The Irish at Gallipoli 100 years on

In this centenary year of the Gallipoli campaign the main focus of commemoration in Australia and New Zealand has been the anniversary of the landing on 25 April. For the Irish, however, August rather than April is the most significant month. Although three Irish battalions took part in the landing at Cape Helles as part of the 29th Division, it was in August that the Irish arrived in strength with the 10th (Irish) Division taking part in the major offensive that was intended to break the stalemate which had set in after the original landings three and half months before.

The August offensive also has significance for Australians and New Zealanders as it saw their soldiers engaged in battles which have become iconic in each country’s remembrance of the campaign. For the Australians it is Lone Pine; for the New Zealanders it is Chunuk Bair.

But in each case Irish soldiers of the 29th Brigade of the 10th (Irish) Division fought in support of their Antipodean allies. At Lone Pine the 5th Connaught Ranges assisted the 1st Australian Division by clearing the dead and wounded from the labyrinth of Turkish trenches while the fighting raged around them. At Chunuk Bair the 6th Royal Irish Rifles, the 6th Leinster Regiment and the 5th Connaught Rangers fought alongside the New Zealand Brigade. A few weeks later the soldiers of all three nations fought literally shoulder to shoulder in the struggle to take Hill 60.

In the meantime, the remaining brigades of the 10th (Irish) Division, the 30th and 31st, landed at Suvla Bay on the morning of 7 August and over the following weeks suffered huge casualties trying to extend the Suvla beachhead by capturing the high ground of Kirsch Tepe Sirt, which dominated the allied position.

In the end the Turks held firm against the August offensive, confining the British forces to their narrow footholds around Anzac Cove and Suvla Bay. And in the overall campaign they prevailed leading to the evacuations in December and January.

Gallipoli was a severe defeat for the military forces of the British Empire, and was to have a profound effect on its emerging nations. Anzacs and Irishmen both came away from the peninsula convinced they had been mucked about and butchered by the incompetence of the British generals. But, unlike the Australians and New Zealanders, for whom Gallipoli had a salutary effect on the nation-building process without rupturing relations with the British Empire, the Irish were not so forgiving.

Separatist nationalists, who were opposed to the war, exploited the Dardanelles fiasco to whip up anti-British sentiment, while moderate nationalists began to lose faith in the idea that supporting Britain in the war would assure home rule. For some it was Gallipoli rather than the Easter Rising of 1916 that marked the moment their feelings towards the British began to turn.

So, the Gallipoli campaign is an important event for all three nations, yet the cost was high in lives lost – 8700 Australians, 2700 New Zealanders and more than 3000 Irishmen – and in lives shattered. For that reason alone Gallipoli deserves to be remembered, not only in Australia and New Zealand but in Ireland as well.

Further information: The July/August issue of History Ireland contains an article I wrote outlining the part which the Irish played in the August offensive, while University College Dublin’s History Hub hosts a six-part podcast I recorded called “The Irish at Gallipoli”. In addition, in the Autumn issue of Reveille I rebut an allegation by a New Zealand historian that the 6th Leinster Regiment fled during the battle for Chunuk Bair. Far from fleeing, the evidence indicates that the Leinsters helped save the day when the Turks counter-attacked and threatened to drive the British Empire troops off Rhododendron Ridge, the spur running from Chunuk Bair down to the sea.

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