Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Friday, April 10, 2020

Recommended: The French Experience at Gallipoli

French Field Kitchen at Gallipoli

Originally published at The Conversation, 23 April 2015

With almost the same number of soldiers as the Anzacs—79,000—and similar death rates—close on 10,000—French participation in the Gallipoli campaign could not occupy a more different place in national memory. What became a foundation myth in Australia as it also did in the Turkish Republic after 1923 was eventually forgotten in France.

Some of the reasons are obvious.

France was fighting for its very existence and many, including Joseph Joffre, the commander-in-chief on the Western Front, thought Gallipoli a sideshow at best and a wasted effort at worst. It was a British-conceived-and-led campaign, although the French were a fully fledged expeditionary force with their own staff and command structure.

It was also a failure, and while that never prevented anyone spinning redemptive narratives about heroism and national virtue, the French had plenty more relevant episodes to use for such purposes during the Great War, from the Marne in 1914 and Verdun in 1916 to final victory in 1918.

Even regarding the “front of the Orient,” as they called it, the French saw Gallipoli merely as a curtain-raiser to the subsequent campaign in Macedonia, to which most French units from Gallipoli transferred and which finally defeated Bulgaria in 1918, contributing to the victory over the Central Powers. Gallipoli failed to achieve any of its goals.

What was in it for the French?

Other reasons for the neglect of the campaign are less obvious—and more revealing—about its actual nature.

The French conceived of the Dardanelles in part at least as a colonial campaign. This was not true of its ostensible goals, since the idea of defeating the Ottoman Empire and linking up with Russia was clearly part of a continental conflict between the major European powers. One consequence of success would be (as it eventually was) the partitioning of the Ottoman Middle East. The French could not afford not to take part in case the British won. Even more tellingly, the campaign was conceived in a colonial mode.

As the “sick man of Europe,” it was assumed that the Ottoman Empire would collapse at the mere demonstration of Allied naval and military might. The land campaign would be just like the expeditions that had subordinated “native” peoples to French and European authority prewar—in Indochina, China, and Morocco.

Even after the naval fiasco of 18 March, when British and French ships failed to force the Dardanelles, the French imagined that the land campaign would be an easy march along the shores of the Sea of Marmara to Constantinople.

Finally, two-thirds of the French Expeditionary Force were composed of colonial soldiers, though two-thirds were also white. While two regiments were specially raised for the campaign from metropolitan France, many of the other soldiers came from elite European colonial regiments or white settlers from Algeria and Tunisia.

Despite initial plans, it proved impossible to use native North African soldiers (though they later went to Macedonia) because they would be fighting against fellow Muslims and possibly occupying the holy sites of the Middle East.

But a quarter to a third of the French soldiers were Tirailleurs Sénégalais, or Senegalese Infantry, though in reality they were recruited from all over French West Africa and included some creoles from the West Indies and islands of the Indian Ocean. While it is not true that there was no memory of the Dardanelles campaign in interwar France, it was largely colonial, being especially strong among the settler community in North Africa.

Needless to say, the Senegalese had their own oral traditions, but they were never in any active sense part of the official “memory” of the campaign. When the empire vanished after the Second World War, and French Algeria with it, the most obvious sources of a commemorative culture of Gallipoli disappeared.

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