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Reflecting on the truth about the Anzacs

By Harry Throssell - posted Monday, 7 May 2007

The tide is turning at Anzac Cove as it becomes mainstream Australia’s most significant national symbol.

Anzac Day recalls a supremely sad time when Australia’s boys - and many of them were only boys - showed superhuman courage on the beaches, cliffs and paddocks of Gallipoli on April 25, 1915 and the rest of that year but stood little chance of surviving. So short a time, so vast in significance. We owe it to them to be honest about this story and not pervert it by myth. Too often in the past, and occasionally still, Anzac Day, especially at Gallipoli itself, has seemed more of a celebration when it should be a respectful mourning for excruciating pain and uncaring military planning.

Due to the diligent work of diarists, historians and serious journalists we are beginning to honour the fallen Diggers by acknowledging their true stories.


The Gallipoli campaign is a tale of hopeful young men led inevitably to slaughter. But one year an Australian speaker said we were celebrating “a military victory”, which it obviously wasn’t, and sometimes schoolchildren give the impression they understand it as a successful military occasion.

National leaders are inclined to make grand rationalisations like “the war to end all wars”, which it obviously wasn’t, or “the world is now a safer and better place”, which it obviously isn’t.

Speech makers sometimes talk of the Anzac Cove episode as “defending our country” when in fact our country was on the other side of the globe and it was the Turks who were defending their homes. Speeches refer to “protecting the freedoms we have today” when in fact we have fewer freedoms, particularly those connected with the “war on terror”.

This year at Anzac Cove Defence Minister Brendan Nelson spoke grandly of “shining light into dark corners of the world as an outward-looking, compassionate and confident people imbued with the Anzac spirit of endurance, courage, and selfless determination to help others”. But we have a long way to go yet. How compassionate have we been to Indigenous people including those who fought in the Australian army, but only received one third of the pay, were not included in resettlement grants and still often struggle to survive? How much “selfless determination to help” do we offer asylum seekers?

New Zealand Foreign Minister Winston Peters struck a different note: “Let us commit ourselves to working for a world where differences between nations can be resolved without resorting to war.”

In 1915 the British Empire and Allies were attempting to invade Turkey in order to control the Dardanelles seaway and outflank Germany, a ploy by First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill. The Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (the ANZACs) landed at the Turkish beach in a small segment of the much larger war in which Britain and its allies fought Germany and Austria-Hungary, supported by Turkey and Bulgaria. Ten million died on the battlefields, Australia losing 60,000 killed or missing, and a further 155,000 wounded.


It turns out neither Churchill nor his War Minister, Lord Kitchener, had accurate maps of Gallipoli’s coastline, and mistakenly assumed the Turks would allow ships through the Dardanelles seaway unimpeded. When they were blown out of the water Churchill apparently commented they were “expendable”.

In the Gallipoli campaign 8,700 Diggers were killed (14.5 per cent of all those lost in the war), 21,250 British, 10,000 French, 2,700 Kiwis, and 65,000 Turks.

Churchill resigned but, a member of the British aristocracy, he was later resurrected, eventually to become Prime Minister in World War II and receive a knighthood.

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About the Author

Harry Throssell originally trained in social work in UK, taught at the University of Queensland for a decade in the 1960s and 70s, and since then has worked as a journalist. His blog Journospeak, can be found here.

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