February 19, 2015

Horse 1842 - The Looming Legend of Gallipoli

Before I begin this, I need to establish that Mrs Rollo is an American and a Californian. She comes from that almost anonymous section of American society that can be dubbed 'Quiet America' - the not insignificant section which isn't brash and loud, that part of America which quietly rolls up its sleeves and gets things done.
She pointed, quite rightly that in the run up to the 100th anniversary of the landings at Gallipoli, from which we get the date for Anzac Day, with the background of living in a very patriotic nation like America, she was still puzzled at the amount of hoo-haa that the Centenary of Gallipoli is getting.
On the news we've seen reports of school children who have been selected to visit Gallipoli for the centenary and even outside of that context, phrases like 'the birthplace of a nation' are being bandied about.

I'm not sure exactly how it happened but somewhere down the line, I happen to have received a copy of a book called 'Was It Only Yesterday?' which I can only imagine was some sort of high school Modern History textbook and whilst it mentions the Gallipoli Campaign, it does so against the greater story of the First World War and gives more space in terms of column inches to Count Alfred von Schlieffen and his invasion plan for France, as well as the conditions which laid the foundations of the First World War, which was finally triggered with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.
The book was published in 1982 and even though I finished high school not quite a decade and a half later, I still don't remember anything like this grand mythologising about Anzac Day and Gallipoli when I was at school. The almost absurd deification of Anzac Day and Gallipoli must have only occurred in the nearly two decades since I left school.
What I want to know is 'Why?'

Anyone who has studied even the most elementary details of the campaign to open the Dardanelles, can tell you that the landing at Gallipoli was part of a broader plan by the British to open up supply lines from Russia's Black Sea ports to the Mediterranean. The Anzac forces landed in a place which was incredibly steep and the opposing Ottoman forces basically spent the best part of a year and a bit pinning them to the spot. It can not be described as anything other than a complete and comprehensive victory for the Ottoman Empire and it only ended after British commanders came to their senses and evacuated the region.
By any sensible measure, the Gallipoli campaign was a total disaster for the Anzac forces and so it really is quite strange that we've turned it into this de facto celebration of Australia.

I think it's because Australia doesn't really have a flashy story to tell about its founding as a nation, that Anzac Day has become this thing in lieu of one. Australia Day is the day that the British sailed halfway round the world; stuck a flag in the ground and then dumped its criminals out with no real plan as to what to do with them. What could be celebrated as Federation Day is rather a bit pointless as it is already New Years' Day and any meaning would be lost; besides which Australia started with a vote and not a war.
Maybe in our rush to run away from under the skirt of Mother England, we've been lured by the wacky tales of flashy Uncle Sam and we're trying desperately to come up with our own mythos - it isn't really working.

What's really absurd is that even the Australian Government is having a go at this. Sprawled across the Australian War Memorial London website is the slogan¹: Gallipoli The Birth of a Nation, 1915
Maybe Gallipoli has become something as a sort of symbol of Australia's national identity but isn't that going a bit far? More than six times as many Australians died on the Western Front in the mud of France and Belgium and names like Pozières, Passchendaele and  Fromelles hardly even get a mention.

The last few lines from Eric Bogle's "The Band Played Waltzing Matilda" tell us that "as year follows year, more old men disappear. Someday no one will march there at all." That point has been reached as there as the very veteran in the world of the First World War died in 2012. That means that with no first hand witnesses left to tell us the horrors of shell-shock, of burial alive, of the acrid smells of high explosive and chlorine gas, we're left to make up any story we feel like.

It isn't even the first time that Australians were on the battlefield either. The six colonies had sent troops to South Africa to fight in the Boer War which lasted from 1899-1902 and from 1901, they were no longer sent as representatives of the states but the Commonwealth of Australia. Captain Neville Howse who was Australia's first Victoria Cross recipient, was cited as serving in the  New South Wales Army Medical Corps, Australian Forces, when the award was gazetted on 4 June 1901.

Curiously across the ditch, in New Zealand which also shares the holiday, the whole affair is far more subdued. The NZ History website of the New Zealand Ministry for Culture and Heritage makes a passing mention of Anzac Day that "for more people it is also becoming an opportunity to talk about what it may mean to be a New Zealander"².
New Zealand unlike Australia though, actually does have national day of sorts in Waitangi Day; to commemorate when the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840. No such document or date exists in Australia.

Maybe because it is the 100th anniversary of the landings at Gallipoli that Anzac Day has been hyped up beyond the point of sensibility but even so, I fail to see why it is so necessary that for a nation to prove itself noteworthy, needs to do so through the payment of blood.
Australia should be proud on the fact that it became a nation because of a vote and not a war. That along with the preferential vote and the enfranchisement of women should prove that democracy is a far more sensible way to start a nation.

Whilst it might be true that "age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn; at the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them", I just don't know how useful lionising and enlarging the legend of a complete military disaster is.


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