`Gallipoli' is not the first time that Hart has been drawn to the disastrously conceived campaign of that name. He first put it under the microscope seventeen years ago in `Defeat At Gallipoli' , co-written with Nigel Steel. Since then, he has visited those fatal shores on several occasions leading battlefield tours. He tells us, indeed, that "Gallipoli will always be my primary interest in the Great War. I still love visiting the scenes of this most powerful of human dramas and long may that continue." In other words, here is an author who for the best part of twenty years has worked with and reflected upon the historical evidence for his subject as well as familiarising himself with the physical landscape upon which it was enacted. `Gallipoli' is the fully realised culmination of this investment of time and effort.
Hart sets out the scope of his book in his Preface. His purpose is to give an insight into what it was like to be a soldier at Gallipoli almost a century ago. This he achieves through his skilful selection of largely unpublished accounts from the men themselves. He's been weaving such eyewitness narratives into his books for long enough now to need no particular commendation from me as to how well he does this. But Hart's `Gallipoli' is an important book because of the context into which he places these fascinating first-person accounts. His overarching goal is to expose the futility of the campaign in which these individual experiences took place. This is achieved in two ways. Firstly, throughout the book Hart, himself a convinced `Westerner', looks at the Gallipoli adventure from the gimlet eyed perspective of the professional observers amongst the British High Command on the Western Front - the men who, rightly, remained convinced throughout the war that the only way to decisively win it was to beat the main German field army in the main theatre of the war. Hart never lets the reader forget that that was always going to be the Western Front, not the Dardanelles and that the latter was always a distraction from and a drain upon the former. Secondly, Hart guides us through the key battles of the Gallipoli campaign with a keen eye for the most tactically illuminating and less familiar episodes. In other words there is much that is new in this retelling of an oft-told tale.
Not the least of Hart's achievements in `Gallipoli' is to strike the right balance in according due prominence and recognition to each of the contingents of the truly international forces deployed there. Few military campaigns have spawned such legacies of national sentiment around the globe as Gallipoli. In Turkey and Australia and New Zealand in particular the epic of Gallipoli has become an essential component of the sinews of nationhood and a key element of the unifying myths which are essential to creating a sense of national identity in all countries. Yet whilst giving due recognition to these elements, and building the core of the story he unfolds around the British and ANZAC forces, Hart never loses sight of the important contributions of others. In particular, he makes the telling point that the part played by the French has usually received less than its due in English language accounts and that "it could be argued that they were the most effective fighting force at Gallipoli." Nor does he fall into the trap of portraying an Allied disaster as having more to do with bad luck than the skill and tenacious courage of their enemy. To this end Hart has introduced evidence from Turkish sources to give the reader a conception of the battle from their point of view. As he justly puts it, "they were, after all, the victors in 1915; the story they tell is one of equal heroism and superior military competence." Yet out of this broad picture of the seat of war and the various contingents engaged there, the stoic courage and bloody minded endurance of the losers never fails to impress the reader of the well-chosen and often moving accounts of the appalling situation which they found themselves in. The factual foundation stones of the ANZAC legend are safe in Hart's capable hands.
Peter Hart has an impressive enough back catalogue of Great War histories to his name which speak for themselves - almost literally, more often than not, due to his trademark use of unerringly apt quotations from the participants. Hart's skills, developed over thirty years of interviewing military veterans as the oral historian at the Imperial War Museum, are never less than evident in his selection of these verbatim quotes. Others, of course, have used similar techniques - Lyn MacDonald is one who springs immediately to mind. What takes Hart's work immeasurably beyond such cut and paste works, however, is the insight and authority of his linking narratives which place his eyewitness accounts firmly into their historical context. The wisdom of Hart's contextualisation and conclusions are what have earned him a reputation as a fine military historian. Whilst he is an unashamedly popular narrative historian, Hart's books always fully support his conclusions through their extensive source notes. In his `Gallipoli' we see the maturing of an historian at the top of his game. In this book the authoritative historical analysis and narrative into which the gem stones of the accounts of participants are set is even more extensive than in his previous works, giving Peter Hart's `Gallipoli' an immediate claim to be an essential title for anyone interested in what the author calls this "doomed but fascinating campaign." Recommended.