Official historians behaving badly

A belated Anzac Day post.

Here's C. E. W. Bean, the official historian of Australia's involvement in the First World War, on why the infamous Suvla landings on 6 August 1915 didn't cut the Gallipoli peninsula and open the road to Constantinople:

The reasons for the failure, which affected the fate of the Australian and New Zealand forces more profoundly than any other episode in the campaign, may be laid bare by future historians, probing unflinchingly for the causes. Many of the Anzac troops, on whom it left an enduring impression, attributed it partly to the senility of the leadership, partly to the inexperience of the troops, but largely to causes which lie deeper in the mentality of the British people. The same respect for the established order which caused Kitchener to entrust the enterprise to unsuitable commanders simply because they were senior, appeared to render each soldier inactive unless his officer directed, and each officer dumb unless his senior spoke. The men had doubtless the high qualities of their race, among them orderliness, decency, and modesty; they could follow a good leader anywhere as bravely as any troops in the Peninsula. But an enterprise such as that of Suvla demanded more than the ability to follow; it required that each man, or at least a high proportion of the force, should be able to lead; and the necessary quality of decision, which even a few years' emancipation from the social restrictions of the Old World appeared to have bred in the emigrant, was -- to colonial eyes -- lacking in the Suvla troops. Moreover a large proportion of the new force had come straight from the highly organised life in or around overcrowded cities, and as a result they lacked the resourcefulness required for any activity in open country. They lacked also the hardness to set a high standard of achievement for themselves, while that demanded of them by the regimental and brigade staffs was -- to put it mildly -- inadequate for one of the decisive battles of the war. Further, though many reports had been heard concerning the excellent physique of the New Army, the standard in that respect was very uneven. There were in reality two well-defined types, the officers as a class being tall and well developed, but a majority of the men cramped in stature, presumably as the result of life in overcrowded industrial centres under conditions not yet operative to any marked extent in the great cities in Australia.

Hmm, so it's the fault of the British soldier for being 'cramped in nature' and lacking in 'resourcefulness' and 'hardness', unlike the strapping young colonials, of course. At least Bean allows himself an out, in the form of 'future historians'. One of these historians, Robin Prior, argues that -- contrary to received wisdom -- the primary aim at Suvla was actually just to set up a supply base for the northern Allied forces, which it did successfully. Any advances across the peninsula were secondary to this, and in any case were never likely to amount to much given the geography, the forces available and the operational plan. Which last, as it happens, was partly authored by Captain Cecil Aspinall, who later wrote (as Aspinall-Oglander) the British official history of the Gallipoli campaign, where he was quite happy to blame the commander on the ground, the elderly but inexperienced Lieutenant-General Sir Frederick Stopford, for the 'failure' of his plan.

Something for me to bear in mind when I talk to my students in a few weeks about the (brilliant but misleading) 1981 film Gallipoli. Especially the scene where the radio operator at the Nek, where waves of Australian soldiers have been uselessly slaughtered in assaults against Turkish trenches in support of the landings, reports that the British at Suvla have met no resistance but, instead of advancing inland, are 'sitting on the beach drinking cups of tea'. Peter Weir probably can't be blamed for portraying the British military, officers and other ranks both, as incompetent when even the official historians are happy to do the same.

See C. E. W. Bean, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918, volume 2: The Story of ANZAC from 4 May, 1915, to the evacuation of the Gallipoli Peninsula, 11th edition (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1941), 715-6; Robin Prior, Gallipoli: The End of the Myth (Sydney: UNSW Press, 2009), 207-9.

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25 thoughts on “Official historians behaving badly

  1. Erik Lund

    It's the cramped conditions that do it. I've lost 3" of height and all my initiative since I started living in a loft apartment. If only there were a manly leader to tell me what to do....
    Also, more ammunition for the thesis that _everyone_ was a Fascist in the 1930s. Including the communists..

  2. Chris Williams

    Were the UK troops in the Suvla Bay landing 'New Army'? I thought that they were all regulars or Territorials. I could be wrong, though.

