Talking with Chris Roberts author of The Landing at Anzac 1915.
Brigadier Chris Roberts AM, CSC (Retd), was born in Albany, Western Australia, and educated at Mount Lawley Senior High School in Perth. Chris spent 35 years in the Australian Army, including operational service in South Vietnam with 3 SAS Squadron. Later regimental service included Adjutant of an infantry battalion, Officer Commanding an SAS Squadron and Brigade Major 1 Task Force. More senior appointments included Commanding Officer of the SAS Regiment, Commander Special Forces, Director General Joint Exercise Plans for Exercise Kangaroo 92, Director General Corporate Planning – Army and Commander Northern Command. Retiring in 1999, he spent seven years in executive appointments with the Multiplex Group. He later worked as a volunteer in the Military History Section of the Australian War Memorial, where he co-authored Anzacs on the Western Front: The Australian War Memorial Battlefield Guide. Chris has written several articles on Gallipoli and published Chinese Strategy and The Spratly Islands Dispute. He is a graduate of the Royal Military College, Duntroon; the University of Western Australia (BA Honours in History); the Australian Army Staff College; the United States Armed Forces Staff College (where he won the prize for the best case study in military history); and the Australian College of Defence and Strategic Studies.
What made you want to write this book?
After interviewing several veterans of the landing during 1978‐1980 and undertaking research for an Army Staff College paper it became evident that the popular view of the landing was largely a myth, and that the Official History had flaws in its narrative and analysis. It was also confusing and vague about the fighting after the Australians had pushed inland and Charles Bean’s reasons for the failure did not stand up to scrutiny. I was determined to find out what really occurred, but it wasn’t until I had access to Turkish sources and accounts that I could get a better understanding of what took place.
Myths cloud perceptions and judgements, and for soldiers they can lead to bad lessons being drawn from them. They also cloud our national perceptions, not only of ourselves but also of others. I felt the general view of the landing is so distorted that the story of the battle based on a military analysis of events and from both the Anzac and Turkish sides needed to be written. It was important, especially for today’s soldiers, to understand what occurred and why we failed. To me it was important to look at the battle from both sides of the hill, to take a critical look at our own performance and to learn from it. Hopefully, this book will stir other people’s curiosity in the battle, and we as a Nation can take a more mature approach to it, and question some of the more outlandish claims made about our military heritage
Many writers have accepted Charles Bean’s Official History of the Anzac landing without questioning it, and they largely restate his account. Yet after the Australians got ashore and pushed inland, Bean’s account is vague and often confusing and he doesn’t give a clear understanding of what occurred much after 7am. I have questioned certain aspects of his assertions and tried to clarify what occurred, where, when and why. Peter Hart, a British historian who has written on Gallipoli and who read the book, states it is the first truly cogent account of the Anzac landing.
What do you hope that readers take away from reading this book?
A clearer, more accurate and mature understanding of what occurred at the landing, especially for those who will visit Gallipoli. For today’s soldiers, I want to reinforce the view that well trained troops at all levels, especially commanders who are well versed and tested in their profession, together with properly prepared and resourced forces are required to conduct successful operations. Hopefully, it will give Australians and New Zealanders a greater respect for our Turkish opponents, and admire the courage of all who fought in this battle. Finally, I hope it contributes to the growing trend that we cannot blame our failures on others, such as the British, but must accept that we are not infallible, and that we also have contributed to failure in our battles.
How long did it take to prepare?
30 years of intermittent research, writing and discussion, followed by two years of concentrated research and writing.
What do you see as the major themes of the book?
That the popular view of the ANZAC landing is based on myths and misperceptions and that the view th campaign could have succeeded was based on wishful thinking and a serious underestimation of the Turkish army. The main themes brought out are ;
The Gallipoli campaign was misconceived largely through poor strategic decisions and questionable objectives at the political level ‐ neither the Royal Navy nor the British Army wanted to undertake it.
ANZAC was an inadequately trained, inexperienced and poorly prepared force, that was outclassed by a better trained, better led, more experienced but outnumbered Turkish force. Given its objectives, the ANZAC plan was logical, based on good intelligence of the Turkish dispositions and a sound appreciation of the ground.
The staff planning to mount the landing and to get the forces ashore was detailed and thorough. The failure to achieve the initial objective was largely due to poor Australian execution and Anzac inexperience. The misplaced landing did not “tear the plan to shreds” and the Australians were still within easy reach of their initial objective.
The Australians landed against light opposition, incurring very few casualties, and punched a gaping hole in the Turkish defences. However, they failed to exploit their initial success and two early and fateful Australian command decisions turned an offensive operation into a defensive battle. This resulted in the Australians digging in, in sight of and within reach of their initial objective with very few Turks opposing them. There they waited throughout the morning for the Turks to counter attack them after midday. The ground the Australians chose to defend early in the morning was of little tactical value and confined them to a cramped and narrow beach head that offered no advantages to achieving the ANZAC objective. This decision, together with that of diverting the 2nd Brigade from taking the high ground, determined the course of the battle and derailed the ANZAC plan.
The Turks overcame their initial disadvantage through bold action, better situational awareness and aggressive action compared with the Australian inaction, vague orders and committing units piecemeal based on poor situational awareness and indifferent leadership at divisional and brigade level.
The heavy casualties so often attributed to the initial landing actually occurred in the afternoon, when the Turks counter attacked. In bitter fighting at Lone Pine and Baby 700, where courage was not an issue on either side, the Turks slowly drove the stubborn Anzac advanced posts back in on the main defensive line, recapturing the ground of tactical importance, leaving the Anzac line in a precarious position on ground of little tactical importance and teetering on the point of defeat.
By evening 25th April the battle was decided, and the fighting on the 26th and 27th April simply reinforced that the battle had reached stalemate. Neither side could claim victory, but it was a points decision to the Turks by a fair margin.
Despite the initial Anzac success, and had they secured their initial objective, it is highly unlikely they could have achieved the final objective with the size and inexperience of forces they had. The ANZAC operation, and the overall Gallipoli campaign itself, was doomed to failure.
Anzac leadership at divisional level was indifferent, and at brigade and battalion level was patchy ranging from good to poor but this was largely due to inexperience and inadequate training. Turkish leadership at all levels was generally good as result of previous battle experience and better training, and weeding out incompetent officers during the reforms following the Balkan Wars.