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The Gallipoli Experience - a traveller's reflection

By Sharon Fox - posted Thursday, 21 April 2011

The meanings attached to Gallipoli and Anzac are many and varied. When asked to express my knowledge of Turkey and expectations of what I would find on the Gallipoli Peninsula I realized the diversity of feelings and attitudes I held and how they had been influenced over the years. Having visited Turkey briefly many years previously I expected the Turkish people to still possess the joy of life and generosity I had earlier encountered and I was not to be disappointed in this respect.

As for the meanings attached to Anzac, for me they have been inextricably linked to memory, commemoration and manipulation. Memory of school, childhood, and family attitudes to war, commemoration throughout changing times and political manipulation of an event most feel has been sanctified in our nation's history. In traveling to Gallipoli I could not have anticipated the extreme emotional voyage it would become nor did I understand why I was so strongly resisting the notion of pilgrimage that is often attached to such a journey.

I firmly believed I was not a pilgrim. I had no family attachments to Gallipoli and I certainly did not believe it defined our national character, nor was it pivotal in the beginning of Australia as a nation/state. I will however concede that it had contributed to the general narrative of the country since European settlement. Slowly I began to realize my journey did fit the criteria of a pilgrimage.


It was a long journey to a place of moral significance and for me it encompassed ideas about rites of passage. After four years of study this was to be my final subject so in some ways it also had a celebratory component. As the journey progressed I could see further elements of pilgrimage emerge. When Bruce Scates interviewed Gallipoli backpackers he identified the presence of Turner's 'communitas' or shared experience and camaraderie among the participants as well as the ability to relate personally to the men of Anzac.

There was for me a bonding with my fellow travelers I cannot explain. It developed quickly and of a strength I could not imagine. Following the swim at the cove on the final afternoon I sat on the steps watching them, all so young with an air of festivity about them. I don't think I envied them their youth but I was happy they seemed to have such bright futures. It was a comment from another in the group that had not joined the swim who brought me back to earth. He had found the grave of a seventeen-year-old boy in the cemetery behind me and felt the need to share his find. We had been delivering presentations on these soldiers, garnering details about their lives from memorials and cemetery plaques. I thought about these young people in front of me, they were the ages of those boy soldiers and someone had probably thought those soldiers had bright futures too. This now truly fulfilled the criteria of pilgrimage, though by journey's end my loyalty was still with the digger and continued to be suspicious of all things Anzac.

During childhood and schooldays Gallipoli meant Empire and patriotism, reciting the The Recessional (Lest We Forget) and wearing sprigs of rosemary on our school blazers. However for me this was also mixed with the anti-war sentiments of my family that included grandfathers and great uncles that had served on the western front.

Many of their comments were echoed when authors like, Robson, Dawes and Gammage emerged in the 70's. Using the soldiers' own words Australia began to hear more than just the official histories previously delivered by schoolteachers and politicians. According to Joy Damousi some servicemen would not even attend services as they felt 'it glorified killing' while others thought they were used 'to promote a political agenda'. Although my mother would watch the televised march every year waiting for her father's battalion to pass by as a family we all understood how deeply my grandfather and the others were affected. This was not merely the physical effect of mustard gas but by the whole experience of war.

Like many others my grandfather rarely spoke of the war and when the subject was raised he would grunt and say, "No good comes of war" or "It wasn't just the enemy that did wrong". I often wonder what trials drove him to these statements and what he would think of politicians who now sanitize events and use the experiences of men like him as marketing ploys to advance political agendas?

During my teens the anti-war lobby and feminists of the Vietnam period attacked the very premise of Anzac Day. Many saw this as unpatriotic even bordering on the sacrilegious. To me it did not demean the achievements or sacrifices of the men that served but merely questioned the decisions of those that sent them. The research I did concerning the charge at the Nek brought home to me just how much the decision makers could play chess with the lives of the men.


The Nek was a battle that never held a hope of success yet it proceeded because of obstinacy and arrogance and nearly six hundred men and their families had their futures irrevocably changed. I mentioned earlier the emotion I encountered along the way some of it I now realize is tied to my memories of the Vietnam period. Recollections of the boys I knew, some of them family, that would have their lives forever changed by the judgment of nameless and faceless decision makers just as the men of the 8th and 10th Light Horse had their lives forever altered.

To honour the fallen, war memorials are erected and each is adorned with the phrase Lest We Forget. John McQuilton points out not only the beauty immersed in the phrase's simplicity but also the ambiguity. For me there is no ambiguity, for me it says do not forget the catastrophe that was Anzac Cove and Gallipoli and do not forget the men that died because of those errors in judgment. If you do forget they will have truly died in vain and you will not have learnt from those mistakes. So if you are going to war you better have a damn good reason and not blindly follow an ally with imperialistic ambitions. That is what we should not forget and yet Vietnam and Iraq tells me that we have.

Manipulation and political commodification of the Anzac myth has reached new highs and attempts to discuss the subject critically are often met with derision. Used by both sides of government it has become the touchstone by which we measure our right to be called Australian. Unfortunately this allows many Australians originating from other countries and cultures to be excluded from the national narrative.

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About the Author

Sharon Fox returned to study as a mature age student, but after recently completing a BA in Community and Environment with a minor in Environmental Studies, she is now researching and writing the histories of family members who served on the western front.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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