  3. When did the Suvla/Gallipoli start to be described as a "failure"? Was there never any discussion of the actual aims as you describe them, and their success?

    It almost sounds as though the colonial commanders were exceeding their orders, rather than a British failure.

  4. Chris Williams

    Well, the idea was to take the Straits, rather than to open up an attritional front. Given that they didn't take the Straits, I think that 'failure' describes the campaign pretty well. As for each battle in the campaign, that's rather more ponderable. Commanders in the C20th had a habit of saying "That's what I was intending to do", whether there's any evidence that they were or not. Also, they often sold operations to their superiors as 'the last big push' even when they knew that this wasn't likely to be the case - sometimes because their superiors wouldn't have given them supplies and men for anything other than the Decisive Battle.

    All in all, it's murky: and I don't think that we can nail it down to any single coherent essentialist picture of 'intent' which can then be judged against what happened, or did not happen, on the ground.

    Also, I don't think that it's helpful to think of it as British vs colonials - it's a lot more complicated than that (Dublin and Munster regiments ... ) , but also a lot more simple: they were all part of the same army.

  5. According to Bean: "A large proportion of the new [British] force had come straight from the highly organised life in or around overcrowded cities, and as a result they lacked the resourcefulness required for any activity in open country ..."

    Hmm, and this at a time when half of all Australians lived in towns and cities ...

  6. I think Peter Weir probably can't be blamed for making a possibly historically inaccurate film, because his job was to make a piece of entertainment.

    Now, I don't want to set the cat amongst the pigeons, but from that paragon of accuracy, wikipedia, the entry for the 1981 film contains this quote:
    "In particular the officers responsible for Entente command of the attack are depicted in the film as being British, when in fact most historians agree that the blame for the failure falls at the feet of the two Australian Commanding Officers."


    Whenever I want a good laugh, I read wikipedia.

  7. Post author

    One thing I've noticed about Prior is that he places a very heavy reliance on written orders and battle plans. But is it possible that there were verbal, unrecorded orders, and that's what Stopford wasn't following? For example, Prior notes that the two brigades of 10th (Irish) Division landed at Suvla were not mentioned in Stopford's orders and their commanders had no orders at all. Is this really plausible? Surely they must have had some idea of what they were supposed to be doing there!


    The two divisions at Suvla were both New Army, 10th (Irish) and 11th (Northern). You might be thinking of the initial landings at Helles -- 29th Division was the last of the prewar regular army.


    Yes, Australia has always been highly urbanised, contrary to our own self-image. But again Bean gives himself an out when he says refers to 'conditions not yet operative to any marked extent in the great cities in Australia', i.e. overcrowding. According to Prior, Bean was into eugenics, though from this passage he doesn't seem to have been an essentialist.

  8. JDK

    Isn't is generally accepted that Bean decided to build the myth of 'the strapping Aussie mates reaching manhood through the shedding of their blood at Gallipoli', rather following the Bulletin's line on lovely Aussie country boys? (And we are still crippled in Australia's history by this poor, extemporary choice of a myth. Thanks, Chas.)

    So he has no problem 'finding' evidence to support it; but as it was a failure (hanging around for a while while more-than-decimated by dysentery and then a 'successful withdrawl' isn't 'success' in my book) he had to find a scapegoat; stunted cockneys were OK targets, rather than the (IMHO Eton & Sandhurst institutionalised) untouchable officer class.

    I'd guess that a batch of Aussies there would probably be healthier and fitter than a bunch of the British; quantified data would be nice. (Canadians and Australians in Britain in the Air Forces of W.W.II were often commented on as being 'bigger and fitter'. But that's only perception - easily mismeasured. Much as I'd like to believe it!)

    However for nasty, inventive initiative in war, I'd bet on the denizens of inner Manchester, London or Glasgow than the nice young men from Whoop-Whoop. Generally gutting your fellow man was a slum passtime, rather than country tricks with two-up.

