ANZAC Day is around the corner and, perhaps unsurprisingly, I have been thinking about last year's tour to the battlefields and cemeteries of the Western Front. I have also been turning over in my head the comments made by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in regards to the Christchurch attack.
Mr. Erdogan foolishly invoked the Ottman Empire's defence of its shores against the invading British forces and their allies in 1915 when speaking about the recent Christchurch shooting. Given Mr. Erdogan is facing an election very shortly, his comments had more than a whiff of a populist, political stunt, but they were offensive to both his own people and Australians and New Zealanders alike.
I won't repeat the comments in their entirety here, but Mr. Erdogan suggested that the reason British forces, including Australia and New Zealand, arrived on the beach at Gallipoli more than 100 years ago was based on religious differences. Other than being offensive, his comments are historically inaccurate but they did get me thinking.
Throughout primary and secondary school in New Zealand and Australia, history lessons about WW1 focused primarily (sometimes exclusively) on the Gallipoli campaign. It was told with a rose tint and a sickening kind of nostalgia, but woe betide anyone in Australia or New Zealand who questions Gallipoli or the way it is 'commemorated'. ANZAC Day in Australia and New Zealand is a no-go, untouchable, unquestionable fact of life: the ANZACs gave their lives so you could be free! Show some respect!
It took many years, but I have come to utterly detest the myth of the Gallipoli campaign, the selective way it is taught in schools and the so-called commemorations that seem to me more celebrations than anything else. For most people, like it or not, ANZAC Day is just a day you don't have to go to school or work and more Australians will head off to watch the footy match in the afternoon than will attend the dawn service.
But, given the messages they get in school and the myths they are fed about 'the first ANZAC Day', can we really blame them?
So, what did happen at Gallipoli in 1915?
The short answer is this: Britain and her allies attempted to invade Turkey, which was then part of the Ottoman Empire, after the Ottoman Sultan had agreed to enter the war on Germany's side. The Ottoman's defended their land from the invaders and, after eight months, British and allied forces were evacuated without having achieved any of their objectives or having gained any ground. Turkish forces suffered the heaviest causalities of the Gallipoli campaign but successfully beat back the invading force. The end.
Yes, really. That is what happened - what really happened - on a narrow strip of the Turkish coast 100 years ago. Ask most Australians or New Zealanders today what happened and you'll probably get an answer like this: the ANZACS landed on the beach and were shot at by the Turks who had the high ground. They continued to come up the beach but kept getting shot.
Until a few years ago, that's certainly the story I would have told. That's the story told in schools, it's the story most Australians and New Zealanders hear from our elected leaders around ANZAC Day and very few people ever elaborate beyond that. I would hazard a guess that most people in Australia and New Zealand wouldn't know that the reason we went to Gallipoli was because the Ottoman Empire had entered the war on the side of Germany; I would guarantee most Australians and New Zealanders would bridle at being told we invading; I would further say that most of us wouldn't know that it was a costly failure, a sound defeat and an utter waste of lives and time.
As you have probably guessed, I've got no patience with the myths surrounding it. When people tell those stories they are trampling on the memories of men who died pointlessly for a fruitless cause: to lie about Gallipoli is to spit on the graves of the ANZACs.
So, what does this have to do with Mr. Erdogan's foolish and inaccurate comments of a week or so ago?
I suppose where I'm going, in a rather long-winded way, is that there was one part of these comments which really stood out for me. One sentence that really caught my attention because of its gross inaccuracy in amidst an entirely inaccuate statement. It was words to the effect of: Why did [the ANZACs] come here except that they were Christians and we were Muslims?
As I have already mentioned above, the reason British forces, including the ANZACs, attempted to invade Gallipoli 100 years ago was due to opposing global and political alliances. Most Australian and New Zealand soldiers on that beach (not all, but most) would most likely have only heard about Islam and met or seen Muslims when they shipped to Egypt for training. The religion of the Turkish soldiers on the high ground in Gallipoli would have been of no interest of them: they probably didn't even know the Turkey was a majority Muslim nation. It was utterly irrelevant to their purpose.
But this is not what makes that particular comment of Mr. Erdogan's so stunningly incorrect. What makes it so is this: on that beach 100 years ago, very nearly every major world religion at the time would have been represented.
I'm not joking.
Let's start with the soldiers of the Turkish army. The majority of them would have been Muslims, as Turkey was a majority Muslim nation, however among those soldiers would have been Coptic and Orthodox Christians and, almost certainly, Jews. Yes, these would have been a minority compared to the number of Muslim soldiers, but they would have been there. Turkey, and the wider Ottoman Empire, was not exclusively Muslim just as Britain, and the wider British Empire, was not exclusively Christian.
On the other side were the troops from Britain's many colonies. The majority of these would have been Christians: Anglicans, Presbyterians and Catholics for the most part, but other denominations would have been represented. Among the colonial soldiers at Gallipoli were several Indian regiments, so there would have been Hindus, Sheikhs and Muslims; Jewish soldiers from all corners of the British Empire would have been found among the regiments of all countries. Soldiers from the African nations that Britian counted among her Empire would have had their own spirituality, and there would have been Aboriginal and Maori soldiers among the Australian and New Zealand regiments who would have had their own tribal beliefs. A particularly moving story I was told regarding Aboriginal soldiers from Australia who died during WW1 is that most of them would not have been able to reach their Dreaming. What we call the Southern Cross, which has many other names in various other Aboriginal cultures, is like a sign post for the spirits to find their way to the Dreaming, but the Southern Cross doesn't show on the other side of the world, so these men who gave their lives for the Empire that had stolen their land are trapped on the battlefields, unable to move on.
So in fact, among the forces at Gallipoli, there would have been a massive diversity of religion and religious beliefs. Many minority religions would have been represented too, and there would have been some soldiers who would have followed no particular religion at all.
No one, and I do mean no one, has the right to politicise terrible events and use them for personal gain. The horrors of the first world war and the more recent terror in Christchurch are not tools to be used by either side to win points in cheap, political battles. In both cases, the dead died needlessly and it is wrong to use their deaths to further an agenda, be it personal or national, religious or atheist, left or right wing. No agenda is worth anyone's life and the dead are not currency to be spent or pawns to be manipulated. They are to be remembered for who they were, by the people who loved them. To do anything else, or pretend they died for some noble, higher purpose, or to use them for your own ends, is nothing more than an insult to their memories.
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Me With No Apologies.