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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.

Thinking about this exclusion reminded me of the story I heard in Turkey about the reaction of a Sultan of the Ottoman Empire when he heard about the expulsion of a certain ethnic group in another part of the Mediterranean. 'So many of them are artisans of great talent' the Sultan stated 'let them come here, we will prosper from their knowledge'. Since European occupation Australia has also prospered from the contributions of many ethnicities, where do they fit into this contracted national narrative of Anzac? It was with the same magnanimous attitude of the Sultan that I found the Turks have embraced the fallen of Gallipoli, their commemorative spaces as well as their offspring that continue to descend upon their shores.

My previous trip to Turkey all those many years ago had shown me the warmth and friendliness with which the Turkish people regarded Australians. Although it is always nice to know you are liked internationally I never really understood why Turkey held such affection for Australia, after all as a nation we had attempted to invade them. I had been told it was because our soldiers were respected adversaries but during this trip I decided I would investigate this attitude further.

I put the question to our guide Kenan and other Turkish people I met, the answer was always the same. 'They were all martyrs' they would say. During this time I also read the article by McKenna and Ward who question the assumption both Anzacs and Mehmets were victims stating this idea places the blame solely on British shoulders and exonerates Australian participation in the event. Anyone who has read Les Carlyon's book Gallipoli can see that literature has now emerged that squarely allocates blame where it should be. Carlyon does not gloss over the facts whether the culprits are geriatric British Generals, drunken New Zealanders or Australian officers with serious psychiatric issues.

So is it that the Turks possess a generosity of spirit that can look past the politics and see the humanity of the situation? I wonder if this is a character trait in our onetime enemy that we as a nation should try harder to emulate?

While in Turkey I found particularly touching the generosity of the women I encountered. I assumed these women were Islamic due to there dress and it was equally obvious I was not, due to mine. I had encountered a problem with fluid retention from the long flight to Turkey and combined with the heat and lost luggage and consequently no joggers I was in a bit of a state. The kindness and empathy I encountered from women who didn't shared my language, faith or culture was surprising and overwhelmingly appreciated.

I knew the suspicion with which women who wear the hijab are greeted in Australia so it was of no surprise when I returned home to see that a series of negative and derogatory Islamic/Muslim stories were being featured on a mainstream television show such as A Current Affair. I shook my head and thought of those lovely smiling women I had met and sadly realized they would not have been treated with the same compassion in my country that I had been shown in theirs.

Although my physical incapacity had surprised and annoyed me it had another benefit beside the fleeting friendships with these women. It made me think hard about what the men endured during eight months on the peninsula. Besides being constantly under fire these men lacked proper medical attention, suffered from an inadequate diet and endured unsanitary living conditions. How can I ever look at the sweet comfort of jam without remembering how they had to battle the swarms of flies in an effort to partake? The men must have become increasingly incapacitated yet they still had to cope with the arduous circumstances. They did not have the luxury of being able to get back on the bus and proceed to the next site as I did. I could never presume to say I understand how they felt but it did make me think harder about what they must have been up against. If my physical reaction had been a surprise the emotional turmoil I encountered was an absolute shock.

Emotion was not one of the ideas to which I had given much consideration prior to departure. When I did a read through of my battle presentation immediately prior to leaving I knew there was going to be an issue. I just never realized how extreme this would be. The emotional roller coaster eventually climaxed the day after the Nek presentation, which I suppose had left me fairly raw. We visited the Turkish Martyrs' memorial, which for me brought on a cascade of thoughts feelings and revelations. The site was divided into sections and it was probably the expanse of glass tablets displaying lists and lists of names of the dead that most affected me.

The space was dotted with cool pine trees and possessed an incredible serenity despite the number of Turkish families wandering through and reading the names of their ancestors. It was this vision that finally made me realize just how many Turkish lives had been lost. Although many Australians consider Gallipoli an extension of Australian soil, they forget it is part of another nation and another narrative. Gallipoli was the genesis of radical change for the Ottoman Empire the beginning of its metamorphosis into modern day Turkey.

I now question if as a people we appreciate the generous spirit of the Turkish people and government that allows us to share this history and these commemorative spaces. Australians, once invaders are now guests, our dead are honoured guests, and our pilgrims that visit are treated with kindness, friendship and respect. As such I hope that we will always behave as good guests should and reciprocate in kind. Australian participation was only one part of the Gallipoli story and maybe the most important lesson I have learnt is to view our presence within this story through a less myopic lens.

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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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