The above lines, written by Frederick P. Gibbon, who served in the 42nd East Lancashire Division, sum up the emotion of the Gallipoli campaign for many ordinary men who enlisted. They are a generation long lost to us, the last elderly survivors dying at the start of the 21st century, but many of the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those who fought in the ANZAC corps gathered on a beach in western Turkey last week to remember the military campaign that gave them a sense of nationhood.
It was a time of nation building for the Turks, too. The Turkish commemoration of the fallen at Gallipoli takes place in March. For them, of course, Gelibolu was an important strategic location to be defended to the last man. For the Turks, it is not a name of Failure, but one of the greatest Glories, particularly for a young commander named Mustafa Kemal. But still, for the Turks too, it was a name of suffering almost too heavy to be borne.
Perhaps it was this shared sense of suffering that led to Mustafa Kemal’s tremendous words, which are inscribed on the beach where the Anzac memorial takes place at dawn in April each year: “Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives... You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side now here in this country of ours... You, the mothers, who sent their sons from faraway countries wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land, they have become our sons as well.”
Most books on the Gallipoli campaign focus on military strategy and the mistakes that were made, and name only the leading politicians and the commanding officers. A refreshingly different view of the events of 1915-16 is provided in “A Chaplain at Gallipoli: The Great War Diaries of Kenneth Best.” This focuses instead on those treading the “hard road that led to knowledge”: the ordinary men whom Atatürk described as “heroes who shed their blood and lost their lives.”
Published in association with Britain’s Imperial War Museum, Gavin Roynon had access to a vast archive of photographs, letters and information about Gallipoli, but he gives center spotlight in this moving and heartfelt account to the letters and diary of Kenneth Best, chaplain of the same division the soldier who wrote the lines at the beginning of this article served in.
Roynon has a personal interest: His great-uncle was killed nine days after landing at Suvla Bay, during the bitter fighting that took place at Kireçtepe Sırtı. Pausing briefly only to give us a general overview of the rationale for Gallipoli and a quick history of what went wrong and why, the author moves swiftly to give us the viewpoint of the ordinary soldier, providing an insight into the horrific realities of trench warfare.
Most of the descriptions we read are from the pen of Kenneth Best. Aged only 26, he was a brilliant Cambridge mathematics graduate who had gone into the priesthood. He enlisted as a “padre” during the war: The role of chaplain to the troops meant that he was privy to their darkest fears and deepest hopes. His task was to provide spiritual comfort and support to the living, as well as to perform the final religious act for the dead by burying them.
Forget the image of a mild-mannered clergyman sitting in his tent back at camp (an image given to us by the US hit military comedy M*A*S*H). Best has little time for officers and support staff who sit at base in comfort. His place is right by the men. Constantly aware that there are more men who need his help and support, Best is indefatigable. He goes up and down the lines visiting the different regiments and battalions. “I want to get round to all the other batteries this week by launch, train or horse,” he reports in his diary.
He shares in the lice, the sleepless nights, the shelling, the grief, the fear and the fever. He sees it as his duty to rescue the wounded from no man’s land and bury the dead wherever possible, not counting the risk he was running even when bullets and shells came far too close.
Best’s story is, like those of the men he served, one of continual stress, danger and emotional challenge. He finds himself ministering to thousands upon thousands of men, each suffering in different degrees from post-traumatic stress disorder decades before this condition even had a name. It is this reality of being faced day by day with the heroism and suffering of the men on the frontlines that gives Best’s writing a commitment, a compassion and a candor.
This is an evaluation of the Gallipoli campaign at the micro level. Weep like Best as he writes “our men are having roll-call; it is unspeakably sad to hear no answer [so many times] as the roll was called”; feel pride like Best as he writes “the gallant little band here struggle on unsupported and unrelieved, on firing line or fatigue duty day and night”; seethe with anger like Best as he writes “the officers are the scum of the earth, court-martialing a soldier for arguing with mad orders when they are at a safe distance well behind the firing line.”
Best gets more critical of the officers as time goes on. He reports that half of those killed die of exposure and exhaustion as there are not enough stretcher-bearers. Officers and medical corps he feels hide well away from danger; he himself insists on being right with the troops. “I spend the day from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. without food, burying the dead at the side of the trench or even in any dip where bullets were not very thick.”
If you are looking for the “spirit of Gallipoli,” don’t seek some vain glory. Just compare the way Best writes in his candid and horribly realistic diary with a letter he writes to his family on the same day. Best writes home in a bright and cheerful tone, shielding his family from the gruesome experiences he faces.
While railing against the leaders of his own men, this brave, committed and compassionate young minister has only positive and gracious words to say about the enemy. He has the deepest respect for the Turkish soldiers, calling them “the finest in the world.” In general, he says they fought “honorably and gentlemanly.” Although he would often have to dodge the results of this skill, he also had nothing but admiration for their good marksmanship.
This extends too to his respect for Islam, remarking at one point on an Indian soldier who “spent his half-day off in Muslim devotions: a wonderful example to us Christians.” As the soldiers face danger and death every day, Best wryly comments, “No one scoffs at religion now.” Performing Holy Communion amid shellfire in an open field using two boxes as an altar, he tells the men that the test of real religion is power: the power to overcome the sorrows of life.
This generation may be long since dead and gone, but as the dawn service at Anzac Beach this week reminds us, the testimony of both Turks and foreigners at Gallipoli speaks to this power even today.
“A Chaplain at Gallipoli: The Great War Diaries of Kenneth Best,” edited by Gavin Roynon, published by Simon & Schuster (2011), 14.99 pounds in hardcover ISBN: 978-085720225-3