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Friday, April 24, 2015

Commemorating not Celebrating Gallipoli

The 25th April 2015 marks the 100th Anniversary of the landings at what is now known as Anzac Cove. 

As I stood in the queue at my local post office this week I found myself confronted with a whole stand of ANZAC centenary 'items' - everything from stubby holders to tea towels. The television has been flooded with mini series, docu dramas, documentaries and advertisements. When did the death of over 8000 young men become a cause for celebration? A significant date in our history certainly but not for reasons of ‘celebration’.

It is one of the saddest days in our history. The whole Gallipoli operation, cost 26,111 Australian casualties, including the 8,141 deaths. And all for nothing. A failed military strategy that never had any hope of succeeding in a war that cost over 800,000 lives and probably should never have been allowed to happen. 

There is plenty of learned information to be found on the complex train of events that led to the start of the the 'Great War' but I think in its most simplistic form it is best summed up by Private Baldrick, a character in the 1980s television show Blackadder (Blackadder goes Forth).

·        Baldrick says: I heard that it started when a bloke called Archie Duke shot an ostrich 'cause he was hungry.
·        Captain Blackadder explains: In order to prevent war in Europe, two superblocs
developed: us, the French and the Russians on one side, and the Germans and Austro-Hungary on the other. The idea was to have two vast opposing armies, each acting as the other's deterrent.  That way there could never be a war.
·        Baldrick says:  But this is a sort of a war, isn't it, sir?
·        Blackadder replies. Yes, that's right.   You see, there was a tiny flaw in the plan. It was ;.
·        Baldrick concludes with his usual pereceptivity:   So the poor old ostrich died for nothing.

In fact Blackadder’s explanation regarding the two power blocs is a succinct explanation of the cause of the war which has its origins in a bitter power struggle between Germany and Russia over the Balkans, thousands of miles from England, Belgium and France - and Australia.  It all came to a head on 29 June 1914 with the assassination of the heir to the Austrian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Serbian national. This act of aggression triggered a diplomatic crisis which in turn invoked the international alliances and within two months Europe was at war. 

Far away at the bottom of the world, Australia, an independent country for only thirteen years, felt the pull of the old empirical ties and Australia went to war in support of the 'Mother Country'. Thousands of young men seeing it as a great adventure signed up and were sent firstly to Egypt and then on to Gallipoli. The reality of what they had committed themselves to was written in their blood at Anzac Cove on 25th April 2015. 


Last year I visited Gallipoli and as I heard our Turkish guide speak I saw it from the Turkish perspective for the first time. The Turks were defending an invasion of their country, as we would an invasion of our country. They hold Gallipoli in as much reverence as we do, more so because of the contribution of a single man... Mustafa Kamal (Attaturk). As the commander of the 19th Division of the 5th Army of the Ottoman Empire, his brilliant strategies and leadership inspired his men to the spirited defence of their homeland. The Turks tell you "Without Attaturk, no Turkey. Without Gallipoli no Attaturk". Every Turkish child is obligated to make a visit to Gallipoli so at any time (particularly weekends) you find busloads of bored Turkish teenagers mooching around the memorials. Teenagers of any country are a universal breed...

My husband's grandfather went to Gallipoli in August, in a second wave. He fought at Lone Pine and survived, only to be sent to the Western Front where he was badly wounded. He would talk about his time at Gallipoli but only after his death did the family discover that he had served most of his time on the Somme. The horror of the Western Front rendered him silent.

As we stood at Anzac Cove two former soldiers ourselves, my husband and I (as we are want to do on the great battlefields of the war), talked through the allied strategy... Take the Gallipoli peninsula, secure the Dardanelles, take Istanbul. We concluded that in common with much of the military strategy of a war that should never have been, that it was doomed to failure the moment the ink dried on the orders. High command in London was deluding themselves that the Turks, who held such a brilliant defensive position, would just let the allied forces march in. This was THEIR country and they defended it with their blood. Over 86,000 Turks died in the defence of the Gallipoli peninsula.

However the respect the Turks showed for their invaders and is written in Attaturk's words, carved in stone on the battlefields, was never to be repeated and was not seen on the Western front. As our Turkish guide said, as bloody as it was, the Gallipoli campaign was the last war of gentlemen.

"Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives ... You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours ... You, the mothers who sent their sons from faraway countries, wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well." (Attaturk 1934)

So let us not 'celebrate' ANZAC day but rather take the time to quietly remember not only our own casualties, but the 44,150 total Allied deaths and the 86,692 Turkish dead.

On ANZAC day I will don my own (peacetime) medals and stand in the cold, dark dawn in a little country town (population 12) and remember the boys of that town who went to war in a country so very far from their home and never came back. For that little country town in Victoria, World War One took the life blood from the gold mines that sustained it and the town itself died on the battlefields of Europe.