It is the luckiest thing and the most romantic. Think of fighting in the Chersonese (hope you got the allusion from the Isles of Greece about Miltiades), or alternatively, if it’s the Asiatic side they want us on, on the plains of Troy itself! I am going to take my Herodotus as a guide-book.’ [FEBRUARY 24, 1915.]
Ltn Commander Patrick Shaw-Smith on embarking to Gallipoli Campaign,
The Gallipoli Campaign began as a naval attempt to seize the Straits : To lend a crushing blow against the Ottoman Empire, allied to Germany and Austria-Hungary, to connect the Black Sea with the Mediterranean. Britain and France could supply their ally Imperial Russia without the hazardous voyages via the north. Russia would gain it’s long term foreign policy goal of access to the Mediterranean.
The naval campaign failed in its objectives. Thus on 25th April 1915 began a massive amphibian landing with British, French, and large numbers of Empire troops taking part. The historians still argue a century later whether the invasion ever stood a chance of success, whether Constantinople could have been seized. As well as forcing the Straits, an attack could have been launched against the Central Powers via the Balkans to eventually break the deadlock on the Western Front. A whole parade of ‘what ifs’ can be called. The casualty list was enormous . In January 1916 the Allies abandoned the invasion, and a successful embarkation without hardly any loss of life took place.
Gallipoli was associated with poetic heroism, The region of Troy where Homer’s epic Illiad unfolded. Where Byron wrote part of ‘ Childe Harold’ in 1810 and swam the Hellespont. Byron’s ‘Don Juan’ also reference the region. Gallipoli also became the setting for Great War poetry set on the coast line as well as aboard troopships.
Laurence Binyon – most known ‘For the Fallen’, arguably the most quoted of all World War 1 poems , also wrote about Gallipoli. Binyon served with the French Red Cross on the Western Front from 1915.
“Isles of the Aegean, Troy, and waters of Hellespont!
You we have known from of old,
Since boyhood stammering glorious Greek was entranced
In the tale that Homer told.
There scornful Achilles towered and flamed through the battle,
Defying the gods; and there
Hector armed, and Andromache proudly held up his boy to him,
Knowing not yet despair……”
Published in ‘The Cause’ from (1917)
Amongst those who sailed were Rupert Brooke of the Royal Naval Reserve Hood Division. Brooke and his fellow officers read ‘The Odyssey’ to each other in the original Greek. He had already written in a letter to the Prime Minister’s daughter Violet Asquith –
I suddenly realise that the ambition of my life has been- since I was two- to go on a military expedition against Constantinople.
Brooke died on 23rd April 1915 from septicaemia most likely from an infected insect bite and buried on the island of Skyros. His last known poem, usually titled ‘Fragments’ has been discussed on the ‘Troopship’ page.http://greatwaratseapoetry.weebly.com/troopship.html
Yet besides the heroic element, Great War at Sea Poetry from Gallipoli displays work inspired by ‘Disenchantment’ : The view that Britain should never take part in the Great War or a pyrrhic victory where the cost of defeating the Central Powers was too much of a price to pay.
Just sailing there seemed to be inspiring. Ltn Nowell Oxland from the Border Regiment 6th btn, who was killed in action at Gallipoli, 9th August 1915 aged 24 combined an evocation of the natural beauty of Cumbria with a sense of heroic quest.
” ……..Though the high Gods smith and slay us,
Though we come not whence we go,
As the host of Menelaus
Came there many years ago;
Yet the self-same wind shall bear us
From the same departing place
Out across the Gulf of Saros
And the peaks of Samothrace;
We shall pass in summer weather,
We shall come at eventide,
When the fells stand up together
And all quiet things abide;
Mixed with cloud and wind and river,
Sun-distilled in dew and rain,
One with Cumberland for ever
We shall go not forth again……”
Such work is harder to understand now that the ‘Disenchantment’ view of the Great War has such influence. Furthermore, we know that Gallipoli campaign failed with horrendous casualties. Yet the combination of majestic natural world connecting to a pagan heroic order is a powerful one, strong enough to have motivated young men to revel in being part of the campaign.
A similar Pagan epic view of embarking can be found in John Hargrave’s ‘Lemnos Harbour’ actually written on Mudros Beach, 7th October 1915. Hargrave was a pacifist and served in the Royal Medical Corps, and later founded the Kibbo Kift movement. Outside of Gallipoli related poetry, it’s harder to find reference to the coastline- harbours, beaches, coves, as being the setting for Great War poetry.
” Within the outer anchorage
The ancient Argonauts lay to;
Little they dreamt-that dauntless crew-
That here today in the sheltered bah
Where the seas are still and blue,
Great Battle -ships should froth and hum,
And almighty transport vessels come
Serenely floating through…….”
