:
To-morrow we must stagger up the hill
To man a trench and live among the lice.
But yonder, where the Indians have their goats,
There is a rock stands sheer above the blue,
Where one may sit and count the bustling boats
And breathe the cool air through;
May find it still is good to be alive,
May look across and see the Trojan shore
Twinkling and warm, may strip, and stretch, and dive.
And for a space forget about the war.
Then will we sit and talk of happy things,
Home and 'the high' and some far fighting friend,
And gather strength for what the morrow brings,
For that may be the end.
It may be we shall never swim again,
Never be clean and comely to the sight,
May rot untombed and stink with all the slain.
Come, then, and swim. Come and be clean to-night.
An awful lot of men rotted untombed at Gallipoli. The unburied dead attracted swarms of flies, and the flies then flew on in search of new blood, and spread dysentery and disease throughout the trenches. Acknowledging the failure of the campaign, London withdrew the ANZAC forces in December 1915 and the last imperial troops in January.
A century on, they played the Last Post, and after a minute's silence there were two shots from the Commonwealth warships offshore, led by HMAS Anzac, HMS Bulwark and HMNZS Te Kaha. Roger Boissier, whose father was a naval lieutenant at Gallipoli, read from Rupert Brooke's "The Dead":
Dawn was theirs,
And sunset, and the colours of the earth.
These had seen movement, and heard music; known
Slumber and waking; loved; gone proudly friended;
Felt the quick stir of wonder; sat alone;
Touched flowers and furs and cheeks. All this is ended.
A lot was ended by the Great War - and almost all that afflicts us today, from the malign statelets of the post-Ottoman Middle East to the west's loss of civilizational confidence, has its roots in "the war to end all wars". And, as those photographs of President Erdoğan and the Prince of Wales remind us, the final settlement is not yet known.