The first months of the war are yet more vivid in the mind of the Australian people than the months of the great offensive. The mind of the people had not been dulled then with the agony of the years of war. Their ears had not been deafened by the long thunder of the guns. Their eyes not dim with countless tears. The figures of the men of Anzac are clearer than the figures of the men of Pozieres and Lagnicourt. The men of Anzac offered themselves first to the cause of the Empire
Australian poet A.D. Hope once wrote the following words in his poem Inscription for a War:
Linger not stranger, shed no tear
Go back to those who sent us here
It is a very poignant opening to a very moving poem, one that never fails to send little shivers down my spine.
Go back to those who sent us here
Today, in Australian and New Zealand, we 'commemorate' ANZAC Day, the anniversary of the Gallipoli landing in the first world war. The Gallipoli campaign was a poorly planned, tactical failure, which resulted in massive loss of life with no objectives achieved and no ground gained.
In his comfortable office in London, Winston Churchill and his ministers decided to appropriate response to the Ottoman Empire's decision to enter the war as a German ally was to capture Constantinople and break the spirit of the Turkish people. British troops - men from England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales - were the first to arrive on the beaches of Gallipoli (yes, there was more than one) and begin the attempted invasion. The defending Ottoman forces took the high ground and did what any nation would do if armed invaders arrived on their shores with the intention of capturing their capital city: they fought back.
Australian and New Zealand troops, known as the Australian and New Zealander Army Corps (ANZAC as a word was coined much later), joined British forces at Gallipoli late at night on April 24 1915 and, in the early hours of the morning on April 25 1915, they landed and attempted to assist the forces of 'Mother England' in her fruitless invasion.
The dusk falls; and under the shadow of the night the fleet creeps secretly about Imbros; glides silently towards the shores of Gallipoli – waits. The moon comes up as a ghost out of darkness. The shores shape blackly as monstrous masses of cloud touching the sea. And the night seems, to many watchers on the ships without an end, as though the moon stands still, and the day dare not break.
This was the Australian and New Zealander's first taste that war was not the grand, glorious adventure they had been promised, but a melee of blood, sweat, tears and terror that would drag on, in Gallipoli alone, for eight months.
The men go silently down into the boats. The destroyers draw them away. And sudden the darkness and the silence of the night destroyed; crackle of rifle fire, red spurts of flame, as of a bush fire through dry scrub. And the dawn is come; and the guns thunder from shore and sea; and the red river of heroic blood rises to flood. The boats, cast off, pull in to shore, while hail-like bullets drop; and men die ere they set foot ashore; and men die on the first beach; and med die in assault of cliff and ridge. The figures top the ridge; cross; speed onward; vanish. Out of the red dawn burns the day, rent with the thunder of war on share and sea.
At this point it seems fitting to note that Australian and New Zealand forces joined not only British troops, but French, Indian, South African and Canadian soldiers who were on the beach as well. We were not only ones there, our soldiers acquitted themselves no more heroically than the soldiers from any other nation trapped in that bloody, thankless combat, and when Britain finally made the decision to evacuate the troops of her empire from Gallipoli, the Allied causality count (dead, wounded and prisoners) stood at 141, 547, while the defending Ottomans had suffered a greater loss, with their dead, wounded and prisoners counted at 251, 309.
Total causalities from Gallipoli came in at 392,856 men either dead, wounded or taken prisoner. However, the actual count would have been significantly higher. These figures account only for direct-combat personnel, so the nurses, medics, stretcher-bearers, chaplains, clerks and others who would have stood and died at Gallipoli are not included in these numbers.
The article I have quoted from extensively from in this piece was published in The Age on 25 April 2917, the second ANZAC Day commemoration. The war was still ongoing overseas and, despite the continuous and catastrophic loss, young men continued to put their lives on the line and enlist. Attempts to introduce conscription in both Australia and New Zealand during the first world war were thankfully unsuccessful and, unlike in Britain, you could not be arrested and sentenced to death in Australian or New Zealand for refusing to fight in the war. This meant that every soldier who fought in the Australian and New Zealand Army Crops or, later, as a member of either the Australian Imperial Force or the New Zealand Division, was a volunteer.
Think about that for a minute, every year we take the day off work so we can 'commemorate' the deaths of thousands of young men who volunteered to go to war without knowing what war was!
The recruitment poster above was typical of the day, promising a trip to Europe as if it was a holiday and many young Australians responded enthusiastically to the idea. Some would have had relatives still living in Europe, others would have jumped at the chance for an adventure on the other side of the world. Some, of course, would have felt a patriotic pull to England (even in 1914, many Australians, even those born here, still considered themselves British rather than Australian), but the general feeling among the recruits was that they were headed for, as per the words on the poster above, "adventure and interest forming the greatest event of their lives."
But, back to our commemorations on ANZAC Day.
In the 103 years since it was first decided to commemorate ANZAC Day (the first ceremonies were held in 1916), Australians and New Zealanders have fought in many wars since the first, and continue to go abroad to war. There will always be a need for soldiers, that is reality, although I am pleased to say that defence forces these days are far more than a large group of men parading around killing and being killed. I think the original ANZACs would be proud of the structure of our defence force today and we have maintained that proud tradition of ensuring our defence force is filled with volunteers. This changed briefly during the Vietnam War, although conscription has never been reinstated since and (hopefully) never will again.
