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Gallipoli - 98 years on

By Peter Stanley - posted Tuesday, 27 August 2013

How important is Gallipoli to Australians?

There is no point arguing that it isn't – it is – or that it shouldn't be – of course it is and should be. I can't very well write books about it and then turn around and argue that it's not worth my time. But why?

It is important partly because Australians feel a curiosity about it – they believe it's important – but not necessarily for the reasons they think it is. The association with the founding of the nation is a dangerous and unjustifiable myth and the sooner we grow up the better.

I suggest that Gallipoli remains important for two reasons. First, for what it reveals of the Australians of 1914 who so willingly went to war for the empire. (And by 'it' I mean also how Gallipoli and the war affected Australians as whole, not just the tiny minority of them on Gallipoli.) Gallipoli and all it entails exposes the ideas, attitudes, beliefs and behaviours of Australians of a century ago.


But so, of course, do lots of aspects of Australian history. I think we have to resist the claim that Gallipoli is in some way exceptional or compelling. There's nothing especially compelling about the experience of 50,000 Australians on a Turkish beach for eight months in 1915. It ought to stand alongside other aspects of Australian history – the conquest and settlement of this continent; the profound ecological changes it experienced; the frontier war fought for its possession; convict Australia; the waves of migration Australia has received; the effects of successive depressions; the achievements of democracy or a multicultural society. Each of these contributes to an understanding of what has made the Australian experience through history: Gallipoli is merely one of those components.

But Gallipoli happens to be the part that draws me repeatedly. So the second reason Gallipoli is justifiably of interest is, I think, that it offers a compelling human experience, not only in the lives and deaths of those on the peninsula, but in the way it affected the lives of many more and for much longer than eight months. My next book, Lost boys of Anzac, makes this point explicitly, as a demonstration of a new approach to Australia's military history. It deals with the 101 men of the very first wave to land. The men who also died on 25 April 1915. They are all dead by the book's half-way point.

But the book continues, tracing the ways in which families bore the anxieties and grief of the Lost Boys' deaths and by extension argues that the history of Australia's wars and their effects extend far beyond their chronological boundaries. This is far from the celebration of Gallipoli as a national founding myth.

Is the Gallipoli story just a national myth?

Is the Gallipoli story 'just a national myth'? No, not just, but it is tainted by myth, not just Australian, but also Turkish, as well as by the myths that infest the Great War as a whole. For example, it is widely believed that Gallipoli was fought by bungling British generals, a myth that is popular in Australia because it strengthens the nationalist conviction that our generals were better. But apparently bungling generals could not be Turkish – no one believes that the Turks had bungling generals, even though the vast majority of troops killed on Gallipoli were Turkish, many of whom died in massed attacks more lethal than any ordered by 'British butchers and bunglers', as a notorious book once called them.

But national myths are especially prevalent on Gallipoli, presumably as a way of making sense of the slaughter of a failed campaign. Australians not only propagate their own myths, but they credulously endorse the myths of others. For example, Australians have so far achieved a welcome reconciliation with modern Turkey that they now thoughtlessly endorse the untruth perpetrated in the celebrated paragraph published in 1934 in the name of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

This paragraph – the one that begins 'You, the mothers' – claims, absolutely falsely, that Turks look after Anzac graves and that Turks revere the Anzacs as their own sons. That is not correct. But it is not even true to claim that Turkish visitors to Gallipoli are even interested in the graves of their former enemies.


This famous paragraph is, however, a useful vehicle to cement relations between Turkey and Australia and so has been endorsed and quoted by successive Australian prime ministers, even though it is not historically justifiable. Indeed, the falsity of the claim that Turks revere dead Anzacs can be tested and refuted, simply by observing the behaviour of Turkish visitors to the peninsula. They visit sites of importance to Turkey (understandably) but they do not visit Anzac graves. The only Turks in the cemeteries are those employed by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which has been solely responsible for the cemeteries' upkeep since the war's end.

Is Gallipoli's importance based on tenuous history?

I am not arguing that Gallipoli is not important. I am arguing that we should see it as important, despite the tenuous and false claims that have been made for and about it. Gallipoli deserves to be understood honestly, in all of the shades of ugliness, horror, brutality as well as the highlights of nobility, courage and honour.

But the key idea is honesty. We must stop colouring the picture falsely. It is not true that Anzacs and Turks really respected each other and would have preferred not to fight (or even, would have preferred to fight 'the English'); that Australia was somehow inexplicably 'born' on 25 April 1915; that Mustafa Kemal was the war's best general; that all British generals were fools and butchers; that Turkey has cared for 'our' dead and that Turks actually regard the invaders of a century ago as family. All of these notions are tenuous and they have no place in the Gallipoli story except as illustrations of the ineradicable human desire to find the positive in such a tale of horror and as examples of how history can be turned to serve purposes besides those of honest understanding.

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This is an extract from Professor Peter Stanley’s speech to the Gallipoli Memorial Club Symposium, 7 August 2013 which can be read on Honest History.

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About the Author

Prof Peter Stanley, of the University of NSW, Canberra, is one of Australia’s most active military-social historians. His book Bad Characters jointly won the Prime Minister’s Prize for History in 2011.

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