Anzac Day

Tuesday 25 April is Anzac Day here in Australia and in New Zealand. It commemorates the landing in 1915 at Gallipoli on the Turkish Aegean coast by the ANZACs (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps). Any account of this battle reads like most other WW1 battles – an appalling loss of life for little or no gain. The ANZACS withdrew after eight months having lost 10,000 dead. While the British and the French lost 30,000 between them it was size of the ANZAC sacrifice as a proportion of their populations that made the battle so significant for Australia and New Zealand. While the military outcomes were entirely negative, the social outcomes of the battle were world changing. The incompetence of the British officers who controlled the battle was revealed as was the excellence of the ANZACS. But something else was revealed – the courage of the Turkish troops won the ANZACS respect even as they lost their respect for their colonial masters. Three vigorous new nations were born in that slaughter. Australia, New Zealand – and Turkey. The leading Turkish commander was Mustafa Kemal who went on to become the father of modern Turkey – Ataturk.

Perhaps the most peculiar outcome of the battle was the mutual respect the Anzacs and the Turks came to hold each other. Australians still visit Anzac Cove in large numbers and are treated warmly by the Turks. Nor is this simply a recent phenomena but was expressed by men on both sides at the time and during the brief truces that took place on the battle field to remove the wounded and bury the dead. Kemal Ataturk wrote this tribute in 1934:

“Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives… You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side now here in this country of ours… You, the mothers, who sent their sons from faraway countries wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land, they have become our sons as well.”

It was Winston Churchill, serving as First Lord of the Admiralty, who conceived of the idea of attempting to take Turkey out of the war, first by trying to force the Dardanelles with battleships, and then resorting to the Gallipoli campaign to eliminate the Turkish forts that had successfully repulsed his battleships. He lost office as a result of the failure.

Many find the seriousness with which Australians take Anzac day puzzling even after they understand the basic story. My own understanding grew slowly after I migrated to Australia in 1976 with my family. The first indication of how deep the Anzac story was in the Australian psyche came early during a royal visit to Australia by the Queen. I was watching a ceremony in Canberra on a tiny black and white TV screen. The troops from the various Australian services were marching by the Queen in review. The Navy came by and dipped its colours. The Air Force went by and dipped it colours. Then the Army marched past and did not dip its colours and the TV commentator simply said that the Australian Army dips it colours to no one. He didn’t say ‘not even the Queen’, or because of Gallipoli. It was understood – even by a recent immigrant. What astonished me was the understated nature of this assertion of national identity and pride. Pointing deliberately to a defeat by not doing something. It says much about the national character of Australia. It is unlike the patriotic displays in the US or in European countries that I have witnessed and perhaps more powerful because it is so understated. The dawn services held all over Australia on Anzac Day – of which silence is a mojor component – carry on that tradition.

But the seventies and eighties were also a period of national awakening when open displays of national pride became more permissible. We chose a national anthem to take the place of God Save the Queen – Advance Australia Fair, and Australia Day was heavily promoted – with mixed results. See my A Pair of Budgie Smugglers. Among many manifestation of a more outgoing nationhood the film industry thrived and produced excellent films by any standard. One of these, the 1981 film Gallipoli directed by Peter Weir and starring Mel Gibson, forthrightly took on the telling of the story of the campaign. It takes a lot of courage to attempt to portray the core event in a nation’s identity – particularly one in living memory – and I think it demonstrated the growing self confidence of Australian culture at the time. When it came out it was a kind of national event. I recall my son Julian’s entire (quite small) school going off to the cinema to see an afternoon showing. That night he related how the theater was filled with white heads. The older people, a great many of whom had lost relatives at Gallipoli, had come out in droves.

There is still some disagreement over whether the film celebrates the event and the character of the Australian troops or is anti-war. In my opinion it is clearly and appropriately both. For those of you who haven’t seen it, it is still well worth watching. Have a good Anzac Day.


One Response to “Anzac Day”  

  1. 1 Liz T

    Yes, you are right the Army won’t dip their colours to the Queen. She is required to salute them. The hand across the chest clenched fist on the heart. They may dip the flag but that is still under investigation. So saith the son.

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