Mozart once referred to Opera as a conversation with many people all speaking at once, and yet all are perfectly understood. In this, the Centenary year of the Gallipoli campaign, there will be many conversations, many stories and many points of view. As I write this, Kiwis are joining in mass commemoration of those who fell in the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign of 1915. And, no doubt we’ll be involved in further recognitions of the tragic losses that were to come thereafter. This is the year of the Great War, after all.
Into this space, veteran author Rachael Billington adds her own take with an epic tale of relationships, love and heroism at Gallipoli, from the British standpoint. It’s easy to look at the campaign only with ‘black-tinted’ glasses but in fact Britain lost nearly 73,485 troops, nearly 5 ½ times that of the ANZACs. The Anglo angle in this book is prominent. Viewers of Downton Abbey will recognise the common themes of egalitarianism over class and the betrayal of the patriotic dream when the great adventure turns horrific very quickly.
Interwoven with the gruesome details of on-the-ground battles are the fates of a promising lawyer, Arthur and his girlfriend Sylvia. Arthur is almost immediately flung into the fray, unprepared and naïve. He survives by disobeying orders and befriending an intelligence officer aboard the landing ship, leading him to an alternative fate. At home Sylvia sits in her ‘perfect’ world on the estate, awaiting the titbits, from her correspondents, that tragically float back from ANZAC cove.
Another key figure is Dorset country boy Fred Chaffey, who is literally flung out of the first landing boat onto the shores of the peninsular by the first page. He spend three days sheltering behind the dying, pinned down by snipers and isolated from his unit. Eventually, he becomes a runner for an Australian captain and spends much of the book travelling between like landmarks like Quinn’s Post, Chunuk Bair and Shrapnel Alley whilst encountering a raft of personalities from across the Empire, and of course our friend Arthur. Their stories will eventually intertwine like some mad helix of fate.
Supporting the story are a host of other players, including real personalities from the time such as Sir Ian Standish Monteith Hamilton, Commander in Chief of the Mediterranean, the blundering fool behind the decision to dig in, rather than retreat, when troops were mistakenly landed at the wrong cove. He’s described as a man with a “silly voice and even sillier habit of writing in his diary – filled with long Greek quotations” and, “far worse, his manner of giving commands as if they were invitations.” It shows Billington has done her homework. There is even a selected bibliography in the back.
“My grandfather died at Suvla Bay, Gallipoli, on August 21st 1915, she writes on her website. “(Yet) my grandmother …continued to believe that he would emerge from a Turkish hospital or prison camp.” In a sense the inspiration behind Glory was a mix of that story and the new horrors from her WWII childhood. “Publishing Glory is an emotional business. Naturally people are interested in my grandfather’s story…his heroic and pointless death is bad enough. But for me it exemplifies the muddled thinking that surrounded both the idea of the campaign and its execution.”
In layer after layer, Billington deftly presents this in her book and one can’t help finishing with a real sense of sadness that the whole thing was such a futile waste. New Zealanders will come together this year, along with the world to commemorate this most deft act of incompetence and horror. If we learn one thing from Glory it will be to thoroughly question the actions of our leaders and challenge their right to lead, because lest we forget, they are as fallible as anyone else. Glory is an epic tale, thought-provoking and slightly familiar. It doesn’t cover new ground but, like a good movie, it will cover ground and leave you wiser for it.
Reviewed by Tim Gruar
by Rachael Billington
Published by Orion