So ANZAC Day is not just a day to remember the men who lost their lives in the first world war, but those in all wars following, we should also take a moment to remember civilians and non-combatants killed and wounded, and spare a thought of war animals (in today's wars this is primarily dogs, but in wars past included horses, donkeys, camels and carrier pigeons too) who, unlike their masters, do not choose to go to war but who do their job and follow their orders nonetheless.
But, over the century, ANZAC Day has lost its meaning. Instead of a day of remembrance and reflection, of commemoration and respect, it has become a day overshadowed by that ugly cousin of patriotism: nationalism. To question any aspect of ANZAC Day is to have abuse and threats hurled your way, to have your nationality challenged and to have strangers scream that you have 'no respect for the men who gave their lives for your freedom!'
For the record, I am a born and bred New Zealander, living in Australia and, as a student of history and geography, I have less patience for the idea that the original ANZACs and the soldiers in the first world war had much to do with the freedoms I enjoy today. This argument holds more water for me when discussed historically around the Pacific battles of the second world war and, to a certain degree, the terrible campaign in Vietnam. Yes, there were German colonies in Papua New Guinea during the first world war, but they offered no threat to Australia at any point during the war and had no ability to do so in any case.
Despite the propaganda and fear mongering, the situation above was highly unlikely, nearly impossible, although propaganda doesn't deal in what's true, only what will generate its desired outcome. Much like today, the stories governments sold the public about the first world war, including the Gallipoli campaign, were romantic, rose-coloured propaganda pieces. It hasn't changed much. We still get the standard ANZAC Day speech about the values of 'patritosim', 'mateship', 'bravery' and 'heroisim' from thin-skinned politicians who spend their lives stabbing each other in the back; given these are people who make a living (and a very comfortable one at that!) making lies seem believable I don't suppose we should expect anything more from them but a one-sided story.
In the recruiting appeal that followed the attack on the Dardanelles the youth of the Commonwealth offered their thousands for imperial service. In that great year the people felt only resentment and disgust for ignoble political strife and intrigue. In this lesser year strife and intrigue are with us, as if the dross were left and the gold of the nation had been flung out splendidly to the Imperial cause. But in that year, coin by coin, the gold was paid for the winning of the Dardenelles, and, by the tragic irony of human destiny, was spent in vain.
But we must not let Gallipoli, or any ANZAC story, be a story of nationalism. Nationalism is an ugly, destructive force that seeks to divide and pit humanity against each other. As I have mentioned previously on this blog, there were so many nations represented in the Allied force that invaded Gallipoli 104 years ago, and as they charged up the beach it didn't matter if the man beside you was Australian or Canadian, Indian or South African, New Zealander or Irishman, you were all in it together.
This is also true for the Ottoman soldiers defending their country. It was the Ottoman commander who, on Christmas Day 1915, ordered his soldiers ceasefire so that the majority Christian troops on the beach below could celebrate their holiday without gunfire. It was also this commander who ordered 'not a shot to be fired' at the Allied troops at they evacuated Gallipoli in December 1915. Ottoman soldiers buried Allied troops if their own men were unable to recover their bodies, and Allied troops did the same for the Ottomans. Despite cruel propaganda posters claiming the contrary, nursing sisters tended to their own wounded and wounded prisoners with equal care and mistreatment of prisoners or war was rare in world war one.
Gallipoli and other ANZAC stories must be stories of patriotism. Patriotism, unlike nationalism, seeks in invite and include others in the pride of your country, it is open to criticism and seeks constructive debate around national identity. It is not blind, it does not wish for violence upon those who are different and it welcomes those who come to add to the nation. It is a sense of togetherness, whole and inclusive, and it rejects only those who reject it, who seek to divide and draw upon our differences. Patriotism rejects nationalism, no matter how hard the latter tries to court the former.
So this ANZAC Day, as the rose-coloured glasses come out and the nationalistic speeches start to pour forth, take a moment to pause, breathe and reflect. The Gallipoli campaign, and indeed the wider war it was a part of, was a terrible, brutal and senseless waste of life, money and time; it caused immeasurable heartache and grief, both here and overseas, and would eventually cause a second, larger, more brutal conflict. The ANZAC story is a small part of it, but a part of it nonetheless, and should be remembered, but I return now to the words of A.D. Hope and say to the nationalists and the politicians:
We are the young they drafted out
To wars their folly brought about
Go tell those old men safe in bed
We took their orders and are dead
LEST WE FORGET
Note: The article I have quoted extensively from was published in The Age on 25 April 1917, Australia and New Zealand's second ANZAC Day. It is a piece heavy with propaganda and light of actual fact, but is an excellent historical resource. For those interested in reading the full article, follow the link: https://www.theage.com.au/national/from-the-archives-1917-anzac-day-for-a-nation-still-at-war-20190424-p51gus.html
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