Australians, Greeks and Gallipoli

Gallipoli was the Allies' famous failure of the First World War. Winston Churchill favoured the naval and military campaigns to force open the Dardanelles and shore up Russia and the eastern front. From Constantinople a powerful drive towards Germany might have been made through the Balkans.

Allied military leaders however, were averse to anything that weakened the western front and so the Mediterranean Expeditonary Force arrived at Gallipoli in April 1915 without enough planning, troops or resources to ensure the defeat of Turkish forces led by the German general Liman von Sanders. Nor had much effort been made to hide the Allies' intention to land on the Gallipoli Peninsula, giving the enemy plenty of opportunity to prepare their defences.

Troops from Britain, Ireland, India, Australia, New Zealand, France, Algeria and Senegal were among the 80,000 men who landed at Gallipoli. The Australian and New Zealand forces established their own beachhead at Anzac Cove. In the following nine months the Allies failed to break through the Turkish lines and eventually withdrew after suffering 45,000 dead and several times that number of casualties. The Australian dead numbered nearly 9,000. Disease in the trenches was a major factor in the campaign with tens of thousands of men falling ill from enteric fever, dysentery and diarrhoea.

Many Australians who served at Gallipoli returned with a poor opinion of the Greeks who had failed to commit troops to the line. The ordinary soldier expected the Greeks to join them in a fight against their 'traditional enemy', the Turks. But Greece was trying to steer a neutral course at the time, a position favoured by Constantine, the Greek king, although not by his Prime Minister, Eleftherios Venizelos, who strongly favoured Britain. Greece had only recently been at war: in 1912 against Turkey and in 1913 against Bulgaria. Constantine was averse to risking Greece's recent gains in another war.

In June 1917, after the Anzacs had left the scene, Constantine was forced from his throne and Greece aligned herself with the Allies. The Greek Army joined with French, British and Serbian forces in the 650,000 man Armee d'Orient at Salonica. In a major attack launched in September 1918 they broke through the enemy lines and advanced 130 kilometres in a fortnight. They took over 90,000 prisoners, wringing armistices out of Bulgaria, Turkey and Austria-Hungary and realising some of the hopes of the Gallipoli campaign.

But many Australians thought only of the searing experience at Gallipoli and did not know or care about these later events on Aegean shores. The reputation of the Greeks in Australia continued at a low ebb.

As 'Katsehamos and the Great Idea' puts it, 'Seen through the prism of Anzac, the Greeks did not deserve the fruits of the peace'.

 

Anzac Day in Bingara between the wars

Anzac Day in Bingara between the wars. Photo © Peter Prineas.

Learn more about these

books by Peter Prineas

Katsehamos and the Great Idea

 

Britain's Greek Islands

 

Wild Places