I've been back in Australia for almost a whole month, but so much of my holiday still plays heavily on my mind.
My trip to Ireland was amazing, but it was the time spent in France touring the WW1 Battlefields that really made me stop and think. Not only was this experience incredibly moving in of itself, but it was made all the more personal by the fact that I was able to see the name of a relative killed in the war - my great-great-grandfather: John Alfred Byers, M.C - on one of the many memorials to the missing (he, like many others, does not have a known grave) and, through the tireless research of my tour leader, I was also able to see the stretch of no-man's land where he was killed in 1916.
Growing up in New Zealand and then spending my early adolescence onwards in Australia, the myth of ANZAC Day and the Gallipoli Story was never questioned, either at school or in the wider community. That, people said, was our story and we should all be proud of 'our brave boys' and remember and honour the sacrifice at Gallipoli.
As I child I lapped up this well-intentioned but ultimately misguided patriotism. To listen to the teachers at school, the stories at the Dawn Services I attended as a child, or the textbooks I read, you could be forgiven for believing that the Gallipoli Campaign was the only time the ANZACs saw action during WW1 and, further to that, equally forgiven for believing it was a victory for our side.
The Gallipoli Campaign lasted ten months, beginning in February 1915 and concluding with the evacuation of troops in January 1916. British soldiers began the offensive and the ANZACs arrived in April 1915 (along with many other troops from allied and dominion nations) and remained until the evacuation. It was an Allied effort to gain a foothold in the Ottoman controlled Dardanelles and, whatever spin is put on it, it was an invasion and we were the invaders. The Ottoman Turks did what any reasonable nation would do when armed invaders arrived on their shores: they defended themselves. Allied casualities (i.e. British, Irish, Australian, New Zealander, French, Indian, and New Foundlander soldiers) from the Gallipoli Campaign were 44,150 men dead and a further 97,397 wounded: 141,547 in total. Ottoman causalities were 86,692 men dead and 164,617 wounded: 251,309 in all. Altogether, this puts total causalities at 130,842 dead and 262,014 wounded, which then equates to a massive 392,856* men killed or wounded during the Gallipoli Campaign.
And I am going to put paid right now to the myth that the ANZACs were the only soldiers there. Allied troops from all Great Britain's colonies and dominions were present at Gallipoli and all suffered losses, in fact, the greatest allied loss at Gallipoli was of Great British and Irish troops, who accounted for more than half of allied causalities during that campaign. But if you read an Australian or New Zealand school textbook on the subject, you wouldn't know anyone but the ANZACs was even there and you sure as hell wouldn't know it was a complete failure for the Allies. After ten months they had gained no ground, achieved none of their objectives, and they were evacuated from Gallipoli and joined other battles along the Western Front, but the way it is taught to children in Australian and New Zealand schools is with varnish and rose coloured glasses. Never mentioned is the fact that we were part of an unwelcome and invading force and I didn't learn until many years later that Gallipoli was a costly defeat. ANZAC causalities alone amounted to 11,488 dead and 24,653 wounded: 36,141 in total, but we accounted for only 25% of Allied casualities and just over 9% of total casualities in this campaign.
This is not to say that we didn't suffer at Gallipoli, or that it shouldn't be remembered, or that we are wrong to commemorate it (although I think we could do a better job of it, personally, and ensure that it is a commemoration, rather than the celebration it has become), but perspective is important. Gallipoli was our first engagement as ANZACs, but it was a costly, demoralising defeat in which nothing was achieved and a great deal was lost. Yet the propaganda of 1915 is still being taught today in schools around Australia and New Zealand and, to be blunt, it's wrong. We have a very dubious practice of editing history to suit ourselves, but when you edit the story of the Gallipoli campaign, you are writing lies with the blood of more than 300,000 men: fathers, brothers, sons, husbands, fiances.
And then there's all the graves.
As mentioned above, I didn't go to Gallipoli, but rather toured the Western Front and visited the many cemeteries there, including Tyne Cot, Adelaide Cemetery and Fricourt Germany Cemetery.
If you have ever visited any of these cemeteries, particularly allied war cemeteries maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), you will know that the first thing that strikes you is their uniformity, the next their symmetry, then the shock sets in as you realise that, beneath each of these uniformly white headstones is a soldier, a sailor, an airman, a nurse, or sometimes two, three, even six people buried together (more on that soon), and then, in the big cemeteries, the next thing that smacks you in the gut in the sheer size.
Tyne Cot is the final resting place of over 12,000 men, which accounts to roughly 0.2% of total Allied war dead, and that is enough to make your head spin. 12,000 men there, and they barely even make a blip on the casualty count.
Turtle Bunbury, in his blog post Remembrance: The Irish & The Great War described the feeling of visiting Tyne Cot perfectly:
"...when you walk through the graveyards of the Western Front, you begin to get a sense of just how intense it was. At the Tyne Cot cemetery in Flanders, I was entirely overwhelmed by the immensity of it all when I walked alone down a path through line after line of those proud white headstones, with a wall blocking the view to my left. I thought I might have become immune to all the death by then but when the wall ended, I looked to my left and I slumped … because, behind the wall, the field of graves was replicated again and again as far as I could see, like the saddest dream ever dreamt. Endless rows of white upright slabs, framed at one end by the ‘Memorial to the Missing’ upon which were written the names of tens of thousands of soldiers whose bodies were never identified." - Turtle Bunbury
And yet, despite all that death, all that needless killing, we still continue to speak of glory and honour when we talk about the first world war.
It really makes me uncomfortable, particularly as we tend to ignore the other wars before and since, putting WW1 up on a pedestal it really doesn't deserve. So, next ANZAC Day, instead of getting caught up in the festivities and celebrations, pause for a moment, take a breath, and reflect. War is a waste of life, of energy, of time, resources and money. It destroys countries, cities, families and forever changes the physical, social and cultural landscape of the world.
How strange to think that we have decided it is something to celebrate.
*It is difficult to caculate the total number of casualities from the Gallipoli Campaign (or indeed any of the battles of the first world war, given the nature of record keeping at the time). The figures here come from this page of the New Zealand History website, and have been sourced from staistics used in Richard Stowers book Bloody Gallipoli (2005).
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