Still much underrated Irish poet Francis Ledwidge ,arriving at Gallipoli with the Fifth Royal Iniskilling Fusiliers on 7th August 1915, He survived the campaign , and was killed in action at Third Ypres on 31st July 1917. His work managed to combine both the euphoric and the challenging:
In the Mediterranean going to War
Lovely wings of gold and green
Flit about the sounds I hear,
On my window when I lean To the shadows cool and clear.
* * Roaming, I am listening still,
Bending, listening overlong,
In my soul a steadier will,
In my heart a newer song.
The Easter Rising of 1916 was credited as a watershed to an Irish patriot such as Ledwidge, but his service at Gallipoli must also count as having changed the course of his writing.
‘The Irish in Gallipoli’
Where Aegean cliffs with bristling menace front
The Threatening splendour of that isley sea
Lighted by Troy’s last shadow, where the first
Hero kept watch and the last Mystery
Shook with dark thunder, hark the battle brunt!
A nation speaks, old Silences are burst.
Neither for lust of glory nor new throne
This thunder and this lightning of our wrath
Waken these frantic echoes, not for these
Our cross with England’s mingle, to be blown
On Mammon’s threshold; we but war when war
Serves Liberty and Justice, Love and Peace.
Who said that such an emprise could be vain?
Were they not one with Christ Who strove and died?
Let Ireland weep but not for sorrow. Weep
That by her sons a land is sanctified
For Christ Arisen, and angels once again
Come back like exile birds to guard their sleep….”
A slightly more menacing view, conveying a disturbing sense that the repercussions of Gallipoli were endless. Colm Yore from the Francis Ledwidge Museum kindly advises ” This poem was written in France on the 24th February 1917. It first appeared in ‘The Tenth (Irish) Division in Gallipoli’ by Bryan Cooper in the flyleaf page of the book published by Herbert Jenkins in 1918. ” There is a strange hint that Britain’s empire, just like that of Troy-claiming to rule the Agean Sea, might just fall.
Ltn Commander Patrick Shaw-Stewart (RND-Hood Battalion) sailed with Rupert Brooke on the Grantully Castle : Both were friends and became seriously ill together en route to Gallipoli. Shaw-Stewart survived, and commanded the funeral party at Brooke’s funeral on Skyros, leading the firing of shots above the grave. He was killed in action on the Western Front on 30th December 1917.
Achilles in the Trench
” I saw a man this morning
Who did not wish to die
I ask, and cannot answer
If otherwise wish I
Fair broke the day this morning
Against the Dardanelles;
The breeze blew soft, the morn’s cheeks
Were cold as cold sea-shells.
But other shells are waiting
Across the Aegean sea
Shrapnel and his explosives
Shells and hells for me
O hell of ships and cities,
Hell of men like me,
Fatal second Helen,
Why must I follow thee ……?”
The word play of ‘shells’ and ‘shells and hells’ is irritating. But the significance of this poem can not be underestimated. A strange precursor of ‘Disenchantment’ war poetry ? Found handwritten in his copy of Housmans’s ‘A Shropshire Lad’ when he was killed. It’s not clear whether he even intended this poem to be published and it’s his only known poem. Not known when it was written but has dated this poem to service at Gallipoli. The relocation of the heroic Achilles to a world of shells and shrapnel is intriguing. Wondering how the heroic ideal is going to be fulfilled in an era of modern weapons.
A strange connection between Gallipoli and sea poetry must be the fact that John Masefield , one time poet laureate and author of ‘Sea Fever’ was to embark on a lecture tour of the USA to justify the Gallipoli invasion. His observations were published in 1916, as ‘Gallipoli’ , and each chapter of the book opened with a quote from the ‘Song of Roland’ commemorating the Battle of Roncevaux in 778 .
Further Reading. An invaluable booklet ‘British & Irish Poets of the Gallipoli Campaign, 1915 Heirs of Achilles’ by David Childs & Vivien Whelpton , Cecil Woolf Press, is highly recommended. Interesting to note that future Prime Minister Clement Atlee served at Gallipoli and wrote a poem titled ‘Lemnos 1915’ I have drawn on this work for Ledwidge’s ‘Irish in Gallipoli’ and Hargrave’s ‘Lemnos Harbour’ from this booklet .
Gallipoli Association website is at http://www.gallipoli-association.org/
So far the Great War at Sea Poetry Project has centred on British writers. There is of course a range of poetry written by those who served from other lands, a prime example being Australian poet Sydney Walter Powell’s ‘Gallipoli’..
Galllipoli 1916 poem by Maud Geraldine Meugens 1875- 1962 , reproduced by kind permission of Callum James , #17 from his ‘Things That Fall Out Of Books’ series. http://callumjames.blogspot.co.uk/2014/01/things-that-fall-from-books-17-poignant.html
Thanks to Phil Dawes for reference to Meugens’ poem. For Vivien Whelpton for advice, And to Sally Brown for help with Laurence Binyon .Also to Francis Ledwidge Museum.