  9. JDK - it's a while since I read it, but I think there is data on the physical stature of Australian recruits in Dale Blair's book Dinkum Diggers. As in the British forces, I suspect that social class was probably a bigger determinant on size than nationality.
    But more importantly, shouldn't more research be done on the meme of British soldiers stopping to drink tea? It's also a significant scene in A Bridge Too Far, and the New Zealand equivalent to Gallipoli, Chunuk Bair (starring Robert Powell, of all people). I've just been reading Sean Longden's book about 21st Army Group in NW Europe, To the Victor the Spoils, and he makes the point that because British soldiers brewed up every time they stopped, observers tended to presume that this was why they'd halted in the first place. Shouldn't someone establish a database of cinematic tea drinking? (Come to think of it, it also gets mention in A Canterbury Tale, although there the tea drinkers are presented more positively).

  10. JDK

    Very acute, Dan, the British Pongo Tea Ceremony in Film looks like a great thesis. Rather like the 'empty fridge scene in detective films'.

    Social class in the UK - no argument, in general. However poor farm labourers were fitted and stronger than poor denizens of the city slums. The levels of fitness among the landed gentry would be pretty varied too, IMHO. However the British diet in the C20th was poor throughout; across all classes - the best balanced diet in the century was caused by rationing in W.W.II!

  11. Chris Williams

    Remember the start of 'The Land Ironclads'? The stunted city dwellers are being whipped by New World farmboys, when they turn the tables through their superior mastery of machinery.

    As for tea, rumour has it that, about three hours before the battle of Mount Harriet, an RM Welsh Guard contingent had, with some difficulty, successfully snuck round the back of the Argentine position and was waiting for zero hour, when some clever Guardsmen decided that there was time for a brew. They were apparently informed by a Marine officer present that unless they put the fire out he'd shoot them himself in order save the enemy the bother. So we have an existence proof that British soldiers don't always brew up on halting.

  12. What we have is evidence that only the threat of imminent death is sufficient to _stop_ British soldiers brewing up.
    Damnit, now I just have to find a way to calculate the weight of tea going to different fronts and graph it against miles advanced.

  13. Chris Williams

    I've always wanted someone to do that with tobacco, which the wars of the twentieth century appear to have run on. But tea has to be a close second, for the British at least.

  14. Post author


    Yes, Blair has some figures on p. 28. Short answer: the tall Anzacs of legend are a bit of a myth. He finds that (in round figures) 61% of 1 Bn officers were over 5'9", 44% of sergeants and only 26% of the battalion as whole. He also compares his statistics with average heights for British recruits up until 1916 and basically there's no difference to speak of. He suggests that perhaps in comparison with Bantams or urban Territorial units the Anzacs may have looked tall, but that's hardly fair!

    On tea, surely the British military and civilian bureaucracies compiled statistics on that! Far more important than casualty figures.

  15. Jakob

    IIRC, CNA had OCD-delightingly complex supply and logistics rules; one of these was that Italian units had higher water requirements that the Germans, ostensibly because they needed the extra amounts to boil their pasta in...

    I've never played (or even seen) the game, but have seen the rule used as an example of entertaining if barking chrome.

  16. robin prior

    Thanks for the largely positive comments on my book. If you want more on tea drinking see my Suvla Bay Tea Party published in 1985(so I was ahead of the pack on that one) in the Journal of the Australian War Memorial. As for verbal orders - they aren't worth the paper thery'e not written on.

  17. Post author

    No worries, Robin, it's a very good book. And thanks for commenting. Of course, verbal orders aren't worth anything in terms of assigning blame when things go wrong, but that's precisely why they might be used in such a case. And armies don't solely rely on written orders, most obviously at the tactical end. Isn't is possible that as historians we are vulnerable due to our reliance on the written word here?

  18. robin prior

    I'm sure you are right Brett. The problem for historians is that we have no concrete evidence of this sort of thing. We can speculate but if this is taken too far the story can lose all credibility. In short, we have to work with what we have. For a book that tries to work with what it doesn't have look at Denis Winter's Haig's Command. In that book he attempts to construct a narrative from the documents that are not in the archives. The result is interesting.

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