Thousands of Irish died at Gallipoli 100 years ago. We can’t hide that

We have managed to overlook this huge centenary of Irish sacrifice on the world stage, writes Victoria White

Thousands of Irish died at Gallipoli 100 years ago. We can’t hide that

WHEN young James Morgan’s mother saw a vision of him in a doorway, she knew he was dead. There had been no official notification of his death. There was no body over which to grieve. No-one knew where the shattered remains of the 27-year-old lay and, to this day, no-one does. All we can say is that his was one of the 2,700 Irish lives lost in Gallipoli, 100 years ago, in the first three weeks of August, 1915.

It wasn’t only James Morgan’s body which remained hidden. His history, his sacrifice, and his identity lay hidden within his family for a generation, because of the supposed shame, and possible danger, of having a relation who had served in the British armed forces. Possibly the saddest part of this sad story is that when James Morgan’s war medal was sent to his family, they sent it back.

That there’s nothing left by which to remember this young man saddened his nephew, Richard Morgan, in the wonderful archive of research he left his son with the simple inscription, “Towards Gallipoli — For Gareth.” Richard’s need to get to the truth behind the deafening silence about his uncle sent him on a journey of discovery and he goes at his subject with the enthusiasm of a novelist, sketching James Morgan’s life from his birth, in Keady, Co. Armagh in 1888, to his death, on August 9, 1915.

James was working in Glasgow, a city then dominated by news of war, when he enlisted, and Richard says “he knew his own mind when he signed up.” But he didn’t know what was ahead of him. The British army’s assaults on the Turkish peninsula of Gallipoli, in 1915, were already clearly “a dismal and bloody failure”, before James Morgan even set sail, as the historian Philip Orr puts it in his book, Field of Bones: an Irish Division at Gallipoli, though the British and Irish public were kept in the dark as to the extent of the disaster.

The Allies’ ostensible aims in attacking Gallipoli were to force Turkey out of the war, to break the deadlock on the Western Front and to open a supply route to Russia through the Dardenelles and the Black Sea. The Anzacs and the 29th Division landed at Cape Helles and Gaba Tepe on April 25 and 26. On August 6, further landings were made at Suvla Bay, just to the north, and the campaign climaxed in the following days, when simultaneous assaults were made on all three fronts.

There are libraries of books explaining why the assaults failed. The Allies planned poorly, both on and off the field. “It is not surprising”, writes Orr, “that, after the war, many Irish officers claimed that they set sail for the battlefield not knowing where in the world they were going or what to do with the men when they got there.” To an amateur, it seems that the main reason for the Allied failure was ignorance of Turkey and the Turkish people. There was a belief that the Turks would ‘throw in the towel’ when they saw the Allies coming to invade their land — a belief bolstered by what Orr calls “the common British perception of the Ottoman empire as a crumbling, cruel and decadent institution.” In fact the Turks were highly organised, proud, and patriotic, and under the command of the masterful Mustafa Kemal, who went on, as Ataturk, to unify and modernise Turkey. The excellent Turkish guide who led me around the Gallipoli battlefields, a couple of years ago, kept coming back to the simple fact that the Turks had an advantage, in that they were fighting for their own country.

I was on a predominantly Anzac tour. That’s what you get when you arrive in Istanbul on spec, because it has suited the Antipodean national narratives to enshrine the Gallipoli story, as it has not suited Ireland, nor even Britain. I walked through the endless lines of graves, with conservative Ozzies who shook their heads and said, “It’s just like Iraq, isn’t it? When will we start understanding Muslim countries? When will we stop under-estimating them?” Orr writes of the schoolboy maps of Ancient Greece, which were the ideological backdrop to the British offensive. It is shameful that these maps separating ‘them’ from ‘us and still form the backdrop to so many political decisions from the US to the EU.

That shouldn’t blind us to the fact that in Gallipoli many Irish soldiers went out to fight not only for Christendom, but for Ireland, too. Observers remember hearing the strains of Thomas Davis’s ‘A National Once Again’ rising from the 10th Division in Gallipoli. We chose to make the Gallipoli dead “the forgotten heroes of a forgotten war”, managing to virtually overlook this huge centenary of Irish sacrifice on the world stage, even while we re-enact every last moment of jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa’s funeral.

Orr writes of the power it could have had as a founding myth of a different Ireland, in which Home Rule, not independence, was won. But Gallipoli became the founding myth of modern Turkey, although Ataturk was fighting for the Ottoman Empire, which ultimately lost. We didn’t need to forget the Gallipoli dead; their sacrifice could have marked a turning point for a post-imperial, inclusive, outward-looking Ireland. The only living trace of James Morgan is his name etched in the Allied memorial stone at Cape Helles. When they found it, his little great-grand-niece, Yasmin Morgan, traced its shape with her small finger — a gesture whose potency was surely not lost on her grand-dad, Richard Morgan, because Yasmin’s great grand-father fought for Turkey in Gallipoli in 1915.

What started as a holiday romance between Cavan-man, Gareth Morgan, and Turkish-English-Canadian, Jane Uygur, on the Greek island of Ios, led to the discovery that while Gareth’s grand-uncle, James, fought and lost his life at Gallipoli, Jane’s grandfather, Enis Sukru Uygur, fought for the Ottomans and lived to tell the tale. He later became a personal guard for Ataturk and brought Jane’s father up to be “unbelievably nationalistic”: “They were Ataturk’s children”, as she says. The twists and turns of modern Turkish history did, however, mean he ended up having to leave the country.

The wounds of Gallipoli are not fully healed in either of our countries, whether we hide them or exploit them. But two young Dubliners, Yasmin and Willow Morgan, who wound up at my daughter’s Gaelscoil, in Ranelagh, are proud of both their Irish and their Turkish heritage. They are a better memorial than a stone could ever be to those who won and those who lost. Love did conquer, in the end.

We have managed to overlook this huge centenary of Irish sacrifice on the world stage

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