Loss, lament and pride

Australians walk among war graves after an ANZAC day service in norther France.
Australians walk among war graves after an ANZAC day service in norther France.

Written by Dr Jack Binns

Sometime during the 1970s Australians re-discovered Gallipoli. Even the 50th anniversary of the landing at Anzac Cove in 1965 had passed without much notice. Perhaps the revival of interest had something to do with Britain’s entry into the European Common Market, Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam war and the evident decline and demise of the British 
empire; but whatever the reasons Australians had 
become more nationalist.

The Gallipoli campaign continues to generate controversy among military historians

Based on the personal reminiscences of old veterans, several books appeared during the 1970s in praise of “Digger” heroes who, it was alleged, had been the innocent victims of ignorant and callous English commanders. In 1981, Peter Weir’s film, Gallipoli, did most to reinforce the powerful, persuasive myth of brave, youthful, idealistic Aussies sacrificed by the cynicism of their 
effete, incompetent English generals. The ANZAC legend, no more historical than its Scottish equivalent, Braveheart, was re-born.

From now on the stereo-types of fearless outbackers and ancient, lazy generals was firmly fixed in the national perception.

Gallipoli, the film, was also the Australian double of Oh What A Lovely War. And the historical mythology also had its political uses. Australia Day, January 26, which celebrated the arrival in Botany Bay of the first fleet of convict transports from Britain in 1788, was regarded rightly by black Australians as racist and divisive. So ANZAC day united a new nation that no longer had a personal experience of 1915 and was no longer a British appendage in the southern hemisphere.

So in 1990 Bob Hawke was the first Australian prime minster to attend the dawn service at Gallipoli on the 75th anniversary. Three years later, his successor, Paul Keating, attended the re-interment of Australia’s unknown soldier at Canberra. The “imperial” unknown soldier in Westminster Abbey no longer represented Australia, which now had one of its own. Just as the French had July 14 and the Americans July 4, Australians looked to their true foundation day, April 25.

New Zealanders were slower to cut the symbolic ties with the obsolete British empire, even though their First World War losses (18,000 dead, eight per cent of military age men) were proportionally greater than Australia’s. Perhaps 
Anglophilia was still stronger in Kiwi country. So it was not until 2004 that New Zealand’s own unknown soldier was brought from the Western Front and re-buried at Wellington’s national war memorial.

Australian soldiers had suffered far greater losses on the Western Front than on Gallipoli. In July and August 1916, on the Somme battlefields, at Fromelles and Pozieres, “a few yards of ground” were secured temporarily at a cost of 28,000 casualties. But it was the 
heroism of the ANZACs which captured and held the imagination and pride of a faraway continent.

Whereas Remembrance Day on the anniversary of the Armistice of November 11, 1918, commemorates the end of the war, ANZAC Day for Australians and New Zealanders recalls for them its beginning. Since 1945 on Remembrance Sunday the dead and injured of two world wars are honoured; on ANZAC Day the birth of two nations is celebrated. The one is an annual lament for “the pity of war”; the other turns “a botched battlefield” into hero worship. The Australians had no anti-war poets.

The Gallipoli campaign continues to generate controversy among military historians, though the majority view now seems to be that it was a mistake, strategically wrong and badly conducted, rather than a great, missed opportunity to shorten the war.

Apart from its lasting significance for new nations, Gallipoli is also celebrated by an old one, the Turkish, as 
a momentous victory and 
the start of their modern revival.

In April 1915, Lieutenant Colonel Mustapha Kemal commanded only a reserve division in the widest and quietest part of the peninsula. When the ANZACs landed at dawn the shore was guarded by only a company of surprised Turks. By 8am, when Kemal was told of the invasion, 8,000 Australians and New Zealanders were already on the beach. The objective for both sides was the high, dominating ridge of Chunuk Bair and because of Kemal’s prompt and rapid reaction it was his men who reached it first.

So determined was 
Kemal’s counter-attack that but for the devastating fire from Queen Elizabeth’s 15-inch guns the ANZACs might have been driven back into the sea. Despite many repeated and very expensive assaults, under Kemal’s leadership, the Turks held on to the heights.

So what we call Gallipoli the Turks came to call the battle of Canakkale, a heroic defensive victory won largely by the leadership and fighting spirit of Kemal and his soldiers.

Subsequently, he commanded the whole of the Turkish army, drove the Greeks out of Asia Minor, in 1922 became the first president of the new republic and negotiated a more favourable peace treaty with the allies. The Turks had lost their 
empire – Syria, Palestine, Mesopotamia (Iraq) and Arabia – and they had lost their Sultan, but they had gained Ataturk, their modern founder and re-gained their pride.

As for the British, the 
fiasco in the Dardanelles and on Gallipoli finally discredited Lord Kitchener. He 
remained, in Margot 
Asquith’s scathing words, merely “the great poster” and his death in June, 1916, saved her husband from the embarrassment of sacking him. As Lord Northcliffe remarked when he heard the news, “Now we can at last get down to winning the war”.

The chief political scapegoat was Winston Churchill. Always a controversial, mercurial figure, he was the one most closely associated with the enterprise, and his resignation seemed to have terminated his ministerial career at the age of 41.

He spent the next 18 months in the uniform of a Guards officer on the Western Front.

The spectre of the Dardanelles haunted him and hung over his reputation for the next 20 years.