Every year on 25 April Australia stops to commemorate and, sometimes, celebrate ANZAC day. Commemoration can include attending a dawn service, watching a footy match, joining in a game of two-up, or observing a minute of silence. In recent years, however, the quiet voice of those who take issue with the significance and the manner of ANZAC commemoration has grown, and they are becoming harder to ignore. The suggestion that the ANZACS at Gallipoli died in vain is hard for many to swallow. I believe that in the case of Gallipoli, wasted life is the unavoidable truth. These young Australians were sent into a battlefield with little support and an even smaller chance of success.
The mission to Gallipoli was poorly planned, lacked in leadership and wasn’t truly necessary to the war effort. Turkey hadn’t officially taken any side in the war until the Imperial forces pressured them into it. The inconvenient truth is that the Turkish were only defending their land, while Australia and the Allies were the aggressors – taking countless Turkish lives for the purported, but ultimately unsuccessful, goal of securing a naval passage. And, yet, this is the battle that we chose as the centre of our commemoration. While it may have been our first battle, I had never understood why it is held up as an example of Australian bravery when, ultimately, it was an embarrassing failure that unnecessarily ended thousands of lives.
These views primarily stem from my experience with the ANZAC tradition. In 2015 – my senior year of high school – I was chosen to represent Queensland at the dawn service in Gallipoli for the observance of the 100th anniversary of the landing. My issue with the manner of commemoration was born out of this experience where, although the services were dignified and poignant, the event felt distressingly commercial. There were tickets, merchandise and tour buses, and I couldn’t help but feel as though many of the people were there only to cross an item off their bucket list. While the stunning vistas of the Dardanelles make it easy to see why Gallipoli has remained at the heart of commemoration, something just didn’t feel quite right. It even occurred to me that, by coming to the site where life was so needlessly wasted, I was perpetuating its commemoration as a landmark of bravery and heroism.
The trip also included a two-week pilgrimage across the Western Front, where we visited all the major battlefields from Villers-Bretonneux to Fromelles and Ypres. It was there that I attended a ceremony that, for me, struck the biggest chord. Menin Gate is a massive arch in Ypres, Belgium, that is covered from the floor to the ceiling in the names of the Commonwealth soldiers who died in the Ypres region during the First World War. The incredible mass of names made it a chilling sight to behold. Every single night of the year there is a little commemoration at Menin Gate, where people gather to hear the bugle call. This moment felt like real remembrance to me – simple, unrefined and constant. It doesn’t concentrate on one date, it is not a tourist destination, and it is not commercialised. Instead, it is a gathering of people simply to remember and commemorate what had happened there many decades prior. It was at this ceremony that I felt the most patriotic, and for the first time, I was stirred by the commemoration.
I believe that it is far more important that we commemorate and remember the war as a tragedy that it is on both sides of the conflict. Not for a legend based on exaggeration and ignorance, but for the loss of human life and humanity itself. Therefore, I mourn every single death – not just those who happened to be Australian. Legendary Turkish leader Mustafa Kamal Ataturk’s words regarding the ANZACs of Gallipoli sum up my beliefs:
‘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 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.’
We are all united in this tragedy, and we are all losers in war. For, where human life is so senselessly wasted, humanity is also lost.
No matter what we think of war, it is vital that we remember it. Not just the personal acts of bravery, but the event itself. It is an overused saying that ‘those who do not know history are destined to repeat it,’ yet it still rings incredibly true. Whichever way we interpret the First World War, the only word that is synonymous in every opinion is tragedy – on all sides of the conflict.
And that is why the repeated phrase can never be overused …
Lest we forget.